Three Men And 88 Keys
In a world of guitar heroes, what sort of person takes on the unenviable challenge of becoming a keyboard player, and what makes them tick? To find out, Prog brings together three of the best from The Tangent, Frost* and Big Big Train to tinkle their ivor
Picture a prog rock keyboard player and what do you see in your mind’s eye? Someone ex-public school and classically trained, perhaps? “I spent my life trying to dispel the clichés about prog rock and where we all came from,” says The Tangent’s Andy Tillison. “The only problem is I’m the son of a vicar, I went to public school, I was in the fucking choir, therefore proving everything.”
Danny Manners, from Big
Big Train, grew up on classical, confessing that as a teen he was “a little bit precocious, and a little bit objectionable”, listening to Stravinsky and Debussy. After dallying with jazz, he found his way to rock when he encountered Gentle Giant. “I loved it at first hearing,” he says. “I still love it.”
Bucking the trend for growing up with classical music, Jem Godfrey of Frost* was into synthpop bands like OMD and Visage until his older brother introduced him to the joys of prog through Yes. Inspired, Godfrey taught himself to play by locking himself away over the summer holidays with a copy of Genesis’ Three Sides Live, “so Tony Banks was my piano teacher and
I carried on from there”, he says.
How much does the keyboard player define the sound of progressive rock?
Manners: How long is a piece of string? It really depends on the band. There are completely keyboard-led bands, but there are bands where basically the keyboard is adding a bit of colour and atmosphere. I think in the wider genre of music, we’re past this modernist phase where musicians were moving towards a frontier and exploring new things. We’ve reached the frontier and now we’re in the postmodernist thing where you can still do individual things, but it’s a question of taking this and that and merging it with something personal.
Can some synthesiser sounds make songs seem dated? Tillison: This is a problem straight away. For example, if we get a nice little sawtooth wave that sounds really ballsy, we think, “I’m going to play that, it sounds fucking wicked.” But everybody is going to be like, “That sounds so retro.” Huh? What do you mean, retro?
But if my guitarist, who is 28, gets his guitar, slams it in to a Marshall and gets a sound exactly like Jimi Hendrix, everybody goes, “That sounds great.” Why is that great and ours is retro? Manners: The thing is, you can’t use some sounds without summoning up all these ghosts. It’s worse especially on something like the Mellotron because they’re so associated with certain iconic tracks. If you pick a certain Mellotron sound patch, everyone goes, “It’s King Crimson.” But I think that’s okay now. It’s fine to just take from wherever your inspirations are and just try to combine them in a way that’s personal to yourself. But I think people do get hung up on the technology of it.
Godfrey: I’m jealous of that early phase because it’s all been done now. There’s never going to be that moment now where people have that kind of a ‘wow’ effect. It’s the law of diminishing returns. With Frost* I was trying to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing, so we don’t use Mellotron, we don’t use weird guitar sounds particularly.
I feel a bit out of my depth here because I don’t really think this deeply about stuff like this, to be honest. The way I approach things, I’m always in such a fucking hurry. “I need that sound, that’ll do, that’s
fine,” and I think that almost dictates against overthinking. As a songwriter I’m always thinking about the melody lines really and everything else serves that.
As Frost* is a band, we’re about songs and occasionally we’ll wander off and show off for a bit, but there are always choruses. In writing, composition and production terms, it’s the melody, and then everything else cascades down from that, so I don’t tend to think enough.
Is there a battle for sonic space between keyboard players and other musicians?
Manners: There is, yeah. We’ve got two guitarists live. They’re both instruments that can play more than one note at a time and they occupy the mid-range, so technically they’re fighting for the same space, but it depends on the egos.
In Big Big Train, one of the things I like is that everybody has an arranger’s ear – everybody does some arranging or writing or plays another instrument, so it’s not like the guitarist wants all the space and the keyboard player wants all the space. We’re pretty good at give and take.
Of course, there are times when you end up with clashes and they have to resolved. It depends on the musician. It depends on your age. Older musicians, a lot of that ego stuff has been left behind. You just don’t have the energy for it any more.
Godfrey: Frost* is a bit of a benign dictatorship. John Mitchell’s brilliant, the guitarist, he’s very collaborative with the way he plays. We tend to write parts that work around each other: one’s the harmony, one’s the lead, and he’s quite happy to do lots of power chords because it means he’s got less to learn. When we do it live, he’s like,
“You do that, I’ll just do E.”
What’s difficult live is that
I’m playing complicated stuff and then I’ve got to sing so I’ve got to remember the lyrics, and between all that I’m thinking, “What am I going to say?” trying to plan the banter. Sometimes with Frost* it’s all a little bit manic onstage, so it’s difficult. Tillison: I’m totally musically uneducated really. I don’t know how to read music or any of that kind of stuff, so it’s always just how it sounds. That’s the only way I know how to do it. I’m blessed with a guitarist who is 30 years younger than me and knows everything there is to know about fridge doors [Phrygian scales] and all these scales and modes. He talks to me about them and I nod politely, but somehow there’s a chemistry between me and him and it works.
Who are the keyboard players doing exciting things now in prog rock?
Tillison: Rikard Sjöblom from Beardfish is a fantastic player and to my mind he’s a magnificent organ player. There hasn’t been the space for a keyboard player to come through in many forms of music, not just progressive rock. Rob Reed was saying there’s no work because the guitarists are playing the keyboards in the studio. It’s very difficult to convince people you need a proper keyboard player. You can decorate your own home dead easily, it’s good, it’s all right, you got it done cheap, but wouldn’t it have been nicer if you’d got a decorator in? Hire a keyboard player. That’s our campaign guys – hire the keyboard player. Godfrey: The painters and decorators of prog rock!
PIANO MEN, L-R: ANDY TILLISON, JEM GODFREY, DANNY MANNERS.
TALKING HEADS: THE PAINTERS AND DECORATORS OF PROG.