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Kev Rowland - Feedback Magazine

One evening I was lucky enough to go over to Guy’s studio, where we spent a very pleasant evening discussing how he got involved with music, and what follows is just a small part of the conversation that went on long into the night. 

What first got you interested in music?

I started out by having the usual piano lessons, but hated them. I use to hide rather than go in to the piano teacher so I went through a period of hating everything about music. I still liked the idea of music, I just didn’t like playing it. Then I found a beat up classical guitar, an old Spanish thing, in my parent’s wardrobe. So I ended up twanging away on that and not getting too bad at playing “My Sweet Lord” and it really developed from there. At the same time I was just about aware of music being written and performed but there was never any music in the house when I grew up. We weren’t a family that stood around the piano singing songs and we didn’t have the radio on all day long. My parent’s record collection consisted for four 78’s, a couple of Frank Sinatra records and ‘The Sound Of Music’ soundtrack and that was it. I remember seeing The Beatles play the Variety Show; I can remember that key moment and thinking that it sounded quite interesting but I was still quite young. So getting into music was a very peculiar business. 

I think a lot of is about meeting someone who acts as a catalyst for the journey. I was lucky enough to be part of a gang of kids who hung out, playing football and that sort of stuff, but one of the kids we played with had an older brother was into music. He had three plastic LP boxes in his room and it was the most LP’s I had ever seen in one place. He was one of those people who really took care of his records, got them out, cleaned them with a cloth, put them on very gingerly. If you ever got invited to listen to music at their house it was a great honour, great kudos, felt important. The first things I ever listened to there was West Coast, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Wishbone Ash, Lindisfarne, Alice Cooper, it was that period of time. He actually had a copy of ‘Tarkus’ but we ignored that. 

I liked that stuff and was interested in that kind of music and then met a friend who was into Jethro Tull and that for me was the turning point really as he played me some Tull albums and I really didn’t know what to make of it. I thought that I didn’t like it much and couldn’t work out where all the nice little tunes were that Lindisfarne used to do, but he played ‘Thick As A Brick’ at me and then insisted that we went to see them. He kept playing it until I submitted and said that actually it wasn’t bad. From then I got addicted to it and it was a matter of finding new albums, new bands, and I was in the right place at the right time for what I do now. I saw Tull in their heyday, I saw Genesis do ‘Lamb’, saw Pink Floyd at that time, and all the bands that were around at that time like Hatfield and the North, Gong, Mike Oldfield, Gentle Giant. At the same time I was looking at all this rock stuff I was also investigating singer songwriter and went to see John Martyn, Roy Harper, Al Stewart which was a grounding of the sort of things that I like which is more narrative song structures. The perfect balance of Roy Harper’s artistic poetry and Ian Anderson’s sense of melody and arrangement seems about right – it is a mixture of the two. An acoustic long piece with lyrics embellished with rock is just about perfect.   

So I was twanging away on guitar, and then I formed my own band at school and co-opted a lot of the professionally trained musicians into it as I felt that they could probably play a lot better than I could. I was happy to write the songs and these people could read music so I would write it down and they would play it while I was twanging away on a 12 string. In fact that old 12 string (pointing to a guitar on the wall behind me) that is donkeys years old and is still hanging on the wall. The idea that I might be able to write a tune came to me so I started writing all these songs and it started there, and after that I was in band after band after band for years. 

So how did you meet Andy? 

I was in a band called King Glass, who were being paid to go into a studio to do a Radio Leeds session so we needed a studio. We looked around town and found Lion Studios to do the session and there was this scruffy individual sat at the desk with a rolled up cigarette in his mouth and the place looked like an ashtray with sliders. I was the keyboard player for the band and I was setting up the sequencers etc and he was really interested and obviously knew something about keyboards, and we got chatting. He told me that he was in a band called Gold, Frankincense and Diskdrive and that was it – we just hit it off straight away. After that he said that if I wasn’t doing anything would I like to play guitar with GF&D so I did, and then the band disbanded as everyone was going shooting off and doing different things and it became just Andy and I, we were all that was left.  

