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TILES: on the 'Pretending 2 Run' album

Interview with guitarist Chris Herin of Tiles by Geert Ryssen in 2016

After a long silence, last year there’s new work by progressive American band TILES. Their new double album ‘Pretending 2 Run’ on Laser’s Edge is nothing less than excellent and we wanted to know more about it. Here you can read what guitarist Chris Herin told us.

Why did it take 8 years for the band to release new music?
‘Time sure does fly doesn’t it? Even though we decided to “take our time” with the next album – that long of a gap definitely wasn’t on purpose! We do have an explanation though. After “Fly Paper” was released in 2008 we spent some time promoting the album but eventually became discouraged because although Tiles fans really liked “Fly Paper,” overall the CD seemed to ‘fly’ mostly under the radar. It just never seemed to build much positive momentum. Even Alex Lifeson’s (Rush) guest appearance seemed like a closely guarded secret. Quite naturally we thought the album was pretty good and were disappointed it didn’t seem to create any interest outside of our established fan base. So although “Fly Paper” ended up selling well and reviews were good, we concluded that maybe there wasn’t enough interest in the band to do another album. We didn’t contemplate breaking up and were still playing shows around the Detroit area, but we were kind of in limbo about recording. It really wasn’t until I visited Amsterdam and Paris with my wife in late-2009, where I absorbed so much classical music performed in the historic cathedrals, that I personally started feeling rejuvenated. I’m always writing lyrics, bits of music and songs anyway, but this was the turning point where I finally felt the band should at least test the waters to see what we could come up with. Going back in time a bit, the seeds for “Preventing 2 Run” were actually planted in 2001. We had written a piece called ‘Destiny Undelivered’ for the “Window Dressing” album. It was a four-part, 17-minute suite, but it was the last song we played for producer Terry Brown during the pre-production rehearsals. By then we already had 65-minutes of music, so Terry said we had enough and to save ‘Destiny Undelivered’ for next time. We resurrected it again during the writing sessions for “Fly Paper,” but with fresh ears decided most of it needed rewriting. It was around this period that I sketched out rough drafts of ‘Drops of Rain,’ ‘Uneasy Truce’ and ‘Fait Accompli’ – but it was clear these songs belonged within the larger suite. Plus we had already decided to take an individual song-oriented approach for “Fly Paper”. So again we didn’t get traction and ‘Destiny Undelivered’ went back on the shelf for yet another ‘maybe next time.’ Once we decided to begin dabbling with new material, the ‘Destiny Undelivered’ concept and songs finally became the center of my attention. Coupled with my renewed enthusiasm for new musical horizons, the only surviving song from the original version, ‘Pretending to Run,’ became the foundation for what I envisioned could be a conceptual extended work with recurring themes and reprises. Informed by some of my own experiences and observations-at-large, I had been writing lyrics which fell under the umbrella of coping with adversity and change in the wake of betrayal. As the basic storyline took shape the band started working on musical ideas around 2010. We still weren’t entirely sure if the future held another album, but we felt the urge to see what might develop. Eventually our ‘crisis of confidence’ passed and we began building momentum and enthusiasm as the songs began to flow and the concept continued to come into focus. So generally 2010 was a year of experimentation, we spent 2011 and 2012 writing and rehearsing then started recording in February of 2013 and finished in December 2015. Also, there were some life events that contributed to the time lapse. The USA experienced a recession beginning in 2009 which affected Paul’s and Mark’s employment and my parents both passed away in 2011 which, besides the emotional impact, required me to tend to a lot of family business. Plus as I mentioned before, we simply decided we could not hurry the process – so we took our time ensuring “Pretending 2 Run” was the best possible album we could make. All of a sudden eight years had passed!’

