Interview with No-Man's Tim Bowness
by DPRP's Christos Ampatzis
When I heard about the upcoming No-Man tour to support their latest album Schoolyard Ghosts, I said to myself: this is an excellent opportunity to get them interviewed; and more specifically, to get vocalist Tim Bowness to answer some questions. Why Tim? Because Steven Wilson has been extensively covered in DPRP and progressive press in general, but Tim Bowness remains a bit of an unknown persona. So the first half of this interview took place just before and the other half just after the show in De Boerderij, Zoetermeer, 3rd September 2008. As you will see for yourself, Tim, even after the show, wasn't at all stingy with words!
CHRISTOS: Hi Tim, some general things about the new album: Can you tell us a bit about the title and what it means?
TIM: I suppose Schoolyard Ghosts is about the way in which aspects of our past imprison us in the present. Things that happened in our adolescence, when we're growing up, have tremendous impact and as adults just affect the way in which we often behave and think, you know, certain insecurities and so on... I guess it was an investigation into the way in which our adolescence affects us as adults. To a certain extent the schoolyard ghosts are those that affect our behaviour in ways we don't even understand. You might be behaving with me in a certain way, you might even have a certain insecurity or nervousness due to something you can barely comprehend that happened to you as you have been growing up, in those important formative years. I think a lot of what we are is found in our past.
So this is where the artwork originates from, I mean the
school kid with a schoolbag and so on...
Why did the album take so many years to complete (5 years)? Was this due to Steven's involvement in so many projects? I remember a couple of years ago in your website that the album was in the making, but still it took quite some time to be released.
I think obviously Steven's workload with Porcupine Tree and Blackfield has eaten into No-Man's time. We both got other musical
lives, we both got very different personal lives as well, and I guess it is a combination of both our workloads with what happened to our lives. I lived in New York in 2006, Steven's spent a lot of 2006 in Israel, so we weren't even in the same country! We also both continued to write with other musicians. The breaks often help No-Man because I think that No-Man is a very specific, intense emotional experience. I think what's nice about it is that it's evolving. We work within a certain emotional field that could be described as similar, in a sense that you could link Returning Jesus, Schoolyard Ghosts, Speak, Together We're Stranger. However, the sonic landscape changes because our influences change. Also the level of the commitment changes because our personal lives change. So what's interesting is that to a certain extent, we are evolving this idea of No-Man partly because of our experiences outside of the band and I think that we always refresh it with fresh influences and fresh experiences.
In what ways did you want to depart musically from what was previously done with Together We're Stranger and Returning Jesus? Many would say you didn't depart THAT much...
Together We're Stranger probably is the odd one out of the three. Returning Jesus is a quite strong collection of compositions. I think what happened with Together We're Stranger is that we took the most abstract, drifting, ambient elements from Returning Jesus and
developed that in a more amorphous way. Schoolyard Ghosts in some ways, with a new approach to technology, with new sounds, is re-establishing No-Man as a songwriting duo. I think one of the significant differences between Together We're Stranger and Schoolyard Ghosts is that Schoolyard Ghosts is a very strong collection of songs in which even every instrumental section is written and carefully arranged, with the use of an orchestra, the flute, the slide guitar. There
wasn't a wasted note on Schoolyard Ghosts, and probably the same goes for Returning Jesus, whereas Together We're Stranger was much more about atmosphere, texture and nursing yourself in that ambience.
You also mentioned that Together We're Stranger was recorded very fast...
Very much so, yes. It was a totally different experience. Returning Jesus took 5 years to do and it took such a long time because we waited to find the right musicians, the right studios, the right sounds and we just wanted to make the best album we possibly could. With Together We're Stranger, we were so excited by the way Returning Jesus turned out that together, both of us, wrote something very quickly, and it seemed very complete. Schoolyard Ghosts probably was a return to Returning Jesus, we wanted to make what was the strongest, most lasting, most personal statement we could, and if we had to wait 3 months to get that orchestra - we'd wait 3 months to get the right sound, the right musician.
