The one constant in the history of UK Progressors The Tangent has been change; that adage proving to once again be accurate after the dissolution of the band following their critically acclaimed 2011 album COMM. Having had to assemble and all new, yet remarkably familiar line-up to keep his project afloat, The Tangent fulcrum Andy Tillison has continued to do things the hard way, creating his most ambitious and challenging album to date and also succumbing to the great Prog millstone he said he never would, the concept album!
Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid discusses frustrations, line-ups, reinventions, concepts and Le Sacre Du Travail - The Rite Of Work, with the man who is The Tangent, Andy Tillison.
The last The Tangent album, the wonderful COMM came out in October of 2011. However in ways, there's been so many things happen in The Tangent camp that it feels like much longer ago. First bassist Jonathan Barrett left the band, being replaced by Dan Mash. However just when you seemed to be excited at the prospect of fronting a "new" version of The Tangent, Mash, guitarist Luke Machin and drummer Nick Rickwood suddenly departed. A big question I know, but, what "went wrong"?
A lot went wrong, but not all the things you would normally expect to go wrong with a band! ...Here's what went wrong:
1. The price of Gasoline in England went up to more than 10 dollars a gallon.
2. The Tangent lived with 250 miles of distance between the members. Rehearsals were almost impossible and when we did have them they were hugely expensive
3. We did a number of gigs which were risks. All these gigs were well supported but the price of petrol made getting there so expensive that with hotel bills and gas we were simply making a loss from bothering to go. We had no other work/jobs at the time and I, Me, Andy, ran out of money, couldn't pay the band to work and that made things very difficult for everyone.
4. The whole point of The Tangent BAND as opposed to the Project was that we could work together on stuff. Now we couldn't afford to and the album I have just finished was just sitting waiting for someone to play on it.
5. I had to take the action and decision I made. It was horrible, and it is awful to think that our band was beaten by economics. Simple as that!
COMM had been received with great enthusiasm by both fans and critics. How much of a blow was it to you to not really be able to continue that momentum through live shows and tours?
It was a terrible blow. I live to play, rehearse and make music. I have not played a live gig with a band in more than a year. It hurts a lot. I miss it terribly - but the progressive rock scene became swamped with new bands who would play concerts cheaply and we could not compete with their loss-making prices.
In a way The Tangent have often been a band that has gone through periods of transition. Were you always determined and convinced that The Tangent would carry on after this latest period of uncertainty?
I was determined but not convinced. Not convinced until Jakko came back on board, and Jakko rebooted the whole Tangent project idea for me. I can never thank him enough for that really. My six album deal was over with InsideOut, and I don't think they were really going to be interested in an album that was just by me. Jakko kick started the whole thing again, that gave me the strength and inspiration to carry it all forward. And here we are. We did it, and I think it is our finest hour.
When you announced the dissolution of the COMM line-up, you also said that you hoped that people wouldn't accuse what came next for The Tangent as being a "tribute act". However in a way the exact opposite happened with past members of the band Jakko M Jakszyk, Theo Travis and Jonas Reingold all heavily involved (along with a guest appearance from Guy Manning) in the band. Was this how you hoped things would work out, or just a happy accident?
Well Theo has always been here for me. So when I, Theo and Jakko were there, obviously Jonas was missing. And of course I wanted him to come back and he really liked the new material so it was like the return of the Magnificent Seven or something. Except with a new gunslinger on drums!
Yes, there is new blood in the band with Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison behind the kit. How did he come to be involved? You must be delighted to have such a respected, talented musician contribute to your music?
Well of course I am. He plays for us in his capacity as a session musician, not as a permanent "member" of the band or anything like that. He did make it quite clear that he wanted to do this and he was very enthusiastic about the music and threw himself into it. I was of course delighted and very proud that he said "yes". He is old friends with Jakko who invited him to take part and they have worked together in Level 42, with Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin, The King Crimson Project "Scarcity Of Miracles" and loads of other stuff including Jakko's solo albums.
And there's also Big Big Train singer David Longdon. However on your new album Le Sacre Du Travail you still handle the lead vocals. What contribution did David make and how did you find it working with such an accomplished singer?
David Longdon was brought into the project to do something new for the Tangent. He's not there to be a lead vocalist, but to be a part of the overall arrangement of the pieces. His voice added new harmonies and textures to the music - like a one man choir. He helped support my voice, helped me sound stronger than normal. It's a great role he played and crucial to the way the album sounds. He's part of the orchestra, part of the band and a front vocalist all at the same time. I'm really glad I asked him.
An early news story regarding you preparing music for a new album suggested that Jonathan Barrett was involved. Was this something you hoped would happen?
I did hope that would happen, but Jonathan wasn't really that keen on what I was writing - it wasn't the project best suited to him so he bowed out at the very end of 2012.
The Tangent have always been known for creating albums with conceptual themes, while stubbornly avoiding recording an actual concept album. However Le Sacre Du Travail finally bucks that trend, being an out and out - and ambitious - concept piece. What was the motivation that led you to finally go down this route?
