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Andy Tillison explains where The Tangent fits in with today's prog rock

Tangent’s bandleader shares his views on the evolution of prog rock and the joys of 20-minute song

By Pat Prince

If you love progressive rock, chances are you’re familiar with The Tangent, a project based in the north of England. Even if you’re not a prog-rock fan, the group’s album titles and accompanying lush, fantasy-laced art would tip you off to their musical bent.

Since the band’s formation in 2003 (the year it released “The Music That Died Alone”), the band has boasted a fluid lineup. Tangent’s keyboardist and vocalist, Andy Tillison, shared his views on the new album, the evolution of prog rock, the joys of 20-minute songs, and why it’s such a big deal that the band finally has an all-British lineup.

Has the latest album, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” been received up to your expectations?
AT: I am always surprised with the positive reactions to the band’s work... every time we release, I naturally assume that this is the one everyone is going to hate for some reason. That doesn’t mean that I think they should, or that I think this album is our weakest (because I don’t) — it’s just that in this industry, it’s very easy to have people turn against something they have previously liked, particularly when the band has been around for a while and when it’s been successful in the way that Tangent has.

I think that we took some big risks with this album, (lineup, the whole nighttime feel of the music and the artwork, etc.), and I’m really pleased with the way people have been so open-minded about what we’ve done. Of course there are dissenters, people who really don’t like it, but I listen to their views and try to learn and better myself from what they’ve said. We’ve had well over a hundred very positive reviews, a handful of not so positive and a couple of stinkers. I have to be happy, and I have to be pleasantly surprised!

“Paroxetine 20mg” is such an intense song, with a fantastic opening guitar riff. Instantly grabs the listener. I’m curious, why didn’t that open the album? Was it considered?
AT: Yes, it was considered. But this only goes to show difference of opinion. Most reviews for this album that have expressed a preference for one song versus another have said that this is the least favorite track on the album... So there you have it! One review described it as being “too shrill and jarring on the ear” — but you call it “intense.” Obviously I prefer your description, but we try to take all possible views into consideration when we are deciding on track order. In the end, for most of us involved, “Where Are They Now” was the opener. That’s because an album is written as an album.... It’s like Chapter 1 has to come first in a book.

Do you think a 19-plus minute song like “Where Are They Now” will be overlooked or underappreciated by the average rock fan?
AT: Well, here is a very core question about the aims of progressive rock music. For fans of progressive rock music, a 20-minute song is perfectly normal, understandable, and providing it’s a good one, desirable. The whole of our movement exists as a rock format that has more time to develop and progress, that can be more cinematic and romantic (in the true sense of the word). I have stories to tell, and not all stories are two-and-a-half minutes long. Yes, average rock fans will miss out on it perhaps, not because they don’t want to hear it, but because a big commercial radio station would not play such a song, because the DJs like the sound of their own voices too much! Therefore, many people never get to hear the enormous possibilities of a long format rock song. It’s a shame. I’ve loved these pieces ever since I heard “Close To The Edge” when I was 12 years old.

A song like that is obviously a work of art. But the music industry has been notorious about favoring shorter songs or packaged singles (from the push of 45s to the advent of iTunes). It often becomes art vs. commerce. Do you ever wrestle with this philosophically?
AT: I stopped wrestling with this a long time ago. The Tangent does not seek fame, fortune or success. It is a purely musical venture that is not tied into fashion, money, advertising or any other commercial sphere. We exist to make this music and to be judged entirely on our music and lyrics, not on our looks or our saleability. I am a 50-year-old man whose rock-and-roll-star dreams ended 25 years ago, just someone who has to write music and share it with as many people as possible.

Historically, how have all the lineup changes affected the band, both good and bad?
AT: Well, I have always dreamed that we could have a stable Tangent lineup. Up ’til now, it simply hasn’t been possible, and who knows if it ever will be? A band that stays together forever has a huge appeal to me and to fans alike. My admiration for Rush is huge, that stability and dependability, that image of friendship and common purpose is fantastic to behold, but not everyone can have that. Someone like myself has a whole different set of problems to Rush. The Tangent’s first album was just a project thing, made by me and some guys from The Flower Kings. None of them wanted to disband their wonderful band to come with me, so why should I stop? I had to continue as I probably always will, and I have to find different people in order to simply carry on making the music. That’s simply the way it has to be.

It has been emphasized that the band is finally all-British. It may be an interesting side note for the press, but does it really have any significance?
AT: It does have significance... it means we can actually work together now, without huge transport bills. We can get to know each other, and we can even play a small gig here and there just for fun. I think that is beginning to make for the foundations of a more stable unit, one which I hope will develop into something really good

Do you think prog rock has been categorized too often as a ’70s genre?
AT: Well, it’s natural that it should be, in this world where we so happily allocate times and dates to things. Those dates will blur in the future as people forget the decades that things came from and become more concerned in the content of the music than its era. Of course, there’s no denying that much of what this music stands for developed for the first time in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was only journalists and media spokespeople who really relegated it to a certain era of the ’70s, but the music can have relevance now or at any time in the future. Prog rock doesn’t have to sound ’70s at all; take Porcupine Tree or even my other band, Po90, for example — neither sound ’70s, ’80s at all!

What do you think of prog rock as a contemporary movement?
AT: At the moment, it’s very difficult to figure out. There’s been a huge, huge influx of new bands, statistically far too many bands for far too few listeners. There are literally thousands of prog bands out there now, jumping the bandwagon that was set in motion by the re-arrival of prog some 16 to 17 years ago now. It’s almost impossible to get a gig these days because the new bands are very aggressively working the festivals and the social networking sites. As a result, there’s huge amounts of new releases vying for attention in a very small area of the market. I have trouble keeping up with it all, and that’s me, very interested in prog and a very keen listener. Even I simply don’t have time to listen to them all. Each year now there are more prog-rock records released than were ever released in the original period between 1968 and 1977.

Do you like how prog rock has evolved into the areas of black/death metal or instrumental hard rock?
AT: Yeah, I do, but it’s just as much the other way around. Those metal guys have come in toward us as much as we have reached out toward them. Metal has probably evolved more than any other musical form over the past 25 years. Porcy Tree have been leaders here, although I should once again point out that Po90 beat them to this back in the ’90s!

What are your influences outside of rock, both musically and culturally?
AT: I still listen to lots of good jazz stuff, people like Bill Evans, Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson and Jaques Loussier, always find time for good disco/funk like Earth, Wind and Fire, and I adore Stravinsky, Beethoven and Debussy as much as I always did. I enjoy reading philosophy whether I agree or disagree with it and still have a penchant for stupid action movies, which I could watch until the cows come home. The countryside remains my greatest love and inspiration.