The Tangent bring progressive politics to Prog Rock

The Tangent's Andy Tillison working on the album this year.

Le Sacre Du Travail
The Tangent
InsideOut Music
June 24, 2013

Progressive Rock music usually froths with fantasy-laden lyrics and all manner of beardy weirdness, but The Tangent take the genre off on an a whole new tangent. For the past decade, this north of England collective have been melding Prog Rock’s predictably prodigious playing with less-than-predictable politics. Green Left’s Mat Ward spoke to the band’s founder, composer and core member, Andy Tillison, about the band’s latest impressive offering, Le Sacre Du Travail, which means "The Rite Of Work".


You've said of The Tangent: "The band’s music and lyrics have usually been gritty and realist, far removed from the archetype of Progressive music with not a mention of an elf, orc, piper, wizard, mythical king since the band's inception." Your past lyrics have taken on the Gulf wars, the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the treatment of war veterans. They are often not what's expected in Prog Rock. In what ways do you think this works for and against you?

The people who have followed Progressive rock music into its third and fourth lives are usually looking for a set of songs to be taken beyond the 1973 templates. I consider the fact that my lyrical background came from punk writing to be a boon here - we can offer something outside the usual experience - that's where we win. Where we lose is with people who just want the usual experience, who, in their contentment, don't want to be upset by a nagging unpleasant observation about the lives they currently live. Depends what you want from music. A challenge or a blanket. I understand both points of view, but don't offer the blanket.

The narration on your new album Le Sacre Du Travail, is brilliantly written, particularly in the first movement, “Overture (Coming Up On The Hour)”, which features the following passage:

The Previi of course were old enough to remember when all the stuff used to work, and would charm people by telling more and more incredible stories about a world, where every morning 50 million people on this island woke up and had to be at least 30 miles away from where they woke up within an hour. They spent around eight hours of the 24 that made up a day in a place that they did not want to be, doing something which apparently they did not like doing. When they had finished, they went back 30 miles to the place they woke up at, and their reward for doing this task was to be paid some token amount which allowed them to temporarily call themselves the owner of a small building. Here they could sleep, for another eight hours of their 24. With the remaining eight hours, they used to do bodily functions like eat and wash, have sex, and do something called “watching TV”.

Tell us about that great passage.

Thanks for the positive words! Actually the passage that Rikard [Sjoblom, of Swedish band Beardfish] narrates on this song is taken from a novel I'm currently writing called 199 Metres. It's a post-apocalyptic novel with a twist. The twist is that there hasn't actually been an apocalypse. However, the dead cities and overgrown motorways are part of the imagery that the book deals with and this section describes the life of the people of today, seen through the eyes of today's children, but speaking as very old people many years from now. How they might remember us. You may need to read that twice because it's quite complicated to explain well!

Take us through the five movements on the album, describing what happens in each.

Well, as we've already mentioned, “The Overture (Coming Up On The Hour)” takes a look BACK at our strange era from a distant point in the foreseeable future and takes the point of view of a story told by the very elderly about how we used to live our lives in the crazy world of the early 2000s. With our work patterns, our millions and millions of cars, our TVs, gadgets and our total reliance on an artificial system as our way of life. A lot of the album's leitmotifs are introduced here as well as the narration. It's a shortish piece and, once it’s over, we return to our own time. Now. 2013.

"Morning Journey & Arrival" is a straightforward account of someone's morning commute to work. Set in the British winter, dark, cold, rainy mornings being the norm then. This unwelcoming scene starts to unfold on a daily basis. The piece starts in the countryside as the rush-hour traffic starts to build up, even in the more isolated areas. The piece compares us to ants, rushing round hyper-complicated road systems, cities like termite mounds - everyone in a rush, everyone in a bad mood, nobody really wanting to be there. Arrival at work is covered, too, the wishes of employees to be somewhere else, or living a different kind of life, and all sacrificed by the need and desire to have enough money to keep a roof over one's head or the desire to own more of the things that we see advertised on TV.