Why did you decide to rerecord music from earlier albums and release the ‘Off the Floor’ albums?
‘Well…, back in 2010 we recognized it was going to be awhile before a new studio album might appear so we decided to record a couple live albums “Off the Floor 01” (2012) and “Off the Floor 02” (2014) to bridge the gap and keep our name alive, at least a little bit. We hadn’t released any proper live albums and thought it might be a good way to commemorate our upcoming 20th Anniversary. We set up in a studio soundstage and invited a few friends to be our audience and recorded the songs live without overdubs. We did three sessions and chose songs that represented our live set lists over the years. As a special treat we dug out the recordings from our 2005 appearance at the Rites of Spring Festival and included a few of these songs as a bonus disc for “Off the Floor 02”. It’s quite remarkable that we had a recording of the song “Window Dressing” since we only played it twice, ever! ‘

How did the different guest musicians get to play on the new album?
‘The songs were written without plans to use any specific special guests. These ideas surfaced as we worked on building the song arrangements. Over the years Tiles has done shows with (and we have met) many excellent and sometimes well-known musicians with whom we’ve become friends and acquaintances. One of our goals for “Pretending 2 Run” was to experiment with different instruments and expanded arrangements. We have collaborated with guests on most of our previous albums because it has always been good for the music - and fun! It’s mostly a coincidence that we ended up with such an impressive list of notable and familiar names: Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Mike Stern (Miles Davis, solo), Adam Holzman (Miles Davis, Steven Wilson Band), Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs), Max Portnoy (Next to None), Kim Mitchell (Max Webster, solo), and Joe Deninzon (Stratospheerius) – and locally our guest list includes many of our friends from the Detroit area: Kevin Chown (Tarja Turunen, Chad Smith), Keith Kaminski (Bob Seger), Mark Mikel (The Pillbugs, solo), Matthew Parmenter (Discipline, solo), Ryan Arini (Hell Rides North), Matt Cross and percussionist Sonya Mastick. There were many different reasons for collaborating with various musicians based on what we wanted to accomplish with the arrangements. People like Ian Anderson, Mike Stern, Kim Mitchell and Keith Kaminski delivered fantastic solos, while Mike and Max Portnoy – along with Kevin Chown – contributed a different rhythm section energy that we thought helped the variety and dynamics of the entire album. Adam Holzman brought his keyboard chops to the longest and maybe most progressive tune on the album (‘Taken by Surprise’); plus, he created a selection of textures and soundscapes that we used to assemble segues and atmospherics to link songs. Colin Edwin worked his loops and sound design magic on “Small Fire Burning” and “Friend or Foe” and Jeff’s friend Matt Cross from Orange 9MM came up with the programming for “Pretending to Run” and “Midwinter”. All these keyboard and “sonic architecture” sounds are things we don’t otherwise have at our disposal. The same goes for bringing in the string quartet, Sonya Mastick on tablas and congas and working with the choir. Collaborating with our friends Matthew Parmenter and Mark Mikel as guest vocalists and arrangers helped us add different musical approaches and variety to the songs and storyline. Some of the guests recorded their parts on their own. I provided some general notes and they recorded at their home studios (Ian Anderson, Adam Holzman, Colin Edwin). I was in the studio with Mike and Max Portnoy and Jeff and I were at the Mike Stern session. It was such a great experience being in the studio with Mike Stern. I’ve been a big fan of his since his early days with Miles Davis. He’s such an easy going guy and a pleasure to work with. He collaborated with us as ‘partners’ and refined his solos as he became more comfortable with the music. Another interesting story involves Ian Anderson. We had sent him the song he was to play on, along with some general notes. I didn’t know exactly when he would record and it just so happened I was driving down the highway with my family and an email popped up on my iPhone. I had my wife read it and it was a message from Ian Anderson saying he was recording his flute solo and had a couple questions. I had to wait until I could pull off at a rest stop to answer his questions and hoped I wasn’t too late! Of course having Mike Portnoy make a guest appearance is something I’d been hoping to make happen for quite a while! We had asked Mike to make a guest appearance since we’ve been friends ever since Tiles toured with Dream Theater in 1999. I was aware his son Max is a drummer so I thought it might be interesting to have them each do a song and also play together. We had already recorded most of the drums but I was still adding songs to the album so there were several new tunes that needed drums. Mike has a studio in his house so I went there for a weekend to record. It was interesting because I sent Mike four songs ahead of time to choose from and he picked the straightforward “Fait Accompli” for Max – which is totally different than the complex progressive metal he typically plays. Of course the reason for this is to expand Max’s horizons and develop versatility. We recorded Max first and I could tell he was well prepared. It only took about three times through the song and we had all the parts completed. The song has a great pocket with a Nigel Olsson (Elton John) feel happening – even in some of the fills too. Mike joins Max for their duet on the two bridges in “Fait Accompli” which the string sections occur. It was genuinely heart-warming to watch the father/son bond at work; not only Mike producing Max’ performance, but especially as they worked out their duet parts. Obviously it was a treat to watch Mike work his magic on “Stonewall”. He was always experimenting and keeping things fresh and spontaneous – and cared about giving the best for the song. It’s very generous of Mike to take time out of his busy schedule to make a guest appearance for us – and to give Tiles the honor of hosting the Portnoy family debut!’

