by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2014 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
A reflective mindset has often been at the heart of Tim Bowness’ evocative work as a singer-songwriter and composer. His new album Abandoned Dancehall Dreams continues with that approach. It's partially based on his fascination with the deserted and repurposed remains of Britain’s grand social spaces of the 1920s-1960s. The dancehalls were bastions of live music and romance. They represented escapism from an ever-accelerating rate of socio-political change.
As Britain moved into the late-‘60s and ‘70s, the dancehalls died, leaving these cavernous, ornate venues to decay as haunted reminders of worlds long since past. For his new album, Bowness used the buildings as a way to relay his own social and musical evolution, growing up as a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The album also offers stories, scenes and situations inspired by the lives of people that were part of dancehall culture, including perspectives gleaned decades after their decline.
Bowness is best known as one half of No-Man, an avant-pop duo with Steven Wilson. Together, they’ve released more than a dozen albums that blend ambient, new music, rock, and dub into their adventurous sound. In fact, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams began its life as a No-Man album, but scheduling issues led to Wilson serving exclusively as the album’s mixer. The disc evolved into a Bowness solo album, with many other threads to the No-Man ecosystem remaining intact. The entire No-Man live band performs on the album, including Stephen Bennett, Michael Bearpark, Pete Morgan, Andrew Booker and Steve Bingham. Pat Mastelotto, Colin Edwin and Andrew Keeling also make significant contributions.
Abandoned Dancehall Dreams is among Bowness’ most diverse and mercurial efforts to date. It’s a deep, substantive statement that takes listeners on a journey through thunderous percussion, majestic strings and extroverted arrangements, and into flickering balladry and meditative, minimalist territory.
When not working on music, Bowness focuses on Burning Shed, the online music store and label he co-founded with Pete Morgan and Peter Chilvers in 2001. The organization gradually evolved over the years into one of the Web’s key hubs for progressive and eclectic music.
What inspired you to create a song cycle related to the idea of abandoned dancehalls?
The abandoned dancehall is more of a loose framing device than an overriding concept. As well as having a separate musical identity, I like each album I make to have a distinct atmosphere, and having a linking theme, mood or even image helps with that. I was always fascinated by the sight of grand buildings that had fallen into a state of disrepair, so the image of an abandoned dancehall and the lives that passed through it became something of a focal point for this album.
No-Man’s Together We’re Stranger dealt with loss in various ways and, again was driven by more of a linking emotional theme than an actual story. No-Man’s Schoolyard Ghosts was originally intended as a song cycle. I’d written a lot of songs about one particular character. The obvious starting point concerned how childhood experiences still negatively impacted the contemporary life of the adults the children became.
On Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, the songs are separate stories about very different people. The one thing the people have in common is that the dancehall had significance to them at some stage in their lives. It could have been where they made their living, where they escaped from everyday boredom, where they reluctantly went once with a partner, or perhaps what they dreamed of from a distance.
Dancehall imagery only features in one or two of the album’s lyrics. As a “concept,” this is closer to something like Scott Walker’s Till the Band Comes In, which revolves around the lives of people living in the same tenement block, than it is Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Tommy.
Do the lyrics apply as metaphors to modern life as well?
That’s difficult to say. If there’s a central metaphor on the album, I think it’s about how people deal with change. Life brings changes constantly—new technology, aging, death, fresh opportunities and so on—and we all deal with those things differently. Some people retreat from change, some people embrace it. Others ignore it and it slowly dawns on them.
To various degrees, the characters in the songs are either dealing directly with changes forced upon them, actively forcing a change in their circumstances, or are living in ways that are a result of how they’ve coped—or not coped—with changes in the past. For example, the Smiler character is in a state of inertia due to an inability to deal with the inevitable changes life brings.
It could be argued we’re living in a time of accelerated change, but dramatic shifts in the way in which we live have been ongoing for centuries. The rise and fall of dancehalls is a tiny part of that river of constant change, but it still has an emotional resonance, I think. It was only in retrospect that I realized that while I was writing the album, I was going through some big personal changes myself.
