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Interview: Tim Bowness of No-Man

Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness of No-Man
16 November 2019

Photo by Carl Glover

No-Man vocalist Tim Bowness is having a rather hectic morning. The call to his home (near Bath, England) for this interview begins a bit late because he’s had major car troubles that morning, then just as he’s about to start answering questions, the doorbell rings: a grocery delivery has arrived. He apologetically sets the phone down to handle it, and can be heard politely coaxing an unhurried delivery lady into bringing the bags into the kitchen. She is apparently equally leisurely as she makes her departure, so by the time he picks up the phone again, he seems slightly flustered. “Right,” he says with a sigh. “This may well be the most disrupted call of all time!” Finally able to settle in for this chat, he shakes off the disruptions and is affable as he discusses No-Man, his longtime musical project with multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson. On November 22, they will release Love You to Bits (via Caroline International), their first release since 2008’s Schoolyard Ghosts (and the band’s seventh studio album overall). In a highly unusual move, Love You to Bits technically only includes two songs (“Love You to Bits” and “Love You to Pieces”), though each song is divided into distinctive parts, similar to a classical suite in structure. No-Man’s style has varied wildly over the years, so the electronica/dance-pop hybrid this album displays is the latest eclectic chapter in an adventurous and unpredictable partnership that has spanned almost 30 years. Here, Bowness explains what has made No-Man so special and long-lasting.

It’s been 11 years since the last No-Man studio album – what made this the right time to do another one?

TIM BOWNESS: After the last tour [in 2012], we were certainly thinking of doing a new album, but because of both our schedules, it never happened. I’d brought in a lot of demos of songs that I’d written or co-written, but at that point, Steven was busy working on his album The Raven that Refused to Sing, and he said, “Well, I like this, but I really don’t have the time to dedicate to it. But I will mix it and I think it should become your solo album.” So, in effect, what was going to be a No-Man studio album in 2013 or 2014 became the first of a run of solo albums for me. And while I was making my solo albums, I always used Steven as a mixer, primarily, because he’s fantastic at the job, and because we know one another so well he instinctively knows what I like. The resulting album was called Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and to a certain extent it’s my personal version of a No-Man album. While we were making my latest solo album earlier this year – Flowers at the Scene – the idea for Love You to Bits came into focus. But the genesis of the album actually comes from a piece that we’d originally written in 1994, and it was probably what would’ve been the follow up album to [No-Man’s 1994 second studio album] Flowermouth. At that point, we just had the core first few minutes, but knew what we wanted to do with it in terms of doing an album-length investigation into telling a relatively simple breakup story, but from both perspectives, as well as a third perspective where it’s the two people feel the same things, think the same things, but they have an inability to talk to one another. So sometimes in the lyrics, you get the perspective of one of the individuals, then you get the perspective of another, but on other occasions it’s both of them speaking simultaneously, because they’re incapable of talking to one another.

It’s unusual to structure an album like you did, almost in a classical form, with just two songs that are subdivided into different sections.

TIM BOWNESS: This is one of the things that is quite interesting to me, because I sometimes describe it as being electropop with ideas above its station, or electropop with dreams of grandeur, because it’s got some of the most direct and simple writing that’s ever made its way onto a No-Man album – but equally, it’s one of the most complicated, detailed and sophisticated pieces of work we’ve ever done, because almost like in a classical suite, lyrical and musical motifs are being repeated in very different ways. The album also experiments with quite a number of genre possibilities. It doesn’t stay in the same territory, emotionally, musically or lyrically. One of the things I like about the album is that the beginning doesn’t tell you where you’ll end up: the album unfolds in quite an unexpected way.

How does the songwriting process work in this project?

TIM BOWNESS: The traditional way we’ve worked is either, I bring in something that, as a band, we completely recreate and reinvent, or as Tim Burton would have it, “reimagine.” Or, Or, Steven provides me with backing tracks that I then add to in terms of vocals, lyrics and musical suggestions. But with this one, it was very like the beginning of the band, in that we spent a lot of time together in the studio, throwing ideas around, and it was quite a spontaneous process. On our later solo work, we’d both been gravitated toward a more outgoing electronic type of music, and we felt that we were in the right space musically and emotionally to tackle this idea of Love You to Bits that we’ve had around for 25 years. So, you have the seeds of the track that’s 25 years old, but a lot of the track was spontaneously being created over the last year. It felt like a very fresh process, and there didn’t seem to be boundaries in place other than our own technical and musical limitations.

How do you know when a song is a good fit for No-Man, or for your solo work, or some other project?

