Andy Tillison of The Tangent: Interview

Auto Reconnaissance, the new album from The Tangent (our review here) was another prog rock masterclass. InsideOut Music had sent a few questions for main man Andy Tillison to answer in the video below, but he was magnanimous enough to let us probe a bit deeper. Always a fascinating subject with plenty to say, here’s what her, erm , had to say on a few topics.

Thanks for the positive and helpful review of our album you published recently. Here are the answers to the questions you asked. I really enjoyed answering these difficult and interesting questions. Certainly not “run of the mill” stuff. 

Here we go then:

It’s a great set of musicians that make up the current The Tangent, but to pick out one, you do seem to have built a real rapport with Luke Machin. How would you say the two of you have gelled?

Yeah – Luke and I get on really well. When we met there was a realisation that both of us had to overcome a barrier that just exists naturally between human beings. He was younger than my son, and I’m the same age as his Dad.

Outside the world of music we might not have even been on each others’ radar. Music is something that can build such barriers higher via the fashon/trends aspect of music, but has the option to break them down in the artistic aspect. Both of us were positive enough to break those barriers down and start a process of learning from each other that, certainly from my perspective has been the single most rewarding and re-invogorating musical experience I could ever have asked for. 

We have had to deal with good times and bad,  overcome many problems within The Tangent which has never been an easy band to keep together. I think that we have gelled really well – and being honest there are times when I have frustrated and disappointed Luke with my decisions. But here we are after an album in which I personally feel we have worked together so well and with such unity of purpose that it’s been like a singular effort from two people to bring this album to fruition. 

Having said that and thinking of Ian Anderson and ‘Jethro Tull’, how much of The Tangent is Andy Tillison? 

I am certainly what I’d call the “Curator” of The Tangent in that I guess I make it happen.  But to me, The Tangent is a group of people and that “band” element is crucially important to me.

I am not the kind of guy who picks great musicians just to put their names on the sleeve and then tell them what to play. A lot of that goes on elsewhere of course. I pick the great musicans and then ask them what they want to play on the songs. And 95 percent of the time, what they think should be there is what goes on the record. If we were to release an album of parts by the musicians that I have cut, it would be a very short album – ha ha. 

In reality, my standard request to the musicians is to keep the flavour of my original solo demo recordings, “flavour” being a really useful word to use when getting musicans to contribute. I have worked with people who hired me to play, but then they just want me to play what they played on their demos and then they don’t actually get me. They get me pretending to be them. I don’t see the point, and it’s a waste of their money! 

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Andy Tillison

With modern ways of recording and the fact that you’ve been working this way for years, do you ever miss the chance to get the whole band together and have a blast and create in the same space at the same time? 

Yes I do miss it, and of course, we do occassionally get together for gigs, festivals and tours. But the whole way of making music has changed so much since the 1970s when I started that it’s almost unrecognisable now. You need to understand that as soon as a band even starts to think about having a jam, there is immediately a cost involved.

For The Tangent to get to have a jam, let’s say here in Yorkshire, there’s an air fare ticket from Austria, a train fare from the airport, a taxi ride from the railway station (all return trips of course) and that’s just to get the bass player here. Then we need to find him an amp…  Not everyone in the band drives, (I’m one of those) and we’d all have to find ways of getting to a rehearsal room, which is gonna charge us around 10 pounds an hour for a horrible pit with a Death Metal band in the room next door and 20 pounds an hour for a place with a coffee machine and a sofa with maybe only a normal metal band in the room next door.  Food, accomodation, blah blah….  The American “Garage Band” dream is only applicable to a band of which there is a member with an ideally appointed Garage where half the world wouldn’t complain in the first two minutes of a rehearsal. 

Every step of a band’s progress is marked by a friendly and totally legal mafioso  – money crosses palms at every juncture. If we did a couple of days together in a decent rehearsal studio next week, we’d spend at least a grand on it. That’s if we were lucky.  I Fondly remember my younger days living with a band in the same house and rehearsing in the basement. Great times, but our partners/wives/significant others, would not really enjoy it these days, and our pets would not necessarily get on.

