‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ (Louder Than War review here) is the new album from Tim Bowness. Probably known to rock fans through his association with Steven Wilson and their No-Man recordings, the album sees him continuing to strike out and establishing his credentials a a solo artist. Tim graciously took some time to chat around some of Mike Ainscoe’s burning questions about the album.
Louder Than War: Tim, you seem quite prolific and very busy with various projects and collaborations – do you enjoy being the main man/name on the sleeve?
Tim Bowness: Not at all. I’m not a fan of the spotlight, to be honest. Left to my own devices, I suspect I’d never take any more publicity photos or play live ever again!
I love writing and recording music and putting albums together (I still get a thrill when I see a finished album of mine), but the rest is something that goes against my natural instincts for a quiet life.
The last album, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams came out of pieces I’d originally put together with No-Man in mind. It only became a solo album when Steven didn’t have the time to work on the material or add to it. As I said at the time, in some ways ADD was my idea of what a No-Man album could sound like, so I think it deserved the solo credit (albeit a reluctant one at the time).
The new album has come round quite quickly after ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ – did you have material left over from those session or was it a case of striking a rich vein of writing form?
The latter really. The starting point for Stupid Things That Mean The World was the album’s title track. I wrote it in my home studio just a few weeks after Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had been released.
I was keen to see what would happen after Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and a lot of material was written from mid-2014 onwards. As such, the album was mostly the result of a concentrated burst of musical activity. I wrote and co-wrote quite a bit, plus I scoured my archives to see if something already existed that suited what I was working towards.
At one time major bands would regularly produce an album a year (frequently very different from the preceding ones), so an album a year isn’t uncommon historically.
I am officially more prolific than Scott Walker, Kate Bush and My Bloody Valentine, that’s for sure!
You (or at least the press release!) say the new album is a progression/develops the sound of ‘ADD’– can you just clarify how you view that?
I think this album has more range. I’m still really pleased with ADD, but I’d like to think that this takes certain approaches from the previous album (the treated rhythms, the orchestral arrangements and the acoustic guitars, in particular) to some new places. I think the new album (in places) is louder and quieter, and more accessible and more experimental than ADD, if that makes sense.
ADD came out of Schoolyard Ghosts to a degree, and I see this as coming out of ADD. They’re all part of a musical continuum, but they’re all quite different from one another, I hope.
You’ve got a solid core of the No-Man band on the album, but some interesting guest appearances by various names who also played on the last album (the likes of Mastelotto – Rhodes – Hammill – Manzanera). How did they come to be involved again?
The live band features on most of the songs and were involved from the start. Colin from Porcupine Tree is a part of the band and he’s a very versatile player as well as a lovely guy to work with. He makes for a great rhythm section with Andrew Booker (also in Sanguine Hum). I’m lucky to have people of the calibre of Colin, Andrew, Stephen and Michael around.
Peter Hammill is someone whose music I’ve loved for a long time, so it’s always a thrill to work with him. He lives near me and I went into his studio to record two pieces (Everything You’re Not/Everything But You). He added some excellent backing vocals and played a lot more guitar than appears on the finished songs, as the arrangements changed over time. He was an incredibly encouraging presence in the studio. He’s as likeable as his music is intense!
With Phil, it was because I liked a piece of his from one of his more obscure albums. It was a lovely instrumental and I could hear a song over it. I told Phil and he was kind enough to send me the multi-tracks to tamper with and make a song out of.
Pat was more a part of the last album (where he contributed a lot of material). On this album, we used one of his powerhouse drum patterns as the backbone of one of the pieces and it was extremely inspirational to work from. Pat’s great as both a traditional Rock drummer and an electronic percussion innovator. He has a great sense of sound. An underrated talent in my opinion.
David Rhodes is someone I’ve come to know over the last year. I really like his work with Gabriel, Bush and Scott Walker and he’s a very creative and tasteful contributor to whatever he’s involved with.
Although you did your own production, you’ve also brought in Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord in to mix and play some guitar parts – have you worked with him before and what did he bring to the project?
I’ve played live on the same bill as Bruce before, but we’ve never worked together before this. I like the sound of Bruce’s music and I like the fact that he’s as comfortable with electric/electronic music as acoustic music, and quiet and loud music. He had the sonic range I wanted for the new material.
I’d say his main contributions were on The Great Electric Teenage Dream, where he boosted the energy levels greatly and played an interesting electric guitar solo. With tracks like Press Reset and Know That You Were Loved, he added some subtle ideas, but mostly he played the demo guitar parts much better and improved upon what was already there.
The album was put together both in real time (live in the studio with the band) and over the net. Most of my dealings with Bruce were via files and emails.
Can you tell us a bit more about the video for ‘Great Electric Teenage Dream’ – it’s an interesting one – with lines like “ghosts of youth still crowd your head” and “it was the time you loved the best” it seems to visually represent quite closely what your lyrics are saying.
It does, though it’s at a tangent. The video is a perfect accompaniment to the music and touches on some of its themes, but it’s very non-specific.