How long did you write to realize the new album?
‘Before we started recording we spent almost two years writing, experimenting, rehearsing and revising. We always go through a strenuous arrangement process where we learn the song as I had written it – but scrutinize & explore different tempos, grooves, structures, etc. In some cases Jeff or Mark would suggest deleting or adding musical ideas. Because we did a lot of experimenting there were a few songs that didn’t maintain our interest and were eventually abandoned. Once we got into the studio with Terry Brown he went through a detailed pre-production process where the songs underwent another round of refinement – to make sure song structures flowed. Our goal is not to be complicated to impress anyone, but to create interesting music that delivers the appropriate emotional content. This is where Terry’s outside perspective is essential. It wasn’t until we began developing the arrangements that ideas for special guests, the string section, choir and other opportunities came up. Throughout the entire process we constantly evaluated the continuity of the music and what the songs needed to convey as a musical story in addition to supporting the album’s lyrical concept. For example, it wasn’t until the middle of the project that we had the ideas for the spoken word sections, field recordings and the connecting interludes in between many of the songs.’

How was the theme of the album chosen?
‘As I mentioned earlier, seeds of the concept started during the “Window Dressing” writing sessions and was originally an extended piece called “Destiny Undelivered” – meaning that desired or expected outcomes and occurrences in life don’t always happen as we prefer. Over the years I kept working on the piece and the second version morphed into a suite known as “Other Arrangements,” with the theme changing to how people must adapt to the events and challenges that come our way. “Other Arrangements” was actually our new album’s title when we started recording; but as I continued to expand and refine the lyrics “Pretending 2 Run” (the title of the first song) came to best represent the overall story. “Pretending 2 Run” is about a man blindsided and disillusioned by betrayal and his journey through adversity as he escapes from the dark corners of seclusion on a faltering search for redemption. Unlike a linear narrative the story does not reveal how or why things happened, but instead we observe events in the wake of his personal upheaval. Overall it’s a rather dark concept, but reflections of light eventually appear as trials may eventually lead to triumph (I don’t want to give everything away). The story begins in the post-traumatic aftermath of tragedy as the central character retreats into self-imposed isolation, numb and disconnected from the world. Time is frozen as his mind travels between the past and the slow motion present in search of explanations. His recovery is hindered by the fear, anger and confusion that now define his life. Standing at several crossroads, indecision becomes another obstacle as internal battles rage between conflicting ‘fight-or-flight’ emotions. It’s up to the listener to decide how (or if) his journey ends.
Our central character spends a great deal of effort “Pretending 2 Run” from his problems. He suffers a tragedy and has retreated into darkness and isolation. But a strange thing gradually happens and his subconscious will to survive won’t let him give up. So no matter how much he wants avoid or escape his predicament he can’t. He has to face reality and confront his new-found demons.
Throughout the story he battles conflicting “fight or flight” emotional responses. He constantly feels an overwhelming urge to ‘run away’, but something is stopping him – forcing him to persevere. He gradually builds inner strength, but doubts, fears and false starts haunt his progress. There are many hurdles to overcome and he has difficulty figuring out what to do. This is the up-and-down & back-and-forth journey of the album. So overall, “Pretending 2 Run” represents the human will to survive, triumphing even when the temptation to give up is overwhelming. There’s also a bit of a double meaning to “Pretending 2 Run” where sometimes people mistake activity for action or progress…, like being on a treadmill. You’re running but not really going anywhere. At some points in the story our main character thinks he’s headed in the right direction only to discover he is not. As enough time passes the uncertainty of his future is replaced by acceptance that he must now come to terms with what’s happened and exist within a new reality.’