You mention your singing being better on this album. Can you give us an idea about what you mean? 

Well, I am famous for not being a very good singer. I’ve taken a lot of flak over that for many years – notably from Americans. The Americans (a fair few of ’em) don’t really like my voice, which I always find strange as they conquered the world and virtually invented the premise for progressive rock with a guy called Dylan who Bowie sang of as having “a voice like sandpaper and glue.”

In recent years I stopped smoking and i just found myself gradually more capable of controlling the voice I do have. I don’t like the sound of my own voice.I choose to be the band’s singer because the lyrics demand that they are “spoken” well. That means, even though the words are sung I think that it’s equally important how the words are said  during the recording. There needs to be a balance between the musical necessities and the lyrical delivery. I may not be Daniel Gildenlow, Neal Morse, Jon Anderson.. far from it, but you can hear every word I say, and I say the words how I wrote them, with the emotion and significance that was in my head when I wrote whatever it was I am singing.  

There is a very strong American soulful/jazzy feel to the music and bearing in mind Jinxed In Jersey is a tale of American adventures, has the US been a big influence musically on this album?

The US is a big influence on me all the time. I love the whole kit and caboodle to be honest. I first noticed that American TV had so much better production values back when I was a kid. I mean, c’mon… who would wanna watch Z Cars when Starsky And Hutch were about? All those amazing cop shows, all done on proper film stock while our stuff was being slammed together using horrible old video tape with really flat boring colours and no lighting artistry at all. The BBC set an astonishingly low technical standard back then, all the genius that produced Fawlty Towers and look at the crap quality of the actual production.   The music to those 70s US shows was so seriously cool. Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, Bob James… jeez, amazing stuff.

While of course, I’m a total supporter of UK culture, (we have consistently produced some of the finest electric music ever recorded – made the best and most experimental comedy ever) our media has always been lower budget that the US. This does not always mean that the US wins… they have produced more schlock than any nation on earth. But look at the good stuff man! If we did a ONE ENTRY ONLY poll for favourite movie of all time and only allowed Brits to enter – what percentage of people would vote for a UK film I wonder? Actually – scratch that, it would probably 48 percent for a really great American movies and 52 percent for one of the “Carry On” films when I think about it. Forget that I said any of that. I am being tongue in cheek. How many people have chosen Britbox over Netflix? Is Britbox even a thing? I mean DOC MARTIN is on the welcome screen!!! And Love Island! 

I do enjoy the longer tracks. Jinxed In Jersey feels almost like a narrative improvised over an freeform piece of music. I’m probably way off but I was interested in why you presented that piece in that way?

Jinxed is a natural composition. I say natural in that it really “happened” I was there in New Jersey, on the wrong side of the bay, having an amazing, frightening, wonderful bit of real living where I had no idea whether I’d get back to where I set off from.

A day like that can last a lifetime compared to the ones where you go to work, come back, have your tea and go to bed. On that day in Jersey, I  didn’t know what was coming next. I was off-grid, nobody knew where I was, including me, I had made no preparations, the whole thing was just this: “I’m gonna walk to see the Statue Of Liberty” The plan was as well put together as this: “It’s gonna be that way – because that’s South – The sun is there and it’s October“. I didn’t know how far it was, and I didn’t know where I was actually setting off from, because I’d arrived there asleep in the middle of the night in the back of a van.  So, that’s how the music was made, I started to write about the day I’d had (while I was there doing it) and the piece obviously takes many turnings, as did the day.

And the Lie Back And Think Of England (love the title and the connotations) track ticks a lot of the prog boxes (if you don’t mind me using that phrase) and has the wonderfully classic the uplifting prog bit that begins with the “There’ll always be an England” line. How does a lengthy piece like that develop?