Every generation has its “dead spaces”—places that once served as a social focus that got displaced by the next trend. What are the future dead spaces of today?
There are plenty on the Internet. MySpace already seems like a digital graveyard and it’s possible that in years to come, Facebook and Twitter will become that as well. Some things such as Kellogg’s, Marmite and The Archers may be "future-proof," but a lot of things we take for granted have a finite lifespan. The Yo! Sushi restaurant chain may go the way of Wimpy, Douglas Coupland the way of Richard Brautigan, One Direction the way of Mud and so on.
To a certain degree, forums for online interaction serve as today’s social spaces. Imagine your 1970s teenage self peering into the future we exist in today. How would he react?
I think I’d have loved a lot of the modern world. As a teenage sci-fi fan, today’s technology would have made perfect sense to me. The likes of Skype are still behind where I think we could be in terms of instant global communication. Ditto touch-sensitive tablets. The increasingly rapid thirst for the new and the seeming lack of long-term vision in the arts would have bothered me then as now, though.
I started working in bands in 1982 when I was 18 and I was astonished at how slow and inefficient the recording process could be. As such, what exists today technologically suits my methods of working and thinking in a way that recording in the 1980s didn’t. The downside is the overwhelming number of options available now. Previously, you’d choose a vocal effect, guitar sound or keyboard patch and you were stuck with them. You’d work with what you had and those limitations could be inspiring in themselves. Now, many things are left to the last minute as the options for sounds are seemingly infinite.
Describe how the new album evolved out of a proposed No-Man effort.
The album started out exactly as Schoolyard Ghosts did. Due to his many commitments, Steven Wilson can’t dedicate as much time to projects like No-Man as he once could. With Schoolyard Ghosts, I wrote or co-wrote all the album’s starting points and brought them to Steven to mix, refine and add to. Creatively, the process worked and Steven got very involved and added more than either of us thought he would. We produced the album together and by the final session we wrote a new song, “Wherever There Is Light,” in the way that we used to when we first started the band.
As I did with Shoolyard Ghosts, I wrote and co-wrote material that I felt was right for No-Man. I was organizing band recording sessions with Steven’s permission and commissioning guest players. In the summer of 2013, I played the music in progress to Steven and he seemed to like what he heard. We both felt that the music was different from Schoolyard Ghosts while being as strong. A couple of weeks later, Steven said that he didn’t have the time to dedicate to a No-Man album, but that he would mix whatever I came up with. Inevitably, I was disappointed—I’d love No-Man to creatively continue and reach new audiences—but it also provided me with a great opportunity to put together a large-scale album with no interference.
In some respects, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams is my idea of what a No-Man album could or should be. In the end, Steven was very generous both with his mixing time and his opinions about the music. It could be argued that he did me a favor in forcing me to take control and make a solo album I was happy with.
What does the future hold for No-Man?
I’m in regular contact with Steven and we still intend to make a new No-Man album. I certainly feel that No-Man has life in it and that there are new things we can do with the band. I think Steven feels the same. Due to various commitments, there’s no concrete timeframe in mind, though.
You've been working on a No-Man “disco epic” on-and-off for nearly two decades. What’s its status?
It’s exactly two decades now and at this stage it’s bound to disappoint anyone who hears it. [laughs] We did some more work on the piece a couple of years ago and it was definitely getting better. We also wrote a downbeat variation and hatched a plan about a multi-song album-length version of the piece partly inspired by Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm.
I think what happens is that enthusiasm takes us to a certain stage with the project and then we start to question whether it’s any good or not. At that point, everything collapses. Jarrod Gosling from I Monster, Henry Fool and Regal Worm was given the files a year ago and came up with a nice version of the main body of the song. The truth is that it was something written between the releases of Loveblows & Lovecries and Flowermouth and it betrays its vintage. It has aspects of the electronic beats of Loveblows and elements of the scope of Flowermouth. Sometimes we like it, while at others, it seems a bit of a pointless rehash of our past.
