Together We’re Stronger: An Interview with No-Man’s Tim Bowness

[6 May 2012]

By Stephen Humphries

The band No-Man knows a thing or two about grabby song titles. Few curiosity seekers could resist the lure of songs with names such as “My Revenge on Seattle,” “Time Travel in Texas,” “My Rival Trevor,” “Iris Murdoch Cut Me Down,” and “Housewives Hooked on Heroin.” Even The Smiths would tip their hats at such audacious appellation.

Not that the British duo, which consists of vocalist/lyricist Tim Bowness and multi-instrumentalist/producer Steven Wilson, sound all that similar to Morrissey and Johnny Marr (though Bowness’s voice shares Morrissey’s flair for the dramatic). If anything, No-Man’s lush and expansive art rock was almost a reaction to Manchester’s fashionable pop scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Indeed, No-Man’s music was slightly ahead the trend curve. When No-Man released its first major single in 1990, the British weekly music newspaper Melody Maker lauded the duo as “conceivably the most important English group since The Smiths.” The single, a minimalist cover of Donovan’s “Colours,” combined hip-hop beats and sunbursts of violin in a style that predated the trip-hop that Massive Attack and Portishead would popularize shortly thereafter.

In hindsight, Melody Maker’s prediction didn’t quite pan out in terms of commercial popularity or widespread influence. Yet the group that Uncut magazine recently hailed as “Britain’s most underrated sorrowful sonic architects” has seen its renown and sales grow in recent years. Albums such as Returning Jesus (2001) and Together We’re Stranger (2003) cemented the band’s reputation for creating otherworldly aural environments. Its sixth and most recent studio album, Schoolyard Ghosts (2008), is its best-selling album to date. In large part, that’s due to Steven Wilson’s rising fame as a solo artist and as the founder of the band Porcupine Tree. But No-Man also owes its recent success to changes in the musical climate. As the co-founder of Burning Shed, a specialty record label and online emporium for progressive rock and art rock, Tim Bowness (and, by extension, No-Man) has benefited from a resurgence of interest in progressive music over the past decade.

No-Man’s brand new release, a live album titled Love and Endings, was recorded in October last year at a celebratory concert for Burning Shed’s 10th anniversary. The album, which is packaged with a DVD, encapsulates many facets of No-Man’s lush and textural soundscapes.

On the song “Mixtaped,” for instance, roiling guitars mirror the frayed emotions of Bowness as he mourns the final months of a relationship. The epic “All the Blue Changes”—which bears the influence of late-era Talk Talk—is similarly melancholic. It unfurls like a gathering storm as quiet piano and splashing cymbals give way to thundercrack drums and torrential guitars and violin.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The ballads “Lighthouse” and “Wherever There is Light” are imbued with the romantic longing that characterizes so much of No-Man’s music, whether it’s for the carefree summers of childhood or for the lover who got away. And “Time Travel in Texas,” with its three-pronged riff of two guitars and a violin, offers a fresh iteration of the band’s sound by rocking out in a way No-Man seldom has before.

PopMatters recently conducted an epic email interview with Tim Bowness to discuss No-Man’s past and present. The erudite and thoughtful singer also discussed his many side projects as well as changes in the music industry as viewed from his perspective as proprietor of Burning Shed. And if you’re wondering whether the song “My Rival Trevor” was inspired by an actual person, read on….

* * *

The story of No-Man’s formation is a curious one: you lived in the North, Steven lived in the South. One day, you received a letter in the mail from Steven, who had discovered your work through a fanzine. What were your initial impressions of Steven when first met? At what point did you realize he was a very special and unique composer and producer?

The musical relationship felt special from the off.

We both worked very quickly and we could both talk for hours (and hours) about music old and new, fashionable and unhip.

There was little we wouldn’t consider discussing or pursuing and I think that was a first for both of us.

I’d been in really good bands before with decent musicians, but the band member’s tastes were clearly defined in a way that meant possibilities were limited.

Working with Steven, it felt like anything was possible.

Although we came from very different parts of the country geographically, our circumstances were very similar.

