Chances are that if you have actually heard of Tim Bowness you are already a fan of this most prolific but not widely known singer/songwriter. If however you can’t put your finger on the name perhaps you have heard of No-Man, Henry Fool, Samuel Smiles, Centrozoon or Slow Electric (and if not you really should have)? As if this collection of prog infused projects was not enough Tim has also appeared, in various guises, alongside artists as diverse as Judy Dyble, David Torn, Roger Eno, Robert Fripp, Hugh Hopper, Peter Hammill… Suddenly keen to hear more about the man eh? We thought so too, and with a terrific new solo album, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, currently getting more than it's fair share of critical acclaim we penned a few questions which, as always, kicked off with asking whether or not the Bowness family background, and surrounding environs, was awash with music?
Tim Bowness: “A big no to both! I did find out after her death that my Mum had dabbled in theatrical productions and had dreams about being an actor, and my Grandmother (who lived next door) had been an accomplished Classical pianist. Despite that, music and the arts never figured highly in my household and my parents actively discouraged me from getting involved in bands. As for the area, the immediate surroundings - North Cheshire - were pretty dead in terms of venues and there was little to do except create entertainment yourself [but] Manchester and Liverpool were only twenty minutes away, so as a late teenager, I had access to a great deal more.”
Total Music: Did you play in any bands we may not have heard of in your formative years?
Tim Bowness: “A few, mainly in the Manchester and Liverpool areas. I’d have been aged between 18 and 23. My three main pre No-Man bands were Still (from Manchester), After - or sometimes Always - The Stranger (from Warrington) and Plenty (from Liverpool). Still had genuine musical scope and were quite original for the time I think. We were praised by the likes of Mark Radcliffe, but sadly it came to nothing. After The Stranger was more of a standard 1980s Indie Rock band in a Chameleons/Icicle Works/Smiths style. It had a grounding in King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator, so it wasn’t wholly straightforward. Plenty came out of mid 1980s influences of mine such as The Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout, Cocteau Twins and David Sylvian and in some ways heralded several of the approaches No-Man would take when it formed in 1987. ”
Total Music: You're clearly hugely prolific and have played with numerous different people over the years but chronologically how did your career unfold?
Tim Bowness: “In terms of career, it started (as it did for Steven Wilson) in No-Man in the late 1980s. By 1990, we’d received some very good press and radio play in the UK and we got signed to a big label, a big publishing company and became professional musicians (at a time when that was possible!). Bizarrely, because we used beats/grooves in our music, we were originally signed as an artier variation of the then currently fashionable Madchester scene. Our manager at the time also managed Talk Talk (a band Steven and I loved), and he saw us as something of a bridge between the Pop of Prefab Sprout and the album orientated nature of Pink Floyd.
With No-Man, I managed to work with many people I’d admired growing up (such as Robert Fripp, Ian Carr, Mel Collins and Jansen Barbieri and Karn from Japan) and that led to further connections and collaborations.”
Total Music: You're a central part of the collective that feeds into Henry Fool/No-Man/Porcupine Tree and more, how did that happen?
Tim Bowness: “I worked with Steven Wilson in No-Man prior to the formation of Porcupine Tree. Colin Edwin, Richard Barbieri and Chris Maitland had worked with No-Man before being in Porcupine Tree. Beyond that, I’d worked with Gavin Harrison (through Richard Barbieri), and Michael Bearpark (No-Man, Henry Fool etc) has worked with me since the days of After The Stranger etc. etc. A tangled, connected web!””
Total Music: When you are writing what are the parameters that would make something into Henry Fool material rather than No-Man - or indeed Slow Electric (Centrozoon and and Darkroom's studio improvisational approach having obvious stylistic differences)?
Tim Bowness: “Unlike everything else I do, Henry Fool was conceived as an outlet for a particular type of music, so although it’s pretty ‘out there’ in places, it’s the only band with defined parameters. Elsewhere, the songs I write are up for grabs as they could work (with arrangement variations) in No-Man, or . Obviously, if I’m writing lyrics to other people’s music, that has a character of its own unique to the collaboration, so is mostly different from my solo work or No-Man. That said, some pieces I’ve co-written with Stephen Bennett (from Henry Fool) work well within both solo and No-Man.”
Total Music: Abandoned Dancehall Dreams being only your second solo album, in a decade - and a very long career - do you feel there is possibly a public perception that you have become a perennial sideman and is the track ‘A Warm Up Man Forever’ a nod to this?
Tim Bowness: “I was aware that people might see [that song] as autobiographical and there was something of an in-joke in me naming the song that. The lyric has nothing to do with me, though. I’d hope that the scope of my work overall and the relative success of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams will have dispensed with ideas that I was just a Steven Wilson sidekick.”
Total Music: Is it true that Abandoned Dancehall Dreams was originally intended to be a No-Man album rather than a solo album?
Tim Bowness: “Yes, it is true. The thing that changed was that soon after we’d agreed on a list of songs (that I’d written or co-written) Steven said that he didn’t have the time to dedicate to a full-blown No-Man album. He generously offered to mix whatever I came up with and in the end I think he did me a favour in terms of forcing me to complete a large-scale project that I was happy with. I produced Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and wrote more music for it than for any album I’ve released before, so it is the most truly solo work I’ve been involved in making.”
Total Music: Tell us about Andrew Keeling’s contributions and what he brought to the project?
Tim Bowness: “A touch of class. I sang on a song for Andrew a couple of years back and loved his string arrangements. Since then, I was looking for an excuse to work with him. I had a strong idea of what I wanted him to contribute to the album. In all cases, he did a wonderful job of achieving what I wanted and adding his own personal touches. He gave the album a greater scope, I think. We’ll definitely be doing more work together.”
Total Music: You have been getting some very good reviews and responses to the material on this album what is it do you think that you tapped into this time around that has connected with so many peopler?
Tim Bowness: “I think part of it is that the album’s shown what my contributions to No-Man have been in the past, so it’s given a greater understanding of what’s gone before. I love grander statements and big productions as much as I do intimate ones [but] I also like Rock music. Outside of No-Man, my work has mostly been of a more stripped-down, delicate or experimental nature [and] perhaps Abandoned Dancehall Dreams showed I could create an album as cinematic, direct and Rock influenced as No-Man? Overall, I think that although it was still mostly melancholy, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had a certain boldness and confidence that’s not been a feature of much of my work outside No-Man. I obsessed over album structure and arrangements and the album was a great learning experience for me, so it was genuinely gratifying to have such a positive and kind set of responses.”
Tim Bowness' new CD Abandoned Dancehall Dreams is out now on Century Media and you can find more info about this and other related news on the website
the PDF version to read this interview in full