TILES: Journey of Perseverance and Hope

Tiles 2016

Detroit progressive rock band Tiles has been a part of the scene since 1993, and in the period of almost 25 years they released six studio and three live albums. Their sixth studio full-length titled Pretending 2 Run was released earlier this year and is the band’s first studio effort in eight years, which also brought a label change. Guitarist and composer Chris Herin was very inspired to talk about the new material for which they joined forces with a number of guest musicians such Mike and Max Portnoy, Ian Anderson, Adam Holzman, Mike Stern, Colin Edwin, etc. 

Pretending 2 Run marks your first full-length recording in eight years. How does it feel to be back with the new material?

Chris Herin: Time sure does fly doesn’t it? It definitely feels good to finally release a new album. I suppose there are several reasons why it ended up taking so long. Going back a ways, there was actually a time when I wasn’t sure there would be another Tiles album. Fly Paper was well-received by our fan base but by-in-large the CD seemed to mostly ‘fly’ under the radar. Few people even picked up on Alex Lifeson’s (Rush) guest appearance — which I thought would at least be an interesting topic of discussion. So for a while we were unsure if there was really enough public interest in the band for us to record another album. I remember talking to Terry Brown about this and telling him I really didn’t know what to do. Although every artist is biased toward their work, I thought (and still think) Fly Paper was a very good album. What could we do differently? Maybe we had done all we could as a band.

Contributing to the gap was a host of personal challenges for all of us. The recession hit a couple members very hard, there were a few medical issues to contend with and both my parents passed away within months of each other in 2011. But life’s challenges help inform art, right? So in many ways our experiences played a role in gradually steering us toward doing another album.

For the most part I’m always working on lyrics, musical ideas and writing songs anyway — and before I knew it would be our next album — the basic concept for Pretending 2 Run started taking shape during a visit to Paris with my wife in late-2009. We went to a lot of chamber music concerts performed in historical cathedrals and churches. The experience was motivational and planted in me the seeds to attempt something broad in scope — to think conceptually like a symphony or opera. Certainly a “rock opera” is nothing new; but for me, embarking on a concept album or song cycle was an exciting prospect. It seemed meaningful to present a story that is not only delivered by the lyrics, but equally through the music.

My objective was to chronicle a journey of emotional trauma and rescue and deliver it with great detail, expression and musical variety. I firmly believe most listeners like to be challenged. The additional effort required to learn and understand the music creates a strong bond and provides greater and lasting rewards for the listener. That’s one of the distinct benefits of the progressive rock genre: freedom.

But backtracking a bit as to how the album basically came together, as the lyrics developed the band started testing musical ideas around 2010. At this point we still weren’t entirely sure what the future held, but we felt the urge to see what might happen. Eventually our ‘crisis of confidence’ passed and the songs started flowing as the Pretending 2 Run concept came into focus. We spent 2011 and 2012 writing and rehearsing, started recording in February of 2013 and finished in December 2015. In the middle of this lengthy process we recognized it was going to be awhile before we released a new studio album so we recorded a couple live albums Off the Floor 01 and Off the Floor 02 to bridge the gap and keep our name alive, at least a little bit. Plus, we simply decided not to hurry the process — so we took our time ensuring Pretending 2 Run was the best possible album we could make.

Tiles - Pretending 2 Run

What can you tell me about the new songs compared to 2008′s Fly Paper?

Chris Herin: We were very pleased with how Fly Paper turned out, but as I previously discussed we weren’t sure what to do next. To put our mindset into perspective, Fly Paper was our reaction to the complexity and stripped down approach of the previous album Window Dressing. Don’t get me wrong, those aren’t necessarily bad features and Window Dressing turned out great and was received very well. But for Fly Paper we wanted to streamline the songs and put even more focus on the melodies and vocal arrangements. We also did more with keyboards and guitar layering. Of course we still kept plenty of musical twists and turns and stretched out in a lot of places. Plus, it was good to have our original drummer, Mark Evans, back in the band which rekindled our creative spark.

So with Pretending 2 Run we essentially had to reinvent Tiles — at least as much as we could with the same four guys. This album is the culmination of everything we’ve learned until now minus our self-imposed limitation to stay fairly close to the band’s instrumentation. You can hear we had loosened the reins a bit on Fly Paper, but we let go of them entirely for P2R! We experimented with any and all ideas — investigating and following them to some kind of conclusion (sometimes even the scrap heap). Whatever a song needed we let it happen: choir, string quartet, guest artists, oboe, saxophone, etc. We wanted to create a story and production in the grand tradition of classic progressive rock and we took as much time as necessary to make sure the story held together and the music delivered the proper emotional content.

