Jean-Christophe : Hello, how are you? Thank you for answering our questions for Néo Prog.
Chris : I’m doing well, merci… I hope you are also doing ok and thank you very much for taking the time to do an interview!
Jean-Christophe : After eight years of silence, you come back strong with a double album, “Pretending 2 Run”. Why such a long absence?
Chris : After “Fly Paper” was released in 2008 we spent time promoting the album and playing shows around the Midwestern US. It ended up being a strange time for us. Tiles fans seemed to really like “Fly Paper,” but overall the CD seemed to ‘fly’ mostly under the radar – even with Alex Lifeson of Rush making a special guest appearance! We (naturally) thought the album was pretty good and deserved a better fate; but it came and went pretty fast. So for a while we were unsure if there was really enough interest in the band to do another album. But, I’m always writing lyrics, bits of music and songs and finally started thinking about “what to do next” after a visit to Paris with my wife in late-2009. Hearing classical music performed in the historic cathedrals was inspirational and got me thinking about attempting something grand and diverse.
Going back in time a bit, the seeds for “P2R” 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 was the last song we played for producer Terry Brown during pre-production rehearsals. We had already finalized 60-minutes of music, so Terry said we didn’t need more 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 revamping. It was around this time that ‘Drops of Rain,’ ‘Uneasy Truce’ and ‘Fait Accompli’ were sketched out, but it was clear the vibe didn’t fit the direction of “Fly Paper”. So again we couldn’t get traction and back on the shelf ‘Destiny Undelivered’ went for yet another ‘maybe next time.’
The ‘Destiny Undelivered’ concept and material – especially the first section, ‘Pretending to Run’ – finally grabbed my attention in earnest. Coupled with my renewed enthusiasm for new musical horizons, the song 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. As the basic storyline took shape the band started working on musical ideas around 2010. We still weren’t quite 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.
We spent 2011 and 2012 writing and rehearsing, started recording in February of 2013 and finished in December 2015. In the middle of this lengthy process we recognized it was going to be awhile before we released a new studio album so we recorded a couple live albums “Off the Floor 01” and “Off the Floor 02” to bridge the gap and keep our name alive, at least a little bit.
Also, there were some life events that contributed to the time lapse. The U.S. 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 business. Plus in general 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!
Jean-Christophe : There are special guests on this last album, Ian Anderson, Mike Portnoy, Colin Edwin, Adam Holzman, Mike Stern ... What do they bring to your music?
Chris : The songs were written without thoughts of any specific special guests. They came into the picture as we worked on building the song arrangements. Over the years we have done shows with and 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 in the past which has always been rewarding and fun!
We did (almost by accident) end up with 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 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; plus, he created a selection of textures and soundscapes that we used to assemble segues and atmospherics to link songs.
Colin Edwin worked his 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.
Jean-Christophe : How would you define your music today after all these years: progressive hard rock, prog metal, etc...?
Chris : Musically we seem to exist in a grey area between progressive hard rock and melodic rock with some metal tendencies thrown in. We often get classified as progressive metal – but I personally don’t think we’re quite heavy enough. Several people have coined the phrase we’re “too metal for prog and too prog for metal”. We always strive for dynamics and variety on our albums to provide emotional ups and downs and changes in the energy level. This diversity creates an ebb and flow to the album. Sometimes this works against us with people who like to hear the same sound and style through an entire album – but fortunately most progressive rock fans appreciate diversity!
“Pretending 2 Run” continues our quest for “structured spontaneity” and experimentation, but with a new focus on more elaborate and dramatic arrangements and blending different styles. We didn’t limit ourselves by staying close to the band’s live instrumentation. There are some very heavy songs and complex long compositions offset by melodic rock songs, choirs, acoustic pieces, electronic interludes and elaborate vocal and string arrangements. Because it’s a double concept album we needed variety and different textures and atmospheres to convey the story line and deliver a musical journey.
Jean-Christophe : In the titles and in the lyrics, there are many references to French (Voir Dire, Fait Accompli, Pretending to Run, Meditatio), why?
Chris : “Pretending 2 Run” is a song cycle about someone who is blindsided and disillusioned by betrayal – and follows their journey from isolation on a search for recovery. In the early stages of writing lyrics the French terms “Voir Dire” (to tell the truth) and “Fait Accompli” (something already decided before it becomes known) were important concepts in the story.
Throughout the album we interspersed quotes from the classic book ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; charmingly narrated by special guest Mlle. France Espitalier, a young lady from the south of France. ’The Little Prince’ always has always had a profound effect on me no matter how many times I read it. As ‘P2R’ developed I recognized a parallel with the same search for understanding and wisdom that is the book’s central theme. When my family hosted France (a French exchange student) I thought this might be an opportunity to integrate a few appropriate ‘Little Prince’ phrases to underscore several key lyrical concepts. Personally, I’m not a big fan of narration and I wasn’t sure we would actually use it – even after recording her parts. But it added a sense of innocence and another dimension to the storyline.
