By Dave Thompson
Of all the albums – and, indeed, careers – that recent years have seen sail beneath the banner of prog (and we’ll get to that later), few match Tim Bowness’s output for the sheer joy of listening.
Three have materialized over the past five years: Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (2014), Stupid Things that Mean the World (2015) and Lost in the Ghost Light (2017)… a fourth, his first, appeared in 2004 ( My Hotel Year), and a fifth, Flowers at the Scene, has just materialized this year. And every one has maintained its place on the playlist long after other contemporary new releases have faded.
Artful but not too arty, portentous but never pretentious, clever but not clever-clever, the “usual” epithets can all be applied. But more important than any of that is the sheer melodicism of Bowness’s music and lyrics, the way in which the simplest turn of phrase can feel evocative of so much more, and the knowledge that an evening spent in the company of his music will transform the dullest day into a night to remember.
Spin Cycle tracked Bowness down to his secret studio lair in darkest somewhere, to find out what makes him tick, and how he keeps ticking.
GM: For the benefit of the uninformed among us, give us some background about yourself
TB: “I suppose I’m best known for my work with no-man, an ongoing collaboration with Steven Wilson.
“no-man was signed in 1990 to One Little Indian in the era of Madchester/Indie-Dance.Luckily, we stealthily snuck into the industry on the back of a movement we were only very vaguely associated with!
“no-man has produced six, very different, studio albums over a 30 year period, and outside of this I’ve worked with a variety of artists including Italian Pop star Alice, Folk-Rock legend Judy Dyble, American Rock band OSI, and Chill Out practitioners Banco De Gaia.”
“It’s difficult for me to say or see. I always create music out of a sense of the need to express myself. It’s detailed and thought out, but also very in the moment. I’d like to think I’ve got better at what I do, but that’s not for me to say (or perhaps even know).
“As with all the albums I make, there was a sense of excitement surrounding the creation of Flowers At The Scene. For me, there’s no point in releasing the same old thing again and again, and I have to have a sense that what I’m doing deserves to be released and represents a fresh angle on my work. There’s too much out there to just release things for the sake of it.
“Some albums are a logical extension of predecessors – e.g. no-man’s Together We’re Stranger (2003) emerged out of Returning Jesus (2001), and Stupid Things That Mean The World came out of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams – and some are rejections of what’s gone before. Like no-man’s Wild Opera, Flowers At The Scene is definitely in the latter category.”
GM: Is there a reason for that? Or did it just “happen”?
TB: “Lost In The Ghost Light was completed in October 2016 and 2017 was taken up re-recording material with Brian Hulse and David K Jones [Bowness’s partners in his late eighties band Plenty, reformed in 2016].
“As enjoyable as that was, I was getting itchy to write something new. I wrote some songs with Brian that didn’t seem like Plenty or like Lost In The Ghost Light and around the same time, I also wrote the song “Rainmark” and suddenly it felt to me as if something fresh was emerging.
“In total, I spent around eight months on the album. I started Flowers at the Scene in early 2018 and it was completed by August of that year (with the bulk of the work being assembled from Spring onwards).”
GM: You have gathered some amazing collaborators for the new album, including Steve Wilson as co-producer. Tell us how they came to take part… why you chose them, how the contributions came together, what instructions you gave them (if any).
TB: “With a lot of the songs, I had four drummers, three bass players and three guitarists playing on them. I subsequently selected what I thought were the best and most appropriate takes. There’s no doubt that the professionalism and ability of the likes of Jim Matheos, Colin Edwin, Tom Atherton, Dylan Howe, Ian Dixon and Brian Hulse shine through on this album. It’s more song-orientated than my previous album, but it’s also more ‘musical’ because of the quality of the instrumental contributions.
“I chose musicians either because I wanted to be surprised – Jim Matheos had something of the role Fripp and [Adrian] Belew had with Bowie – or because I knew their work and exactly what to expect. I loved Dylan Howe’s album Subterraneans [fresh interpretations of Bowie’s Berlin era music] and knew he could add something to pieces – or I wanted a combination of being surprised and getting exactly what I wanted.
GM: It was great to hear Kevin Godley’s voice on the album – something there’s far too little of in these dark days.. I know you’re a big fan of his, so tell us more….
TB: “10cc’s single ‘I’m Not In Love’ (with its bittersweet Kevin Godley sung b-side ‘Good News’) was the first single I ever bought, so the inclusion of Kevin on this was incredibly special for me.