Steven and I still discuss music and what interests us at any given time and we occasionally voice aloud the sort of thing we’d want a new No-Man album to be. That’s probably another reason why the disco epic flounders. Creating a beat-laden folly isn’t often high up on our list of things to do.
How does Abandoned Dancehall Dreams reflect your journey as a musician to date?
Three weird comparisons for how I feel about this album are Midlake’s Antiphon, Swans’ The Seer and Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail. All three albums are in keeping with—and something of a summation of—the bands' past efforts, yet are also confident new beginnings.
For me, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams is true to the spirit of the music I’ve made before and faithful to my interests and influences, but I hope that it also points to something fresh and has an element of surprise in it. I’ve said this many times before, but albums seem to have their own defining qualities, in that they often become what they become in spite of artist intervention.
My Hotel Year, my first solo album, was written during a stable time in my life and yet it has a monotone, depressive quality. Nothing I did brought any “color” to it. Conversely, Schoolyard Ghosts wasn’t a particularly enjoyable album to make and came at a difficult point in my life, yet despite that, it had an underlying sense of optimism about it. Abandoned Dancehall Dreams has always possessed a confidence and directness even though some of its subject matter is as bleak as some of that on My Hotel Year. Like any album, it's drawn from my previous experiences as a listener and a collaborator and like any album, it’s somehow defined by my emotional state at the time of making it. The main difference between this and anything solo I’ve done before is that I more boldly followed my instincts. I also had a large cast of talented musicians who helped me achieve what I wanted.
Describe how “The Warm-Up Man Forever” channels and extends the themes of No-Man’s Wild Opera album.
With the benefit of three decades of technology and life experience, musically “The Warm-Up Man Forever” contained aspects of the music that inspired me when I first started playing in bands. Although I hope I did something different with the source inspirations, I had things like Peter Gabriel’s third album, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, The Icicle Works and The Michael Nyman Band in mind when I was writing the piece.
No-Man's Wild Opera was a sketchbook of an album and some of the pieces on both it and its follow-up Dry Cleaning Ray were about victims of fame and victims of the pursuit of fame. “The Warm-Up Man Forever” is definitely in the vein of those songs. The demo was longer—both musically and lyrically—and perhaps funnier in a way that those albums were.
It’s got elements of people I've come across on the fringes of the music, literary and art worlds over the last couple of decades, as well as people I know. It’s about the sort of person who feels resentment that their talent—which may indeed be great—hasn’t been recognized by the world at large. Resentment can breed desperation and bitterness in some cases, while in others it can produce a fear of exposing work to the public that creates a cycle of self-belief colliding with self-defeatism.
Generally speaking, with the collapse of the conventional music industry and the social importance of pop and rock music being diminished, outside of the mainstream we’re seeing a lot more people making music for music’s sake. As such, the “warm-up man” is less prevalent than he was.
Tell me how “Songs of Distant Summers” relates to your own songwriting philosophy.
The song is about the overwhelming feelings you get as a musician when you experience intense moments of collective creativity firsthand. Put simply, it’s about why a lot of musicians do what they do. I guess a lot of us—fans and musicians—were deeply moved by music at points in our lives when we were open to being transformed. Many years later, we’re still paying the price for that ancient epiphany. [laughs]
Explore the journey “Waterfoot” captures and what made you want to pursue its topic matter.
This was the one song on the album not written with No-Man in mind. Originally, it was an Andrew Keeling song that I guested on. At the time, I rewrote a lot of his lyrics, which seemed to be set in the 19th Century or early part of the 20th, and some of his vocal melodies. I loved Andrew’s guitar playing and string arrangements and thought the song was good enough to reach a larger audience than it had done, so I went back to it a couple of years after its original release.