Together We're Stranger was a rather dark and pessimistic album, still, at the end there is a glimmer of light and you get a flash of optimism. Now, in Schoolyard Ghosts, there is more light and
optimism throughout the album, but when you get to the end, the last track Mixtaped is the complete opposite, it's so dark and moody... So is there a kind of a contrast there?
Certainly there is, and I think that you're right in both cases. It's about uncertainty in some ways. The overall feeling of Schoolyard Ghosts is a lot more optimistic than the overall feeling of Together We're Stranger. I always feel ambiguously about these things. When you're plunged in the midst of darkness you find that light, you find the way out, and I think that as human beings we always have this capacity to reinvent ourselves, to
re-excite ourselves, to find ourselves, somewhere new, excited again; so in that sense Together We're Stranger is if you like that dark journey. Similarly, I think that Wherever There Is Light to a certain extent is about finding the light at the end of that dark tunnel, is about finding reasons to exist, to love, to be, and obviously one of those reasons can be music as well. But, there is always that note of ambiguity that wherever you find yourself, you will find yourself somewhere else. I think we are very emotionally driven creatures and we've always played with contrast, so I think that if ever No-Man has
developed a particular direction, we've always tended to contradict it, whether that was Flowermouth to Wild Opera; I think that Flowermouth was a very composed, beautiful, optimistic album, while Wild Opera was as chaotic as Flowermouuth was composed, it was dark as Flowermouth was light! And I think that we've always interested ourselves by working on contrasts, and even within albums themselves contrasts exist!
Let's talk about some particular tracks off the new album: Pigeon Drummer is at the same time one of the most ambitious tracks in Schoolyard Ghosts, and probably the most controversial one.
There is also the version of the song that appears in the bonus CD sent out with the first orders of the album by Burning Shed, which is quite different from the album version...
Well, that was my original demo. Pigeon Drummer started off with a demo of mine which is now called The City Sounds, but was originally called Outside The Mercury Lounge and it was one of the demos I submitted to Steven at the beginning of the whole Schoolyard Ghosts process. He was very excited by it, he thought it was incredibly different from everything else I submitted. Oddly enough one of the tracks that we didn't use in the album was one I'd written as a companion piece to Pigeon Drummer. Although it was a more accessible melodic version of Pigeon Drummer, and it had the same relentless beat-driven energy, we didn't feel it fitted the album. I think you'll hear that the chaotic section of the album version is retained from the demo, and it's even more chaotic with the addition of Pat Mastelotto. The vocal verse section is also retained. Steven wrote this really nice introduction and closing section to it, so completely ripped apart the shape of the piece and
developed something new from it. A lot of the album did come from demos I submitted that were then ripped apart by Steven, or the two of us, and just ended up somewhere new, and I love that process because one of the reasons I like working with Steven is that I work in a certain way and I think in a certain way, but I love being challenged. So Steven would say: right, that isn't melodic at all, that needs to be harder and so on, and personally I've always quite liked the idea of
reshaping something into something new, somewhere new where you couldn't take it yourself. Oddly enough, out of all the projects I do, No-Man is the most personal to me, even more than my solo albums, in that it reflects perhaps my taste more, and I think that that's because it has the essence of what I do, while also having an essence that's completely outside of myself. I can listen to No-Man as if I'm a fan, as if I'm somebody outside No-Man, because Steven's taken it outside of my own vision and limitations to somewhere fresh, whereas with my own music I know exactly why I've done that, why I've said that, how that's come about. And in some ways that's why we work with musicians as Pat Mastelotto or Dave Steward, because they have an ability to take our vision, our sound to somewhere wider and broader - like a widescreen colorscope movie as opposed to a black and white.
So this makes the content richer...
I think so yes. I always see No-Man as being a sort of widescreen vibrant
colour film despite the artwork of Schoolyard Ghosts. I think there's a grandeur and scope to our music while also being very intimate. I think that left to my own devices my music tends to be very intimate and I like the idea that that intimacy is stretched and works and manages to communicate in a broader way.
Ok, now Truenorth. There is the orchestral part which I guess is central to the piece. Were you pleased with its outcome?