"Afternoon Malaise" takes us through an afternoon of boring humdrum, of people in a long chain of forgotten identities feeling crushed and downtrodden in the places they are forced to be in. Appraisals, work politics, supervisors, chain of command, loss of individuality, all accompanied by a friendly radio DJ playing familiar music to help pass the time. The realisation that all this is being done to build up a personal wealth that at the end of the day is totally meaningless. Yet here, the piece suggests that you can do something more than just this - you cannot take your riches with you when you die, but you can leave something behind - however small.

"A Voyage Through Rush Hour" is a short orchestral instrumental that tries to evoke my own images of what the chaos of rush hour is like in England.

"Evening TV" is our reward for our day’s work - after working all day, travelling an awful lot, for so many, our reward is to go inside and watch other people's lives on a TV screen. I never considered this to be much of a reward and, as such, I don't have a TV receiver any more. Most of the time we are fed a string of programmes that totally reinforce the system we live under, that back up the ideas of wealth, security and compromise with that system. I want more than TV to finish my day, lots of other people do, but it’s such an easy option to take. And the piece finishes of course with the whole thing starting the next day. As it always does!

Your promo video says the album is “about 7000 million people - YOU”. I guess you're talking about the 99% who are exploited by the 1%.

The imbalance of the distribution of wealth in the world at the moment is reaching horrific proportions. Nothing I have ever come across is less excusable or more distasteful. While people are forced to suffer unimaginable humiliation and degradation, others live in the lap of luxury with as much power at their fingertips as they can buy. And they can buy a lot. Down at the other end of the scale, unemployment is a horrible situation to find oneself in - I've been there, which is bad. I've been homeless, which is even worse. However, this album focuses primarily on the lives of people in between - caught up in the daily trek to work to feed the hungry machine. I am always aware that the people who are left out of this so-called "privilege" are suffering as a direct result of the reliance on this system. I include all the population of this planet in my observation because everyone from the poorest famine-field inhabitant to the richest unfulfilled tycoon is directly affected by the so-called "civilised” world's reliance on purely economic principles to build a way of life. For while the richest of the rich may have the power, seen from my own naive perspective, I cannot see that they feel really fulfilled, as somewhere at the back of their minds must be a sense of responsibility that nags away at them. While many people do do very well from the economic betting shop, the majority are, I feel, undervalued and overlooked by this system. To use a cliche, we are all "pawns in a wider game" - and the majority of us never meet or even really know who the players are.

As a musician, do you consider yourself more as an outsider looking in on the world of the common worker?

I am a normal worker. I am a lecturer at Leeds College Of Music and at Leeds City College where I have worked on and off for 24 years. I still do three or four days a week there - choosing to be less than full time in order to give attention to the band. So I am used to the commute, the bus ride to the city in the winter rain in the dark, am fully experienced in the whole work ethos and have plenty of past experience in less comfortable jobs than teaching. So no, I'm not an outsider looking in. I'm honestly an insider looking outwards. I love my work, I love the results that I can see in front of me when a student achieves something new. This is exceedingly rewarding, yet I know that jobs like mine offer these privileged moments, whereas millions do not offer any such glimpse of the difference one is making. My college has a principal. I have never met him. He almost certainly does not know my name. This is where many of us find ourselves in 2013. Our survival depends on us keeping the job, whether we like it or not.

You say the album "is a symphony for the common person, the doctor, teacher, shop assistant, lorry driver, policeman and office worker and how the ritual of daily life in the bulk of the West (and now more so in all developed countries) has often alienated the individual". In what ways do you think they are alienated?

It's back to just feeling unimportant. Uncared about. Asked to put a substantial percentage of their lives into the ambitions of other people, to increase the huge wealth of the people at the top in exchange for enough money to just about live on while they're not working for The Company. More and more people don't know their bosses, hierarchies are the norm, small businesses struggle and where England (like France STILL) used to have cafés all over the cites where you were served by the owner, there are now huge multinational chains like Starbucks where youngish people work on minimum wages that will never generate enough income to put a deposit down on the most humble of houses. Most city centres in England are becoming more and more devoid of independent shops and we become more and more accepting of this, even to the point of seeing the big chains as "proper" and the independents as "cheap and nasty". The Sex Pistols had it so right when they sneered, "your future dream is a shopping scheme". They were more accurate than Orwell. Kudos for that sadly true prediction.