I changed the melody slightly again, but really ripped into the lyrics this time. As a hybrid, it didn’t sit entirely comfortably with me. Due to the co-written nature of the original lyric, the story seemed a little muddled and there were some historical inaccuracies in it, so I created a new story about a very young woman escaping the confines of factory life in Northwest England in 1900. Although it doesn’t show, I looked at period maps, read up about cotton mills and researched what sort of entertainment and escapism would have been around at the time. I see her as a prototype of the sort of person who would have reveled in the dancehall culture of the 1930s. It’s not my typical subject matter, but it was fun to do something a little different for me.
Why did you relegate the title track to the bonus disc in the deluxe edition?
That’s the only track I’ve released where I’m doing everything. I was fond of the lyric, but when the album was finished, it just seemed too musically raw and underdeveloped to work alongside the other songs which had become quite detailed in their production and lush in their sound.
The biggest headache in terms of sequencing was “The Sweetest Bitter Pill.” The song worked perfectly in terms of feel, lyric and arrangement. Andrew Keeling did a particularly nice string arrangement for it. But wherever I placed it, the song weakened the album by either messing with the pace or making the album overlong. For me, the overall album experience is always more important than putting individual songs in the mix just because you like them.
The title track also explores “decades nights,” which are all the rage at clubs worldwide. How do you feel about the music of the ‘80s being conferred with “oldies” status?
In some ways it always felt like it was going to happen. Certain aspects of the 1980s reflected the 1950s and early 1960s in its emphasis on fashion and hits, so there was an inevitability that the 1980s “chicken in a basket” cabaret circuit, which mainly consisted of old Mersey Beat bands where I was brought up, would evolve into '80s nights 20 to 30 years in the future. Like the 1950s, the 1980s were good times for innocent, optimistic pop music.
Also, musically and politically, the 1980s were a lot more diverse than people now give them credit for. Consider artists such as Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Durutti Column, Arvo Part, Eberhard Weber, Prefab Sprout, Public Enemy, Blue Nile, Billy Bragg, The Smiths, Japan, Thomas Dolby, Talk Talk, and XTC. It was also when albums such as Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi, Hopper/Gowen’s Two Rainbows Daily, John Cale's Music For a New Society, David Bowie's Scary Monsters, Scott Walker's Climate of Hunter, Swans’ Children of God, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, and Peter Hammill’s Sitting Targets were made. It was also a time of important labels such as ECM, EG Editions and the emerging 4AD. So, I can think of many reasons why the 1980s weren't as bad as they're often depicted.
It seemed a time when people were finding themselves in new places while frequently remaining true to their ideals. I think the 1980s got softer, more bloated and more commercial by the mid-to-late part of the decade. Some artists had a pretty lousy 1980s full stop, but it still seemed a period when artists were willing to experiment with technology and saw music as an evolving form rather than a pick and mix of the past. That said, I didn’t like the affectation and the superficial image-consciousness that thrived in the 1980s. Some of the unnatural airless productions and the very affected vocal styles mean that I can like but never love some quintessentially 1980s bands.
From a 2014 perspective, when you listen to mainstream 1980s mega-sellers like Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold, Peter Gabriel’s So, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Roxy Music’s Avalon, Steely Dan’s Gaucho, Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm, Genesis’ Abacab, or Fleetwood Mac's Tango in the Night, pitched against the likes of Justin Bieber, they sound mighty strange, honest and ambitious indeed.
None of the above is to say that there isn't interesting music now. I’ve bought many great and personal favorite albums over the last few years, but most have had a limited level of influence. There are artists still having big success with integrity—Elbow, Radiohead, Kanye West and so on—but I'd argue that due to the change in the industry and the influence of TV talent shows, that creative mainstream music is a rarer thing these days than it was from the mid-1960s to the early 2000s.
Several songs on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams explore the perspectives of a bandleader. What’s your philosophy as someone who solicits and integrates input from other musicians?
I think I fall into the benevolent dictator category in that I’m always working towards realizing personal musical goals, but I’m open to the input of others. Additionally, that input can sometimes shape where the music goes. I’m always comfortable getting others’ contributions. Input comes at differing points in different songs.
