Tim Bowness – No-Man/Solo

Tim Bowness

Perhaps best known for his work with No-Man, a longstanding 28-year, six album collaboration with Steven Wilson, Tim Bowness has recently resurrected his solo career, with 2014’s well received Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and an astonishingly speedy follow up Stupid Things That Mean The World.

In fact, Stupid Things That Mean The World is a cracker that’s sure to feature well in ‘Album of the Year’ lists. It’s wistful, reflective, and very moving with Bowness’s voice, as I wrote in my review of the album “bringing every track within touching distance of common hopes and fears, past and present.” It’s a prime example of what words and music can do, working in tandom on an album that comes on like a reacquainted friend. I jumped at the chance, therefore, to speak with Tim about Stupid Things That Mean The World, his lyrical themes, his influences, playing live, and the death of rock. It’s an honour to be able to add his thoughts to the Words and Music Interview Series.

So Tim, what would you like to tell people about the new album?
Always difficult! Obviously, I hope that each album is a progression in some way from the last and that it shows some level of personal development. I think all performers like to feel that their career has a forward momentum and Stupid Things That Mean The World did feel as if it was taking aspects of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams further. Like a lot of my work, a lot of thought went into things like track listing and arrangement, though in some ways I would describe the final product as being a combination of accident and intention. Quite often it’s the accidental beginnings that you don’t control that provide the material you shape into the finished album.

In what sense ‘accidental’? Can you elaborate?
Well, in the sense I think everything is for me. When I write I don’t go in with a particular intention, although I did have an overall intention of perhaps developing ideas in Abandoned Dancehall Dreams further. I wouldn’t necessarily say: “Right, I’m going to sit down now and write a piece that is this, or a piece that is that.” ‘Press Reset’, for example, was something that surprised me as it went along. I certainly didn’t realise what the outcome would be when I started writing. It was similar with ‘Know That You Were Loved’, which was written on guitar in a very different way. In some ways the material is created in quite an instinctive and spontaneous way and then once an outcome emerges you shape it as best you can. So I meant accidental in the sense that there would never be a deliberate intention to write in a particular style or write a particular type of song.

‘Press Reset’ is my favourite track on the album, by the way.
‘Press Reset’ and ‘Know That You Were Loved’ were my two favourites actually because, as I say, they turned out to be nothing like I was expecting and it surprised me where they ended up.

‘Press Reset’ emerged from a computer studio experiment. I just followed it through to its conclusion and then heightened aspects of what the experiment suggested. At the end of the process, I felt I ended up with a song quite unlike any other I’d written and a lyric and lyrical subject I really wasn’t expecting. It’s a subject that’s always quite fascinated me, the idea of people who seemingly have happy family and work lives and then completely escape them, you know, due to various internal pressures and so on. And I realised that it had actually happened in my own family as my step-brother had done exactly the same thing, even though it wasn’t something that had particularly influenced me while I was writing it. It’s a subject, to be fair, that a lot of English people will know via the Reggie Perrin route. And it was quite interesting to me that in a sense it almost became semi-autobiographical, in that it dealt with someone I’d known.

I still feel a novice when it comes to being a musician, as opposed to being a singer, so it’s always a thrill to finish a song. In the case of ‘Know That You were Loved’, it was compositionally quite detailed, so I was pleased with my writing, which was something different for me.

You mentioned forward momentum just now, but your lyrics are, well, I would describe them as wistful and reflective, and they seem to have quite a lot to do with the past. Can you tell us more about some of the lyrical themes?
I think that melancholy and nostalgia are two themes that I’ve always visited in my lyrics. Even when I started writing lyrics in my late teens, and was in my first band, I think the themes were in many ways similar. The actual stories and the style of writing may be completely different but there’s always been this sort of impulse, if you like, to dwell on that halcyon time that is no more. And often it’s difficult to explain away those things because you’re naturally drawn to them. I can only think that there might be something in my history or in my family life that always means that in terms of my interest in literature and film and perhaps in the songs that I write, there’s a strong aspect of almost trying to reclaim innocence or reclaim happiness. Also, I think with lyrics sometimes, that whatever one does, one’s worst fears tend to be articulated in one’s work, almost as a form of exorcism. And perhaps there’s always a fear, certainly as an artist, that your best work is behind you, that your best times are behind you. However much you’re enjoying the creative process, however much it feels vital to you, I think that most musicians, artists, filmmakers have a gnawing sense of doubt. In some ways I think that’s good because it’s what propels people to do better or to change and it certainly provides some creative momentum.

