For such a uniquely talented vocalist and musician, Tim Bowness doesn’t need to fill the frame. As his band Henry Fool hinted on 2013’s excellent and slyly-titled Men Singing (http://progarchy.com/2013/08/12/men-singing-by-henry-fool/), what a voice is and what it has to say is as elastic as what we’re willing to hear. His long partnership with Steven Wilson in no-man likewise produces soundscapes that find a wholeness in laying back and cherry-picking essentials. Getting to the heart of what matters and why is a recurring theme in Bowness’s work, and It is fitting that Bowness’s new album begins with a song titled “Electric Teenage Dream,” the video for which sets images of jurassic 1950s technology against words echoing our slippery grasp on the electronic toys that so demand our attention.
Stupid Things That Mean The World is rich with rejoinders to a world running over with unfiltered shadowplay. Teasing out the meaningful from the stupid things (sometimes finding they might be one and the same), trying to jump start a false life on found truths, to, as one song says, “press reset,” is a central struggle, and Bowness’s emotive, low-key delivery makes the struggle immediate, engaging, and deeply moving.
With a voice embedded in British folk and art rock but defining a space entirely his own, Bowness sings towards a quiet grandeur. And yet while that stately-paced slow burn colors much of the record with the torch-driven songcraft common to his work (thinking particularly of no-man’s Returning Jesus), the album ignites under the heat Bowness brings to “Stupid Things That Mean The World,” “The Great Electric Teenage Dream,” and “Press Reset,” their detailed observations accompanied by taut arrangements moving from the apocalyptic to the pop. The moods he summons join together seamlessly, so this is indeed an album rather than a collection of songs, a conjuring of Johnny Hartman entwined with Nick Drake and Radiohead and autumn leaves falling. Jarrod Gosling’s artwork nails the vibe, with its feel of a classic EG Records album cover mirroring the hidden edges and complexities of the music within, and the credits are a who’s who of cross-generational art rock, including Bruce Soord, Peter Hammill, Phil Manzanera, Pat Mastelotto, Colin Edwin, Anna Phoebe, David Rhodes, Rhys Marsh, and members of the no-man live band (Stephen Bennett, Michael Bearpark and Sanguine Hum’s Andrew Booker), with Andrew Keeling providing string arrangements. It makes for a complete and satisfying experience, and again shows the kind of standard we’ve come to expect from the music Bowness creates.
Progarchy sat down with Tim via email to talk about the new album, his music and career, and what’s next for him.
The production on Stupid Things That Mean The World is immediate, it feels live, and you are upfront in the mix. What sort of decisions did you make to have this record sound the way it does?
I’d have offered opinions about mix/instrument levels, treatments and so on. Pretty much as I usually do on any project, except on my solo works no-one argues with me and I get rejected less! :-)
I have ideas about sounds and approaches to music and inevitably I pursue those (for better or worse). I quite like live and direct approaches to drum, strings and vocal production in particular, and I also like allowing quieter elements to dominate busy arrangements.
Tell us about the title of the record, and what brought you to the themes you explore, particularly in “Electric Teenage Dream,” “Press Reset,” and the title track?
The title song is about a relationship, but not necessarily a romantic one. It could be about a collapsed close friendship, or life in a band or a business with a sort of kindred spirit.
The title concerns the small and seemingly trivial things that make us who we are or help us through our lives. It could be an old toy, art/music, shared intimate language, a belief system, an annual holiday, the image or idea of someone you loved in your youth etc etc. I was also thinking of something like the significance of the seemingly insignificant Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
Press Reset and At The End Of The Holiday are my two favourite lyrics on the album and have more of a short story quality about them. The first is a depiction of someone desperate to escape the pressures of their life, while the second is about a temporary escape from domestic difficulties. Press Reset’s theme is something that has interested me for a long time – people consciously disappearing from their own lives and families – and something that in retrospect I realised had happened in my own family.
The lyric to The Great Electric Teenage Dream is part of a larger project called Third Monster On The Left, which is about what it’s like for musicians of a certain age to make music at this point in the 21st Century. A few tracks from it appeared on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and I’m hoping to present it as a complete project at some point in the future.
Know That You Were Loved was the last song written for the album and it’s possibly the most emotional song on the album. To an extent, it deals with death bed reminiscences and has roots in the work I used to do with the elderly at old people’s homes in the 1980s.
3) What’s your favorite song on the new record?
For very different reasons, Know That You Were Loved, Press Reset and The Great Electric Teenage Dream are my favourite songs on the album. Partly because they either achieved or exceeded my ideas of what the songs could be and partly because they were developing all the time due to some really nice contributions from the guest musicians.
4) You’ve said that this record and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams constitute a new chapter for you. Why do you think that is?
Due to my input in terms of writing and production, ADD and Stupid Things feel more like ‘solo’ works than anything else I’ve done.