At the time he was working as an audio technician in the Leeds College of Technology on the top floor and they were looking for equipment to set up for a course based on audio visual recording and we did a deal that if we moved all of our computer and keyboard equipment up there they could use it during that day and we could use it during the night. So, students used the equipment during the day and in the evening we were recording and setting it up and trying new things out. We ended up doing the ‘No More Travelling Chess’ album there, the Hammill/VDGG tribute album, and went on to record the last GF&D album which was never released but was going to be called ‘It’s Not The End Of The World But You Can See It From Here’. You will actually have heard some of it as it has come out in various disguises. For example, the song “Domicile” from ‘The Cure’ album was first written for there and a lot of stuff on that album has come out as part of Tangent, or Parallel Or Ninety Degrees or Manning. Some of the tracks from that he did put on the PO90 ‘More Exotic Ways To Die’ album, on the multimedia section. There are bits of it that I wouldn’t let out – I am a firm believer that you have to keep some bits back. As an album it was quite good but we disbanded as we wanted to do other things. 

Andy and Sam were writing this ambient stuff for a project called Sanctum, which was played down in Leeds Church and sounded great but it was very Tangerine Dream sort of stuff. They were listening to a lot of Porcupine Tree and knew that they wanted to do something else and I had to go off to work in Germany and they formed Parallel Or Ninety Degrees while I was away. When I came back they didn’t really need me and I had other things to do anyway and started to think about doing all my own stuff.

That was the beginning of how we started writing and collaborating together and it has been going on for twenty five years now. What a depressing thought. We still work on other projects as well as Tangent and things like that. If you look at the family tree on the website you will see how our lives are intertwined. Sometimes we find each other pleasure to work with and sometimes we don’t, which is true of any people in a long term relationship. 

What were you trying to capture with your earlier albums as you sometimes remind me of Roy Harper? 

Roy Harper is just superb. I think that he is so under rated, he is one of the best poets who puts words to music that we’ve got. If I can sound a bit like Roy Harper than that would be great but personally I don’t think that I can even stand in his shadow. I don’t want to get too sycophantic, but he is fantastic. He is a man who puts words and phrases together like very few I have ever known. Some of my stuff will sound like Roy because I love Roy Harper and some of my stuff will sound like Tull because I love Tull and also because I have a similar timbre to my voice as Ian Anderson had. When you spend your formative years listening to Tull pretty much twenty four hours a day, then you pick up an acoustic guitar and start to play something it sort of comes out that way. Some of my phrasing is Anderson-esque and the way that I put phrases in and the way that the melody may not fit over the music, either lapping over the end or stopping short is typical Anderson technique. I use that a lot as it is just ingrained in me.

What was I trying to achieve with my early albums? Just release a record was a major milestone. I never thought that I would get a record out even though I had written all of these songs. In theory the first album should be your best as you have spent ten to fifteen years practicing and getting yourself ready for the moment when you finally get asked to put some songs down. So you have had ten or fifteen years to pick the cream of the crop and have all of the best songs you have ever written all ready. Now I think I had some very good songs for ‘Tall Stories’, but when I came to ‘The Cure’ I didn’t have a song in my head. Now it was a green field fresh canvas and it made me work harder. ‘The Cure’ was quite a difficult album and I didn’t want it to sound like ‘Tall Stories’ which was vignettes of narrative strung together in a sequence of little songs which fitted together. A bit like ‘Thick As A Brick’ only not as fluid. I took some songs and put them into suites. How to make a progressive suite is to take five songs which shouldn’t go in one song and call them parts one to five. With ‘The Cure’ I wanted to write longer pieces and I used a whole lot of sound effects, sound collages etc to make it a totally different experience to the previous album, Basically ‘The Cure’ was more of a moving thing that took you from one song to another. It was also darker, a lot darker, and it was a concept album. There were lots of things going outside of music, work etc, and I wasn’t a happy bunny and lot of that permeated through into the album. Having come out of that I wanted to make the next album much lighter, breezy and poppy and ‘Cascade’ was the answer to ‘The Cure’.           

