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

Prog - - Intro - Words: David West Im­ages: Will Ire­land

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.

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