After hearing about the possibility of a new No-Man record coming up soon, I contacted Tim Bowness (singer, songwriter) to ask him about his latest projects, personal favorites and the new album in the works. For those unaccustomed to Bowness’ discography, he has released (besides No-Man of course, which started as a main project all the way back in 1987, with Steven Wilson) a myriad of collaborative records such as Flame (with Richard Barbieri), California, Norfolk (with Peter Chilvers), Warm Winter (with Giancarlo Erra of Nosound, under the moniker Memories Of Machines) or his latest, the second Henry Fool record, Men Singing, among many others. He has also released a solo album, entitled My Hotel Year, in 2004 and is in charge of Burning Shed, an independent record label.
– You have been active for over three decades in the music industry now. How much has the music world changed in your opinion? What do you like and dislike about these changes?
In some respects, it’s changed massively. The business of music and the technology involved in making it are almost unrecognizable from the early 1980s when I started.
In terms of recording, it’s been a change for the better. Studios can do more yet are far simpler to operate. The technology allows a much more direct way of capturing ideas.
The shifts on the business side have meant that it’s become harder to make a living from music for many people and that music itself has become devalued. That said, I think that process has been happening since the advent of CDs and that artist and label greed, alongside illegal downloading and streaming, have contributed.
Artistically, I don’t think there have been as many significant creative shifts or movements over the last decade compared with the previous 40 years of Rock history.
– You often collaborate with various artists (such as Richard Barbieri, Peter Chilvers, Samuel Smiles and more recently with Judy Dyble, Slow Electric or Giancarlo Erra under the moniker Memories Of Machines). You probably have a lot more offers than the actual projects that have seen the light of day. What determines you to accept and work with a certain artist?
Obviously, I have to like the music in order to accept an invitation to collaborate. Outside of that I have to feel that either I can contribute something worthwhile or that it’s a very different context for me to work in that can bring something new out of what I do (as with my OSI collaboration).
I’ve turned down more and more offers of collaboration of late. Mostly that’s because of the difficulty of finding time, but it’s also been to do with not repeating myself.
Very recently I completed a vocal for Nick Magnus (ex Steve Hackett band / The Enid) and that was great fun as it was so different from what I normally do both in terms of the way of working / recording and the material itself.
I’ve also been co-writing with Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), which has been good as his music has quite a different feel from most of what I do.
– Many people know you for your No-Man output and collaborative efforts, but you have also released a solo album, entitled My Hotel Year. Tell me a few words about it and what does it mean to you.
Weirdly, it’s an album I wrote less music for than most I’ve been involved with. I wrote the lyrics and vocal melodies and guided the overall direction of the album, but ultimately My Hotel Year was a compilation of several things I was involved in the early 2000s.
I’d been co-writing with various people – Hugh Hopper, Markus Reuter, Stephen Bennett, David Picking and so on – and I decided to collect what I thought were the best of the songs and make an album out of them.
Stephen Bennett and David Picking helped give a uniformity of sound to the material, and David’s mixing gave the album an additional coherence and consistency.
I really like some of the pieces on the album – particularly Last Year’s Tattoo and Sleepwalker – but it’s not a favorite amongst my releases. In retrospect, it seems a little cold and monochromatic to me. It doesn’t have the panoramic quality of No-Man’s music or the intimacy and completeness of California, Norfolk, for example, but then again it wasn’t intended to.
In fact, one of the ideas behind the album was that it totally avoid the textural and Ambient elements of No-Man’s recently completed Together We’re Stranger, so it was very much a reaction to what had come immediately before it.
– Which songs from your entire catalog do you feel are your best work so far and why?
A difficult question!
Album-wise, I’d choose Together We’re Stranger as my favorite of the releases I’ve been involved in.
Elsewhere, there are songs such as Truenorth, Mixtaped, Things I Want To Tell You, Pretty Genius, Winter With You, At The Centre Of It All, Things Change, Post-Its and others that I consider to be amongst my best work.
As with my taste in general, in terms of what I do I tend to gravitate towards intimate ballads, epic statements or strongly narrative songs.
I like Truenorth as it’s a long three part piece with three very distinct moods, yet it works as a whole and tells a story. It gradually moves from desolation to hope, while avoiding being cheesy (I hope).
