Tim Bowness: The 2022 Progarchy Interview

Tim Bowness’ sterling new album Butterfly Mind — to be released after last-minute supply delays on August 5th — isn’t just his latest for InsideOut Music/Sony, it’s also his 40th anniversary release! Since 1982, Tim has made his mark in the music industry as a contributor to bands such as Plenty (2 albums of recently re-recorded material from their 1980s heyday) and No-Man (7 albums, including 2019’s comeback Love You to Bits), as the co-founder of the record label and online music shop Burning Shed, and as co-host of the podcast The Album Years with No-Man collaborator and long-time friend Steven Wilson. Oh, and he’s also released five of his six previous solo albums on InsideOut since 2014, all chock-full of thoughtful, provocative art-rock brought to life by the cream of today’s progressive musicians. Butterfly Mind continues Bowness’ hot streak while striking out in fresh, arresting directions.

This is also at least Tim’s fifth interview with us at Progarchy. This time around, as well as revealing how “shed envy”, George Orwell, and flavored milk drinks played into the creation of Butterfly Mind, Tim unpacks his philosophy of lyric writing, reacts to Steven Wilson’s memoir and brings us up to date on the latest challenges of running Burning Shed. A complete transcription follows the video below!

So, when last we spoke, and I think that was in 2020, you joked about doing nothing and emptying out your Hard Drive of Doom over the next couple years.  But here we are, in the run-up to yet another new album.  So, what was the impetus behind the songs that have become your new album, Butterfly Mind?

Well, I did actually have nine months of not writing anything; the same before Late Night Laments as well.  Basically, I didn’t write for about eight and nine months, and then I suddenly felt compelled to write.  Because before Late Night Laments, I’d been working on No-Man’s Love You to Bits, and that had taken us about a year.  That was a case of rewriting an existing piece and adding to it.  And Late Night Laments came out very much as an album in opposition to Love You to Bits, cause Love You to Bits had been this quite electronic, pummeling, beat-oriented work.  And I desperately wanted to do something quieter, more reflective.

And when I’d finished Late Night Laments, I really did have no ideas!  All I did for about nine months was record cover versions of songs for fun.  As you say, I got my Hard Drive of Doom out, I re-recorded some very old Plenty songs, and about nine months after that, I wrote a piece called “Lost Player”.  And the floodgates opened once again! 

So, within about four months, I’d written four or five pieces, several of which didn’t end up on the album.  Two were with Richard Barbieri, who is in Porcupine Tree, as I’m sure many of you might know.  And another was a track with [Plenty member] Brian [Hulse], which is ending up on the Japanese version of the album.  But it really kickstarted again, sort of October 2020, and I just suddenly felt the desire to write.  And if there was any motivation, it was again to do something different from what I’d done.

So, whereas Late Night Laments as an atmospheric album and it was quite consistently quiet, with this album I wanted to surprise myself and surprise the listener.

And I think you did!  Because it’s true; when I heard Butterfly Mind, it immediately seemed harder-edged – there’s experimental sonics; you’ve got some songs with multiple sections; there’s almost a sort of muted hysteria in terms of the subject matter.  But we can get to that in a bit.

On this album, instead of using that variety of players that you used on Flowers at The Scene and Late Night Laments, you’re building out from this core band – Brian Hulse on guitars and keys, Nick Beggs on bass and Stick, and Richard Jupp on drums.  How did that unit come together?

It came together in a variety of ways, really.  With Richard Jupp, I’d long been a fan of Elbow, and with him it was a case of shed envy!  I’d seen an article on him and his home studio, and he had this magnificent shed and home studio.  So, I contacted him, and obviously mentioned how much I liked his drumming as well.  I particularly liked it on the first couple of Elbow albums, where he’s a very versatile player who can do dynamic, and he can do quiet.  And luckily his teenage son, it turned out, was a fan of No-Man, Porcupine Tree and The Album Years, so he knew my work. 

So that’s how Richard got involved; I said, “would you be interested in playing with me?”  The session with Richard was great, because it was the first session after all the lockdowns in the UK.  And so we were in the studio together, working in real time on the music.  So, it’s very exciting!  And he definitely went above and beyond what I’d expected.  Because originally, he was planned to be on maybe half the album.  But he heard certain tracks like “Always the Stranger” and said, “I’ve got to play on this; let me play on this!”  So, it was really good!

