Years ago, when I was 16 I found an organization that helped with my curiosity about progressive rock, it was called the Classic Rock Society, they were based in Rotherham (a short bus ride away from the small village I lived in at the time) and they met on a Wednesday night in a pub. Beer and prog, all within a short distance from my front door, what was not to like?
One night at the pub talking about prog music in 1995 a friend lent me an album by a band I’d never heard of called No-Man, the album was Flowermouth, and it’s mix of shifting sounds and emotive vocals was my first introduction to the works of Mr Steven Wilson and Mr Tim Bowness, and I was hooked.
Luckily I got to see Porcupine Tree not so longer afterwards, but despite following No-Man and Tim Bowness solo work, it took me slightly longer (nearly 20 years in fact) to see Tim live, with Henry Fool at Eppyfest in 2014, followed quickly by seeing him at the Louisiana in Bristol in 2015.
Tim’s astonishing fourth solo album, Lost in the Ghost light is released on Inside Out on 17th February 2017 and I was lucky enough to catch up with Tim recently to talk about the album, the influences and a myriad of other topics including Doctor Who.
Not only is Tim one of the most talented artists working in this wider sphere of prog, he is also a great bloke and fantastic interviewee.
Lost in the Ghost light is a concept album about a musician who was big in the 60’s & 70’s and if you go to Tim’s blog and website there’s not only a whole history about the musician, (Jeff Harrison) and a superbly comprehensive discography and history of the band (Moonshot)
I started by asking Tim where the concept had first appeared
‘I saw a guy in my local shop, with his Mick Fleetwood beard who looked like a casualty from that era, which made me wonder, what he’d actually done, what bands he’d been in and that led to serious questions about the industry, the nature of music making, of family life about the nature of what it was to once feel that you were culturally revolutionary and important, and then doing a ‘golden oldies’ circuit in a world of free streaming and piracy and the psychological impact that might have on artists of a certain generation. So there was that and in retrospect I realised it was, with a lot of musicians from that era dying from Hugh Hooper, to Greg Lake, to Chris Squire to David Bowie to the slightly older Leonard Cohen, whether it was capturing something of a disappearing world.’
Did that feed through into the writing specifically?
‘It did, one of the things I found as I got on making albums, having an overriding theme is strangely liberating and inspiring, so when writing an album it helps to have a focus, with Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things that Mean the World it was a theme rather than a story or a concept, both of them had certain images or atmospheres that I worked towards, with this it was a very specific story strangely once you have a story or them that grips you it can really lead to a lot of productive writing’
I wondered how long it had taken for this album to come together,
‘This album took a long time and a quick time, a contradictory answer there! I started it in 2009 and wrote a lot of material on the theme, and never thought I was going to finish it, so a couple of tracks ended up on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and a couple on Stupid things that mean the world, that left probably 4 or 5 pieces, then suddenly spring to summer last year it came alive again. I’d say half has existing from 2009-2014 and half I wrote in the summer of last year and finished everything off in the autumn. Even the pieces written beforehand were subject to re-writes and new performances, most of the performances took space in summer to autumn last year, so it came together last year.’
About the material that ended up on the other albums,
‘All this is new, the only repetition is on the last track Distant Summers, where I rewrite one of the lyrics from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and throw in some other ideas from a track called the Great Electric Teenage Dream, and that’s because those pieces would have been on the concept, what was lucky was the material I’d got wasn’t repeating itself, but the only lyric I felt I really needed was from the songs of Distant Summers, which is why Distant Summers is repeated, but it’s an entirely different melody, an entirely different piece which is why it isn’t the same song at all.
All of the other songs were absolutely fresh in terms of this project.
‘Would the material from this concept used on the other albums work their way into the piece during live performances?
‘Its something I’ve thought about yeah because I think in terms of their energy or the nature of the songs they could work well in the live concept, of the four pieces that were released, there were two on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, Songs of Distant Summers, which is effectively about the characters realization of what music means to him, and of falling in love with music but I thought that was crucial to say again, and Dancing for You, which was the opposite where because of a death, the character can’t get anything out of music and can’t get anything our of life.
On Stupid things.. There was Great Electric Teenage Dream, and the title track, in some ways I think lyrically on the new album all that territory has been covered, but live in terms of energy and of giving more depth to the character it could be covered.’
Have you any live shows lined up?
‘Bizarrely enough, No. I should have, I did a couple of co-headlines in November with iamthemorning, that was nice because the set comprised 50% solo material, 50% No-Man and I’d used the No-Man live band without Steven (Wilson) and it was very different from the Stupid Things live band, and it worked because of the meeting of my music with iamthemornings music worked well, whilst we produce different kinds of music there is a similar aura o melancholy and we are very different lyric writers and the songs are different, but there’s a quality that works and we did different duets of me singing with iamthemorning and them singing with me. We’re thinking of doing it again and it should be different from the new album.
