Tim Bowness – Flowers At The Scene interview
The new Tim Bowness album, Flowers At The Scene, as with all his work with No-Man and as a solo artist, is an intricately crafted and curated piece of work. It’s always a pleasure to speak with, especially so when he generously took the time to talk over in detail, with more than a hint of humour, the intricacies and some of the stories behind the songs on the album.
Like the Peter Gabriel albums of old that simply used his name written into the top left hand corner in the same font, Flowers At The Scene follows on from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean The World in a familiar Jarrod Gosling design. However, musically, Tim feels he’s moved on and on the new album presents a series of songs, each telling a different story, revealing a different picture.
Having revealed that most of the album was either written last year or evolved from songs that may have been in the pipeline for some time, we took the chance to get him to talk specifically about the songs on the record. It felt like tasting a series of fine wines; snippets and hints of what you hear and sometimes intimate details that each track throws up.
Taking some of our own prompts to begin with after listening to the album, the first impression of the track Ghostlike, was that it has a very Eighties vibe, almost New Romantic and that it would have easily fitted on the Plenty album. After chortling at the mention of Duran Duran, Tim clarified: “On both Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean The World, there were pieces which originated from the 1980s. Ghostlike completes this trilogy of trilobites!” He referred to the Thatcher and Reagan era when “shoulder pads were larger than the Empire State Building,” calling it “as bold a reminder of the age of avarice as Tubbs and Crockett’s Miami Vice jackets.” As predicted, Ghostlike had indeed started out as a Plenty piece called Sacrifice; although he mentioned the lyric being ”substantially re-written (primarily, in order for it to make sense!) and a new story revolving around the collapse of a relationship in a Mediterranean hotel emerged. Brian (Hulse) and I worked on expanding the original and making it more organic, and Steven Wilson took it one step further by stripping the instrumentation at the beginning and adding the steamy trumpet coda.”
A personal favourite that was emerging was the track Rainmark (aka Lost Quiff) whose origins aren’t very rock and roll. “God bless school ukulele lessons!” he laughs. “I wrote this on the ukulele while helping Sonny Bowness out with his music homework. I was demonstrating writing and studio overdubbing by creating a densely layered ukulele symphony about a Rock’n’Roller who’d misplaced his quiff. An epic developed that took in several continents, at least one reference to the Holy Grail, and contained the occasional ‘fuzz ukulele’ solo.” Marvellous stuff that shows how inspiration can strike at any moment. He continued to explain how the song developed with “a click track, textures, and a completely new lyric over the chord sequence.” Once again, Mr Wilson cast his magic wand to make “even more of the component parts by – amongst other things – erasing some performances, highlighting hitherto hidden playing, and extending the ending.” It ended up with what Tim called something that “ blends hopeless romanticism with apocalyptic fears. Mills & Boon meets The Road and the mass vocal ‘ba ba bas’ are the sound of optimism flying in the face of harsh reality.” Great track.
Back to the opening cut, I Go Deeper, this was one of the last tracks written for Flowers At The Scene. “I co-wrote it in the Summer of 2018 with Italian musician Stefano Panunzi for use in a film and developed in the more romantic tradition of mid-1990s no-man (and Porcupine Tree at its most lush), but I heard something very different in the piece and set about accentuating the differences between the sections and changing the instrumentation.” Striking Tim as a potentially strong album opener, he worked on the introduction to sound as big as it possibly could. “Somewhere in the back of my mind were the likes of David Bowie’s What In The World, Simple Minds’ Up On The Catwalk, Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain, and Flaming Lips’ Race For The Prize (all pieces that possess colossal walls of drum-heavy noise). Elsewhere, I wanted the jittery grit of the verse to be contrasted with an almost contemporary Classical legato approach.” He explained the lyric as “a depiction of a person with a fragmenting / fragmented / medicated mind slipping through moments in their life while wandering through a hospital at night. Part Slaughterhouse Five, part psychiatric ward, it’s all pure comedy, as usual!”
