No-Man goes “commercial”?

No-Man is a British duo formed in 1987 as No Man Is An Island by Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree and Blackfield). So far the band has produced 5 studio albums and a number of singles. No-Man’s music contains elements of post rock, progressive rock, jazz and contemporary ambient and their sound is very distinctive and difficult to categorize.
“Schoolyard Ghosts” was released a short time ago and I got the chance to talk to singer Tim Bowness.

Why did it take so long to record a new No-Man album?

Steven’s schedule with Porcupine Tree and Blackfield has been hectic since 2003, so it’s been difficult to find time to make No-Man music.
From my side, I produced a solo album for One Little Indian in 2004 and lived in New York for a while in 2006.
Additionally, I’ve been involved in other projects, including one with Italian musician Giancarlo Erra, and Steven’s continued to put out albums as Bass Communion.
For me, the long gaps between albums can work well for us. In between albums, we have interesting personal experiences, absorb new influences and, hopefully, get a little better at what we do.

The actual recording of Schoolyard Ghost took almost two years, is that correct and why was that?

The bulk of the recording took place between August 2007 and March 2008 at No-Man’s studio.
However, I started recording demos for the album in 2006, hence the two year writing process.

Ok, so far so good. The new album was recorded in England, Sweden, France and the USA, was there a special reason for this?

Not really.
It was partly to do with where I was living or staying when I recorded my original demos, and partly to do where some of our guest musicians recorded (Pat Mastelotto records in his home studio in Texas, for example).

Could you tell something about the title of the album and if it a concept album?

I think there’s definitely an emotional continuity on this album, as there was throughout Together We’re Stranger.

The main theme concerns people who have managed to survive extreme circumstances or personal pain and emerged at the other side feeling like themselves again.
In other words, they’ve found the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
There’s also a sub-plot (found on All Sweet Things, where the album gets its name from) about the way in which our present behaviour and feelings can be dictated by events from our past.
Overall, it’s about people surviving their own pasts and early experiences. I feel that many of us can be dragged down in the present by things that happened to us when we were young.

Who came up with the ideas for the songs and where did you get the
inspiration from?

Our way of working is always flexible.
The music can be written by myself or Steven solo, or by both of us together, but it’s always subject to a No-Man re-interpretation and re-evaluation.
On Schoolyard Ghosts, most of the starting points came from song demos I submitted, with the material being enhanced and extended by Steven. Subsequently, we subjected all of the songs to the No-Man process.
One of the pieces, Wherever There Is Light, was spontaneously written in the studio together during the album sessions.
Truenorth, perhaps my favourite No-Man song ever, started off with a piano, arpeggio guitar and voice demo that I’d submitted. Steven then extended this by writing the music for two additional sections that seamlessly evolved from the original idea. We then worked on the arrangements/production together.

You wrote all the lyrics, how difficult is it to write lyrics?

I write continually and so far I’ve not had any significant writing blocks.
It’s not difficult to write, but it is difficult to come up with something that I consider good and that also manages to communicate sophisticated ideas in a simple way.

Could you please give a short comment on all of the 8 songs.

All Sweet Things – Steven’s favourite and one of the best songs we’ve written, I think.
Beautiful Songs You Should Know – One of the straighter No-Man ballads with a lovely cello part by Marianne De Chastellaine (which was recorded in New York).
Pigeon Drummer – One of the most experimental No-Man pieces and a total contrast to Beautiful Songs You Should Know. Some excellent Pat Mastelotto drumming.
Truenorth – My favourite No-Man song ever and one of the most ambitious pieces the band has written. I love the fact that at 13 minutes, it doesn’t seem too long.

Wherever There Is Light – A song which seemed very right from the beginning. I like the feel and Bruce Kaphan’s wonderful pedal steel playing.
Song Of The Surf – A strong ballad with a nice instrumental build-up.
Streaming – A miniature with a nice feel.
Mixtaped – One of the highlights of the album for both of us. Haunting flute from Theo Travis and subtle drumming from Gavin Harrison make it something special, I think.

Which guest musicians are present on the album and why ?

Theo Travis, Colin Edwin, Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and others.
We like the fact that well chosen guest musicians can take the music in new directions.
Generally speaking, we have the structure of the songs prepared and the guest musicians disrupt the existing structures and add new layers of interpretation and expression.
We selected the musicians on Schoolyard Ghosts from a combination of people we knew – Theo Travis, Andy Booker etc – and people we thought would be right for the songs they played on.
An example of how guests change a piece would be on the song Streaming.
We liked the piece, but felt that something was missing. Nothing we did with the song worked until Bruce Kaphan (ex-American Music Club) added a stunning distorted e-bow pedal steel solo line that suddenly made it an album definite for both of us.

Whose idea was it to use the English Symphonic Orchestra?

For quite some time, both of us felt that orchestra could work well with No-Man’s sound. On this album we made the thought a reality.

I think that Schoolyard Ghost is the most accessible No-Man album so
far, do you agree/disagree, and why?

I think it’s one of the most melodic albums we’ve created and that it features some of the most sophisticated song writing in our history.
Obviously, I’d like to think that, without compromising our integrity or creativity, it is accessible.
I’d love for the music to reach as many people as it can.

Will there be a No-Man tour?

We toured a few times in the early 1990s (soon to be Porcupine Tree members Richard Barbieri and Chris Maitland were a part of our live bands) and we’re about to embark on our first live dates since 1993.

This time round, the only thing that’s certain is that we won’t be doing note for note renditions of album material.
As it is in the studio with No-Man, the live approach is flexible and could go in any number of directions.
We’ll be a playing a gig each in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

Are there already plans for a DVD or live-album?

We’re hoping to record the London show for a future DVD, which will also include a documentary which is currently being made about the band.
I’m not too sure about whether there’ll be a live album or not.
It depends on how good we are!!

Other future plans?

For me, I’m continuing to work with Giancarlo Erra (a project which includes contributions from Peter Hammill and Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin, amongst others), and I’m currently co-producing an album for Judy Dyble (ex-Fairport Convention).

Could you tell the fans something about the name of the band?

Only that there’s no meaning to it.
It’s an abbreviation of the name Steven had for his solo project when I first met him, No Man Is An Island Except The Isle Of Man.

Last but not least, are you happy with the reviews of the new album;
why, why not??

We’ve had more interviews and more positive reviews than for anything the band has done since its Indie Top 20 (hey) days of the early 1990s.Perhaps the strangest interest has come from the Metal magazines of Europe. Attention from Classic Rock and Rocksound in the UK, Oor in Holland and Rolling Stone in Mexico is understandable, but extremely positive and perceptive reviews followed by enjoyable interviews in Metal Hammer (German, Polish and Spanish editions) has come as a welcome surprise. Ultimately, it's been gratifying that something so personal has seemed to strike a chord with so many.

Interview by Martien Koolen
17 August 2008
(c) 2008 RockUnited.Com