“Robert Fripp played the solo and we didn’t like it. He said, ‘You’re wrong.’ Steven Wilson said, ‘This is how wrong we are,’ and deleted it”: How No-Man prospered by refusing to ever fit in

(Image credit: Press)

One day in 1987, Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson met singer-songwriter Tim Bowness. Their subsequent collaborations as No-Man would result in some extraordinary and innovative music – as demonstrated in new box set Housekeeping: The OLI Years 1990-1994.

1987 was a big year for Steven Wilson. Still in his teens, he devised Porcupine Tree as a prog-psych conceit, complete with a fabulously fictional back story. He also happened to meet singer-songwriter Tim Bowness, with whom he began playing as No Man Is An Island (Except For The Isle Of Man). While Porcupine Tree would gradually evolve into a whole other creative entity, the Bowness project was a more immediate priority.

The chemistry was instant. “At our very first recording session, we did three completely different kinds of song,” Wilson recalls. “We recorded Faith’s Last Doubt, which is this very sort of pretentious prog rock epic. Then there was this piece of industrial funk, Screaming Head Eternal, and a gothic piano ballad called Beaten By Love. And all in the space of about three hours – bang, bang, bang. There was something magical straight away.”

“What was great about working with Steven is that we were free from any shackles,” Bowness adds. “When I first met him, we’d discuss avant-garde music, classical, prog rock, Swans, David Bowie, all of these things. And we’d draw from spiritual jazz or soul music. Very early on we started using looped beats and looped bass, but we’d also draw samples from Stockhausen and Van der Graaf Generator. Basically, we just wanted to express ourselves.”

This wildly eclectic, anything-goes approach made for some thrilling music. No Man Is An Island experimented as a four-piece in their early days, before slimming down to a trio (with violinist Ben Coleman) for 1989’s boldly visceral EP Swagger. The band name soon lost a little fat, too, becoming simply No-Man. As a sumptuous new box set attests, they were impossible to pigeonhole. 

Housekeeping: The OLI Years 1990-1994 includes No-Man’s two studio albums for the One Little Indian label (now rebranded as One Little Independent), plus singles compilations, out-takes, alternative versions and BBC radio sessions. In it you’ll find everything from nascent trip-hop to classical textures, art-rock to dance music, ambient to industrial, electronica to sweeping prog. Recorded between the last knockings of acid house and the advent of Britpop, these tracks occupy a peculiar space in time.

For all their affiliations with post-rave culture, No-Man remained wilfully outside of it. You’d never catch Wilson or Bowness living it up in clubland. “God, no!” Wilson says, laughing at the thought. “We were the complete antithesis. The best analogy is Brian Wilson writing songs about surfing, when he’d never been near a surfboard in his life. We’d be inside with a cup of tea, listening to Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, rather than going out, taking ecstasy and dancing to some banging techno. That’s my idea of hell. We were nerds.”

“It’s a bit like No-Man transformed the sound of electro and rave, but from outside the club,” offers Bowness. “As if we were wandering past, heard an interesting sound, sampled it and did something with it back in our bedrooms. There was a sense of being detached from the culture itself. That’s what made us outsiders.”

This gave prospective employers a headache: how to classify the unclassifiable. No-Man bounced between labels pre-OLI, choosing to self-release 1990’s radical reworking of Donovan’s 60s hit Colours. Wilson and Bowness stripped back the original’s folk elements and gave it a spacey funk-hop makeover, complete with Coleman’s classical violin. The effect was remarkable. It proved to be a breakthrough moment.

“At that point, we’d been building up a live audience, playing at places like [London clubs] the Marquee and the Rock Garden,” Bowness explains. “But we just couldn’t get journalists or record company people there. It was really frustrating. I’d read an article about Happy Mondays saying that their next single was going to be a version of Donovan’s Colours. So over the weekend I went to Steven’s house in Hemel Hempstead and we recorded our own version.

We had a meeting about the video for Only Baby, and somebody tried to convince me that green was the colour of pop

Tim Bowness

“It was pure opportunism on our part, but we thought it was a great record. We pressed it up and sent out about five copies with an intentionally ridiculous cover note, making claims that we were the Jesus Christ to Jesus Jones’s David Icke. Luckily it reached the right people. We ended up with single of the week in Melody Maker and Sounds. Everyone was there at our next gig, Manchester Boardwalk: publishing companies, record companies, you name it.”

Colours was picked up by Probe Plus, but One Little Indian came calling soon afterwards. Lovesighs (1992) brought together various EP tracks and served as a handy No-Man primer, creating a buzz for their debut album proper. Loveblows & Lovecries – A Confession was duly released in May 1993.

Marketing No-Man was a whole other matter. Wilson and Bowness brought in Talk Talk manager Keith Aspden to oversee their affairs. “Keith was very, very direct,” Bowness recalls. “He said, ‘I see you two as the Pet Shop Boys with the potential of Pink Floyd.’ Steven and I never wanted to compromise, which made for some crazy conversations with the label.