The Great Electric Teenage Dream came out of a musical idea Stephen Bennett sent me. I wrote a lyric and melody to it and suggested a structure and we subsequently developed it live in the studio with Michael Bearpark (a really enjoyable Midnight session). After that the likes of Andrew Booker, Colin Edwin and Bruce Soord fine-tuned elements and added distinctive parts.
Lyrically, it’s part of an ongoing series of songs I’ve been writing called Third Monster On The Left. Basically, it’s a Rock Opera about Rock. It’s less We Will Rock You and more about what it’s like making music at this point in 21st Century and whether the nature of music itself is compromised by new media and new business models. It’s also about the personal cost of diminishing fame on someone who would have been treated like a God in previous decades. In some ways, I imagined the lyric’s main character as a Marc Bolan figure (had he not died) still plying his trade in an almost unrecognisable world.
Is there some sort of loose concept about the album? People may read the song titles and see a bit of a theme? The title track, ‘Know That You Were Loved’, ‘At The End Of The Holiday’, ‘Where You’ve Always Been’ – all seem to be reflecting on an inner sadness and the circumstances which evoke that emotion.
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.
I’d say that possibly most of the songs reflect the title’s suggested theme in some ways. I like to have framing ideas on albums that I do as it brings a certain focus to the projects.
Just looking at a couple of specific songs which having played the album through a few times, are starting to stand out -‘Know That You Were Loved’ seems to me to be a/the key piece on the album – lyrically mentioning lights in the distance and referring at the end to darkness and silence closing in – is it about passing on/passing over or is that way off the mark?
No, you’re right. Know That You Were Loved was the last song written for the album. There are two very different versions. One is a pulsating electronic version with guitars from David Rhodes, while the album version is a more delicate acoustic guitar dominated piece. It’s possibly the most emotional song on 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 (in Warrington and London).
Is there any implication behind the 2 minute ‘coda’ (for want of a better word) on that track after the singing has ended? (or is it simply a nice section of music which needed no words over the top?)
Both versions of the coda feature some lovely playing, I think, and there is the implication that the coda represents the fading out / running down of a life.
When I worked with the elderly, I’d sometimes sit with people who were dying. I’d also occasionally go to funerals, because no family was left to attend. It was incredibly sad, but in most cases these were formerly vibrant people who’d loved others and experienced many interesting things in their lives. Another part of what I did was discussing the past with people who felt abandoned in a home. Cheerful stuff!
‘Sing To Me’ has some lovely guitar parts – who did what on that song and with the short guitar solo part what was the brief for it? Was it anything specific or ‘play what you feel’?
As it happens, I did give Michael some specific instructions for that. I suggested that he imagine he suddenly had the hair of Robert Plant, and told him to access his inner Rock God and play in a foot on the monitor style! The idea was more to shake up the natural approach Michael might have taken rather than to replicate Zeppelin’s Achilles Last Stand or Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose (not that that would be bad). It worked, I hope. I’m really pleased with what he did anyway.
That’s also the track which was a No-Man leftover (from 1994 wasn’t it?). You’ve obviously developed it from that form (which is on the bonus disc), but how can something so potentially good get almost forgotten for so long?
Yes, it was from 1994 and it was developed out of a No-Man leftover. Steven sent me several early No-Man demos that I’d completely forgotten about and one (Best Boy Electric) really stood out for me. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t taken it further. As we were then working on the more aggressive Wild Opera (after the lush and sedate Flowermouth), my guess is that it just didn’t fit with what we were doing at the time.
I heard it for the first time in 20 years in October of 2014 and felt it was exactly what I needed for the ongoing Stupid Things That Mean The World album. I completely re-wrote the lyrics and added a couple of musical themes. The original was just over a minute long, while Sing To Me is around six minutes long. The original had a bizarre coda with dissonant riffing and almost Death Metal growls. The new version doesn’t!
Jarrod Gosling has done the artwork again – was his spec to come up with something along the same lines as ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’?
Absolutely. I wanted this to be of a piece with Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, while also being different. As with the last album, the images are drawn from the lyrics. Jarrod creates his own unique little universes, so it was a case of him not compromising what he does while responding to what I wanted. The two albums are linked musically and visually, and I think they’re part of building a solo repertoire.
You’re doing a couple of live dates for the album – is it going to be the usual No-Man band plus Colin Edwin who seems to be in the mix now?
It is. Colin’s in the band on the album though (he plays on all or most of the new album), so he’s reproducing his studio role live. The band now consists of me, Michael Bearpark, Stephen Bennett, Andrew Booker and Colin Edwin.
It’s a shame it’s just a couple of dates – is there any chance of any more dates appearing? (especially more Northern?)
Despite what I said earlier, I hope so. There have been some offers (mainly from abroad), but I’d love to do a gig in the North or North West of the UK (or Scotland, Yorkshire or the North East for that matter).
Most of my life was spent near Manchester and Liverpool and they’re the cities I went to for gigs, clothes and music when I was a teenager. They’re also the places I used to play when I first started out making music (especially Manchester).
I do have a couple of live agents, so it’s often a question of what’s offered to me and whether it’s affordable to do. I don’t have that much control over it, though I did arrange the two UK gigs this year to coincide with a big Polish festival that I’m playing at in August.