Yes we were very very pleased, and that if you like is the central piece of the album. Truenorth emerged out of a demo called Another Winter, which was the opening section and Steven really liked this and felt it was a superb introduction to something and wrote two new sections. The guitar is off my original demo as well, so the second and third song sections were pieces that Steven wrote and I
developed lyrically and vocally as well... What was nice about that is that it seemed like such an organic process, despite being written a year after my original demo, it had a real sense of cohesion and completeness, and lyrically as well, it
developed straight out of the opening section and I think that when we're talking about this idea of coming from a very dark place and emerging and blinking into the light, I think Truenorth traces that journey better than any track on the album. Once more it is a good example of something that had been quite intimate and fragile that
developed into a very widescreen, quite broad sonic pallet.
Song of the Surf really reminds me of Talk Talk. The approach, the guitar in the beginning, the vocals are a bit more laid back. Are you a Talk Talk fan?
I like Mark Hollis and Talk Talk a lot, especially the later albums, The Colour of Spring, Laughing Stock, Spirit of Eden and so on. Both myself and Steven like Hollis and Talk Talk and we were actually managed by Talk Talk's manager when we were signed to One Little Indian, so when we were making albums like Loveblows and Lovecries and Flowermouth, Talk Talk's manager was No-Man's manager.
I was always impressed by the people participating in No-Man's albums, like Roger Eno, Robert Fripp, Theo Travis. Very diverse names and very known personalities, mainly in the progressive rock scene. Mainly earlier No-Man albums could hardly be characterised as progressive or even near progressive. So how did this happen and how do you choose the people you collaborate with?
I suppose people you choose to collaborate with is musicians who you like or you admire, and although I wouldn't call No-Man a progressive rock band, I think we certainly have progressive rock influences and interests in that field. Both myself and Steven grew up admiring a lot of very eclectic music and certainly amongst that, you definitely count bands like Genesis, King Crimson, and so on, and since we've been professional musicians ourselves, we tend to work with musicians that bring quality in the songs. Robert Fripp was someone we've always wanted to collaborate with. He's worked with King Crimson, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and it was great working with him, he's incredibly musical and incredibly appropriate. We gave him very specific indications on what to do and then we said: "do what you want to do", and we used a combination of the two. Because in any way it was right, we kind of wanted Robert Fripp to do this, but equally we want Robert Fripp to surprise us. Pat Mastelotto is a drummer I've worked with in the past, and he is great, he's someone in his 50s, he's still enthusiastic about finding new sounds, new possibilities. The pedal steel player is a guy called Bruce Kaphan, and I love his production with American Music Club, I love his playing. I'm a big fan of American Music Club and Mark Eitzel... So it's a combination of finding the right people for the songs, and then also people we'd like to work with. Roger Eno is someone I've done a lot of work with, he's living near me, we get along socially as well as musically... And obviously the Porcupine Tree boys...
Let me get a bit more personal now as Steven's been extensively interviewed by prog-related press, but not the same can be said about you. Can you tell us a bit about your plans for the future: should we expect a new Henry Fool album, or a new collaboration with Peter Chilvers or Samuel Smiles ?
We've recorded a new album with Henry Fool, but we've done nothing with it. Basically, the past two years we've been recording, recording, recording, but we didn't take it much further. Specifically speaking, I'm preparing a new album with Giancarlo Erra from Nosound. It's a very song-oriented project, and in some ways it's an extension of Schoolyard Ghosts. We've got Colin Edwin in it and Peter Hammill, because Peter was a great influence when I first started singing, along with David Bowie and Scott Walker. I think Hammill is a tremendously distinctive singer and it's nice to get to know somebody I've grown up with as a young teenager, and he's actually a very lovely guy! He is contributing guitar to an epic piece on the album called At The Centre Of It All (a 12 minute piece). I'm also producing an album for a singer called Judy Dyble who was in Fairport Convention, and also in the original version of King Crimson when it was Giles Giles and Fripp. That album will feature Pat Mastelotto, Ian MacDonald, Robert Fripp, and also new people like Sand Snowman, a new folk artist currently working with Steve. It's gonna be a combination of the new and the old.
And No-Man? Are you going to produce something new soon?
