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Andy Tillison – The Tangent

Andy Tillison has just come out of lockdown. Not a Covid lockdown but 20 months of self-imposed isolation in a compact studio at his remote Yorkshire farmhouse while he single-handedly (well, both hands and feet) created the 13th Tangent album, To Follow Polaris. During that time, the UK went through three prime ministers, two monarchs, four home secretaries, and the world saw the start of two major conflicts that have spread fear and division across the globe – oh, and Andy lost his hearing after an accident. He’s coy about the details because it involved another person who he doesn’t want to feel was to blame. But he is open about the shock and dismay he felt when his ears went on strike in the middle of the recording.

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Andy told The Progressive Aspect: “It’s why the album has taken such a long time to do. I started it in 2022 immediately after handing in the last album to Sony. Suddenly I had time to play the piano again. But I was about halfway through when I had an accident and I knew I was in trouble as soon as I started listening to music immediately after. For some time I thought there was something wrong with my hifi. Then I realised, it’s me, I can’t hear.”

“I went to see an audiologist, who said I had lost a big bit of my hearing and we need to fix it. Fortunately, once again technology stepped in and saved us. My hearing aids are absolutely astonishing. But if you want the best you’ve really got to pay for it, and I couldn’t go for the halfway house.”

“I had to ask the fans to help me out because these hearing aids were the most expensive purchase I have ever made in my life. I couldn’t afford it, and I had to work out what equipment I would have to sell to buy them and unfortunately just to come out even I’d have to sell ALL of it. So in order to make this happen I had to do a bit of fundraising – premium copies of the record, and that sort of thing.”

It’s common now for bands to crowdfund their latest album – less frequently do they ask fans to help buy hearing aids so the record can be completed. But the fans came through and Andy is now the owner of some top of the range listening devices that he popped into his ears before our chat. “The irony,” he says, “is that I can hear even better than I did before the injury – in fact, I’m probably hearing better than I have for years.”

That helps when you are playing every single instrument on an album, and not just recreating the sounds on a keyboard – tucked in the corner of his studio is a drumkit, while electric guitars hang on the walls. Even the bass sounds came from a proper bass guitar, a Christmas present from his partner Sal Collyer, while the sax and flute were produced using an electronic wind controller.

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Andy’s decision to record a Tangent album à la McCartney and Mike Oldfield was both a matter of choice and circumstances. For most of the last decade he has worked with a regular line-up of Luke Machin on guitar, bassist Jonas Reingold, drummer Steve Roberts and Theo Travis on sax and flute. But as Tangent time came round again, it was clear the rest of the band would be too busy making a living with other artists to record an album. This meant Andy postponing it until they were all available – or doing a bit of DIY.

He had produced solo albums single-handedly before, but could he create full-on, complicated progressive rock for The Tangent? He said: “I’ve always wanted to do this. Use what I have learned from Luke, Jonas, Steve, Theo and many other alumni and take it to final production. Now was the time! They were all completely behind me on it – they are out there earning money, certainly more money than they would earn from The Tangent.”

“And in a way those guys were with me all the time! I split myself up – I was a bass player, I was a drummer, I was a guitarist, I was a wind player as well as me. Each one of those people wanted to contribute to it. I frequently joke that I made the record by myself but the bass player still managed to fall out with the drummer. I would be playing the bass and thinking, the drummer should have kept things more simple there. Then I’d go back to the drums and think, no, the bass player’s wrong, my way is better. In the end, it’s conversations with yourself but every member of The Tangent – particularly the band I’ve been leading since 2014 – they were there.”

“Jonas can do a Tangent album in a day – I can send him the files and they will come back a day later and his bass playing will be brilliant. Me, we’re talking weeks per song. I think a large part of the time was about me playing the bass parts – I’d struggle and spend hours just getting one tiny thing right.”

“The entire goal was to do everything, including the album sleeve, mastering of the album, mixing of the album, preparation of the masters to actually stamped the CDs and the vinyl, print-ready artwork – I did all of it. And there will be a few times when I’ll fill a rucksack full of CDs and take them on my motorbike to Grassington post office, so I’m distributing as well!”

