Andy Tillison - The Tangent

Andy Tillison – The Tangent

We all know many people have suffered hardships during lockdown. They range from the trivial, such as the wide variety of home-made comedy haircuts, to the tragically serious – people who have lost their lives, their jobs and their mental well-being.

But some have been lucky, and one of those is The Tangent founder, leader and creative driving force Andy Tillison. Surrounded by the North Yorkshire countryside, supported by a loving partner and with a house full of musical instruments and studio equipment, he has used his time well, recording and releasing his band’s eleventh studio album, Auto Reconnaissance.

The album is unashamedly prog, gleefully romping through several musical genres, with its centrepiece a 28-minute epic about Brexit and the current state of Englishness. As usual it is a showcase for Tillison’s unpretentious but pointed lyrics – encompassing political discourse, personal and national nostalgia and his trademark self-effacing humour – his astonishing keyboard skills and the jaw-dropping musical chops of his collaborators Jonas Reingold, Luke Machin, Theo Travis and Steve Roberts.

In an interview with Kevan Furbank – conducted, of course, with appropriate social distancing – Andy talks about the new album and reveals for the first time one of the personal challenges he has had to confront and conquer…

Hi Andy, how are you? To quote the opening track on your new album, how have you coped with “Life on Hold”?

It has been special. I have been – for the first time in a long time – lucky. I moved out to a remote area a year before, I finished my album, my partner can work from home and my elderly and very ill parents passed away just in time to have not had to live through this. The weather has been forgiving and we’ve seen many beautiful and serene sights here. But this is luck, and I am very concerned for many of my family and friends who did not have this experience.

Had you started the album before lockdown? Is it influenced at all by a sense of isolation or lack of human contact outside of your bubble?

The album was composed lyrically before the word coronavirus had entered our vocabulary. I had the chance to modify but decided not to, in that all Tangent albums are screenshots of life at the moment I wrote them. The autumn of 2019 was a period which needed covering in my music, and had I pushed that out to add more contemporary themes, I think I’d have spoiled it and never returned to cover it in the same way.

How did you record the album during lockdown? We all know technology allows any number of people to contribute their parts from all over the world, but I got the impression from your Facebook posts that the rest of the band did their bits at your house. Did you disinfect everything and observe two metres social distancing?

The Tangent started off as this band who’d never even met back in 2003, making an album between different countries before there was even broadband. In the past few albums I’ve tried to get a bit more “meeting up” going on, and yes, everything except guitars and bass were recorded here in Yorkshire this time. Steve (drums) and Theo (sax & flute) completed their parts here in Yorkshire by early February and the world was still normal then. Coronavirus was a news story from lands afar and we obviously discussed it, but nope, it was still the old normal back then.

Jonas (bass) did his bits in Austria before setting off around the world with Steve Hackett and as the virus hit and lockdown came, Luke (guitar) and I settled into recording production and mixing at a distance, which is what we’d already planned. We got lucky here – amazing for a band historically plagued with bad luck to have managed to create an album during this period without having to re-arrange anything. The chaos for some of the members of the band was nowhere near as smooth. Jonas, Theo, Luke and Steve had many problems with other projects, and many of these presented them with serious financial issues.

You have worked with pretty much the same group of collaborators for the last four albums. What does that mean in terms of communicating what you want? And how much have they influenced the sound and structure of the final recordings?

Yeah. I love the make-up of the current band, and it has been really good to have arrived at something approaching stability after so many years. Auto Reconnaissance is the first Tangent album ever to feature the same line-up as its predecessor, so that’s a red letter day for sure.

I am probably the least experienced, least musically-educated and least technical member of the group. I do not have a 100% ready-drawn image of what I want. I have some songs, a flavour I want to achieve, and the musicians in the band work together to make that happen. Nobody is presented with parts and the words “play this”, unless there is a very specific melody that needs to be done, and of course musicians of this calibre spot that before I need to say anything anyway. For example, I always provide Luke with an overview of the song with some of my own guitar ideas on it. Luke will listen to those but he will dispense with them all and do something that is his own and yet manages to keep the flavour of the piece.

It’s like a guy who designs a sports car. He builds the sports car, but when it comes to seeing what it can do, he hires Lewis Hamilton and a racetrack, doesn’t nip round the block to get some eggs.

Why Auto Reconnaissance? There’s a military connotation there but it says “self-recognition” to me. Does it mean this is a more introspective album than some of its predecessors?