“We had a meeting about the video for Only Baby, and somebody tried to convince me that green was the colour of pop. They tried to make us wear green costumes in the video. So Steven and I turned up at the shoot wearing all black, with our manager and the record company arguing in the background.”

Loveblows & Lovecries had been preceded by a UK tour in which the band swelled to a sextet, thanks to the inclusion of ex-Japan members Mick Karn (bass) Steve Jansen (drums) and Richard Barbieri (keyboards). All three subsequently appeared on one of the album’s key tracks, Sweetheart Raw. Despite its merit, though, and positive reviews, Loveblows didn’t sell.

One Little Indian slashed the budget for 1994 follow-up Flowermouth. No-Man used the money to build their own recording facility in Wilson’s parents’ house, in his old room. No longer having to watch the clock, and now down to a core duo, they strove to make exactly the kind of album they wanted. The pointer seemed to be the previous record’s ambitious mini-epic Painting Paradise.

It was like, ‘We’re not going to play until we can find the right venue to justify this music.’ It took 15 years to finally play that kind of venue

Tim Bowness

“It’s easy to hear that we liked progressive rock,” says Wilson. “That’s one of the things that separated us out from that era. We liked a lot of other stuff too, but we loved that kind of conceptual scale. And we loved being pretentious, in the best possible sense of the word. We loved tracks that would take you on a journey over 10 minutes. Painting Paradise is essentially a piece of dance pop, but it’s got the hallmark of conceptual progressive rock music, which we’d grown up listening to.”

Flowermouth magnified No-Man’s prog credentials. Drummer Jansen and keyboard player Barbieri returned for cameos (the latter having since joined Porcupine Tree), while fresh blood included fusion band Nucleus’s trumpeter Ian Carr and King Crimson royalty Robert Fripp and Mel Collins. All three newcomers stamp their presence on the heroic opening track, Angel Gets Caught In The Beauty Trap. Fripp, in particular, was a revelation.

“Musically it was fantastic,” Bowness remembers. “But it was also a very funny session, because I’d written these ‘Obvious Strategies’ that I’d given him for each of the tracks, sort of inverting the Oblique Strategies from Eno. We’d go: ‘Before you listen to it, we want a little bit of this...’ and we’d have a little photograph of Robert from 1973. Then I might say, ‘But we also wouldn’t mind a little bit of this...’ and it could be anything from Ken Dodd to Rick Wakeman with a cape. I think we cut the pictures out from magazines.

“It was very instinctive; he was spewing this music out effortlessly. On one track he said, ‘This is Fripp of the future, you’re using Fripp of the past,’” Bowness continues. “He played the solo, and we didn’t like it. He said, ‘You’re wrong.’ Steven said, ‘This is how wrong we are,’ and deleted it, jokingly, in front of him. It was a comic moment – there was no bad feeling.

“A decade later, Robert was supporting Porcupine Tree. Steven told me that the first thing he said was, ‘Ten years ago, I gave you the opportunity to use Fripp of the future and you used Fripp of the past. You were wrong then and you’re wrong now!’ I loved that he’d remembered that.”

Alas, No-Man appeared hopelessly at odds with the times too. Flowermouth sold better than its predecessors, but not enough to kickstart their commercial fortunes. Creatively they were unwilling to compromise their vision. The rich intricacies and lush detail of Flowermouth proved difficult to translate in the small venues they were used to, the result being that they simply stopped playing live.

There was something innovative in mixing dance beats with a very ambitious production and songwriting sensibility

Steven Wilson

“It was actually that same bloody-mindedness again,” reasons Bowness, chuckling at the sheer impudence of it. “It was like, ‘We’re not going to play until we can find the right venue to justify this music, with the right musicians.’ It took 15 years to finally play that kind of venue we wanted. That’s my understanding. Also, at that time Steven was doing a lot of gigs with Porcupine Tree, who were building up a large audience.”

The upshot was that No-Man and One Little Indian parted ways. The band would go on to enjoy several new chapters (the most recent being 2019’s Love You To Bits), while Wilson and Bowness have simultaneously carved out successful careers in their own right.

But No-Man is always on the agenda somewhere. In fact, Wilson is sure that, current commitments notwithstanding, he and Bowness will do something again in the near future. Bowness thinks “it’d be really nice just to go in with Steven and see what we come up with from nothing. Almost as it was when we first started writing together.”

This brings us neatly back to Housekeeping. Both men agree that the years documented in the box set map a vital part of their creative and musical development. Wilson admits that he couldn’t listen back to the stuff for a good 20 years (“I just couldn’t get past the very gauche, naïve production and all of that”) but now believes he and Bowness had something unique.

“There was something innovative and ahead of the curve in what we were doing at the time, mixing dance beats with a very ambitious production and songwriting sensibility,” he says.

“Whatever was happening at that time – grunge, Britpop – we never fitted in. But of course, as time goes on, that becomes a strength rather than a weakness. It’s what gives your music longevity.

“Whereas Northside might’ve been confined to the dustbin of history, I like to think people will still be interested in this No-Man box set 30 years after we made the music. I’m really very proud of it now.”

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.