Tim Bowness is a musician possibly better known for highlighting the wonderful music of others through being an integral part of Burning Shed, the online music store specialising in the many wide and varied sides of Progressive music. However as half of the duo no-man alongside Steven Wilson and part of the Jazz-Prog-Rock masters Henry Fool, Bowness has also been part of some wonderful and varied music of his own which captivates the spirit as his lyrics invigorate the mind. Abandoned Dancehall Dreams is his second solo album, arriving a decade after his first, My Hotel Year, and it doesn't disappoint. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid asks Tim all about his abandoned dreams and dancehall memories…
Hi Tim and thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
The music world is once more awash with concept albums. However to call 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams' a concept piece would do it a disservice. How best would you describe it?
It's not conceptual in any grand sense. I just used the abandoned dancehall as a linking theme, or an image that provided an atmosphere that could inspire the songs. As such, it's a loose inspirational framework, rather than a defining story. I like each album I make to have a quality that's distinct from every other album I've made and having a specific starting point helps. Jarrod Gosling's evocative artwork really enhances the mood I was working towards, I think.
The theme of the album comments on the passing of time, the changes we all face and whether we choose to embrace, ignore or rail against them. What was it about the cavernous dancehalls that inspired you to build this theme around them?
Like people, dancehalls themselves were subject to changes in taste and fashion. They either moved with the times, evolving into something entirely different, or they became ghost buildings that were a poignant reminder of better times.
The album certainly nods to "days gone by". However there's also a link to now - in fact any time - with the human aging process the main player. You've chosen to approach the subjects explored from a variety of viewpoints, rather than "force" an opinion on the listener. How important was this approach to the album?
It's important in that I think it shows that everyone has a different approach to dealing with change and ageing. Most of my characters fail to cope with the circumstances that life's thrown at them and wallow in real or imagined pasts, but some - the character in "Waterfoot", for example - have positively forced change upon their lives and are looking toward a future.
For me I also found it quite easy to draw direct links with the album's theme and the evolution of the music business today. There's a mix of people still buying and yearning for vinyl, some dedicated to the CD and other eschewing physical product and music ownership for streaming and online use. In this sense I see myself as someone who "yearns for the old days of the dancehall". Obviously you're involved with the music business in a variety of ways on a day to day basis; do you think that's a fair comparison?
I think that's a really interesting observation and it's something that I do think about, so it could have bled in the lyrics or my overall way of thinking. Ever since I got an iPod in 2005, it's been my main means of listening to music, but I still regularly buy physical product. I love the tactile nature of special edition CDs and vinyl, and to me there's something more engaging and absorbing about 'the item' than 'the stream' or the computer image. Packaging is still important to me as far as the overall impact of an album is concerned and, as yet, I don't think the digital world has found a way of appealing to collectors. Elaborate album apps are probably the way forward, but bandwidth, memory and development time/costs are prohibitive at the moment. I think that the digital age offers benefits in the sheer volume of what you can access and the ease of accessing it, but I miss the rituals of the pre-digital 'physical age', and I miss how special it was to share musical discoveries with friends in a slower, more passionate and concentrated way. Things aren't as hard fought for as they were and due to the volume of what's out there – and the busy nature of most people's day to day lives – as a whole, I don't think we spend as much time getting to grips with music, or books, as we used to. There's a more rapid turnover, which can lead to an attention deficit.
Can you give us a bit of detail about some of the people we meet on the album please, such as Smiler?
Smiler, like a lot of the characters on the album, is a mixture of fact and fiction. She's an amalgam of people I know/knew and pure speculation. The name is a nickname my Dad gave to a girl he used to see when he went walking the dog. The real Smiler was a vivacious, happy-go-lucky 11 year old. The fictional one is an exceptionally sad and nostalgic 52 year old! The one song that's written from personal experience is "Songs Of Distant Summers". It's intended to capture the overwhelming feeling of creating music with others and in some ways it evokes the spirit of bands I was in when I was in my teens and everything seemed possible. "Waterfoot" is specifically set in 1900 and the character is on the verge of escaping a restrictive life in the cotton mills and moving on to something different and hopefully better.
