Tim Bowness on “Late Night Laments” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, October 29th, 2020  

Tim Bowness on “Late Night Laments”

Lockdown Laments

Sep 21, 2020 Photography by Mark Wood
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Tim Bowness completed his new album on the day that lockdowns were announced in the UK.

The British singer’s sixth solo record, Late Night Laments, feels tailor-made for quarantine life. As its title suggests, it’s ideal listening for isolation. This is music for those hours when the moon is a lonely watchman and the only sound outside is the faint crackle of insects getting electrocuted on street lights. Late Night Laments belongs on the turntable in between spins of The Blue Nile and Talk Talk. For insomniacs fretting about the state of the world, Bowness’ reflective ruminations feel like therapy with a confidante.

“The freeze, the fall, the morning fall/the point I know I don’t care at all / I’m out of luck, I’ve come unstuck,” sings Bowness on “Darkline,” the sound of a man coming undone. 

Few singers convey regret quite like Bowness, ennui expressed in each carefully enunciated word. But don’t lump him in with other miserablist singers. Ever since Bowness first made his mark in the duo No-Man, he’s been too soulful a singer to become a morose bore. Three decades ago, Melody Maker proclaimed No-Man—whose other member is multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson—as “conceivably the most important English group since The Smiths.” They made their British television debut alongside an up-and-coming Radiohead. But No-Man’s early art-pop records, bolstered by guest musicians such as King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Japan’s Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen, and Mick Karn, failed to become more than a niche act.

Later albums such as Returning Jesus, Together We’re Stranger, and Schoolyard Ghosts broadened the duo’s canvas with organic atmospheres and chamber music textures. Yet No-Man’s output became increasingly infrequent. Wilson established a big name for himself first as the leader of another band, Porcupine Tree, and then as a solo artist. After a string of one-off collaborative projects, Bowness belatedly followed suit. His six solo albums have explored different aspects of art rock filtered through a singer-songwriter sensibility. 

The sustained mood of Late Night Laments (InsideOut/Sony) contrasts with last year’s stylistically diverse Flowers at the Scene. Never one to remain idle, Bowness also released Modern Ruins, a minimalist electronica collaboration with Peter Chilvers earlier this year. And No-Man’s first album in 11 years, Love You to Bits (2019), was hailed by Mojo magazine as “a career peak 30 years after No-Man’s debut.”

Meanwhile, Bowness and Wilson have launched another project during the pandemic: a podcast titled The Album Years. During each episode, the erudite hosts pick a random year between 1965 and 2000 and banter about underrated and overlooked albums released during those 12 months. 

Under the Radar Skyped Bowness to talk about creativity during quarantine, late-night music, the new podcast, and becoming a better singer and songwriter with age. 

Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): What has pandemic life been like for you?  

Tim Bowness: I had a real sense of foreboding about this year. One of the tracks on the album, “We Caught the Light,” which is ostensibly about generational warfare, which is quite a current topic, was the first thing I’d written in 2020. I just had an overwhelming sense of foreboding and I’m not even quite sure why. I was very aware of all the reports coming in from Wuhan from the beginning. Partly I suspect it’s because I’m very attuned to apocalyptic novels and films. And I had a very strong belief that what was the tiny sixteenth on the second page of The Guardian was going to be the front page at a certain point. I’m sure they actually informed the urgency of me finishing this album because I felt very compelled to create music and very compelled to complete it in time. 

I think the other way it affected me was that when I’d finished it, [I asked myself], “Has what I’ve been working on intensely suddenly become irrelevant?” Because in the face of this story, almost everything seemed irrelevant for a while. Secondly, was the nature of art itself: “Are music, books, and so on useless in the face of a pandemic?”

How does the context of the quarantine impact how listeners might perceive Late Night Laments?

One of the pieces I wrote—it ended up as a B-side—is called “Beauty in Decay.” This I wrote probably in late January. And, in a sense, it was kind of metaphorical relating to the pandemic, in a way. But what it was about was the usefulness of art in the Chinese revolution. I have no idea why this subject came to me. When you have these enormous cultural revolutions—such as happened in Russia, such as happened in China—art can seem like a decadent bourgeois indulgence. So it was written from that perspective. As the pandemic has gone on for me, I think I’ve come to realize that art, music, films, books mean more, rather than less, because I think they’ve been great sources of inspiration, comfort, and sometimes a ways of understanding your own emotions when you’re going through these difficult times. 

So I kind of had an awareness of it coming. And then when it landed, in a sense, I was lucky to have been in the position that I’d finished the album. Musically, it’s quite warm. It’s quite intimate. And perhaps it even gives this idea of being a beautifully personal recording. But lyrically, it’s very universal. It has a lot of global political themes. And the cover of the album I saw as reflecting the musical content in the sense that it was somebody adrift in their beautiful world of their comfortable chair, their favorite album, their favorite book. All of the possessions that makes them feel who they are. And in the background, you have that ever-present 24-hour news channel that is blasting the inconvenient truths. I almost saw it as somebody lost in this world of art while reality is slapping their face on occasion. Quite a number of the themes that I was writing about—hate crimes, generational warfare, and so on—actually became more pertinent during the lockdown.

