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Things Change: Tim Bowness Talks 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams'

Tuesday, 08 July 2014 Written by Ben Bland

Photo: Charlotte Kinson

Tim Bowness has been part of No-Man, a duo with prog superstar Steven Wilson, since 1987, but is only now releasing an album he can truly call his own. ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ contains songs originally written with No-Man in mind but, with Wilson as busy as busy can be, Bowness decided to release the songs as a solo record, with fantastic results. As an irregular interviewee, it was then a delight to secure time with Bowness to discuss both the new record and his career in a more general sense...

So, ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ is now out there. How has the reaction been?

I’m really pleased with how everything’s gone so far. It’s always nice to see something completed that you’ve spent a long time on. Getting the CD and the vinyl through the door is a great feeling.

How much have the songs on ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ changed since the original versions you wrote with the No-Man live band in mind?

Probably not as much as they would have changed if this had been a No-Man album. I originally arranged the songs to play to Steven Wilson to help form the follow-up to ‘Schoolyard Ghosts’. I think there would have been some pretty dramatic changes from the demos but Steven didn’t have time to commit to a full No-Man record, although he offered to mix everything instead. Therefore I just took the material forward my own way, remaining largely true to the demos I think. I think the songs were, to some extent, always influenced by my idea of what a new No-Man album should be like and I think now that they are together on the album they still do that to a degree.

Both you and Steven have said many times in the past how unafraid you are to say when you think the other’s idea is crap, and you seem to have always had a very open working relationship in that sense. Was it strange working on these songs without that input?

It’s a difficult one. On one level it encouraged greater indulgence. As you say, Steven and I have always been unafraid to criticise each other and I think both of us sometimes lack that in other musical relationships. Steven does so much mixing work of course, and appears on plenty of albums, and people are very happy to have him doing that, so take on board his way of doing things. Likewise if somebody asks me to do a guest vocal it’s usually because they want me to do things my way. This time, as it’s been my album as opposed to a No-Man album, I’ve pushed Steven, as well as myself, to take things in the direction I have wanted to take them. I think I was my own harshest critic on this record, and I am a lot of the time anyway, but that was probably even more pronounced making this record.

No-Man obviously touched on a wide variety of sounds and approaches, and I think many of those approaches are represented on ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’. Was that the result of conscious thinking on your part?

I don’t think it was, really. I never write thinking about what I’m doing or what style or genre I’m working in. The main influences for me are getting carried away by an idea that excites me or an emotional response to something. Often you have a good idea of what makes a strong piece, whether it’s a No-Man piece or another project. One thing I would say is that I think this album has a rather more cinematic, epic feel to it than a lot of my work outside No-Man has done in the past.

I think the reason for that is that it reflects such a large part of my musical taste, and it’s something I’ve always had No-Man there to do in the past but don’t right now. The 2012 No-Man tour was really exciting to me because I could see both a new direction for No-Man and a further reflection of those cinematic qualities that was already there within the performances. I’ve been missing working on something on that larger scale in the studio so that’s definitely been a factor in the creation of ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’. It may sound stupid but I always look forward to seeing where No-Man is going to go in the future myself. It’s a voyage of discovery for me as much as it is for everyone listening to the album, and it’s true of this record too I think.

This album’s a lot more rock than I was expecting…

Maybe more than a lot of the things I’ve put out this album represents the spectrum of my tastes and working style. I was given absolute freedom this time. Most of the things I work on are collaborative and, even if you are very happy with the result, the record is the result of working with other people. The rockier side of things is very important to me but, sometimes, I’ve not been able to focus on that in other projects. So when I work with Pete Chilvers, for example, the epic rock element really isn’t there because he largely despises rock music. We have lots of similarities in our tastes but that’s one thing I really can’t include there. I think this album is, to an extent, me being unleashed.

You mentioned working in various collaborations there, and you’ve worked with many progressive/art rock luminaries now. There are some incredible musicians on this record too. Are there any still on your wishlist that you’d love to do something with?

There are always people I’d like to work with. Very obvious ones would be someone like Brian Eno or composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I’d absolutely love the chance to take their type of music more genuinely into pop/rock territory. I know Philip Glass has tried to do that before but I have to admit I found it a rather uncomfortable merger of two worlds, and I don’t personally believe it was particularly successful. It isn’t impossible to do that I don’t think. In more contemporary terms, I’d really love to work with the Flaming Lips, because they have such a sense of exploration in what they do.

The arrangements on this album really impressed me, especially on an epic track like I Fought Against the South. How did you go about working on a piece like that?

