We managed a long chat on Zoom with Tim Bowness ahead of the release of his a new album – Late Night Laments which is on InsideOut Music – and also about some of the other things he’s been up to recently. He was very forthcoming on several topics, so here we present Tim Bowness on…
…his recent projects with his own Flowers At The Scene album and NoMan plus working with Peter Chilvers on Modern Ruins:
The thing is with album releases they usually come out five months after you’ve finished it. The chronology gets all mixed up. Modern Ruins we actually finished in 2017 and it probably would have been released then but various things got in the way. Peter works as an assistant and co-producer for Brian Eno and I also have my own work so we just didn’t get round to releasing it. It was an album we sat on for years. It actually took us about eight years to complete and Love You To Bits (the NoMan album from 2019) took twenty five years until it was released. A lot of the work for that was done in the last year in terms of rewriting and recording, but Modern Ruins was put together slowly over eight years. Flowers At The Scene came together more quickly and this album even more so. Maybe as a response as I find my albums tend to be a reaction to what I’ve just done so it’s extending that music further or completely flying in the face of what I ‘ve previously done.
…working again with Brian Hulse as the main collaborator who’s a long term musical friend going back to the Eighties with Plenty:
It’s an interesting thing with Brian. We’d stayed in touch and an interesting story about him is that he auditioned to be the NoMan guitarist when we lost our first guitarist who went by the name of The Still Owl. He was one of the best guitarists I have ever worked with and he’s from Sale in Manchester but he left because he’s primarily a classical and jazz player and he wanted to pursue these interests. Ironically NoMan became much more of a guitar band when he left because Steven (Wilson) took over the guitar parts and the keyboard he was playing became the backing tape live. It was really instrumental in the development of Steven becoming the great guitarist that he is.
I hadn’t worked with for about thirty years. We did the Plenty album as a sort of New Year’s Resolution that you actually act on so we made the album we always wanted to make. That was released in 2018 and it was an energising and exciting experience. For me, because I can’t let things go, the idea of it was to recreate the songs in the way they should have been performed in the era in which they were written. We resolutely kept to an Eighties sound palette but what was interesting doing this was what had actually changed was our sense of production, my voice, my constant rewriting of lyrics and so on, so it was a really nice collision of things that I’d lost or forgotten about – we didn’t change the key of the songs either – so I was singing like I had done thirty years earlier. It was as creative a project in the modern day as it was nostalgic.
Brian and I just continued writing and producing together after that. Even though we started this album a year after Flowers At The Scene, it’s proving to be a great relationship in which we’re still finding new things to say. With creative things, you always have to find yourself in a place that you feel is different or you’re excited by. This album started in the middle of the night when I started writing One Last Call, even singing it quietly at the time as the family were asleep and I felt it had a very distinct feel which was quite different from what I’d worked on with Brian previously and certainly very different to the NoMan album. I sent it to Brian and he was quite excited by it which just led to both of us writing, so the material I’ve either written myself or co-written with Brian and we produced it together. Whereas on previous albums it’s been more eclectic in terms of textures and use of sounds this one was much more specific and focussed so it was almost deliberately working within a more limited palette of sounds.
…using drummer Tom Atherton to play vibraphone on five of the tracks:
I don’t know why I was just drawn to vibraphone and marimba and couldn’t stop using samples. Luckily Tom Atherton who’s the drummer I’ve been using for the last couple of years is a classically trained percussionist and specialises in vibraphone and marimba, so I replaced a lot of samples with a real player. It’s quite a prominent feature of the album and typical of whenever I get involved in an album project, I become quite immersed and excited by something that heads in a certain direction. For drums I’ve got Evan Carson too, who I’ve wanted to work with for years as he’s one of the best drummers in the country. He’s subtle and intricate and manages to make things move and groove but he never imposes himself on the material. He always works with the song and I was so pleased I managed to get him on a couple of tracks.
...at this point we digress slightly as we took the chance to let Evan Carson take the floor and mark his words on Tim Bowness and Late Night Laments:
Tim is a total gentleman and a class act all round. I first met Tim and his band of musical mercenaries back in 2016 when iamthemorning joined him on a co-headline tour. I struck up a friendship with Andrew Booker (Tim’s longtime drummer) We both had pretty wacky setups for the tour and we had a lot of fun messing around. I was worried that we’d hacked off both bands by jamming so much but I remember Tim distinctly taking an interest in what we were doing. You could see the cogs turning right there so he asked if we would join for few songs every night.