Well, your question answers itself. By Auto Reconnaissance I do indeed mean “self-observation” (that’s my translation of the French title). And it does mean that it’s more introspective. But that does not always mean looking at ME as in Andy Tillison – the song Lie Back and Think of England is about the struggle over the past three years as the country I live in myself made decisions on the identity its people felt comfortable with. That period of UK history was very introspective, navel gazing if you like, and exceedingly self-observational.

I realise that some folks may feel there’s a military vibe there, but that’s only because the military started using the same French word for “observation” that I did. And of course, the more we can demilitarise words, the better!. Let’s start with this one. Here.

Lie Back… is your second Brexit song after A Few Steps Down the Wrong Road from 2017’s The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery, but it seems to be more in sorrow than anger this time.

Yes, Lie Back… is a very different beast from A Few Steps…. It is a more considered and reflective view. In fact, it’s not really about Brexit per se, it’s about us and how we all behaved during and notably after the event and how this massive wedge was driven between the two previously unseen camps in Britain at the time.

And my God! We really did behave badly. Within months we’d degenerated into a nation of name-calling playground bullies, whether we were shouting “snowflake”, “remoaner”, “Brextremist”, “racist”, “thick bastards who don’t deserve the vote” and “hang the traitors” at each other – an atmosphere more akin to pre-war Yugoslavia than lovely safe, slightly dog-eared Blighty that we all grew up in and loved.

I lost friends over Brexit. I said horrible things about people over it. I obsessed over it. I STILL think we made the wrong decision, but we MADE the decision and we writhed and squirmed and tried to change the decision. But we were out-gunned, out-played and out-manoeuvred, and my side of the argument dismally failed to demonstrate any of the good and positive reasons for remaining part of the EU, preferring rather to issue dire warnings of consequences and threaten a people who are historically immune to this type of address.

Backed up with over generalised accusations of racism, insults to one another and dodgy dealings, Brexit was the gateway for our country to the post-truth world in which tit-for-tat ready-made answers became the norm and everything, no matter how provable, became up for debate.

And yet this country is just so wonderful. I love the place and the people so much I can’t become part of the name calling and fighting. I want it to stop, big time. And looking at the countryside of England, the bare bones of what we have here can provide for us, water us, let us live our lives until humanity is no more and these hills will still be here.

Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic WILL both cause us many problems for years to come. There will be many, many ideas and philosophies that are put forward for how we can do this, but for me, it’s just magnificently obvious. Number ONE item on the “to do” list is ‘forgive each other’. Then we’ll actually be able to get on with what we need to do. And if that’s colossally naive, that’s my middle name.

In Jinxed in Jersey you depict yourself as a “fish out of water”, the Yorkshire lad in New Jersey, the wide-eyed innocent in the big city. You’ve done this before, in Lost in London for example. Is this a rural Yorkshire thing, of being both repulsed and fascinated by the big metropolis?

I am indeed a bit of a country bumpkin, but a well-travelled one. Yorkshire is a country within a country – so large for Britain that just the North Yorkshire part, 97 percent rural, is the biggest county in the UK on its own, without West, South or East Riding added. I live in such a wild place that walking on pavements and other manufactured surfaces now feels slightly odd. I have lived my life in towns and villages where you get to know most people, and where open countryside is just a walk away. At present, all I do is open the door and walk out into it.

I live in one of the highest and consequently harshest weather communities in the UK. This year we had snow in May and hailstorms in June. It’s the best place I’ve ever lived, and the mobile phones don’t work. The nearest shop is three miles away down a one in six hill that is often blocked by snow.

Andy Tillison by Sally Collyer

So yeah, metropolii are fascinating, terrifying and, well, I have adventures in them. Lots of city folks come to the countryside for recreation and adventure – for me it’s the other way around. I have a slight problem in my life in that I have a sort of GPS in my head – dump me anywhere you like and I’ll find my way home without electronics or taxis. So getting lost in New Jersey was fantastic. I was double-lost because I thought I was heading for New York. I had a great day, met people who I should never have met in places I should never have gone to.

You seem very happy to take the gentle Michael out of yourself in this song – would you agree that too many prog bands take themselves too damn seriously?

