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