May 1, 2024

PHOTOS: Chris Walkden

Andy Tillison (The Tangent) wants people to know the band’s forthcoming new album, To Follow Polaris, released on May 10th, really is a solo album. Not only has he produced and mixed it, and helped design the cover, he’s also written all the songs and played all the instruments, which meant, rather than his bringing in a dep, he taught himself how to play bass guitar. ‘ I didn’t know how to play bass,’ he explained, ‘so I thought, well, it’s now or never. I’d no experience of playing bass on a record, but I started from a position of strength in that I knew what I wanted it to do on a record, and how I wanted it to work so, though I couldn’t play particularly well, I had plenty of time in which to put it together. I mean, if I’d used a dep, it wouldn’t have been me on my own, would it?’ he laughed. ‘But it’s all about the composing and putting things together, really, that’s the important thing for me. The fact of this being a solo album doesn’t indicate any dissatisfaction about working in the band. I love working in the band, and there’s plenty of material, ready and waiting in the wings for the next full Tangent line-up. Every time we make a Tangent record, and we’re made twelve albums, there’s this point we reach where you start seeing them as a fait accompli, but on this new album, instead of the band finishing it off their way, I finished it off my way! The album was originally to be called Tangent For One, under my name, but then it wouldn’t have been the scientific experiment it’s turned out to be. In my mind, this is undoubtedly a Tangent record.’

Being the principal songwriter in an eclectic group of very accomplished and highly regarded musicians, how much freedom does he allow his band members when they’re given his musical ideas to interpret? ‘Oh, they have complete freedom’ (he was adamant about this). ‘What I do is, I give them my version of a piece of music and I say, ‘okay, do what you think should be done with it.’ All I ask them to do is to retain the flavour, y’know? If it’s a funky piece, I’d like it to remain funky. The band put their mark on it, they shape it, sculpt it and change it, which precludes the idea of me finishing it off, but I don’t tell the other guys what to play. I mean, what’s the point of me telling musicians what to play, when they can all play better than me, so I never do’, he laughed.

Has he had any feedback from the band about Polaris? ‘Yes, I have, and they seem to like it.’ So they’ve not lost their jobs yet, then, I ventured. ‘No, of course they haven’t’, he said, amusedly. ‘When you’re in a band which has been going for 22 years – a third of my life – they all understand, every so often, it doesn’t hurt to shake the tree and see what falls out, which is what I did on this album. The other guys continued with what they were doing and they’ll return for the next album’

To Follow Polaris is another sparkling piece of work, riven through with all the various traits and quirks associated with The Tangent, and which also includes some quite acerbic and biting lyrical observations from Andy Tillison. One song in particular, The Anachronism, I suggested, seems to have been written out of a feeling of real anger and political cynicism. ‘Absolutely,’ he agreed. ‘I’m genuinely annoyed about the state of the world. I use cynicism, yes, I do, and I’m exceedingly annoyed about the state of the planet right now … the wars and all the pointless suffering we’re going through, the corruption, the lying and the general bullshit of all political parties … and this is what I mean by The Anachronism. We want to enjoy our life on this planet, so we need to seriously think about getting rid of these people and the whole system which puts them there. Constitutions designed 300 years back no longer work in the era of Chat GPT, so forget it. It’s the biggest anachronism in the world. Why are we being governed by a 300 year old system in the 21st century? Sorry, it just doesn’t work anymore and we all deserve better.’

Many of the songs on the new album contain at least some reference to political or social issues, and given the widespread fallacious assumption that prog lyrics are usually about Dragons and Goblins and Orcs, I wondered if Andy thought Politics and music mixed well together or whether contentious political matters ought to be left well alone? ‘By this reference, then, the very first progressive rock record, 21st Century Schizoid Man, was seriously off the mark, because it was all about politics, my kind of politics.’ (At this point Andy half sang some of the lyrics for me). ‘So if prog and politics don’t mix, then the very first people to do it got it wrong’, he said, sounding amused. I mentioned artists like Peter Hammill have also never shied away from writing about contentious political topics. ‘ Right. Peter Hammill and Roger Waters are examples, and Fish from Marillion has had a few things to say about it. However’,”he went on, ‘just because I play prog music, doesn’t make it the first thing in my life. In fact, the first thing in my life is I’m a protest singer who happens to use prog as his music. If I don’t do the protest, I’m not gonna bother with the music, but I am a protest singer.’

Given that the radical spark in people like Paul Weller seems to have been somewhat extinguished, had Andy ever thought of making an album with someone like Billy Bragg? ‘Oh, I’d love to, wouldn’t that be great?’ He gushed. ‘I do respect guys like Guthrie and Dylan, and in fact I’m very good friends and a sometime collaborator with a northern based band called Chumbawumba, who had a hit in the 1990s, but their 30 year career was so much more important to them than that one hit. They’re an anarcho-syndicalist band who had a great deal to say about politics, and they’ve been very influential in terms of how I’ve lived my life ever since, and the main reason I’ve made music since the 1980s. I’m afraid anybody who thinks music should be some kind of homogenised prog which leaves out politics so to give them some nice entertainment, well … sorry. You can find that stuff but you’ll not find it in The Tangent, just means we’re not for you’, he laughed again.

