Together We're Stronger

An Interview with No-Man's Tim Bowness

by Stephen Humphries

6 May 2012

Photo: Steven Wilson 

How have these European collaborations come about?

You’ve recently collaborated with the Italian art rock outfit Fjieri, worked extensively with the German improvisational band Centrozoon, formed the band Memories of Machines with Italian Giancarlo Era, started the band Slow Electric with a couple of Estonians—how have these European collaborations come about and does it reflect a burgeoning interest in progressive music in Europe?

I turn down 90% of the requests I get for collaborations, but it’s always interesting to hear the music presented to me.

Beyond the names you’ve mentioned, I’ve also worked with Italian pop star Alice on her Italian Top 20 album Viaggio In Italia, Norwegian band White Willow and a couple of French artists. Additionally, I sang on a track by US band O.S.I. and on albums by UK classical composer Andrew Keeling and ex-Fairport Convention singer, Judy Dyble.

The majority of the artists who approach me work in ambient, art pop, folk/singer-songwriter or even jazz genres, although in one month a few years back, I was approached by four Italian progressive/art rock groups. I did end up singing with one of them and that was Nosound, out of which Memories of Machines emerged.

The collaborations I’ve most enjoyed have been the ones that have either been very good variations on what I think I do best (Memories of Machines, White Willow) or that have taken me somewhere different, such as the metal track I made with O.S.I. or the overtly acoustic singer-songwriter pieces I wrote with Andrew Keeling and Judy Dyble.

There is a more open attitude towards art rock and progressive music in Europe and South America, especially amongst critics, although there’s always been a vocal underground following for these types of music in both the US and the UK.

Despite that, with the exception of Germany’s Eclipsed, the UK and the US has the biggest and most successful magazines dedicated to progressive music (Prog, Progression, Expose etc.).

Your main projects at the moment are Memories of Machines and Slow Electric. Tell us a little bit about each project and how they cater to different aspects of your musical personality.

Slow Electric is a project with Peter Chilvers and two very talented Estonian jazz musicians. I see it as a continuation of the meditative atmospheric songs Peter and I wrote for the California, Norfolk album.

Memories of Machines is a project with Nosound’s Giancarlo Erra, and combines elements of art rock and post rock.

I feel that both projects are an accomplished consolidation of styles I’ve worked in before. Neither are the most radical projects I’m involved in, but both are amongst the best representations of particular things that I do.

I’ve also been writing new solo work and songs with Jacob from White Willow and with Henry Fool. The Henry Fool songs are surprisingly rich and complex and, weirdly, have something of the sentimental late 1970s Genesis about them.

My own material varies from some fairly strange GarageBand experiments to more straightforward acoustic pieces that have taken me as close as I’ve come to Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin and Roy Harper territory.

On your blog,, you often reassess your past albums with frank criticism. Recently, it seems that you’ve been wanting to create music that relies less on atmospheric drift and is instead bolstered by songcraft. You’ve also lamented how some of your past work is very melancholy and brooding whereas you’d like to include more optimism at times. Did those ideals help shape the direction of Warm Winter?

I think it’s very easy to write relentlessly bleak pieces and it’s very easy to get lost in a slightly insubstantial ambient/textural territory, failing to make a statement.

This may be a taste thing as much as anything else, but a lot of the music I respond to operates on a broader emotional and musical spectrum than merely nihilistic or drone. Whether that be Hejira, 50 Words For Snow, Different Trains, or Zuma.

Has the life-changing experience of recently having your first child inspired you creatively?

I honestly don’t know.

I’ve found parenthood to be equal parts exhaustion and sheer joy.

I’m also only in my second long-term relationship and alongside that, having a child has opened up all sorts of fears about mortality and aging, while also leaving me feeling extremes of love and protectiveness I’ve rarely, if ever, known.

I don’t think the emotional tone of my work and performances has changed much, although comparing Love and Endings with Mixtaped, the former is a warmer and more open performance, perhaps.