Yes. Prog bands deffo take themselves WAY too seriously. Well, to say “prog bands” is unfair, because there are rafts of humour sprinkled through prog whether it’s ELP’s pantomime humour or the way-out genius of Gong, the characters and worlds of the 1970s Genesis band and many more examples – notably in the Canterbury and Zappa departments. I think it’s pretty true to say that after 1979 incidences of humour in Prog have definitely gone down. Not many big laughs in IQ, Marillion, etc, hardly the trace of a smile with Steve Wilson’s stuff, either with PT or on his own.

When there is humour it’s often in playful instrumental work as The Flower Kings often do in a kind of Zappa-like way. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the subsequent waves of prog have in many cases ditched jazz as a fundamental building block, although many of the artists use it as an occasional flavour, the stuff isn’t built on it the way Yes used to build from it. A lot of post-1970s prog has tended to concentrate on the “majestic” and almost “processional” kind of stuff that you’d find scattered around in Yes, Genesis, Camel and Pink Floyd, etc., but without enough rock and roll, counterpoint, jazz and lunacy which all those bands had a-plenty in their early years. It’s like we’ve distilled the fun out of it in a LOT of (but by no means all) cases.

My youngest daughter says progressive rock sounds like a wasp has got into the studio and everyone’s trying to hit it with their instruments.

Good description. I remember the NME saying that Yes’s version of America was like putting a firecracker up a rhino’s bum. You can tell your daughter that I will name a track on my next solo album after her quote.

I’ve had Tourette Syndrome since I was a kid and I have to bite my lip on trains because I often just shout “WASP!”. It’s such fun when it happens – for me, not for everyone else so I try to keep it from happening of course. It seems to work like this: I say random words loudly, because at root, Tourette’s is a vocal tick which can make you sound like a loony just making a guttural noise. So you cover it up with a word. That word can often be something like “c**t” and, although that’s not a nice thing to be shouting, it makes you sound like a nutter rather than a wild animal. I am fortunate that I can add another layer of words (often animals) that I just shout out like moose, bat, otter and wasp. I am aware of another sufferer who’s biggest problem tick is “I’ve got loads of gay porn at home”.

Has it got better or worse as you have got older? Is it worse when you are under stress?

Yes. I am able to control mine, though uncomfortable doing so, so if the Queen invites me to a garden party I won’t have an episode. At present I have some bizarre ticks (they come and go) – one is “bell” and one of my most bizarre is “Meltis Newberry Fruits”, a ’70s Christmas confectionery gift you would give to your gran. It’s part of being me. It’s quite fun for me, but a lot of people suffer from it big time. Big Brother was the key moment when all this was lifted – they had a Tourette’s sufferer who did more to explain this than anyone else.

One of the things I really like about The Tangent is your willingness to mix up genres into a rich musical soup. The Tower of Babel is fun and funky, Jinxed mixes cool Steely Dan jazz with urban hip-hop, Life on Hold is a glorious pop-prog song with some lovely throwback Hammond organ sounds. Then there’s Under Your Spell, a beautiful love song with a touch of soul, some lovely guitar work from Luke and very sensitive sax from Theo.

You know, it’s just a love song for my partner Sally. It’s arrived very late, and of course prog bands don’t usually do out and out love songs in a soul style. Why should she not get a lovely song for her just because I’m better known for doing off-the-wall instrumentals and political rants, and why should I not write that song and have the chance to set it among other pieces that mean a lot to me?

It was a song I REAALLLY wanted to write, to be special to her and myself, and I wanted it to be good enough to have made number one when songs like that still did. It would have. Six weeks at the top in ‘78 I reckon, no debate. We’d have been on Top of the Pops. I do like that it’s a mature love song, and the 11 years we’ve been together means it’s not just some schoolboy crush or one night stand thing. Perhaps the excitement of such scenarios is therefore lacking, but it’s honest, felt and I think, natural.

Any hopes of playing live once lockdown rules allow it? Am I right in thinking the last time was the Tangekanic tour? Was the experience good enough to make you want to repeat it?

I have no plans to leave the square mile in which I live for a good while yet. The Tangent is not a gigging band and has only toured occasionally over the years. I don’t like being a gigging musician all the time, I do LOVE to play live, but it’s not a burning passion like it is with many. I’m a composer and lyricist first and writing the albums is the main joy I have. I know that after two weeks touring I’m feeling pretty jaded by playing the same thing again and again. Of course, we’ll play live again and I look forward to it wholeheartedly.

Anything else you want to say that you think I’ve missed?

I honestly think everyone will have had enough of me now!

Auto Reconnaissance is out on 21st August on the InsideOut label, and you can read Kevan’s review of it HERE.

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