He went to great efforts to listen to how we were all playing without it feeling intrusive. I was playing a lot of bodhran on that tour and he was really into bringing that into his songs. There was a palpable enthusiasm from him and the band and it felt clear that he really cared about every element, not just the vocals. On and off stage he was a gem to be around, always taking a real interest in all of us.
Tim has access to some truly outstanding musicians so it was a pleasant surprise to get his call about contributing to Late Night Laments. From the get-go, he was really on board with just letting me experiment and gave me a lot of artistic licence in regard to instrumentation and arrangement.
His songs always have a distinctive environment in which other instruments inhabit. I love recording soundscapes and organic textures with percussion and these songs were the perfect fit for that. It should always be about supporting the song and the voice and I never wanted to take away from what Tim and the other guests were doing. I tracked a lot of caxixi, shells, bodhran and udu and I was pretty nervous sending those initial takes off. Keep in mind his previous drummers include Gavin Harrison and Chris Maitland and the idea of Steven Wilson mixing and dealing with my squeaky drum stool resulted in more than one trouser emergency.
However, Tim was so positive throughout the process and I certainly breathed a sigh of relief when he signed off on the takes. I’m really proud of this album and the small part I got to play in it. I’ve lost count of the number of sessions I’ve done where the process was difficult and the final result bittersweet, but working with Tim was exactly the sort of creative process that I wish more sessions were like. I’m eternally grateful to him for the experience and the confidence he’s given me both as a hired gun and a solo musician.
Many many thanks to Evan for an interesting perspective. Back to Tim on…other musical guests on the album:
In a lot of cases what happened in terms of getting Steven Wilson (who mixed the album) and Calum Malcolm (who mastered the album) was merely refining what was there and not radically changing anything. It was good to get Richard Barbieri involved, a musician who I’ve not worked with extensively for a couple of decades, because I could hear his sound in the demos. It was exactly what the songs needed and I knew he could take it further than either mine or Brian’s Richard Barbieri impersonation. Get the man himself as he’s an amazing unique player but he’s also a great soloist and not many people seem to think of him in those terms – he’s a sonic architect a bit like Fripp or Belew in that his use of sound is very important but he can create quite brilliant and memorable solos which was why I wanted to get him i. He was quite pleased that was the reason I asked him as he feels it’s one of the most underrated abilities he’s got.
With Colin Edwin, on the last albums he’s played a lot of fretless and double bass, but this time it was all acoustic double bass which was actually his first training. He was tutored by a jazz musician called Graham Collier. He’s a fantastic versatile player who can always give me what I want and then give me a few other ideas. My live bass player has been John Jowitt who’s equally brilliant and had his recording set up have been right he may have played on the record, but Colin is always wired for sound. Like Cliff Richard…
…Alistair Murphy’s dianatron on The Hitman Who Missed. Googling proved fruitless:
Godley & Creme – they invented their own instrument, the Gizmotron – which was actually demonstrated on Magpie (60’s/70’s kids TV show). I always count Magpie and Blue Peter as instrumental in my musical education which you wouldn’t imagine. When I watched Magpie, they had the first XTC video, a feature on Godley & Creme inventing the Gizmotron and going to the University of Manchester to get things done and on Blue Peter there was that amazing episode they gave over to Mike Oldfield when he rerecorded the theme tune, but that was why my main guitarist Michael Bearpark became a musician. He was about nine and couldn’t believe the guitars and studio and was so excited by it. Anyway – the dianatron was Alistair’s own invention. He wanted to recreate a mellotron but in a unique way so he basically sampled an ex-girlfriend of his, who was a very good singer. She was called Diana. He sampled her voice for about ten seconds singing every single note of the keyboard so that this is specifically a ‘dianatron’ and not a mellotron. Something he invented many years ago – a keyboard dedicated to his ex-girlfriend and he still uses it and I love the sound of it. I could hear it in my head as initially, I had my M-Tron Pro which is a keyboard programme that emulates every melloton sound ever and it’s fantastic but I know all of the sounds. I didn’t want core mellotron, I wanted dianatron!
