Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson have joined forces once more for no-man. Ahead of the release of the new album, Love You To Bits, we followed up an excellent first part of an interview published on the hidden art of no-man blog which prompted a few ideas which we pressed Tim on:
Louder Than War: It’s a wonderful dynamic between the two of you although I guess a bit diluted these days with your ongoing solo careers. You mention having the capacity within the relationship to be “bluntly critical” with each other in the way people who know each other so well can be without creating conflict (hopefully). I was wondering if there were any particular examples you’d be willing to share!?
Tim Bowness: The easy answer is, ‘Too many and too rude to share!’
We’re both quite opinionated and we’re both very relaxed in each other’s company. Added to the fact that we’ve worked together since we were young, it means that there’s less of a barrier of politeness in some of our exchanges. Despite the intense nature of much of our music, our sessions are usually very upbeat and humorous affairs.
LTW: Carl Glover’s artwork and the cover concept. You’ve said the art tangentially captures the mood of the album. A mirrorball immediately conjures images of discotheques (as they used to be known). For me, there’s a strong sense of the music doing what it says on the tin, but you also mentioned 100 images based on eight cover concepts. What were some of the other contenders? (and maybe some of the ones that were non-starters?)
Since writing this I’ve seen an interview with carl with the mirrorball idea that he had in mind for Steven’s Cover Versions!
And what were your ideas that you gave him as the starting point?
Tim Bowness: It took 105 attempts in the end!
I suggested a few designs based on explosions and a key idea I was keen on was something very like the cover we eventually opted for, but with an exploding glitter ball.I also proposed the idea of abstract splatters emanating from a disintegrating head (on a vivid prime colour background) and something more graphic using Rorschach style inkblots.
In the end, I felt that what Carl did very nicely captured the feeling of the album. It’s a nice juxtaposition of the mundane and the glamorous.
LTW: You’ve said that the new album “is unlike any other No-man album while sounding 100% No-man” as well as the fact that “it may be the most progressive No-man album of all” which I’d love you to elaborate on…
Tim Bowness: I don’t think the album has any obvious classic Prog stylings (which, to be fair, most no-man releases don’t), but I do feel that it operates in the original spirit of the genre.
It’s a 36 minute concept piece with repeated lyrical and musical motifs that has many dynamic shifts and flirts with several genres. In some ways, none more Prog!
You have to remember that the likes of Pink Floyd weren’t making Prog music in the 1960s and 1970s, they were defining it. There was no formula and they made things up as they went along. It was a process of discovery. Yes’s Close To The Edge creatively combines pure, simple Pop melodies, Jazz complexity, Rock energy, atmospheric beauty and more. Amongst other things, LYTB uses elements of Electro-Pop, Disco, Ambient, Trance, Modern Classical and Fusion, so while it’s nothing like Close To The Edge musically, I do think it shares a similarly adventurous mindset.
Of course, my definition of Progressive also includes anything from Miles Davis to Goldie, Radiohead to Roxy Music, Bernice to Bjork etc, so for me the spirit of Progressive music is ever-changing and extremely diverse.
As for it being unlike anything no-man has done before and yet being quintessentially no-man, the format of the album and the overall composition has no parallel in terms of what we’ve done previously, but I feel the unusual combination of influences and the emotional/harmonic components are very much us.
LTW: You’ve mentioned encouraging people to listen to the album as a whole which is a rare thing these days – although I believe elbow’s recent new album came in a version with no track banding so that it HAS to be taken as a whole sequence. Do you think that listening to a whole album a lost art?
Tim Bowness: Streaming threatens to destroy good listening habits, and partly as a result of that, negatively impact on the nature of music creation itself.
Streaming is immediate and very convenient, so the appeal is obvious. However, evidence suggests that the average listener has become more like an A&R person and now gives a piece of music only a few seconds to impress them. As such, streaming has encouraged the creation of ‘bangers’ and placed an emphasis on upfront single songs rather than complex album statements. Of course, upfront single songs can be very good, but it would be a sad future if that’s all that was on offer to music fans.
When you invest in an album, you tend to give it time. I personally enjoy the immersive ritual of losing myself in music while poring over the credits and artwork on gatefold LP or digipak CD, and I find that if I don’t like something straight away, I’ll give it a few more chances due to that investment. Even if I continue to hate something, I find I learn something about my tastes on repeat listens.
For some people, it will be different of course, but in general, I’m not sure streaming encourages deep listening.
LTW: The different versions of the pieces that have materialised along the way – you refer to the 7-20 minute Love You To Bits pieces and thoughts of offering a hard hitting ten minute option – will these ever see the light of day in the way that Returning Jesus and Schoolyard Ghosts offered some peeks into the processes?
Tim Bowness: I don’t think so.
The 10 minute ‘industrial’ version came about during the making of Schoolyard Ghosts (and clearly didn’t fit that album), and listening back to the other works in progress, none are as good as I’d like them to be. The only work in progress worth listening to is Steven’s original mix for the existing album, but as it’s not significantly different and isn’t quite as good, I can’t foresee any circumstances in which we’d release it. Earlier versions featured some wonderful Theo Travis soloing, but again, as what’s now there (David Kollar’s and Adam Holzman’s contributions) is more appropriate, I don’t see a compelling reason to release them.
