DPRP's Brian Watson in Conversation with
The Tangent's Andy Tillison & Luke Machin
It’s not often you get a chance to see the best prog band in Britain playing in their local pub. But tonight, myself and fellow DPRP-er Jonno did just that. The Tangent were playing a warm up gig for a forthcoming festival appearance and we were lucky enough to be present. OK, so the day after I did have to take the family to an otter sanctuary but that seemed a small sacrifice for the privilege of seeing the current (and on the strength of tonight’s gig, the best) incarnation of the band.
A band whose every studio album has received a resounding DPRP recommendation ...
Before the gig, we caught up with founder Andy Tillison and new guitarist Luke Machin. And, for all those of you who slavishly rush off to the newsagents every few months to buy a certain glossy prog magazine, full of bands that, if we are being brutally honest are as prog as James Last, or the Sex Piss-Holes, then let me sound a note of caution. Despite having sent the magazine editors a couple of emails, the band are still to appear and, says Andy, the likelihood of them every adorning those glossy pages is slim. “We’re not fashionable enough” he suggests when I ask as to how this could be given that the band are universally lauded amongst the progniscenti as one of the top prog bands working today.
Not many of the image conscious wannabes who saturate the prog media would play their local pub, that’s for sure. “All bands need to keep in touch with the grass roots” says Andy, adding that the pub, the Hare and Hounds “is close to home, close to the studio”. Headlining the upcoming Gong festival in Italy, the gig gives the band an opportunity to “vibe up” before making “a few forays into the world” later on in the year. The Knaresborough festival, on 22nd August, is of particular interest to yours truly, seeing as it’s my birthday. The band, I’m told, will be buying buns. There are also gigs planned at The Peel and The Spirit of 66, the latter being one of Andy’s favourite venues.
Andy’s ‘other’ band, PO90, will also be making an appearance at the Cambridge Rock Festival on 6th August. Indeed, as we move onto the current line-up of the tangent, it was in PO90 that Andy found Jonathon Barrett who in turn found Paul Burgess (10cc). As Andy played guitar on Down and Out… and needed a guitarist for live work, former band member Theo Travis stepped in to recommend a young man by the name of Luke Machin. Michael Gilbourne, Andy advises, was found on the internet. So, for the first time The Tangent are an all UK affair. As much as he loved working with previous members of the band, the logistics of recording apart, via email and mp3 files, became increasingly difficult for Andy.
Turning to Luke, he’s been playing in bands since he was 14 or 15, and picked up his first guitar at the age of two, encouraged by his parents who are “totally into music”. But it’s It Bites who seem to have struck the biggest chord with the young guitarist. “I’m a massive Francis Dunnery fan” and, it transpires, Luke played onstage with Francis’ New Progressives at the recent Bush Hall gig, with Steve Rothery no less. It was here that Luke met Theo who without hesitation recommended the young guitarist to Andy. A potential logistic problem – Luke lives in Brighton (where he’s been attending Brighton Institute of Modern Music to do a BA) was overcome when it transpired that his parents lived in Congleton, not that far down the road from where we are sat.
The recent Progeny 3 festival was Luke’s first gig proper with the band, and as can be gleaned from Jonno’s review, it went well. As well as It Bites, influences include Porcupine Tree and Pain of Salvation. He likes, by his own admission, “complex music” where “a riff, a melody, a motif could come back later”. He seems genuinely excited by a cover the band do of Guthrie Govern’s Erotic Cakes, and talks with passion about “melody, sounds, and flavours”. He has, it seems, cemented his position in The Tangent, but also plays in an exciting young band called Concrete Lake, whose myspace can be found here.
But how, I ask, did he prepare for this gig, and the complex music he’d be expected to play. “I’ve been coming up for the past three weeks. Andy sends a couple of tracks down, I listen to the albums”.
Andy is obviously impressed. “Luke has free rein. Luke is the guitarist in the Tangent. What I hoped would happen is what happened. I left it to Luke and he found things Roine, Jakko or Krister did but he plays as Luke. There’s a spirit of improvisation but the elements of the songs are all there”.
For all this talk of the present, and future, the talk inevitably drifts towards the formation of The Tangent. OK, that may be because I was at that very first gig, at a prog festival in a sports centre in Chippenham, of all places (the progenitor of the Summer’s End festival, in fact). And I vividly remember (as Andy does!) when Roine Stolt marched on stage and calmly announced, “someone has stolen my lyric sheet”. Roine had taken on quite a lot of the vocal duties on that first album, but this was the first time the songs were to be played live. So he had a lyric crib sheet placed on stage. Only it went missing, leaving Andy to sing all Roine’s parts. Lesser bands would have folded at that very point.
