Tim Bowness: Ghost Lights and Life Sentences

John Kelman By

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"However, I think that despite being written by genuine rock stars, and despite being interesting albums, the likes of The Wall, The Kinks' A Soap Opera (RCA, 1975) and Townshend's Psychoderelict (Atlantic, 1993)—all of which essentially deal with 'the rock star's lot'—are actually as fantastical and borderline incomprehensible as [The Who's] Tommy (Decca, 1969), [Yes' Tales From] Topographic Oceans (Atlantic, 1973) and The Lamb. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but I wanted to write something plausible and relatable that had a simple premise—an aging musician sits post-gig in front of a dressing room mirror and reflects on how he reached this moment in time—but also contained some fairly complex and emotional themes that developed out of this basic scenario."

While he's collaborated, compositionally, with others including Wilson, Phil Manzanera and Henry Fool-mate Stephen Bennett on his previous two albums, only one of Lost in the Ghost Light's songs are written solely by Bowness (the title track); six of the remaining seven tracks are collaborations with Bennett.

"Generally, all the separate projects I've done have a separate identity and pretty quickly on I find myself writing for the specific album project or set of musicians and become immersed in whatever it is that's emerging," Bowness explains. "The nature of the music often dictates the lyrics. As an example, the [No-Man] Wild Opera album and Centrozoon collaboration generated some fairly experimental and tangential lyrics (in keeping with the music). By contrast, [No-Man's] Together We're Stranger and Lost In The Ghost Light featured tightly focused and themed lyrics.

"Certainly, despite the shifts in style over the years, there is a 'No-Man quality'; something of a lush, cinematic melancholy," Bowness continues. "Inevitably, some of that quality has seeped into my solo work as I'm very drawn to the epic in a way that several of my other collaborators aren't (Stephen Bennett being an exception). [Keyboardist/bassist/multi-instrumentalidst] Peter Chilvers, for example, is attracted to intimate and stripped-down productions, while [guitarist] Michael Bearpark thrives in the wilder Henry Fool jazz-inspired territory.

"Henry Fool material is easier to define as it's much more jagged, rough and ready, and mainly riff-based. With the two Henry Fool albums, we recorded most of the music direct to tape live in the studio. I tended to write the riffs we used as a basis for improvisation a day or two before the sessions. I wrote a lot of the music on those albums as I was the weakest link musically. I can play what I write, but don't have a clue how to respond—on guitar—to anybody else's compositions. Basically, I can improvise vocally, but not on guitar.

"If I'm writing straightforward songs on guitar, they could potentially go anywhere: No-Man; solo; Bowness/Chilvers etc.," Bowness continues. "Obviously, different projects approach songs differently in terms of arrangement; my eclectic tastes are, however, strongly filtered through the limits of my ability, my emotional predilections and my own sense of what I want to do artistically. Ultimately, I approach every project as if it's a blank slate, but because making music is an instinctive process for me, I always end up imposing myself, my limitations and my natural tastes on whatever it is I do.

"In terms of my own solo songwriting, on Stupid Things That Mean The World the title track and 'Press Reset' were examples of pieces I wrote by manipulating samples, while 'Know That You Were Loved' and Everything You're Not / Everything But You' were examples of songs I wrote on the guitar. I can write on the computer, and on guitar I'm capable of creating standard singer/songwriter pieces and time signature riffs (as Henry Fool bears witness to!). That said, compared with Steven Wilson, Peter Chilvers, Stephen Bennett etc., I'm musically limited. Sometimes it's fine to live with those limitations and it can produce decent results, but Lost In The Ghost Light needed more."

While some of Bowness' "usual suspects" participate on Ghost Light—specifically, in addition to keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Bennett, the ever-creative anchor of Burnt Belief/Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin ("a tremendously versatile player who's been a part of my live band for the last few years," says Bowness), arranger/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Keeling, drummer Andrew Booker and violinists Charlotte Dowding and Steve Bingham—there are a few new faces and "name" guests. Along with appearances including ex-Jethro Tull leader/flautist Ian Anderson, Happy the Man flautist Kit Watkins and Peter Gabriel guitarist David Rhodes, Bruce Soord— guitarist, singer and songwriter for post-prog British group The Pineapple Thief—contributes many of the album's soaring, lyrical guitar solos and accompaniment.

"With Lost In The Ghost Light, I used musicians that I felt were right for the songs," Bowness explains. "Bruce Soord was chosen because I think he has a songwriter's approach to guitar solos, in that he's direct and melodic. Michael Bearpark, my usual guitarist, is great but he's from the abstract school of noise that includes David Torn and Neil Young. The Ghost Light songs needed something different.

