Tim Bowness – the man with the butterfly mind – talks to At The Barrier.
Is there any significance to the title – are you flitting around musically on this album?
It’s definitely meant to reflect the eclectic nature of the music and guest list. Also it refers to my own creative ADHD, in that I’m never happy to stay in the same place creatively. Generally, each album I make differs from its predecessor. With this album, a little like No-Man’s Wild Opera perhaps, I think most of the tracks differ from what comes before them. The term ‘butterfly mind’ has been used about me in terms of how I often flit from subject matter to (unrelated!) subject matter in day to day conversations.
The cast list – in the core band Richard Jupp seems to be a new face – how did you link up?
I always say that Richard’s involvement is down to a case of Shed envy! When I was looking to create a home studio in my garden, I read an article on Richard (probably in something like Sheds Monthly or Sheds, Sheds, Sheds) and fell in love with his recording space.
I got in touch with him – in truth, mostly because I was a fan of his playing with Elbow – and we immediately got on. As well as being very talented, he’s a lovely guy. Luckily, he’d heard of me via his teenage son – who likes some music I’m involved in – so pretty soon a deal was struck.
Brian Hulse seems to have become the go to man right now. After working Plenty with him is it like almost like coming full circle?
This always sounds odd when I say it, but for me every new song and each new album feels like a fresh start. Writing is a very instinctive and emotional process for me.
I reconnected with Brian in 2018 in order to re-record our 1980s Plenty material. I was really pleased with the resulting studio album It Could Be Home. We’d written one new song for ICBH and we just continued to collaborate. Once we’d written Not Married Anymore, it felt like the 30 year gap in working together never existed. The most important thing for me is that after 36 years of writing together it still feels like we can come up with something different. Like Steve Wilson, Brian’s a quick learner.
With the guests – Ian Anderson and Peter Hammill (‘the Ham’) pop up again to the extent that they’re almost expected. Coincidence?
I only tend to get guests in when I feel a song needs something extra. Late Night Laments was a very intimate and atmospheric album, as was Modern Ruins with Peter Chilvers, and in those cases the released material isn’t much different from the demos. Very few people were involved in the recordings and that was right for those particular songs.
With albums like Flowermouth or Butterfly Mind which work on a more widescreen level, I’m looking for something bigger in terms of arrangement and I’m looking to be surprised. I approach people who I think would be good for the material and I ask them to do what I want and then to do what they want. I use a combination of both approaches on the finished recordings.
Ian’s involved in two tracks for very different reasons. Clearing Houses is a nostalgic, folk-tinged piece and I could hear his flute and tin whistle playing enhancing what was there, while We Feel is the heaviest track on the album and I asked him to play in order to justify his ‘The flute is a Heavy Metal instrument’ claim. He did! 🙂
I like the return for the first time in ages for Ben Coleman – he plays really nicely on several of the tracks particularly ‘Say Your Goodbyes Pt.2’…
He’s on three tracks and, as he always did, he plays with great flair and originality. His solo on Say Your Goodbyes Pt.2 is particularly brilliant and I suspect even he’ll be surprised when he hears it.
Basically with Say Your Goodbyes Parts 1 and 2, I took unused solos and sections from different tracks and edited them together in order to create something new. So, the Dave Formula organ part and Ben solo were created for different pieces. I fused them, edited them and then wrote vocal parts over what emerged.
In revisiting a lot of your favourite music from the past in The Album Years, has that impacted at all on the writing for this record? Your clear love for the likes of Blue Nile and XTC and Eighties music amongst others.
I don’t think so. Steven does tend to be influenced by what he’s mixing at any point in time, but as what I do is instinct based, I just write with nothing in mind beyond the emotion I’m chasing.
That mid-1980s period of creative Art Pop (The Blue Nile, Talk Talk, David Sylvian, Kate Bush, Jane Siberry, Peter Gabriel, Scott Walker, Cocteau Twins, Prefab Sprout etc etc) was one I particularly loved, so maybe it’s a larger part of my creative DNA than most things.
The songs – amongst the ‘more typical’ Tim Bowness songs which I’d likely say are ‘Easier To Love’ and ‘…Forest Floor’, there seem to be those which seem to share some DNA with ‘Love You To Bits’ (and beyond…) – is there any sense of bleed at all?
Not intentionally. The interesting thing about Butterfly Mind is that all of it was written during the album’s recording period (October 2020-September 2021). As in, there were no ideas carried over from previous album sessions. Bar one old, repurposed, song, Late Night Laments was the same.
