Of all the labels operating on the fringes of the modern musical mainstream, sanctuaries for the ever broadening diaspora that is fleeing what were once regarded as the major labels of this world, Burning Shed has long stood as a beacon for how Things Ought To Be Done.
Painstaking artwork, deliberate artfulness, exquisite musical taste and more are the hallmarks of the label, and when you dip your toes into the waters of modern prog rock, chances are you’ll sight the blazing outhouse long before you’ve gone too far.
Founded in 2001 as an online on-demand label selling uniquely packaged CDRs, Burning Shed has grown to encompass a range of other activities, including a newly-launched publishing wing, and a long established chain of online stores for what even its own website describes as niche artists.
None of whom feel so niche-y once you hear them.
Burning Shed’s own roster includes such names as Steve Jansen, Steve Wilson, Judy Dyble, Nick Beggs, Adam Holzman, Halo Effect and UXB; and, heading off the new release schedule right now, the label’s own founder, Tim Bowness.
His new album, the superbly titled Stupid Things That Mean The World arrives just a year after the equally well-named Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, an eleven track leviathan that opens with a fanfare of hair raising cacophony; resolves itself into a slice of primitive funk; touches upon the symphonic grandiosity that hallmarked the first King Crimson album… and all that in just the first two minutes.
Tim Bowness sits down with Spin Cycle to discuss both album and label, beginning with a few thoughts about his taste for such illuminating titles.
TB: “I like to have a loosely conceptual framing device with albums I make, as it helps with focus and mood. With Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, the idea was that all the songs revolved around change and I used the dancehall either as a metaphor for how things change, or a place which the very different characters in the songs visited.
“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. I was also thinking of something like the significance of the seemingly insignificant Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
“The lyrical content in the individual songs is quite separate, though.”
Spin Cycle: For novice listeners, the guest list will probably be the first thing to attract attention... Peter Hammill, Phil Manzanera, David Rhodes…. How did you go about recruiting everyone and what do you think they bought to the project?
TB: “Phil’s music with Roxy, 801 and solo was something I loved when I was growing up, and I think he’s an incredibly underrated musician with an impressive and varied body of work. Peter Hammill was an all-time hero for me when I was in my mid-teens (alongside the likes of David Bowie, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and Robert Fripp). It’s still a thrill to work with people whose work I admired (and still admire), and who had such a profound influence on shaping my musical tastes.
“Often, the reason is because I want particular approach to a song, or just an idea that I wouldn’t have thought of. What characterizes a lot of the ‘special guest’ musicians I've worked with is that they’re not content to rest on their reputations, and they’re still enthusiastic about music and seeing where they can go (rather than where they’ve been). That goes for Phil, Peter, David Rhodes, Robert Fripp, Pat Mastelotto, Julianne Regan, Jim Matheos, Mel Collins, and other musicians I’ve been lucky enough to work with.”
SC: What kind of “brief” do you offer them - if any?
TB: “Generally, I ask musicians to do very specific things on my songs, and then I ask them to do a take where they interpret the song in their own way. Usually I end up using bits from both approaches, so the original idea is fulfilled, yet there’s also an element of surprise. A combination of accident and intention.
“With Peter [Hammill], I worked one on one with him in his studio. I taught him a couple of songs, which he played on and contributed backing vocals to. The pieces developed further from that starting point (with string quartet and other instrumental additions), so Peter’s contribution was stripped-down a little. He was a very encouraging presence. As I’ve always said about him, he’s as warm and friendly in person as his music is potentially fierce and forbidding.
SC: Multiple choice question... you have an album full of new songs. Talk about a couple of them.
“‘Know That You Were Loved’ and ‘Press Reset’ are probably my two favourite pieces from the new album. Weirdly, they were both songs that took me by surprise (a good thing). When I picked up the guitar and started writing ‘Know That You Were Loved,’ I had no idea where it was going to end up or what it was going to be about, and the same goes for ‘Press Reset’ (though I started that using loops, samples and programming).
“‘Know That You Were Loved’ is probably the most emotional piece on Stupid Things, and was the last song written for the album. To an extent, it deals with death bed reminiscences, and has roots in the work I used to do with the elderly at old people’s homes in the 1980s.
