Still Stranger, Ten Years Later: An Interview with Tim Bowness

PopMatters catches up with singer and wordsmith Tim Bowness to talk about the creative process behind Together We're Stranger, its lyrical influences, and how it fits into the band's diverse career.
Together We're Stranger
Snapper / K-Scope

One of the key lyrics that closes off No-Man’s 2003 masterpiece Together We’re Stranger is comprised of four simple words: “Learning how to feel.” No-Man, the duo comprised of English progressive songwriters Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson, was at the time of the album’s release no stranger to piercing explorations of emotional ruin. “‘Wherever you don’t go, I’ll be by your side’ — you lied,” Bowness ruminates on “Things Change”, the swelling coda to 1994’s Flowermouth. Seven years later, on the band’s breakthrough LP, Returning Jesus, he cries, “I don’t want to stay/A million miles away.” Lyrics like these, to say nothing of the ever-changing, inimitable sonic the duo built over the course of the 1990’s, would seemingly lead one to think that, if anything, Bowness and Wilson know quite a lot about feeling. Every No-Man record, whether it be the intimate jazz of Returning Jesus or the embittered trip-hop of Wild Opera, pries into the deepest of emotions, more often than not touching upon those subjects that most of us leave unspoken.

Yet “learning how to feel” are four apt words to cap off not just Together We’re Stranger but the career of No-Man as a whole. As I wrote in my seven-week Between the Grooves series on the album last year, these two musicians are not the kind to cap off an emotionally wrenching story with a definitive ending. This can be seen in one of the hallmarks of Bowness’ lyrical style, namely the use of phrases that are simultaneously evocative and vague: “the city in a hundred ways,” “the needle pushed the red,” among many others. No-Man’s music is about the processing of various emotions rather than about conquering them.

On Together We’re Stranger cuts like “Things I Want to Tell You”, this process can often be brutal, to the point that recovery seems a distant figment of a thing, forever ungraspable. But even at its most romantic (see: Flowermouth), No-Man is always firmly grounded in reality, unafraid of tackling those aspects of life that for some might be cause for ruin. It’s one of the many reasons why the duo has put out some of the most compelling music of the past two decades.

Looking back on the Between the Grooves series on Together We’re Stranger, I in some ways feel that I have said the bulk of what I can say about an album that is extremely personal for me. At the same time, however, there is a sense in which a great work of art never stops asking its listeners (or viewers) questions. Bowness’ suggestive lyrics for Together We’re Stranger‘s title cut capture this perfectly: “You and I are something else together.” On the one hand, “something else together” is an unimpressive collection of words, a sort of off-the-cuff phrase akin to “You know what they say.” Most often, words like these are placeholders, meant to fill the awkward gaps in conversation. They arrive when we either can’t or don’t know how to say what we truly mean. But in the context of the music of No-Man, Bowness’ simple diction carries the weight of a relationship coming undone. Backed by Wilson’s plaintive ambient soundscape, “something else together” becomes a phrase both weighty and impenetrable. Likewise, even after writing some few thousand words on Together We’re Stranger, I realized that there is still so much more being unsaid in Bowness’ economy of words than I will ever be able to capture.

My revisiting of Together We’re Stranger in early 2013 would come full circle later in the year. In October, I briefly met Bowness in a bar at the lower levels of the Royal Albert Hall, following Steven Wilson’s “homecoming” show for his third solo record, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories). Upon bringing up Together We’re Stranger, he described it as one of his “very favorite albums” he has ever worked on. From there, the idea for a conversation about the LP came up. With our busy schedules, we were unable to coordinate this interview for the album’s tenth anniversary in 2013; but, then again, the critical impulse to try to “redefine” a piece of music after some X amount of years after its release more often than not leads to some seriously aggrandized nostalgia. As the interview below evidences, Bowness and I didn’t struggle in expressing our thoughts on why this album is “something else.” Anniversary or not, it’s an album that commands a great many words.

* * *

There is a demo version of Returning Jesus‘ “Lighthouse” included in the three-LP version of the album that dates to 1994. Has what we now know as the “No-Man sound” always been in the back of you and Steven’s head, even when your music had a stronger electronic focus?

Yes. I think it’s been there since the beginning of our musical partnership in 1987. All of the pieces on the 1999 album Speak are from 1987-1988 and they occupy a similar sonic and emotional space to Together We’re Stranger and the more ethereal elements of Returning Jesus.

I think it’s something that both of us still tap into. The title track from Steven’s The Raven That Refused to Sing and the track “Songs Of Distant Summers” — from my new solo album Abandoned Dancehall Dreams — definitely possess something of that particular quality and “No-Man sound” that you refer to.

There are multiple places one might peg the genesis of the now signature “No-Man sound”: “Things Change” from Flowermouth, “My Revenge on Seattle” from Wild Opera, but perhaps most obviously on the tracks on the Carolina Skeletons EP in the late nineties. Is there one time in particular that strikes you as the beginning of it all?

