Back in 2011 UK prog rockers The Tangent released their sixth studio album COMM. When Prog spoke to mainman Andy Tillison he stressed his desire for band stability after a period of fluctuating line-ups.
Secreted away down a meandering rural road, The Tangent’s HQ is also home to founding member and frontman Andy Tillison and it’s fair to suggest that, with his dazzling red hair and wispy goatee, he probably stands out from the average Peak District resident. It’s also the sort of place where the rain-soaked squashy turf of the surrounding hillsides could readily be used to bury the corpse of a critical journalist in an unmarked shallow grave. And Prog has every reason to be edgy, following the less-than-flattering review of The Tangent’s latest live DVD, Going Off On Two. Yet Tillison warmly peers around the green front door with a genial smile, and soon engages in an affable banter about that review which highlighted the low-budget nature of the production and described the band as looking like, well, “sheep farmers”.
“Unfortunately we live right next door to a sheep farm,” he laughs “But being a child of the Old Grey Whistle Test generation, I loved it when you had bands like Focus playing in a grubby corner of a studio with hardly any lighting, and that’s what we produced. I look back on those clips with a great deal of fondness. I’ve always believed that the band itself should be enough to carry the show. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing at the Budokan with exploding firebombs or just the same four people in a pub, you should still be able to get that energy out. There are no background projections at our shows or specialised lights. If there’s a lighting guy at the venue when we turn up, we just tell them to use their creativity. To us, the show is what we do with our bodies and our instruments and that helps us get our intensity across. We’re possibly too intense for a 52- year-old man, but that’s not going to stop until they nail my coffin shut.”
Of course, there’s also the harsh reality that The Tangent, despite having a lengthy career during which they’ve produced countless inspired albums, have remained on the cusp of making a breakthrough. Consequently, they don’t have the funds available to them to put behind producing lavish stage shows or DVDs. Indeed, Tillison’s home doubles up as a workplace, with a rear bedroom crammed with keyboards providing a makeshift studio, boxes of CDs stacked around the house standing by to be posted and a cosy lounge which was loaded with equipment to create a space for the their latest album COMM to be mixed. It’s an existence packed with an admirable, romantic idealism that’s somewhat disappeared of late with the onset of the MySpace generation.
“When we wake up in a morning, we are members of The Tangent, we’re not in 17 other bands,” he explains. “We’re constantly picking up new fans, but piracy and album sales have a direct relationship to what’s in the fridge this week. If we sell a lot of CDs, there’s food in the fridge and if we don’t then it’s the baked beans in the cupboard. We’re not claiming dole or swindling the benefits system. This is it. We’re on way less than the minimum wage, but we’re fucking here and doing it! But that’s my choice and we all want to carry on doing it. I just love making this music.”
It’s that unbridled and determined passion that has seen The Tangent survive seemingly insurmountable line-up changes over the last decade. In 2003 Tillison linked up with The Flower Kings – ostensibly his backing band – for The Music That Died Alone and four further albums, before that band collapsed in 2008.
“They’re all fantastic musicians but there was a cultural difference between us that was just too wide for me to carry on with,” confides Tillison. “There came a point when I felt that I was the only person in the band who really believed in it and I just didn’t know how much of their soul was in it. We parted company after a tour of Europe during which I began to feel like a stranger in my own group. I was left on my own a lot during that time and spent an awful lot of time hanging around with Beardfish.”
This friendship led to a brief union with Beardfish, before Tillison decided that in order to create some permanence, he wanted to make The Tangent all British, bringing in bassist Jonathan Barrett, Tony Latham on drums, saxophonist Theo Travis and a fresh faced guitarist in Luke Machin.
“I just want a bit of stability now and it would be lovely if this line-up could stay together,” he says optimistically. “The thing is that I can’t pay these musicians realistic wages and I understand and accept that sometimes they’ll will have to go off and do something else. Our guitarist Luke Machin is an unbelievable musician, I’ve never heard anybody who comes close to approaching Luke. In fact he’s so good, I don’t quite know what to do about it and I’m in awe of him in many ways. It may sound strange but I’ve decided that I’m going to leave him the band when I’m finished. He take can it onwards. He might not fancy that, but it’s here for him if he wants it, once I’m finished or get knocked off my motorbike. The only worry for me will be if someone much richer than me spots him and decide that they want him.”
Certainly that talent is evident on their new album, which continues their tradition of producing skilfully crafted music that almost defies belief when you consider the manner of its creation. As Tillison explains, COMM is a concept album that deals with the subject of communication – whether that relates to the first Morse code distress signal sent by a sinking ship (Titanic Calls Carpathia) or the perils of social networking, bloggers and Wikipedia on The Wiki Man. And although The Tangent have recognised that an internet presence is needed for any 21st century band to be viable, the idea of a promotion campaign is something that doesn’t sit well with Tillison.
“The internet has given us a way of instantly responding on forums, which is great,” he concedes. “But at the same time it has opened up the floodgates to so many opinions that gradually all the opinions become invalid. The Tangent is a band with 30 years experience and we could go on there and say we’re the greatest band in the universe, but a bunch of 16- year-olds from Didcot can say exactly the same thing. We’ve deliberately moved away from that attitude that many bands have of ‘look at us’. We do it the old way. If people like our music then they play it. We just want
to let our music do the shouting.”