So ultimately I guess the real difference between these two albums is the instrumentation on Pretending 2 Run is more expansive — it’s more cinematic or even symphonic in scope. The arrangements are more dense and layered and the musical styles are more diverse — plus it’s almost twice as long!

I understand that new album, in some way, represents a creative renewal for you. Lead me through the creative process of Pretending 2 Run. Did your writing approach for the new record change comparing with previous efforts?

Chris Herin: I don’t think our approach to writing changed much, but clearly our perspectives on arranging did! Although I’m the primary songwriter, Jeff also provides riffs and phrases which I incorporate. Sometimes songs also develop as Mark, Jeff and I improvise ideas. A good example of this is “Taken by Surprise.” We had a few basic parts together but the song was written largely as we improvised on the sections. Generally I write most songs on acoustic guitar (and even mandolin)… and sometimes electric guitar, of course. I record very rough demos to present to the band. Then we go through a strenuous arrangement process: meaning that we’d learn the song as I had written it — but scrutinize & experiment with everything… tempos, grooves, arrangements, etc. In some cases Jeff or Mark will suggest deleting or adding musical ideas — or Paul will embellish the melodies. But even though the composition and arrangement process takes time — we were careful not to “overwork” the songs; although the song “The Disappearing Floor” was re-written several times! Once we get into the studio with Terry Brown he does pre-production where the songs undergo another round of refinement — to make sure song structures and parts are working. Our goal is never to be overly complicated, although Terry does sometimes catch us wandering off into left field! Also, when we’re in the studio we allow for “happy accidents” so even though a song is written, we continue to experiment and might play things a little differently than we rehearsed.

The arrangement contributions from vocalist Matthew Parmenter of the band Discipline and all-around musical wizard Mark Mikel helped inspire us creatively and were great sources of inspiration. Coupled with our own sense of adventure and the expert guidance of Terry Brown these factors probably account for the biggest changes in our approach.

Pretending 2 Run is a challenging album and kind of risky from a commercial standpoint. Will people dig in and invest the time? We can’t be sure, but I firmly believe good music, good art and good writing that challenges its audience delivers the greatest reward. On the other hand, I’d like to think the songs are still engaging without the listener having to dive into the weeds. But anyway, regardless if Pretending 2 Run sinks or swims, it was the only album we could make.

The new record is also your debut with Laser’s Edge. Did the label change have any impact on your songwriting? Did you sign the record deal with Laser’s Edge before the actual material for the new album was written or did you approach them with a final product?

Chris Herin: I don’t think label affiliation has ever had an impact on our songwriting. We’ve always delivered a final product because our albums are “licensed” — so the label doesn’t typically hear any music until the songs are written and recorded. Our association with InsideOut goes way back to 1997 when Fence the Clear was only the 14th album they released, so we had a great relationship for many years. Certainly I thought the odds were good that InsideOut would release Pretending 2 Run, but from album to album this has never been a guarantee. After they heard the album we began discussing possible release dates and it became clear that, although they really liked it, their release schedule was full for many months in advance; which meant we would have to wait quite a while before it could be released. Unfortunately, this was not workable from a business standpoint…

But fortunately, Thomas at InsideOut was very sympathetic and actually helped us make arrangements with Laser’s Edge. So, even though on one hand it was disappointing to leave the InsideOut family, partnering with Laser’s Edge to release Pretending 2 Run was a silver lining that has worked out very well. The owner, Ken Golden, is a remarkable music aficionado, has a very strong label identity and following and has a great promotional team. The album has done very well under his guidance and we are grateful for his willingness to support Hugh Syme’s elaborate artistic vision!

How does the album title affect the material presented on the record? Give me a snapshot of the topics you explore on the new songs.

Chris HerinPretending 2 Run is a song cycle about a man blindsided and disillusioned by betrayal and his journey through adversity as he escapes from the dark corners of seclusion on a faltering search for redemption. Unlike a linear narrative, the story does not reveal how or why things happened, but instead we observe events in the wake of personal upheaval. Overall it’s a rather dark concept, but gradually there’s light at the end of the tunnel (or maybe it’s an oncoming train — I don’t want to give the ending away).

The story begins in the post-traumatic aftermath of tragedy as the central character retreats into self-imposed isolation, numb and disconnected from the world. Time is frozen as his mind travels between the past and the slow-motion present in search of explanations. His recovery is hindered by the fear, anger and confusion that now define his life. Standing at several crossroads, indecision becomes another obstacle as internal battles rage between conflicting ‘fight-or-flight’ emotions. It’s up to the listener to decide how to interpret certain turning points.

