Tim Bowness first made waves in the art-rock world in the 1990s via No-Man, his longtime collaboration with Steven Wilson; albums like Flowermouth and Wild Opera led to Bowness’ working with Robert Fripp, Phil Manzanera, Nosound’s Giancarlo Erra (on Memories of Machines’ Warm Winter) and many others. Since 2014, Bowness has also pursued a solo career, with a trio of critically acclaimed albums released on Inside Out Music.
Bowness’ latest album, Flowers At The Scene, is out on March 1. Having previously interviewed Tim in 2015 and 2017, it’s been exciting for us at Progarchy both to hear the new album in advance — and to talk about it with Tim in depth. In the first part of a 3-part interview, Tim lays out what’s led up to Flowers At The Scene, and how it’s different from his previous solo albums — and also teases No-Man’s first new music in more than a decade!
So first of all, congratulations on the new album; I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. What a prolific run in the last five years!
Thank you! Yep!
Could you unpack for us how the albums you’ve made for Inside Out, starting with Abandoned Dancehall Dreams – how have they led up to Flowers at the Scene?
Well, I think that Flowers At The Scene is kind of a statement in itself, really; it feels like a reset of the solo career. And I think that the other three Inside Out solo albums really were leading up to Lost In The Ghost Light. I think that was the conclusion of a particular way of working.
It started off really with – when I’d written Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, that was an album that I presented to Steven Wilson as a possible No-Man album, and it was pretty much how we’d done No-Man’s Schoolyard Ghosts – that I’d written songs and I’d co-written songs, and I’d brought what I thought was the best of that to Steven and had an idea for an album. And with Schoolyard Ghosts, we then worked on the material together, produced the material together, Steven added to what I’d written and so on. But with Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, he was in the middle of working on his Raven album, and just said, “Look, I’ll mix it; this is your album. Release a solo work!”
So that’s how the recent run of solo albums started; it was something I’d assembled with a No-Man album in mind, and it became what feels like my debut solo album. (I know it’s my second solo album, but it feels like my debut solo album!) Stupid Things That Mean the World emerged out of that, really, in that Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had got a very positive reaction and I was feeling very energized by that, really, so I was writing quite a lot of the time.
And with Lost In The Ghost Light, that was the conclusion of a project that I’d kind of been working on probably for about ten years. And some of the songs in that concept had been on Schoolyard Ghosts, some on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, some on Stupid Things That Mean the World. And I didn’t think I was going to complete it! But there was a certain point in 2016 when I focused on it and it all came together.
And with Lost In The Ghost Light, it felt like a conclusion to a particular way of writing and working, and I think specifically that pieces like “Smiler at 50” from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams or “Sing to Me” from Stupid Things That Mean The World, that it was almost like an album-length exploration of that type of music. And of course, it had a very specific overall concept, which is the first time that I’ve ever worked, really, with a kind of narrative concept album. The Lost In The Ghost Light story was one that I’d been writing about for years and one that I really wanted to finish. So I was delighted when it was finished!
But after that, it really felt like I needed to do something completely fresh, completely refresh my own musical palette to keep things exciting.
Thanks! The other thing that you’ve done recently is you’ve also gone back even deeper into your past. I know that you worked with Brian Hulse and David K. Jones to re-record the music of your very first band, Plenty. And It Could Be Home is a really delightful album. Was that part of your process for trying to find something new? How did that project feed into this new album?
I think you’re right; I think it did feed into this album in some ways. Because what was interesting is that we’d not worked together for thirty years, and it was actually very creative. Going back to that material, we wanted to be faithful to it. But what was exciting was that we were doing something new with it, and it was taking us to new places. Partly, in my case, it was re-introducing me to ways of singing and writing I’d long abandoned. And so, as much as it was old material, it really felt like it was a new project. And we enjoyed doing that so much that Brian and I continued writing together.
And we just felt that what we were coming up was something that wasn’t Plenty, and it was kind of hinting at what I wanted to do on my next solo album. So it definitely directly fed into Flowers At the Scene, the fact that we just continued to write, record, produce together. And eventually there was a project that we were both excited about, and that became Flowers At The Scene. And of course, there are other collaborations and other methods of writing used on the album. But yeah, I think the Plenty experience directly led to this and fed into it.
You mentioned that when Steven Wilson said, “I’m busy with The Raven That Refused to Sing, why don’t you make a solo album of this material,” he was mixing — I know he mixed Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Lost In The Ghost Light, and you produced both those albums.
