In Part 1 of Tim Bowness’ latest Progarchy interview, Tim discussed his previous solo albums, working again with his first band Plenty, reuniting with Steven Wilson for new No-Man music, and how all this feeds into his new album Flowers At The Scene (released March 1 on Inside Out Music). We dig into the new album in depth below! Note that [brackets] below indicate editorial insertions.
Pulling it back to Flowers At The Scene, it’s interesting what you said about how really, there are some [pieces] that you’re producing, there’s some that you and Brian [Hulse] are working on, there’s some that you and Brian and Steven [Wilson] are working on. It all feels like a unity when I listen to it. Despite the variety of colors, it’s, as you say, it feeds on what you’ve done before, but it goes in really interesting, different directions. Are there any particular songs that you feel are at the core of the album?
I would say you’re right, it does feel like an album. One thing that’s important to me is, I know in this age of streaming and Spotify it’s not particularly fashionable, but I love the album. I’ve always loved the album as a statement. And in some ways, although this album is different from the other albums – I mean, the previous three albums had themes to a degree. Lost In The Ghost Light was a narrative concept album. Stupid Things That Mean The World and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had linking lyrical themes in a way. This is different in the sense that it’s eleven very separate moods, very separate lyrics, very separate songs. And yet it fits together, I think, in a kind of classic 43-minute album format. And in some ways, I think it’s the album that flows best of all four. There’s something about it that it kind of moves from one mood to another. And yet it holds together.
I suppose the key songs would have been when “Flowers At The Scene” and “Not Married Anymore” were written. And I just felt that Brian and I had been coming up with material that had its own distinct identity. And I also had a certain idea of how I wanted them to sound – and suddenly that was it! And I guess that there’s this [Robert] Fripp line, he would always say that a new direction presented itself. And I think that it’s true, because I’d continued writing material on my own, and I’d continued writing material with Stephen Bennett while I was recording the Plenty album. And although the material was good, it felt like it was gonna be a continuation of Lost In The Ghost Light or Stupid Things That Mean The World.
And I think that it was when I’d written the fifth song with no purpose really – Brian and I just kept on writing together because we were excited by what we were doing. And I think it would have been “Flowers At The Scene”, the title track itself, and I thought, “this is the new direction; it’s presented itself.” And from that moment on, it became a very exciting and immersive project and I said to Brian, “I think this is the basis of a new solo album. And it feels like a fresh direction after the other albums.” And you’re right that, what’s kind of interesting for me is it’s fresh, it’s a reset, but perhaps because of the mood of some of the music and because of my voice, there’s also a sense of continuation.
And certainly one of the things that contributes to it being fresh is this cast of musicians that you gathered, which is really genuinely impressive. So many great names with great work that have fed into this. I was wondering if I could just toss out names and, in a few words, you could try to describe what each of these guys have brought to the music for the album. Starting with Jim Matheos.
Well, Jim’s somebody I’ve known for a few years. He asked me to guest on an OSI album [Blood], probably about nine years ago now. And I really enjoyed it. So the track, which is called “No Celebrations”, felt very different for me; it was very much in that OSI art-metal style, but it accommodated my singing as well. And after that, we carried on communicating together. So occasionally he’s asked me for advice about things, and also we had co-written a couple of tracks that had never been released.
And when I was doing this album, I thought I’d love to get him involved. Because one of the tracks I’d been developing had him on anyway, and he’s an incredibly versatile guitarist. Very, very nice guy, but what people I don’t think are aware of is how versatile his talent is. So his own music can be anything from sort of ambient experimental to metal to classical acoustic guitar. And I knew how good he was as a soloist, and so I got him – really, he was my stunt guitarist on the album on a few tracks. And he did some fantastic work on it.
Peter Hammill. What a legend!
Yeah! Well, Peter’s somebody who when I was growing up, when I was in my teens, he was one of my favorite singers. And as I’ve said to people, what’s interesting with this album is that, probably my five favorite singers when I was 13 would have been David Bowie, Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Kevin Godley. And I’ve two of them on the album, and it’s an incredible thrill to have that!
Over the years, Peter’s become a friend. We ended up playing on lots of the same albums in Italy, and we got to know one another. And over the years, he’s guested on my work; and we even live in the same small town in England! And so he’s probably my sort of coffee and chat companion, where we’ve put the political and the musical world to rights once a month. And as I always say about Peter, he’s as nice, generous and decent as his music is frightening!
[Laughs] Oh, that’s a great summary!
[Laughs] Absolutely! Cause, you know, you wouldn’t want him to be as frightening as [Van der Graaf Generator’s] Pawn Hearts really, would you?
[Laughs] No, not in the slightest!