Things I Want To Tell You and At The Centre Of It All work for me, because they convey a lot of feeling and information with very few words. Hopefully successful cases of less is more.
I also like the ‘song as short story’ aspects of the likes of Post-Its, Days Turn Into Years and World Of Bright Futures.
– Moving on to No-Man now. For those who have yet to explore the No-Man records, which of them do you believe catches best the essence of the band’s universe and why?
No-Man has either tended to reflect the times around it in a distinctive way (Loveblows & Lovecries and Wild Opera) or create its own rarefied universe (Speak and Together We’re Stranger), as such I think all the albums catch the essence of the band in some way. Schoolyard Ghosts, Returning Jesus and Flowermouth sit somewhere between the extremes, so perhaps they more properly capture the essence of the band’s main modes of expression.
– In time, your lyrics have told a lot of stories ranging from idyllic experiences to twisted, somber affairs. Are they usually personal, but transposed to different characters or just imaginary scenarios?
To a degree, yes.
Certainly, things I’ve felt and experienced have been reimagined and found themselves in lyrics. Also, people I’ve known. For example, Things Change and At The Centre Of It All are extrapolations of things that have happened to people I know.
In the vast majority of songs, the lives are not mine. Luckily, I’m not quite as miserable as most of the characters I write about!
– No-Man stopped performing live in 1994. What prompted you guys to go back on the road after such a long time (12 years, I believe)?
We never intended to stop performing for quite so long!
The 1994 and 2006 performances were intimate two to three song sets that were done either as a favor to friends or as a spontaneous part of an event. The 2006 performance came at the end of an intimate gig in which Steven had performed a solo acoustic set and I’d performed a solo set with my band of the time. It was a surprisingly emotional experience and as nobody had rehearsed or prepared anything we only knew it would happen at the soundcheck stage.
Before 2008, the last tour we did was in 1993 and although it mostly went well, we thought that the sensitive side of the band’s music was being undermined by nature of the venues we were playing. The idea was that we would wait until the band could realize the music more completely and until we could play the sort of venues that would suit the what we played. It took fifteen years, but we got there!
The other factor was that in the mid to late 1990s, Porcupine Tree took off in a big way, so even if we’d had any live plans they’d have been put on hold.
– What’s next for you? Is there a new project in the works?
There are several potential projects on the go.
It feels a little like it did around the time of My Hotel Year, in that I have a number of things at various stages of development and all of them seem some distance away from being finished.
I guess the major ones would be forthcoming solo and Slow Electric albums, but there’s also another song-based Henry Fool album on the way and a couple of guest appearances (with The Opium Cartel and Nick Magnus). I’ve also written a song with Phil Manzanera.
With Slow Electric, we probably have two thirds of a new album written. I’m really pleased with how it’s coming on and I think it’s something of a follow-up to California, Norfolk in terms of lyrics and feel. Colin Edwin’s now a part of the band and I’ve co-written a couple of songs with him, so it’s slightly more rhythmic than the debut. We’re also using some Robert Fripp soundscapes that Robert kindly sent me to do with as I please.
In some ways, it’s a frustrating time, because I’ve completed quite a bit of what I believe to be amongst my strongest work and it seems like it might be some time before it gets released. There’s some very emotional and rich songwriting on the forthcoming Henry Fool album, for example, which is very different from what’s come before it.
– You recently mentioned in a post on Facebook, you were in the studio with the No-Man live band working on new material. When will a new No-Man album see the light of day?
I was really hoping that there’d be a new album and a tour in 2014, but due to Steven’s work commitments, it’s looking highly unlikely. 2020 is my revised estimate!
I’ve written quite a few pieces at my home studio and in April I went into a larger studio with the No-Man live band and we recorded 30 minutes of material ‘direct to tape’. In some ways, this represented an extension of the music No-Man had been performing live.
– As a last question: What advice do you have for young, aspiring bands?
The only advice I can give is to be true to what you want to do. I think making something that realizes your creative dreams is essential, because even if it fails commercially, there’s still something tangible to be proud of. The opposite is making music for career purposes. Even if it succeeds, there’d be a hollow feeling at the core, I think.
The truth is that with the industry as it is now and the opportunities available, I don’t envy anyone starting out making music in the present day.
Interview by Raul Stanciu (insomniac15)