The title reflects that the central character in the story is ‘pretending to run’ from his problems. He suffers a tragic event and has retreated into darkness and isolation. But a strange thing gradually happens and his subconscious will to survive won’t let him give up. So, no matter how much he wants to avoid or escape his predicament he can’t.  He must face reality and confront his new-found demons. As he gradually builds inner strength, doubts, fears and false starts haunt his progress. There are many hurdles to overcome he has difficulty figuring out what to do. This is the up-and-down & back-and-forth journey of the album. So overall, Pretending 2 Run represents the human will to survive, triumphing even when the temptation to give up is overwhelming — hence our use of the Latin phrase ‘ad astra per aspera.’

There’s also a bit of a double meaning to Pretending 2 Run where sometimes people mistake activity itself for true action or progress, like being on a treadmill. You’re running but not going anywhere. At some points in the story our main character thinks he’s headed in the right direction only to discover he is not. As enough time passes the uncertainty of his future is replaced by awareness and resignation as he must now come to terms with what’s happened and exist within a new reality.

I suppose Pretending 2 Run is simply about struggle and survival. Although the concept is delivered within a certain set of circumstances, the story can translate into parallel situations we all tend to experience: the difficulties and challenge of ‘life.’ But ultimately, it’s a journey of perseverance and hope that eventually leads to some degree of hard-fought victory.

Certainly, many of the individual songs can be interpreted outside of the main storyline. “Weightless” is a song about rising above trials and tribulations — or maybe taking the ‘high road.’ “Fait Accompli” simply deals with acceptance in the literal meaning of the term: ‘a thing that has already happened or been decided — those affected have no option but to accept.’ “Friend or Foe” is a song about mistrust and trying to figure what’s going on in the face of inconclusive or suspicious behavior. “Battle Weary” comes at a point in the story where our character is worn out. He’s at a crossroads and must decide what’s next. Maybe there’s a bit of compromise with reality he must accept — letting go of the past to have a future. But, I suspect the concept of being ‘battle weary’ applies to an unlimited number of circumstances!

What evolution do you feel Pretending 2 Run represents comparing with your previous works?

Chris Herin: Well, it might be interesting to note that when we started the band our initial objectives were simply to put out an album, play around the Detroit area and sell a few copies. We didn’t think much farther down the road than that, really. It wasn’t until we started receiving very positive reviews, which led to our first CD being licensed and released by Dream Circle/Polydor in Germany — plus a Japanese release — that we thought about recording another album. I had originally figured we’d do one CD and just have a bit of fun.

Our first CD, tiles, could be categorized as melodic hard rock with a few progressive liberties. The follow up Fence the Clear was heavier and we stretched out musically; we indulged our progressive whims to a greater degree and stripped down the arrangements to be consistent with our guitar/bass/drums instrumentation. Presents of Mind turned out to be a blend of our first two recordings. We re-introduced more studio production but continued to focus on blending melody, musical complexity and moments of true improvisation. Window Dressing was our “epic novel.” We felt empowered by the success of Presents of Mind — and felt accepted by the progressive community. So, we wrote longer songs with multiple parts and introduced a lot of stylistic variety.  We also thought we’d fight the trend of sterile and stereotypical sounds — and recorded in a large room with lots of ambience. We purposely stayed away from over-polishing the performances to keep them sounding spontaneous, like “people” had made the music — not technology.

Fly Paper is the direct descendent of everything we had learned up to that point. In hindsight, we felt like maybe we had been a bit too raw and austere on Window Dressing (and maybe a tad over-complicated). We trimmed back the song lengths a bit and concentrated on vocal arrangements and making sure the songs developed logically to hold the listener’s ear. Obviously, we didn’t hold back our progressive tendencies and still stretched out musically in a lot of places. We have always had a special guest or two on our albums since Fence the Clear, but with Fly Paper we became bolder about introducing different elements and textures. Alex Lifeson takes over on guitar for “Sacred & Mundane”; Alannah Myles sings vocal harmonies on “Back & Forth”; and Matthew Parmenter sings harmony lead vocals and plays keyboards, as does Hugh Syme. We felt the extra musicians made a positive impact — and it was a lot of fun collaborating!

As I mentioned earlier, this mindset continued and was essential to arranging a concept album like Pretending 2 Run. I knew we’d require a wide range of emotions and would need to convey the various perspectives of the central character. As the story developed (and got longer) it became especially important to introduce a variety of textures and atmospheres. The special guests brought their personalities and musical identities to bear in service of the big picture. As a band, we sometimes relinquished our “positions” — so to speak — in service of the song.