Each album has been a progression really. What did I do last time, what do I want to do next time, and try and move but keep a style so that people know that it is still me. If I decided next time to make a reggae album I think that it might be stretching it a little but I am hoping that I have managed to create a series of albums that at the bottom of it all it is still me but each one has it’s own flavour. Some of them are big and symphonic, some are more rock oriented, some are pastorals or light and acoustic. There is always a lot of variety as variety is something that I am interested in.  

Because I am not a maestro on any particular instrument, I can hold my own on acoustic guitar or keyboard but I am not Rick Wakeman and I am not Steve Howe, each album has been designed to highlight the arrangement skills as opposed to the virtuosity of the playing. Know your limitations. I leave the virtuosity to people like Spock’s Beard or The Flower Kings who have the skills to stand on stage and jam for half an hour and it sounds absolutely superb. Me, I have to arrange everything so that it all sounds very complicated and very well put together but it is all done with the arrangement. Very simple parts put together, in the same way that Pink Floyd did ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. If you break that down into its composite parts it is very simple, but it sounds great when you put it all back together again and that is what I try to do. Keep it simple but have a bit here where the flute answers the keyboard, the keyboard answers the cello, which answers the drum and they are all talking together. There is a counterpoint parts coming together and meshing together with the impression that there are lots of things all happening and give it the complexity through arrangement as opposed to through virtuosity.     

 I feel that your music could be described as ‘English’, what do you say to that? 

I do listen to a lot of American music; I love Steely Dan for example but if we are talking ‘progressive’ then there is something quintessentially English about it. From the moment that you start to evolve from ‘Sgt Pepper’ through to ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ and out into Genesis, I don’t think that you can get any more English than Genesis circa ‘Nursery Cryme’ period. Progressive rock is essentially middle class rock music, I don’t think that it is particularly working class. I am not being snobbish about that, I’m not saying that working class don’t like it, it is just that it is probably the product of a middle class education. It implies a certain amount of literacy and education, and that is not being politically incorrect. You look at punk which came afterwards which was a call to arms from the streets and about time too, it gave a lot of force and impetus back into music, although it caused a lot of damage at the times to the bands that I liked but it was necessary. The innovation of progressive rock came through the experimentation and cross-breeding of different art forms, artistry in terms of visual art, in terms of literature and performance arts all came together in progressive rock. To have had the opportunities to be able to do that you have to have had some sort of middle class grounded education. It was no surprise to me that Genesis came from Charterhouse. That being said, there were  a lot of great progressive rock musicians who didn’t come from middle class backgrounds, but the vast majority tended to come from an educated background.  

I write what I write because I am just a product of my generation, a product of going to a grammar school, reading a lot and the bands I admire tend to write that sort of music. If I had been born a little later then I would probably be trying to write Talking Heads’ songs or XTC and basically thrashing away on the guitar but I was born early enough to hear Genesis and Jethro Tull and Yes doing their intricate complex writing and it caught me. That is the things that I have been interested in ever since. I do think that you are a product of your time. If you were born in the late Sixties it would be totally different to being born in the early Seventies, I write what I write because I am that old, basically. You should try to be true and write what you enjoy. I love The Mahavishnu Orchestra, but I couldn’t write it. I love Hatfield and the North and National Health but I don’t think that I could write that either. It is too musically complex for me to write. I try to write a good tune, and hopefully some good words to go with a good tune, and I leave it at that.  

You haven’t mentioned Hammill or VDGG, is that more from Andy’s side?  

Yes, in the same way that I was introduced to Jethro Tull, Andy introduced me to  Hammill and VDGG. My first introduction to VDGG was actually when I was taking a girl out in the fifth form at school and her brothers were big VDGG fans. They used to interrogate me while she was upstairs getting changed. While she was away they put me in the armchair, play albums at me and gauge my reaction, whether I was worthy of their sister. I can remember the first thing that I heard was that they slapped ‘Godbluff’ on and started putting “Scorched Earth” on and they studied me to see how I would react to this guy bellowing and screaming at the top of his lungs.

