Stories in the Dark: An Interview with Tim Bowness
Marking the end of summer, August 28th 2020 saw LP Late Night Laments released by polished performer Tim Bowness. It all started with a track called One Last Call, wrote and recorded it in the early hours of the morning after he had finished re-reading John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. “It was a song that emerged fully formed, and it very much dictated the direction of Late Night Laments. After the eclecticism of my last solo album Flowers At The Scene and the big beat nature of No-Man’s 2019 album Love You to Bits, I wanted to make something that operated in an extremely focused sonic and emotional territory,” He discloses as we take a glance back at his compelling musical past.
Travel to the North West of England in 1980, and you will have found Tim fulfilling the arduous task of being signed in the early 1990s to One Little Indian Records, who were famed for Bjork, The Shamen, and Skunk Anansie. Our adept soloist considers how the industry has noticeably changed over the years, and unfortunately, this isn’t always for the better, “Maybe it’s as it should be, but if I were to start now, I’m not sure I’d know what to do. It was exceptionally difficult in the 1980s and 1990s when a tiny number of aspiring musicians ever made it to releasing something properly or getting signed, but it’s even more difficult now.”
In the beginning, even before he was signed, he earned local support from Manchester Evening News, Warrington Guardian, BBC Manchester and Piccadilly Radio. “Though we exist in an era of multiple 24-hour stations and online media that opportunity to get exposure doesn’t exist anymore.” As Bowness grew musically, his sound accepted a natural evolvement and, through confidence, he found an ability to always push for that desired result. He discloses “I’ve got harder to please and I hope my approach is more refined and less affected than it was when I started. In some ways, my editing skills have developed, so perhaps I know what better to leave out than I previously did.”
Tim has never tired of creating and listening to music, with the same promising feelings he discovered as a teen when it acted as a vital emotional lifeline. He continues, “There are artists I’ve admired for almost as long as I’ve been listening to music (David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Beatles, John Barry), artists I’ve discovered along the way: Miles Davis, Massive Attack, Steve Reich, Talking Heads, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Blue Nile, Red House Painters, and new-ish artists: Thundercat, Cate le Bon, Nadine Shah, Devon Welsh/Majical Cloudz that I find inspiring.
Neoteric album Late Night Laments was complete on the day the UK lockdown began, which turned out as stellar timing in a strange way as Tim explains not much could be settled from that point onwards, partly due to the home-schooling of his 9-year-old child. “At the time, I was genuinely worried that it seemed irrelevant in the face of the virus, and I was expecting the release to be delayed. Between the commencement of lockdown and the eventual release, I was surprised that a lot of the themes the album touches on (hate crime, intergenerational warfare, the polarisation of political views, othering etc) came sharply into public focus.”
He imagined the album as a late-night headphone listening experience and believed it represented someone (locked in a small world of favoured 'comfy chairs', records, films and books) lost in a beautiful sensation while hearing the sound of the news murmuring away in the background. “In the era of 24-hour news channels and social media, it’s harder than ever to escape the march of history and a lot of current themes found their way into the songs.”
“I’ve always been a news junkie, and I think the times have become increasingly febrile (Brexit, Covid-19 and the encouragement of confirmation bias in social media haven’t helped). Usually, these things bypass my lyrics, but I suspect the combination of living through such a difficult time and having a young child that I worry about meant they figured more prominently in my mind than usual.” He adds.
There is a need in the way that the inventor works to host a creative sounding board when he devises albums and that sounding board role often strays into co-production. “No-Man - with Steven Wilson - has always been a collaborative venture, and I’ve co-produced my most recent albums with Brian Hulse (who was in my pre-No-Man band from Liverpool called Plenty). Ultimately, the final decisions lie with me, and I select people who I think would be good for the material I’m writing or for the overall idea for a particular album.”
Pondering a genre, Tim attempts to describe and categories the album sonically: “Music for sad sacks! I’ve no idea how to describe what I do, to be honest. Over the years, I’ve absorbed elements of singer-songwriter, Ambient/Electronica, Indie, Progressive/Art Rock, MOR crooner, Jazz, and Minimalist Classical music and I guess I’ve processed that through my own creative instincts and emotional filter.”
Single Northern Rain has an understated power and force behind it, and he acknowledges that it is derived from a personal place in some ways. It covers the heat wrenching subject of a person seeing their partner descend into the fog of dementia, reflecting on their happy life together and coming to terms with their eventual demise.” I’m more of a ‘rage against the dying of the light’ person, but this is a song of blissful acceptance; a song about coming to terms with ever-shifting change and being replaced.”
“It was partly influenced by the difficult experiences that my Dad and Step-Mum have been going through over the last few years, and there was definitely an echo of their lockdown experiences in some of the lines. They haven’t left the house since early March, and they’re in the Greater Manchester area so haven’t been able to see friends or family for most of the last seven months. My Dad has severe Parkinson’s and my Step-Mum has dementia - which has deteriorated massively during the pandemic - so it’s not an ideal situation. The song was finding the optimistic angle in a pitiful scenario.
Coming onto the video, it bears a Minecraft video game quality, where constructed worlds stand, but only in cube type shapes at a simpler, less complicated time. Bowness discusses its intention: “I know what you mean! It does have that evolving video game look and approach (as does Peter’s video for I’m Better Now from Late Night Laments). I wanted the video to represent ideas of perpetual change and rebirth in order to tangentially capture the meaning of the lyric, and Peter worked from that description and the lyrics. Peter’s primarily a musician, but I think he’s developed quite a distinctive vocabulary as a video maker. He’s done a series of videos for Brian Eno recently."
We close with Tim sharing that he did intend to complete a few Arts Centre dates with a radically different line-up. “The album features a lot of double bass and vibraphone, so I was looking to put together an unusual combination of acoustic and electronic players that could do something interesting with the album’s atmospheric material (synth, violin, electronic drums, vibraphone, double bass etc).”
As it stands, there’s a possibility of doing a handful of filmed live performances in studio environments. He ends, “Musically, my hopes are as they always were, that I continue to feel excited by creating and listening to music and that I end up somewhere fresh with each release.”
‘As for the World as a whole, where do I begin?”
Article by Beverley Knight