Was working with Terry Brown again an obvious choice?
‘It is always a pleasure working with Terry. He brings a wealth of experience and technical expertise and possesses some of the best ears in the business. He’s a great engineer, arranger and has an unbiased open-minded approach. He isn’t blindly influenced by passing fads that aren’t “musical”. We want our music to have variety and dynamic range. Too many albums these days have over-compressed and fake sounding drums – like you’re slapping your hand on a pillow. Or a huge wall of guitars that are too distorted and indistinct. Nowadays the kick drum is the loudest instrument and practically drowning out everything else. So many bands have the same sound and their albums lack character. Although Terry knows it’s important to keep up with the times, we are unwilling to follow trends that don’t make musical sense; unfortunately we do get some criticism for not making our albums sound like everything else… Terry knows when a performance is good or if there is something better on the horizon – and he is a great musical coach. He knows when and how to ask “the” important questions and bring a performance or arrangement into focus. His job is to balance what we do, or want to do, with what is right for the song or the overall album.’

Was the loss of the contract with InsideOut something that affected the band?
‘We didn’t know “Pretending 2 Run” wouldn’t be released on InsideOut until the album was finished and we began discussing the release date and other business matters. Our relationship with the label goes back to 1997 when “Fence the Clear” was only the 14th album released by InsideOut, so we’ve had a great relationship for many years. After much dialog it became clear that InsideOut’s release schedule was very full for many months in advance and we would have to wait quite a while before we could be granted a release date. Also, Sony’s recent acquisition of Century Media and InsideOut would likely have an impact on the level of importance the first Tiles album in eight years would receive. So even though it was disappointing to leave the InsideOut family, partnering with Laser’s Edge to release “Pretending 2 Run” has worked out very well. Laser’s Edge releases fewer albums and is in a better position to support our album as a priority. Thomas at InsideOut was very supportive and actually helped us make arrangements with Laser’s Edge – so it’s not as though we were unceremoniously dumped by the label. InsideOut continues to sell our back catalog and we remain in contact. Laser’s Edge has done an excellent job promoting and distributing “Pretending 2 Run,” we are pleased with their efforts.’

Any chance that we will see the band in Europe?
‘Well…, we certainly hope so! “Pretending 2 Run” is being very well-received so if this translates into sales maybe we can build enough momentum for us to play some European shows. I think Tiles would be a great opening act for a band like Spock’s Beard or Haken (both of whom we’ve opened for in the US) – but it’s not likely we’d headline our own tour. Maybe our friends in Dream Theater will “take us along for the ride” again? We are currently looking for opportunities…’

How would you put the new album against the earlier work of the band?
‘We’ve always viewed ourselves as a progressive hard rock band – because I guess everyone needs to be placed in a category (!). We have always approached each album from different angles. Our first CD “Tiles” could be categorized as melodic hard rock with progressive moments. We were getting to know each other and at the time I was writing (kind of) short vocally oriented songs. The follow up “Fence the Clear” was heavier and we stretched out musically; we indulged our progressive whims to a greater degree and stripped down the arrangements to be consistent with our guitar/bass/drums instrumentation. “Presents of Mind” turned out to be a blend of our first two recordings. We re-introduced more studio production but continued to focus on blending melody, musical complexity, and moments of true improvisation. “Window Dressing” was our ‘epic novel’. We felt empowered by the success of “Presents of Mind” – and felt accepted by the progressive community. So we wrote longer songs with multiple parts and introduced a lot of stylistic variety. We also thought we’d fight the trend of sterile “off-the-shelf” sounds – and recorded in a large room with lots of ambience, real amps, & real cabinets. We purposely stayed away from polishing the performances to keep them sounding like “people” actually made the music – not samples, computers and processors. Looking back I admit many of the songs on “Window Dressing” were a little under developed and needed further refinement. I still like listening to it though because it has a ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” energy and there are some really great songs. I also think it has some of my best lyrics. “Fly Paper” ended up being a reaction to the complexity of “Window Dressing” and some of the difficulties we had making that album. We trimmed back the song lengths a bit and concentrated on the vocal arrangements – but didn’t hold back our ‘progressive’ tendencies and still stretched out musically in a lot of places. It was good to have our original drummer back and rekindle our creative spark. And now we present, “Pretending 2 Run” which is the culmination of everything we’ve learned up until now. We knew there was no reason to hold back – whatever a song needed we made it happen. Otherwise we had no agenda - we simply wanted to present a story and production in the grand tradition of classic progressive rock and took as much time as necessary to make sure the story held together and the music delivers the proper emotional content. That’s why there’s so much variety. You can’t trust bands who say their newest album is their best . Only time can answer that question – and besides - that’s something for the listeners to decide, not us!’

