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Tim Bowness on Exploring (and Avoiding) the 'Ghost Light'

Photo: David Owens

Tim Bowness is putting out some of the most inspired music of his career. But on his new solo album, he tells the story of a musician "locked into one point in history".

On his most recent solo records, Tim Bowness fixates on things that fade. Abandoned Dancehall Dreams anchored its mini-narratives on the image of a dancehall in a state of disuse. Stupid Things that Mean the World focuses on objects and relationships that, over time, come to look trivial or pointless, even though the underlying significance never fades away. On Lost in the Ghost Light, Bowness takes on a peculiar narrative of an aging musician who, as the title suggests, struggles to capture the thrill of his glory days. As the lyricist and vocalist for No-Man, a duo featuring progressive rock giant Steven Wilson, Bowness has penned some of the most devastating lyrics ever put to album. His mastery of melancholy extends to his solo records, where he weaves sorrow and beauty together with a deft hand.

Despite Bowness' often moody lyrical meditations, things in his musical career have never been better. Bowness' online retailer, Burning Shed, remains a hotbed for progressive rock, art rock, and experimental music. He recently finished another album with Peter Chilvers, with who he made the 2002 album California, Norfolk. Then there's Lost in the Ghost Light, Bowness' third solo LP in four years, which easily stands out as the strongest of that lot. Unlike the wispy ghost staring blankly into a mirror on the cover of Lost in the Ghost Light, Bowness' new music is among the most vivacious he's ever written.

Bowness has always been linked with progressive rock circles, particularly for his involvement in No-Man, but up until Abandoned Dancehall Dreams the style of prog proper was absent in his solo work. Lost in the Ghost Light represents a full embrace of progressive rock's golden era: the second halves on tracks like "You Wanted to Be Seen" and album highlight "Moonshot Manchild" feature propulsive, climactic build-ups driven by electric organs and serpentine guitar riffs. The spacey atmospherics on the acoustic ballad "Nowhere Good to Go" evoke the chillier sonic landscapes on Pink Floyd's mid-'70s records. In fashioning a story about a musician seeking to re-light the fire that burned so brightly in prog's halcyon days, Bowness re-creates the inimitable sounds of that era while also incorporating them into the style he's crafted beginning with Abandoned Dancehall Dreams.

Much has happened for Bowness since I last spoke with him for this publication; our conversation runs nearly 45 minutes. Bowness, as velvet-voiced in person as he is on his records, is a loquacious interviewee. Several weeks before the 17 February release of Lost in the Course Light, we discuss what it's like to be a musician in 2017, looking back on the late '60s and early '70s, wondering just how the music world ended up where it did today.

Your decision to write an album about a musician "in the twilight of his career" is interesting, given that you're in an especially productive part of your career. What inspired this image of a fading musician?

I saw someone in a local supermarket who looked like a kind of classic Mick Fleetwood rocker, but I didn't recognize him. Given the area that I live in the moment, it's quite possible that he was in a band like Stackridge or Tractor in 1973. There was such a level of intensity in his stare. I speculated about what band he might have been in, which led to a lot more speculation. That was one of the starting points.

Also, in working with different musicians and Burning Shed, I meet many musicians who've been through phases in the industry: people who've been committed to a revolutionary time in music to being less so. I've always been fascinated as a fan of music how, in Happy Days terminology, you "jump the shark". I wanted to write about someone who came through a revolutionary era, and I chose the late '60s and early '70s because it's a time period that always interested me, as it was a time where people were making music that they felt could mean something to a lot of people – in addition to making a lot of money and having success. Then I imagined what it might feel like to suddenly become irrelevant, old, and useless with the changes in music technology: physical copies becoming unpaid streams. After all, that's happened, people in that position start playing to audiences their own age, in so becoming a player on a "golden oldies" circuit.

I was interested both in that journey and why it would happen, as well as its effect on the creativity of that person. What's the psychological effect of a life like that? Somebody asked me -- I've become friends with Peter Hammill, who went through that era -- whether he was an inspiration, but he's precisely the opposite. He's in the five to ten percent of musicians from that period -- you could add Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp, and the dearly departed David Bowie to that group – who managed to ride the changes in the industry.

I have come across people, both fans and musicians, who are locked into one point in history. Of course, it's also a fear that you yourself can become locked in a particular period or mindset. But there isn't really any autobiographical element beyond the fact that any musician is frightened of irrelevance or repeating themselves.

Is your local music scene conducive to these aging rocker types?

Where I am now, it probably is. I'm originally from the northwest of England. I was born and brought up in between "the twin towers of evil": Liverpool and Manchester. I was about 20 minutes from both of them, two bustling, exciting cities. When I started making music in the '80s, there was still a fantastic local scene in both places. It was great for radio, rehearsal, and releases; it was an exciting place to be brought up in.