Which albums, songs, films, TV shows, books, podcasts, live streams, video games, board games, etc., have been helping you get through the quarantine?

I listen to albums more deeply during this time. An example would be me listening to John Martyn’s exquisite Bless The Weather late last night and getting more out of it than I have done for years. In terms of “lockdown viewing,” it’s almost all been guided by my 9-year old son’s choices. He’s been obsessed with classic Westerns, so Shane, Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cat Ballou, Once Upon a Time in the West, and so on, and early comedy, Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and more. It’s been quite educational!

Let’s talk about the musical direction of Late Night Laments. As its title suggests, it’s an album that’s ideal for listening—to borrow a John Martyn song title—during “The Small Hours.” First, tell me about your own late-night listening habits.

It was generally quieter albums that really touched me, that really moved me. Throughout a lot of my teens, 20s, and 30s, I would just listen to albums either in solitary situations or with close friends. The albums that would’ve been favorites of that time are Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, the John Martyn album you talk of, One World. Nico’s Chelsea Girls. Songs of Leonard Cohen. Blue Nile’s Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats would have been an essential listening at that point. Ditto Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, David Bowie’s Low. Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. There were so many albums that really meant a great deal to me. And as well as albums that we’ve discussed on The Album Years such as Steve Reich’s Different Trains, Electric Counterpoint 

What’s caught your ear more recently in that vein?

There are some really interesting albums out there. I think part of the problem is that these albums aren’t really setting the culture alight, or the main singles charts alight. The Nadine Shah album is a fantastically inventive production. She has a very, very distinctive voice. Thundercat is someone who I think continues to make these really quite sensuous, woozy, R&B albums that reminds me of what I loved about great R&B and fusion albums in the ’70s—you know, anything from Marvin Gaye to Stanley Clarke. 

How did you and producer Brian Hulse go about crafting Late Night Laments—the ouevre suggests a certain instrumentation and tonality.

A lot of the songs were written in the early hours and the late hours and the small hours, as John Martyn would have it. “One Last Call” was the first track that I’d written for the album.

Basically, I’d just finished rereading John Le Carre’s The Spy who came in from Cold. If you hadn’t read that book, it’s quite a complex book, but it’s also quite an emotional book and has a real melancholy aura. And there’s a real sense, actually, of small lives being lost for the greater good. I’d reread the book and in some ways I was in a very odd state after having read it. I just started writing “One Last Call.” When I woke up the next day, I kind of felt, actually this is what I want to pursue. It’s the opposite of Love You to Bits. It’s the opposite of Flowers at the Scene

I sent it to Brian Hulse and said, “Look, do you think there’s mileage in this? I can almost visualize an album, just operate with this limited focus emotionally and in terms of arrangement.” And luckily, Brian told me, “Well, actually, yes, that is what I would love to do.” And so, within the week, he’d become phenomenally prolific. He sent me half a dozen potential contenders that he had written in the style of “One Last Call.” And then I also continued to write. The way in which the album was written is that we were both writing the music in our own studios. We both knew what we wanted in terms of the sound world. 

And there were certain atmospheres I was using and certain samples I was using. I was completely drawn to marimbas and vibraphones and mallet samples. I was processing the keyboards in a certain way.

Late Night Laments sounds like a good companion piece to No-Man’s Together We’re Stranger, another late-night record. 

I’ve repeatedly made the comparison, even though musically it’s nothing like it. This album feels a lot like Together We’re Stranger in that it came incredibly naturally and incredibly quickly. And a lot of what exists on the final album is very close to the demo. And as with Together We’re Stranger, there were a lot of other instruments added on certain pieces. I’ve actually subtracted string quartets, bass guitars, drums, because it’s getting in the way of the expression.

Also, similarly, once I’d finished it, I felt a real wave of melancholy and a real wave as if “That’s it, I don’t necessarily want to do anything for a while.” It was kind of allowing that feeling to linger, if you like. Whereas normally when I have completed an album, I’m launching into something else. And normally that’s because I have this—I think a lot of musicians have it—post-album depression. And to avoid post-album depression, you immediately launch yourself into something else. So, when I’d completed Flowers at the Scene, within about a day, Steven and I were working on Love You to Bits. And once Love You to Bits had been completed, probably within the week of the final mix, that’s when the first idea for Late Night Laments emerged. And I didn’t really force anything upon it. It was just allowing the music and the lyrics to flow through me in some ways. 