What about the title of the new album Stupid Things That Mean The World?
The new album’s title concerns the small and seemingly trivial things that make us who we are, or help us through our lives. It could be an old toy, art/music, shared intimate language, a belief system, an annual holiday, the image or idea of someone you loved in your youth and so on.

Tim Bowness - Stupid Things That Mean The World album coverSo, yes, it concerns the myriad tiny things that in some ways make up personalities. I was also thinking of something like the significance of the seemingly insignificant Rosebud in Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane where one incident with a toy in this huge media baron’s childhood seems to have been the key to his personality.

That said, the lyrical content in the individual songs is quite separate. For example, while it completely ties in with the idea of stupid things that mean the world – in this case, the person’s attachment to the idea of a holiday – a song like ‘At The End Of The Holiday’ is also very much a separate story about a person very separate from me. As with ‘Press Reset’, it’s almost a short story set to song.

In terms of influences, and things from your musical past, who are the artists who’ve made an impression on you?
There are far too many to mention! I still actively buy, listen to and enjoy music, so I’ve heard a great deal of music through the years. Probably the first artist is not one people would expect. It was John Barry the film composer. When I was around five or six, my dad used to take me to the cinema to see James Bond films, partly because my mum hated them, and I fell in love with the music. I thought it was incredibly haunting and expansive. Then, probably like a lot of kids even in the mid-70s, the Beatles and their offshoots, like Wings, had some level of importance, as did some of the bands influenced by them like 10cc. So I liked an odd combination of film music, experimental pop music and even some classical music from my parents’ collection. As I got older, and into my teens, that’s when rock, experimental rock, art rock – anything from Bowie to Floyd to Zeppelin to Genesis to Kate Bush – became extremely important.

Peter Hammill OverAnd obviously a couple of people who are on the new album are people whose music I absolutely adored when I was a teenager – Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music is one. Roxy Music were a major influence when I was younger. And Peter Hammill is another, because several of his albums, in particular his confessional album ‘Over’, meant a great deal to me. ‘Over’ was very intense, very raw, and in some ways showed me a completely different way of making music. It was something that wasn’t airbrushed or artificial in any way and dealt with subjects that most pop music didn’t – children leaving parents, the death of a relationship, the death of a friend, and so it was a series of meditations on things being ‘over’. It really resonated with me when I was in my mid-teens and I still think it’s a fantastic album.

Over the last couple of decades I’ve liked music by Mark Eitzel, Flaming Lips, Elbow, Keaton Henson, Bjork, Midlake, Troyka – a new-ish experimental UK Jazz band – and more I can’t remember. In terms of all-time favourites, Joni Mitchell’s Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, David Bowie’s Low, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon would all be in there somewhere.

Your music often seems to be labelled ‘progressive rock’ or maybe ‘art rock’. Are you happy with those tags?
To a degree. I certainly don’t go in to make what’s considered to be art rock or progressive rock but my music has a tangential link to that, partly due to some influence from art rock and progressive rock, and partly due to the musicians I work with. In some ways what I do is more a combination of art rock, art pop, prog, experimental and, of course, singer-songwriter elements as well. There’s quite a strong singer-songwriter influence, perhaps, and, again, when I was growing up people like Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, John Martyn, were huge influences. But I have great respect for musicians who work in progressive rock and art rock territory, and in some ways it’s extremely nice to be held alongside those musicians, even if, musically, I’m not entirely sure whether what I do sits with that.

It would seem quite natural to me to relate to your music one-to-one, listening quietly on my own, though I also like being part of an audience. Do you enjoy playing live? And how do you think your music translates well to the live context?
I think it can translate well. Certainly when No-Man played live on the last two tours there was a real energy and a real sense that the band, as a live unit, developed an identity above and beyond the studio work. It really energised what we did. And I suppose if one were to apply terms to it now, we developed a vocabulary that was part art rock and part almost minimalist classical – we were working with a classical violinist called Steve Bingham who had very much come from a background of listening to Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Arvo Pӓrt, composers that Steven [Wilson] and I like as well. That, combined with a slightly more aggressive rock attack that No-Man had, worked really well and was incredibly enjoyable to play, and, I felt, almost pointed at a potential new direction for the band.

So, I think that the louder rock aspect works quite well, as does the more experimental, extremely intimate ambient-tinged singer-songwriter work that I do with Peter Chilvers. It’s perhaps the work in between that doesn’t fare quite as well, and what’s interesting is that when you do play live the venue and audience to an extent dictate the success of the material.

It’s an interesting process and I enjoy the two extremes. I enjoy the potential noise and havoc that No-Man at their loudest can inflict, and I certainly enjoy the near silence of some of the ambient singer-songwriter gigs that I’ve done with Peter Chilvers, partly because every word and every single sound can be heard. Usually the venues we choose are appropriate for that.

