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

Photo: Steven Wilson

The British art-rock duo No-Man, consisting of Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson, has long toiled in semi-obscurity. But thanks to the success of Wilson's other band, Porcupine Tree, No-Man is finally beginning to receive its proper due on the eve of its new release, Love and Endings.

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

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.

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