…Kavus Torabi – is this the first time you’ve worked with him?
It is although I’ve known him for about a decade. He and Steve Davis interviewed me on their radio show and since then I’ve bumped into them both at gigs and award ceremonies and always got on well, especially with Kavus. I was reaching the end of the album around March and there were two bits I hadn’t got right. One of them was that I wanted a very specific female voice, something that was quite folk-tinged as a backing voice. I’d asked a few people who Evan had worked with – the Barnsley nightingale (Kate Rusby) for instance – and I was getting nowhere as they were busy working with their own albums or their studio wasn’t set up. There was also one guitar solo on the album for I’m Better Now that I felt wasn’t quite as spikey as I wanted it. I was wondering who I could get and if I’d have enough time and Kavus had written to me about his new solo album which I really liked – lovely dreamy psychedelia – and it immediately struck me that here was my guitarist. I remembered his work with Knifeworld and Mel Woods voice so I wrote back within an hour and asked if they’d be interested. This was after waiting two or three months to find the right people. Within two days, they’d recorded their parts which were the final touches in finishing the album and it was exactly what I wanted and one of those things that was such excellent timing. It was a great opportunity to work with someone I’ve known for some time and wanted to work with.
…another outstanding piece of cover art from Jarrod Gosling…
I knew the style I wanted it in and I knew the image. The idea of the person sitting, listening to music, the albums, the books, I had a very strong idea in terms of style and what I wanted in the image. Jarrod brings his talent and adds more to it. A lot of the detail I’d have mentioned – specific albums or books – but his imagination and tastes came to it. Along with Lost In The Ghost Light, it is the most detailed album cover I’ve done. It was great fun to do and this is one of the tings with the album that although it has quite bleak themes, it was tremendous fun to make. The music was an exciting process and the cover equally and Jarrod took hold of what I suggested, everything from the 24hr TV image, and he would add certain details himself. I suggested a fireplace (which is on the rear) and the one he came up with is the same as my family had in the Seventies and Eighties! His family must have had as well. It was a real collaboration although I gave a lot of the direction. Sometimes you can be searching for the right album title or the right image and you don’t know what you like until you see it. The Plenty album is a classic example as I didn’t know how that would look until Carl Glover got an image that was perfect. But with my solo albums and because they’re my solo albums, I’ve tended to write more and play more. With NoMan there’s no need for me to play guitar or add my ukulele because I’m working with such good musicians but for my own work there’s more of myself in it from the music and playing to the production and the album covers.
…the Mark Wilkinson approach to the cover art:
In terms of the cover there were three things we had in mind. One was a painterly style, that Alfreda Benge uses with Robert Wyatt’s artwork. There’s something about it which is sophisticated an naive at the same time, then there’s Monica Weber who does the sleeve art for Eberhard Weber who’s a jazz musician and again there are beautiful sophisticated paintings that are also childlike. So I had those in mind and then also that dense referential Mark Wilkinson style that he did for things like Script For A Jester’s Tear. Jarrod is a huge fan of his style so there’s no doubt that some of the early Mark Wilkinson album covers was an influence.
…the bonus CD which even has its own title, Cheerleaders For The Damned:
In the end what was interesting for me when I selected the album, I was pleased that the nine tracks that were used were all brand new. When I’ve been working on previous solo albums, of course all of the recordings and the production is new, but in a few cases, like with Flowers At The Scene, eight of the tracks were brand new, there of them were pieces that I’d written at various stages in the previous thirty years that had never quite found their way onto an album or felt right. With all my albums up to this point there have always been songs on my hard drive of doom that I’ve thought that I must do a good version one day. Some old songs have almost always crept into the final album but that’s not the case for this new album.