Andy was very much influenced by what he calls “the main vein” of progressive rock bands - Yes, Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant and the Canterbury bands – by their “contrapuntal complex music that had songs in it”, and “wanted to form a real main vein thing”. But despite these traditional influences, he still thinks “we actually sound like us”. Some of this may be down to his vocal input, which I personally think suits the songs perfectly. Others, according to Andy aren’t as enthusiastic about his voice. “Especially the Americans”. Although if our transatlantic cousins do have a redeeming feature it is, according to Andy, that “they know who’s good. Take Dave Stewart (National Health, Hatfield and the North) and Chick Corea for example. Chick Corea wins Grammies, Dave Stewart lives in a semi-detached house somewhere in London”.
So who floats his boat amongst the current crop of modern prog bands? “Porcupine Tree have gone off and done something totally different” and we find out that we are also massive fans of Discipline, particularly their Unfolded Like Staircase album. “I was just blown away by the first transatlantic album. Sensational song writing. It was a fantastic record”. “And Diagonal, and Concrete Lake”. Neal Morse (to whom he floated the idea of a joint venture, exploring their respective Christian and atheist views) is singled out for praise for his keyboard skills. As is Rikard, of Beardfish, with whom Andy has toured and who has “an amazing one-ness with the keyboards”. Oh, and in case you were wondering what Neal’s response was, apparently it was “I’ll have to ask God”. At the time of writing God, bless him/her, hasn’t responded.
So what of the gong festival, which the Tangent are headlining, and for which this impromptu pub gig is a warm up? “We’ve only ever played Italy once, and it’s good to be going back”. Summing up the state of the current prog market, Andy points out that Genesis’ DVD of the ‘free’ Italy gig three years back made more money than every current ‘third wave’ prog band added together earned that year.
Also appearing at Gong, before we get too maudlin, are, amongst others Lazuli and Moongarden. Andy mentions he sang on a track on the latter’s most recent album, before we come onto the question of the next Tangent album. They are contractually obligated to Inside Out to release one more, although “it takes a very long time to make a Tangent record”. The band do have “some absolutely loopy ideas” so we can only look forward to the next offering.
The band do, though have a ‘new’ album out. It’s called A Place on the Shelf and is a reissue of a previously limited edition that was put out to help finance Down and Out. It includes the two part epic Rites of Spring homage Le Massacre Du Printemps, the Tangent’s very own ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ moment. “Putting it together was a real challenge, it’s a very complicated piece”, which is all the more hard to bear as Stravinsky’s estate has put a total block on the release.
Andy is, understandably, “upset that it never saw the light of day as a mainstream release”. The first, instrumental section, is then developed into a proper Tangent song. Explains Andy, after the instrumental workout, honest to the source material, “we thought let’s try and write some stuff into it. I took notes and turned them into riffs and developed a song. It’s all there, woven into the original manuscript. I am very proud of it”. The critical reception has been very good, as evidenced by our DPRP review and, when asked, Andy thinks “Stravinsky would have bloody loved it”. Amen.
So, as show time approaches, I ask Luke what his favourite Tangent tracks to play live are. “Where are They Now, Perdu dans Paris and In Earnest” is his response, a spoiler of sorts for what we may be about to hear but frankly the prospect of hearing In Earnest live has me going a touch giddy. One of my mum’s best friends was a Polish Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, and I vividly remember this amazing, unassuming, gentle man. Get the hankies ready.
When it comes to Tangent albums Andy is justifiably proud of the current record, Down and Out, which is his favourite of the bunch. “It’s consistent”, he thinks, “and whilst we’ve had better tracks it’s an album I’m very pleased with”. As both Andy and Luke prepare to depart, I can’t but help ask Andy if, given Luke’s tender years and prodigious talent (and bright future), he wanted to be 21 again. “I still am” he replies ...
Interview for DPRP by Brian Watson
Photographs by John O'Boyle
The Music That Died Alone
The World That We Drive Through
A Place In The Queue
Going Off On One
Not As Good As The Book
Down And Out In Paris And London
The Tangent - Official Website
Concrete Lake - MySpace