With the new album if I were touring it would need something quite detailed and borderline theatrical, I did at one point consider getting a much older singe to come on the stage and do everything for me,
Who did you have in mind?
I like the idea of having an audition for it, as several people wouldn’t like the idea of being this faded figure, because I very much visualize the character being 15/20 years older than I am and a veteran of that 60/70’s music revolution, having fallen by the wayside in the late 70’s/80’s in the UK because of the whole punk/new Romantic and then perhaps going through a late career renaissance, but mostly playing to an audience that is the age that they are, but music that was once a cultural revolution dictating the times is now primarily a cabaret experience revisiting the good times of the past.
There are exceptions because a band like King Crimson, I’ve seen them through the years, and there’s always some 17 year olds, well three 17 year olds, all sitting in a row air drumming, and I’ve since I’ve seen Robert Fripp and King Crimson from the early 1980’s onwards they’ve always seemed to attract a very young, as well as older audience, they certainly seem to appeal to young drummers if nothing else.
‘That’s the calibre of the drummers in the band..
‘Absolutely, although I did fancifully have the notion, as the last gig I was at I was joking with someone about the air drummers, and there were sat next to us, three of them, I think these people who are barely old enough to order a lemonade at the bar, and I had the notion that they were time travellers who had seen every King Crimson gig they could
‘You didn’t see any mysterious phone boxes of Police Boxes outside then?
I live in a house full of mysterious Phone Boxes, because I have a 6yr old boy, whose been obsessed with Dr Who since he was three, and he’s not just obsessed with Dr Who but every single incarnation of Doctor Who, even at 4 he’d been giving me lectures on Jon Pertwee and William Hartnell. If you can imagine every single Dr Who figure or enemy or books we’ve got them, weirdly enough one of his Christmas request was Peter Davison era Doctor Who Magazines, Father Christmas found them on ebay.
At school a year ago when asked what he wanted to be in life he said he wanted to be Peter Davison, not a bad wish you know.’
Now I could have talked about Doctor Who all afternoon, but I’m not sure how interesting that would have been for you all so I brought it back to the live arena by asking Tim if he thought its time for a Tim Bowness solo live album?
‘We’ve definitely recorded material, when we were rehearsing for the last set of shows we recorded it and some of it was very releasable, we also have a recording of a gig we did in Manchester at the Band on the Wall, so yeah we’ve considered these things, and then you get taken over by whatever project your working, so last year Lost in the Ghost light occupied me to the exclusion of everything else, so that became the project, but it’s not out of the question. Also when we did the gigs with iamthemorning there are versions of songs that are radically different because we had them guesting with us, me singing No-Man songs with the iamthemorning band, thinking it might be nice to record properly and release, its definitely on the backburner as an idea’
Would it be a snippet of the shows that you’ve done over the last few years as I remember seeing you at Eppyfest with Henry Fool, and then at the Louisiana in Bristol,
‘They were very different, with the Henry Fool set it was much jazzier whilst the Louisiana was much rockier and much harder, whilst the set with iamthemorning was different again which was much more the epic atmospheric side of what I did, probably as powerful as the Louisiana performance, but more textured and closer to No-Man on mix tape, each show has been very different as we’ve done it.
‘Was that a conscious thing?’
Conscious in that every time you play live you’ve got to play to the strengths of the band you’ve got, so when we were doing the Henry Fool we had a flautist and saxophonist Mike Clifford whose very very good, when he wasn’t playing with us we had Theo Travis in London with very much the same material, both of them are interested in improvisation, so as a band we improvised a lot more whereas without a violinist or saxophonist the shows we did for Stupid Things were much more hard edged guitar rock band orientated, so playing to the strengths of that band. Last year Colin Edwin couldn’t make the gigs for personal reasons, so Steve Bingham (No-Man violinist) really wanted to play with us again, so he came back and by necessity it was a lot more atmospheric and more classical. Perhaps almost had that epic progressive nature which really worked very well. For any live band you’ve got you orient the material to the strengths of that band.’