So where do you fall in the scheme of the album's characters? Are you a person yearning for days gone by, or a forward thinking innovator willing to leave the past behind and always looking to embrace the next batch of changing times life throws at you?
I think I'm both of those things. I sometimes think that outside of being observations of things I see and in some cases people I know, my lyrics are a means of exorcising some of my fears. I have a pretty good memory and an awareness of history, both personal and general, so the past is of genuine interest to me. That said, I approach everything I do as if it's the first thing I've done and I have no problems engaging with the world and technology around me. I don't feel displaced in the modern world and I'm still fascinated by the changing culture, but there's a part of me that pines for a lost innocence and a probably non-existent time when things were more vital. When I first got into music, books and film, I was very drawn to several 'golden eras' from the past, but even if it slightly meant less to me or didn't excite me as much, I was equally aware of what was going on at the time. The world moves on without us and I definitely have a fear of being trapped in an unhappy state or being left behind. Regardless, I already am a relic of another era, of course.
For me there's always a mix of beauty and melancholy in your music and I find that constant contradiction to be hugely engaging. Is that a balance you are aware of when you are creating your music and lyrics?
I suppose I've been drawn to extremes for as long as I can remember. I really like the collision of beauty and violence that you get in films like Blue Velvet and Irreversible, and in the music of King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, Scott Walker and The Velvet Underground, for example. Similarly, the poignant juxtaposition of dreams and reality is something that interests me. Disaster or joyful surprise can appear at any time, so states of being – both positive and negative – are always temporary. I guess that these preoccupations naturally find themselves in the music.
I believe this album began life with the intentions of it becoming a no-man album. What were the reasons that it evolved into your second solo album?
Steven didn't feel he had the time available to commit to a full-blown no-man album. He's very busy with his solo work at the moment and establishing his solo career and he felt that he couldn't offer what was required to make this a truly collaborative project.
However Steven Wilson did still mix the album. Did he have any other creative influence in the creative process?
Beyond giving me some useful feedback on the material, not really. His musical contributions consist of one additional guitar part and improving the drum machine at the beginning of another song. That said, he was very generous with his mixing time and did a typically great job, I think. I had very strong ideas regarding sound and structure, and luckily in Steven, I had a mixer who could help me achieve what I was looking for.
And the album features all of the talents of the no-man band. You must be delighted to be able to rely on such talented individuals to bring your ideas to fruition?
Very much so. We've ended up with a good circle of musicians both in terms of ability and personality and it's a far cry from the days when we all started and were making music with people just because they had the right equipment!
As if that wasn't enough, you also have guest contributions from Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson), Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree) Anna Phoebe (Trans-Siberian Orchestra/Jethro Tull/Roxy Music) and Steve Bingham (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra). What contributions did these amazingly talented people make to the album?
Having access to such good players is a privilege and they all gave me what I was looking for plus some extra flair. Anna's playing is wonderful and she sounded scarily like no-man's ex violinist Ben Coleman in places. Pat is a powerhouse drummer who gives a special energy to everything he does, and Colin is a really versatile bassist. He can play Rock brilliantly of course, but he's also a very capable fretless and double bass player with a love of the likes of John Giblin, Mick Karn and Eberhard Weber.
However I think one of the most defining contributions to the album comes from the string arrangements of classical composer Andrew Keeling. What, in your opinion, does he bring to the album?
An extra touch of class. I guested on an Andrew Keeling song a couple of years ago and I was particularly impressed by his string quartet arrangements. Since that point, I was looking for an opportunity to work with Andrew again and this provided it. Andrew worked from a set of instructions I gave him, but added something special and distinctly him to quite a few of the pieces, I think.