Nick Beggs came about because as much as I love the players I’d been using on my previous albums — Colin Edwin, John Jowett, they’re both incredibly gifted.  And I’ll continue to work with them; in fact, I’ve worked with Colin since I completed this album.  I wanted something different; I wanted a different kind of energy.  I mentioned this to Steven Wilson and he said, “Nick Beggs would be my choice.”  So, then I approached Nick Beggs, and luckily he agreed. 

So, yeah, it comes from a core group working on the song, then finding the right solo instrumentalists.  People like Ian Anderson and Dave Formula, who are on the album.

Yes, and I noticed that here are plenty of cameos – you mentioned Ian Anderson; Peter Hammill comes in on guitar and vocals for a couple of tracks again; Greg Spawton plays bass pedals that don’t sound like bass pedals, so that’s kind of fun. 

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s true!

But the biggest news that I saw in terms of guest shots was Ben Coleman playing some violin.    What led the two of you to team up again?  As I understand it, it’s the first time you’ve been in the studio together since No-Man’s initial heyday.

Yeah, it’s the first time since 1993, so 29 years!   I think in the case with a lot of the players, such as Ian Anderson, it’s because I felt like it required that flute solo voice.  And Ian plays on three tracks; one of them isn’t on the album, it’s on the outtakes CD, which is the second disc of the CD version.

And so really, it was finding the players I thought were appropriate for the piece.  And Dave Formula is somebody whose music I’ve loved for many years.  He was in a band called Magazine, who were very big when I was at school, and then he was also in a band Visage, who were also very big as well.  But he’s a tremendous Hammond organ and synth player, who has been around actually since the mid-60s.  He’s the same age as Ian Anderson, even though his heyday was in the early 1980s, with people like Visage and Magazine!

So generally speaking, I found people whose music I felt resonated with mine, and I felt they’d be able to bring something out of the material.  And the same goes for younger artists.   Like Martha Goddard, who sings backing vocals on three tracks, and Mark Tranmer, who is a wonderful guitarist who’s in a band called The Montgolfier Brothers.

And with Ben Coleman, it was because I could hear violin on two of the track; I could suddenly hear that classic No-Man sound!  I just got in touch with him, and luckily, he was interested.  He contributed to three or four of the tracks on the album in the end.  And it was glorious – as soon as he started playing, it was that sound!

Yes, yes it is!  It’s absolutely unmistakable!  So let’s dig into subject matter a little bit more.  The first time I heard “We Feel” and “Only A Fool” they were genuinely scary to me!  And I also know that you never want to connect all the dots for us; you want us to take away our own meaning.  Or our own perception of what you’re trying to say in these songs.  But what clues are you leaving for us to decipher?

It’s very difficult.  I think with Late Night Laments, there was a sense that somebody was attempting to sit in their most comfortable chair, reading their favorite book while listening to their favorite album on headphones.  And in the background, there was the buzz of 24-hour rolling news coverage, and the pandemic, and so on.  And occasionally, reality was punching them in the face, because even if they tried to escape into this beautiful world, there was still the real world in the background.

And with this album on a couple of tracks, it was actively facing it and confronting things.  And I guess what I’ve never wanted to do is apply a meaning or a judgment.  One of the tracks from Late Night Laments, “I’m Better Now”, is in effect about a political murder.  And I’m almost writing it from the perspective of the murderer!  In a way that, perhaps, we can almost understand this unspeakable act by this unspeakable person.

And so, when I was particularly writing a few of these tracks, I reread George Orwell’s 1984, which is still a brilliant and perceptive book about the way in which politics can manipulate the human brain.  And I’d read another couple of books that had similar post-apocalyptic themes.  One was by an English writer called Kay Dick, called They.  And she’d actually been an editor for George Orwell in the 1940s, and this was a very dark, dystopian thriller written in 1977, about, in effect, communities of artists living diminishing lives because “they” are coming for them.  It was quite interesting.

And I guess that aspects of that really crept into the narratives on Butterfly Mind.  The opening and closing tracks, “Say Your Goodbyes”; I think they really do almost have a future dystopia about them.  With “We Feel” and “Only A Fool,” I was dipping into worlds of protest, both online and in terms of the physical march.  And it was entering that reality; so “We Feel” is very much a song about protest, political protest. 