LTW: And when you are working on a piece over an extended period of time or returning to something from some time ago, do you ever feel that sometimes you’re losing sight of the wood for the trees?
Tim Bowness That can definitely happen, but in this case, it was the opposite. When we finally decided to make LYTB the album we’d always wanted it to be, we pursued it with ruthless enthusiasm and energy. We made some bold decisions and wrote many new sections (lyrically and vocally) that had a focus that had been missing from previous attempts to make the album.
LTW: You’ve said the recent sessions were “the most productive and enjoyable” you’d ever had – why was this? Is it the fun and freedom (without any outside pressures – labels, tours etc) that’s the key factor?
Tim Bowness: Possibly, though I think it was mainly the fact that just like in the early days of no-man, we spent time working on the music without any interruptions. It was very focused and hands-on.
Since Wild Opera, the vast majority of the band’s music has emerged remotely. Either I’ve brought in complete songs that Steven has altered, or he’s sent me finished backing tracks that I’ve written melodies and lyrics to. Although we’ve consulted on production ideas afterwards, the process was separate. This time we were in the studio together in real time bouncing ideas off one another and it was refreshing.
LTW: Talking about the influence of electronic music in your recent work…”a homecoming of sorts” is mentioned…you say the album is about what you and SW are doing quite recently and also here and now – is it something we can expect to maybe evolve into your next solo things (for example, SW’s new album that’s imminent – or at least imminent enough to have my pre-order!)
Tim Bowness: For me, LYTB is the third part of something that began with Plenty’s It Could Be Home.
Plenty was my pre-no-man electronic-orientated Art Pop band from the North West. Re-recording our 1980s material with the band was enjoyable and instructive. While I brought what I’ve learned over the years to the old material, the old material also taught me something and challenged my current ways of writing and singing. The Plenty album directly fed into the dynamics and diversity on Flowers At The Scene. Steven was involved in the production of FATS (with me and Plenty’s Brian Hulse) and that’s when we discussed finally making the LYTB album we’d always wanted to make. We’d both naturally gravitated towards more dynamic and electronic music (as Steven’s To The Bone and forthcoming material also demonstrates).
Since LYTB was completed in the Summer, I’ve written six very slow and very atmospheric pieces and it now seems the right time to pursue something different.
LTW: Which is…?
I spent most of the latter part of 2018 and the first 8 months of 2019 working on Love You To Bits. I was immersed in the process of making the album and frequently re-wrote and reassessed aspects of what I was doing. After a long absence of not writing anything new, I wrote something in the early hours of the morning in August. The song arrived naturally, unexpectedly and fully formed. I was really pleased with it because it had very little in common with what I’d been doing over the last few years (maybe What Lies Here, the last track on Flowers At The Scene, was the closest comparison). Brian Hulse, my main collaborator on FATS, liked the piece and he sent me some music inspired by the approach I’d adopted.
Over the course of a couple of months, six new pieces were written and all had a very similar flavour and deliberately limited sonic palette. After the eclecticism and energy of FATS and LYTB, these pieces were uniform in terms of atmosphere, emotion and the sounds they explored. A lot of them – like the song that started the process off – were written in the post-Midnight early morning hours. Another unifying factor was that all the songs had a short story quality in addition to a more global or political subject matter than I’d typically attempt.
The working title for the album is Late Night Laments and hopefully, I’ll be continuing work on it during the early part of 2020. As with Love You To Bits, I think it’s important to feel that something different is being created. As much as there’ll always be a recognisable quality in my music due to my voice, I’ve never wanted to make the same album or song again and again.
LTW: when you say that LYTB/LYTP (saves typing it all) is/would have been a more logical successor to Flowermouth than Wild Opera was, it feels a bit like Back To the Future and revisiting an alternate mid-nineties and wondering about the path that might have followed if you’d taken that direction…
Tim Bowness I think that’s true. LYTB is definitely a more logical successor to and evolution from Flowermouth than Wild Opera was. That said, I don’t think we could have made the album as well twenty-five years ago and I think there are some influences (technologically and musically) that didn’t exist in the mid-1990s.
I’d say over half the writing for the album was done over the last year, so the album is very much a combination of the new and the old. The first 12 minutes of LYTB have been around since the late 1990s and the first five minutes of LYTP came together in 2013, but even those parts have been altered (in some places radically so).
LTW: What’s the no-man archive like? It seems (although it may be a shallow view) that the Tim Bowness/No-man material tends to be on slow cook mode, developing over, quite often, a long time, as opposed to the SW material/album cycles that in contrast appears to be more routine (although I may be way off the mark) but it’s such an interesting dynamic.
Tim Bowness: no-man man’s music can be written very quickly or develop over a long period of time. We tend to know when something’s finished and that can be over a period of five minutes (Wherever There Is Light) or twenty-five years (Love You To Bits).
When we’re together in a studio, ideas emerge freely and quickly, but getting together in the studio has become increasingly difficult due to other commitments.
In terms of what remains unreleased, there are a lot of songs from 1987 to 1996 that have never seen the light of day (both good and bad) and I’d originally written various songs for 2013’s Abandoned Dancehall Dreams with no-man in mind and there are versions with the live band.
Our huge appreciation to Tim for taking time to chat to us in a very busy schedule. Our review of Love You To Bits will be on the site imminently…