Tim Bowness – The ‘Plenty & more’ Interview
Tim Bowness has featured regularly on Louder Than War. His Lost In The Ghost Light solo album (our review here) constructed around narrative landmarks in the career of a fading rock star was an underground hit of 2017 whilst at the same time, his continued work with the ambient art rock No-man still bubbled away. Last month he bravely yet worthily released a new recording of material from one of his mid eighties projects Plenty. We reviewed It Could Be Home here and also got the chance to interrogate Tim not just the recent work on Plenty, but as he was happy to talk about anything, we fired off a fistful of questions for him to muse over.
The result is what’s possibly the longest and most comprehensive English language interview he’s done since Lost In The Ghost Light.
Louder Than War: What made you return to this project? Had you kept in touch with David and Brian in the intervening years?
Tim Bowness: Sporadically. I met up with Brian in 2004 socially and asked him to play acoustic guitar on a My Hotel Year track. Dave was in a band that supported me in 2015. Other than that, we’d just been in email contact on and off for a decade or so. From the time we wrote them onwards, I felt that the Plenty songs represented some of the best I’d ever been involved in co-writing. Because of this, I’d always had the idea of re-recording them in the back of my mind.
When I first formed No-Man with Steven Wilson, some of Plenty’s style had an influence on No-Man’s music, and in the early days of No-Man we even performed two Plenty songs as part of our live repertoire.
Over the last 30 years, I’d had a few attempts at re-recording some of the material – with Peter Chilvers and Michael Bearpark – and an old Plenty song found its way onto Stupid Things That Mean The World in 2015. Partly as a result of the latter, at the beginning of 2016 I got in touch with Brian and David for the first time in a long time and we finally decided to make the album we’d always wanted to.
LTW: How different are the songs on It Could Be Home to the original versions?
TB: In many ways, we remained faithful to the 1980s blueprints. We stayed close to the arrangements and very close to the musical structures. The main difference is in what we brought to the material as players.I altered a few of the lyrics that I was uncomfortable with and approached some of the songs differently, but in several cases, aside from the singing and the overall quality of the production, the demos are recognisable in the end product. Over the years, I hope we’ve got better and more natural at doing what we do. Jacob Holm-Lupo’s mix was a also an important ingredient in terms of making the material sound better than it ever did.
I hope it’s not totally tied to the era. Some of the artists who influenced us during that period – The Blue Nile, Talk Talk, Laurie Anderson, David Sylvian, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, It’s Immaterial etc – managed to establish strong identities while avoiding the worst excesses of 1980s productions and I’d like to think we pulled that off as well.
There was a definite sense of unfinished business making the album and it does fulfil our brief of being the album we’d have wanted to release in the 1980s.
LTW: What made you cover The Stones’ As Tears Goes By back in the day?
TB: It was a song we’d covered in 1988 that was a part of our live sets at the time. We felt the version was so different from the Marianne Faithful and Rolling Stones’ mid-1960s originals that it justified being referred to as a Plenty piece. We chose to cover it originally because we liked the timeless, hymnal quality in the Jagger/Richards song and, more crucially, because we knew we could do something very different with it.
LTW: It’s interesting that Plenty has roots in the mid eighties, which was also a period that also recently influenced Steven Wilson’s ‘To The Bone’ (the Gabriel, Tears For Fears, Blue Nile pop art era) – is that an example of the Wilson / Bowness synergy?
TB: Absolutely. The Plenty reunion began in January 2016 (a New Year’s resolution we all kept to!) and in March or April 2016, Steven sent me the demos for To The Bone and asked me for feedback. I think for both of us, the projects represented a departure.
I find that albums tend to be a reaction to what came before. They’re either developing the previous album’s ideas more fully or they’re completely rejecting them. For whatever reason, I think Steven and I both felt that what we’d been working on had reached a conclusion. He’d completed Hand. Cannot. Erase., which was SW at his most weighty and conceptual and I was in the process of finishing off Lost In The Ghost Light, which I felt was a logical conclusion to what elements of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean The World had suggested. Although I think we’re both very detailed in how we work, I also think we have a similarly instinctive sense of what and where the music should be going. We can both make complicated recordings and sudden u-turns!