What’s the function of the choir parts to the song cycle?
‘The first choir piece “Refugium” represents the central character’s retreat into sanctuary – he’s seeking refuge from his situation. It comes at a point in his journey after he’s been betrayed and begins to understand the magnitude of his situation. He is seeking refuge from his troubles.
“Meditatio” is a transition moment – a period of resignation and acceptance where our main character is worn down and has accepted his fate. He needs to reconcile with his new reality and begin building the strength to carry on. I chose to place the phrases from “The Little Prince” here to convey the philosophical aspects of coping with trials and tribulations. “Meditatio” segues into “Other Arrangements” and begins the final push to the concluding section of the story.’

The arrangements of the songs are phenomenal! How did they come together?
‘We knew we had to make an album that would get people’s attention when they might read about it or see it described in reviews or advertisements. Because all of us in Tiles like so many different styles of music we try to keep open minds, experiment and try new approaches to composition and arranging. There were a lot of ideas floating around as we investigated new sounds and instruments. Unlike our previous albums, we decided not to purposely remain close the instrumentation within the band. We did not limit ourselves in any way for “Pretending 2 Run”. Once the basic tracks were recorded we began developing the arrangements which is when the ideas for special guests, the string section, choir and other opportunities came up. Throughout the entire process we constantly evaluated the continuity of the music and what the songs needed to convey a musical story as well as support the album’s lyrical concept. For example, it wasn’t until the middle of the project that we had the ideas for the spoken word sections, field recordings and the connecting interludes in between many of the songs. Also there were several places in the story line where the central character reaches a low point which provided the opportunity to use the choir pieces I had written.
“Pretending 2 Run” is basically a hard rock album with quite a bit of musical variety and experimentation thrown in. The songs cover a wide-range of emotions from somber and contemplative to angry and rebellious. Because it’s a story with lots of ups and downs (and quite a long story too) we integrated different instruments and vocal approaches that we hadn't used before. Most importantly, we felt different vocal timbres were necessary. This actually got its start from my songwriting demos where I sing the lead vocal melody and work out a big chunk of the backing vocals. Surprisingly, the sound of my voice and my delivery ended up being appropriate. We enlisted our friends Mark Mikel and Matthew Parmenter to contribute lead and backing vocals and vocal arrangements. There are several duets and lead vocal trade-offs. Blending other vocalists with Paul added fantastic new textures and dynamics to the songs. Previously, Paul did 95% of the backing vocals; but this time the whole band joined in too. We approached the project with no limitations and knew we wanted to make an album almost symphonic and cinematic in scope. That’s why each of us put down our instruments and allowed guests to bring the right musical element or change of pace to the songs. The spoken word sections are new for us too. They’re something that occurred to me much later in the recording process as the lyrics and the song order became more finalized. I don’t think they would’ve happened had my family not hosted a French exchange student! They contribute to the overall mood of the story and provide contrast for the central character’s inner voice – and the phrases from “The Little Prince” help emphasize the album’s concepts.’

Any last words?
‘I’ll just close by saying ‘merci beaucoup’ to our fans throughout The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and France for remembering us and for the enthusiastic response to “Pretending 2 Run.” We weren’t sure anyone would remember us! It’s also great to see the positive reception from progressive rock fans who are new to Tiles and have been checking out “Pretending 2 Run” a chance. We hope to play for you soon – cheers!’

Geert Ryssen

Geplaatst door Vera op dinsdag 07 februari 2017 - 22:01:49
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