The Carolina Skeletons EP was very important to us because it definitely marked out a time when we were determined to do what we wanted to do regardless of the consequences and the opinions of the industry people around us. The non-existent reviews at the time certainly suggested that it was something the world wasn’t waiting for!

We really liked the consistent feel of the EP and it immediately led us to compiling and improving upon the best of our early atmospheric material in order to create the Speak album. I think that from our very first writing session — when we came up with a vicious Punk Funk piece called “Screaming Head Eternal” and an epic ballad called “Faith’s Last Doubt” — we had an idea of where we going with No-Man’s music.

In their own way, One Little Indian-era tracks such as “Things Change”, “Heaven’s Break”, and “Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap” point towards the “sound” we eventually made, but that’s possibly because they echo the approach we had when we started (before we were signed). I particularly remember the incredible feeling I had after we finished the first, more ambient version of “Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap” in 1989. Like Together We’re Stranger, it had a balance between the epic and the intimate.

No-Man was on the One Little Indian label for its first few releases. Björk was a big artist of theirs at the time. Was there a sense in which being on that label compelled you to keep things more within the trends of the label at that time?

Not initially. I’ve always characterized No-Man’s music as either distinctively responding to the times around it — Loveblows and Lovecries, Wild Opera, Dry Cleaning Ray, etc. — or as being something very personal that attempts to follow our emotional instincts.

The problem is that when you try to describe “spirituality”, “timelessness”, and “grace”, it always sounds bogus and pompous. Also, timelessness is impossible in that everything has to be influenced by the world around it in some way. That said, we did want to create music that had a submissive ‘state of grace’, similar to things we’d heard in music as diverse as Arvo Pärt, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Debussy, John Coltrane, Gregorian Chant, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Eberhard Weber, Kate Bush, John Tavener, Talk Talk and plenty of others.

Going back to the question, the only time we were pressured to make something contemporary was after Loveblows And Lovecries came out. We were booked into a studio with Björk’s producer to make a “single.” To put it mildly, we didn’t like it then, and we like it even less now!

Returning Jesus and Together We’re Stranger, to me, feel like a sort of spiritual duo; sonically they have key differences, but I feel like they’re two shades of what No-Man is most about. Would you agree?

Absolutely. Together We’re Stranger came out of what certain elements on Returning Jesus hinted at. We wanted to take what we felt we’d achieved on tracks like “Only Rain” and the title track to an illogical conclusion!

Even though many of Returning Jesus‘ strongest tracks — “Lighthouse” and “Close Your Eyes”, in particular — lend themselves to a live setting pretty well, No-Man would not reunite on stage for some years later. When you and Steven were making albums around this time, was performing out of the question?

Because of Steven’s commitment to Porcupine Tree, yes.

With Returning Jesus, No-Man made a sort of chamber jazz album. What was the motivation for making Together We’re Stranger an ambient, much more stripped-down record?

Part of it was the encouraging response to Returning Jesus (which gave us the confidence to pursue our instincts in an even more bloody-minded way!), part of it was that we thought the likes of “Only Rain” could be taken further, and part of it was the mood we were in during the writing.

I’d just experienced the end of a very long-term relationship and my father had recently had two stokes. Both experiences plunged me into nostalgic contemplation of my Mother’s death — which happened when I was 15 — and also evoked some poignant memories of my childhood and times when I’d worked with the elderly in care homes. For some reason, without speaking much about it, both Steven and I seemed in a similar (melancholy) place while we were making Together We’re Stranger.

Compared with the distance between records like Wild Opera and Returning Jesus, Together We’re Stranger came out not much longer after its predecessor. Was this an especially creative time for you and Steven?

In retrospect, I guess it was. We were both relieved when Returning Jesus came out to a decent response and we were fired up about how to follow it up.

More than any other of No-Man’s studio LPs, Together We’re Stranger is incredibly cohesive, both in lyrical and musical matter. Was that something planned before the recording of the album?

Very early on we knew what we wanted to do with the album, so yes. This was one of the few albums where we had a lot of instrumental input from other musicians that we didn’t use. Lots of the additions seemed surplus to requirements, as the basis of the album’s music seemed strong in itself to us.

What were your primary inspirations for the lyrics of Together We’re Stranger?

As mentioned before, the end of my long-term relationship and my Father’s strokes contributed to the general inspiration. Outside of that, there were specific points of inspiration.

“Things I Want to Tell You” was in some ways a description of a man I was looking after while he was dying. I had to give him drinks through a straw and move his body so he wouldn’t develop bedsores. Most of the time I sat beside him as he drifted in and out of consciousness. The lyric projects my feelings and experiences into the man’s dying moments.