“Godley-sung songs such as ‘Somewhere In Hollywood’ and ‘Don’t Hang Up’ [both 10cc], ‘Art School Canteen’ and ‘Cry’ [Godley & Creme] and ‘Fly Away’ [Hotlegs] remain personal favourites, and I feel Kevin has one of the most affecting voices in Pop. Godley & Creme’s frequently innovative music remains criminally underrated in my opinion.
GM: Andy Partridge is also around…
TB: “Having been a fan of XTC since hearing ‘Statue Of Liberty’ on [children’s TV show] Magpie in 1977, Andy Partridge’s involvement was equally thrilling for me. In the early days of no-man, a VHS I had of a Channel 4 XTC documentary (about the making of The Big Express) was the object of a bidding war in one of the (still) regular Tim Bowness/Steve Wilson swapping sessions. Drums And Wires, Mummer, Skylarking and Apple Venus Volume One were soundtracks to certain parts of my life and I still value them highly.
“Both Andy and Kevin added emotional character to the piece and both were very conscientious in terms of what they brought to it (offering insights and suggestions). Both added more than was used, but wanting to retain the integrity of the song I opted for the less is more approach.
TB: “I discovered Peter’s work in the late 1970s. The VDGG album Pawn Hearts and Peter’s solo album Over were the first two releases of his I bought and I was blown away by the wild ambition of one, and the raw intimacy of the other. I set about becoming familiar with his striking back catalogue. He was and is a supremely singular and idealistic musician.
“The box came out of a suggestion I made to Kscope – the label – and PH, and at some point it was assumed I’d do the notes (I’ve written liners for other Kscope releases). They provided a nice opportunity to share my enthusiasm for PH’s work. As for his role on the album, he did exactly what I wanted vocally, while unexpectedly resurrecting his Rikki Nadir guitar rifferama persona for the chorus of ‘It’s The World!’!
“In all three cases, Kevin, Andy and Peter, I could hear how they’d uniquely enhance the pieces they were on.”
GM: This might be a good place to talk about early musical influences/favourites
TB: “My earliest musical hero was John Barry. I loved (and still love) his evocative soundtrack work. The first pop band I fell in love with was 10cc and that led me to Beatles/Wings, Sparks, and Beach Boys.
“I was in my early teens in the late 1970s and I was equally enamoured of classic prog bands (King Crimson, Van Der Graaf, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes etc) and punk-ish artists such as Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Magazine, XTC, Teardrop Explodes, Associates and others. Around that time I also discovered David Bowie, Roxy Music, Kate Bush, Frank Zappa, Kevin Coyne, Roy Harper and Peter Hammill’s solo music.
“In the 1980s my taste embraced anything from ECM Jazz to Steve Reich/Philip Glass/Terry Riley to Miles Davis to Laurie Anderson to Prefab Sprout to The Smiths to ZTT to Prince to perhaps my all-time idol, Joni Mitchell.”
GM: Ah, the “P” word. The second one (so not pop or punk). Do you agree with that categorisation of your music – and what do you think “prog” actually means today?
TB: “I’ve already mentioned I’m a huge fan of the 1960s/1970s wave of Progressive artists, so being called Prog doesn’t bother me even if I think it doesn’t really describe what I do. I’ve also found that Prog fans are generally musically curious listeners with eclectic tastes, so I’m happy that I’ve got an audience in the genre.
“With one exception – the conceptual Lost In The Ghost Light – I suspect that my being categorised as Prog has a lot more to do with my associations rather than my music. I think what I do is more an evolution out of the likes of Bowie, Talk Talk, Roxy Music/Eno, Prefab Sprout, Blue Nile, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian and so on, than it is a continuation of the styles of Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Camel, Jethro Tull etc.
“For me the Progressive musical spirit changes with each decade: It can be found in Psychedelia, 1960s/1970s Underground/Art Rock, Krautrock, Fusion, Post-Punk, No Wave, New Romantic, mid-1980s ZTT, Trip Hop, Drum’n’Bass, Post Rock etc etc.
GM: What’s next for you?
TB: “A new no-man album.
“After making Flowers At The Scene, Steven Wilson and I did some recording and writing. It felt really good in that it was the most immersive and enjoyable session since the early days of the band. We just traded ideas and got on with trying to realise them, the two of us in the studio together (rather than in our separate home studios).
“What we’ve come up with is 100% no-man, while also being quite unlike anything we’ve released before.
“I’m still in the process of recording vocals and honing the lyrics. Once Steven returns from touring in the Spring, we’re hoping to finish it. We’re still looking at a late 2019 release, and I think the contents will surprise a few people.”
Flowers at the Scene is out now on Inside Out Music.