The “French Connection” continued to develop further because every time I visit Paris I feel enriched (as with most European cities and towns) – so the album has a number of purposeful French influences. It begins and ends with a snare cadence I heard during the Paris Marathon parade. I also recorded random street sounds while walking along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which we subtly embedded in several of the between-song interludes. Plus I spent a great deal of time in and around the Notre-Dame Cathedral which inspired the album’s two choir pieces – and a certain amount of introspection for writing lyrics.
Jean-Christophe : On “Pretending 2 Run”, you mix hard rock riffs, psychedelic, symphonic 70’s prog, etc. Is it a homecoming, or a tribute to the precursors of the genre?
Chris : We certainly didn’t set out to formulate a tribute or mimic a particular style. I think it’s our mixture of influences that creates our sound. Although we are a rock band, we try to keep an open mind about experimenting and trying new approaches to composition and arranging. All of us have a wide range of musical interests and we’re willing to try almost anything in hopes of finding something new and interesting. We all listen to jazz, classical and a variety of rock, pop and metal bands and this diversity finds its way into our music, at least to some extent.
Jean-Christophe : How was it to go back in the studio after “Fly Paper”? A reunion for the group, or do you often see each other when you’re not writing or recording?
Chris : Well, it definitely wasn’t a reunion because during most of the eight year gap we were hard at work! Plus we did the two live albums released in 2012 and 2014. Certainly there are a few months here and there when we’re not doing anything as a band since I may be writing on my own, or Jeff and I will get together to write. So there’s no escaping each other for very long 8-).
Jean-Christophe : You had to wait until the release of “Present of Mind” in 1999 to finally have the public and critics’ recognition. Did it not discourage you at the beginning?
Chris : No not at all. Our initial goal as a band was pretty simple: write, record, and perform the music we liked. We didn’t have grand aspirations actually; after all, we formed Tiles at the height of the grunge era! It was a boost of confidence when our first CD was licensed and released by Dream Circle/Polydor in Germany – which prompted us to recognize that Europe was a market for us. Early-on Japan was also very receptive. I had originally thought we’d record one CD and just have a bit of fun playing around the Detroit area – but things went well and we kept going! After five years of existence we had become known, sold a good amount of CDs and toured Europe with Dream Theater.
‘Discouraging’ was the time lapse before releasing “Window Dressing” and then “Fly Paper” and the somewhat lukewarm reception to these albums. But thankfully, our persistence and hard work have paid off and “Pretending 2 Run” is being very well received!
Jean-Christophe : I will not lie to you “Pretending 2 Run” is a big musical slap. The album is full of references and yet retains an identity that is unique to you. How did you arrive at this result?
Chris : Hopefully, you mean “slap” in a good way ☺! Maybe it translates into “impact” or “impression” (?). Anyway, it’s true our primary influences are still intact; however, I think you can hear quite a few new things creeping in as we experiment with other styles and sounds. We don’t wish to be a carbon copy of any other band and hope our influences come together in a somewhat identifiable sound – which is the coincidental blending of each musician’s style and personality and their willingness to carve out an identity.
For example, some of my main influences are Jethro Tull, Elton John, Kansas, lots of jazz and classical music, Joe Walsh, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, Al DiMeola, etc… Some newer bands I find inspirational are Radiohead, Haken, Leprous and Burnt Belief. Mark Evans is influenced by ELP, Buddy Rich & other jazz drummers, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Rush…; Jeff’s influences come from Iron Maiden, Metallica, Yes, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Dream Theater…; and Paul’s are Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Queensryche and Alice in Chains. Of course, we all have many other influences too, but these are probably the obvious ones. It’s interesting how all of us have significant jazz influences – which I think comes through in our music.
Jean-Christophe : Pretending 2 Run is a concept album, but what does it talk about? (The French are bad in English and rarely read lyrics ...)
Chris : Well, at least there’s a little bit of French on the album!
I like many of the impressionist artists from the 19th century. A couple of my favorite paintings are Vincent Van Gogh’s “Landscape with Snow” and “Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background”. Although these paintings are somewhat cold and bleak they express a melancholy beauty. To me they represent the times when life is challenging or when things aren’t going well, but also that transition and rejuvenation are around the corner.
I approached the “Pretending 2 Run” story similar to an impressionist painting. The listener generally knows what’s going on but it’s vague enough to leave room for imagination. Many songs simply convey the central character’s emotions and thoughts.
As previously mentioned, the album is a song cycle 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 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.
Jean-Christophe : Now that you are going strong with a new and great double album, will you land in Europe to play live and revisit your past successes?
Chris : We’re hoping “Pretending 2 Run” continues to be well-received and builds enough momentum for us to tour Europe. 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?
Jean-Christophe : Thank you for your answers, and see you very soon I hope.
Chris : Thank you for your thoughtful questions – I appreciate your interest and support of Tiles! We too hope to see our French fans soon and are keeping our fingers crossed we can make it happen.
Rédigé par Jean-Christophe le 16/06/2016