TILES: Powered By Prog Since 1993
Tiles is a four piece band that has been making music since 1993, originating in the Detroit area. These four musicians took on a genre known for time signatures other than 4/4, for song lengths longer than 4 minutes and for including rhythms and styles not usually associated with rock’n’roll. Theirs is thinking mans’ music, working mans’ music, musicians’ music and most importantly, music lovers’ music. This is Progressive music in it’s most obvious sense. Thrilling, expansive and filled with little touches of electronics, guitar fireworks and a playfulness throughout that is endearing and welcome.
Pretending 2 Run is a double album, a concept album and most assuredly, a modern album made by musician’s that know the past and aren’t afraid to blaze a path into the future. With the aid of renowned producer Terry Brown and artist Hugh Syme as well as a stellar group of guests, Tiles have made their most varied, most accomplished album to date. Let the air-guitar, air-drumming, air-keyboard and air-bass playing begin!
Is there an overarching theme to the songs on the album or lyrics that come up throughout referring to something specific? Is Pretending 2 Run a concept album or an awesome double album (or both)?
Yes, P2R is a song cycle – which does put it in concept album territory. The story begins in the aftermath of a tragic event and journeys from the central character’s escape from the dark corners of seclusion through his faltering and elusive search for redemption. It’s not a linear narrative because we don’t reveal how or why things happened. Each song sets a scene in the story line but many of the lyrics are purposely vague. This allows the songs to stand individually – and more importantly – leaves room for the listener to personalize the story with their observations, experience or imagination.
Whether or not it’s awesome is up to the listener.
What struck me was how modern and fearless the songs were. There are bands out there getting signed to KScope that aren’t really rock bands yet possess the progressive spirit, using keyboards and pop sounds to relay their message. I just saw String Cheese Incident and was surprised to hear how inclusive they were with styles and sounds, putting jazz, reggae, dance music and more into their music. I feel to be truly progressive you should be fearless and embrace all that is out there, not just play many time signatures. Do you think Tiles is a truly Progressive band?
Agreed…, there are some very interesting and innovative bands cropping up. Progressive really means one of two things: music in the mold of the early-70’s artists who established a set of musical features which came to define a genre; or progressive in the true meaning of the word. Being considered ‘progressive’ is ultimately in the ear of the beholder and is probably informed by their experience and references. Certainly blending styles and genres, introducing new instruments and experimenting with harmony and compositional techniques are areas to explore in hopes of creating new and adventurous music.
Tiles strives to embrace the virtues of being progressive, but we also incorporate many of the classic Prog hallmarks: long compositions, moments of complexity, conceptual presentations, etc. In the past it’s been said we’re “not progressive enough for Prog and too Prog for rock” – so maybe this means we exist in some kind of hybrid gray area? Regardless of a song’s style, the simple goal of music is to create something that provides enjoyment and speaks to listeners on some level. Finding a unique voice is something artists of all genres seek.
Tiles has been together for many years. What keeps the band together? What are the personalities that make the band work?
Well, it’s not the paycheck! Common musical interests, friendship and the shared experience of creating music we all enjoy. In our own small way we still feel like we have something to say musically. We’ve all faced real-life challenges and stood by each other in times of need which creates a bond. There have been periods of uncertainty as with any “partnership,” but we’ve come to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses and settled into roles that make up the big, semi-functional picture. Plus humor is also an essential ingredient!
What is your favorite instrument and why?
(Drummer Mark Evans): Drums and percussion of course!
(Bassist Jeff Whittle): Fortunately bass. Not only do I love the sound of the instrument, but the role it plays in the band. Melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, textural, etc. there’s a lot of opportunity since one note can make all the difference!
(Guitarist Chris Herin): Drums. Even when I write songs I’m thinking of the drums. It’s not always good news for Mark though because I sometimes get into his business!
(Vocalist Paul Rarick): I am really drawn to guitar. It has so much versatility you can do just about anything with it using different tunings, types of guitars, amp sounds and effects.
Were there instruments or vocal approaches that you used on the new album that hadn’t been done before or as well?
Yes. This record is loaded with different instruments, guest musicians and new ways of doing business. Most obvious are the vocal arrangements. Since Pretending 2 Run tells a long story we felt different voice timbres were necessary. This started to develop thanks to Chris’ songwriting demos where he typically sings the lead vocal melody and works out a big chunk of the backing vocals. In some cases the sound of his voice and delivery ended up being right for the song. It took some coaxing but Chris actually sings lead on a couple of songs for the first time. We also 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 Jeff, Mark and Chris joined in too.
We essentially approached the project with no limitations and knew we wanted to make an album almost symphonic in scope.