It is true; you’d be coughing your coffee up. It’s not good! [Both laugh] So yeah, lovely guy, and we’ve worked on a few things. And the thing about Peter is he is very honest about his opinion. So interestingly enough, I’d asked him to work on Lost in the Ghost Light, but he wasn’t as much a fan of that material. So basically, he works on what he likes. And he’d worked on the Stupid Things That Mean the World album, and I’d played him this album in progress. He’d mixed an album for me as well. There’s a Bowness/[Peter] Chilvers album that’s been unreleased that Peter’s mixed, which is quite an interesting project in itself.
And while I was making the new album I said, “ah, you know, a couple of Hammill-shaped holes here!” And he heard it, and he heard exactly what I wanted, and he really liked the material. One of the tracks he put a great deal into it, there’s a track on it called “It’s The World”. I’d played it to him, and initially I wanted his bite – there’s a real sort of bite in his voice, I wanted this in the chorus. And he said, “Yep, I know exactly what you want; I’ll get it to you. But I tell you what else I’ll give you; I’ll give you guitars, because the guitars on this aren’t working!” And so he completely re-recorded the chorus guitars, and almost went into sort of Rikki Nadir [from Hammill’s proto-punk solo album Nadir’s Big Chance] mode, and did a fantastic job.
So on the track “It’s The World” he’s on kind of backing and lead vocals, and also adds some really ferocious guitar parts. And he made the piece work. So that was an interesting case, where the piece I think was pretty good as it was, but he gave it an extra edge and an extra looseness.
Got it! One of the newer singers on the album is David Longdon. I know you collaborated with Big Big Train on a b-side [“Seen Better Days (the brass band’s last piece)”]. What did David bring?
Well, I suppose I asked him to be on the piece [“Borderline”] and I’d suggested a particular approach to backing vocal which he used. I almost wanted this kind of rich, Michael McDonald/Steely Dan approach. That’s something I wanted: a comfortable bed of David Longdon voice, really, and he gave that. And then he added some flute as a means of contrasting with the trumpet. And he did a beautiful job in both cases, really. So I suppose what he gave was himself, so he kind of knew the places where I wanted him to play, and where I wanted him to be, and with the backing vocal he was effectively re-singing the melody that I’d already sung on the demo.
But with the flute, he performed a really beautiful solo, and it was great! Because although the trumpet was recorded in the outback in Australia – I used a jazz musician, a guy called Ian Dixon, who’s worked with No-Man, he was on Returning Jesus, several tracks on that, and he’s a wonderful sort of jazz trumpet player. And his studio is a tin shack in the outback in Australia! And he said when he recorded it, it was in the middle of the rainy season. So he’s recording that with crashing rain on the tin roof – which I thought was very romantic! And David really beautifully worked with Ian’s trumpet. And to me, it sounds as if the two could be in the room together playing! So they worked very nicely together, and I suppose in that case, I knew what I wanted, and I got what I wanted. But it was still different, the playing, the expression that the two of them had given was entirely their own.
And your rhythm section — you worked with Colin Edwin on bass and a couple of different drummers: Tom Atherton and Dylan Howe, one of Steve Howe’s sons.
How did they feed in and make things either a little different, or a little – kind of continuous?
Well, one of the things, going back to Jim actually, is that in doing this album, I’d never really done anything like it before. And it was almost referring to Steely Dan once more. If you remember their Aja album, you remember that Steely Dan were notorious perfectionists. And they would get five different guitar soloists to achieve what they wanted. And on this album, quite a number of the tracks, I had three drummers working on tracks simultaneously, two bass players, three or four guitarists. And would then choose from these performances which were the most appropriate, which were the best.
So a good example is on the song “Flowers At The Scene”, where actually four drummers tried out on that piece. And Brian and I had a very strong idea of what we wanted. And we were getting some fantastic work, but it wasn’t quite making it! So there are all sorts of versions in the archives of that with Dylan Howe on drums and Colin Edwin on double bass, and so on. And the eventual piece was Tom Atherton on drums and David K. Jones on double bass! And so with quite a number of the pieces, different players were trying out, and effectively, it was looking for that take that had the right feel.
Tom is great, he was a revelation really. He’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with and he’s not particularly known. He was someone who sent me a demo tape about two years on. By day, he teaches at university, and by night, he’s in a death metal band [De Profundis]! And he makes his own, very odd sort of Steve-Reich-minimalism-meets-Frank-Zappa music [called Thing]. And I really liked him, so I used this opportunity to get him on drums on the album. And every time he came up with something interesting, and he made a particularly good rhythm section with Colin Edwin. And what I like about both of them is, they bring something different to every piece; they always bring something that’s appropriate.
But these are the two most important characteristics to me. It’s always direct, so it doesn’t overplay, it doesn’t overload the song, but it’s always interesting. So you always know there’s an intelligent bass player and an intelligent drummer. And there were quite a few tracks where, if you listen to what they’re doing, it’s very subtle but very clever. So I guess they’re the rhythm section used most on the album.
