Enigma variations for the new age
Caroline International, out Friday 22nd November 2019
Is it electronica or dance? Is it pop or prog? Love You To Bits, no-man’s first release for eleven years, seems to encompass all of these, an intriguing mix of styles from the duo comprising Steven Wilson, whose prog star is very much in the ascendancy, and the ever cool vocalist Tim Bowness.
A complete departure from their previous output, most notably Schoolyard Ghosts and the beautiful Flowermouth, this 36-minute piece of two parts in ten segments is a real earworm. The pulsating beat and infectious melodies have been going around and round in my head as I tried to make sense of it all, a sort of Enigma Variations for the new age.
Who better to shed some light on Love You To Bits than vocalist and lyricist Tim Bowness? Or is it?
“Even I don’t know what it means in some ways,” he laughed. “I describe it as an electro-pop song with ideas above it’s station! It’s got repeated lyrical musical motifs and in some ways it’s the least prog thing we’ve done, in terms of musical influences, but it’s the most prog thing we’ve done in terms of capturing the spirit of what that music did.
“It’s a strange album in that the original idea was conceived 25 years ago in 1994. We had just completed an album called Flowermouth and we started work on a couple of pieces, one was called Lightouse, which ended up on the Returning Jesus album some years later, and one was called Love You To Bits. Flowermouth was been released, to possibly our best reviews and sales, but our label, One Little Indian, weren’t particularly happy and I thinks they wanted us to be heading for the big-time with a lot of the other artists such as The Shaymen, Skunk Anansie, Bjork.
“When they first listened to Flowermouth it started of with a 10 and a half minute track with no rhythm. I was a bit like when record companies listen to Godley and Creme’s Consequences or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine…
“As the track was being played we could see, it was like pound-signs falling out of their eyes… So the budget was dropped, and we ended up, within a year or two, being dropped by our American label, our British label, our manager, our publishing company and so on, and we started again.
“So Lighthouse and Love You To Bits were left in the background for a period and we kept coming back to it. Over the last 25 years there have been various versions of it, 4 minutes long, 12 minutes long, versions with Theo Travis on multiple saxaphones, very, very different approaches to it.
“It’s origins are 25 years old but a lot of the writing and a vast majority of the recording was all done recently. Even though there has been a lot of thought that has gone into this over quite a long time, it seems right and it also seems quite fresh. Many of the ideas and much of the writing were done over the last year and we were working on this until July of this year.
“What was great, musically, was it was a return to the way Steven and I used to work. When we started off, I’m from the North West and Steven’s from the South East, and I would travel to his studio once a month. We’d use that time really well and have two days a month to wok together. We’d write anything from three to eight pieces in that time, because we knew the time was precious, and it was always the two of us, in the studio, trading ideas, enthusiastically.
“That was where we wrote a lot of new music up to Wild Opera. I’d also write songs at home and Steven would write complete backing tracks that he’s give to me but, generally speaking, we spent a lot of time in the studio together.
“After Wild Opera Porcupine Tree took off and we both moved to different areas of the country and so the last few no-man albums, everything from Returning Jesus, have been written in the way a lot of albums are these days, sending files over the internet and so be the time we got to Schoolyard Ghosts almost all of those songs are ones I’d written before hand and then Steven and I worked on.
“We’ve never wanted to make Flowermouth 2 or Schoolyard Ghosts 2, we’ve always wanted the band to progress, however small that may be, but to always feel we are in a new place. We always felt this was a great idea and something we wanted to do but our other albums Together With Strangers, Schoolyard Ghosts, Returning Jesus, were much more organic and this just didn’t fit.”
The two connected titles, Love You To Bits and Love You To Pieces, chronicle the aftermath of a relationship from different perspectives, Despite the repeated themes, the album takes you on a journey to different places along a path into new territory.
“Pink Floyd and Yes didn’t know what they were doing when they were combining rock with pop music with classical music,” Tim suggests. “They were making it up as they went along and defined prog rather than made prog. What we’re doing with this album is hopefully defining something rather than just making something in an existing tired genre-form.”
Could it be the no-man have created the 20-minute single?
“Absolutely, yes!” Tim laughed again. “I think we’d always seen it as being either the basis of an album-length investigation or a side-long track. It was when Steven and I were working on my last solo album Flowers At The Scene and we found that his music and my music naturally gravitated towards something that was more electronic, more dynamic again and so we finally decided that we were going to make Love You To Bits into the album we always wanted it to be.
