Neither Tim Bowness nor Steven Wilson need an introduction among prog fans – and in 2015, Bowness told Prog how important their No-Man project had been to achieving that recognition. At the time Bowness had just released solo album Stupid Things That Mean The World and it seemed as if No-Man was in the past. But the duo later broke an 11-year silence with 2019’s Love You To Bits.
There’s always been a touch of the artistic maverick about Tim Bowness. Back in the early 90s, alongside Steven Wilson in No‑Man, their record label were expecting a suitably pop-infused second album that they hoped would turn the band into a lucrative commercial act.
Unbeknown to them, the album advance had been spent on upgrading the duo’s studio to enable the pair to create a vivid, inventive record in Flowermouth that appealed to No-Man’s adventurous sense of integrity. On hearing the album and realising their planned vision of chart dominance had evaporated, there were repercussions for the act, as Bowness recalls.
“They obviously thought it was going to be a big pop statement, with us consolidating the first album,” he says. “So they were less than pleased to be confronted by a 10-minute track, that had absolutely no rhythm whatsoever, with Robert Fripp on it. They pulled the budget and released the album with no enthusiasm. So from there onwards, it was a real statement of artistic intent that if we were going to go down, it would be on our own terms. For both Steven and I, that was the beginning of us having a genuine audience.”
Two decades later, and with Wilson engrossed in advancing his flourishing solo career away from both No-Man and Porcupine Tree, a proposed No-Man album was attentively remodelled into the 2014 Bowness solo record Abandoned Dancehall Dreams. That wasn’t merely a swift exercise in rebranding. The freedom away from the band environment enabled Bowness to mutate the material, away from what he knew would negotiate its way through the band filter and into songs that more represented his own musical leanings.
“As with any kind of band, there’s always an element of compromise or certain ideas not getting through,” he reasons. “In No-Man, I think there was always less of a rock influence, partly because Steven was doing that with Porcupine Tree, where he had a more than adequate band to make a noise with. We tended to concentrate on the more discreet atmospheric areas of our tastes, and with Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, I introduced slightly more of a rock element and a broadly melodic balance as well. Had it been a No-Man album, it would have been more atmospheric. That then created an identity I was excited by, and I was just incredibly keen to see where I go. So that in itself defined a solo identity which I hope I took even further with the new album.”
That new album is the engaging Stupid Things That Mean The World, which further anchors Bowness’ repute and is as consistent, admirably audacious and engrossing as its predecessor. His determination to continue to establish a firm solo identity has been achieved, but he admits that there was a certain amount of unavoidable pressure. The sheer quality of the songs on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams ensured that there were now fans waiting with lofty expectations of his music.
“I really don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think people were surprised at how good and coherent that album was,” he says, justifiably. “Perhaps it made them aware of the input I had on No-Man’s music. Suddenly, there are those expectations as people liked Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and that’s given me momentum for my own solo work. In No-Man, when you’ve got a guitarist and co-writer like Steven, you don’t really need to add much musical input. With this, it has been exciting to be able to unleash my compositions. Also, when I write, it’s still an act of discovery because I still don’t consider myself to be much of a musician. I can write on guitar and keyboard, but it’s always a bit of a surprise what comes out, and the results on songs such as Press Reset and Know That You Were Loved went past my expectations.”
The bulk of No-Man’s live band appear on the album, along with Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin, and the writing has been split between solo Bowness compositions and more collaborative sessions. There’s also an intriguing partnership with Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, entitled Where You’ve Always Been. Originally appearing on a Manzanera poetry album, Bowness had been drawn to the music and, after obtaining the master tape, altered both the lyrics and sound to ensure it matched the timbre of the album. Everything You’re Not and Everything But You were also joint creations with Peter Hammill, which was especially gratifying for Bowness given that he’s been an ardent fan for a number of decades.
“Since I was about 15, Peter has been very big in my life, and having a classic northern miserabilist upbringing, his album Over was a Desert Island Disc for me,” he says. “It was particularly special working with Peter because he was the major influence on me when I first started getting passionately into music. Everything But You was written almost as a homage to some of his more absurd, time-signature freak-outs with Van der Graaf Generator. Luckily, Peter was very game, so we recorded the skeleton of that in his studio as well. And once more, he was fantastic as I was doing some fairly peculiar backing vocals and it was great for him to be there, encouraging me along.”
Lyrically, Bowness has always possessed an eloquent prowess, with his tales being known for a melancholic nostalgia that rarely becomes excessively maudlin. It’s something that has permeated his work throughout his career and is, as he explains, a theme he has always been drawn to.
“It’s a natural inclination and something I often think about,” he muses. “To a certain extent, I think there’s nothing worse than forcing meanings on your work. Of course it’s interesting to challenge yourself, but going against your natural inclination in a radical way would seem false. So a lot of it is instinct and tied in with aspects of my life. Obviously I hope that on occasions it’s not entirely hopeless, that there’s an optimism, beauty and purpose, but yes, it’s a natural inclination, perhaps based on my experience to a degree.”
Thematically, this album delves, as Bowness puts it, into the things “small or large, that we cling to in order to give our life meaning and hope”. It’s a loose, unifying but not overpowering concept, and it explores a variety of areas, such as relationships, loved toys and music itself.
“Music has been something I’ve been obsessed with since I was a teenager and, stupidly, it means as much to me now as it did when I started out at 17,” he reflects. “I still listen to music avidly and make music enthusiastically. A couple of the songs relate specifically to musical obsession and how this can be something that makes life worth living as well. So generally speaking, the themes are things that help us carry on in our day-to-day, whether that is our day-to-day beliefs or holidays or whatever.”
The most unsettling track is Know That You Were Loved, which deals with the final moments of a life. Bowness handles the sombre subject matter with a reserved dignity and it somehow maintains an unexpected optimism. Yet the inspiration behind the lyric was particularly harrowing.
“When I was younger, making music but trying to make a living out of music, I did a lot of work with the elderly,” says Bowness without a hint of what is to come. “One of my weirder jobs was having to wait beside people as they were dying because they didn’t have family. So I would have to hold peoples’ hands, give them orange juice and hear the death rattles. It was quite an extraordinary experience, so it’s really the passing thoughts of someone as they are fading out.”
Keen to ensure that the album maintained both a musical and lyrical consistency, Bowness also trawled through his vast archive of career recordings to locate fitting material. This included a No-Man track dating from around 1995 that has been retitled Sing To Me, as well as a song originally that was recorded in the late 80s with his then-band Plenty, called All These Escapes.
“I have a ridiculously large archive, which I call ‘the cupboard of doom’,” he laughs. “In fact, I’d probably say I’ve got around ten albums of unreleased songs in the archive. The material with Plenty was consistently strong, but part of the problem is that they were recorded around 1987, so you’ve got constipated vocals that sound like Wayne Hussey with a hernia. The original version had the core of a very strong song botched very badly.
“Steven also sent me a file containing unreleased No-Man pieces from the mid-90s and Sing To Me was on there. It perfectly fitted the mood of the album so I’ve rewritten the lyrics and added a couple of musical sections. I honestly couldn’t believe that we had forgotten about it and hadn’t developed it further…”