Having an ever evolving cast of musicians has served The Tangent well over the years, so it is apt that their new release, 'A Spark In The Aether - The Music That Died Alone Volume Two', finds a collection of old, new and returning faces to deliver an album of real class. Differing from their recent material by being a more brazen, if no less crafted slice of Progressive Rock, 'A Spark…' finds a band utilising the ideals that made their music so irresistible in the first place, while delivering them in such a way that they sounds amazingly fresh and vibrant. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid found The Tangent leader Andy Tillison in full flow as they discussed everything from the lack of media coverage Prog receives to the part its founding fathers should be playing in promoting the scene they created. Oh and of course, the coming and goings in The Tangent and the new album itself…
Your new album, 'A Spark In The Aether', is subtitled 'The Music That Died Alone Volume Two'. Do you see this release as being directly connected to your 2003 debut album, which carried that name?
I think it's a question of its spirit. The album has a similar feel to that first one, an optimistic and very upbeat sound and it shares the rebellious love of Progressive Rock itself. "Prog" which we affectionately refer to the music as, well, it's still quite a stigma – no matter how much the new technologies have helped it re-emerge, the fact is that the BBC and most mainstream broadcasters still treat us with ridicule and a cynical smirk. Both this album and our debut are casually flicking two fingers up at those organisations and revelling in the sheer joy of listening to and playing this music. The Tangent has always been a band that is proud to be part of the movement, that wears its credentials on its sleeve and does not pretend to be something other than it is. Both these albums are part of that manifesto...
Musically, the album is, to me, considerably different to recent The Tangent releases. Harder edged, more "Rock", if you will. But still with the ever present essence of what makes The Tangent the band they are. Was that something you thought about as you constructed 'A Spark..'?
As a band who have made eight albums, we inevitably want to make these albums with a certain amount of variety. We have to develop, we have to move around a little on our base. And our base is really – melodic, keyboards driven Progressive Rock music with an emphasis on the ROCK. Sometimes our albums are conceptually grand, sometimes they are orchestral, complex and lyrically challenging… but from time to time we like to return to base. To do what it is that started it all and play the type of music that we formed the band to play in the first place. And that's where this album fits in. It's what we do, and how we do it. And it was a lot of fun. I knew what I wanted to do when I started, yes, and it was time for us to do this after our very demanding 'Sacre Du Travail' which was a very serious and ambitious project. That album was one of my favourites, but I didn't want to make it again…
Possibly the best example of the evolution the band has undertaken comes in the song "The Celluloid Road". Where did the musical inspiration for that song come from?
Well… "The Celluloid Road" is really the second half of the album. The first half adheres to the Prog And Roll model I referred to earlier… and Celluloid sees us trying some different stuff out. The idea for it did actually come from watching a lot of American TV programmes… and after seeing the representations of New Mexico in "Breaking Bad", Louisiana in "True Detective" and Dakota in "Fargo" – it was like the American media was letting us see a bit more of the country which so many of us who don't live there have come to 'know', from the huge reservoir of films and stories that they have provided us with. Outside of the USA, millions upon millions of people have become familiar with the cities and landscape of the USA though these films, a possibly unintentional by-product… but as I watched the new terrain of Breaking Bad it just occurred to me that I could just about travel across the USA in my imagination – just from the films and series I have seen. And so the idea of the song was born, a fantasy journey across a country I hardly know; 21 days of my 55 years have been spent in the US.
As a lover of American culture and landscape I wanted to make this an enjoyable story rather than the typical anti-American rant. I figured that as I have gained so much of my supposed "knowledge" about America from the TV, then maybe a lot of the people who are hyper critical of American life may well have done the same thing. So I made one of the focus points of the song the question "Did we get it right?" In other words, if you know Thelma & Louise, Easy Rider, Die Hard, Speed, North by Northwest, 24, Breaking Bad, True Grit and The Godfather – are you anywhere close to having a real clue as to what America is like? I think it's painfully obvious that the answer is going to be NO, but these impressions that we make ARE important in our view of the rest of the world. I think that this question is well covered by the song and the tongue in cheek way in which it's presented is enough to let the listener know that I'm expecting the answer "no".