Jeff Whittle, Mike Portnoy, Chris Herin

Jeff Whittle, Mike Portnoy, Chris Herin

You worked with a great team of musicians on the new album: Ian Anderson, Mike Portnoy, Adam Holzman, Mike Stern, Colin Edwin, to name but a few. Can you tell me how did they contributed to Pretending 2 Run? Did they have creative freedom to do “what they like” or were they following the rules?

Chris Herin: Everyone had total freedom to do as they pleased. When we were in the same room there was collaboration of course — and the long-distance contributors sometimes sent a variety of material from which we could pick and choose. All the songs were written without any pre-conceived thoughts of having special guests. They came into the picture as we worked on building the song arrangements. Over the years we have done shows with and met many excellent and sometimes well-known musicians with whom we’ve become friends and acquaintances. We have had guests on each of our albums which has always been rewarding and fun!

It wasn’t until recording was finished that we realized we had accumulated such a long list of notable and familiar names: Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Mike Stern (Miles Davis, solo), Adam Holzman (Miles Davis, Steven Wilson Band), Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, The Winery Dogs), Max Portnoy (Next to None), Kim Mitchell (Max Webster, solo), and Joe Deninzon (Stratospheerius) – and locally our guest list includes many of our friends from the Detroit area: Kevin Chown (Tarja Turunen, Chad Smith), Keith Kaminski (Bob Seger), Mark Mikel (The Pillbugs, solo), Matthew Parmenter (Discipline, solo), Ryan Arini (Hell Rides North), Matt Cross and percussionist Sonya Mastick.

Although most of the guests came on board as the album developed, early-on I had designs on Matthew Parmenter contributing lead vocals to help represent the different “states-of-mind” of the central character. Generally, we knew we had to deliver an album that would not only generate attention, but would also (hopefully) make a lasting impression. One of our goals for Pretending 2 Run was to experiment and expand our palette when it came to the arrangements. We did not limit ourselves in any way — stylistically or instrumentally.

Once the basic tracks were recorded and we began developing the arrangements, the ideas for special guests, the string section, choir and other opportunities came up. Throughout the entire process we constantly evaluated the continuity of the music and what the songs needed to convey a musical story as well as support the album’s lyrical concept. For example, it wasn’t until the middle of the project that we had the ideas for the spoken word sections, field recordings and the connecting interludes in between many of the songs. Also, there were several places in the story line where the central character reaches a low point which provided the opportunity to use the choir pieces I had written.

There were many different reasons for collaborating with various musicians based on what we wanted to accomplish. People like Ian Anderson, Mike Stern, Kim Mitchell and Keith Kaminski delivered fantastic solos, while Mike and Max Portnoy — along with Kevin Chown — contributed a different energy that we thought helped the variety and dynamics of the entire album. Adam Holzman brought his keyboard chops to the longest and maybe most progressive tune on the album; plus, he created a selection of textures and soundscapes that we used to assemble segues and atmospherics to link songs.

Colin Edwin worked his sound design magic on “Small Fire Burning” and “Friend or Foe” and Jeff’s friend Matt Cross from Orange 9MM came up with the programming for “Pretending to Run” and “Midwinter” that were the seeds for the entire album. All the keyboard and “sonic architecture” sounds are things we don’t otherwise have at our disposal. The same goes for bringing in the string quartet, Sonya Mastick on tablas and congas and working with a choir. Collaborating with our friends Matthew Parmenter and Mark Mikel as guest vocalists and arrangers helped us add different musical approaches and variety to the songs and perspectives to the storyline.

When the guests recorded parts on their own I provided some general notes and they worked at their home studios (Ian Anderson, Adam Holzman, Colin Edwin). I was in the studio with Mike and Max Portnoy and Jeff and I were at the Mike Stern session.  It was such a great experience being in the studio with Mike Stern. I’ve been a big fan of his since his early days with Miles Davis. He’s such an easy-going guy and a pleasure to work with. He collaborated with us and refined his solos as he became more comfortable with the music.

Another interesting story involves Ian Anderson. We had sent him the song he was going to play on along with some general notes. I didn’t know exactly when he would record and as luck would have it, I just so happened to be driving down the highway with my family and an email popped up on my iPhone. I asked my wife to read it and it was a message from Ian Anderson saying he was recording his flute solo and had a couple questions. I had to wait until I could pull off at a rest stop to answer his questions and hoped I wasn’t too late!