"In most of the cases, I've had some social or professional involvement with the musicians in the past," Bowness continues. "In all cases though—as with working with Peter Hammill, Robert Fripp, Mick Karn, Phil Manzanera and so on in the past—I never forget how privileged I am to be on recordings with people whose music shaped mine. I have failed in getting [Gentle Giant's] Kerry Minnear and Ray Shulman, and [10cc/Godley & Creme's] Kevin Godley on any of my music...but there's still time!"

Bowness also co-operates Burning Shed—co-founded in 2001 with Pete Morgan and Peter Chilvers, and emerging from an idea about which Bowness had been thinking for a while. Both a record label and an online series of web stores largely devoted to progressive and post-progressive music, Burning Shed has become the go-to shop for archival and reissue releases by legacy groups like King Crimson and Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull, Peter Hammill, Gentle Giant, XTC and more, alongside new music from entire labels including Kscope and Peaceville, and contemporary artists that, in addition to Wilson and Porcupine Tree, features The Mute Gods, Riverside, echolyn and Big Big Train, amongst others. But beyond all the things expected from a label/webstore, Burning Shed has led to other things as well. "Burning Shed-related musicians have always collaborated," Bowness explains, "so Dave Stewart worked with No- Man, Anathema and Steven Wilson; Theo Travis worked with everybody; and Burning Shed hosting web stores led to me working with Ian Anderson and Phil Manzanera."

Bowness' approach to writing varies, naturally, from album to album...from song to song. "When I write alone, it's an instinctive process that always starts from nothing and develops out of either playing with sounds or rhythms on the computer or strumming chords on the guitar," Bowness continues. "Usually, 'something' interests me and I become determined to see where that 'something' leads. At a certain point, the creative itch seems scratched and I stop. Subsequently, the lyric writing, sound selection and production additions are the result of afterthought and obsessive tinkering. Sometimes—the title track of Lost In The Ghost Light being a case in point—I have a very specific idea of the mood and sounds I want to use and pursue.

"When I'm writing with others, they may well have a pre-composed instrumental that I respond to vocally and then lyrically. There'll then be collaborative production choices," Bowness continues.

"With the co-written pieces on Lost In The Ghost Light, however, they started with me giving Stephen Bennett a set of instructions. He has a greater chord vocabulary than I have and he can certainly do 'progressive' better than I can. With 'Moonshot Moonchild,' as a casual aside I'd mentioned to Stephen that Genesis b-sides from the late 1970s and early 1980s had a chordal sophistication and exploratory shape that seemed absent from contemporary pop (I was thinking about pieces such as 'It's Yourself' and 'Evidence Of Autumn'). So it started from an idea of personalizing an almost extinct, unfashionable form of popular music. The autumnal feel was something I wanted as the lyric concerned the autumn of the musician's career. From that point on, once the piece had been written, I thought about who could best realize the music.

"I've been a huge fan of Ian Anderson's music since I first heard it in my early teens," Bowness continues. "I think he's a wonderful and intelligent lyricist, a strong songwriter and a great player. A rare all- round talent. His playing on 'Distant Summers' was tremendous I thought, and I was delighted that he was willing to be involved in the album. He was very positive about the finished song and that meant a lot too. I chose Ian specifically for 'Distant Summers' as the song details the early musical passions of the musician Lost In The Ghost Light revolves around. As such, although it was part of the wider concept, due to Ian's involvement, there was some autobiography in that piece as well."

At a time when studio costs are prohibitive, Bowness has, like many musicians, adopted file sharing as a means of getting other artists' participation...but only when the music suits it. "The two Henry Fool albums were entirely recorded live in the studio with the band; there was post-production, but almost all of what's on the albums is what happened in the studio. With Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean The World, around a third to half of the albums were recorded by a band in the studio. As an example, [Abandoned Dancehall Dreams'] 'I Fought Against the South' was a song I taught to the band and we did a few takes live in the studio. Ultimately, I want what's best for the music and that varies from album to album and composition to composition.

"Lost In The Ghost Light was almost entirely done via file share," Bowness concludes, "and I think it works well. Strangely, there was still room for spontaneity, compositional evolution and so on."

Beyond the subject matter of Lost in The Ghost Light, the album also speaks to Bowness' firm opinions about the current state of the music industry and how it impacts artists at various levels of success. Despite there being some dire circumstances, at the end of the day Bowness remains optimistic.

"Of course, some of my own fears are wrapped up in the story and the idea of my music and the music I admire becoming valueless in my lifetime is very real," says Bowness.
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