Musically we wanted to incorporate more American influences, and rather than look to American Prog per se, we looked into Funk, TV Music, 1970s FM radio fare, like Steely Dan for example, and tried to build something that would work well with the English Prog Rock sound we already have. We're pretty pleased with the result I'm glad to say, and the Funk sections worked so well with the Prog that, well, it's not going to be the last time we do this!
However, I think people will also immediately love 'Codpieces And Capes'. What inspired that wonderful song title and the theme of the song?
Well, this song is obviously part of the whole Prog And Roll idea. It's a song of nostaligia, a rites of passage thing that, like I mentioned earlier is a whole rabble rousing rebellion against the idea that Prog Rock is just pretentious twaddle. It has a few themes interlaced in it, the first being the fact that our love for this music is part of who we are and it will always be there no matter what adversities we meet in our lives, and secondly it's an open letter to the giant artists of the 70s to be more forthcoming with their support to what we - not just The Tangent - do with Progressive music now – as artists like ourselves, Argos, Big Train and more are THEIR legacy. I'd like to see more cross generational support, less remixes and remasters, more new music and more collaborations. If the Tangent can make generational leaps with Luke Machin, we expect others to be able to follow suit. In twelve years and eight albums, I have not had ONE single positive comment about our music from any of the original heroes. Not even a "well done" or even an admission of having once heard our stuff. Shameful.
However 'Clearing The Attic' takes a different approach in terms of theme and lyrics. Can you expand on the idea behind that song please?
This is a song of reconciliation and forgiveness, about not carrying the huge amount of grudge lumber that we do tend to clog our minds up with. It's a wistful, yet happy look at being a middle aged bloke in the young person's world and really, gently, suggests that instead of just assuming everything that is new is crap, try out some of the new ideas that young folks have… because they have loads of great stuff to say - when they aren't playing Grand Theft Auto which bores me rigid. There is a section at the end of this song where in my own alternate universe, a lot of my friends dreams come true and Magenta headline the Glastonbury Festival, Sally rides a horse across the Western Plains of the USA and Credo do a reunion gig in 2024 at Wembley Stadium. This was a really happy bit of songwriting for me and the way the music is played reflects this perfectly.
So twelve years down the line, do you feel music - even though it operates in many ever evolving states - is in rude health? Rather than teetering on the brink of extinction, as you feared back in 2003?
There is a tremendous amount of music being produced for sure. It ranges from the brilliant to the dull – as in all musical genres and of course, on that level, the Progressive Rock scene is very much in good health. However the lack of support from any mainstream medium is debilitating. Despite the huge international success of the Steven Wilson projects, the prestigious concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, a huge undercurrent of bands around the world, the BBC have not invited any of the new artists to appear on their TV shows, and their national radio stations have also been mute on the subject. This includes Steven Wilson!! The result is an overpopulated market with nowhere for people to even find out that the market exists – and we're pretty close to there being as many artists as there are listeners. Most of the current artists do not care whether they are rich or poor, they just keep making the music – and that's a NICE thing, but it's not a good thing as so many of their ideas are compromised by lack of funds.. Added to which – the bands/record labels from the first era continue to clean the market out with endless re-releases and remasterings which are more popular and better selling than all but the best know more recent artists.
So moving on from the album itself, The Tangent have almost become synonymous with having an ever changing line-up. Which of the talented musicians who contributed to your last album, 'Le Sacre Du Travail' can we expect to find on this new one?
Well, I'm in the band of course, but the talented ones are Theo Travis who has been with us since our second album eleven years ago, during which he's played on nearly every piece on every album – his rise to fame as the Steven Wilson player has not torn him away from working with us… and that's just terrific. Jonas Reingold is here again – a bass player of great ability and wisdom who has simply been a rock on which we can build our music…
However, returning from before that album, is guitarist Luke Machin. No disrespect to anyone else in the band, past or present, but I think a lot of people will be excited to see him return. Was there a certain something Luke brings to the band that you were keen to explore on 'A Spark In The Aether'?
