It’s been fourteen years since Andy Tillison first put together The Tangent and his Progressive Rock sextet has been going from strength to strength with every new release. Having been massively impressed by his latest offering “A Spark In The Aether”, I asked if it would be possible to arrange an interview with the man – a request that was graciously granted by the band’s label Inside Out. In what turned out to be a pretty enjoyable thirty minute chat, I was given the opportunity to discover how an album as intricate and technically demanding as “A Spark In The Aether” came to life, how Andy perceives the band status and future and his plans for the future.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis
- Hi Andy; very nice to be able to talk to you indeed. I have been pretty much hooked on “A Spark In The Aether” so I am looking forward to finding out from you the process by which this beautiful album came to life.
Andy: Oh good, you like it then (laughs)?
- Like it? That is the understatement of the year. I absolutely adore it! It is a fascinating piece of work and I cannot thank you enough for having released it.
Andy: That is so wonderful to hear, thank you. I am very pleased to hear that you like it that much.
- Now, I want to clarify that my knowledge of the band’s music begins with “COMM” (2011), so some of my questions will more than likely reflect that fact. Please bear with me, then, while I try to bring my points across.
Andy: No problem.
- Both I and many other colleagues are pretty impressed, not only by the quality which characterises your work, but mostly by your ability to keep your music fresh for us to enjoy. I think that it’s a very important thing both for an artist to challenge himself and his audience with every release, something that you have certainly adhered to these past six years.
Andy: I couldn’t agree more.
- As both you mention in the band’s website, and your label Inside Out is quite keen to point out, “A Spark In The Aether” heralds a return to a more Prog-orientated style – a musical approach which is pretty different from that followed on your previous album, which was more symphonic in nature. At which point in the album’s creative process did you decide to follow this path?
Andy: I believe that I started working on a few ideas without any specific direction in mind. I remember when I first started wanting to play Progressive Rock music, which was in the early 1990’s, I didn’t really know how to play this style all that well and so I had to do a lot of learning in order to put something decent together. Then, of course, I gradually started working my way up and promised to myself that, one day, I would be able to do this big symphonic album with various orchestral parts and movements – things that I used to listen to when I was a kid. I loved “Concerto For Group And Orchestra” by Deep Purple and the brilliant music created by Rick Wakeman when I was a child. Eventually, I kind of did it and, of course, I really enjoyed it – it was a fantastic experience but the wrong thing to have done would be to have done another one (laughs). After we did that album (note: “Le Sacre Du Travail” – 2013) it seemed natural to take stock of the situation and make a record that’s based on the five piece unit that’s The Tangent at the moment. We went out and played live and we tried to re-create some of that stuff on stage in 2014; we had a really enjoyable tour which we all thought was great as all things went really well, so we made “A Spark In The Aether” with pretty much the same line-up and mentality. The approach we followed brought us back to where we started as a band, so to speak – we became a Prog’n’Roll band again, you know (laughs)? There’s quite a lot of Rock in it, some really good songs for people to enjoy and I am sure that it will sound to you like we had a lot of fun when playing that stuff. I wanted to keep the group fresh, without always having to create the same album time and time again. We just went to a different place with this. The first half of the album starts life as a really straight forward, out and out, no holds barred Prog Rock – that’s what it is. In the second half of the album we started adding different themes and influences so you probably have questions about that.
- That is indeed the case. What I wish to clarify at this point in the interview is this: you’re using the plural when you describe The Tangent, even though you are the main composer, the heart and brain of the band. Now, we all know that The Tangent operates a revolving door policy when it comes to band members and that is evidenced by the fact that the things that “A Spark In The Aether” and your 2003 debut “The Music That Died Alone” have in common, are the participation of Jonas Reingold and the theme of their album covers. I made a simple question very complicated here; what I need to understand is how much The Tangent are a band of brothers rather than an outfit led by you and assisted by a number of musicians who, every now and then, return to the fold.
