Prog Sphere’s interview with Andy Tillison – part 1

I still remember my first meeting with The Tangent 3 years ago when, for the first time, I heard “A Place in the Queue“, one of the best progressive rock albums released in the new millennium. In this two part interview, we spoke with the main man behind this band, a man who has produced several albums that have been highly appreciated in the progressive rock community. Find out what Andy has said about downs and outs, living in France, the process of making The Tangent’s latest album, as well as many other interesting things. Please, enjoy.

Nick: Hey there, Andy. First of all I would like to thank you for your time. Seems like so much has happened to The Tangent in last two years. As far as I can remember 2008 brought forth a collaboration with Beardfish, but it didn’t last. What happened?
Andy: Yes… The Beardfish thing was really great and I enjoyed it a lot. But the problems were really too big to overcome. Beardfish of course are a Swedish band and live a long way from me, and last year was a big year for them. They had a big tour with Dream Theater planned, and a new album etc etc, so it was going to be too difficult to really get things off the ground. So I started to look around to find a band that could really “be” The Tangent. It took a long time!

Nick: You were living in France in that period and then you moved back to England. And since it’s like you got your spirit back. How did you see your life and your musical career then?

Andy: I think you are right about getting my spirit back. A lot of unpleasant things happened to me in France as perhaps you know. There’s a lot about that on the album “Not As Good As The Book.” But once the Beardfish collaboration didn’t work out logistically, I started writing again here in England. I think that the latest album “Down And Out” is my personal favourite of all the Tangent records, mainly because I was happy when I made it! That’s a big thing. “Not as Good as the Book” was made during a very difficult time. I find it impossible to listen to now!

Nick: Isn’t it stressful for you to have so many “downs and outs“ when it comes to The Tangent’s lineup? Since “Down and out in Paris and London“ has appeared, I have stuck in my mind that its title has connected with all those “downs and outs“ in your life, and of course in Tangent’s “life“.

Andy: The Tangent has never been an easy band to be in. That’s for a lot of reasons, but mainly because for a long time it was not really a real band of friends. It was me and some guys from the Flower Kings, all fantastic musicians, but who lived so far away from me it was not possible to really know them. Also, everyone in the Tangent was doing something else, there was only ME for whom Tangent was number one priority. Of course some of the lineup changes were very painful – Sam Baine leaving, well that wasn’t just leaving the band. We had been together for 12 years. It was also stressful when I decided to stop working with Jonas Reingold and the other Swedish musicians, because without those guys I would never have had the attention I got. So it felt like a really big risk. Yes, it has been a difficult few years, but at present everything is going well for me (but not for money) and I am happy here in England again.

Dan: You said Down and Out was written during a happy period in your life, but it seems like a lot of the material on the album (sans Ethanol Hat Nail, I suppose) is a bit depressing. How do you reconcile that?
Down and Out in Paris and LondonAndy: Heh! I try to share my experiences with people, that’s all. The Tangent has always been about trying to do something that is real, something that means something to other people. I write about what has happened to me, I write about things that are going on in the world and inevitably it can’t always be happy stuff. That’s basically how I see my “job” as a writer, someone who reflects life back to other people. Some people don’t even listen to the words of course, but I do try to make them worthwhile listening to!

Nick: As a fan of the band, I have always looked to make connections between the titles of your songs and things that have happened around the band. Who were you addressing in “Where Are They Now?“ This song is lyrically connected with some of the songs from previous albums, right?

Andy: Absolutely. “Where are they Now” was a little experiment to try and bring some of my earlier stories “up to date”. I THINK it worked, and I hope it worked. Some of the songs in the past were about my teenage children. They are now adults; one is a teacher, the other a doctor. So I wanted to bring their stories up to date. And of course, “Earnest” from the “Place In The Queue” album died last year, so I had to say some special words for him. So that song is a series of little Vignettes based on earlier songs. Do you think it worked?

Nick: I am more than sure it worked.

Andy: Good! :)

Dan: I’ve always thought that the song was a nice tribute to someone who never got his proper due. It’s sad that people like him are simply forgotten while we idolize people like Churchill, Eisenhower, etc, even though all they did was give the orders for people to die.

Andy: Yes.. people like that are my heroes, not TV stars! I agree with you 100%.

Nick: Tell us something more about the process of making Down and Out. There is, for the first time, a 100% English line-up. Please, tell us something more about new members.