Well, we've definitely going to mix the live recordings from London, and that will give hopefully a live DVD and a live album. I think it sounds different from the album material but it's still sounding like No-Man. And that's why we're so excited about the live. We've also written a new song since Schoolyard Ghosts, and hopefully we're gonna do a new album more quickly than with the last one, in the next two or three years rather than five, because you know, I might be dead by the time we do it if it takes again 5 years (laughs)!
Talking about the live material, I found Things I Want To Tell You performed live a couple of years ago very different from the original. And in the gig you've
just played, songs have been completely changed, reworked and presented in a whole new wrapping, which is very impressive!
When you got a band of musicians you work well together, you can extend the material so much, you can make it more powerful, and I think that's the case with Carolina Skeletons - It was almost the song that you know, but it explodes... What I like about that, is that we don't lose the intimacy. If we did lose it, I wouldn't be interested. But we kept it till the point the song explodes.
All the Blue Changes. That was the most impressive explosion for me. Even in the album there is something lurking, but it's subtle. Here, the song REALLY exploded. So when you rehearse this material, how naturally did you come to choose which ones you'd play live?
We picked about 20 songs to rehearse. We just found a new way of some songs, some songs didn't work, other songs worked immediately, and others, we just found an original angle into them. As for All The Blue Changes, you're right about it. It was one of those that seemed a lot more dynamic than their studio counterpart, and it's always all the better for it! It preserves the quality of the studio song, without really
Let me ask you a stupid question now: I wonder if you are familiar with the Everything But the Girl 1984 album Eden...
Yes I am very familiar with it! I saw them on that tour, I've seen them quite a few times actually, and I think that Walking Wounded is a gorgeous album!
So in that album, there's a problem with the track names. Tracks and titles are slightly mixed up. So where am I getting at?
Exactly! So, did you do it deliberately or not?
(Laughs...) Deliberately! Returning Jesus is Returning Jesus and Slow it all down is the natural, if you like conceptual idea, and the same happened with Together We're Stranger and The City In A Hundred Ways and All the Blue Changes. It's a way of tying the titles in and I've always liked albums where you have to explore yourself more than just to have to listen to a 45-50 minutes album in front of you...
Let's speak about Speak! You've said in past interviews that you consider it one of the band's finest works, and I tend to agree because I see in it No-Man's naked soul.
What Speak is to me is the seeds of No-Man, we did it when we were very young back in 1987, and the first night we sat together we wrote two songs, and it just happened immediately, there was a really good writing relationship. We both got very eclectic taste and we both got passion in making music. Speak really comes from the first two years, 1987-1989, and I think it's an odd sound for the 80s, it doesn't sound like an 80s album. And that, we're quite proud of. It's not that fully formed as other albums, it's not as rich as Returning Jesus, not as composed as Schoolyard Ghosts, but it's the essence of No-Man that's contained in those songs. It's never gonna be as a grand a statement as other No-Man albums, but it's where we were finding our voice and I still enjoy it... What's there, is what Steven did. What we only re-recorded was the vocals. At the time, I had just started singing, I had not been singing for very long, my voice was a lot more unsettled and more heavy handed, and as I got on, I felt that I've become more of my own vocalist. So I think I found a way into the material more than I did when I originally sang them.
Do you think that No-Man has reached a kind of niche? Or you expect major musical shifts in the future?
I don't know, to me Schoolyard Ghosts seems a step above, this live band seems another step up from the live band that we had 15 years ago, because it just seems more confident. The interesting thing is that in the interim, there has been a small crowd that's been around with No-Man. The audience grows with the years. We've done albums we would like to own and we would like to fall in love with, and at the end of the day when you've done something that you believe in, you can be proud of that. If it fails, you've got a body of work you're happy with; if it succeeds: fantastic! With No-Man in some ways it's a success. And yes, it's pleasing, because I don't think we've made many compromises along the way making our music. When you compromise, if you succeed, you feel hollow; if it fails, you feel even worse. So I think that you've always gotta do what you want to do and hope it connects with people.
Talking about your fan-base. Do you think you can expand your audience now with Porcupine Tree's growing success and also expand it towards more progressive rock people? Would you actually tag your audience?