“Only A Fool” is about the way in which I think online discourse can very quickly become quite extreme on either side, Right or Left.  There very rarely seem to be articulate, moderate voices when reading Twitter!  It does seem to be dominated by both extreme sides of an argument.  And that particular lyric I wrote by taking comments from Twitter, from below the line [in the comments section] newspaper arguments.  So, the fury that you read is by people who are responding to one another, and not connecting at all.

Wow.  I was gonna say that I could not tell in those two songs if the narrators were the oppressed of the earth rising up, or they were privileged people trying to hang to their advantage and convincing themselves they’re the oppressed!  It sounds like you’re saying, at least with “Only A Fool”, it was all of the above!

It was exactly all of the above, and that was the intention!  Interestingly enough, there was an outtake from Late Night Laments called “Beauty and Decay” that had a similar feel about culture being oppressed.  And also, another outtake – I’ve temporarily forgotten the title.  But it was written from a position of privilege, but somebody defending their position.  And again, it’s because I’d read an interesting article about somebody who had lost their job due to an uncharacteristic tweet.  And so again, it was written from both perspectives in this argument.

OK!  I think that’s one of the things that makes your albums and your lyrical content – it gives them long-term legs, because there’s much more beneath the surface than one might think.  Now, you’ve mentioned that “Say Your Goodbyes” forms a frame to the album, and as you say it [has] this dystopian feel to it.  There’s also a pair of tracks, the “Stranger” tracks.  How did those two come together?

That was what I call me in my “German farmer” mode!  [Laughs]  And the “German farmer” idea is that I remember I used to do a lot of gigs in Germany with [touch guitarist] Markus Reuter.

As Centrozoon?

Yes, Centrozoon; we did a lot of gigs together in Europe actually, particularly in Germany.  And one of the things that has never actually left me — it’s quite funny, I’d forgotten this.  Our guitarist, No-Man’s very early guitarist, The Still Owl (who’s also known as Stuart Blagden) said in an interview, “Yeah, the one thing I couldn’t believe is the number of flavored milk drinks that Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness consumed!”

When I was in Germany performing with Centrozoon, there was a particular flavored drink and I thought, “I’m gonna go for this.”  And [Reuter] said, “Oh, my goodness!  This is what the German farmers do!”  What it was, is the waste dairy that isn’t considered quality enough to be milk or cheese or yoghurt.  And it ends up in this flavored dairy drink that I was consuming!  And I quite liked the idea of the ingenuity of that; every single bit gets used.

And “Always the Stranger” was a piece that I wrote for the album.  And I was getting so many interesting guest performances from people that weren’t being used on the main track that I constructed an entirely different piece out of it!  Plus, I’d written more lyrics than the song required. 

So, “Always the Stranger” – there are two in-jokes going on here.  Always The Stranger is the name of my very first teenage solo project, which was horrible in the extreme!  It was a really nasty, ugly solo project, with me writing a lot of the material on guitar and organ.  And it was like – oh God, imagine a painfully unlistenable “Peter Hammill meets Nico”!  It was just wrong on all counts.  But it was great for learning the craft of being able to produce and record music.

And “Always the Stranger” the song, that’s where the title comes from.  And the lyric was about “where would I be if I didn’t change my attitude to music, culture, life, other human beings?”  So, it was a what-if scenario.  It was a 58-year-old me trapped in that 19-year-old mentality that never grew up.  And that’s what the song’s about.

After The Stranger was the name of a band that followed Always The Stranger.  So, in-joke number one!  And it was using elements that were sent to me by musicians that I just felt maybe didn’t work in the main song.  So, I just thought, “they’re too good to lose.”  So, I developed a song out of that, and then in the studio, Richard played some drums, and so on.  So, in effect there’s a lot of really fresh musical ideas in there, but it came out of unused ideas for “Always the Stranger”, lyrically and vocally.

So “After the Stranger” is your flavored daily product!

That exactly is true, yes! [Laughs] “Always the Stranger” is the full-fat quality cheese and yoghurt; “After the Stranger” is that German milk drink that I had!  It was squeezing every ounce of it into another beverage.

From the interviews we’ve had before, I know that if you have a good idea, you will use it at some point!