“A strange thing with ‘Press Reset’ is that it did focus on a subject that's interested me for a long time - people opting to escape from their own lives and the pressures of the modern world - but it was only after I’d written the song that I realized that it had happened in my own family.
“A great great grandfather abandoned his life running a farm in Cheshire and ran off to Canada (never to be heard of again), and more recently my step-brother disappeared (leaving his job, wife and children behind). Private detectives were hired, but nothing was heard about him until his death was reported 15 years after his disappearance. He’d secretly created a new life in another country (new job, new family and so on). What drives seemingly balanced people to extreme solutions is something I find fascinating.”
SC: Okay, back to the beginning... tell us how Burning Shed began. Had you ever run a record label before? What was your background?
TB: “I was in No-Man with Steven Wilson, and at various points we’d been signed to labels major and indie (One Little Indian, Epic / Sony and so on). From an early stage, we sold CDRs direct to fans, advertising them on our bigger label releases, but it got to a stage in the late 1990s where me posting the CDRs was being time-consuming and onerous.
"[That’s when] I had an idea about an on-demand online label that cost-effectively released experimental albums by artists that I knew and had worked with. Along with Peter Chilvers (who worked for Play.com at the time and helped with the e-commerce side of things), I presented the idea and name to Pete Morgan, who had his own manufacturing company. Pete was someone I’d known through his supporting No-Man in the past. We co-founded the company and it worked well. I took care of the music and the site content, Peter took care of the IT and Pete took care of the business and P&P side of things.
“Luckily, it’s grown organically through word of mouth and connections. As much as being a label, what defines Burning Shed is that we do the official online stores for artists such as King Crimson, Andy Partridge/XTC, Jethro Tull, Phil Manzanera, Thomas Dolby, K-Scope Records and more. This all evolved out of us beginning with the online stores for Porcupine Tree and No-Man.”
SC: What were the earliest releases... no need to list them all (that’s on the website), but maybe what you consider to be the stand-out ones
TB: “The first batch of releases included strange projects by me, Steven Wilson, Roger Eno and Hugh Hopper. Hugh's Jazz Loops was great and an early standout, partly because it showed he was still making interesting contemporary music, and partly because it featured one of my heroes Robert Wyatt (on trumpet rather than vocals!).”
SC: You quickly moved onto “regular” CDs and now vinyl too. How important is physical product to you, when so many other labels are moving more and more into mp3 and download territory?
TB: “ We do sell audiophile downloads, but physical items still continue to sell very well for us and totally eclipse our download sales. Special edition CDs and vinyl have grown in popularity amongst Burning Shed’s customers. The CDR sales are now virtually non-existent.
“We transitioned very quickly to CDs. Basically, before they disappeared, the CDRs became something of an R&D department. Some (No-Man, Steven Wilson etc) were selling so many (1000s in several cases) that it made economic sense to release almost all our future releases on CD.”
SC: What were some of the label’s earliest successes, the releases that made it clear the Shed was going to keep on burning
TB: “No-Man’s Lost Songs and Radio Sessions, Bass Communion’s self-titled debut, Nosound’s Lightdark, Hatfield & The North’s Hattitude (released exclusively through Burning Shed rather than on the label) and my album with Peter Chilvers, California, Norfolk.
SC: A big part of the label is its relationship with artists beyond the BS imprint. How did this come together - and how did you have the idea in the first place?
TB: “It evolved naturally though word of mouth and connections. Steven Wilson and I had worked with Robert Fripp, Roger Eno, Dave Stewart and so on, and that attracted the likes of Phil Manzanera, Jethro Tull, All Saints, Andy Partridge and others.
“The original idea was for a place where comparatively maverick like-minded musicians could sell their work and make more money from it than elsewhere, and that’s pretty much what developed (albeit slowly).”
SC: How much of the BS output reflects your own musical tastes... what sort of music did you listen to growing up?
TB: “Quite a lot reflects my own personal tastes and artists like King Crimson, XTC, Jethro Tull and Phil Manzanera were ones I grew up listening to.