LTW: The press blurb mentions 16 songs plus the new one. How did you whittle things down to the final ten songs for the album (knowing how precise you are about track sequencing from the Returning Jesus notes)?
TB: It was surprisingly tough. I dropped two of my favourite pieces from the album because the flow wasn’t working for me. I then added a piece that we’d pretty much abandoned and it all made sense. It took a few weeks to work out the current order and once it was in place, it definitely felt as if it should have been that way all along.
I still think in terms of classic album structure and flow as for me the 40-45 minute experience is still the best. It’s short enough to allow the experience to linger and long enough to make a statement of intent. I’d rather want more of something than feel exhausted by it. CD age albums and Spotify-era albums (which can be 20 songs long) are not for me (or my music).
I think given the nature and mood of my music, structuring and arrangement are vitally important. It’s easy to overdo things, so I’m in permanent edit mode when compiling albums.
LTW: The Good Man is the one new song from the sessions. Was there any intent to write anything new? And how did that song come about?
TB: It came out of nowhere. We were really enjoying the process of making the album and the song just emerged. Lyrically, I imagined it as a spiritual successor to the song Never Needing and also – tangentially – as a comment on the band itself. It was an updating of the characters in the song as well as an updating of the band. It felt like it fitted in seamlessly with the re-recordings.
LTW: It’s funny how some musicians might look back on something they did thirty years ago and feel no connection to it anymore, possibly even embarrassed by it (think of Marillion ‘then’ and ‘now’ although you can understand how Steve H may not have the same affinity to the Fish lyrics as their originator – AND there are the Yes and Tulls of the world who are celebrating their fiftieth year on tours that select only music from their first couple of decades….) however, the question is, do you have a soft spot for what you did back then and embrace Plenty as all part of your musical story?
TB: I do. Although I’d been in musically competent and creatively interesting bands prior to Plenty (especially a Manchester based project called Still), Plenty was the band where I feel I came of age as a songwriter and lyricist. What I learned in Plenty definitely inspired music I went on make afterwards. I loved the material then and now. My only problems were that the period productions and performances were too rigid and airless, and that my mid-1980s vocals were horrendous (as I usually say, they were like Scott Walker with a double hernia!).
On No-man’s RETURNING JESUS (reviewed here)
LTW: What was the spark for revisiting this album from the No-man catalogue in particular? TB: It’s always been a band and fan favourite and the only existing CD version was more than a little dull in terms of packaging. We wanted to do the album justice and help it reach new people.
LTW: You talk a lot in the notes about the album’s gestation. It’s hard to imagine that some of the material is almost thirty years old – you mention Close Your Eyes was around in some form in the late eighties. Was allowing the songs time to breathe a typical way of working as No-Man?
TB: Yes. Some songs take years (Close Your Eyes, Lighthouse and Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap, for example), while others take minutess (e.g. Wherever There Is Light, Carolina Skeletons and all of Wild Opera). Desert Heart – the song Close Your Eyes evolved out of – was written when Plenty were still my main band. I think we always have a good idea of when something’s finished, but if everything was as slow to make as Close Your Eyes, I’d be worried!
LTW: You also mention revisions to the structure and sequencing. Is that a kind of nagging thought – that you’ve never quite got the right sequence or balance…?
TB: To a degree, though I thought we did a decent job overall. I’m happy with everything that’s there even though Chelsea Cap (one of my favourite pieces from the RJ sessions) had to be dropped. The balance was definitely right in the end.
LTW: In fact you talk about Close Your Eyes as still evolving. Is there a sense of that in most music, that the recorded piece is just a record of the song at the time and that it continues to evolve as a living entity?
TB: In some cases, a definite yes. When we played Close Your Eyes, Lighthouse and Days In The Trees live, it felt as if we were still developing the songs (for the better). With my solo live band, songs like Days Turn Into Years, Housewives Hooked On Heroin and Time Travel In Texas are continually changing. With all those examples, I think improved new studio versions could emerge.