I suppose I’m very direct in that I ask for a specific approach from the contributing musician that fulfills my idea of what should be done and then I’ll happily allow them to give me their view of how they hear the piece. Generally speaking, what finds itself into the final mix is 80-90 percent what I’ve asked for and 10-20 percent the contributor’s spontaneous input.
I saw a documentary on film director David Lean in 1984 that showed how he used to put his actors in the right frame of mind by giving them absurd directions that managed to relax them, while also giving them a vague emotional pointer as to what he wanted. Alongside giving direct references, I use this technique as well. A typically stupid example might be me asking Michael Bearpark to play a guitar solo as if he’s a wild dog having a street fight with a conger eel. [laughs] Another example of it would be when I dressed up Mick Karn as Van Der Graaf Generator’s David Jackson during the making of Flame.
Your circle of musicians also includes some of your closest friends. Does this make it challenging to provide negative feedback when necessary?
For some reason, no. We’re all relatively honest with one another and if a contribution doesn’t work, no-one I work with would want it to be used, regardless of the closeness of the friendship. For instance, Steven Wilson and I are often brutally honest with each other. If anything, the friendships have worked in our favor. Due to various things, such as family life and work—we all see less of one another than we did, so when we do meet up we tend to enjoy it. We generally have a happy tour bus as we share a lot of the same values, but disagree on enough to make things interesting.
Michael Bearpark is a key contributor to both your solo work and No-Man. Describe his input into the new album and how his guitar approach influences your output.
I’ve worked with Michael since he was 16. I think he’s an incredibly underrated guitarist who ranks among the best I’ve worked with. He’s a good listener and he’s always willing to challenge himself. His influence on this album has been to enhance the expressive potential of the songs. The material and direction was established early on before his involvement, so he’s listened to what I wanted and given me that plus something extra. His playing on “The Warm-Up Man Forever,” “Dancing For You,” and “Smiler at 50” is possibly the best I’ve heard him do outside of No-Man’s Together We’re Stranger. In some ways, he’s playing the sort of wildcard role Robert Fripp played on David Bowie’s Heroes.
Provide some insight into Steven Wilson’s contributions to the new recording.
Steven’s contribution was to mix. Beyond that, he added a couple of instrumental bits, such as improving the drum machine beginning on “Dancing For You.” Like Michael, Steven listened to what I wanted and gave me that plus the benefit of his natural ability. There’s no doubt that his ear for a mix is a great one and that helped the pieces reach their potential. Outside of that, he was always willing to offer me his opinions about the material and sometimes that helped clarify my thinking about certain songs.
Outside of No-Man, we’ve both used one another as sounding boards. Steven played me some pieces in progress from each of his three solo albums to see what I thought regarding his direction.
Describe your current creative process.
That’s a big question and it varies greatly. The only thing that has happened differently over the last few years is that lyrically, I now tend to write far more than I need. I started writing something last week for example and I’ve already got four times as many words for the meter and melody than I need. I’ll probably add more before I start editing things down.
I guess I’m not as easily satisfied as I was when it comes to my own lyrics. When I look back at Loveblows & Lovecries, Flowermouth, Wild Opera, and Flame, though there are some lyrics I’m still pleased with, there are quite a few across the albums that strike me now as lazy or ill-defined. Lyrically, I go over and over the piece hearing what works both in terms of the song and the lyric. Ultimately, the song and the vocal melody are the most important things—there are great songs with terrible lyrics, but a great lyric can’t make a terrible song good—so I’ll ruthlessly edit until I feel some sense of satisfaction.
As for capturing ideas, I mainly use guitar, keyboard, manipulated samples or voice as a starting point. I mostly write lyrics to the meter of my melodies, though I sometimes use pre-existing lyrics as they can break the predictability of the process.
What tend to be the biggest challenges you face during this process?