The Tangent are one of many bands whose albums are now recorded and put together remotely, with each musician working from their home studio and sharing files, which clearly makes sense when band members live in different countries. But, despite this, I wondered whether Andy ever thought he might be missing out on a spontaneous creative spark (In The Aether?? Sorry!!) or a flash of inspiration from everyone not being in the same room at the same time? ‘The first thing is, it’s a lovely way to work and, if you can afford it, then do it. But we can’t afford that as it’d mean people travelling long distances, hotels, hiring studios, etc, and then you can pretend you’re in the 1970s and all together in the recording studio. Those days have gone, my friend, and now we’ve all got recording studios in our homes and they’re all just as good as the ones they used to have in studios in the 1970s. So, we do what we can afford to do. The budget of a progressive rock band in the 2020s compared to that of a progressive rock band back in the 1970s is but a fraction. But, as it happens, if there’s one thing I am happy about it is, if you listen to the Tangent’s records for the past 22 years, most of them sound like we were together, all in the same room. There‘s so much more than just being in the same room, though’, Andy emphasised, ‘it’s about all of us being in the same headspace, all working towards the same thing and you all believing in it, because then it doesn’t matter where you are. You can make things happen. I mean they’ve discovered, after Covid, work gets done perfectly well from home rather than in teams in some office block in central London! I’ve worked at home for years’, he stressed.

I put it to Andy there are certain similarities between him and Steven Wilson, in that both men are prog rockers but, also, both take the same view of prog and both choose to follow their own muse rather than sticking to the prog script. Would this be fair comment? ‘Steven and I have had a kind of parallel existence. We’ve both been making progressive music since the early nineties, and Porcupine Tree have always been there in the foreground, and we’ve obviously shared a lot of the same musical experiences. He’s listened to a lot of the same artists as me and built up his influences in a similar way. But he’s built up and created a form of progressive music which has a more modern approach, particularly when he started introducing a lot of technical metal stuff around the time of In Abstentia. But the same is true of us. Before The Tangent I played in the band Parallel Or 90 degrees which, like Porcupine Tree, was a band with progressive ambitions but, in 2002, I made an album (The Music That Died Alone) which became a Tangent album and was a retro progressive album, and it gave us our big break. So we did get tied to this for a little while, but we soon started to drift away from there and started introducing all kinds of other influences – dance music, punk, metal – and it kind of became our own mix. So we’ve trodden similar paths but mine’s not quite the same as his. We did it our way’, he said with a laugh.

With a new album about to be released, as well as a large back catalogue to choose from, is there any likelihood of any Tangent gigs, or maybe an Andy Tillison solo gig on the horizon? ‘ Yeah, we do love playing live. The last gig we played was the Winters End festival last year, and we will again, but we’re not the kind of band whereby everything is all about the live show, we’re about writing music and making records, particularly me. I’m the least competent of the band’s musicians, actually. he laughed, ‘the others are all really high level functioning musicians … they could play in any band and pull it off. I’m basically all right doing my own music so, as the leader of The Tangent, my focus is always on the next record – so, when we get the chance to play live, if we can get it so it’s realistically funded so we’re not reaching into our own pockets, if the band get paid and the chance to rehearse before we play, then we take the show. Some bands can guarantee a sell-out but we have to ask, will enough people come to the gig so we can get paid’.

‘We certainly don’t rule out doing gigs, of course’, he continued, ‘but we’re all very busy with other things. Jonas is on Steve Hackett’s seemingly never ending world tour, Theo’s out with the Soft Machine and Luke has Cyan and his own material … we’re busy folk! Back in the day, when there was a bit more money, you could afford to be in a band and just be in that band, but not now. If we’re going to make music our life, then we’ve got to do more than just be in one band. We have to accept that there was a great age of rock ‘n roll, but sadly those days are over. It’s a different world we’re in now. Yes, there’ll still be megastars but they’ll be a completely different sort of megastar, created by a different kind of industry and transmitted by different media. What Taylor Swift’s achieved has been incredible but it’s in a completely different way, a completely new and different way of selling music to a whole new generation. We’re as far apart as Yes were to the Glenn Miller orchestra.’

However, despite all the major changes to life and the way the music scene has changed, Andy remains stoically defiant. ‘But this doesn’t mean, just because you’ve reached the age I have, (Andy is a mere 64), you have to put up, shut up and just say, well, everything’s changed and I’m not gonna bother anymore. No, I will continue to make music.’ This was good to hear because, through all the cynicism and despair about the state of the world, and the way the music scene has evolved, in spite of everything, Andy remains very positive and optimistic. ‘I’m an exceedingly positive person’, he stated. ‘If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t make the records. I know I often include things people might rather not hear about in a record, but if you listen closely to our new album, you’ll realise it’s actually a very optimistic record, which is what I wanted it to be when I started. But the optimism needs to take account of all the things which have to be overcome, rather than just say, ‘oh everything’s gonna be alright.’ I prefer to say, everything’s gonna be alright but we have to take care of this first.’

We conclude what had been a very enjoyable chat. In a time of increasingly homogenised and standard views of the world, it’s good to know there are still people like Andy Tillison out there – making some people uncomfortable with their realism and their lyrical content…