I never paid much attention to Hammill and VDGG though, I missed them. When Lindisfarne, Genesis and VDGG went out on the tour I would have been much more interested in seeing the other two. When Andy introduced me to VDGG he was diddling around with “Arrow” to test the equipment out and I went ‘who?’, and he said that it was off the ‘Godbluff’ album so I listened to that and it was quite interesting. We worked on “Arrow” and some others and then decided to work on “Ronceveaux” from ‘Time Vaults’ which has never been recorded properly. We decided to get in touch with Hammill and ask him for the lyrics and we went to meet him down in Bath. The actual process of going through and constructing and reconstructing these songs to put the album together gave me the love of VDGG that I have now. Basically it opened the door, opened my eyes to this great stuff. I don’t understand what he is going on about, somebody please tell me what “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers” is about. I think that it is something to do with isolation but who cares? I got to know each song and it just became a passion, and then of course you move onto the Hammill stuff.  

Andy introduced me to VDGG and Hammill and the dark side of the force comes from Andy, and I provided the Canterbury side of things which is more where my interests are, the Genesis sort of intricate parts. That is really what I do now with The Tangent, my role is to act as co-producer on that side and to add the acoustic instruments and bits and pieces to counteract the big keyboards and the rock part of it. I try to keep the wood in there. 

If someone came across your new album, how would you describe it to them? 

It is tricky, as I really hate pigeonholing, putting it into a box as it is only by giving people other names that they can start to recognise it. Well, it sounds a bit like Roy Harper, Al Stewart (laughs)… 

The big thing on the new album is the title track which is a long 31 minute piece divided into eight parts and it is basically one long acoustic song. I got so sick of not being able to play live because the band weren’t around, that I decided that the next time I recorded an album there would be a long piece that I could play myself if necessary. If no-one else turned up I could do this on my own. I can do 85% of “One Small Step” on my own, although it could be a bit flat, but who knows I might do it yet. I wanted to do a long linear acoustic song and this is my attempt, whereas when I have tried long pieces in the past they have been rock songs bolted together with linking sections whereas this one I wanted it to be a flowing performance of one man and his guitar, with the aid of other instruments helping out and putting the icing on the cake. The basis for half this album is the acoustic guitar and the lyrics. 

The other half of the album is made up of songs that I thought were interesting as complimentary to the half an hour piece which is to me the most important thing on the album, but each of the four other pieces are quite different. One is tex mex, another sounds like Tom Paxton simple folk song type of approach and the other two are fairly rocky songs. There is a bit of progressive rock in “No Hiding Place” where it goes completely bonkers in the middle but only because I felt like going completely bonkers in the middle. I told people to go absolutely mad and squeak and squawk and I took the best bits and made them into a collage in the middle and it works. 

How do you feel you are different to the rest of the progressive scene? 

How do you find that key original thing that you can do that no one else can? With me it is going back to the Harper-esque approach to song writing that I don’t think that many of my progressive peers have. I think that is because I am not good enough to write long windy pieces. I couldn’t write “Topographic Oceans”, I could write some of the tunes, but you would have needed Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire in the same room to produce that end result. I write by myself, so how good can it be when it is the product of just one person’s brain. It is difficult. I know that Ian Anderson writes the Tull stuff but they still knock it about in the arrangement and I haven’t got anybody to do that with, I write in isolation. The thing that is so good and different about doing Tangent as opposed to what I do is that it gives me the chance to pretend that I am in a band again. I am in charge of just my bit of the sound, instead of virtually everything. With The Tangent my job is going in and taking charge of the acoustic instruments and the arrangements of the pieces and the way that the songs work together and where to put light and shade. This is the interesting thing for me about Tangent even though we have never all been in the same room at one time. We met up for The Flower Kings gig in Rotherham, and we were all there apart from David Jackson and that was the nearest we have ever been to being together.               

After this the tape machine was stopped, and Guy spent time showing me how he uses his Cubase recording system, playing some music, and then we went into his front room to look at his amazing collection of CDs (easily the most I have ever seen), and to see just some of the concert programmes and tickets he has kept from over the years.