Together We're Stronger

An Interview with No-Man's Tim Bowness

by Stephen Humphries

6 May 2012

Photo: Steven Wilson 

"I did think Radiohead were much better than No-Man on the show we performed on together."

When No-Man first started out, you appeared on a television show the same night as a young Radiohead and you lamented that No-Man wasn’t nearly as good. But based on the sound of Love and Endings, No-Man has come a long way as a live band. What’s made the difference between those early days and now?

I did think Radiohead were much better than No-Man on the show we performed on together.

They seemed more comfortable in themselves as performers and the song, “Creep,” was an instant classic. I also thought they were taking a conventional popular genre—US grunge—and imbuing it with a rare emotional depth and a unique Englishness.

I don’t think Pablo Honey was particularly great, though, and I’d say that in its own very different way, No-Man’s debut Loveblows & Lovecries was just as good and original.

I was the only thing that was live and I was singing to backing tracks. We were dressed in clothes forced upon us by the record company and we were given 10 minutes to perform three songs, when we should have been given an hour or two more. The Fall were on before us and as Mark E. Smith was drunk, they took three hours to do their three songs. As such, we were left with a horrible mix and irascible sound engineers and camera people. That combined with wearing someone else’s clothes wasn’t conducive to producing anything worthwhile.

I think we’re truer to the core material now and more effortlessly combine the sweet and the hard, the loose and the tight, but at the time, I felt No-Man were a powerful and interesting live band. The TV performances weren’t representative.

No-Man’s two live releases, Mixtaped and Love & Endings have a harder-edged rock sound than before. Why do you think that is?

I’ve really enjoyed this recent phase of No-Man live activity.

I’ve been keen to work in a musically more expansive territory for some time as I really miss being in an inventive Rock band—which I think early 1990s live No-Man was.

The dynamics and whisper-to-a-scream possibilities of the band we currently have, certainly make this the strongest live line-up we’ve had.

I’ve altered lyrics and the band has sometimes radically reinvented the songs, but the main reason it works is that emotionally the music is true to the essence of No-Man, while also taking the band somewhere new. In effect, it’s what we try to do with each new studio album.

Some songs have been improved upon. “Mixtaped,” for example, seems to get more intense with each performance and is never the same twice. The more abstract pieces such as “Time Travel In Texas” have taken on a different, more coherent character.

The arrangements were initiated by me and Michael Bearpark. Steven usually joined us at the latter stage of rehearsals, but added (and subtracted!) a great deal, as did the rest of the band.

I think the live shows brought out some great qualities in Steven’s guitar playing and highlighted how good he is in a group situation. From a personal point of view, I think it helped me develop my singing more than if I’d continued to work in very intimate musical settings.

What’s the story behind the live album’s previously unreleased song, “Beaten By Love”?

It’s originally from 1987 and was one of the first songs I wrote by myself.

We recorded it during a very early No-Man session and it was amongst our darkest pieces. It featured a blistering white noise guitar solo from Steven and some absurdly intense vocals from me. It was probably as close as we got to Swans/Nick Cave “Goth terror” territory.

There were subsequent versions by Samuel Smiles and Faultline (a trip-hop-ish take from 1994), but neither seemed quite right.

This new version—with revised lyrics—began as an epic tribute to John Barry’s Bond theme tunes, but ended up as an exploration of the core elements of the song. In the end, I’d like to think we created something fresh out of one of our oldest songs.

Photo: Steven Wilson

Photo: Steven Wilson

How has your approach to singing changed over the years?

I’d like to think it’s become more natural and effortless.

In the 1980s, I could bellow with the best of them, but by the end of the decade, my approach to singing had become a lot quieter and more introspective.

In recent years, I think I’ve sung with a little more power again, although I hope that what I do is always an appropriate response to the music I work on.

My earliest vocal influences were Peter Hammill, David Bowie, Kevin Godley and Scott Walker, and by the end of the 1980s, the likes of Nick Drake, Chet Baker, Paddy McAloon and Mark Eitzel were influencing my approach.

I hope that by “Colours” in 1990, my singing style was my own.

I’ve always admired gritty soulful singers such as Peter Gabriel, Nina Simone, Paul Buchanan, Billie Holiday and Mark Hollis, but as my natural voice is so different from theirs, I don’t think their style has ever really impacted on my own singing.

What you reckon is your finest moment as a lyricist and why?

Most of the writers I like—Harold Pinter, Kurt Vonnegut, Jean Rhys, Douglas Coupland, E.L. Doctorow etc.—tend to be poetic and emotional in quite an understated way and that’s something I aim for in what I do.

I’d elect both “Truenorth” (the 12 minute version!) and “Things I Want to Tell You” as my favorites.

Both musically and lyrically, I like the fact that “Truenorth” has three distinct sections that differ dramatically from one another but work well together. From its gloomy pre-amble to its positive coda via the richer narrative of the second section, I’m pleased with how it works as a whole.

Conversely, “Things I Want to Tell You” expresses some fairly complex emotions in a very simple way and I think works both on a general and a personal level.