That’s why each of us stepped away from our instruments to allow guests to bring the right musical element or change of pace to the songs. Whether it’s Mike Portnoy or his son Max playing drums, Mike Stern or Kim Mitchell contributing guitar solos, Adam Holzman’s keyboards and textures, Colin Edwin’s soundscapes, Kevin Chown’s bass, or the one-and-only Ian Anderson on flute – we wanted to make the album eclectic and engaging. After all, we have to hold the listener’s attention for over 90-minutes!
(Paul): I’d like to add I think P2R shows the immense growth of the band. The arrangements add an expansive cinematic element. I remember working at Mark Mikel’s studio recording background vocals; we had one idea after another and could hardly keep up with everything – we just went with the flow. There were a lot of inspirational sessions for all of us.
(Chris): The spoken word sections are new for us. 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.
What song or part on your many albums are you especially pleased with?
(Paul): Reasonable Doubt from our Presents of Mind album. I remember recording that song and it sounded so powerful and dramatic each step of the way. Then when Terry mixed it it took on a whole new intensity.
(Chris): There are a lot of songs which came out just as we hoped, but I have to agree with Paul, Reasonable Doubt takes me to another place – it feels like a crowning achievement. I also find as a whole that Fly Paper is very satisfying to listen to. And actually, I can put on all of P2R and enjoy it as a listener – even after hearing it for over 2 years! There are quite a few standout tracks.
(Jeff): Tough question! As a bass player, I have always been especially proud of my part on Hide in My Shadow. I think our new song Weightless is the crowning achievement off P2R. And I hate to admit it was one of the first songs Chris presented to the band and I brushed it off!
(Mark): Of all our songs I always enjoy playing the jazz intro of Patterns, Safe Procedures and Balled of the Sacred Cows. From Pretending 2 Run, Taken by Surprise and Stonewall with Mike Portnoy are my current favorites. If someone who had never heard of us asked “what one song best sums up Tiles” I’d have to say Checkerboards .
How has Tiles grown as a band, as players and could you give an example whether it is heard on a song or the background making of?
(Jeff): Chris singing lead vocals on a couple of songs is something I never expected! He also wrote two SATB choir pieces which I was glad fit perfectly into the story. Mark experimented with many different percussion instruments and Paul was the ultimate team player collaborating with additional vocalists. Mostly our growth is heard in the songwriting and arranging. Our approach has matured so that we know which experiments are working and when we’ve gone off the deep end. We aren’t so precious with every idea.
(Chris): A couple things really stand out for me. First was everyone’s willingness to set aside egos for the greater good since producer Terry Brown spared no potentially unpopular comment, suggestion or directions. No matter how diplomatically presented these things are often not fun to hear. This meant a part we thought was done had to be re-done; or a section of a song we labored to create was deleted. A couple times Terry recommended we set a song aside for a while because we weren’t “getting it.” Another interesting thing was the recording of Weightless and Friend or Foe. Whereas we typically record playing together in the studio looking for that magical drum performance, the drums for these two songs were recorded after much of the guitars, bass and vocals were completed. This may be an approach we revisit in the future!
What is one of your greatest achievements in or out of Tiles so far?
(Paul): I would say being very fortunate to have had the opportunity to record and play some great music with some great people.
(Jeff): For me the European tour with Dream Theater is an easy thing to point to. But really, we have accomplished so much just by hanging in there and releasing six studio albums and two live albums. We’ve worked with great production teams, iconic musicians and we’ve shared the stage with legendary bands. Most importantly we’ve developed a fan base and can create music for an audience. Of course, right now Pretending 2 Run tops my list of achievements because I feel it’s the culmination of everything we’ve learned and experienced up to this point.
(Chris): Writing songs that people enjoy listening to.
Can you pinpoint a time in your life or a song you heard that got you to pick up an instrument and truly want to be a musician? Was there a person or people that helped push you forward?
(Jeff): I was always really passionate about music. I tried out for the 6th grade school band and was not good so I thought that was the end of it for me. Then a freak thing happened at a buddy’s house and I picked up his bass. From that point on it was what I wanted to play and made up my mind I was going to learn. As far as inspirational people go, my two teachers in 11th and 12th grade band (Jim and Bill) and my first bass teacher Kevin Chown got me off to a great start. Kevin was the guy that opened up my musical horizon and pushed me. I learned so much from him. He made it cool to want to learn how the bass worked, learn music theory and be a musician – not just a bassist. He was huge for me.
(Chris): Seeing the Elton John & Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye to Norma Jean and Other Things documentary was my Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show moment. Then as a beginning guitarist seeing Rush on the Hemispheres tour – crushed against the barrier at the front of the stage – was two-hours of musical inspiration and guitar lessons.
Working with Terry Brown must have been a pleasure. What are some of the things he contributed to your new album? Was he a coach, a cheerleader, a taskmaster? Was he the objective ear to help direct you all to make such a great album?