You may have noticed I like a good film. I’ve been influenced by films, stories, plays, novels all my life since reading Peter Pan and Enid Blyton and seeing the Wizard of Oz. I adore Shakespeare. Beethoven, Strawinsky, Speilberg, Lucas, Tarantino and Corea.  When these people are your influences, it stands to reason one day you’ll wanna make an electric music piece that ain’t 3 minutes long.  Where the opportunities to change dynamics and mood, style and substance are as available to the Musician as they are to the Film Director or Novelist. A great film can lead you through a huge variety of emotions, from X-wing fighters descending on death stars to moments of tragic reconciliation between estranged Father and Son.

Being able to make these things flow and work in the linear form of art like Film and theatre is based on the story being right to start with. the same has always been true of music, it’s only in recent years  – the last 70 or so.. where the short format song has become the norm. A lot of people are shocked to know that I write songs that are 20 minutes long, they are utterly baffled that I have now written one that is 28 minutes. So we’ve Now gone from songs that are the length of a Scooby Doo Episode, to an episode of “Friends”. I’m sorry – neither of these are in any way EPIC. 

If you want your music in advertisement length blips, that’s fine and dandy. There are many outlets for that type of thing. We do a nice line in shorter songs ourselves. But – overall, how it happens to me MUST be a similar experience as it is for a film director. It’s a case of looking at what you want to tell and working out how to pace that, develop it, build emotions and generate excitement and tensions. I have techniques and systems which I use which make my work identifiable as my own. Some will like it. Many will not. It’s the same deal for everyone.

the tangent auto reconnaissance

The cover art from Ed Unitsky is another beauty. What’s the story behind that? (again, guessing that’s the Ribblehead viaduct there…)

It is indeed the Ribblehead. I asked Ed (who I have not yet met face to face) if he’d include some of the England I love in the artwork and sent him some photos I’d taken of the area in which I live. He included these in his fantasy view of Yorkshire/England… and one of the overarching messages of the song “Lie Back And Think Of England” is the transitory nature of a nation state… this country was once ruled by Dinosaurs. (I would argue that it still is).

In the future, no-one knows who or what will live here. Ed’s “possible future intelligent being” on the cover is part of that message. Possibly a Human/tech hybrid?… Wandering through the ancient archaeology of milennia past?  You see, Ed has been telling HIS story since the first Tangent album, while I have been telling mine….

Talking about progressive rock genre, you mention 1979 as “when it was over the first time around.” What do you think it was that relit the fire (that never stopped) in “the 1990’s – the next phase”? (and are you sort of discounting anything ‘prog’ from the eighties?)

I’m certainly not discounting any music from any era. There was a palpable hiatus in prog between the release of UKs and England’s first albums and the arrival of Marillion and Pallas, It Bites and IQ. These were what was seen as a new wave of “Progressive Rock” and were certainly valid… but for me, I was out of town listening to Joy Division, Siouxsie, Talking Heads, Television, The Gang Of 4 and Nina Hagen. 

Shoot me down if you wish, but I always thought the second wave of Prog in the 80s was more simple, more based around big chords and productions, less counterpoint and Jazz was off the menu. (It Bites are exempt from this they really developed ON the stuff that had gone before) I’m not dissing any of it never really knew it. Don’t take my ignorance of those bands at that time as valid critique, I grew to love all of them and they all have a place in my collection.

The fire was re-lit by one thing and one thing alone in the 1990s. The Internet. A place where we could find each other again after all this time, re-discover ourselves and start to make tracks in a way that the 80s bands had not been able to do.. namely write without any record company dictats.  Not under pressure for “singles” or “more commercial sound” the bands of the 90s were totally in control over their destiny, and most of us have never had to deal with the dreaded “A&R” departments. We had the same freedoms that bands like Crimson and Generator had had back in the day – whether we used those freedoms as well is something that history will decide, not us. 

Our thanks to Andy for taking time to sending some insightful thoughts.

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