Outside of the two songs quoted above, for different reasons, I’m fond of more narrative pieces like “Warm Winter” and “Days Turn into Years,” and the semi-autobiographical lyrics that I hope transcend their source, “Schoolyard Ghosts” and “Photographs In Black And White.”

For new listeners, which album and which song would you recommend they check out first?

It’s not the most accessible No-Man album, but my favorite is probably Together We’re Stranger. It has a really nice, continuous flow, I think, and manages to be both intimate and epic at the same time.

For very different reasons, my favorite No-Man songs include “Truenorth,” “Mixtaped,” “Pretty Genius,” “My Revenge on Seattle,” “Riverrun,” “Back When You Were Beautiful,” “Outside The Machine” and “Things Change.”

Both you and Steven believe it’s important to stay attuned to new music. How do you go about that and which exciting artists have you discovered recently?

I’d clarify the above by saying that I think it’s just as significant to discover an older artist for the first time or find something new in things that you’re already familiar with as it is to be excited by a new artist.

The key here is that I feel it’s crucial to still be excited by listening to and creating music.

From a personal perspective, I’d say finding things I’d previously ignored in The Beach Boys’ Holland album or belatedly discovering the back catalogs of The Flaming Lips, Traffic or Judee Sill is as significant as hearing a new band I like.

In recent years, established artists I like—Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Randy Newman, Steve Reich, Neil Young, Peter Hammill, Eno and more—have produced music I think is as good as anything they’ve made in what’s been defined as their heyday, and that’s certainly an ongoing inspiration.

Over the last decade, I’ve really liked music by new-ish artists such as Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsome, Kings Of Convenience and Jim O’Rourke, and been impressed by James Blake, Shearwater, Sol Seppy, Battles, The Streets, Tool and others, but it does get more difficult to discover new artists that touch me or change my ideas of what music can be.

I think there are some cultural reasons for this.

In the 1960s—courtesy of the likes of The Beatles, The Who, Dylan and Zappa—pop music was massively culturally and politically influential as well as a means of making a lot of money. Fame, influence and money appeal and, as a consequence, I think Pop attracted many genuinely talented people into its orbit.

I suspect the likes of Bowie, Reed/Cale, Fripp, Ferry, Mitchell, Gabriel, Eno, Bush, Byrne, Buckingham, Waters/Gilmour and many others, would have been highly successful in whatever field they decided to take seriously. Pop music was lucky that it could attract such gifted people in the 1960s and 1970s. If they’d have come of age today, it’s more likely that these people would be developing iPad apps or creating a new social network.

By the 1980s, a more corporate music ideology emerged that paved the way for the American Idol era we’re currently in.

That’s not to say there wasn’t idealistic or interesting pop music about. From the mainstream to the underground, I think there was plenty of good and diverse music around in the 1980s, but its cultural impact was smaller than it had been.

Once more, that’s not a way saying that the 1990s or 2000s have been worthless musically. From trip-hop to grime and the creative resurgence of metal and prog, interesting things have happened, but I feel the rate of creative change has slowed down and the number of genuinely innovative creative mainstream artists is lower than it’s ever been.

Photo: Steven Wilson

Photo: Steven Wilson

What does the future hold for No-Man in terms of future studio albums, live performances, and musical direction?

I’d very much like to make a studio album with the current live band. I feel that it would automatically provide No-Man with a greater dynamic scope and a sound distinct from any of our previous albums.

Live versions of pieces such as “Mixtaped” and “All the Blue Changes” have pointed towards a minimalist classical/art rock hybrid that I consider powerful and distinctive.

As for specific plans, we are thinking of touring this year and hopefully we’ll be providing some music for a film that has just announced production (called Weak Species). The idea would be for the director to use mostly old material, though the hope is that a couple of new songs will emerge. The film itself is a movie expansion of a short that combined gritty social themes with poetic visuals. Similar to Mysterious Skin in some ways.

There are many areas of music I’m excited about exploring and I’m also keen to challenge my tastes and end up somewhere very new or unexpected.

Generally speaking, I’m still excited about making music and thirty years on from being in my first band, that’s a good feeling to have.

Finally, Did you really have a rival named Trevor?

The lyric has elements of things that happened and elements of pure fantasy, but Trevor was real and I actually met him.

In Manchester, in the mid 1980s, I was going out with a woman who lived next door to my best friend and his girlfriend.

Trevor had been the boss of both our girlfriends in the past and at different times had slept with them both. He was a figure of amusement to some extent as my friend and I would comically speculate on the perfection, social power and sexual prowess of ‘our rival’ who always seemed to be courting (read manipulating) several women simultaneously.

From another perspective, he seemed like a sexist and slightly seedy philanderer with an immature and chaotic lifestyle, but both women were obviously still drawn to what they considered to be his unique charm.

Unsurprisingly, after the relationships had ended, Trevor managed to seduce both women again. Possibly at the same time!

He was what is now colloquially known as a legendary swordsman.

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