Name: Tim Bowness
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Bands & Projects: No Man
Current Release: Lost In The Ghost Light on Inside Out Music
If you enjoyed this interview with Tim Bowness, you can find more information and recent updates on his solo website. No man, his project with Steven Wilson, also has an insightful website.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
In April 1982 when I was 18. My starting singing accidently coincided with the start of the Falklands War!
I’d wanted to make music for years while at school, but didn’t know any musicians. My first band comprised a fairly random collection of friends with wildly different musical tastes – the drummer wanted to be in Weather Report, the bassist idolised Motorhead, the guitarist was almost solely inspired by Rush and the keyboardist was a Stranglers obsessive. They were all nice people but, unsurprisingly, the result was an amateurish mess!
Within a year of starting out, I’d joined a band in Manchester called Still, which included a keyboard player very familiar with contemporary electronic music and a guitarist as versed in Classical, Jazz and Folk as he was in Rock. Our demos were played by well-known local DJs such as Mark Radcliffe and Roger Eagle, and I think the band’s cinematic approach paved the way for No-Man. In fact, the guitarist was in No-Man for a while prior to the band getting signed by One Little Indian. He left to pursue his interests in pure acoustic Jazz playing and Steven Wilson became the guitarist by accident.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I didn’t start by doing covers and I didn’t start by trying to be someone else.
That said, one of the most influential albums for me when I strated out was Peter Hammill’s Over. It gave me the courage to be emotionally expressive, and also the belief that an audience could get something out of the deeply personal music I wanted to make. For a couple of years, the Peter Hammill influence was strong, particularly on my singing style.
I think I found my voice definitively when a girlfriend commented that I was ‘trying too hard’. I realised that I’d been imposing myself on the music I was making, rather than naturally responding to the moods in it.
Hearing my first self-produced vinyl album (in 1986) also led me to a similar conclusion. Listening to my music as I did to other people’s music (on a record on a turntable) made me aware that I was lacking in many ways.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Compositionally, it was never difficult, but I hope things have just got better and more natural over time.
Production didn’t feel onerous in the days of reel to reel, but when computer studios emerged a lot of the problems I’d had with analogue studios (mainly in terms of the speed of the process and the nature of overdubbing) were solved. However, I think a problem of the contemporary age is that musicians can become bogged down with the seemingly infinite choices of sound available and the seemingly infinite possibilities to improve / overdub.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Simplicity is the only thing I’m interested in. Basically, I want something set up so I can work straight away.
I have a very simple set up comprising the latest Logic Pro and the 2006 version of GarageBand as studios, a couple of decent microphones (one Neumann and one SE Electronics), a keyboard that does midi as well as unpredictable analogue synth sounds, a PRS guitar and a few plug-ins (such as the M-Tron Pro and Olga).
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
Believe it or not, I’m still finding new ways of manipulating the 2006 GarageBand studio. It allows you to be as simple or as complex as you want. I like playing with the possibilities of basic samples and altering note values, tempos and assigned sounds. It leads me into directions I wouldn’t go in by writing on guitar (which I still do).
On Stupid Things That Mean The World, "Press Reset" is an example of something I wrote by manipulating samples, while "Know That You Were Loved" is an example of something written as a straight song on the guitar. Obviously, post-production and overdubs can enhance what’s there in both cases sometimes blurring the line between composition and improvisation.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
It always starts from nothing and develops out of either playing with sounds or rhythms on the computer or strumming chords on the guitar. Usually, ‘something’ interests me and I become determined to see where that ‘something’ could lead. At a certain point, the creative itch seems scratched and I stop. It’s very instinctive, though the lyric writing, sound selection and subsequent production additions are clearly the result of afterthought and tinkering.
When I’m writing with others, they may well have a pre-composed instrumentals that I respond to vocally and then lyrically.
What's your perspective on the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema, for example – and for you and your work, how does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
I think the arts can inspire each other and I think there are times when music, literature, cinema and fine art have seemed remarkably similar in terms of what they were doing (for example the 1940s/1950s relationship between Jazz, abstract painting and Beat poetry).
I have been directly inspired by literature and cinema in that I’ve wanted to translate the feelings I derived from a film or a book into a song, or that I’ve wanted to match the ambition of something that excited me.
Personally, I’ve always wanted to create a music that’s as wilfully detailed and emotionally logical (rather than narratively logical) as a Charlie Kaufmann script. I haven’t!
TS Eliot’s Wasteland and some Modernist literature was something that influenced my lyrics for the likes of Centrozoon [the long term electronic project by Markus Reuter (Interview) and Bernhard Wöstheinrich (Interview)].