The companion album to Le Sacre Du Travail, titled L'Étagere Du Travail, features the track “Roundup Ready Government (Monsanto)”, which is described as “a fast-paced, funk-driven bash casting a wary eye over the activities of the US multinational food/biotech corporation”. Were you surprised by the scale of the recent global protests that finally erupted against Monsanto?

It's great that people are waking up to that, of course. I just totally resent the idea of a chemical weapons manufacturer controlling the world's food supply. It stinks and there's so much dubious shit goes on at this company that I don't really feel able to put it into words. My lyrics in this song are pretty simple - it's no deeply meaningful attack on them. the focus of it is just me singing, "I don't believe what they got away with". And I just don't believe it. It's like when Thorn used to own EMI - how could a nuclear weapons parts manufacturer own the recorded rights to "Give Peace A Chance"? We had a few things to say about that back in the day!

On the same album, "Lost In Ledston", you say, “was written to commemorate the difference in the way the media reported the death of Margaret Thatcher at the Ritz Hotel in April this year, and the way the people of the North of England remember her”. Tell us about that.

It's strange. In the days before the internet, when Thatcher was in power here in Britain, other than my Mum, I didn't actually know anyone at all who was a Tory. Everyone I knew hated Thatcher because of what she was doing to the people I lived with. There were people I knew losing their jobs, thousands of people out in protest at us closing down our coal industry simply to attack the trade unions. We have now lost our coal industry and are buying in from dubious sources where child labour is often cited. Where your country now exploits the demand from China for coal, Australia can provide and do well. The British government BURIED our mining industry, levelled the pit heads, concreted over the mines and built shopping centres on them. We can't go back. Her policies decimated whole towns, villages and a couple of cities. There were suicides, there was terrible infighting among the conquered people. We were defeated and the areas that were trashed will probably not recover. The death of Margaret Thatcher was covered in Britain by a southern-based media industry largely populated by younger, successful people who saw their own wealth as attributable to Thatcher. It was weird to hear the talk about all the "great things she had done for our country" when all we can remember is the artificial death of an industry that we actually really need, and the fact that Britain is now an impotent manufacturer, living its current existence based on financial services, most of which are designed to aid rich people and rip off everyone else. I'd also have to admit that advocating the reinstatement of a fossil fuel mining operation in England, Australia, China or anywhere else is hardly a very green thing to do. However, Thatcher was neither caring or green. Her policies were based entirely on how the rich could profit quickest from any operation, be that nuclear, fossil or whatever. Had there been big money in renewable energy sources at the time, she'd have been into that too, not through any real belief or conviction in it, simply for the rewards it gave to her cronies. She was a major obstacle to environmental change, using cheap labour in emerging economies to provide us with yet more fossil fuels with the added environmental costs of transportation and its incumbent risks. I do not have answers. I have only questions. This is what the band is here for, to ask these questions. The village of Ledston, once a mining community, was bought as a ghost town, upgraded for wealthy homebuyers and is an affront to the people who used to live their lives there. They all had to move out and live in tower blocks. Margaret Thatcher died at the Ritz Hotel, the very word "Ritz" implying wealth and privilege. She died in a place where 99% of the people she represented could not even afford a coffee. I'm not a fan.

But your mother was a fan of Thatcher? That’s interesting.

My Mum is still alive and even at 83 has framed pictures of Margaret Thatcher in the house. Yes, she was a staunch supporter of what she called "The Conservative Party" and she saw Thatcher as a person who had strong moral codes, defended Christianity and maintained the status quo. Where feminists were appalled by Thatcher's attitudes, my mother saw her as an iconic example of how a real woman should be. My mother had a working class background in the coal/wool producing region of Yorkshire, but was exceedingly self-motivated and worked very hard to break free into the middle classes. She fought her way through school, gained a grammar school education and went on to become a teacher herself. I clearly benefited from that Herculean task and was brought up in a good home and wanted for nothing. I was also given a good education. Many people in England who call themselves "self-made" do end up seeing the Tory Party as their salvation - the ones who made it all possible for them. There's elements of truth within that, of course, but I do remember feeling quite amazed at her support for Thatcher as she pulled the economic lifelines away from her old home town.