Andy Tillison

If To Follow Polaris is a solo production, why not make it an Andy Tillison record? He said: “A Tangent album has boundaries as to what it actually is. A Tangent record is a progressive rock band that plays the music, that’s socially conscious, that’s current, that’s aware, that’s not afraid to go into different musical genres, some of which are not normally associated with prog and some of which are vastly different. Once I start making a record that ticks all those boxes then I can start thinking of it as part of The Tangent.”

And there was plenty happening in those 20 months to make this a Tangent album. As one of the most politically outspoken artists in progressive rock, Andy feels compelled to write about what is going on in the world rather than being inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead or reminiscing about old steam trains.

He explained: “This album started off as an explosion of noise and anger because of what was going on in Ukraine or what was happening in the UK, so the first things I put down were like musical ‘mood boards’ – ideas and feelings and emotions of what I would like the record to be like. And at first it was noisy and aggressive and then I decided, let’s calm down and try to be a bit more objective about this and look at the situation again and I’d bring something that wasn’t quite as angry, that was a bit more cynical about it.”

“So I put all the angry stuff into a folder for a while and then gradually started taking little bits out of it and assembling stuff until I could make a complete story out of it. Sometimes things happen straight off the bat – sometimes you are working for ages on it.”

The anger seems most evident in the album’s 21-minute centrepiece, The Anachronism. Opening with a recording of a letter to the BBC by an unknown member of Gen Z complaining about the world being on the verge of collapse – set over a menacing pulse of synthesised sound – the track burst into angry, violent musical dissonance. What follows is a sometimes sad, sometimes angry blast at the parlous state of democracy: ‘Have you ever wondered how it happened? / And have you ever wondered what went wrong? / And is it really “freedom” with that ballot slip / You’ve been filling in so long?’. Red or blue, says Andy, it doesn’t matter – all they want from us is our vote and then they want us to go away while they screw up the world. We are just part of the score. He concludes: “Democracy failed us / Autocracy sucks / Kleptocracy’s a rip off / Theocracy’s fucked / Bureaucracy drives us / And the technocrats don’t care / They keep fanning the flames of discontentment / Anyway, anyhow, anywhere’.”

The Tangent seem to have got more political over the last eight years. Andy said: “Obviously, 2016 was a huge thing, the watershed moment really. Brexit, Trump, and the gradual polarisation, the huge leap in people using social media – the world did start to change. I think I have inevitably started to react to that. I have no desire to be party political at all – essentially I write protest songs.”

Andy Tillison

“When I released A Few Steps Down the Wrong Road in 2016 I was expecting that track to be totally dwarfed by contributions from Billy Bragg, and Paul Weller, and Chumbawumba, and Crass about Brexit. I expected them all to have something big to say about it. I thought we’d be part of a wave of protest. In the end there was nothing except for a bloody prog rock band led by an ageing hippy who are the only people to write a track about Brexit.” (Not so sure about that! – ed)

“The point is that all political systems of government right around the world are failing. We are dealing with something that is so incredibly old-fashioned, such a terrible anachronism. We’re dealing with 17th century political structures in a world that’s ChatGPT. The people who wrote Star Trek developed a better political system – how can it be that nothing’s happened like that and everybody’s still hanging on to these ancient and archaic traditions.”

“You can’t call something democracy, which means government by the people, where the people’s only involvement is to turn up every five years to a school somewhere to write an X. Where I live, which is Harrogate, it’s a strongly Tory council so me going down and putting my X on a piece of paper is a waste of time because my vote will not be counted in any way. It will just be part of the chaff that’s left.”

There are more bleak sentiments on A Like In The Darkness, about the loneliness of being an obscure artist in the 2020s, being starved of money by online piracy and a deluded rationale that replaces money with ‘likes’ on social media. Andy describes it as ‘laced with bitterness, sadness and determination and is a sort of hissy fit set to music’. There are still some optimistic moments though – the line ‘And somewhere in the grizzly fog an object looms up for comment / So I grasp it and tie it up and bring it home for you’ was inspired by coming home from walking his dog in the fog, hardly able to see in front of him, and then spotting the lights of his studio in the fields, guiding him home.