I still actively buy, listen to and enjoy music, so I’ve heard a great deal of music through the years. But my very early inspirations would have been John Barry, Bernard Herrmann, 10cc, Beach Boys and Beatles/Wings.
“From my teens onwards, I liked (in no particular order) Genesis/Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, King Crimson, Nick Drake, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Peter Hammill/Van Der Graaf Genrator, Brian Eno (and his many collaborators), Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Joni Mitchell, Steve Reich, Arvo Part, John Martyn, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Velvet Underground and its offshoots, Neil Young, The Who, Talk Talk, The Blue Nile, Eberhard Weber, Rain Tree Crow, XTC, Led Zeppelin, Roy Harper and lots and lots more.
“I’d like to think those tastes are reflected in the Burning Shed output.”
SC: Tell us about some of the artists you were most excited to get on board... and why.
“From Hugh Hopper to Phil Manzanera, King Crimson to Jethro Tull, XTC to Steve Jansen, Brian Eno’s All Saints label to Gentle Giant to Thomas Dolby, these were artists I admired greatly in my youth, so it was exciting to work with them in some way.
A couple of disappointments have been that we didn’t get Kevin Godley or Bill Nelson. Both really inventive artists who I think would suit what Burning Shed does. Godley And Creme were a duo who deserved way more recognition than they got.
SC: You also worked with Judy Dyble, whose “comeback” (in 2004) has since delivered some quite astounding music, including Talking with Strangers, with yourself and Alistair Murphy. How did that come about?
TB: “As befits Talking With Strangers' subject matter, Judy and I were first in touch sometime in 2007 via email. I’m guessing somebody like Sid Smith or Andrew Keeling initiated the connection, but I’m not sure. Judy was very complimentary about the album I’d made with Peter Chilvers, California, Norfolk, and wondered if I’d be interested in co-writing and co-producing an album with her.
“At the time, I was very busy working on No-Man’s Schoolyard Ghosts album, so I tentatively said yes, while also suggesting that I brought in Alistair Murphy as a further co-writer/co-producer. Alistair and I had been writing together at that time (for the still unreleased Postcards From Space project) and both of us liked Judy’s music, so it made sense.
“Over a series of conversations it became clear that Judy was particularly interested in atmosphere and words. She also seemed open to surprise and change, which was a real positive.
SC: Mention Talking with Strangers to a lot of people, and their immediate reference point is “Harpsong,” a sidelong autobiographical piece that can stand alongside any similarly epic rendering of the modern (or even classic) prog era.
TB: “After meeting Judy and hearing stories about her life and career, we suggested that she write something explicitly autobiographical. This resulted in Judy sending us the epic poem that was turned into ‘Harpsong.’ It was the first time I’d ever been involved in constructing a sidelong epic, so it was an exciting process. For me, it had ebb and flow. plus a strong narrative. It felt special.”
SC: Alistair alone handled the follow-up, Flow and Change. Are you likely to work with her again?
TB: “We all remain in contact, so the possibility of doing more work together in the future isn’t out of the question as far as I’m concerned. Next time I want two sidelong autobiographical epics!”
SC: Packaging - you really do make an effort to give the buyer something extra... even in regular jewel cases, Burning Shed CDs look good. How important do you think packaging is, especially now that so much business is done via online - where, of course, the true glory can only be assumed?
TB: “Packaging is vitally important to us and something I take a strong interest in.
“I don’t think I’ll ever fall out of love with vinyl or CDs. I started buying music in an era when the imagery of album covers was a significant part of the music experience, and I’ve never lost that fascination with attention to detail or the evocative link between sounds and image. As yet, I don’t feel that downloads or dreaming have the romance or appeal of physical releases.”
SC: And finally, tell us about some of the label’s future plans/releases?
“We’re constantly dealing with new releases via the stores we host. The next major release for us may be another Steve Jansen project or the Bowness/Chilvers follow up album to California, Norfolk. We’re also releasing a couple of books, including a biography of the band Japan, and a collection of the artwork of sleeve designer Carl Glover.”