Andy: Well of course things have changed since that album as they always do with the Tangent. But right now it does seem that we have a good and possibly stable lineup. Jonathan Barrett is the main man behind the rebirth of the group. I did need a great bass player to continue the tradition, and Jonathan is a really great bass player! For the album we brought in Paul Burgess from 10cc on drums, who did a fantastic job for us on the record. He is a very good friend of the NEW drummer in the band Michael Gilbourne who used to be in 10cc in the early 70s, before Paul. For the album “Down and Out” I bought a guitar and learned to play it for the album (I could play a little before, but not much).

Nick: You just answered my next question :)
Andy: Of course we needed a guitarist for the live band and for our future. We have found an amazing player called Luke Machin. He is only 21 years old but can play like a legend. Theo Travis of course remains with us on Saxophones and Flutes, whenever he is not playing with Robert Fripp, Soft Machine, Gong, His Own Band, etc etc. It is great that we can all see each other more, be a band, rehearse together every week and talk to each other across the table instead of across the North Sea. That means a lot to me.

Dan: I wanted to tell you that I am listening to World Record right now. As you can probably tell, I am a big Van Der Graaf Generator fan, just like you are, and it would be great if we could get you to tell us something about Hammill/VDGG and his music. Is it a big inspiration to you? I like to talk about how I can occasionally hear flashes (and sometimes larger pieces) of Hammill in your work. Also, how do you feel about VDGG’s more recent albums?

Andy: Big question. I could be here all night! Of course I love the work of PH and VDGG and have done since I was only 12 years old. The band have inspired me right from the start… I think the fact that I went to the same school as Hugh Banton (just after he had left) made a big impression on me. I first saw VDGG in 1976 on the World Record tour. It was an amazing night, and of course I wanted to follow that band straight away. I was at the reunion concert at the Royal festival hall in 2005 in London, and a few weeks later a saw them again in France. They were superb both times for different reasons. At the end of this month I will so to see Peter Hammill again in Manchester. As for the later albums, I have not listened much to “Trisector”. I found the first one “Present” to be poor and disorganized and I found it spoiled my overall picture of the band which had never before made a bad album! But of course I will listen to it again and see where it goes. However, I very much doubt that it will be among my favorite VDGG albums.

Dan: I would like to say that I saw VDGG live in NYC last year, the first time they toured the U.S. since that very year you first saw them.

Andy: Yes. It had been a long time. It was great to see them play again. A very emotional night for me.

Nick: Since The Tangent’s beginnings you were surrounded by highly skilled musicians, some of whom have been on the scene for over 30 years. However, you were and are the one who wrote probably 90% of the music, right? Do you let others bring their own ideas, to interpret it in their own way or do you have a strict plan to follow in your head?

Andy: Theo Travis and Sam Baine both contributed compositions to the band, so there is no hard and fast rule that I am the only composer. I offered the same to Roine and Jonas, but neither of them brought anything forward. I do ask the musicians to come up with their own ideas. And I find this is the best way to get a more balanced record. That’s why the Tangent is sold under that name and not under the name of a solo artist. I don’t want to end up as a solo artist really, but who knows what will happen?

Nick: Many critics consider your vocals to be a weak spot of The Tangent, which is something that has followed you since the beginning. I personally don’t see the reason for that. I couldn’t really imagine The Tangent without your vocals. Would you mind telling me how you feel about that?

Andy: Well of course this has been going on for years. If I was worried about it I would have changed a long time ago. I think there’s more to a “voice” than it’s ability to sing well. I am first and foremost a lyricist, and I want to sing my own words and tell my own stories. It’s as simple as that. There are many questionable singers in the history of Progressive Rock, Lee Jackson, Andy Latimer to name but two. Many people don’t like Hammill for goodness sakes? I often wonder what people would think of Peter Gabriel if he turned up this year! The people who don’t like my voice don’t tend to like the individuality of people’s voices and wish I sounded more generic like Neal Morse or maybe Hasse from TFK. Great singers, but less character perhaps. Not everyone is after character, and I can understand and live with that!

Nick: The song “Lost in London“ from “A Place in the Queue“ is one of my personal favorite pieces of music. Could we consider this piece autobiographical? One of my favorite parts of the song is the part where you sing:

“We’re all Yorkshire kids in London when it comes to being heard”

Do you feel the same way you felt then, now?

Andy: Of course I do! London does have a pretty tight hold on England, and in the world of Prog Rock certainly. Whenever we play a festival here in England, we are surrounded by people from the wealthier South of England. I think they sometimes see us as a load of savages from the North! The whole story in that song is true, I really did hitch a lift to London to see record companies on the day McEnroe lost the tennis for the first time, I really did walk through all those places in the night, and I really did get nowhere with the record companies! And that’s why I have to sing this stuff!!!

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.
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