(Mark): It is always a pleasure working with Terry. He is all of the above and more. At heart he seems to think like a drummer – the foundation of the rhythm section never gets short changed. Terry always knows when a performance is good or if there is something better on the horizon. I would do what I thought was the ‘take’ only to hear “that’s pretty good, but maybe try this”. He always has the big picture in mind so everything serves the song and he is a great musical coach.
(Jeff): I agree with Mark. Terry is all those things and more. We even talked him into playing on the album! He did some programming, played shaker and did a spoken word part. Terry knows when and how to ask “the” important questions and bring things 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. Of course he sometimes has to say things you don’t want to hear, which can be tough, but he’s always diplomatic.
Did he regal you with stories of working with Rush and other bands?
(Tiles): Yes. Over the years he’s told so many great stories about all the bands he worked with. Especially interesting are the ones about his early career starting out in London in the 1960’s working with The Who, Donovan, Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and producers like Glyn Johns and Gus Dudgeon. We keep suggesting he write a book like his brother Phill did!
Hugh Syme has a singular visual style. How did he inspire you and craft such an interesting package for Pretending 2 Run? When did you first become aware of him and what did you think of his work?
(Chris): Now that Hugh has published his excellent “Art of Rush” book – complete with testimonials from many notable and celebrated fans – there’s not much more to say! The first cover of Hugh’s to really capture my imagination was Rush’s A Farewell to Kings – which Hugh kindly invited me to write about for his book (not that I’m either notable or celebrated!). I’ve been our artwork liaison with Hugh since 1999 when he did the Presents of Mind cover. His work always seems to become an extension of the music and adds a dimension that helps create, compliment and sometimes confuse. It’s remarkable how much is contained in his deceptively simple designs! [The cover for] Pretending 2 Run has just three images: the turtle, the girl and the escalator. Yet there are several ways your imagination can go. Aside from the obvious fact that a turtle can only ‘pretend to run,’ the distraught young girl is also on the threshold of ‘pretending’ as she stops short of following her pet down the escalator. Will she act impetuously, oblivious to the danger of her surroundings? Maybe the smirk on the turtle’s face suggests he is pretending – fully intent on returning? Or maybe he is willfully ‘running away’ – just not literally.
Who are some of the guests on the album, why did you choose them, who was the hardest to reach/find time with, who did you want but couldn’t get? What did they do on the album and how did they make the song and album that much better?
Whew… there’s a lot packed into this question! Some of the guests are 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), Kevin Chown (Tarja Turunen, Chad Smith), Keith Kaminski (Bob Seger), Kim Mitchell (Max Webster, solo), Mark Mikel (The Pillbugs, solo), Matthew Parmenter (Discipline, solo) and friends of our from the Detroit area.
There were many different reasons for collaborating with various musicians based on what we were looking for. 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 dynamics of the entire programming. Plus some of these guests are friends and acquaintances so their participation is a fun thing too. 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 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 keyboards and “sonic architecture” are things we don’t otherwise have at our disposal. The same goes for the string quartet, Sonya Mastick on tablas and congas, and the choir (obviously).
There were a couple guests whose schedules didn’t work out – the most obvious being Hugh Syme since he’s played on our previous two albums. But we shouldn’t disclose who else didn’t join the party…
If, god forbid, Tiles was never a band, in an alternate world what band would you want to join and why?
(Jeff): Not surprisingly, I wouldn’t mind being the bassist in a ground-breaking band like Yes, Genesis, The Who, The Beatles, Rush, King Crimson, or Led Zeppelin.
(Chris): I would like to play in Elton John’s band or work with Ian Anderson. Looking back it may have been fun being a band director…
(Paul): Iron Maiden.
(Mark): If I could quantum leap back in time I would be a big band drummer in 1938… or drop into 1969 & jam with Keith Emerson and Jimi Hendrix.
Please list five bands, songs, live shows or albums that inspire you or that you simply enjoy.
(Mark): Seeing the Buddy Rich Big Band when I was 16; having a private lesson with Joe Morello; ELP “Welcome Back”; Chicago’s first album (CTA); every Beatles recording I’ve ever heard.
(Paul): Alice in Chains, Iron Maiden, Jethro Tull, Steely Dan and Dean Martin.
(Jeff): Steven Wilson Hand Cannot Erase live; Tori Amos Little Earthquakes; Genesis Foxtrot; Yes Close to the Edge; King Crimson.
(Chris): Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; Kansas Leftoverture; Rush Hemispheres; Joe Walsh The Smoker You Drink…; Miles Davis Kind of Blue.
Thanks for your time. Really enjoying the music!
(Tiles): You’re welcome – thank you!
(Interview by Bret Miller)