You say of Le Sacre Du Travail: "You don't HAVE to be a political prisoner to warrant a song being written for you. You can just be normal. With a mortgage, a hatchback and a semi." That can be its own kind of torture for many people, though, can't it?

It's always [about the] general media focus. So much is aimed at the young, rock and roll about youth rebellion, teenage angst and stuff. It's as if no-one has any problems after they get into their thirties. In fact that's not the case at all. By the time most folks reach their thirties, they're so busy working against the system that they don't have time to write songs about it. I had time, like others did too, I just made the time and had my say. I'm 54 now. Part of that most unglamorous generation who ever walked the planet. The baby boomers. Too many of us. The problem pension generation. We are always the sidekick in the stories, not the central character, the fuddy duddy parent, the bureaucratic boss of the dashing younger (or older) detective. The ticket collector spoiling the young person’s night out - but we have a story too. I want to tell the story.

You say the new album was very much inspired by Igor Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. Tell us what Stravinsky means to you.

Stravinsky is, for me, one of the most important composers in my life. For a start, he was almost "forbidden fruit" when I was very young. I was playing classical records from my parents' collection by the time I was five, and their collection was full of Beethoven, Korsakov, Mendelssohn, Smetana, Debussy, Mozart and a full complement of the great masters pre-20th Century. Some "trendy" friends of my parents left a copy of The Rite Of Spring at our house, presumably a loan to try to coerce them into liking something more modern. I found it one day, thought, "this is new", and put the thing on. I was probably seven or eight years old. I can't say I understood it, but it made a huge impression. It was just so full of colours and sounds like I'd never heard before. It seemed to break the rules of all the other music I'd heard so far, and when my mother told me, "that one isn't really for you", it sealed the piece as a must-eat-apple in the Garden of Eden. I first discovered Progressive Rock music some four years later and was happy to find influences and traces of Stravinsky's technique dotted around albums like Close To the Edge [by Yes], Red [by King Crimson] and Relayer [also by Yes]. Stravinsky is a huge presence in Modern Music, a giant whose work is a bridge between cultures and epochs and whose work knew no limitations.

You say Rite Of Spring was full of “colours and sounds”. Do you have Synesthesia, the condition that enables people to see sounds as colours?

Well, it's funny you should ask. I just don't really know if I do or not. I do see colours when I'm hearing sounds, but I just thought everyone did!

The Tangent previously started reworking of The Rite Of Spring, but you say it was "banned from release by the highly protective policies of the 'owners' of Stravinsky's works: Boosey & Hawkes". How did that experience make you feel about the often difficult relationship between music and business?

Well, they were, frankly, horrible about it. All their correspondence was professionally cold and dripping faux politesse. They simply kept on saying "with regret we cannot allow" etc - and did allude to the concept that "Stravinsky would not have liked it". However, they refused to even accept a listening copy, so they never even heard our version of it. This was simple, blinkered-vision, narrow-mindedness and I hope my work is never a party to such anally retentive control in the future.

Chandrasonic of Asian Dub Foundation notes that throughout history, musicians have always been poorly paid, apart from a brief period after the 1960s. Illegal downloading has brought them back to their impoverished norm. Would you agree?

Yes, I would. I also think that (please note that this is a measured response) there's an ELEMENT of good in this. I never found the idea of super-rich musicians particularly attractive. "We don't save lives or put fires out" as my friend Jonathan Barrett observed once. The court minstrel was never a particularly well-paid individual, but would often get to sit next to the King. Yeah. We are impoverished and as a musician, that's a shit and crap place to be in. It'd be great if we could just manage, like other folks, to be able to hold our heads up above the water and get paid a decent living wage for what we do. An album of our music, which has the ability to last a lifetime, costs less than two pizzas and a Coke. It's so amazingly cheap, but people want it for free. They have no idea how much it hurts us. Nowadays I see myself as an electronic busker. You can hear my music and you can put money in my Paypal hat. Or you can walk on by. That is how the world has re-written the rule book. I can't change that. I will almost certainly die with nothing to leave my kids other than a handful of old CDs and an out-of-date PC.