That's quite simple! "Le Sacre Du Printemps" (The Rite Of Spring) by Igor Stravinsky. Ya know, the concept album has been around for centuries. It's just that there was nothing to record them with! But Beethoven, Holst, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Smetana and many others have been writing conceptual work for hundreds of years between them. People talk about the early days of Cinema and call them "Silent Movies". What we don't realize, that often, is that Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" is a Movie with no Pictures!
I recorded a version of Stravinsky's piece as a demo and re-imagined his concept in a modern setting. And then I took his whole concept of "Rituals, or Rites" and wrote my own piece about the "Rite Of Work" - Le Sacre Du Travail. I used the French title, not to be pretentious, but as a homage to Stravinsky himself who was Russian but chose the French title for his piece.
Put very, very simply, the concept is a description of an average day, by an average person. Can you elaborate on the idea behind the album's concept please?
I wanted to ask a fundamental question about the daily working lives that we lead in the West and whether the process of getting up, going to work, coming home, going to bed and then starting again the next day is still as life affirming as perhaps it once was. Sure, we do these things to build our characters, our experiences and work towards our own homes and things to leave behind for our children, just like we always did. But somehow along the way, many many millions of people have become trapped in this ritual to the point of only just surviving. And when work is this constant parade to town and back, and all you manage to do is pay your rent, electricity, gas, food, petrol and debts - with very little left to show as your own, well this becomes an empty and hollow ritual. Our lives suffer, and our work suffers. And there's so many of us caught in traffic, on overcrowded subway trains, bumping into one another on the sidewalks in the rain - we've turned this ritual into a hell for ourselves. And so much music is really aimed at young glamorous people, and I just wanted to write something about something that everyone experiences. Not about the Lamia or Slippermen.
For something that sounds so "simple", actually creating an album around "a day" must have been a huge challenge. How difficult was it to realize musically and lyrically?
This was obviously not something that came together in a "really cool jam session". It did take a lot of planning, thought, editing and learning from mistakes. Doing the cover version of the Stravinsky piece had taught me a lot and just to make sure I did a Debussy piece too. That will be released on a Fan CD later this summer. I wrote a lot of the key orchestral pieces as one, entirely orchestral piece. So I had a kind of "Classical Original" which I then started to change into a Classical/Rock Hybrid in the same way I guess as ELP did with Pictures at an Exhibition. And for the lyrics, I wrote the story as a non rhyming piece of prose. Then I tried to turn the prose into a song inspired and based on my own story and I did this by reading the story back to myself and just singing what came into my head at the time. This time I didn't do much writing down of lyrics. I did trial and error improvisation and I'm happy with what came out and feel it sounds pretty natural.
I'd go as far as to suggest that musically the album feels like a soundtrack to a film. Was this the sort of vibe you were hoping for?
To go back to one of my earlier answers, I was trying to go back to the time BEFORE films and create a story led piece of music that stands up without any pictures at all; where the music actually paints the pictures in the imagination. That's a kind of cliché - but it's what I was aiming for and it was a good aim. Question is whether I hit the target for the listener or not - that is of course up to you!
You've described the album as an "Electric Sinfonia" and musically it is a bit of a departure from what people might expect from The Tangent. What can people expect and do you feel that there's maybe an element of risk behind you releasing Le Sacre Du Travail?
Yeah. A major risk. I have been terrified about it since day one. I just felt it was time to make a run for it. The Tangent has done pretty well over the years and we have a reputation for being able to turn out good quality Progressive Rock music. But I did want to see how much further we could take this, see if we could bring people a bit further into the adventure. At the time of writing, people, both public and writers alike do seem to have pretty good stuff to say about it. Your website included I'm pleased to note! There's been a couple of doubters, and a few who are worried that I am leading the genre into the same trouble as it got itself into in the first wave. I don't think that you can compare a piece of music that's about a working day in 2013 with the story of a mythical king performed on ice with skating pantomime horses. The whole thing has moved on. I'm pleased to have been able to write something that makes that move.
However you have also incorporated some moments that people will recognise immediately as being The Tangent. How hard was it to weave these sections into the rest of the music on the album?
I have written nearly all the music for the Tangent in the past ten years. Andy Tillison's music just sounds like the Tangent. It's difficult to stop myself sounding like the Tangent and so making music that DOES sound like The Tangent is real easy!! Using classical practices of leitmotifs and themes, I coupled the pieces together using melodies that occur in the orchestral sections on, say, bassoons, and using them later on a Hammond Organ in a Rock section. And instrumentally the Wind Instruments played by Theo became the section common to both the orchestra and the rock band. That worked well for Camel in The Snow Goose, so I followed their example. But you asked how hard it was. It was pretty hard!! Yeah. Two years in a bedroom hard!
The artwork for the album is simply stunning. Who is the artist and how did you come to choose the cover?