I think the audience has different feels and different phases of the band, and certainly, in the early days, when No-Man first formed, we were the band to get signed, not Porcupine Tree! We were signed to a big label in Britain (One Little Indian) and we signed to a big label in America (Sony) and a big publishing company (Hit and Run). We started off as being a sort of experimental art-dance band, in some ways we were a lot more electronic, more dancy, The band evolved in the way in which it did, and I obviously prefer the way it has evolved. And oddly enough, some people are still there from the very beginning. When we were playing in England 15 years ago, we would still get 200 people at our gigs, and some of these guys still remained loyal and followed the journey. We certainly picked up an audience via Porcupine Tree, I think we've picked up an audience by the quality of the new album as well, you know the sort of word-of-mouth: "You gotta hear this"! The No-Man fan can be a progressive rock fan, can be a trip-hop fan, can be a Sylvian/Talk-Talk fan, and in later years we got a lot of young kids that are Sigur Ros or Opeth fans. I think that when you make a sound quite distinctive, you evolve; your audience evolves, and you evolve. The progressive, the post-rock, even the indie dance crowd could be No-Man fans.
Would you say that you have followed a direction similar to, for example, Japan and David Sylvian? So towards a more sophisticated, even more orchestral style?.
No-Man's music has followed a sort of trajectory that Talk Talk followed, certainly David Sylvian followed, also Scott Walker followed. In the sense that they became more and more themselves with each album. No-Man though is a different beast; when people see that live band, they realise that although the spirit of the music has something in common with The Blue Nile/Talk Talk/David Sylvian, we've actually got perhaps more of a rock influence, more of a post-rock noise quality. I think that there are qualities in our music that don't exist in the music of the people that we're often compared to. I think we have created our voice within that sort of art rock field. And it's difficult - when we did Schoolyard Ghosts, it was odd, we did not know where it was coming from, we were just making No-Man music, without referring to anything. I think that musically I've always had very eclectic taste, but what is interesting to me, is that I find that what I'm drawn to emotionally, has a similar quality. Whether it's in the classical field, whether it's Debussy, Eric Satie, Phillip Glass, or Steve Reich, in the rock field it could be Pink Floyd, in the dance field it could be Portishead/Massive Attack, it could also be Sigur Ros, it could be all these things. They are very different, but I think they have an emotional quality and they have an idealism, and I guess that's what I follow in music regardless of genre, whether it's progressive, post-rock, trip-hop. If it appeals to me emotionally, I'll go with that, and myself I can see an emotional link between Portishead and Debussy, because I respond to that music. I guess when you're making your own music, you also want to give the emotions that you feel, you want to translate those emotions, as an aspect of yourself. I guess that beautiful, melancholic aspect that I respond to in other peoples' work, also comes through in No-Man.
Time Travel in Texas was in the playlist! How come?
Quite an unexpected choice! Generally speaking, we played some fan favourites that were never played before, like Lighthouse, but I think that Time Travel in Texas was an unexpected, quite obscure choice from our back catalogue, one that really lent itself to the live band!
And about Lighthouse: The live version seems to resemble more the demo version than the album version!
Well, we chose to give that classical, minimalistic influence that's more pronounced in the demo. It's quite a complex piece of music, there's that minimalist part in the middle where we have 3 different time signatures, and you always see that the level of concentration live goes up at that point, and luckily I can just walk off (laughs)!
The use of violin during the gig was also a great idea and I think it worked very well!
I discovered Steve Bingham through Myspace and I said: He's good. Steve is a professional classical musician, that normally has got his own classical string quartet and works in orchestras. So being a professional musician from a classical field, we had to grab him in. I think he really enjoyed it, because he always wanted to work within an experimental rock context, and we are ideal for this, because we allow him to play in such a context. There is a fusion of classical and art rock influences. When you work with musicians, you want people to give something, and he gives something. It's a learning curve for him as well. I hope we work with him a lot more in the future!
Thank you so much Tim for your time and a great show!
Glad you enjoyed it!
No-Man Official Website
No-Man Myspace Page
Tim Bowness Official Website
Tim Bowness Myspace Page
DPRP Live Review of Zoetermeer gig
DPRP No-man Review Special
Schoolyard Ghosts Minisite