We both came from affluent village suburbs of small towns in the shadow of major cities (London for Steven and Manchester and Liverpool for me).

As such, though our accents and personalities were different, we’d both confronted similar things in the people and environment surrounding us.

Steven was always versatile and a great facilitator and he’s continued to hone those skills as he’s got older.

Photo: Carl Glover

Photo: Carl Glover

When you met Steven as a teenager, it would have been just a few years after your mother’s death in a car accident. Which albums were you absorbing at the time and did they help you cope with your bereavement? Since then, have you found your music a form of solace and catharsis in difficult times?

An interesting question that may result in a long and tedious answer akin to an old episode of Oprah!

Even before my Mother’s death, I lived in an unhappy household, so music, books and film provided a solace for me from an early age.

The first things I remember having a soothing effect were 10cc songs featuring the angelic lead voice of Kevin Godley (“Don’t Hang Up, Somewhere In Hollywood” etc.) and early Kate Bush (“The Man With The Child In His Eyes” and “In The Warm Room,” in particular). I was also very drawn to the dreamy, melancholy nature of early Pink Floyd and the ballads of Genesis, Simon & Garfunkel and Lennon/McCartney. Retreating into beauty, I guess.

After my Mum’s death and the closely following multiple nervous breakdowns of one of my Grandparents and the death of another (a misery memoir in the offing!), it was music with a harder emotional edge that gripped me for a while—Peter Hammill’s Over, Bowie’s Scary Monsters, Patti Smith’s Easter, Nico’s Chelsea Girl, Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and so on.

Between the ages of 13 and 17, I had a pretty eclectic musical taste that encompassed prog rock, New Wave/post-punk, soundtrack music, disco, easy listening, hard rock, and pop. From that point on it rapidly grew to include singer-songwriters, classical, jazz, avant-rock and the then contemporary music of the 1980s.

I’d say I’ve always been attracted by extremes: of beauty and violence, escapism and grim reality, excess and understatement etc.

Yes, I suspect my own music has been cathartic for me. The last four No-Man albums and Memories of Machines’ Warm Winter, for example, were all produced in quite emotionally fraught times and I’m sure the music helped me get through them.

No-Man cover version of “Colours” was lauded by critics but, oddly, not a big chart hit. When DNA scored a big hit later that year by doing essentially the same thing—adding a big hip-hop beat to Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”—did you feel pissed off or ripped off?

Partly by accident, I think we did hit on something unique with “Colours.”

By taking a song from the 1960s and using a 1980s hip-hop sample of a 1970s song, we managed to forge a future for ourselves in the 1990s.

In some ways, hip-hop’s cultural effect was similar to that of punk’s and I think “Colours” and, later on, trip-hop represented a logical post-hip-hop artistic evolution.

As such, it’s very possible that bands such as DNA, Massive Attack and No-Man had similar ideas at the same time.

Despite good press, television and radio appearances and the backing of a hip record label (One Little Indian, home to The Shamen and Bjork) and a big music publisher, why do think the band failed to take off in a big way commercially?

The band’s first two One Little Indian singles were very favorably reviewed and reached the UK Indie Top 20 charts. Although we had a few late-night TV appearances, we didn’t receive much support from radio or achieve particularly high sales.

I’d say the main reason we didn’t succeed on a larger scale is that we took three years to make our debut album and by the time it was released, dance music and indie dance—which we had a tangential connection to—had been replaced by grunge and Brit-pop in the critic’s affections.

Had the album been completed earlier or later (in the time of trip-hop), it might have had more impact. Maybe not.

Reviews were generally good, but I think the debut album’s art pop sheen was disappointing to some, as was the fact that some of our core influences crept through more obviously than they did on our early singles.

If I’m being honest, I do think the band deserves more recognition, but I’ve never felt bitter about this.

We continue to make music that interests us and, luckily, we still have a decent-sized cult audience at a difficult time for both the economy and the music industry. I feel genuinely grateful for that.

"Robert Fripp had been a hero of mine for years..."