[Laughs]  Exactly!  There’s still, believe it or not, quite a bit on the Hard Drive of Doom.  Because this album, like Late Night Laments – it’s kind of interesting.  With a lot of my previous solo albums on Inside Out, it would usually consist of four or five songs that were brand new, two songs that were relatively new that had never been completed, and maybe two songs I found from the 1990s or the early 2000s or even the 1980s that I thought, “OK, these were never as good as they could have been.”  And the interesting thing with Late Night Laments and Butterfly Mind is that these are all absolutely new pieces; they’re not drawing on that Hard Drive of Doom.  These are pieces that were written between October 2020 and September 2021.

Are there any other tracks on the album that you particularly think are special, that you’d like to call our attention to?

I really like “Dark Nevada Dream”.  I think “Dark Nevada Dream”, which is the longest track on the album, is the one track that looks back, really.  Cause none of the other tracks really look back.  But “Dark Nevada Dream” has a real feeling of early No-Man.  And that’s a time and a music that I miss as well.  So, I think that that is one.

And another, “About the Light that Hits the Forest Floor” – that was kind of special for a very sad reason.  The lyric, in a way, is about somebody coming to terms with their loved one dying in a hospital.  And when he was recording the violin for it, I didn’t know that Ben Coleman was going through a similar experience.  And so, it adds a real layer of poignancy to the track for me.  Good grief, had I known he was going through that, of course I wouldn’t have asked him to play on that particular song.

Yeah.  Although the product is amazing; I was listening again this morning and that was the one that especially resonated with me this time around.  I’d to move on to a couple of non-Butterfly Mind questions if I could.  One: you mentioned Always The Stranger and your early projects.  Another artist that you know very well has very much talked about a lot of his early projects — Steven Wilson in his book, Limited Edition of One.  And he writes about you quite eloquently and quite positively, as almost someone who was a role model for him.  Have you read the book?  Do you have any thoughts on it?

Yeah, I have!  And obviously I’m very touched by what he’d written about me.  Because I didn’t know what was gonna be written.  I assumed I’d figure in it but didn’t know how.  It’s interesting, because he kind of leaves the No-Man story hanging at 1990 [laughs], then comes back to it with Love You to Bits, I think, a tiny bit towards the end.

It was a similar thing for me with Steven, in the sense that when I met him – when you start off in bands, usually you’re playing with friends who can play an instrument.  You’re in a band for the sake of it.  Plus, I did my own unlistenable work.  And the first band I was in that meant anything, I suppose, I was in a band as a teenager called Still with The Still Owl, who ended up in No-Man very briefly in the early days, as guitarist.  And that was a very interesting band, that I think had elements of what No-Man went on to do.

But when I was a teenager, I wasn’t good enough.  I oversang, I overwrote, I was definitely the weak part.  Even though we got played on a lot of local radio stations, it’s terrible music because of me.

The first thing I did that I think was any good was with Brian Hulse, who I’m now working with again after this big absence.  And he was five or six years older than me, and in 1986 we wrote a couple of tracks together, “Towards the Shore” and “The Other Side”.  And suddenly I was writing music that I would listen to, that I personally liked as well!  And it suddenly felt that I met a kindred spirit.

So, when I formed Plenty with Brian, that was very much a group of kindred spirits, and it was wonderful!  I still love the Plenty music, and I’m really glad we had the Plenty reunion albums.  But when I met Steven in 1987, there was a different energy again.  And as he says in the book, me meeting Steven was the first time I’d worked with somebody, as The Album Years podcast shows, where we could go from heavy rock to avant-garde classical, from jazz to progressive to R&B.  No idea was out of bounds.  And that was the exciting thing!

And because I was a bit older than Steven, I had probably listened to more music, so I was able to introduce him to an awful lot of material, from very wide and differing genres.  Whereas with Plenty, like my work with Peter Chilvers – Peter Chilvers is one of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with, but Peter (and it’s not a criticism) has a very focused aesthetic.  So, all of his music will operate, musically and sonically, in a comparatively narrow range. 

That’s also true of Plenty, and I loved that narrow range; it’s not a criticism.  I understand why some people – you’re not lying if you don’t like this and you don’t like that.  That’s fine, that’s your taste!  But with Steven, for whatever reason, we both had an enthusiasm for an incredibly wide range of music.  And that was, I think, the big connection with him.  And it still is!  That when we’re doing the podcasts, we can talk about almost anything.