There are two artists and one graphic designer involved on the cover. The Front Cover paintings are by Martin Stephen and I fell in love with them instantly. They are a riot of colour and form and I thought they fitted the music perfectly. They are painted in an abstract expressionist style, a style which was developing at the time Stravinsky wrote the "Rite" which itself has the abstract expressionistic feel. Hence, the two styles just belonged together immediately.
The inside pictures are by Brian Watson, a new digital artist from England. He's a long time friend of the band but he only recently started creating these images. I was impressed and asked if he's like to be involved. He said "yes" obviously!
I love the contrast of the abstract art, the classically feeling album title and the "right here, right now" concept. What is it, do you think, that allows these strands to come together so well?
I think music is an incredibly flexible thing, as are all art forms. The way music has developed is akin to the way that life itself has developed. The evolution of music could have been totally different on a quantum scale. Without migrations, slave trading, wars, ructions, natural disasters, the fusions of ideas that have taken place on this planet would simply have not happened. Progressive Rock Music is one of the most fusion dependent musics that humankind has yet unleashed on itself. It's incorporated fusions of fusions into its own fusion and has taken bold steps to find, establish and explore links between European Classical Music, the Blues, Rock & Roll, Pop, Be Bop, Jazz, Folk, Funk and Soul seeing no barriers between cultures, genres, or time itself. The multi-culture of GOOD Prog is there for all to see.
Sometimes - in fact a lot of times - bands and fans forget that Prog didn't start off already built. It came about because of the outside elements that were being brought together. By the interest in OTHER musical forms that the original protagonists were interested in. The second wave of Progressive musicians in the 80s were less concerned with finding their own fusions and were more concerned with sounding like the key players in the first generation. Nobody could EVER deny that the first Marillion album is an attempt to make a Genesis album. The same is true of lots of bands now, in varying degrees. I don't of course exclude The Tangent from this. If we were really doing what the early Crimson and Yes were doing here in 2014, we'd be mucking about with Drum 'N Bass, Dubstep, Rap, Hip Hop and Hardcore metal. Some people are. Fair play. I think The Watch deliberately sound like Genesis and The Tangent deliberately try to avoid sounding like any ONE band, rather choosing to bring together many of my influences of Prog with other stuff like Jazz Fusion, Funk, Pop and Punk. I am not claiming to be any better than The Watch. Our aims are different. That is all.
Earlier you mentioned that there is also a "companion" album, which will be called L' Etage Du Travail. What is contained on that and does it relate directly to the main album?
It's a fan release of music that I wrote at the same time as the main work. It is played entirely by myself and takes the form of a series of what I would call High Quality Demonstrations. I decided I would like to "clear my desk" after "Le Sacre" and not have to start working on these already demoed songs. So I will release them to our fans, let them see if they like them, then I can move on to whatever is next. And I don't know what that is yet. But I have not had a proper holiday now for 10 years. I would like to spend 5 days on a beach with nice mountains somewhere where the sun will shine every day. That hasn't been an option either financially or logistically. Not enough time.
In terms of funding the recording of the album you suggested that some of your fans might like to "pre-pre-order" the album in exchange for sneak previews of songs in construction and exclusive updates. Why did you decide to use this funding model this time?
We needed to! When we opened the scheme we had no idea if we even had a record deal any more. As I mentioned earlier, I'd just split the band up and our deal was over, COMM being the final album of the six we'd been contracted to do. It gave us the option of releasing the album ourselves or signing up again should InsideOut have been interested. They WERE interested and I decided that to have the label behind me again was something not to be passed up. I think everyone enjoyed the music previews and some people who paid for them did not even listen because they didn't want to spoil the effect of listening to the finished product!
Did you enjoy the experience of keeping the fans in touch with what you were doing and how did InsideOut feel about it?
I really enjoyed the experience. It's great to be in touch with everyone. I like to discuss things with the people who get in touch, got some really interesting feedback and comments. That helped, because over a long project like that it's very easy to feel alone. InsideOut? They were as happy as Larry. Everyone who'd subscribed to the process had actually bought the album. That's good for them! So of course they were "on side".
Hopefully we'll get to see The Tangent play some live shows to support the album. Is there anything planned?
When you set about recording the album you did suggest at that stage that the recording line-up might differ significantly to the touring line-up. Is this the case and do you have a "touring band" organized?
Tum ti tum ti tum!
I'll take that as a not telling yet then! And finally, you recently were asked to step in to help Frost* at the Celebr8.2 festival, playing keyboards after Jem Godfrey hurt his hand. How much of a challenge was it learning the songs...
Well... in fact I never did play for Frost - they changed their mind at the last minute and courageously decided to do it with Jem's broken fingers. I enjoyed learning their songs and sure was disappointed, but I had a great time at the festival where I played two other sets anyway. Jem Godfrey seemed like a nice guy to me - but I still haven't met him!
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for Sea Of Tranquility Andy...
Thanks for your questions Steven and for taking the time to work with the genre!
(Click here to read our reviews of Le Sacre Du Travail)