Andy: It’s something that…(laughs)…I say quite a lot but a people seem to refuse to believe which is that, although the band revolves and a lot of people are coming and going, there is a cast of regulars. Jonas is a regular, Luke (note: Machin-guitars/vocals) is now a regular as this is the third album that he made with us. Theo (note: Travis-saxophone/flute) has been on every album since the second one and I’ve been on them all, so that’s a fair amount of people, the four of us, working regularly together. We just added Morgan (note: Argen-drums) who did the tour with us last year. We worked so well with Morgan on tour. Now, the reason why I say “we” is because it genuinely is that, even though it may be a different set of “we” each time, The Tangent is not just me; if that was the case I would have given up on this and would have become a solo artist a long time ago! But, when I write the music, it doesn’t sound the same as it does when it is finished. I send everybody the music and I don’t tell them to learn what I have played at all. I ask them to come up with their ideas, which they come up, and in the process make it into the album that I have written, you know? If I were to hire people and tell them “I want you to do this” that would be one thing, but I don’t – what I say is “put here what you thing should be here”. I mean, these people are so much better in playing their instruments than I am and, consequently, I like to let them play what they things should be there. So yes, it’s still an “us”, not a “me”.
- How does the final product compare in relation to the original vision you had for it, prior to other people’s contributions being considered and added?
Andy: It’s pretty much how I had it in my head, but of course, it has the mark of other people in it. The main guideline it to try to keep the flavour that I’ve put, so there it is. When I tell them “keep the flavour”, I am not asking them to play what I play – it simply means that they must come up with something that complements the theme I have worked on. I the feeling is powerful, they will need to create something that sounds powerful; if it’s something that should sound funky then they need to come up with something that will sound funky, but it will be their way of being funky! They will ring up and say “can you try knocking this verse out” and things like that, so they do put in their suggestions through. Luke gets very involved in the production side of things and, of course, I have a producer anyway who helps me out. So yes, we are indeed a group and, next time, we may not feature the exact same line-up again but it will still be The Tangent.
- As you clearly mentioned “A Spark in the Aether” is a return to more classic Prog forms but that doesn’t take anything away from the album in terms of its originality, its complexity and also its directness, which is a much welcomed thing. The melodies are both stunning and memorable; still you allow enough room for technically perplexing themes to operate in songs like “Aftereugene” – themes that will surprise even the most seasoned fans of the band. I could continue praising these seven songs for hours on end but I am sure you have better things to do than listen to me going on.
Andy: Thank you – I am enjoying this, you know (laughs).
- I would like to analyse a couple of the songs that stood out for me, if that’s Ok with you. First one is “Clearing The Attic” and I begin with it as I was pretty surprised by how the 60s melody you employed in its intro corresponded with the main theme with is more heavy and technical in comparison. I am intrigued as to how a song as layered and varied as that can come to life.
Andy: Well, this is it: my real love of progressive music which comes from the heart…I really, really do love this kind of music! I think that one of the reasons why I like it so much is because I am a big film fan. I like watching films that are based on good stories. All good stories and all good films and all good television dramas are great because when you’re watching them you have no idea what’s going to happen at any given point. That means that you need to be committed to the programme in order to find out what happens in the end. Whenever you get a dull or a boring film, you get it mostly because you know what’s going to happen half way through it while the best ones are the ones where you don’t know what’s going to happen to them. I’m getting this point across if you’re thinking that you must put our record on and listen to it without knowing what will happen next. That, to me, is what progressive music is all about; the fact that you don’t know where this voyage is going to take you when you put the record on. That’s a good thing to enjoy! For me, I just seem to pick up the ability to be able to write songs that do that. I’ve never really been quite sure where these songs come from because, you know, I start writing them and they just happen. As a matter of fact, that’s where the title of the album comes from because when people do ask me “where did you get that idea from” my normal answer would be “coming from the aether” (laughs). It’s really a spark in the aether which I managed to grab and there it is – it happened! The aether is a mythical thing and the real answer to the question is that I genuinely don’t know! Obviously, I just spent so much of my time listening to this kind of music that it now just seems a natural way for me to write. I mean, when we all first heard Marillion back in the 80s with Fish singing, the first thing we all thought was “doesn’t he sound like Peter Gabriel”? Now, Fish was not naturally imitating Gabriel; he just listened to Peter Gabriel all his life so Peter Gabriel pretty much taught him how to sing. I suppose that listening to Yes, Soft Machine, National Health, ELP and VDGG, as well as listening to Rock, Funk, Disco and Jazz have made me write the way I write. I think that really what I write is just a combination of all the things that I’ve heard and, in all honesty, that is what all writers tend to do. I don’t read music or anything; I am a self-taught piano player and thus I don’t really understand the rules of music. Usually, when I want to have the notes or the rules of the music that I write I have to make a telephone call and talk to Luke (laughs).