Pleasing myself. The truth is, as it always was, some things seem right in an instant, such as “Wherever There Is Light,” “Smiler at 52,” “Back When You Were Beautiful,” “Dancing For You,” and “Things Change.” Others seemingly take an eternity to become what I want them to be, such as “Beaten By Love,” “The Warm-Up Man Forever,” “Lighthouse,” and “Angel Gets Caught in the Beauty Trap.”
After decades of making music, how do you avoid recycling ideas?
Sometimes recycling can be good. There are certain strands of my singing and writing that appear every so often and each time they re-appear they’re different. I see “Outside the Machine,” “Chelsea Cap,” “Criminal Caught in the Crime,” and “Dancing For You” as coming from the same inspirational source, yet I feel they’re not particularly alike. Ditto “Together We’re Stranger” and “Songs of Distant Summers.”
The same feel, chord and melodic preferences can be in a constant state of flux as I think we’re always in the process of changing in terms of both personal experiences and listening. As Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape suggests, we may hold on to core characteristics, but we’re also always in the process of becoming someone different.
The yardstick is always whether I feel moved or interested by what I’ve come up with. Sometimes things just seem flat and uninspired. Sometimes things seem overwritten and overworked. In both cases, those things remain unreleased.
How did the fact that you recorded your vocals in one go affect the outcome of the album?
I recorded everything at Phil Manzanera’s wonderful Gallery Studios. Stephen Bennett was with me as was Phil’s engineer, so I wasn’t alone in the way that I am when I record my home demos. The main benefit of recording everything in one go in one place was that there was a sense of momentum and focus that’s difficult to find at home. However cute, rampaging three-year-olds can be the enemy of sonic consistency.
Discuss the evolution of Burning Shed from its humble beginnings into the online retail behemoth it has become.
It’s been gradual, natural and very gratifying. A lot of what’s happened has been due to a good idea that encountered good luck and through word of mouth has grown logically. Although it’s changed beyond recognition in terms of its “backroom activity,” I think Burning Shed still works because the core values have remained the same as they ever were. One of the interesting things to see has been how industry people have viewed what we do. In the early days, even with the artists and connections we had, distributors and so on resolutely ignored us. Nowadays, we’re approached.
It’s grown from being a tiny corner of another company’s office into the whole of a large industrial unit with several offices, a meeting room and a large warehouse of its own. Outside of Pete Morgan and I, there are now six full-time and part-time staff involved. That said, nothing much has changed in terms of how we deal with music and musicians or how we acquire the music we sell. Burning Shed as a company is still driven by ideas, connections and personal tastes.
Burning Shed moves from strength to strength sales-wise, bucking all trends when it comes to people purchasing physical media. Why do you feel this is so?
I think it’s possibly because people know they’re helping the artists by buying from us. I think they also know that we care about doing a good job. Another factor may be that we’re fans in the same way that a lot of our customers are. We’ve created a business selling things that we’d like to buy.
What’s your perspective on the health of the physical media market?
I still think there’s life in the physical market. I listen to music mainly on my iPod or the computer and have done so since 2006. Despite that, I still regularly buy physical product and I still like to experience packaging. I still value artwork and the tactile nature of deluxe CDs and vinyl appeal to me in the way that computer representations of the same images don’t. Similarly, I’ve used Kindle since it started, but I still buy books.
From 2005 onwards, I’ve had ideas about how music can thrive in the digital age and appeal to collectors such as myself, but Burning Shed doesn’t have the IT staff, the server power or the big money to make these ideas reality. We’re doing well and we’re bucking industry trends, but there are limits to what we’re capable of.
The physical media market may be diminishing and probably will go the way of silent movies—and dancehalls—but it’s been a slow decay so far and I can see it continuing for a while yet. I may be wrong, but I hope I’m not.
Provide a glimpse into a day in the life of Tim Bowness.