At the moment I'm closer to Bath -- I'm on the outskirts of Bath -- and it's brilliant in one respect: I've never lived in a place where there have been more professional studios. Given the state of professional studios, that's some achievement. Amongst them is Peter Gabriel's Real World studio. Oddly enough, the music scene has lots of people from previous generations, so you have people like Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel, Rupert Hine, people from the old vanguard of progressive music.

It was then quite cutting-edge in terms of the post-punk scene; bands like the Pop Group got started here. In the '90s it became big for the trip-hop revolution, with bands like Massive Attack and Portishead being big local groups. In the '00s, Goldfrapp became a huge local band. Weirdly, throughout the years, the scene here has always been associated with left-field art pop and art rock.

In terms of the newer bands, probably like a lot of places, the scene is producing some relatively interesting bands, but the opportunities – as they are for most up-and-coming artists worldwide – aren't as great as they would have been 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Since I've moved to this part of the area, I've met several musicians who live relatively nearby, like Peter Hammill, David Rhodes, and Rupert Hine, but also some newer bands who are interested because of my involvement in Burning Shed. So, interestingly enough – and I don't know whether it's entirely typical – but the bands to tend to be on slightly on the left field of contemporary indie. It's always been a creative hub, but how much of that is new is questionable.

You just evoked the line from your song "The Great Electric Teenage Dream" about how in the present day, music, which was "once a record," has now become "an unpaid stream." With your music and your work in Burning Shed, how do you feel about where the industry is headed now?

On one level, it's in a precarious place, and on another level, there are all sorts of green chutes of optimism – we have a lot of extremes at the moment. Streaming, which doesn't really allow many musicians to develop a living from making music, is important in that it introduces music to people who otherwise wouldn't hear it. I've always been interested in discovering music; I have my own tastes and prejudices, but I will always listen to what's out, even if I'm not interested. I kind of work on the basis of "know thine enemy." [Laughs] Sometimes at the end of the year I'll listen to "the best albums of the year" that I've not bought or heard, to at least come to a conclusion.

Ever since iPod and downloading came in, I adopted them and adapted to them, but I've always bought physical products – I don't know how unusual that is. I use streaming and Spotify sometimes as a buying tool: if I'm investigating a certain band or type of music on Spotify and something really moves me, I'll buy it. I know that's something bands live on, and if I can, I'll buy from the band's online store because more will go to them. I feel a moral duty with Burning Shed, and what Burning Shed represents, to do that.

I encountered one American artist this way, a band from Colorado called Ian Cooke. He approached [Burning Shed] with very interesting music: a sort of contemporary art rock project with elements of Radiohead and XTC, that sort of spiky art rock/post-punk. He adds a classical minimalist element to that as well. I bought something of theirs from Bandcamp, and now we deal with them.

At the moment, vinyl has also had a massive resurgence – now it's probably selling ten times more than what it was eight years ago. It's still a small percentage in the overall industry, but it is significant.

My personal view of this is that whatever happens in any generation, an action breeds a reaction. If you think of the time of punk, for example, when I was around 12, what was interesting -- and what a lot of people don't realize about the history -- while there was this sort of street-level return to basics, on another level the stadium bands were selling more than they ever sold. There were extremely bloated concerts like [Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of] War of the Worlds. Jazz-rock was going through a sort of heyday. If you look through the gig listings of late '70s Manchester, you'd have the Buzzcocks, but also Brand X -- the absolute antithesis.

That's maybe what's happening [with vinyl] now that streaming is cheap, free, and extremely convenient. For the casual music fan who maybe ten years ago bought their One Direction single from K-Mart, Spotify is exactly what they need. But the serious music fan, who wants to engage with the tactile nature of product – artwork, sleeve notes, lyrics – they've gone more towards vinyl. What we've seen in the last ten years is a move to more people streaming, because it's far more convenient – and I don't blame them for that – as well as people buying things on the more expensive end of physical releases. We at Burning Shed found that deluxe editions and vinyl are selling better now than they ever have in our 16-year history. That doesn't negate streams, of course; it's the case of an action breeding a reaction, the antithesis existing alongside the thesis.

I personally prefer engaging with music in the physical way, even if I've heard it twice on Spotify: it's more personal, intimate, and fulfilling. I remember when I was 11, 12, and 13, when I bought my first albums, that they meant a lot because it was my pocket money. When you're younger and you spend money, you make a point of really engaging with the music. If you've dismissed it once, twice, or three times, it might be the fourth time that you discover the sophistication of the music or lyrics. It makes you work harder. With Spotify, it doesn't make you work hard: it gives you an impression. You can dismiss that impression quite quickly.

You've talked about how your first studio record, My Hotel Year was a "Tim Bowness solo album in name only," in contrast to the music you're making now. With Lost in the Ghost Light being your third record in four years, do you have an idea of what makes a "Tim Bowness solo album?"

The reason why I described My Hotel Year in that way is because at the time, I was working on three or four different projects, and not all of them were coming to fruition. I thought, "I know, I'll combine them." So it always felt episodic, very bitty to me. What made it coherent was the mixing and selection of songs, but it never felt like an "album statement" to me.

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