But Flowers At The Scene is described as a “No-Man production.” How would you describe the difference?
I think that, with mixing, you tend to – with the production for me, it’s — you’re putting together the album, you’re putting together the arrangements, you’re choosing the musicians, you’re choosing the parts that are actually kept. And so I would give very specific instructions to Steven as to how I wanted it to sound. And Steven is a fantastic mixer, and that’s an art in itself! And so with Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Lost In The Ghost Light, Steven would basically be doing my bidding. He’d be doing things that I couldn’t do in the sense that, I can’t make – I can mix, but I just don’t have the gift that he has for mixing. So he can make it sound the way I can’t, but he’s making it sound the way I want it to be, 100 percent.
And with this album — it was a real mixture, and we’ve kind of credited it as produced by No-Man and Brian Hulse. And the truth is it’s probably more complicated than that, in the sense that some of the pieces, very much like my previous Inside Out albums – it’s my production ideas, my arrangement ideas, bringing in the musicians I want. So there are a few pieces on the album like “I Go Deeper”, “Borderline”, that properly you’d say would be produced by me. But then there are other pieces where the demos that Brian and I were doing, and we’d produce together, Steven’s done a great mix of them. So really, that kind of is a Bowness/Hulse production. And then there are other pieces where Steven edited parts, added parts, made it sound quite different from how it was. And so in a way, properly that’s almost a Steven Wilson production! So in some ways, all three of us produced different elements of the album.
And whereas normally Steven mixes the album to a set of instructions, this time around there were a few pieces where he was doing quite a bit more than that. And I would say that one of the pieces would be “Not Married Anymore”, and it was almost gaining a kind of No-Man textural lushness.
And the thing is that Steven and I had always had this idea, years back, of having a No-Man production team, where Steven and I would take an artist and we’d produce them. Because I think that No-Man’s got quite a distinctive sound, and I think we always liked this idea of creatively working with other people and becoming a production team. It’s something we never did. And as tracks for this album were evolving, it almost sounded like that No-Man production that we’d been talking about 20 years ago.
And it tied in as well with the fact that Steven and I have been writing and producing a new No-Man album. So once more, as much as this, as we said that the Plenty album has fed into this, I think the forthcoming No-Man album has fed into this as well. That Steven and I have been talking a lot about how we want the No-Man album to sound, what we want it to be. And some of the ideas, perhaps, have also led to elements of Flowers at the Scene.
It’s really exciting that there’s a new No-Man album in the pipeline! The first No-Man album that I ever picked up was Flowermouth, and when I brought that home and listened to it, I’m like, “Yeah! This does not sound like anything else that I remember.” So yes, that sound is very, very unique. I wonder how many other people Steven Wilson would do their bidding for, but we probably shouldn’t get into that topic!
[Laughs] Well, the thing is that Steven and I have worked together for so long that in some ways, we don’t even need to talk about things that … You know, when I say “bidding” basically, it’s … what he’s given is the song, and is the arrangement that I’d like, and then I would say, “I would perhaps like you to beef this up, separate that, made these sections more distinct,” so in that sense. But I think that’s because we’ve worked together for years and we know one another so well. I have to say that, in a lot of cases with Steven, I just give him something and he makes it sound exactly like I want it to. There’s almost a kind of — an unspoken aspect. But when we’re working on No-Man together, it’s very much a joint production, because both of us are saying, “right, this sound works there. OK, what about doing that?” So we’re both kind of working on ideas together, and it’s an enthusiastic process.
And the thing that was nice about the new No-Man material was that it was one of the most enjoyable and immersive sessions that we’ve had, you know, probably since that Flowermouth era, when both of us maybe had more time!
And what we did, we got together in October 2018. We had several days and late evenings, just absolutely absorbed by the music, and really enjoying where it was taking us. And I suppose what was great is that we both went in with an idea that we were gonna complete this album and complete it in a certain way. And we sort of did that. But the exciting part was that it went into various territories that we would have never guessed it would go into! So when we gathered together about three days earlier, what we came out with three days and three nights later was what we wanted, but something quite different at the same time.
(Coming soon: the next installment of this interview, as Tim goes in-depth about the core songs of Flowers At The Scene and his stellar cast of collaborators on the album! In the meantime, enjoy these selections from No-Man’s 2008 album Schoolyard Ghosts.)
— Rick Krueger