Burning Shed takes up more of my time. The time involved in writing emails, writing site descriptions and researching and listening is considerable. My music and the business surrounding making my music is also ever present, so I rarely switch off. Partly that’s because I’m obsessive when it comes to writing or honing songs. I can take weeks or even months when working on track selection and sequencing, for example. Outside of that, family life dominates. For the last four years, I haven’t had much of a social life beyond attending events on behalf of Burning Shed.
Does your work with Burning Shed ever get in the way of creating music?
It has at certain times in the past. For a long time, it was a very hands-on three-man business. I got the artists and releases, wrote the site text and did customer service. Peter Chilvers did the IT and technical maintenance and Pete Morgan did everything else, including accounting, picking and packing, and office management. I’d join Pete on the picking and packing side when we had large pre-orders.
Luckily, the ongoing growth of the company has meant that since 2008, we’ve been able to employ other people. We now have really good, dedicated packaging and posting staff, as well as others doing the customer service, IT and keeping the books.
At this stage, I still get the artists and releases, and write the site text and increasingly large newsletters, while Pete controls the management of the office, distribution and manufacturing. Both jobs are still time-consuming, though.
Regardless, I’ve managed to write and release a fair amount of music and I think Burning Shed’s helped in that being more financially stable has meant that I’m even more precious and idealistic regarding my music. I was pretty bloody-minded before Burning Shed’s success and I’m more so now.
How do you look back at Burning Shed’s first official CD release California, Norfolk, your duo album with Peter Chilvers?
It’s still one of my favorite releases out of the albums I’ve been involved in making. It’s a bit like Together We’re Stranger in that it has a very particular and very consistent atmosphere, though it was much more basic in terms of the technology involved in making it. For both Peter and I, the experience of making California, Norfolk was a great learning process and unlike with, say, Flame or Loveblows & Lovecries, most of the lyrics still work for me. The recent double-CD reissue was a nicely comprehensive way of honoring a special time for both of us.
Talk about how Henry Fool, your prog-rock band, serves as a vehicle that allows you to indulge yourself in directions other situations would be unlikely to accommodate.
I’ve got fairly varied tastes, and I’m a big fan of several varieties of late-‘60s and early-‘70s underground music, including Krautrock, jazz-rock, progressive rock, cosmic soul, Canterbury scene, and minimalism. If push comes to shove, it’s the period’s singer-songwriters, including Joni Mitchell, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Tim Buckley, Neil Young, and Roy Harper that most appeal to me. Obvious classic releases by the likes of Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, David Bowie, The Beatles, Beach Boys, Roxy Music, King Crimson and Genesis are also important to me. As for albums, Herbie Hancock’s Sextant, Hatfield and the North’s self-titled debut, Henry Cow’s Leg End, Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveller, Soft Machine’s Seven and Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Satchidananda mean a lot to me as well.
I’ve never been interested in recreating particular eras with my music, but despite being a poor guitarist, I’ve always had a knack for coming up with odd jazz and prog-inspired rhythms and chord sequences. As well as providing an outlet for those influences, my hope was that Henry Fool could evoke the same sense of discovery that a lot of early-‘70s bands had. These bands were playing music that defined genres rather than playing genre music in itself and I wanted Henry Fool to be about accidental discovery and innocence in the way that they were. I think my technical limitations helped with that, though it meant we were always going to be more Can than Mahavishnu Orchestra.
How did Henry Fool’s last album Men Singing end up propelling forward in a deep jazz-rock direction?
It could have gone in many directions. Between making the first album and Men Singing, we’d had several jazzy and proggy jams, written several symphonic songs and a few “scripted” instrumentals. Stephen Bennett had also edited down a lot of improvised material into bite-sized and more coherent pieces that I helped him develop further.
Men Singing came into being when the proposed Henry Fool song album still seemed only 75 percent complete a good five years after starting it. I suggested we take the best of the edited improvisations and make an album out of them. Luckily, once we’d decided on this course, it came together quickly. Additions from Phil Manzanera, Steve Bingham and Jarrod Gosling improved what was there and I think the finished album was a good one. It was 100 percent right in itself. The Henry Fool song album has moved on one percent over the last year and a half, so it was definitely the right decision.