‘You’ve got collaborators you’ve been working with for a large number of years
‘Yes, on the new album it’s a little different because Andy Booker drums on half the album and Hux Nettermalm on the other half, Hux has an incredibly relaxed, organic drum sound, whilst Andy is a much more eclectic and energetic player, and they gave different readings of the material, and both suited the material, in that Hux was the perfect drummer for tracks like Moonshot Manchild and You’ll be the Silence, whereas Andy was ideal for the jittery momentum of Kill the pain that’s killing you and the climax You wanted to be seen. Two other changes were an extreme use of flute, I’ve only used it sparingly but here it’s on 6 of the tracks prominently, and of course as well the guitarist this time was Bruce Soord, and previously I’ve used Michael Bearpark, Michael is still my live guitarist and is a wonderful guitarist, but I chose Bruce this time because I think he has a tremendously direct melodic guitar style which is very suitable for this material, Michael is quite abstract and inventive, whereas Bruce as a songwriter has a focused direct approach to guitar solos, that what was what I wanted on this album, his playing is fantastic.
I was really pleased in that it shows him in a light he’s not always seen in, as a songwriter he goes for quite disciplined arrangements whereas you see him as a freewheeling soloist, I think he enjoyed it.’
‘Any gigs on the cards with Bruce?
‘We discussed it, I think he’s got a busy schedule, and Bruce doesn’t live that for from me, so we discussed doing some double bills as we thought his solo set and my solo set might work, so yeah discussions but nothing concrete yet’
We can’t talk about the albums, without talking about Jarrod Goslings artwork
‘Yes, I think this time he’s really excelled himself, I loved his artwork for the previous two, but this is the most detailed he has ever done, partly because I drew up an incredibly detailed history of the band and the musician that the album is about, and have a comprehensive fake discography and history, as well as chronicling his own obsessions, so we had an idea of the history of the individual. Jarrod took it on board, did a brilliant job and what I was really pleased with was I had done a discography from 1967 to 2017 and he managed to evoke the periods, what I like is the energy and invention of the late 60’s/70’s designs, which by the 80’s had become as tired and clichéd as the bands music and by the 2017 designs you get a brilliant Carl Glover cover which represented the creative renaissance of the band, and he’s made a cover that would be in its own right superb for k-Scope and its called the Digital Beyond.
Both of us talked about how much fun it would be to create the albums, we’ve got the titles, we’ve got the covers, we just need to create the music’
Of course Jarrod is really into this era himself
‘It was a really fortuitous meeting for both of us really, he contacted me and I was aware of I Monster and the hit single, he was interested in promoting his work through Burning Shed and we got on, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, particularly progressive and psychedelic rock music, he’s a massive prog fan and for him he was getting involved with music to his personal taste, he’s a lot of fun to work with, he’s very energetic upbeat and enthusiastic. Its always enjoyable working with Jarrod and this time both of us spent a lot more time than we should have done on making it right. So when you get that gatefold double album I hope there’s a lot to keep you occupied.’
That’s part of the enjoyment of getting a record; it’s not just about the music it’s also about the packaging,
‘It shows it’s a labour of love on all fronts, when I got into music between the mid to late 70’s and early 80’s obviously vinyl was still king, I poured over the credits, was enraptured by artwork and it was almost as much a part of the experience as the music. Ultimately the music is important and you have to put everything into that, but that doesn’t preclude you putting everything into the artwork, and everything into the lyrics. It is a complete experience which is how I feel in love with albums, and what I would like is people to listen to the album, read the lyrics, look at the credits and see the mount of effort that’s gone into the artwork, and its kind of a complete statement. We’ve all seen in the last 6 to 8 years the tenfold increase in vinyl sales, and it’s a reaction to everything else, as streams appear weightless and valueless, they are extremely convenient and a great way to listen to music, like many people I listen to streams I use iPod, but I also still buy physical product, if I fall in love with something I want the tangible artefact and I do think that maybe vinyl has become more popular because people want something more substantial and that it represents the opposite of streaming. In that you can basically stream 20 albums for free in a day that you’re curious about, you don’t apply as much attention to listening, there’s less detailed listening, partly because you’ve not paid for it, you’ve not struggled with finding it. When people buy an album, particularly the prices vinyl appears to be at you will take the time to listen, take the time to immerse yourself in it. I remember when I started buying albums, there’d be that album you hated on first listen, and then got it on the fourth.
It’s interesting with formats, when No-Man got signed in the early 1990’s it was CD, Vinyl and as everybody now forgets Cassette, because cassette was the most popular format, it was the biggest selling in the early 90’s, by the mid to lat 90’s vinyl and cassette had dropped off and it was CD, now of course when you’re making an album it’s prepared for digital download and stream but its very much for CD and vinyl, vinyl has been back on the agenda for the last 5 years, more so than it has been for the last 30 I would say. Steven (Wilson) and I loved vinyl, and it was wonderfully getting those vinyl albums in the early 1990’s, but the quality of vinyl then was far inferior to the quality of vinyl now, I think that’s perhaps because expectations and demands are higher, the quality of artwork and vinyl is really far superior to that of the 80’s/90’s and probably 70’s actually.’