We had asked Mike Portnoy to make a guest appearance since we’ve been friends ever since Tiles toured with Dream Theater in 1999. I was aware his son Max is a drummer so I thought it might be interesting to have them each do a song plus maybe play together. We had already recorded most of the drums but I was still adding songs to the album so there were several new tunes that needed drums. Mike has a studio in his house and I went there for a weekend to record. It was interesting because I sent Mike four songs ahead of time to choose from and he picked the straightforward “Fait Accompli” for Max — which is totally different than the complex progressive metal he typically plays. Of course, the reason for this is to expand Max’ horizons and develop versatility. We recorded Max first and I could tell he was well-prepared. It only took about three times through the song and we had all the parts completed. The song has a great pocket with a Nigel Olsson (Elton John) vibe happening — even in some of the fills too. Mike joins Max for their duet on the two bridges in “Fait Accompli” (where the string sections occur). It was genuinely heart-warming to watch the father/son bond at work; not only Mike’s production of Max’ performance, but especially as they worked out their duet parts.

Obviously, it was a treat to watch Mike work his magic on “Stonewall.” He was always experimenting and keeping things fresh and spontaneous — and cared about giving the best for the song. It’s very generous of Mike to take time out of his busy schedule to make a guest appearance for us — and to give Tiles the honor of hosting the Portnoy family debut!

Tiles band

What were the biggest challenges you faced when making Pretending 2 Run? Tell me about the technical side of the record.

Chris Herin: Logistics. We recorded in four different studios and had files being transferred from all over the place. It was a lot to keep track of — just take a look at the liner notes and credits! I have at least 100 pages of notes and ‘to do’ lists. Also, we’d sometimes do miscellaneous bits of recording on our own for backing vocals, percussion, spoken word, etc. and send the files to Terry. He did a great job managing the crazy number of files — not to mention all the technical and sonic issues since some studios were Mac systems and others PC-based.

Mixing was a huge task too as you can imagine. Some songs have so many tracks and dense arrangements. Of course, in the digital world Terry was essentially prepping for the mix as recording progressed.  I can’t image the album turning out as well in less capable hands than Terry Brown’s – and not just the technical issues, but his production and arrangement contributions were essential.  It’s a great privilege working with him – and I’d like to think he had a bit of fun too!

You grab inspiration from many distinctive musical genres. How do you go about channeling this inspiration into writing?

Chris Herin: I’m not sure, really.  This is probably the kind of thing that works mostly on a subconscious level, even though sometimes I do recognize a song is starting out in a certain style and I’ll cultivate that direction. I grew up playing piano and trumpet which led to exposure to classical music and jazz. I also took music theory and literature classes in college so I think these environments are healthy for anyone to expand their horizons.

I also think the “concept” album approach offers total freedom. For example, I don’t know if the choir pieces, interludes or spoken word would make sense on a “regular” album of rock songs. But since we’re telling a story they don’t seem out of place. The first choir piece “Refugium” represents the central character’s retreat into sanctuary — he’s seeking refuge from his situation. It comes at a point in his journey after he’s been betrayed and begins to understand the magnitude of his situation. He is seeking refuge from his troubles. “Meditatio” is a transition moment — a period of resignation and acceptance where our main character is worn down and has accepted his fate. He needs to reconcile with his new reality and begin building the strength to carry on. I chose to place the phrases from “The Little Prince” here to convey the philosophical aspects of coping with trials and tribulations. “Meditatio” segues into “Other Arrangements” and begins the final push to the concluding section of the story.

As a band, we all have very diverse influences and it’s this mixture that helps create our sound. Although we are a rock band, we try to keep an open mind about experimenting with various styles and sounds and trying new approaches to composition and arranging. All of us are willing to try almost anything in hopes of finding something new and interesting. We all listen to jazz, classical and a variety of rock, pop and metal bands and this diversity finds its way into our music, at least to some extent.

What does the future hold?

Chris Herin: We have quite a bit of promotion to do and will play as many live shows as possible in support of Pretending 2 Run. We need to keep working to build awareness of the album in hopes of reaching as many people as possible. It would also be great if we could get back for some shows in Europe after all these years.

Well, I’ve probably written a bit too much so I’d better wrap-up and say thanks for the great interview questions! Special thanks to our fans for remembering us and for their enthusiastic response to Pretending 2 Run! We also appreciate the great reception and support from progressive rock fans across the globe who are new to Tiles.  Cheers!

Pretending 2 Run is out now and can be ordered here. Stay in touch with Tiles via their Facebook page.

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