Define the mission of Slow Electric and reflect on the debut album.
Slow Electric was an effortless merger of two duos. UMA’s Robert Jurjendal and Aleksei Saks are very sensitive players and were a joy to work with. They helped the songs breathe more. Not detracting from the UMA input, ultimately, I saw what resulted as something of a fleshed out Bowness/Chilvers in terms of direction. Slow Electric represented a logical extension of California, Norfolk with a hint of atmospheric European jazz.
Slow Electric’s "Another Winter” is related to No-Man’s “Truenorth.” Tell me about its evolution within the Slow Electric universe.
For me, it was another example of where the song could have gone. I played my demo “Another Winter” to both Steven Wilson and Slow Electric. While “Truenorth” emerged out of one collaboration, an improvised textural stew developed from another.
Tell me about AndI Pupato’s contribution to the Slow Electric album.
Andi came via UMA. In turn, I recommended him to Colin Edwin, who used him on the Twinscapes album. I really liked Nik Bartsch’s Ronin’s fusion of minimalism, groove and jazz tonalities, so it was good to get to Andi, who was that band’s percussionist for many years. His contribution was primarily mixing. Coming from the background he had, his approach was ideal for Slow Electric and he enhanced what was already there. With the Slow Electric album, a lot of the finished release consisted of live recordings with studio vocal and percussion overdubs. Eighty percent of the final album was taken directly from a live performance in Estonia.
What did it mean for you to recently turn 50, both personally and professionally as a musician with a multi-decade career behind you?
Truthfully, although I’m aware of and interested in other artists’ highly-varied careers, I’d never considered my own until No-Man toured in 2008. When people came up to me with albums like Flowermouth, Henry Fool and California, Norfolk to autograph, I realized that I’d been at it a bloody long time and it seemed I’d had a career.
I still approach everything as if it’s the first thing I’ve ever done. My music’s always pursued in the present. If I ever repeat myself it’s because I’ve forgotten what I’ve done, not because I’m consciously re-creating anything.
I didn’t think hitting 50 would bother me, but it did a bit. I’ve blissfully ignored aspects of aging, but hitting that milestone made me all too aware of the limited time I have left. I’ve been aware of mortality and the fragility of life since I was very young, but realizing I really was 50 provided a focus for certain neuroses. It’s extremely mild, but as Antonia Fraser might say, “The Great Fear” lingers longer than it did a year ago. I think having a young child intensifies those fears.
Does spirituality inform your work?
In terms of music, for me, spirituality represents a certain suspended timeless state of grace that I hear in artists like Nick Drake, Arvo Part, Debussy, John and Alice Coltrane, John Tavener, Miles Davis, and Brian Eno. It’s a quality I’d like to aspire to and I hope that songs such as “Things I Want To Tell You” and “Songs of Distant Summers” have some of that spiritual quality I hear in others’ music.
To be honest, spirituality doesn’t inform my day-to-day life in any way. The only times I feel anything approaching “transcendence,” for want of a better word, are via music and art in the broad sense, and occasionally through personal relationships.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of anyone else’s beliefs or anyone else’s interests. It’s just meant as an honest reflection of my own lack of engagement with the spiritual life. In lots of ways, I’m naturally skeptical, so I’ve never felt a lack in my life as a result of this.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I’ve been writing on and off with Peter Chilvers for the last few years and we’ve built up a nice collection of songs that could form the basis of Slow Electric 2 or Bowness/Chilvers 2. We wrote about four songs in a fortnight in the summer of 2013 and at least one of those songs I’d rate as highly as any I’ve been involved in writing.
There are a lot of songs I’ve written with Stephen Bennett that should be released soon, plus a lot of my solo guitar and GarageBand pieces that may forever remain protected by lock and key. [laughs] Outside of that, there’s been talk of a project with Andrew Keeling and Steve Bingham, and doing more work with Jacob Holm-Lupo.
Photos by Charlotte Kinson