In other cases I feel that the existing studio versions are the definitive ones: Wherever There Is Light, Carolina Skeletons, The Warm-Up Man Forever, Outside The Machine and Sing To Me immediately spring to mind.
LTW: You also mention tracks you and Steven individually initiated and then handed over to the other (you handed All That You Are to Steven and he’d written Slow It Down that he passed to you to tinker with) All sounds very Lennon-McCartney – was that a common occurrence?
TB: On the very early demos (Speak) and from Wild Opera onwards, definitely. In between (the One Little Indian years, basically), I tended to write to backing tracks Steven sent me and occasionally I’d send complete songs that he’d arrange. We always collaborated on production (in terms of us both having a final say).
Wild Opera was far more collaborative in that we were both in the room throughout the recordings making decisions together. Returning Jesus was similar. Together We’re Stranger was a return to an earlier way of working in that Steven would send men things I wrote to, but we both had a very similar idea of what we wanted so it felt as collaborative as Wild Opera. With the exception of Wherever There Is Light, Schoolyard Ghosts was developed out of songs I brought in.
LTW: The quality over quantity issue that led to the decision to leave off things like Darkroom and Chelsea Cap for the sake of flow. How do you look back in hindsight – was that the right decision?
TB: Absolutely. As mentioned, I dropped two of my favourite tracks from the Plenty album and added something that might count as my least favourite piece on the album, but I think it’s a far better album because of that ruthlessness. Chelsea Cap and Walker are special No-Man tracks, but the albums were better off without them.
LTW: Although No-Man was basically you and Steven, at what point did you get other musicians involved and did you have specific ideas about who you want and what you want them to do? (it’s something you seem comfortable with now, ie, Ian Anderson’s doing his thing on Lost In The Ghost Light…)
TB: Very early on. Even on our first demos, we brought people in. We used a harmonica player, Ben Coleman on violin (who later joined the band for a few years) and The Still Owl on guitar. We even developed a piece out of a Colin Edwin demo.
By the debut album, we were working with Jansen, Barbieri and Karn and on Flowermouth, Robert Fripp, Ian Carr, Mel Collins and others participated.
It’s a thrill working with people whose work you admire, but it’s always because they bring something fresh to the piece (and never for the sake of it).
On collaborations with Steven Wilson
LTW: I was interested to read in Stephen Humphries’ essay in the To The Bone special edition that you were one of a very small focus group with whom he was sharing his To The Bone songs as they developed. Can you say a bit more about how that worked and how you thought the album turned out having been part of the ‘consultation process’? (for the record, I think it’s a fantastic album).
TB: Steven sent me the demos in March or April 2016 and wanted to know whether or not he was doing something different or whether he was making the same album again. I’d like to think he sent the songs to me as he felt he’d get an honest assessment. I listened and told him what I thought was different and what I thought echoed his previous work (and how). My final advice was that he should follow his instincts and true desires fully as I was convinced he’d take his audience with him wherever he chose to go. I’d like to think that I gave him the courage to write and release Permanating. :-)
Whatever Steven does, he does with conviction and care. He also does things honestly. A lot of the 1980s influences on display on Plenty and To The Bone were ones we both shared when we first started working together in the late 1980s, so there was no sense of sell-out in the making of the music. The early No-Man had a more overt Pop influence and that too was genuine. I guess we both believe it’s possible to equally respect the likes of Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Steve Reich and Prefab Sprout (and many, many others).
As for the finished To The Bone, I’m glad Steven followed his instincts. I thought Song Of I was great in demo and final album form.
LTW: Can you ever see a situation where the two of you would work on something new again?
TB: I hope so and I think so. We’ve both mentioned getting together for a new album and tour, so there’s interest from both of us.
LTW: And finally – what else is in the pipeline for the next year or so?
TB: No-Man hopefully! Outside of that, I’ve started working on a new solo album – which I think will present a few new perspectives musically – and Plenty have continued re-recording material. I’ve also done guest vocals for the likes of Big Big Train, Banco De Gaia, Twelfth Night and Anthony Reynolds (Jack/Jaques) over the last couple of years.
You can find Tim Bowness online here : http://timbowness.co.uk/