Musicians used to tour to promote albums. Now they release albums to promote tours. To what extent do you think musicians, like other workers, are having to work harder than ever?

We haven't really reached either of these levels yet. Our albums don't sell enough to fund tours. Our tours don't attract enough people to sell albums. We live in hope that this might change one day, but up until now, that's the way of things. The guys who tell you how well it's all going are usually lying or at least over-optimising to keep up appearances. If I was, by some miracle, able to sell 50,000 albums every year, believe it or not, I'd probably just about equal the wages I make from teaching after all the huge expenses are covered. I am not complaining AT ALL. I choose to do this freely and without anyone pushing me. I want to do it, no matter how much money I get for it. I am just finding it more and more difficult to lose money as this directly affects the decency of life of my loved ones.

The Tangent have gigged all over the world, including Russia - what have been the most surprising things you've learnt about the different nations and people you've come across?

That young girls go to see Prog Rock concerts in Russia. That was really weird. A few came entirely on their own - no peers to support them. Nice of course, but totally alien to us. Realising that they had this independence in their decision-making process and had sought out the information about where we were playing, decided to go, buy tickets, meant that somewhere, someone was telling them about this and getting them involved in something that, had they been British, they would probably have dismissed as worthless or "music for old folks".

The Prog music scene is a world apart isn't it? You must reflect on its nature a lot. Tell us about it - how would you sum it up?

Yeah, it is a world apart, but there's lots of other worlds apart. I'm in a few of them. I keep tropical fish, that's one world apart, and I ride an old Yamaha Virago Cruiser motorcycle, that's another. Being in the Prog Rock scene is a big ask and it's not an easy place to be, to be quite honest. Where "Green Day" can create retro punk music inspired so deeply by the music of 76-77 Britain and subsequently play to 80,000-strong audiences of young people the world over, I can only manage a few hundred in a small concert hall a couple of times a year. That's hard. because the mass media has decided to not support the musical form in which I choose to write. Therefore, my chances of reaching a new and younger audience are slim indeed. Add to this the fact that of the generation of people who DID like Progressive music in the 1970s, by far the majority of these people are not really interested in the new generation of acts like ourselves, The Flower Kings, Anekdoten or Magenta. Even the ones who are interested often benchmark us almost exclusively against Genesis, Yes and Van der Graaf [Generator] and in their eyes we often come out wanting. Sadly, it's painfully obvious that a 7th remaster of Close To the Edge will sell more copies to people who already have the other six, than we will sell at all. Even close friends of mine - Prog musicians themselves - will buy the Steve Wilson Remaster of Close To the Edge but would seriously balk at the idea of spending money on a Flower Kings album. The growing younger interest in Prog music is often very revering towards the older bands like Van der Graaf Generator, and many of the younger people in the scene now kind of see US as some kind of deluded impostors. BUT, BUT, BUT - there are the few, a fair few thousand people worldwide who really want new stimuli in this musical genre. They are our audience, they are a pleasure to work for and they are what makes it all worthwhile.

Finally, tell us about the reactions you've had to Gavin Harrison's formidable drumming on Le Sacre Du Travail, and how he interacts with esteemed bassist Jonas Reingold.

Actually the reaction to Gavin has, for me, been very surprising, and very pleasing in an odd way. Most of the reviews that I have seen so far have actually eschewed focusing on the arrival of a major player like Gavin and have been more intent on the music itself. There are a good many reviews that have not even mentioned him by name, although, of course, most do. Gavin's involvement in this could very easily have been the "big story" and I did envisage a whole slew of reviews that would be primarily talking about Gavin Harrison's contribution. The fact that most of the reviews have not done this, that most of them focus on the piece itself, indicate that we got something right here - so right, that Gavin's contribution blends into the piece, allowing the piece to remain the item on view. And, of course, this speaks volumes for Harrison anyway. His contribution is, in my mind, stunning, innovative, thoughtful and exceptionally well reasoned. When he played the album he had not yet heard Jonas's bass parts. Jonas performed TO Gavin's parts and the combined rhythm section performance is, to me, an absolute masterclass in how it should be done. I am incredibly proud to have pulled off this first collaboration between the two of them.