Co-written with fellow Northern miserablist Brian Hulse, the giveaway rhythm of The Train That Pulled Away sees the song set “for whatever reason, in the seaside town of Cromer. For added authenticity, I asked the curator of the Cromer museum Alistair Murphy (aka The Curator) to score the strings for the piece. He obliged.” Described as, “something of Billy Liar, Look Back In Anger, Cloudbusting, Philip Glass and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” and “a plot for a Channel Four film from the 1980s – directed by Neil Jordan (or Ken Loach on one of his happier days) – set to music,” he talks of images of Bob Hoskins crying behind comedy sunglasses while sitting on a pier staring out at a grey English sea that spring to mind.
It’s The World is quite an edgier, harder track that benefits from the enigmatic presence of Peter Hammill and another personal standout. “This started with me looping an unused guitar part Jim Matheos had recorded for a Memories Of Machine song and adding some loops I’d created out of Estonian/Russian trumpet player Aleksei Saks’ recordings for a Slow Electric song over the top.” The song’s all too obvious working title was Metal Miles (referencing the genre and the genius of the trumpet himself Mr Miles Davis) yet it was Brain Hulse’s addition of “some rollicking guitar and a new sequence and a chorus was born. The lyric also changed and became a very explicit account of someone blaming everything external for what probably was an internal problem. Self pity on a global scale.” Filling the Peter Hammill shaped hole in the track took a trip down the road that saw PH himself add the vocals and bite required while replacing Brian’s chorus guitars with “a far more savage and loose slice of rifferama. Riki Nadir had entered the room and being well versed in the ways of Metal, the Atherton/Edwin rhythm section took to the piece like twin Lemmys to whiskey.”
Not Married Anymore features an admittedly “one of the most desolate and direct lyrics on the album or that I’ve ever written.” Three different versions of Not Married Anymore exist – one that features a rolling piano and a textural guitar solo against a stark drum machine backing. “The second revolves around a bed of brush drums from Dylan Howe and a superb showcase of Jim Matheos’s guitar prowess while the third and final version combines the drum machine with the brush drums and replaces the percussive piano with soft keyboard textures and drops the guitar solos altogether. David K Jones subtle bass playing survived the chop in all three.” Again, the Wilson magic touch added the final flourish (or not). “The final cut is very much a Steven Wilson slant on the piece. He felt that less was more and that stripping the song to its essence was the way to go.” Guess what? Surprise, surprise, “he was right.”
Along with Not Married Anymore, The War On Me and The Train That Pulled Away, the title track was co-written with Brian Hulse in early 2018. An unexpected lyric that resulted in feeling “drained and surprised. As with many of the lyrics on the forthcoming Bowness/Chilvers album, it’s unusually bleak but not necessarily indicative of the state I was in during writing. My subconscious seems more Westworld than Disneyland! This is a two line article about a stabbing on a park bandstand expanded to expose the painful reality behind a mundane and all too familiar story.” It’s another track that went through several renditions with three drummers and two bassists providing very different takes on the song. One day we may get to hear all these on a massively expanded version of the album. Time talked about how Becker and Fagen made Steely Dan’s Aja – “performances were too odd, too straight or too much. Eventually, Tom Atherton provided exactly the feel, groove and style we wanted. David K Jones wild double bass part was impressively dexterous and slippy and all the more remarkable for it being the first time he’d played the instrument.” Jim Matheos is on hand once again to deliver a beautifully intense Jazz-tinged solo.
Borderline started life in 2003 or 2004. “Roger Eno had given me some of his albums and while listening to a piece called Crossing The Border I immediately heard a vocal melody. I sang over the CD for Peter Chilvers and we subsequently developed a fully fledged song out of this.” Several years and several re-writes later, the song was “sounding good but not quite right for the Opus Miserablis that is Modern Ruins (Bowness/Chilvers 2.0).” A song that was too strong to be ignored, Brian Hulse re-recorded the entirety of the backing track. “ re-wrote half of the lyrics (again) and asked Dylan Howe, Ian Dixon and David Longdon to add parts to this. After years on the back burner, I suddenly had a clear vision for the piece.” The vision proved slightly faster, looser and more Jazz-tinged. “I also imagined some Gaucho style backing vocals. Becker and Fagen were back in the studio. Who knew a song about depression could sound so sweet?”