Generally speaking, I love the musical aspect of playing live because sometimes songs can come alive in a different context, they can develop in different ways, though sometimes the actual act of performing is quite an alien thing. I think for any adult human being to be playing in front of an audience is something that can render most self-conscious.

Tim Bowness

Is there a particular piece of music, or album, or performance to date for which you’d most like to be remembered?
I’ve honestly no idea. That’s always for other people to say. There are pieces of mine that I’m particularly pleased with – from ‘Press Reset’ and ‘Know That You Were Loved’ from the new album to ‘Smiler at 50’ from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams to numerous No-Man songs like ‘Things I Want To Tell You’ or ‘Days In The Trees’ or ‘Things Change’. There are a number of pieces that I’m extremely pleased I was a part of, and, obviously, if people are touched by work I’ve made there’s definite validation for making it that feels really pleasing.

There’s been a lot of talk recently the death of rock or the death of the rock era. Do you think the people who are proclaiming the death of rock are right?
I think it’s changed. I don’t necessarily think that rock or popular music is dead and nor do I think that creatively it’s dead. If people look around there are still some very interesting albums being made and there are still some statements that are quite fresh. I think there is life in it, but maybe the rate of progression, if you like, has slowed down. Not only that but I think that music that perhaps isn’t at the forefront of the mainstream struggles more than it did to be heard. It’s an ironic time in a way. We have the internet, that provides instant access to everything, and we’ve also had the advent , over the last ten years, of 24 hour music TV and 24 hour digital radio. And yet, less genres of music and less bands seem to get covered.

I think it’s interesting, when you look at something like VH1. When VH1 emerged it was an adult music channel, and initially you might find anything from documentaries on King Crimson to interviews on XTC to what might have been the chart of 1999. But probably within about three or four years, this became the constant streaming of the same videos by the same small group of artists. That aspect is disappointing. One episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test or The Tube may have dealt with ten more genres and more varied artists than the 24 hour digital channels will do now. So on some level it’s bizarre that we live in an age of information and yet we’re exposed to considerably less styles of music and therefore considerably fewer possibilities. It does seem as if the algorithm has won out over the art.

That’s certainly the case if you look at local radio. I was brought up in the North West where the major cities, Liverpool and Manchester, were very active in breeding new talent. Each city only had one local radio station at the time – Piccadilly in Manchester and Radio City in Liverpool – and yet the BBC stations and these local stations would always have three to four hours of new music every evening. When I did my original demos in the mid-1980s – and this is inconceivable now – I’d get played on a show by Mark Radcliffe. He’d play the new Kate Bush single, a track from the latest New Order album, then my demo, then someone else’s demo. It was bizarrely open and eclectic. These days, Piccadilly may have four or five radio stations, but it’s Piccadilly Gold recycling the top hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s, and Piccadilly itself has become more of a commercial station. Equally the local BBC station that was around when I was first making music has become more of a talk channel.

It seems bizarre that despite having more stations, fewer things are being covered, and, generally, there has to be a very strong commercial reason for something to be covered. No-Man were managed by the Talk Talk manager, and Talk Talk were a million selling band. But I remember hearing that Talk Talk were considered “too small” to be played on VH1! So a million selling band were considered not important enough, and I think that since the 90s, that level of corporate control has perhaps got stronger. Obviously, if you’re prepared to search via the internet there are many worlds of possibility, so all is not lost in some respects.

I think you’re right, though for music that you could broadly term ‘progressive rock’, there does seem to have been some sort of resurgence of interest in the last 5 years or so?
There probably has been over the last 10 years. I mean certainly with Burning Shed [Tim also runs the online label and specialist music store Burning Shed – Ed.], when we started out progressive rock was obviously one of the genres we dealt with, and definitely since we started in 2001 the interest has got stronger. My personal belief is that there’s more interest now because of what I said – that in some ways things are very diffuse, very ephemeral, perhaps more corporate, and that people are actually searching for more depth. In a way it explains the resurgence of vinyl as well. It’s the vinyl against the download. In some ways the music is everything, but a download as a commercial property has very little to it, is very easy to produce and so on, and perhaps people are going back to vinyl because there is a craft in the album cover, there’s an expense in it being done, a real sense of effort and depth in, or implied by, the format. I think that ties in with progressive rock, in that in an era that seems, perhaps, more superficial, there are people outside the mainstream hunting for something that actually means something to them.

 

Tim Bowness

CHEERS TIM!

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