As a means of entertaining my son, I’ve been playing and writing a lot on guitar in front of him, so on a practical level, my technique has improved slightly and I’ve been able to write pieces technically beyond those I could have done before.

Basically, he’s turned me into a Hippy troubadour!

Photo: Steven Wilson

Photo: Steven Wilson

How do your mutual extracurricular projects outside of No-Man help broaden your individual artist growths and bring new influences to bear on No-Man’s sound?

The simple answer is that in between each time we meet up, we’ve both listened to a lot more music, worked on quite a few different projects and had new personal experiences.

As such, there’s always something fresh to say and, generally, each time we get together, we’ve developed subtly different ways of expressing our ideas.

Steven and I are very different people, and we dislike as much of each other’s tastes as we like. However, we do share similar abilities to obsessively develop music and be true to what we perceive as being the spirit of our music, and also to completely abandon that in an instant and try out something uncharacteristic.

Did Porcupine Tree’s burgeoning global fanbase expand No-Man’s fanbase and generate interest in Returning Jesus, Together We’re Stranger and Schoolyard Ghosts?


No-Man has always had a following separate from PT, but the connections have got closer and closer over the years. Curious PT fans have checked out No-Man and No-Man fans have come to appreciate the craft of PT etc.

As PT has the larger audience, No-Man has definitely benefited, but as Steven has often said, No-Man were the band he originally signed contracts with and the band that initially gave him an audience and the means to become a professional musician, so I don’t think it’s all been one way.

What are the key ingredients to make a timeless album rather than one that sounds dated? Very organic sounds often hold up better in the long-term whereas electronic sounds include the risk of later sounding very much of their time? Given that No-Man combines very organic elements and synthetic sounds, how have you changed your approach to creating records so that they better stand the test of time?

At the moment, we’re in an era where almost anything goes. From Destroyer’s reprisal of the smooth Roxy Music Avalon sound to Hurts’ electro pop excursions to the Future Kings of England’s pastoral prog and Wolfmother’s classic power trio sound.

Ultimately, I think music with a genuine emotional core is what will survive. To be timeless is desirable in some ways, but to be good and genuine is more important, I feel.

The Blue Nile’s and Prefab Sprout’s 1980s albums are hopelessly rooted to the time in which they were recorded, but the sincerity of the emotions and the inventiveness of the songs means that both bands’ work has lasted.

Sometimes, even artists who didn’t seem of their time sound very much so in retrospect. The Smiths were unique and seemed out of time in 1984. In 2012, it’s easy to hear the 1980s snare and reverb. The same goes for Wynton Marsalis’s retro jazz albums. They sound more 1980s than 1950s to modern ears.

Albums that I think do effectively stand outside of their era tend to be minimal, concentrate on recording classic sounds well or are so strange and unique they have no comparisons. Cale and Reed’s Song For Drella, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, Van Morrison’s Common One, John Cale’s work with Nico, Sun Ra in the 1950s, Can in the 1970s and Talk Talk’s later work are examples of artists/albums that I think possess a timelessness.

How have your travels and experiences in America influenced your lyrics and even sound (for instance, “Wherever There Is Light” has a distinctly Americana influence).

I’ve always had a fascination with the diverse landscape of North America and its unique cities. I’ve also long admired North American artists, writers and directors.

As a consequence, although I feel my style is very British, I think there’s always been a strong American influence in my work.

I’ve always felt Nick Drake and Pink Floyd were excellent examples of definitively British musicians steeped in North American influences. The equally engaging flipside of that are artists as diverse as Paul Simon, American Music Club, Big Star, Patti Smith, Neil Young and The Flaming Lips who are quintessentially American yet steeped in British influences.

Living in New York for a few months certainly gave me some first-hand experiences to draw from and “Wherever There Is Light” is one of the pieces inspired by my time there.


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