With the albums you’ll get either download codes or a free CD,
‘I think it’s a good way of doing this, weirdly enough I still buy CD’s, CD sales are lower than they were, but not significantly lower than they were, CD sales are holding on significantly well, and certainly through Burning Shed because we deal with the physical product, the interest in deluxe CDs and vinyl is stronger than it was ten years ago. If you read the mainstream media you’d be forgiven for thinking the industry is about to die tomorrow.
There’s a demand for the deluxe packages
‘Again it’s the antithesis of streaming, people wanting the opposite of that weightless, valueless stream, that said it is the music that matters the most. I’ve been lucky working with Burning Shed and the products that come through us, Panegyric have done an amazing job, with the XTC and King Crimson boxes, these things set industry standards and the new ones are even better than the earlier ones. Then you’ll get other boxed sets that aren’t the same labour of love, with laziness in the packaging or the content, but those King Crimson ones have been amazing, I’ve got a wonderful John Martyn box set and the Who Quadrophenia deluxe box is utterly marvellous in its evocation of the period and reproduction of the artwork.
What you want is a greater insight into how these things came to be, and for me I am obsessive about making my own music but I am also quite obsessive about getting to understand how other people came to work, looking at Quadrophenia, seeing Pete Townshends diary entries from the time and his reflections on the work now, I find them quite fascinating, other people may find them incredibly tedious!’
I love what’s been down with the Jethro Tull 5.1’s
‘I like those, their really great and wonderful albums as well,
Too old to rock and roll is sublime,
‘Interesting you’d say that, as I’d put that in my top 5 Tull albums, I know not a lot of people rate it, but it’s got some of his best lyrics, and he’s a great lyricist and some of his most effecting material and most commercially engaging material, I have never understood why that album is not more highly regarded.’
Talking 5.1, there is a 5.1 mix of Lost in the Ghost light
‘Yeah, the mix was done by Bruce, he did the 5.1 for Stupid Things That mean the World, which wasn’t released at the time, it was only released as a download for pre-orders, so the 5.1 is available on the new CD/DVD, it will be Bruce’s interpretation of Stevens stereo mix, he was very careful in checking while it was being done. I do have strong opinions on 5.1 in that I like the more musical 5.1 mixes, Steven Wilson’s mixes have always been musical, and liked what he’s done with No-Man. But there’s a 5.1 I don’t like, and it’s gimmicks, it’s effects coming from the different speakers. For me the whole point is to immerse yourself more in the music rather than distract yourself with gimmicks, I guess that’s my modus operandi with 5.1, I want something that’s immersive and musical, rather than something that’s going to take your mind of the music. One of the great examples of an immersive mix is Stevens mix of No Mans Together We’re Stranger, and the guitar work on Things I want to Tell You, just sweeps in a circle around, same with the 5.1 mix on Entangled on Genesis Trick of the tale, it had all of the guitars surrounding you. Whereas I do remember a Depeche Mode 5.1 where the music was great but the 5.1 mix was awful having one particular klaxon synth coming out at 5 times the volume of everything else for no reason.’
Talking of Jethro Tull, as we were I did also wonder how Ian Anderson came to be involved,
‘I asked him, what’s interesting is that some of the people will assume that the flute solo’s are Ian Anderson, when their not Ian Anderson, one of them was directly inspired by Ian but its performed by Kit Watkins (Camel/Happy the man) and he was incredibly amused to find out the real Ian Anderson was playing on there, and they both did great work on the album. What’s astonishing about Ian’s playing is that he’s still evolving as a player, it’s not an Ian Anderson by numbers solo, and he continues to grow and absorb new influences, I had him on Distant Summers, and there was a specific reason for having him on there, and it was where the character reconnects with the reason why he fell in love with the music in the first place, and for me, Ian Anderson was one of the earliest idols I had when I got into music in my teens, and doing that schoolyard thing of having Aqualung or Stormwatch under my arm, and in a way it was incredibly moving and appropriate to get him to play the solo on the track where the character reconnects with the reason why he fell in love with music in the first place. He was also every complimentary about the song, and that was great, getting positive feedback from somebody you’ve admired is always a good thing’
Tim Bowness: Lost in the Ghost Light
1. Worlds Of Yesterday (5.41)
2. Moonshot Manchild (8.58)
3. Kill The Pain That’s Killing You (3.44)
4. Nowhere Good To Go (4.46)
5. You’ll Be The Silence (9.01)
6. Lost In The Ghost Light (1.40)
7. You Wanted To Be Seen (5.32)
8. Distant Summers (4.06)
Following on from Tim’s wonderful Stupid Things that Mean the World, this is his 4th solo album, and more specifically, this is homage to the classic sound of progressive rock, the music that he grew up listening to, formed around the fictitious character of Jeff Harrison and his musical project Moonshot.