- It’s actually great to hear you single out Fish there because one of the things I remember thinking, especially when listening to “The Celluloid Road”, was how similar your way of approaching and performing your lyrics are to his. It’s more like storytelling rather than singing, if that makes any sense to you. This song specifically has a certain cinematic feel to it that I find absolutely fascinating…twenty one minutes of sheer bliss.
Andy: Oh wow (laughs); I’m really glad you see it that way – that is fantastic to hear. Obviously, as a composer, it’s really great to hear that somebody enjoys a song’s form like that. “The Celluloid Road” for me is…I can remember having the idea about it because I was watching the TV series “Breaking Bad”, which was describing a part of America that I have never seen before – it’s filmed Albuquerque which is an area I have never seen that often on TV. I kind of thought “oh great, Albuquerque – I don’t know this place”. The more I watched that series the more I realised that I don’t know any of these places. I mean, I have been alive for fifty five years and only twenty one days of those have been spent in America (laughs)…there you go, but I knew all those other parts of America how they looked like…I’ve seen the deserts, the cities, the great highways, the little roads, the back country…everything. I suddenly though that one can travel in their mind in America and they will know where they are because they’ve seen these placed on TV and that prompted the idea to create a song like “Celluloid Road” – the idea of travelling across America through one song, from New York or Chicago right across the Rocky Mountains and through the desert and finally end up on the west coast and places like San Francisco, which is a place that we have seen in so many different films. That’s what “Celluloid Road” is; this road of film that goes right across America and which people all over the world will recognise without ever having to have been to America.
- In my mind, a song like this one and an album like “A Spark In The Aether” cannot really be fully appreciated unless one considers the storyline behind them, especially as the lyrics are pretty special. Do you also believe that people need to connect with the lyrics in order to make the most out of your latest album?
Andy: I honestly don’t know because it depends on how well one knows the English language for starters. A lot of English speaking people will enjoy and get on with them but, having said that, there are plenty of English people who would say “I don’t really listen to the lyrics, I’m not bothered about them – I’m not interested at all” and they just hear the voice as another musical instrument. It’s pretty much in the same was as I love to listen to PFM (note: Premiata Forneria Marconi) that performs its music in Italian while I don’t understand what the lyrics are about – I don’t understand a word of it (laughs). I do, however, love to hear those voices and I love to hear the Italian language even though I do not understand what’s being said – it’s just a beautiful sound and a beautiful sound is a great musical instrument.
- I understand where you’re coming from but, with all the hard work that you’ve put behind the concept, it must feel a bit disheartening to have people not paying attention to them.
Andy: No, not really, because there are people who do listen to what our lyrics have to say. I’m just happy to reach both kinds of people. I actually consider myself to be a lyricist first and foremost, then a composer and only then a musician…and a very poor kind of singer (laughs)…not a great singer. The delivery of the words is very important to me. Yes, I put a lot of importance into the words but, in the end, it’s not up to me how people listen to my music. Some like it, some don’t like it, some like and read the lyrics and some aren’t – it doesn’t really bother me all that much.
- In this very song, around the fifteenth minute mark, we are introduced to a very beautiful funky bass theme. The first time I listened to it I remember thinking to myself “this theme could easily stand as a song in its own right”, so you imagine my surprise when I discovered that you did exactly that in “San Francisco Radio Edit” – the last composition of the album. This approach of repeating themes across the album is not unique to that bass theme. In that respect and, seeing as I do not possess access to all the lyrics of the album, is it fair to describe “A Spark In the Aether” as a concept album?
Andy: No, not really. All our albums have some kind of theme running across them and there are songs that are directly connected such as “A Spark In the Aether” and “A Spark In the Aether (Part 2)” and “Codpieces And Capes” is somehow connected to them because it’s another song about music itself and one’s appreciation of music. “Celluloid Road” kind of stands alone, as it has its own little concept, and “Clearing the Attic” is just a nice song about learning to forgive people, forget the past and just get on with enjoying the future, you know? I think that’s mainly the biggest feeling within this record; it’s to learn to forgive people, to appreciate things that are new as you get later and older in life. I mean, quite a few members in my audience are getting older and I am getting older as well…it’s nice to be able to enjoy new music. I never get bored listening to new bands but there are some people who only want to listen to the old ones over and over again. Either way this is OK with me but I just suppose that in my music I will say to my colleagues “come on, let’s make something new here” – the need to learn and listen to new songs and get out there and enjoy the rest of your life, not listen to bands from the 70s and say things like “things are not as good as they used to back in the day”, because they are!
