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 fresh No-Man music, and how it all feeds into his new album Flowers At The Scene (released March 1 on Inside Out Music). Part 2 was an in-depth look at the new album’s music and players. To finish up, the conversation branches off into the process of writing, the genesis of Tim’s label/online shop Burning Shed, the state of the music business and more! Note that [brackets] below indicate editorial insertions.
I’ve always found your lyrics very, again, distinctive and appealing. The words for your songs, if you read them on the page, they look very sparse; they’re epigrammatic, or they’re almost like a hymn text. But they convey a lot of emotion and meaning when you sing them – It’s like you hear what’s behind them, kind of like a minimalist take on lyrics. Was there anyone who particularly influenced how you write lyrics – or melodies, for that matter? Where do the words come from for you?
I think the words in some ways came before the singing, because I used to like poetry, before I ever really was in a band. So I’d always loved reading, and still am a fairly avid reader of novels and poetry. There were a lot of lyricists I adore, so, I think … Joni Mitchell is an absolutely fantastic lyricist. But I can’t say there’s any lyricists I’ve been particularly influenced by.
I think that, in terms of that pared down style, I guess I always quite liked people like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and Raymond Carver. Certain writers like that. And, although I don’t think I’m anything like them, that might be the core influence. And there’s also, there’s an English poet called Ian Hamilton, who has a very sparse approach, and I always used to like his work.
And so in some ways, it’s kind of closer to that; it’s closer to the poetry that I grew up reading, without being particularly like it. And as I said, I’m a fan of many singers, many lyricists. Again, Roger Waters, fantastic lyricist, fantastic concepts, but I can’t say it’s particularly influenced me. So maybe it comes from outside of music, the lyrical element of what I do.
Plus, I also think it comes, of course, from my own experiences, my own obsessions, my own emotions. So that’s thrown into the mix.
Would Philip Larkin be in the mix? It just occurred to me that was another person that kind of worked in that epigrammatic, lyric style?
Yeah, very much so, yes indeed! The Collected Works of Philip Larkin are on my shelf.
Well, it’s amazing how busy you are, because along with all of what you do – your solo work, No-Man — you also co-direct one of my very favorite online shops! And it’s certainly a favorite of all of us at Progarchy. Burning Shed is just a wonderful place to buy music from, even across the pond. You’re listed as a co-director; what does your role there involve?
Well, I still – the newsletters you receive, I write them.
The text that goes on the site, I write it. So I suppose, in a sense, Burning Shed was my idea of a company. So I started burningshed.com as an idea of doing cost-effective, experimental solo albums. And so initially, we released three CD-Rs. So the idea was originally in 2001, online, on demand, cost-effective solo albums that labels wouldn’t be interested in. So Steven [Wilson] gave us a Bass Communion album; I gave a Samuel Smiles live album; Roger Eno gave an ambient album. And almost from the off, it did better than we thought it would do.
And then No-Man had an album coming out around the same time, and we thought “OK, we’ll be the No-Man store.” And then Steven said, “Oh! Why don’t you be the Porcupine Tree store?” So, weirdly enough, it’s grown through word of mouth. And this has meant people from [keyboardist] Dave Stewart to Robert Fripp, to Bill Nelson three or four weeks ago, coming to us asking us to be their official store. And it’s grown from us being a label and a publisher to hosting official stores for many artists, some of them quite important, to us buying stock in from all the major distributors that we think would be of interest.
And the interesting thing is that, in a time of collapse in the industry, we’ve actually grown. So, year on year, from 2001, we’ve grown to a point where we’ve now got about 85,000 active subscribers to the newsletter.
And the company I started it with originally – it was a guy called Pete Morgan. And Pete ran a record label in Norwich, and the record label wasn’t really going where he wanted it to go, and he’d been a No-Man fan. So, it was a great match: I had an idea, he had a means of manufacturing and a company that already existed and an infrastructure, and then Peter Chilvers, who I also work with, he was somebody who knew how e-commerce worked.
So that’s how it came together originally with the three of us, that I had the name and the label idea; Peter had the know-how to make it work on the Internet. Which now sounds very quaint, but in 2001 that was a rare skill! And Pete Morgan had the organizational infrastructure to make the idea happen. So, it was a really good marriage of a good idea, and three people who could make that good idea happen.
And it is. You are the folks that I use for most of my progressive rock purchases. It really is the model of how you would do that kind of company with – you treat your artists fairly, you treat your customers fairly, and it’s a real pleasure doing business with you.
Well, thanks! And that’s the idea, because we started off, and it was kind of — as we all have said, it’s now become a cliché of “for artists, by artists.” When I set up the label side of it and how we pay people, it’s because I knew how bad record companies could be. So, you want to make it as straightforward as possible; and you want to pay the artists as much as you possibly can. And really, the other thing is, you’ve gotta be completely transparent. So, the thing is that, when I used to approach people – so, for example, we do Jethro Tull’s store and XTC’s store. And I’d been a long-term fan of both of those artists. And it probably took about six years of emails – you know, irritating emails: “You should be with Burning Shed!” And it eventually it worked!
And the thing is, I think what they appreciated was that it was very upfront, very straightforward, very transparent. And also, I had said basically, “This is what we do. And if you don’t do it through us, do it through someone else. But do it along these lines.” So effectively, it was giving them the key to setting up their own stores in an honest and open way.