TIM BOWNESS: That is a good question. With this one, luckily, it was easy, because this was something the two of us had come up with together, and it’s something that we’d been discussing for years. But when I’m writing, and when Steven’s writing, separately, that is a good question: when does it feel like it’s No-Man? I always felt that No-Man had a particularly expansive and lush character. Sometimes you know that a piece is right for No-Man, or it’s far too intimate for No-Man, or it’s far too aggressive for No-Man. No-Man, on one level, is a very broad church, and we can accommodate all types of musical exploration, and all types of emotion, but you still have a gut instinct as to what works best with the band. Generally speaking, when I’m writing, I have an idea of whether it fits that template.

This band has been around for almost 30 years now. Why does this particular project have such longevity?

TIM BOWNESS: We enjoy working with one another, and we also enjoy the fact that with No-Man, there is a certain kind of emotional identity, and a certain lushness and expansiveness, yet the output continually changes. There’s no point in releasing Flowermouth 2.0. You have to feel you’re progressing, in some way. We also very strongly felt that if we were to work together again in a No-Man project, it wouldn’t sound like anything we’d released before – it would have the band’s core identity, and it would have certain factors that link it to our shared past, but we would come up with something that wasn’t a stale repetition of anything we’d done in the past. And so it remains exciting, it remains enjoyable. And on a social level, we still get on. So we’re quite entwined musically, and, to a degree, in a business sense.

How did you and Steven meet in the first place? And how did you know you should work together?

TIM BOWNESS: I was in two bands. One was called Always The Stranger. The other, specifically Liverpool-based band, was called Plenty. Plenty’s music was more artful and accessible, and perhaps had something of a kinship with the gently melancholy likes of Blue Nile, Talk Talk and It’s Immaterial. We got a lot of pretty decent press from European and British fanzines. As well as seeing Plenty and ATS mentioned in Italian magazines and British fanzines, I think Steven had seen a couple of reviews that Always The Stranger received in big UK musician’s magazines. In one, ATS were awarded ‘Demo Of The Month’ (in the days when cassettes could get reviewed in mainstream publications) and in the other the music was described along the lines of, ‘An emotive crooner sits atop a mad computer bastard.’ I suspect that ‘mad computer bastard’ could have been the words that encouraged Steven to contact me. Steven was based in the South, near London. At the time, one of Steven’s little-known talents is that he was only in his teens at that point, but he was quite a decent entrepreneur, and he was putting together these interesting compilation albums. So I got a letter one day, which is incredibly quaint and old-fashioned, and I’d like to think that he wrote it with a quill! [laughs] He said, “I’ve read your reviews, and I think you’d be perfect for these compilation albums I’m putting together.” And it had this P.S. of, “I’m always interested in collaborating with other musicians.” So I phoned him up and on the resulting compilation album that Steven put together, I ended up singing a song with Steven (the birth of No-Man), designing the cover, and getting two Plenty pieces included. And we also talked about music: what we liked, what we didn’t like, and ended up in a 4-hour conversation. About a month later, I traveled to see him and spent a weekend recording in his home studio. This would’ve been 1987. And from the off, it was fantastic, in that we talked about what we liked in terms of music, literature, film. There were a lot of common interests. The one thing that I’ve found in Steven – which I’ve never found in another musician – is that, like me, he had an extraordinarily eclectic range of things that he liked and could discuss, and wasn’t embarrassed by, from jazz to progressive rock to pop to avant garde: it’s all interesting territory for investigation. We were not embarrassed by guilty pleasures. We would’ve been as enthusiastic about Chic and Donna Summer as we would have been about David Bowie. Lest we forget, some of the biggest stars of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, were phenomenally creative as well as phenomenally popular – if you look at artists like The Beatles or Bowie, these were extraordinary talents producing extremely accessible music which is also challenging. Somebody like Paul McCartney would listen to anything from musicals to country and western, a very wide frame of reference, and their music reflected that. It’s actually quite rare. A lot of the musicians I’ve worked with over the years have a much more restrictive musical palate. There’s almost embarrassment about embracing guilty pleasures, whereas for me, sometimes there’s great art, beauty and fun to be found in guilty pleasures. So that was the one thing about Steven – he was and he remains one of the musicians that I’ve worked with where almost anything goes.

You just put out a solo album earlier this year, and you’ve historically been quite prolific. Where do you get the energy to do all this?

TIM BOWNESS: Well, it’s interesting, because I have had periods where I’ve not put out a great deal of music. During the early 2000s, I wrote a fair amount, but I didn’t feel any of it was worth releasing, so I still have two or three unreleased albums in the vaults from an experimental ambient album to a couple of collaboration albums. But nine years ago, I had a child, and that focused me in a far greater way. Suddenly, I was far more focused on attempting to achieve what I wanted to achieve as time felt limited, both in terms of the time I would have left to live, and in terms of the time I had to dedicate to music. Plus, I’ve been excited about the directions the music’s going into. So yes, I’ve found that there has been more focus and more desire to create over the last decade than perhaps at any time that I can remember since I first started in my teens.