- I think that it’s important for people like you to make such opinions heard – I personally agree with you. There’s always going to be good music out there providing that one is open and willing to look out for it.
Andy: That’s right. There’s a lot of good stuff out there in Prog Rock, exciting bands and albums waiting to be discovered. I really don’t want to spend the rest of my life listening to the same stuff. I will always love certain records and I will always end up going back to them but I always want to find something new to add to that. I often wonder what people are doing because it seems that a lot of the time in Progressive Rock, what most people want more than anything else in the world is for Genesis to get back together and to make a new album. I mean, I can understand that but I really believe that if Genesis were to make a new album, in all honesty we would most probably be disappointed with it. All those people who want this to happen so much kind of miss out on the fact that bands like The Flower Kings have made fantastic records for the past twenty years and so have Spock’s Beard…we are all here to provide people with that kind of music, that kind of excitement, that kind of adventure, you know? Some of us have an interesting sense of humour (laughs)…I don’t know…I don’t know what the problem is! We create all these records and still people talk about Genesis!
- It’s a sad state of affairs because Prog fans are supposed to be fairly open-minded, so this kind of attitude doesn’t reflect well on their character (I laugh), listening only to “Selling England By The Pound”.
Andy: Yes, it is a great record, one of the best records I’ve ever heard, but come on. I did say this to people before, but, in the end, Progressive Rock music is supposed to take you on a new journey but if you take the same journey so many times and you never stop taking that journey then it starts to feel like a walk in the park instead. Personally, I still like to take on journeys rather than walking to the park, to see places I haven’t seen and it doesn’t like if I don’t like them as much as I did the first time – the important thing is to make that journey!
- Andy, is there a particular style or element that you’ve tried throughout your career to incorporate into your music which you found not to be quite fitting to what you do?
Andy: I’ve always utilised a lot of Jazz into my music and I think that this works really well and I believe that when people look back and try to create music as they did in the 70s, a lot of them created music that sounded a bit like Yes and everything but when you listen to it carefully you think to yourself “yes, but you forgot about Jazz”. Yes would not have been anything without the Jazz! Jazz was always there in their music and, if you forget it, the music will not quite have that same kind of cross-style fusion that it’s supposed to. I’ve always tried, and particularly to this album, I’ve done some quite funky stuff and that’s because I believe that Funk music and the good disco stuff were kind of like Prog’s sisters (laughs). Back in the 70s they were so similar; they were played by really good, serious musicians who could really play their instruments well, they had synthesizers and were taking full advantage of what was them modern technology, they used the big stage shows, the fantasy artwork – they were very, very similar at a time when racial equality wasn’t what it is now. The black music scene was much more separated than the white music scene and Prog was our Funk really. I think that, has this happened now, these styles of music would have been a lot closer together. So, I am thinking of different styles of music and try to incorporate them into my music and I know that there will be a few people that will not necessarily like my Funky stuff, for instance – that’s bound to happen.
- Well, you will not get a complaint from me, that’s for sure.
Andy: Well, we do think that it belongs so we’re happy to put it there and it’s a great fun to play (laughs).
- You say that, and I obviously believe you – still, I would like to be able to experience that first hand. In view of that, please tell me: will we have the privilege to see The Tangent performing these beautiful songs in a live environment anytime soon?
Andy: I think so. We certainly are working to try and get something together and that’s going to be in the near future and as we do that we will let people know. Obviously moving The Tangent about is quite difficult with all the members being in different bands so we will have to make sure that everybody can be available to do the tour we want to do. It’s probably going to be a small European tour and we may go across to the States id the opportunity arises.
- Well “A Spark In The Aether”, as I mentioned before, is a killer album. It has been a faithful companion to me these last few weeks and I am absolutely convinced that it will continue to be exactly that in the weeks and months to come. I believe that it’s time to wrap things up here. Thank you once again Andy for being gracious enough to do this interview – I wish you good luck with everything.
Andy: Thanks a lot – we need all the luck we can get (laughs). Big thanks to you for being one of the guys who actually help get the music out there. People who write about Progressive Rock music are just as important as the people who make it, that’s part of the deal. I wish you best luck with your website and I’ll look forward to reading whatever you write my friend.
In his show broadcast on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio on 10 May David Randall played a further selection of artists and albums included in the new Features series, “2020 Vision”.
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