And I think that why it’s worked is that we’ve got kind of strength in numbers. Although we work with quite diverse artists – you know, Jethro Tull aren’t particularly like XTC, King Crimson certainly aren’t particularly like No-Man – but there are connections in terms of the artistic idealism. I think with almost everyone we deal with, whether it’s in minimalist classical, jazz, prog rock, ambient or art rock territory, there’s a thread that links everyone. And that’s a kind of artistic curiosity. And we’ve found that –people who buy from Burning Shed, they love Brian Eno, they love Yes, they love Jethro Tull, they love Bill Nelson, Phil Manzanera. So, we’ve found that it’s an audience with eclectic tastes for interesting artists.
And it’s also an audience and artists that are less and less well served, I would argue – certainly you look at the shift from physical media to streaming; you look at the shift of money from record companies to tech companies, and in some ways, I think someone [musician and Trichordist blogger David Lowery] said, “meet the new boss, worse than the old boss.”
And yet you’re trying to provide something where audience and artist and you act with integrity, put out the best product you can, do it as well as you can, and as you say you cater to an audience that has broad, eclectic tastes. And I just can’t congratulate you enough for it, because it’s absolutely the kind of record shop, online or physical, that I’ve loved my entire life.
Well, thank you! Yeah, I think it is important in this age of streaming, because I don’t think people realize in general how streaming basically helps the tech company, and it helps the major companies. The musicians are really suffering with this.
And it’s an odd thing, because I’ve used streaming and I’ve used YouTube since they began, but I still buy physical product. And partly that’s because I value packaging, and partly it’s because I know how much more artists get from me buying that physical packaging. Because streaming is no model for the music industry as a whole. It’s – well, should I say, sorry — it’s a model for the music industry; it’s not a model for music artistry.
And I think that not only is it effecting the livelihoods of musicians, it’s also effecting the way in which people listen to music. Because if you’re not investing that much in it in terms of money, I think you listen to things in a different way. And if it’s coming to you almost streaming through like water in a tap, you maybe don’t give it the attention you’d give music that you bought. You know, there’s so many albums and artists that I initially hated, but because I’d invested in them, I tried and I tried again, and eventually they became favorites.
But I think that certainly streaming encourages a certain kind of shallow listening. But It’s a really useful way for me of perhaps listening to bands where I think, “You know what? I’m gonna buy that album now.” But I think it’s becoming the dominant mode, which is a bit worrying.
And there was an article I read recently which said that it’s even effecting the way which music’s being written and recorded. So you’re getting less emphasis on the album, more emphasis on the single. And when you are getting the album, you’re getting totally undisciplined, 19-track albums with many remixes and collaborations to get the hits to get it in the chart.
And perhaps one of the most curious things I read was that Spotify had effected the introduction. So, if you think of introductions for songs, one of the great introductions of all time, I would say, is Pink Floyd’s for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The song is almost an introduction itself!
It’s a beautiful, slow buildup. And they were saying in the age of Spotify, because you’ve gotta keep the listener from the first second, people are completely abandoning subtle introductions. And so what you’re getting is the meat and potatoes, 1-2-3-4, in! That’s your piece. That to a certain extent, the art of the introduction has been lost, because people want attention immediately. And I thought that was kind of interesting and possibly true.
Certainly in Britain, the top hundred chart singles are 100 percent streaming dominated. And unusually, it’s produced a lack of variety. It’s become quite a surprisingly unambitious mulch and mush of very similar sounding music.
Streaming is really a commodity medium, isn’t it? It’s mass market; it was marketed as being something that would appeal to the “long tail” and the niche audience, but it really has not turned out that way. Which, again, makes me grateful that places like Burning Shed and other places that cater to artists and to niche audiences exist. And of course, I’m gonna be buying Flowers At The Scene from Burning Shed; so, looking forward to that. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the album before we go our separate ways?
Difficult to say. I mean, the only thing I can really say is what I always say: that you’ve got to produce an album because you believe in it, because it excites you. One of the things that when I first set up Burning Shed that it actually made me do was be more cautious about releasing music. At that time, certainly when again CD was the main medium, it was quite easy and cheap to produce albums. And for me, it made me even more idealistic; I think I’ve always been quite idealistic about what I put out. But knowing how easy it was to put out these things, I think I’ve been actually very cautious about releasing. So for every album I release, there’s possibly an unreleased album somewhere on my Hard Drive of Doom. So, whatever …
[Interrupting] Are those the upbeat, inspirational songs about life?
[Laughs] Yeah, those are the ones, yeah! No, I think actually some of the ones on the Hard Drive of Doom are even more depressing. [Interviewer laughs] You know, I think the actual Hard Drive itself has actually dissolved in a pool of tears; you know, it’s like a Squonk! [Laughs] It’s not good.
So for me I think that every I put out an album it’s very much a kind of labor of love, and something that I want to put out there because I’m excited. With this album, as I say, it was just kind of great when we got to that point of Flowers At The Scene and I knew that something good was gonna happen. And so we just continued to write. So that was it, really – that for me, it feels like a refreshing of the palette, and I hope that comes across to the audience that listens to it.
Well, it certainly came across to me. It’s a fine, fine record; looking forward to that. Thrilled about the fact that there’s new No-Man music in the pipeline at some point in the future.
[Interrupting] Yeah, well that’s gonna be very different as well. I have to say that it will be very different from any No-Man album that’s preceded it, while being completely No-Man, and I think that it will, yeah, be controversial, shall we say?
OK, we’ll look forward to that part of it too. Thank you so much, Tim. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you, and I appreciate your time, and everything you’ve been able to share with us.
OK, my pleasure! Thank you!
Special thanks to Roie Avin for setting up this interview!
— Rick Krueger