I haven't been lucky enough to hear your debut solo album, 'My Hotel Year'. With a ten year gap between that and 'ADD'. Are there still direct musical and lyrical links between the two, or has the evolution in your approach changed quite drastically in between times?
They're very, very different albums musically. 'My Hotel Year' has a stripped-down production and a harder sound. It was consciously reacting against the lushness of the no-man albums I was involved in around the same time - 'Returning Jesus' and 'Together We're Stranger'. By contrast, 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams' has a much richer and more cinematic sound. I think there has been an evolution, in that I don't think I could have made 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams' 10 years ago. The only similarities come in some of the lyrical preoccupations. They're both miserable!
With how constantly busy Steven Wilson is these days, do you still see a future for no-man?
I do. We're in regular contact and we still talk about doing another album together, so it's not all over yet… I hope!
And there's still talk of the no-man "disco epic", do you think this will ever see the light of day?
I'd like to think so. I'd love it to appear as we intended – an album-length investigation of the themes – but finding the time and the will to make it as good as we'd like it to be may be difficult. It's pitched somewhere between the dance-orientated Pop of 'Loveblows & Lovecries' and the more epic nature of 'Flowermouth' and it has some merits, I think. As late as two or three years ago, we wrote a six minute 'downbeat' variation on the main song, so it may appear at some point before the world ends!
Talking of no-man, there feels like there's a lyrical link between the song "The Warm Up Man Forever" on 'ADD' and no-man's 'Wild Opera' album and 'Dry Cleaning Ray' EP - a kind of comment on the desire for the "cult of personality, or celebrity". Is this a topic which holds your imagination?
It certainly has done. It may sound odd, but I got into music for two reasons. One was because I was a huge music fan who had been moved and thrilled by things I'd heard. The second was because I felt I could express myself through music in a personal way. Both of those reasons boil down to wanting to create music that I love that moves other people in the way that music moved me. I was never bothered about image and I was never bothered about creating music as a way of making money. Additionally, fame for its own sake wasn't a motivating factor for me. Inevitably, I did come across people who were desperate for exposure, often without a purpose beyond wanting exposure and success per se. In one of the first studios I ever went in, the engineer proudly told me he was only making music because one day he wanted to pour top class champagne on his cornflakes! As an attitude it left me cold then as it does now, but when I'd see the wild, despairing 'look at me' eyes of singers in bands on late night television, it always got me questioning whether a) I came across like that, and b) how much of them was in me. Generally, as I sometimes perform like I wish I wasn't on stage, I'm suspecting not much! If there's a distinction, I suppose it's that I want recognition for my work rather than myself. One of my misgivings about releasing a solo album was because I prefer hiding behind band identities.
The CD edition of the album comes with a second disc featuring outtakes and exclusive mixes. Can you give us a bit of detail of what people can expect to hear on this disc please?
There are three mixes. One from Grasscut - a Brighton based duo I like a lot - and two from old collaborators Richard Barbieri and UXB, plus some outtakes and band works in progress. The mixes offer atmospheric, alternative approaches to the material, while the band versions show how a couple of the songs sounded in their earlier incarnations. The two outtakes were taken off the album more for reasons of sequencing or because they somehow unbalanced the album sonically. Album structure is something very important to me and something I take a long time over, so liking an individual song isn't enough of a reason to put it on an album.
So what can we expect next from you? More Henry Fool, some Memories Of Machines, more solo activity, or something completely different?
I've been thinking of doing a project with Andrew Keeling and Steve Bingham, and I have quite a few songs in progress with the likes of Stephen Bennett, Peter Chilvers and Jacob-Holm Lupo. I'd very much like to follow 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams' up relatively quickly though. I think the album has a sound and an approach that I'd be really excited to take further. I'll be playing a few dates in support of the album, so it'll be interesting to see what the live band does with the material. Usually, we do anything but replicate the album versions!
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