Usually with albums of mine, there are several pieces that have been on the back burner for years that I’ve dusted off and finally completed to my satisfaction, but not in this case. If there is a connection to Love You To Bits, it’s that after the atmospheric Late Night Laments I wanted to make more physical, rhythmic music again.
‘Dark Nevada Dreams’ is the longest piece and one you sent out as a ‘single’ – what was the choice in that track to tease the album?
At eight and a half minutes long, it was an uncompromising statement and I liked that.
Glitter Fades sounds like it could be lifted straight from Lost In The Ghost Light – is that on (or way off) the mark??
Maybe the lyric could be from Wild Opera as it directly addresses the pursuit of fame and the transitory nature of success and (most) art’s impact on the wider world. Glitter Fades is written from the perspective of the ghosts of a group of 1920s artists / writers / musicians who once ruled the creative world, but now can’t accept that what they did has no influence on the culture a century later.
Can you enlighten us on the slightly bizarre close to Say Your Goodbyes Pt. 1? …and there’s a similar strange closure to Dark Nevada…not having the vinyl yet means I can’t play it backwards….
They just seemed like natural endings to me! 🙂
I’d been working with Peter Hammill on Saro Cosentino’s upcoming album and we’d done a few improvised vocal chants together. I enjoyed the experience and incorporated the approach into aspects of Butterfly Mind.
A few of the tracks are multi-sectioned in the sense that they move into unexpected middle eights or contain surprising codas. This was all just what happened in the writing process. The ideas seemed right, so I followed them through to their natural conclusion.
With Say Your Goodbyes Parts 1 and 2, to a degree, I was deliberately working against the contemporary obsession with keeping things in strict, unchanging bpms.
The very ending of the album is a manipulated breath. It appears as a percussive texture on the first track as well. It’s something I extracted from one of Ian Anderson’s solos on We Feel.
The original demo of Lost Player – which kickstarted the whole album – also has this deviant coda element. I wrote that on guitar and, again, I was just following what felt right rather than creating compositional quirks for the sake of it.
A little bit of speculation about the two ‘Stranger’ songs – ‘Always The…’ and ‘After The…’ and if they’re any distant relatives to ‘Together We’re…’ or just a word you enjoy using!
Always The Stranger was the name of my first ever – truly rotten! – teenage solo project and After The Stranger was the (better) band that emerged following the demise of ATS mark 1.
Using the names as titles was partly an in-joke and partly recognition of the fact that some of the pieces on Butterfly Mind somewhat echoed the paranoid nature of my earliest work.
The lyric for Always The Stranger is about someone culturally and personally stuck in time. It’s a meditation on what can happen if we don’t evolve with the world around us.
The artwork – with no text I think it’s a recognisable Tim Bowness album but a change from the distinctive Jarod Gosling piece of work?
Intentionally so. I felt like Butterfly Mind was a departure and I wanted the artwork to reflect that. The visual approach is a very sophisticated updating of the sort of imagery I used on some of my earliest Always The Stranger demo cassettes. It’s something very contemporary which has a strong root in my distant past. Conceptual! 🙂
‘BM’ is an album that marks forty years of performing – how do you view the new record within your legacy?
I feel it represents something different for me and it frequently shifts emotionally and stylistically. In that respect, it fits in more with the Wild Opera strand of what I’ve been involved in as opposed to the atmospheric Together We’re Stranger or Late Night Laments end of the spectrum.
The live set – taken in chronological order – was a nice touch. Playing with Peter Chilvers and Matt Stevens in the stripped back setting really worked. Some may be surprised (or maybe not so) that they aren’t on the album….
Thanks. I think the chronological aspect gave the set a different kind of structure and narrative from anything I’ve done live before.
I continue to work with Peter on collaborative songs, but I’ve never recorded with Matt. Matt supported me a few times in 2014. I really liked him both as a person and a guitar player and the gigs gave us an opportunity to play together for the first time. He’s a talented musician and a lovely, positive presence. It’s been an enjoyable experience playing with this line-up, so it’s definitely possible that we may end up recording some songs as a trio.
I’ve also been working with Brian Hulse live and that’s been very enjoyable in an entirely different way. We’re hoping to do some quartet gigs (with the addition of John Jowitt and Andy Booker) at some point.
As always, our thanks to Tim- always a captivating interviewee – for giving some enlightening answers to our thoughts and for keeping his butterfly mind in check 😉
Here’s Only A Fool from Butterfly Mind: