Tim Bowness is no stranger to Progarchy: he’s graced us with multiple interviews over the years, including a three part epic in early 2019. Back then, we talked about his stylish, enticing album Flowers At The Scene, which made my list of favorites for the year.
Tim’s latest effort, Late Night Laments, is released on CD and LP (available on both regular and transparent blue vinyl) by InsideOut Music on August 28. As on Flowers At The Scene, Bowness’ songs delve into the psyches of protagonists at the end of their rope, framing their desperation with lush, atmospheric textures — but this time around, subtle variations in soundscapes and storytelling both sharpen the focus and broaden the impact of the music. Paradoxically, it’s a subdued, concentrated listening experience that packs an intense emotional punch.
I was grateful to speak with Tim via online video this time around; as before, he was glad to talk about his multiple musical endeavors and generous with his time. In Part One of the interview, we focus on Late Night Laments; a transcription follows after the jump.
It was about eighteen months ago that we talked about Flowers At The Scene; now Late Night Laments will be out at the end of August. Congratulations once again!
Can you tell me a bit about how the new album took shape?
It sort of came together very quickly. Flowers at the Scene I probably finished in the late summer of 2018, and most of the end of 2018 and 2019 was spent with re-recording the new No-Man album, Love You to Bits. Or should I say, the new/old No-Man album, because this was something we’d started work on about 26 years ago and finally decided to complete. But we wrote a lot of new sections, I rewrote a lot of lyrics, and a lot of the recording was done during that time.
So, though it almost seems quite rapid, I’d probably gone over a year without writing anything brand new. One of the reasons for this is that I hate to force music; for me, I think at this stage there’s no point in releasing music for the sake of releasing music or writing for the sake of writing. I want something to hit me, to take me by surprise.
And this album sort of started in August 2019. It was very late at night and I just started writing what has become the last track, “One Last Call.” And as soon as I’d finished this, I remember singing the song into the middle of the night almost; you could hear the wind outside and complete silence in the house. I knew that I wanted this to be the direction of the album.
It was a strange combination of being quite intimate and personal musically, and kind of surprisingly political and global lyrically. I’d say that this album was then sort of completed in two bursts of activity – one in late 2019, and one in early 2020. That was the exciting thing about this album, that it almost kind of dictated itself, and I felt a real compulsion to finish it.
Could you maybe unpack the lyrical thread a bit more? You say that it’s more global and political — how would you characterize the overall lyrical thread?
I think that the album cover quite accurately reflects the feel of the album. And again, this was something I had in mind very early on in the process. What you have is somebody in their own private space, lost in their books and in their music – and in the background there’s 24-hour news that effectively is spewing out whatever today’s catastrophe is.
I think that partly because of social media, partly because of 24-hour news, I think that we are exposed to an awful lot more than we ever were. I mean, this has been the case for the last decade or so, but it seems to be even accelerating within that. And over the last few years, there have been quite a number of themes – anything from generational divides, because I know that in Britain and America, there’s been this sort of horrible anti-Boomer movement; there’s been a lot of political polarization in terms of left and right that’s happening, again in Britain, in America, all over Europe. Things have seemed a lot more febrile and fractious.
When I finished this album, I was a bit worried, because I finished it in the week that lockdown had been announced in Britain. And I thought that it was irrelevant; “My God, all of the themes that have been preoccupying me have suddenly become irrelevant in the face of this virus!” But what’s been interesting is that over the last month or so, a lot of the themes, from political polarization to generational divides, actually seem more relevant than they did at the time I finished the album! They’ve come into focus very clearly.
Yes, because it strikes me that social media actually amplifies those factors that you talk about. For example, there was a riot in my hometown at the end of May. And this was a thing I had not experienced in more than 40 years – we had riots in Detroit when I was growing up, when was I was 6 years old. And so anything I know about it is secondhand. But what struck me was that in this different town, it’s happening here and now, and everyone is reacting to it in real time. And somehow, it seems unhealthy.
There is something unhealthy! Certainly, lockdown and the virus has exacerbated many attitudes. And I think as well, because it’s such an unnatural state to be in, as you’ve said it has amplified people’s more extreme attitudes and behaviors.
I’m quite lucky in the sense that I live on the outskirts of two cities – a fair distance. And so we’ve had very little – I don’t even think we’ve had a COVID-19 death! We’ve had very few cases. Life to an extent, beyond being contained in our houses a lot of the time, has carried as normal.
But in the two cities near me; one, there was a race riot. Bristol was the first statue dismantling in Britain. And in Bath at the weekend, on the outskirts there were 3,000 people gathering together for a rave! Raves have suddenly become incredibly popular, for the first time in about 30 years.
And in some ways, I understand this. When people have felt – to a degree, from both the political aspect of the Black Lives Matter protests to the raves, they are different reflections, if you like, of what’s going on. In terms of the rave, I think it’s people who are just wanting to escape what they feel is a period of internment. And in a lot of cases, it was young people feeling that they need to have a good time; it’s as simple as that!
With the Black Lives Matter movement, of course these were feelings that had brewed under, maybe for decades, that have finally come out. Perhaps they came out – of course we’ve had expressions of this over the decades, in Britain and in America. But perhaps they came out in a more pronounced way because of the period of lockdown. Perhaps because of the period of people perhaps feeling frustrated, powerless and so on.
So yeah, I think the combination of social media and the virus has exacerbated certain things in society, and brought many injustices to the surface, and many feelings of frustration to the surface, in a way that they haven’t been expressed for decades.
A thing that struck me – I’m just interested in your reaction to this. The idea popped into my head a few weeks back that, whether it is protests; whether it is having a good time and gathering together; whether, as is the case in my community and in others, there are folks who are connected to religions who think that what I consider commonsense precautions are infringements upon their liberty. What struck me is that people are saying that what they value outweighs the risks that you see to the situation. But the challenge is, there’s actually no way of fully understanding the risks. And you have these expressions of values, but they come out in conflict, which exacerbates many things about those kinds of conflicts.
I think the thing is, that to a certain extent, these political divides have been brewing for years. And in Britain we’ve had Brexit, and again that has created this tremendous crack in the society. And something about this virus has in some ways brought the feelings to the fore. And as you’ve said, what could have been commonsense, open debates have become areas of conflict.
I don’t know what it’s like in America, but in Britain one of the things that’s been astonishing to me is that the government seems to be have just been reacting rather than governing. There’s very little sense of coherent leadership. And as well as this, there’s actually been very little debate. When we went through Brexit, understandably this was on television every single night. And perhaps every single scenario was discussed; every side seemed to have an opportunity to speak. And what is interesting is that there hasn’t really been much debate over COVID. Basically, there have been vague proclamations from the government that seem to weakly follow some scientific advice. So it’s been very odd that the debate doesn’t seem to have been open, and it seems to have been held more on social media, which is what I think is causing a lot of the conflict.
And of course, it disturbs me that people cannot be civil in expressing their different viewpoints. That’s certainly happened here, anyway. In terms of commonsense precautions, I’ve been relatively lucky in that where I live, most people have been cautious; most people have been safe. And as I’ve said, so far, luckily, there’s been virtually no impact apart from the economic impact, and apart from of course the impact on people’s working futures.
Let’s go back to before all this, to when you were putting the album together, not realizing you were being possibly prophetic. Again, the lyrical content feels very global and political, although it’s refracted through individual stories. That’s one of the connections I see with Flowers at the Scene; Late Night Laments feels like a short story collection as opposed to a conceptual piece.
Yes, I agree.
But there are also some new musical elements that I heard when I listened to the album – I especially heard some different angles to the rhythmic grooves. I felt like they were coming from different places, maybe a bit of a change-up from straightforward beats. But also some really fresh tone colors that also led into the percussive side. I’m curious as to your reaction to that, and I’m also wondering: did you feel like that was a conscious decision, or just a thing that happened, or something else?
I think it was both, really! As I said, I first wrote the track “One Last Call.” And it immediately suggested to me a soundscape. And it immediately suggested to me that perhaps this album should investigate a more focused, limited range of sounds and instruments.
On the very early demos for this, almost everything I was writing – and I didn’t know why I was driven to do this – there were certain keyboard sounds I was using, and Brian Hulse (my main co-producer on this) was using. Also amongst everything, vibraphone and marimba was coming into my head, and seemed the right instruments!
For the eventual album, luckily the drummer I’d used on Flowers At The Scene, Tom Atherton, he’s a classically trained percussionist. And he specializes in vibraphone and marimba! So that was perfect; I had him to hand. Luckily, it was a combination of the intentional and the accidental, and then having the right people to make that a reality.
Yes, it was very odd that it was almost this “world in a smaller room” concept. As you said, it is kind of a collection of short stories. And in some ways, although the lyric’s universal, I want people to feel that they can see themselves in it.
One of the songs, “Never A Place,” I kind of saw about othering, about people who for whatever reason feel detached from the society they’re in. And in this case, in my mind I had almost quite a specific idea – I don’t know why it came to me, or why I wrote about it – about perhaps being a Jewish child in Germany of the ’30s. And how as a child, there’s this innocence being slowly corrupted by the way people were reacting to you. And you don’t understand why people are reacting to you in this way. And so it was almost about alienation and othering from a child’s perspective.
But I also saw this as being about how you might feel being a refugee in Britain in 2020. How you might feel being that sort of hippie in 1970s Northern England, having this look and these ideas. So although it came from a very specific place, I imagined it having a universal application in a way. Which I think, with some of the lyrics, there is that. And it was odd that a particular soundscape began to obsess me, and particular lyrics were flowing. In a way I was editing what was flowing out of me, and none of this was intentional.
One of the lyrics, which is perhaps the most bleak — there’s quite a few bleak lyrics [laughs], but the most bleak is a track called “The Last Getaway.” I’d written this because I’d been reading a series of books to my child; they were by an award-winning British author called Harry Horse. At one point they’d been award-winning, they’d been best-selling, and this was like the early 1990s. So it wasn’t that long ago and I’d found a couple second-hand, and he loved them. And they were very sentimental books.
Out of curiosity, I decided to find out what had happened to the author. It turned out that he had gone to a small rural community in Scotland with his wife, might have even been a small island. He’d been a political cartoonist who’d then become a children’s author and had done very well. It was seemingly quite an idyllic life for quite a character. His wife was then diagnosed with degenerative illness, and this seemingly caused an incredible breakdown. He stabbed his wife to death, stabbed all of their pets, and then killed himself. It was the contrast of reading that horrific story after reading these beautifully sentimental books to my son.
Again, it was a lyric that I just kind of almost had to write, and I wrote it in the middle of the night – wrote the lyric, wrote the song, and it came out. So it does have a very specific inspiration, but it’s just about this point of almost a perfect life being disentangled by fate, being torn apart by fate.
You mentioned your contributors. Again, you had some carryover certainly from the last album — Colin Edwin, Alistair Murphy, folks like that. But you also had – I wouldn’t call them “new faces” because I’m sure you’ve known someone like Richard Barbieri [Japan, Porcupine Tree] for a long, long time and Kavus Torabi [Knifeworld, Gong]. I remember with Flowers At the Scene, you talked about “casting” in your recording, trying out multiple combinations of different players on the same song; was something similar going on here? Or were you recruiting particular people like Richard and Kavus for particular roles? A little of both? What kind of approach was it?
Well, with this album, it was closest to No-Man’s Together We’re Stranger in that it felt right almost straight away. And so by comparison with most of my solo albums, there aren’t a lot of overdubs, there aren’t a lot of guest players. When I used them, it was because the textures suggested these players. So, very obviously using Tom Atherton for the vibraphones and marimba.
Richard Barbieri – again, I could hear his signature sound on these pieces. Richard I’ve kind of worked with a fair bit, but not for a very long time, really. So it was great to be reunited with him. And these tracks just suggested one of his great abilities. I think he’s an amazing soloist! People tend to use him for his textures, which he’s superb at, but he’s also a really strong soloist. So I went in particularly to get his solo voice on a few pieces.
Colin Edwin obviously has been my kind of go-to bass player for all of my solo work. And again, he will always provide the different voices the songs require. He’s such a versatile player, he’s ideal.
Evan Carson, who played some of the live percussion on this album, is somebody I’ve wanted to work with for years. I did two gigs with him about four years ago; I did co-headline two dates with iamthemorning and he was their drummer. And I loved his playing so much that on the second gig, I said “Hey, do you wanna play with us?” And so we actually did a gig at Bush Hall in London with a two-drum set-up, with Andrew Booker my regular drummer on electronic percussion and a small kit, and Evan on percussion and a small kit. And they worked brilliantly together! And he’s a drummer whose work I love because he makes everything flow. Everything has a groove and everything flows. And it’s powerful without being overpowering; he’s really quite subtle. So the music always wins out with Evan, so he’s somebody I’ve wanted to work with for awhile.
Kavus I’ve known since he interviewed me years ago; he interviewed me with Steve Davis, who he does a radio show with. And we got on well; if you know Kavus, he’s a very entertaining, larger-than-life character in a lot of ways. We’ve regularly met at other people’s gigs or his gigs or award ceremonies.
This was at the very end of the process of making the album, and there was one solo that I wanted for “I’m Better Now.” And I was thinking about who I should use for this. And I also wanted a female vocalist to sing on three or four of the pieces, because again I had an idea of a particular type of almost English folk voice that would be backing mine on these pieces. Kavus wrote to me and said, “Got a new solo album coming out; here it is. Would you be interested in selling this via Burning Shed?” I listened to the album and immediately realized he was who I wanted for the solo. And, of course, I remembered his excellent work with Knifeworld, and Melanie Woods, who is one of the main vocalists in Knifeworld.
So I wrote back saying, “Love the album! Do you fancy doing this?” And within about four days, Melanie and Kavus had given me exactly what I needed to complete the album. It was almost like that final jigsaw puzzle – “who do I need for this?” And I contemplated a few people. So he came at just the right time, as did Melanie. So that was very fortuitous. It was a great combination of having a particular idea of who I wanted on the pieces and then Kavus coming in at the last moment to provide me with that final piece.
One other musical question I’ve got to ask you about – the ukulele!
Somehow you can even make the ukulele and the vibraphone sound dark. What’s up with that?
Yeah, how does this come through as dark? I’m not quite sure! The ukulele I sort of learned a couple of years ago. And immediately I’m drawn to chord voicings that I like. For me, when I played the ukulele, what I could heard was quite an engaging and beautiful harp-like sound. It has the possibility of almost mimicking the harp, even though it’s a four-string instrument. And even more so when you multitrack a ukulele. So I have written several songs on ukulele over the last few years.
What is quite interesting here is that, in Britain, one of the most famous ukulele players – though he played what was known as a banjolele. And a banjolele is a ukulele string and chord voicing, but in the body of a banjo. So it has a much more dramatic, tinny, loud sound. But the person who popularized this kind of very jaunty ukulele in Britain was called George Formby. He was a famous comedy act in the 1930s and 1940s. And in fact, he was Britain’s most famous comedy actor throughout the 1940s, even huge in Russia.
And the interesting thing about this is that I was born and brought up effectively round the corner from where he was brought up, [laughs] George Formby. So I used to pass his house on my way to school every day. Now I’m not saying that there is obviously – [laughs] that I have a psychic link to George Formby, because my music is the opposite of George Formby, it must be said! It was just an instrument I learned a couple of years ago, because my son was learning to play it. And I thought, “OK, I’ll learn to play it alongside him.” And immediately, with almost any instrument, most musicians will tell you, you’re writing something with it. And you tend to impose your own personality or emotion or mood on this. So I guess that is how I have darkened the palette of the ukulele!
Brian Hulse is your main collaborator and co-producer once again, and Steven Wilson did the mix; last time around, I remember you speaking really eloquently of how they help bring out the best in the songs and make the songs like what you hear in your head, getting that onto the tape. But you have a new hand onboard for mastering, Calum Malcolm. Were there specific reasons you sought him out?
Yes, very much so! The Blue Nile, who he has co-produced and mastered and mixed for years, have produced, for me, some of the most beautiful music coming out of the United Kingdom over the last four decades. And there’s a tremendous clarity in their sound.
From the beginning with this album, I had an idea of the sounds I wanted to make, and perhaps more so than on Flowers At The Scene. This was more like Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean the World in that I wrote a lot more of the music and played a lot more of the music this time. I was quite driven to do it when I was writing it. And as before, Brian and Steven helped clarify some of the ideas and made it into what I wanted. Though I’d say that more clearly than with Flowers At The Scene, at the demo stage this very strongly sounded quite close to what the released album is.
So in this case I think that it was much more about degrees of refinement and getting exactly the sound I wanted. Yeah, Calum’s work with The Blue Nile, with Prefab Sprout, with a few Scottish folk artists suggested he had just the right ears to provide the final touch.
(In Part Two of this interview, we’ll talk with Tim about No-Man’s Love You to Bits; Modern Ruins, his latest collaboration with Peter Chilvers; and his very special tribute to the finest prog band ever to emerge from Warrington (the home of George Formby)! Plus a update on Progarchy’s favorite online shop, Burning Shed.
— Rick Krueger