Cheerleaders For The Damned has two more brand new tracks but also a couple that I’d written with Brian in the late Eighties. One of them, The Other Side was the very first piece that Brian and I had ever written. It was in 1986 and I remember it as being one of the best things I’d ever done up to that point and seemed light years ahead of what I’d been working on at that stage. Neither of us had a recording or had heard it for ages, but when I was moving house about a year and a half ago, I found the cassette with it on. We were really excited and actually, the original 1986 version is still something I’d be happy to be released. Brian, less so. And so within a day after that we re-recorded the track. So a couple of the bonus tracks are things from the eighties which hadn’t gone on the Plenty album but re-recordings. One of the tracks is an outtake from Flowers At The Scene which features Peter Hammill and Adam Holzman and another couple were newly written tracks in 2019/20 that didn’t seem right for the feel of the album. It feels the strongest outtakes collection I’ve released and lyrically they all carry on the theme of something more global.
…going back to Lost In The Ghost Light and the spoof band Moonshot, the blurring of reality and fantasy, that took a turn with the Worlds Of Yesterday album:
When I did Lost In The Ghost Light originally, it goes back to the idea that for me, the music always comes from quite an emotional or instinctive place, even when you have quite a detailed story. With Moonshot, there’s a really detailed story of the band. I knew exactly what the history was and what the album’s timeline was and so on and of course the cover reflects that. What I originally wanted to do with Moonshot was have what the Moonshot album is – people doing the songs in the style of the very specific eras and getting a singer other than me as my voice isn’t of that particular style. I did toy with the idea of approaching people such as Gary Brooker, or Fish or Toyah to perform the album – partly because they’d have been characters who’d experienced those eras as they happened. InsideOut didn’t like the idea and thought it was my voice was what made it unique. When I was doing the Plenty album I mentioned this to David Jones and he mentioned John Wilkinson who sings in a Genesis tribute band who loves the album and he’d love to do it. My part was that I gave them the history, what era the songs were done it and then they just took it on themselves with the period versions. They really captured what Moonshot might have sounded like. They did quite a lot of songs and I’d come in and say that’s exactly how I imagined it or maybe if it wasn’t quite the right tone.
When we were on the tour bus last year, Michael Bearpark was saying “This is a wonderful idea, but by God it’s confusing!” He thought we’d taken it to the nth degree of detail but I’ve been thinking about it more recently. This idea that each album is a reaction to what’s gone before and sometimes it’s a complete U turn, as I think Late Night Laments is. Since I finished the album I haven’t felt like writing since and the only thing I’ve done is three cover versions and the Album Years podcast with Steven (Wilson). But then I got to thinking about Moonshot again that there are more stories that can be told of that band and that character and the trajectory of a musician from 1967 to 2017. Obviously I added to the story that Jeff had a tragic death. He wasn’t one of the people who would have died with my music in the background; he would have hated it. It would be interesting to tell more stories and develop the sequel to Ghost Light with different songs from different eras again.
…the Bowness/Steven Wilson contribution to lockdown (after Wilson recently admitted in PROG magazine that broadcasting into our homes sitting with an acoustic guitar wasn’t really his thing) – The Album Years:
Steven phoned me a few days into lockdown and asked what I thought about doing a podcast. I thought it was ok so we threw some ideas around. We knew it was going to be something around us giving back to music what music has given to us and analysing albums. I came up with the title The Album Years and as soon as we had the title, we had the concept for it so that’s where it came from. What happens is that we talk for about three hours over Zoom The two of us are probably the most ruthless editors I know. One of the reasons I love working with Steven is that he’s a perfectionist and to some extent I am and people who have worked with me have rarely worked with someone who’s quite as ruthless in getting rid of things. I’ll give you an example on the new album where I had double bass and bass all over the album, I had a string quartet on one of the tracks. There was a lot more on the album than appears but for me it didn’t work and more so than any other album than I’ve worked on, I went back to the core sounds that Brian and I had from the demo stage. It only happened previously on Together We’re Stranger when Steven and I asked a few guests but by the end of it we probably eliminated about 75%, maybe more, of what people had given to us. So we talk for about four hours then he ruthlessly edits down and I ruthlessly edit down after him. It gets shorter and shorter but we get it down to 54 minutes from several hours of chat, but it’s been great fun to do. Like what we listen to on the NoMan tour bus…
We left it there after a chance to check out each other’s bookshelves, which seems to have been a benefit of socially distanced online chats and talk about the current The Album Years podcast that takes up the baton of 1979 across two episodes. Out thanks again to Tim who’s always a fascinating and very knowledgeable subject.
Read our review of Late Night Laments on the site