When No-Man embarked on an ambitious UK tour in the early 1990s, you audaciously approached the musicians from Japan: Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri to tour as your musicians. Were you surprised that they agreed to do a club tour with a couple of young whippersnappers?  Similarly, when Robert Fripp expressed interest in guesting on the Flowermouth album, did you feel trepidation about inviting a legendary guitarist over to record at No-Man’s studio which was literally a bedroom in a suburban house?

In his many guises, Fripp had been a hero of mine for years, while Rain Tree Crow had been one of my favorite bands of the early 1990s, so of course, it was a thrill to be working with these people I’d greatly admired from afar.

That said, I was more excited than fearful about working with them.

In both cases, I felt that they could bring something new to No-Man, but that we could also reciprocate and bring something different to their world.

It’s still a real thrill to work with people whose music I loved and bought (Dave Stewart, Bruce Kaphan, Peter Hammill, Simon Nicol and more), but it’s never on the basis of fawning fan. I’m more interested in what I feel they can creatively bring to the music and what they can get out of the experience.

The first three albums boast classic No-Man songs and boast an incredible range of influences and sounds. But when and Steven revisited your late 1980s demos, later released as Speak, you suddenly realized that that was the sound you’d been looking for all along. What did you both learn as a result of that prolonged journey toward returning to that less frenetic, more spacious original No-Man sound?

The only thing I can say is that from writing “Carolina Skeletons” onwards (in late 1998), it felt like the band’s music had re-entered the purer place that the songs from Speak had also developed out of.

I think that when we started in 1987, we wrote music for music’s sake and from 1998 onward we’ve also done that.

The major contract detour of 1991-1995 didn’t particularly compromise the band’s vision, but I think some decisions were made and some music written that came out of a desire to please people other than ourselves. However, I think we did improve technically during that time and produced a lot of music I still like. Sometimes, writing things dictated by others can produce good results, I think. Intervention can inspire a greater sense of discipline, which is why although I produce myself, on occasion I’d love to have what I do subjected to the vision of an external producer.

For various reasons, when I listen back to my early-mid 1990s music, I hear a person very different from the one I am now. The singer on Flame [Bowness’s 1994 album with Richard Barbieri] seems to be singing about emotions, whereas the singer on Together We’re Stranger is living them.

By the late ‘90s, No-Man was struggling commercially and you left London. Did you ever fear that the band was over, especially since Steven was suddenly enjoying great success with Porcupine Tree?

Steven and I had always worked with other people and No-Man was an open marriage from the beginning. Consequently, I didn’t feel the band was over, though I did become painfully aware that something I loved was no longer a priority.

After initially being hurt by this, I came to the conclusion that both artistically and commercially, Steven’s ongoing work with Porcupine Tree—who I felt were getting better with each new album—would feed back into No-Man in a positive way.

Not long after that, you formed Burning Shed. How did that come about?

Initially, it grew out of No-Man’s habit of producing semi-official releases that were sold directly to fans.

I presented an idea to Pete Morgan and Peter Chilvers about setting up an online equivalent of artistically-focused indie labels such as ECM, DGM, Mute and 4AD. By using the on-demand CDR approach, I felt we could create a means of selling idealistic music that was financially feasible.

Soon after setting this up, I suggested Burning Shed create the official No-Man and Porcupine Tree online stores. This decision has dictated a lot of what the company has done since.

Photo: Steven Wilson

Photo: Steven Wilson

During Burning Shed’s early years, were you noticing an upswing of interest in art rock and progressive music and how has that scene changed over the past decade?

There has been an upswing of interest in progressive rock, though I think it’s always had a massive underground following. A magazine in the UK, called Prog, has a very visible presence and a reasonably large mainstream readership. I think its success has partly been due to the fact that it tapped into an existing audience who weren’t being catered for elsewhere. This seems to have led to other big monthly magazines in the UK covering the likes of King Crimson, Van Der Graaf, Genesis and Jethro Tull in more detail and with a less scathing tone.

As significant perhaps is that alongside this, there’s also been a simultaneous upswing of interest in elaborate physical products, such as gatefold vinyl releases and deluxe CD sets.

In both cases, I suspect it might be because people are seeking substance in an era which they perceive has having little.