And that’s part of the thrill of those podcasts; listening to them, I really have no idea of where you will wind up next.  And that’s part of the fun.

You’ve brought that aesthetic to Burning Shed as well.  And the last time we spoke, Burning Shed was weathering the early period of the pandemic remarkably well, at least from your perspective.  But to say that things haven’t calmed down would be a bit of an understatement.  So how have the last two years impacted the business you do there, and how have you been able to adjust?

The pandemic year, especially the main pandemic year of 2020, was actually our most successful ever!  Maybe cause people were locked at home and they wanted to buy physical product.  It really effected us badly in terms of getting packages to people quickly, because of course postal services were more expensive and there were delays.  But in terms of overall sales and turnover, 2020 was the most successful year we’ve ever had.

2021 and 2022 have also been very good, but they’ve certainly been fraught with challenges.  And the biggest one for us actually has been Brexit.  Whereas our sales to Britain have probably grown and our sales to America, Canada, Japan have stayed at the same level, in the last nine months our sales to Europe have halved.

And we’ve spent £30,000 and got people to come in to help us alter the back end of the site so that our European customers now should have pretty much the same service they had a year ago.  But we had nine months where our European customers were hit with heavy handling fees and VAT [Value Added Tax] on their doorstep.  And now because of this IOSS [the European Commission’s Import One-Stop Shop], which has cost us a helluva lot of money, they can buy from Burning Shed again in the secure knowledge that they won’t be paying a handling fee and they won’t be paying VAT on their doorstep.

So, we’ll see, but it’s been really fraught with challenges and costs that we never thought we would have or should have.  In effect, £30,000 and eight months of hard work to get to a marginally worse place than we were!   It’s a bit galling, but we’ve done it because we felt we should.  So, it’s had an impact, but yeah, we’re weathering it.  And we know that we’re really privileged in having that, that some companies couldn’t afford the money to implement the IOSS.  So, in that sense, we’ve been lucky that we’ve had the money to do it, and we’ve been lucky that we’ve weathered the storm.

And also that in 2022, we’ve had some really great releases, some really big releases for us.  Of course, the new Porcupine Tree album being one of them.

And I’ll say from a US perspective, one of the things that I have noticed – because we’ve had shipping increases.  But the other thing is – for example, if you go on a store like Amazon, the sort of undercutting discounts that they used to offer on both CDs and books are basically disappearing.  So, there is really – other than the Prime membership, which is kind of a sunk cost – there’s no reason not to buy from an independent store instead!  And I’ve noticed that especially since the turn of the year, and I’ve adjusted my habits accordingly.

So yes, Porcupine Tree; I spent a lot of money on Robert Fripp releases from you lately – looking forward to that Guitar Circle book!  That looks great.

It does indeed!  So, we’re lucky that a lot of the artists we deal with are continuing to release really interesting work.  And you’re entirely right; I tend to, if I can, buy from the stores of artists.  And in fact, that’s how Mark Tranmer, who plays guitar on “About the Light that Hits the Forest Floor” – I bought his music directly from him on Bandcamp.  He then wrote to me and said, “Thank you; that’s fantastic!  I know your reputation, know your work.”  And within about two months he was playing guitar on the album!

Bandcamp is a pretty amazing platform as well, no question.

I agree, yeah!  Burning Shed and Bandcamp I’d recommend to anybody.

Anything else you’d like to say to the readers of Progarchy?

Well, I hope that all are surviving and thriving in these difficult times!

Thank you so much; we hope that you and yours are as well.  It’s been a real pleasure talking with you; I appreciate your time.  And I know that Butterfly Mind hit some supply chain issues, but I am looking forward to getting my hands on an actual physical copy when it comes out in August. So, best of luck with that, and with all your endeavors!

Thank you very much!  And you!

All right; take care!

(Butterfly Mind is available on LP (transparent green or black vinyl), on 2 CDs, or in various bundles from Burning Shed.)

— Rick Krueger

One thought on “Tim Bowness: The 2022 Progarchy Interview

  1. Pingback: Rick’s Quick Takes for July – Progarchy

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