Luke's destiny is as yet unknown, however we are always pleased to be a part of it whatever it may be. Showing off this musician we found has been more than a pleasure, it's been a life changer for me in the way I think about writing and playing. I would happily play with Luke for the rest of my career – however, such a commitment would be a restriction on the possibilities that he has in front of him. Suffice to say that if Luke is available I'll be asking him for input to my work. He's a complete musician and producer, writer and arranger and I set a lot of store by his advice. He sees the world in a very particular way and his understanding of the new things in the world is like an instruction manual for me. This man is the future that Progressive and Adventurous music needed. It's an honour to have him aboard as long as his diary has spaces...
Although, there is a new face in place for this album as well, in the shape of drummer Morgan Agren, who's worked with Frank Zappa before. Had you initially hoped that Gavin Harrison, who drummed on 'LSDT' would remain involved in the band?
I never saw Gavin as a member of the band, no. Brilliant drummer, nice guy, superb contribution and all that, but this band wasn't for him, and he wasn't for us. I mean nothing negative by that at all. We didn't get to know him or anything, the work was done, beautifully, at a distance. I don't think he liked what I did with the sound of his drums on that album – I removed a load of artificial reverbs and samples and just left the kit sounding natural and dry. I like this sound better, Gavin preferred the bigger roomier sound. I stand by my decision, and there was no fighting or arguing about it at all. He let us go with it the way I wanted which was both magnanimous and professional….
However, Morgan does an outstanding job. You must be delighted to have him onboard?
Yeah – Morgan has given me some of the best drumming we've ever had to work with. His understanding of my music was amazing, his reference points were easy to work with and he knew the references in my music and how to make them come alive. He knows and listens to a lot of music common to me, stuff like Magma, Henry Cow, Return to Forever and it was really easy to discuss influences and styles. In the end, he got everything right straight away. A true delight – plus the fact that we worked together on tour last year made things even better, because we had lots of fun on the road together. Morgan, like Jonas, Luke and Theo, is a friend of mine. That's great.
The disparate nature of The Tangent's line-up has often made live performance a logistical challenge. However you teamed up with the band Karmakanic recently in what was a quite an innovative way. Two bands almost merging into one for a tour and playing songs from both bands. What a great idea - how difficult was it to put together?
It WAS a good idea, and it worked really well. We all like each other's music and it was quite nice to work with a different band as well as with our own. In fact it wasn't at all difficult, it worked an absolute treat and all of us enjoyed the experience. I am sure we will do this again in the hopefully not too distant future.
Having mentioned all of the other band members featured on this new album, I noticed in some of the press releases for the album, you were keen to remind people that The Tangent aren't simply a one-man Andy Tillison band. Why is that something that is important for you to get across to people?
It's just me being honest. If I released any of the albums that The Tangent has released as a solo artist, they would sound entirely different. I very rarely hire a "session musician", to tell them what to do - I honestly can't see the point - choosing rather to give them the songs and see what they come up with. Me rejecting those ideas can be numbered on the fingers of one hand over the whole twelve years of our existence. I didn't write Luke's guitar parts, Theo, Jonas, Morgan or anyone else's parts. THEY wrote them. That, to me, constitutes the idea of a band working together. And that's why, to me, whoever is IN the band, is in A BAND, not some solo project. We are, we were, and we will continue to be The Tangent, no matter who is in the band. And that includes me.
So, are there any shows lined up to promote the new album…?
Not as yet, but watch this space
…so, who will be joining you onstage?
The sixty million dollar question…..
And finally, with 'A Spark In The Aether' being so stylistically different from 'Le Sacre Du Travail', have you already though of where you might take The Tangent next on their music journey?
I am working on something about the perception of time passing. That's all I know really… there are a lot of ideas in my mind, but that's where they are now… in my mind. Now comes the bit where I have to get them out of there and onto the page – always a hard bit. Once the lyrical ideas are done, then all I can do is hope that the music falls into place behind them. And I never can be sure that this will happen. While it continues to happen, there will be Tangent albums. And when it stops, there won't.
Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions Andy, it is hugely appreciated.
My pleasure, thank you for your interest!