If you’re a musically curious teenager or middle-aged with a life-long fascination for music, a contemporary diet of American Idol, chart R&B or indie guitar bands may seem unsatisfying.

The internet has provided instant access to the history of music and I feel that by using a combination of social networking, streaming sites and YouTube, people have discovered artists and genres that they feel have some integrity and ambition at a time when the mainstream seems largely characterless and shallow.

Although it spent a long time being vilified, the progressive music of the late 1960s and early 1970s—in which I would lump anyone from King Crimson to Terry Riley, Traffic to Weather Report, The Beatles to Roxy Music—was audacious as well as hugely commercially successful. The boundaries and emotional expressions seemed limitless. In retrospect, although I accept that from James Blake to Tool to Bjork to Radiohead, some experimental music has succeeded on a large scale over the last two decades, it’s difficult to imagine albums as strange or ambitious as The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Berlin, For Your Pleasure, Trout Mask Replica, Red, Horses, Station to Station and Bitches Brew being as publicly embraced as they were in the 1970s.

Punk spawned some great music and some major talents, but the critical establishment it created in its wake did limit the potential of many musicians in the 1980s and 1990s. The critics view of pretentious was out and cool—which was often more pretentious in the true sense of the word than what it replaced—was in. A bad thing for music, in my opinion.

Interesting new music is being produced, but the majority of it exists beneath the radar of commercial radio and TV. Even the specialist music channels appear conservative in terms of what they’re prepared to show/play.

In many ways, it’s a real pity that despite having innumerable specialist commercial radio and TV music stations, even relatively popular music through the ages—by the likes of This Mortal Coil, American Music Club, Red House Painters, Dead Can Dance, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Momus, Godley & Crème, 801, Peter Hammill, Wolfgang Press, It’s Immaterial, Prefab Sprout, Gastr Del Sol and many others—gets little to no exposure anywhere.

Burning Shed recently became the official online store for Jethro Tull. Do you anticipate similar arrangements with other bands in future?

As long as there’s a tangential musical/artistic connection and it’s music I like, I’d like to think this is something Burning Shed can continue to specialize in.

In the case of Jethro Tull, the links came via Steven’s mixing of Aqualung and the fact that I’d always rated Ian Anderson as a highly intelligent lyricist and songwriter.

Photo: Carl Glover

Photo: Carl Glover

Many of the items that Burning Shed carries can be found on streaming services such as Spotify. What’s your take on the pros and cons of Spotify?

The non-commercial Soundcloud is a great resource, but I have nothing to do with Spotify. Where I have ownership of it, I take my music off the site.

It’s a nice means of people hearing music, but it’s a financially flawed model that sort of helps the major labels who have invested in the company, but doesn’t provide much financial benefit for musicians.

I think artistically focused streaming sites with a greater royalty return for musicians could work well, so I’m not against streaming in principle.

Burning Shed seems to have created its own ecosystem—its own niche “scene,” if you like: Has it helped artists discover and collaborate with other musicians represented by Burning Shed?

Definitely.

Word of mouth and connections have played a part in things from the beginning. We also have a few musicians—Theo Travis, Andrew Keeling and Dave Stewart, for example—who have ended up working with several of the bands we deal with, however different the music.

Has Burning Shed not only given you financial security to pursue musical ventures but also given your numerous side projects a higher profile and a built-in customer base?

I’d say that Burning Shed has given me a level of financial security that means I can be even more selective and idealistic as regards my own music.

Partly due to the “PT effect,” No-Man’s reputation and sales have also grown during this period, but I’m not sure how much of an impact it’s had on the visibility of my side projects. Prior to Burning Shed starting up, side projects such as Samuel Smiles and Henry Fool did as well, if not better, than they’d do now. If I sing on someone else’s album, there probably is a greater interest from some customers, although I think the interest depends on the nature of the music. The more Rock end of what I do is the most popular.

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, timbowness.wordpress.com/, 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?

Yes.

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.

"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.

Stephen Humphries is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who also blogs at: www.stephenhumphries.blogspot.com. His first novel, The Lobster Thief, will be released this fall.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/156792-together-were-stronger-an-interview-with-no-mans-tim-bowness/