The album is released on 17th February on vinyl, CD and in CD/DVD with the Bruce Soord 5.1 mixes of this, and previous album Stupid Things that Mean the World
With a diverse array of musical talent, including drummers Andrew Booker and Hux Nettermalm, Bruce Soord, Colin Edwin, and with guests like Kit Watkins and Ian Anderson and string arrangements by Andrew Keeling, this musically rich ensemble album was mixed and mastered by Tim’s No-Man collaborator Steven Wilson.
This is an unashamedly different approach for Tim, and the back-story is detailed in the interview above, so I won’t go into to much detail about the concept, except to say that musically this is one of the finest albums Tim has ever produced.
The opener Worlds of Yesterday sets the scene and is a wonderful opener, as Tim’s vocals open the album in style, Moonshot Manchild is where the album really kicks in, with some sublime guitar work from Bruce Soord, some suitably ambient 70’s synth sounds, and another of those perfect lyric/vocal combinations from Tim.
His voice is one of the most distinct and warmest in music, and the way he evokes every inch of melancholy from a lyric brings a tear to the eye of even the hardened cynic.
Kill the Pain that’s Killing You, with the skittery drum beat of Andrew Booker, also allows Bruce Soord off the leash, and yes we know Bruce is a great musician, and a great performer, here it’s fantastic to hear him as Bruce the gun for hire, sounding like he’s having a ball, duelling with the wonderfully dense string arrangement, and this shows that if anyone thinks Tim is mainly ambient, he can rock out with the best of them when he wants to, and the power this track uses as it cranks up to nits conclusion suggests that this will be an amazing live piece.
The plaintive Nowhere Good to Go, with it’s reflective lyrics, takes the story into the wilderness of the character, and with the dramatic strings, and powerful ensemble playing evokes even sadder images than The Warm up man Forever did, as this is someone who had it all and somehow lost it, Stephen Bennett’s keyboard playing and Bruce Soords guitar work soar again throughout this track, as the flute pieces bring it into the 70’s.
You’ll be the Silence, is an intricate and beautiful epic, that seems to me the pinnacle of where Tim’s been going so far musically, with echoes of No-Man in there (the violin ensemble of Charlotte Dowding working so well) drawing on all his musical strengths, and the weight of the players brings this to life, and at over 9 minutes long allows the song to build and grow, the sparse arrangements allows Tim’s vocals to dominate proceedings, and he shows again why he is one of the finest vocalists around, before the song builds and builds to it’s mighty climax, as Bruce again lets rip with an epic solo.
Lost in the Ghost Light is a short musical interlude, a brief vocal, dark chords and pulsating electronic heartbeat, with suitably psychedelic flute and ambient electronics unsettle enough before leading into the more elegiac and pastoral vibes of,
You Wanted to be Seen, heading into the closing chapters of the story, this time with Steve Bingham’s violin soaring and flying over the tracks, reminiscent of the freewheeling improvisation of David Cross, whilst the track suddenly takes a side step into traditional prog key change and keyboard heavy sections, with heavily textured vocals, and some suitably dark key changes again, proving Tim can still wrong foot us all, even when he heads into traditional prog territory, which is somewhere he doesn’t head very often. However as part of the narrative and flow of the album, it works incredibly well, particularly as Bruce is pulling off one of those guitar solos that sound like it’s being barely reined in, and that it could just explode into the ether in any second.
Distant Summers referencing both Songs of Distant Summers (Abandoned Dancehall Dreams) and The Great Electric Teenage Dream (Stupid Things that mean the World) even opens with the same opening couplet as Songs of Distant Summers, as he re-writes the lyrics to round off the album, and add a coda of positivity to the album, whilst the solo from Ian Anderson soars in it’s beauty and depth, rounding off an amazing collection of music.
As with Tim’s previous work, the music, the lyrics and the incredible artwork by Jarrod Gosling all hang together to create the perfect whole, and this is by far the best solo album Tim has done yet.
I know we’re only here in February, and this album hasn’t even hit the shops yet, but I would go so far as to say that this is a career defining moment from Tim Bowness, and this amazingly musical, beautiful, uplifting and elegiac record will find its way into your hearts and souls, as well as on the lists as one of the defining musical statements of 2017.