“I have a lyric folder for Love You To Bits that I’ve had for 25 years and I’ve been continually writing, re-writing, adding to it, other songs of mine have developed as a result of this Love You To Bits folder, it’s taken that long!
“With this album we decided that we’d just get together and we’d finish it, so we spent three days solidly in the studio, from 10 am till 10pm, just throwing ideas at one another so it had a real spontaneity, enthusiasm and energy. It was incredibly enjoyable because our music is, generally, quite melancholy but in our working relationship Steven and I have always been quite brutal with one another, and quite humourous. The sessions are usually incredible fun as well as creative.
“So with this album we just finally found time where we could just be together and we mapped out the idea for the song. From that point I re-recorded a lot of the vocals in my home studio and then we got other musicians involved, the Dave Desmond Brass Quintet, David Kollar on guitar, and we were exchanging ideas by email. It was written in a way that a lot of very early no-man had been written, laughing and joking in the studio, throwing ideas.”
no-man, Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness
Tim was born and brought up in the Cheshire village of Stockton Heath, just twenty minutes from Manchester and Liverpool, the great musical hotbeds that would play a large part in his development. Over a 35-year career Tim has worked with the likes of Robert Fripp, Phil Manzanera and Judy Dyble and is also a member of the bands Henry Fool, Memories Of Machines and Slow Electric.
“It was a relatively quiet upbringing,” said Tim, “and as I grew older there was Manchester, Liverpool the big centres where there were great music venues, so I was brought up with both the Manchester and Liverpool scenes. When I first started making music almost all of my bands were based in Manchester or Liverpool so they were the cities I did a lot of my very early work in. It was a fantastic scene but I don’t think it could happen any more.
“When I first started making demo tapes local radio consisted of BBC/GMR and Piccadilly in Manchester and in Liverpool Radio City and BBC Merseyside. So there were four stations and I could, as an 18-year old, go to the DJs: Mark Radcliffe in Manchester and Roger Eagle in Liverpool, give them a demo tape and they would play it. There were just four stations in the region and yet they would dedicate the time from 7pm until 3 in the morning to new music. It might be the new Kate Bush or New Order single but equally it might be a demo tape by me or someone else.
“It was incredibly open and you got tremendous exposure and enthusiasm but now there may be 200 stations in the region but, bizarrely there’s probably not one of those stations that would give time to an 18-year old’s demo tape or demo stream. The greater number of stations have less diversity with genre stations, GMR is more of a talk station and then Piccadilly Gold 80s, Piccadilly Gold 90s, each with very defined playlists.”
Tim says his early influences were quite diverse from the film music of John Barry through classical music to the Frank Sinatra and Glen Campbell records in his parents’ collection.
“Those things still have tremendous quality and character,” he adds. “And around the time I was eleven a friend’s dad had a cassette collection with Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd and Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield. That would be the first rock and pop music I fell in love with. I also loved singer songwriters like Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen but also the contemporary post-punk and electronic scene was very exciting with a lot of local bands like Magazine, A Certain Ratio and Teardrop Explodes, I thought they were fantastically inventive.
“When I started singing the three biggest influences that moved me were Peter Hamill (Van Der Graf Generator), Peter Gabriel (Genesis) and David Bowie. Hamill in particular made a couple of albums that were so personal and so intense that really moved me as a 15-year old. It was incredible to work with him on several albums and we regularly go out for a coffee and a chat and he lives around the corner from me now!
“One of the delights of working with Steven is that we don’t have musical prejudices and what we love is quite diverse and if there’s something we like we’re not embarrassed to say. Anything from Journey to John Coltrane, if it’s good I’m gonna like it if it moves you in some way…
“Many of the musicians I work with, outside of no-man, are strongly defined by genre preferences or by the artists that they adore, with a sense of embarrassment if they go outside of that bubble of their taste. Steven is one of the few musicians I’ve worked with who doesn’t have a tribal sensibility, he would excitedly talk about classical music or prog rock or electro-pop because we were fans, we were interested. As no-man, we’ve always drawn on a wide source of influences as with the new album, although the core of it is almost a synth pop song or a 90s dance song, where that piece goes is quite surprising. It travels to some unexpected places. Where you are in the first four minutes, you’re not gonna be by eight minutes or twelve or twenty. In some ways our wide frame of reference is reflected in the music of no-man.”
Produced by no-man, Love You To Bits includes contributions from Adam Holzman, David Kollar, Ash Soan and the Dave Desmond Brass Quintet. Love You To Bits is released on 12”vinyl, CD, Digital Download and streaming services via Caroline International on 22nd November 2019.