“Our failure got us dropped by our label, manager and publisher – and led to us rediscovering what we really wanted to do musically”: How No-Man learned to confound their expectations without offending each other

(Image credit: Press)

By 2010, No-Man had been in existence for 23 years – but Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson had only released six studio albums in that time. The duo told Prog about keeping the flame alive despite the distractions of their other projects, and the creative motivation that meant the band was never entirely in the shadows.

“When we first met, what was exciting about working with Steven was that he had similarly broad tastes and as much passion for consuming music, films and books as for creating,” says No-Man’s Tim Bowness.

If you get talking to either Bowness or Steven Wilson, there’s none of the guarded reserve you normally encounter when meeting seasoned professional musicians, the fall-out from years spent talking to the press or responding to the ongoing barrage of queries from curious fans. They’ll eagerly talk about what’s been exciting their earbuds in recent days. The resulting conversation will take any number of unexpected twists as their latest listening is discussed, dissected and disbursed with an almost child-like zeal.

The broad tastes that Bowness highlights coalesced from that first meeting in the late 80s to become the DNA that has run through No-Man’s genre-defying music. Their first outings were cassette-only shout-outs delving amongst shadows cast by Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Nico’s The Marble Index and dream-laden electronica. The addition of violinist Ben Coleman, while providing a soaring counterpoint to Bowness' cooled-down croon, also augmented the smoky, elegiac melancholy that drifted across the break-beats of their minimalist Donovan cover, Colours.

This canny combination saw the three-piece leapfrogging their way to a deal with OLI – home to The Shamen, The Sugarcubes and later, Björk. Though players in the game, they also lampooned pop world hyperbole, with Bowness penning press releases under the pseudonym of Billy Baudelaire: “No-Man are a Rolls Royce to The Stone Roses’ Skoda” being one of his most memorable barbs.

But OLI preferred hits to quips; and while No-Man duly delivered them some indie chart earners – notably the beatific, blissed-out groove of 1991’s Days In The Trees – the company wanted more. The pressure of coming up with chart-friendly material exerted an unwelcome distorting effect upon the group. And despite temporarily compromising the artistic vision of the band, mainstream success continued to elude them.

Bad news for the label turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “Our failure to break the ‘grown-up charts’ led to us being dropped by our label, manager and publisher; and, in turn, led to us rediscovering what it was we really wanted to do musically,” Bowness admits.

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Their One Little Indian swansong, Flowermouth (1994) – a glorious concoction of pop, prog, folk styles and beat-driven electronica – not only saw the departure of Coleman, but had them embracing their habit of welcoming guests players. Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen and Mick Karn (Japan, Rain Tree Crow) have all made appearances, as have Robert Fripp, Mel Collins and jazz-rock trumpeter Ian Carr.

“Like lots of music fans, we love concocting musical ‘dream teams’ – but it’s always the song that comes first with No-Man,” Bowness explains. “When we’ve written a piece, we’re sometimes keen to see if other people can enhance it or take it to places we wouldn’t or couldn’t; hence the occasional use of session musicians.”

There aren’t many bands whose reference points span from Egg to A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy

Steven Wilson

Along with the personnel, each No-Man album has witnessed a shift in style or dramatic emphasis. “Tim grew up with David Bowie and I grew up with King Crimson and Zappa,” says Wilson. “These artists are notorious for upsetting their fans by changing direction every 10 minutes. Zappa is releasing a doo-wop record one minute and the next he’s releasing a serious classical music record – and I like that. I like the sense of not just buying into a particular sound, but buying into the artist and then being prepared to go with them.”

While some artists will have you believe they never listen to anyone else’s music lest it contaminate their own work, No-Man have always supped on the zeitgeist with gusto. “There aren’t many bands whose reference points span from Egg to A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy!” says Wilson. “That’s always been one of the unique things about us – both myself and Tim do cover that range of interest. We’re as excited by industrial music as we are by folk music as we are by progressive rock; and we don’t turn our noses up at anything – it’s all inspirational to us.”

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Some of that range can be seen and heard on Mixtaped, a double-DVD package that not only features a lengthy documentary history of the band but also contains footage of their return to the stage in 2008 after a 15-year absence, coinciding with the release of sixth album Schoolyard Ghosts.

“I loved the fact that the live band managed to capture the essence of No-Man while giving it a fresh identity,” Bowness says. “We created a much harder sound live, but didn’t seem to lose the sophistication or subtlety of the studio recordings. I was also excited by the fact that we took the classical-minimalism-meets-art-rock aspect of what we do quite a bit further on the tour.”

Tim’s role is basic song ideas, lyrics and vocals, while mine is production and building a sound-world for those songs

Steven Wilson

A defining characteristic of the No-Man sound has of course been the breathy edge of Bowness’ singing. His words often deal with people at the edge of something, moving from one space to another – where uncertainty, redemption or loss appear to await. His intense observations pare relationships and situations to the bone with an unflinching and occasionally uncomfortable poetic precision. Does he ever self-censor a lyrical idea that’s deemed too upbeat or cheery? 

“Weirdly, I did the opposite on Schoolyard Ghosts,” he says. “For me, it’s often easier to write something stupidly bleak than something intelligently positive. So as an experiment, I consciously attempted to go against type without losing the essence of what I do. The resulting album was about the ability most of us have to reinvent ourselves, recover from loss, or pick ourselves out of the mire.

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“When I perform or write, I do tend to get lost in the material; I either draw on personal experiences, or my perception of other people’s experiences. There are a few songs which draw directly from my past [Schoolyard Ghosts’ title track for one]. But generally, I write lyrics that have more of an emotional truth about them than autobiographical fact.”

Given the success of Porcupine Tree – originally conceived as a Wilson-only adjunct to No-Man – and the numerous writing and production duties he undertakes, is there ever a dilemma about what ideas go into the No-Man melting pot and what goes into other Wilson projects? “If I’m writing for No-Man I’m writing with Tim,” he explains. “I don’t go off and write for No-Man on my own. 

“It’s understood that Tim’s role is basic song ideas, lyrics and vocals, while mine is production and building a sound-world for those songs. We have a very symbiotic thing – we’ve know each other for so long there’s virtually nothing that either of us can say to offend the other. It’s so important to have that kind of relationship where you’re not treading on eggshells. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve reinvented the music so often; we love to confront our own expectations as well as our audience’s.”

We’re still the same idealistic musicians who met one another in the summer of 1987

Tim Bowness

Aside from the demands of Porcupine Tree – which have made No-Man’s progress positively glacial – Bowness also has competition for his own time. He’s co-founder of the respected Burning Shed label, a solo artist, a frequent collaborator with Italian prog outfit Nosound, and co-writer and producer of Judy Dyble’s acclaimed 2009 album Talking With Strangers. But he’s optimistic about No-Man’s future.

“I believe that we’re still the same idealistic musicians who met one another in the summer of 1987,” he says. “I hope the main difference is that, through personal and musical experiences, we’ve got better at doing what we do. As long as we remain open to fresh influences and our emotions, hopefully we’ll continue to evolve.”

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Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.