That particular song is very much as I imagined it in my head actually. I took the piece to the No-Man band some time ago and we recorded a version of it then, leading on from my original demo, which was essentially a guitar piece in four parts. Of course, they flesh out the piece and give it more life, but they were probably, in this case, working under stricter instructions than they could have been because I had a very clear vision of the song and where it should go.

When I got Andrew Keeling, the orchestrator, to come on board and add the strings that was a significant moment. I needed help with that bit, not being able to write or play string parts myself. It was wonderful to have him help realise the ideas that I had about the piece. So generally, on that song more than most, I was giving a very clear direction, including with the flute part at the ending, which is something I heard in my head when I was writing the song. I think that the trick is to find the right people to help you take a piece of music to where it is in your head, and I’ve been very lucky with that on this album.

In my experience of talking to people about No-Man, it seems that many  assume Steven has been behind the musical direction, but this album certainly proves beyond doubt that you’re a very accomplished composer too.

I certainly hope that one of the things that this album has done is to clarify my own musical personality. No-Man was always such an extremely collaborative project, although ‘Schoolyard Ghosts’ did largely stem from songs that I had either written myself or co-written with others. In a lot of ways, actually, the more epic aspects of No-Man’s sound came from me because Steven had Porcupine Tree in which to act out that side of his musical interests, and he’s sometimes been quite sick of working in that context by the time we’ve got around to making No-Man records.

A good example might be a song like Pigeon Drummer from ‘Schoolyard Ghosts’, which people always assume is a song that Steven largely directed because it’s a “rock” piece in comparison to a lot of No-Man material. In actual fact, that track came from ideas that I had been working on and Pat Mastelotto, who drums on that song, was given directions by me on how to play. For me, No-Man has always been the band where I’ve felt the possibility of doing almost anything because Steven and I have such eclectic tastes and have always been able to write songs very quickly. I think within two hours of first meeting we’d already written a couple of pieces, largely because it was the first relationship either of us had ever had where we could talk about progressive rock, singer-songwriter, ambient, even heavy metal music with such enthusiasm.

I’ve always loved your lyrics. Has your lyrical approach changed much over the years?

I think it has changed a lot, actually. A big element of that is that I find myself a lot less easily satisfied than I used to be when writing songs. With lyrics I tend to write a lot more than I need. I often have a good idea of backstory, motivations etc, so I edit down from a lot more than I used to, partly because I feel I’ve become more difficult to satisfy. I’ve always been drawn to writers such as Harold Pinter, Ian Hamilton, Jean Rhys and Raymond Carver because they have an ability to express a great deal using very few and often quite simple words.

I think it’s easy to overthink things and to overcomplicate language while actually saying very little. I suppose eliminating excess has been important to me over the years. I mean, it’s a total coincidence I suppose, but I’ve always really liked emailing because I find myself being a lot more concise and accurate at saying what I mean. Writing focuses my thoughts in a way that talking doesn’t. Another writer I love, Milan Kundera, once said, I think, that the art is in the editing and I think that’s true of many art forms, musical, literary or otherwise.

Again the two songs that captured my imagination most lyrically were the two long tracks, Smiler at 50 and I Fought Against the South. I can’t help but wonder how literal the title of that second track is.

There are elements that are based in fact and those based in fiction. Smiler is a combination of people I’ve known mixed in with a story and with speculation. With I Fought Against the South there are, again, elements of fact related to a relationship I was in some years ago, but the song is not autobiographical as such.

There are certainly elements of having grand dreams whilst growing up in a small northern town just outside Warrington. That song sees me, without being critical of the north at all, attempt to use that geographical contrast between the supposedly provincial north and the supposedly glamorous south as a metaphor for escaping to something better. There’s an element of fighting against that escape, against change, much in the same way as there’s that emotional conflict at the end of a relationship. Sometimes I think people can be very self-defeating and fight against change even if it’s actually their salvation.

There’s definitely something I can relate to there, having spent most of my life just outside London and then having moved north more recently. The ‘glamourous’ perception of London has always felt a bit strange to me, especially in recent years.

I think London can be an extraordinarily difficult, and unglamorous, place to live as well. I mean I lived there for about eight years but I never felt entirely comfortable there and I ended up moving back to Manchester, which did actually feel like a very comfortable homecoming I must say. I was always quite happy commuting to London rather than being there all the time.

What is in the pipeline next for you?

Hopefully there will be another No-Man album and it’s certainly something Steven Wilson and I have discussed. Elsewhere, I’m working on a project with Andrew Keeling and Steve Bingham based on Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ album, writing with Peter Chilvers, and working out how to follow up ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’. I’d love to take some of the ideas on the album further and develop a whole new identity [or] series of albums out of what the music suggests.

Tim Bowness Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri July 11 2014 - LONDON Borderline
Sat July 12 2014 - ROTHERHAM Wesley Centre

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