Late Night Laments features notable musicians such as Richard Barbieri (Japan, Porcupine Tree), Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree), and Kavus Turabi (Cardiacs, Gong, Knifeworld). And your previous albums have featured luminaries such as Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Peter Hammill (Van der Graaf Generator), Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), Kevin Godley (Godley & Creme), and Andy Partridge (XTC). These are musicians you grew up listening to. Do you have any “pinch yourself” moments? Any trepidation? 

There’s never any trepidation. I think that started, I guess, with No-Man’s Flowermouth when we got Ian Carr, the great Nucleus trumpet player, and Robert Fripp, and Mel Collins. And of course, when No-Man worked with Jansen, Barbieri, Karn, these were all people I grew up listening to and respecting greatly. And it’s something that never becomes tired, that I never take for granted. It is still a thrill to work with people of that ability. But I think that you cannot go into it, really, as a fan. I’ve always felt that one of the reasons why Steven and I have managed to do this, and managed to do it successfully, is that we’ve had enough self-confidence or arrogance to believe that we can bring them something different. And that they can then bring us their uniqueness and the benefit of their experience.

And yes, when I heard the Ian Anderson flute solo on “Lost in the Ghost Light” it was wonderful. And yes, there was that kind of moment, “Have I just done this?” 

Peter Hamill lives five minutes away. Peter and I actually regularly meet for a coffee. We certainly talk about music and we certainly talk about the economics of music. But a lot of our conversation is political and also personal because we’ve become friends. 

Getting Kevin Godley was another major thing for me, because this was a voice I’d grown up with. “What Lies Here” is about that sense of loss, perhaps, that you feel when children are growing beyond your reach. And he was certainly a voice from my childhood. It was a delight to work with him on.

The vast majority of these people who have actually been very easy to work with and very humble.  

Some of those artists have popped up in The Album Years podcast. What was the impetus behind the podcast?

Part of it was us giving back to music what music had given to us. One of the reasons we’ve done The Album Years is that Steven and I still believe in the album as an art form. Anything from the level of detail and production to the level of detail in the artwork and its tactile nature is important because I want to create an immersive experience where you lose yourself in that world of the album. I think it’s more difficult to do in the age of streaming. If you have the world’s library of music at hand, usually with slightly less sound quality—though I don’t think that’s necessarily an impediment—you, by necessity, sometimes dip into it. There isn’t as much deep listening.

Although at the moment Steven and I have put in 1999 as our cutoff point [in the podcast], I think both of us admit that many of our favorite albums have actually been written and recorded in the last 20 years. 

Let’s talk singing. Many singers got better with age. I’m thinking, for example, of David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Robert Plant, Kate Bush. They started off with a very shrill, high-range voices. But once they lost the top-end of their range, they all became far more expressive. How has your voice changed over the years? 

My voice had changed over the years. Strangely enough, my voice was actually a lot deeper and growlier and far more like Nick Cave. My voice has actually become lighter as the years have gone on. I mean, inevitably that will change again. But you’ve got to work to strengths in your voice. Certainly with Kate Bush and David Bowie, for me Blackstar and 50 Words for Snow were amongst my favorite albums by them. Partly because they’re so in control of their expression and there’s such a wealth of emotion coming from those voices. 

I’ve done a lot of my recording over the last few years at home, and I prefer doing it that way. You know, I’ve worked in big studios. I’ve done some recording in Real World and some recording in Phil Manzanera’s studio, some recording in Steven Wilson’s studio. But over the last five years, I’ve found it much easier and much quicker to record myself because, with no external pressure, I can get exactly the phrasing I want. And even though I might take one to 40 attempts at getting that right, it’s really rapid because I’m in control of everything that’s happening. When I did the vocals on No-Man’s Love You to Bits, for example, the vast majority of those were recorded in my home studio in 2019. Although the interesting thing was there’s probably about two or three lines that we kept in from the original 1994 demo. So it’s quite peculiar that you’ll hear these lines interweaving with lines that I’ve recorded 25 years later. 

How do you see yourself as improving as a lyricist over time?

I tend to be driven by my passions and hopefully because I’ve continued to do this over the years, I’ve got better at what I do. When, for example, I listen to some of my work in the ’80s and ’90s, it seems incomplete. Especially lyrically, I can’t believe that I’ve left these songs half written. Then again, there are pieces where I think I followed a real wayward energy there.

I only know that I’m changing when I’m assessing my past work. Usually that’s done if I’m thinking of doing songs for a live performance or we’re doing a remastering project for early material. And then is where you almost kind of see holes in the songs and think, “Well, why didn’t I do that?” Because I think it’s purely driven by the instinct of the moment. I think one of the only things that might answer your question, in some way, is that perhaps it’s harder to please me than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago—especially lyrically. And therefore, I think I work harder at it. 

Even though we’re in this age of streaming, I still value the album as an art form. If it isn’t societally transforming, it can be individually transforming. It can really touch and move individuals. And I’ve been told by enough people over the years now that my music has helped me through difficult times. Luckily, it seems that I’m not singing into a void. 

www.timbowness.co.uk 

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