In both cases, there was a lot less co-writing than on most projects I’m involved with. Also, with both these albums everything had to begin and end with strong input from me. I assembled the collaborators, booked the studios, provided the material, suggested the sonic approach and so on.
While I might contribute a fair amount to no-man, Henry Fool or Bowness/Chilvers, my input is still being filtered through somebody else’s wishes, opinions and organisational ability, so they’re very much collaborations.
5) What’s your approach to arranging on your solo records as opposed to other projects like no-man?
I think my approach to arranging varies from project to project and song to song as arrangements have to work for the benefits of the song or the musicians involved in the recording.
A good example of differences between projects would be the piece Press Reset. If I’d have presented the song to no-man (for example), Steven would have most likely complicated the final section’s chords and not allowed through the more simplistic pummelling coda rhythm. Conversely, Steven may have simplified compositional aspects of Know That You Were Loved while suggesting a more dense arrangement. Basically, if I’d have presented Press Reset to no-man, Peter Chilvers, Henry Fool or Memories Of Machines, the finished result would have been different and in some cases radically different due to the involvement of other people.
6) You have a distinct, instantly recognizable style, and a signature delivery. What/who shaped your development as a singer?
Ultimately, as with the music, what comes out is instinctive and natural. It may sound corny, but my singing’s my emotional response to whatever music I’m singing over really.
When I started out, my singing inspirations would have been the likes of Kevin Godley, Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. Later on, I really liked Paddy McAloon, John Martyn, Nick Drake, David Crosby, Mark Eitzel and others, plus female singers such as Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Kate Bush.
I hope I’ve developed my own voice over time. It’s something I don’t think about much when I’m actually singing, so I’m not sure how much influence from others comes through.
7) How would you describe your writing process?
Anything that works basically.
Songs can come from me writing on acoustic guitar or playing on my synth or programming within GarageBand or Logic. I can either start with a strong sense of something I want to create, or an idea can naturally emerge out of the process of just playing.
Songs like Know That You Were Loved, I Fought Against The South and Everything You’re Not/Everything But You developed out of me playing on the guitar. The likes of Press Reset and Smiler At 52 came out of programming and then making the pieces more organic and loose with instrumental additions. The Warm-Up Man Forever came out of a combination of looping, playing keyboards and programming.
When I co-write, it can be in real time (generally me with a pianist or a live band) or retrospectively working from existing backing tracks.
8) Can you talk a little bit about Jarrod Gosling’s artwork for Stupid Things and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams?
I think Jarrod’s got a really distinctive style and I used him in order to distinguish the look of my work from the look of no-man’s, and also to reinforce the sense that the solo albums represented a new chapter for me.
Artwork is important to me. I started buying music in an era when the imagery of album covers was a significant part of the music experience and I’ve never lost that fascination with attention to detail or the evocative link between sounds and image.
Jarrod’s a lovely guy and very easy to work with. He listens to other people’s ideas without compromising his own singular style.
9) As someone who is not only an artist but also involved in the business of music, what’s your take on the way music is distributed today?
A big and complex issue!
The internet has been a blessing and a curse to musicians. It’s allowed Burning Shed to thrive internationally in a way that would have been difficult before, so the immediacy of access has mostly been a positive thing for the company. I’ve always felt that Burning Shed has pushed forward traditional ideas – elaborate packaging, physical product, conceptually intentional albums – via an innovative, contemporary medium.
On a personal level, I feel extremely lucky that I can still release music I believe in and that there’s still an interest in what I do. Also, the internet has allowed Burning Shed to thrive internationally in a way that would have been difficult before.
10) What are you reading? What’s a current favorite record, and why?
I tend to read several books at the same time, so at the moment I’m reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, Clive James’s Sentenced To Life, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night and Pete Townshend’s Who I Am. I recently finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel which I enjoyed, but the best book I’ve read in recent years is E L Doctorow’s Homer & Langley. It’s a brilliantly written chronicle of obsession and retreat from the world.
Musically, I go through phases of listening to back catalogues by artists (currently David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Bill Nelson/Be Bop Deluxe and The Who) and new things. Of late, I’ve liked albums by Sanguine Hum, Keaton Henson and Troyka (a really interesting contemporary UK band who are carrying on the Progressive tradition of 1970s Rock influenced Jazz).
What’s next for you?
Immediately, a new Bowness/Chilvers album. We’ve completed 90% of a follow-up to California, Norfolk and it really feels like a progression from that album. Lyrically it’s more dense and musically it really shows how Peter’s work has evolved since he’s been working with Brian Eno and Karl Hyde. I’m looking forward to hear how it develops.
Tim Bowness, Stupid Things That Mean The World (Burning Shed/Inside Out Music, available July 17, 2015: https://www.burningshed.com/store/timbowness/product/71/6640/).