Dylan Howe I got on a couple of tracks, because I’d heard his Subterraneans album, which was a beautiful, atmospheric jazz exploration of David Bowie’s late-1970s Berlin period. And I loved the album and I loved his drumming. And so there are a couple of tracks on the album I thought he’d be very suitable for, and luckily he was up for it. And again, he gave me exactly what I wanted, and he’s a very sensitive drummer, and has a lovely sound, and was incredibly easy to work with.
So Dylan’s on a couple of tracks, and there’s another drummer called Charles Grimsdale who tried out on a lot of the material, and he is on the track “Ghostlike”. And again on that, he got it just right.
But one of the sad stories on it is that my live drummer Andy Booker, who’s also Sanguine Hum’s drummer – brilliant drummer – he tried out on every single track, but I didn’t use any of the pieces! [Both laugh] Yeah! Rejected from every single one; imagine that! The horror of it! I mean, luckily he’s still in my live band; we’ve not fallen out.
But it was this thing – I guess that Brian and I had a very strong idea of what we wanted, and so, for example Jim is soloing on about 3 or 4 tracks, but actually I think there’s at least one track where Jim did a really wonderful solo, but it wasn’t right for the piece, and that’s gonna be an outtake. So Jim tried out for more than he was on, but those will probably appear as sort of outtakes, mp3s at some point.
Another moment that I found really memorable is Alistair Murphy’s string arrangement on “The Train That Pulled Away”. It’s like you can hear the train, and yet it’s not a cliché “string train”. As you say, it’s direct, but it’s fresh.
Absolutely! I mean, Alistair did a really nice job. With that, he was following the patterns of the original demo, which was kind of a keyboard simulated orchestration, but it sounds so much better. So he scored it, and there were a couple of additional harmonies that he added in the arrangement. Yeah, very nice work from Alistair. And Alistair’s somebody I’ve known for years; we co-produced and co-wrote an album for Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble in 2009.
Talking With Strangers, is that the one?
That’s the one, yeah.
Oh yes, love that!
So that was when I’d last worked with Alistair, but we’ve remained friends, and it was a good opportunity to work together again, and I was really pleased with what he did.
Mm-hmm. And the last person on my list is Andy Partridge! That’s pretty impressive to get a guest shot from him.
Yes! Well, Andy and Kevin Godley both appear on the last track, “What Lies Here.” And I’ve been a fan of XTC and 10cc since the earliest days of me loving music. And I remember seeing XTC on a British TV show when I was probably 13, at school. There was always kind of a musicality about XTC’s songs, even at their simplest, there was something interesting going on in their work. And I’ve always followed their music, and some of their albums are personal favorites, including one of their last albums, Apple Venus Volume 1, which is a great piece of work.
And, yeah, it was a total honor to get Andy involved. And also Kevin Godley, because 10cc were perhaps the first band that I was ever fanatical about when I was a child. I think when I was about 11, I bought “I’m Not In Love” and there was a gorgeous Kevin Godley-sung b-side called “Good News”. So to get both of them on the same track was quite a coup and quite a thrill.
And they were both very conscientious; Andy immediately got the lyric and immediately got the feel of the song. And once more with that, Andy gave us perhaps ten times more than I used. And it was all interesting material, but for me, I didn’t want to swamp the song with guitar because I had an idea of what I wanted the guitar to be. And in the end, what we’ve got is a very lyrical solo from Andy. And it’s absolutely appropriate to the piece, and it works nicely throughout the song.
And with Kevin, we’ve got two versions of that piece, one of which again is probably gonna be on the outtakes, mp3s. One is where Kevin sings everything, and the other, which is on the album, is where he sings backing vocals. And I specifically got Kevin in on this because the feel of the song, though different, reminded me of the very sad 10cc and Godley & Creme album closers. They always used to have tremendously sad album closers; there’s a wonderful song called “Don’t Hang Up” on the album How Dare You! And it was invariably Kevin Godley who’d sing those. And so that was one of the reasons I got him on this. It was almost this recollection from childhood, and getting that voice on this song meant quite a lot. And I think he gave a very emotional and sensitive performance, and it was great getting him on there. As people will hear when he does his version, he does quite a different, almost soul-gospel reading of the piece. You know, that was quite exciting.
I will definitely look forward to hearing that!
Coming soon: the concluding Part 3. Tim talks about lyric writing, poetry, his work as co-director of Burning Shed, (where you can pre-order the new album on CD , black vinyl and red vinyl — and get the mp3 outtakes he mentions as a bonus. Blue vinyl is also available from Inside Out’s European store) and the state of the music business. Plus the deep, dark secrets of Tim’s hard drive! In the meantime, enjoy this playlist featuring the musicians and bands mentioned in this interview.
— Rick Krueger