Then there is The Fine Line, a song about constant bad news, inspired by a Venn diagram Andy saw. One circle said ‘Still Having To Go To Work’, the other ‘The Apocalypse’ – where they intersected was labelled ‘We Somehow Seem To Have Ended Up Here’. The serious nature of the song is leavened by Andy’s trademark black humour – it depicts the office worker who’s ‘got a coffee on his desktop and a gas mask in the drawer’ – and the music, which channels the ‘yacht rock’ of Aja-era Steely Dan, with a nod in the chorus to the Petula Clark hit Downtown.

He said: “We’ve all started to get used to getting up, going to work, turning on the radio in the car and being told that Putin has threatened us with nuclear missiles and his are faster than anybody else’s, Boris Johnson has said this, Liz Truss has said that, the cost of living crisis, and you think, will you just shut the fuck up!”

There are some more positive moments on the album. Opener The North Sky sees Andy trying to find something we can all agree on, in an age when a disturbingly large number of people believe the Earth is flat or Mankind never really set foot on the Moon. He ends up with Polaris, the North Star – an unmoving, fixed point in the universe around which everything else seems to be revolve.

Andy said: “I’d been trying to get this thing in my head, something that is so indisputable that nobody can argue about it, whether you are a Trumpist, a Democrat, A Republican, a Flat Earther, a conspiracy theorist. And I saw it – it was just there. And it was a sort of all-encompassing GPS – people have used it as their main navigational reference since Gallileo. This is it; it’s got to be Polaris.”

And in The Single (which, confusingly, was the second single) he resurrects a song from an earlier band, Parallel Or 90 Degrees, and turns it into catchy, upbeat prog pop. But even this has serious things to say about the media and its treatment of artists.

For those who think this is all sounding a bit downbeat, let me reassure you that Andy’s dramatic, passionate, exciting music and his gifted ear for melody make for a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience. He says: “Essentially, I want to make optimistic records but I don’t want to make records that don’t take into account the troubles we have in the world today. In other words, I don’t want to go [sings] everything’s good, everything’s beeyootifulll… [stops singing]. I’m not The New Seekers.”

“I do like to have melody in my songs, I like to have that ‘up’ feeling, particularly as I’m going to take people to some dark places. I certainly do in this record.”

Andy is also aware his socially aware lyrics may put off some record-buyers who believe there is no place for opinions in prog – particularly opinions they don’t agree with. But he is unrepentant. “You have to make an important decision: Am I a prog rocker or am I a protest singer who happens to use prog rock as the main vehicle? I think the answer comes out that the most important thing to me is the second one of those two things.”

“What I want to sing about and the way I sing about them, and the lyrics I write, are the most important thing. That’s why I get out of bed to do it, and I’m aware of the fact that I will lose a fair few listeners because of that. At the same time, it also brings incredibly good friendships.”

“On a positive note for social media, a person I’ve become very close to at the moment is a Republican judge from Texas! He and I share so much in common. He’s not what you would call a Trumpist, he’s not Maga, he loathes that aspect. He’s looking for a sense of that small ‘c’ conservatism that many people in America yearn for, that many in the UK yearn for as well but are simply not being offered that anymore because everything has to be radical.”

As to the future of The Tangent, the next release will definitely be a full band album – and who knows, one day the other guys may get a chance to make their own contribution to the tracks on To Follow Polaris in a live setting.

Andy said: “I live in an old farmhouse in the middle of a field 1,350ft above sea level, so it’s pretty bleak up here. It’s like Wuthering Heights – in fact they made the 1971 movie just down the road. Despite the amazing adventure I’ve had, I do like to talk to people, go places, go to a different house, have people here. This was a very lonely operation, and it came after a time in which all of us went through this loneliness thing with Covid.”

“The Tangent’s never been 100% about being a live band, it’s been a studio band that makes records. But we also love when we can go out and play. It’s a difficult operation for a band of our scale to take something as ambitious as The Tangent on the road. But when we do it, we really enjoy it and we’ll try to do it again sometime in the future. So I can’t wait to work with the guys again.”

You can read Kevan Furbank’s review of To Follow Polaris HERE.

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