“Back When You Were Beautiful” has a more general application and meaning, but the inspiration came from when I was locked in a Thornton’s chocolate shop with a deranged homeless man. The staff locked the doors because he’d been randomly picking up pieces of chocolate and eating them without paying. The staff was waiting for the police to come. In the meantime, the guy was shouting at customers incoherently, while stuffing his mouth with truffles! At various points, he became more comprehensible and would scream things like, “I write songs. Beautiful songs. You’ll never understand!” Once I was let out of the shop, I went to a cafe and wrote the experience down. The guy had a (very) disheveled 1970s singer-songwriter look, so who knows, maybe he had been responsible for something special? I was fascinated by the thought of the “beautiful music” he may have made and the fact that it’s so easy to slip between the cracks of society.

“Photographs in Black and White” and “The Break-Up for Real” are fictional stories with elements of autobiography in them.

There are lot of evocative yet vague phrases that run throughout these songs — “the city in a hundred ways”, “the needle that pushed the red”, “all the blue changes”, etc. — is there a sense in which you’re trying to capture an image that means a great deal to you without giving away what exactly it is?

Without giving anything away, yes. [smiles] One of the things I like about the lyrics on the album is that they suggest a lot emotionally, while being very pared-down and minimal.

These lyrics could easily stand by themselves as poems. Have you ever thought about publishing a book of writing?

Not really. I think in the early days of No-Man, Steven always thought this was an ambition of mine, but it never has been. I write what I write to the best of my ability. I love books and I do read poetry, but I’d be embarrassed to put what I do out into the wider literary world. Sadly, I suspect I’m no T.S. Eliot (or Pam Ayres!).

I’m not saying lyrics can’t be poetry and I’m not saying musicians can’t make good writers (the British singer-songwriter Kevin Coyne wrote several brilliant books of short stories, for example), but I’d be uncomfortable about contributing to a sphere where there’s already too much material available (and an awful lot that’s very good).

In terms of writing books, I’ve occasionally considered compiling my blog “album notes” into something more substantial.

The unity of music and lyrics is especially strong on Together We’re Stranger. What was your input like on the musical end of the LP?

I contributed production ideas, musician suggestions and lyrics/vocal melodies, plus the main chords for most of “Back When You Were Beautiful”. Generally, I’ll write more music for an album I’m on, but the bulk of the music on the album was written by Steven, and in the case of “Photographs in Black and White” and “The Break Up for Real”, he sent me nearly completed backing tracks to work from.

However, one of the key starting points for the entire album was me re-discovering a CDR of demos Steven had sent me. I immediately loved the first track on it and set to work expanding upon it. I got members of Henry Fool into Stephen Bennett’s attic studio and we improvised around Steven’s theme. I wrote a vocal melody and lyrics and the other musicians both gave of themselves and acted out some specific instructions of mine. We ended up with a 17-minute song called “Together We’re Stranger”.

I sent the result to Steven who promptly told me he’d already used the piece on his forthcoming Bass Communion album as “Drugged”, and that he hated what I’d done with it! After a couple of days, he came back to me and said it had grown on him and could be the start of the album we’d been intending to make in the wake of Returning Jesus. The solo guitar, “space” bass, and synth parts on the released version of “Together We’re Stranger” all come from the Henry Fool demo.

“Things I Want to Tell You” came about because I was looking for a certain feel to complete the four song “suite”. Steven played me the beginnings of a very abstract demo that he didn’t envisage as a song. It struck me as something special and very quickly I had a lyric and a melody for it and we subsequently shaped the song together.

Whereas the first four tracks on Together We’re Stranger feel like a cohesive narrative, the last three feel more episodic, like a collection of short stories. Or are they all one story from different angles, perhaps?

I think both of your interpretations work. The first four tracks comprise a self-contained suite, but the short stories that follow could well be about the characters the suite deals with.

Though Together We’re Stranger is quite melancholy, there does appear to be a glimmer of hope at the end of the record, when you sing that you’re “learning how to feel” on “The Break-Up for Real”. Looking back on the album, do you view it as more somber or perhaps optimistic?

I hope that there is a sense of optimism, in that however bad things in life can get, there’s almost always something positive to counteract the misery, whether it be love, music, art, friendships, nature, and so on. I’d like to think that even in the undignified death throes of “Things I Want to Tell You”, the character will have memories of tenderness, beauty and love.

It would be another five years before you and Steven released Schoolyard Ghosts. Did you feel as if you had made a definitive point with Together We’re Stranger?

I think Steven did. For my part, I felt it was a difficult album to follow, but I felt we could and would get beyond it (even if it meant doing a Wild Opera and attempting to reflect the musical times surrounding us).

Now that ten years have passed since Together We’re Stranger, what’s the one thing you could say you’ve taken away the most from that album?

It was a great experience to make the album, and I was incredibly moved by some of the responses from fans. The fact that it meant as much to some other people as it did to us was extremely gratifying. I’m still incredibly glad we made Together We’re Stranger and, to me, it still sounds like the most complete album either of us have ever been involved in making. It operates in a territory I’d love to revisit wholeheartedly again. The next time round will be different once more as I think we’ve changed as people over the last decade and, inevitably, that would be reflected in what we created.