The War On Me is a track he describes as “a first person return to some of the preoccupations of Lost In The Ghost Light and (no-man’s) Wild Opera. A heartfelt, but self-piteous cry from an artist formerly known as successful feeling adrift in a world (s)he barely understands and that doesn’t seem to want her/him.” As with Not Married Anymore, Steven Wilson texturally softened the song and stripped out some of the instrumentation and one that like Not Married Anymore, a track “I could imagine gracing a no-man album with a soulful, yearning quality that puts me in mind of the likes of Outside The Machine.”
Killing To Survive is another of the ‘curious origin’ tracks with a long history. Tim takes over with a wonderfully recounted description. “In the midst of writing and recording Flowers At The Scene, Brian and I were discovering all sorts of half-forgotten and sometimes totally forgotten songs that we’d written together over the years. The best was/is the very first Bowness/Hulse song from the Summer of 1986. A John le Carré inspired ‘Cold War ballad’ called This Side Of The Border. I’d remembered it existed while others doubted my sanity. I’d always loved The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but could I really have written a song so directly inspired by it? As it turns out, yes I really could. Written at the same time as Towards The Shore – on an old school piano in St Helens – both songs represented the best things I’d done up to that point.”
“While This Side Of The Border was on my hard drive of doom, Killing To Survive was on Brian’s. I had no recollection of writing or singing it. We knew it came from the early 1990s and that was all. It featured a backing track recorded after the vocal and the two were badly out of sync in terms of tuning. The vocals sounded dreadful and the backing seemed to be for another song entirely, yet we could both hear potential. The song was gutted, re-recorded and slightly re-written lyrically and it began to make sense. Though it is in effect a big old Pop tart, Colin and Tom’s playing is incredibly subtle and clever, and Peter Hammill’s backing vocals add strange and interesting textures to the song.”
He added, “Like a lot of the album, a bleak lyric is offset by a surprisingly optimistic melody and backing track.”
Appropriately, What Lies Here was the last piece to be completed for the album. Emerging in the late Summer/early Autumn of 2018, the lyric and melody arrived almost fully formed on a small Greek island very late at night. “Brian’s atmospheric backing tracks were haunting and reflective and I hope my melody and lyric matched them. The theme revolves around something / someone slipping beyond another’s grasp and my feeling was that it could be about a perceived sense of gradual ‘uncoupling’ (thanks Gwyneth!) in a long-term relationship, the loss of youth, or the way in which children grow up and evolve beyond their parent’s reach. A keen fan of Peter Hammill, he quotes the Hammill song Autumn as a wonderful reflection on a similar theme.
The contributions from Kevin Godley and Andy Partridge on this track were significant. “10cc’s single I’m Not In Love (with its bittersweet Kevin Godley sung b-side) was the first single I ever bought,” he explained, “so the inclusion of Kevin on this was incredibly special for me. Godley sung songs such as Somewhere In Hollywood, Art School Canteen, Don’t Hang Up, Cry, Fly Away and Old Wild Men 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.”
Having been a fan of XTC since hearing Statue Of Liberty on Magpie in 1977, Andy Partridge’s involvement was equally thrilling. “In the early days of no-man, a VHS I had of a Channel 4 XTC documentary (about the making of The Big Express) that was the object of a bidding war in one of our regular 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.”
Both contributors add an emotional character to the piece. “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. It ends as unexpectedly and suddenly as the album began. Out of reach and waving.” Sounds like the latter phrase could be the title of the next album.
Our thanks of course to Tim for such an in depth analysis and insight into another marvellous album.
You can find Tim Bowness online here : http://timbowness.co.uk/