Lost In The Ghost Light was completed in October 2016 and always felt like a conclusion to a certain way of working – an album length extension of Smiler At 50? – as well as being a one-off exploration of a very particular concept and a very particular type of music (the Prog, the Prog it’s at it again!).
2017 was taken up re-recording Plenty material, but as enjoyable as that was I was getting itchy to write something new. Initially I was interested in making the sort of album I thought Moonshot might have released between 1984-1988.
Although my personal tastes at that time were more orientated towards Miles Davis, ECM Jazz, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, John Martyn, The Smiths, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Kate Bush, Steve Reich and others, I also enjoyed the massive, over-produced and airless sounds on contemporary albums by the likes of Prince, Prefab Sprout, Propaganda/ZTT and Genesis/Phil Collins.
With this in mind, I had an idea to make an album filled with the most unfashionable sounds from the mid part of the devil’s decade (to see if it was possible to humanise these harsh, digital soundscapes and make something fresh out of an unloved era in music history).
After 10 months of discussing the project with Stephen Bennett, we hadn’t really progressed far. What we were coming up with sounded too like Lost In The Ghost Light for comfort. Simultaneously, with no goal in mind, I’d been writing with Brian Hulse. By the time we’d written new song number five, I suddenly realised (in Fripp speak) that a new direction had presented itself to me. The new songs were sounding nothing like Plenty and nothing like my previous Inside Out label albums. Although, by necessity, partly defined by my voice, the songs seemed to be suggesting something different. Meeting up in the Spring of 2018 in Cheltenham with Brian and David, a plan for a new album was hatched.
Over the course of the next six months, Brian and I committed ourselves to completing what would become FATS. It was a genuinely exciting period of discovery and re-discovery. Other musicians – Colin Edwin, Tom Atherton, Jim Matheos, Ian Dixon and others – came on board, the material evolved, and new songs were written with a strong sense of purpose.
The final touches came from Steven Wilson. Brought in to mix, from early on it was clear he was offering more to the pieces than just balance and sonic clarity. Ultimately, a few of the songs were sonically directed by me, several were logical extensions of the demos Brian and I were coming up with, and others were notably altered by SW. Additionally, some of the pieces were beginning to sound like they could fit on a no-man release. Rather than opt for the lawyer style Bowness, Hulse and Wilson credit, along with SW I decided to resurrect an idea we had in the 1990s of the no-man production team (we’d always liked the concept of albums being produced by no-man and carrying something of the band’s DNA into other artist’s releases). Very belatedly, Flowers At The Scene became the idea’s first manifestation.
The album was completed in mid-September 2018 (entirely coincidentally on the day I moved house).
The cover artwork is once again by the force of nature that is Jarrod Gosling. As before, I gave specific instructions about the images I wanted and where they should be placed, and as before Jarrod personalised them and offered new layers of detail. Investigating permutations of the phrase ‘flowers at the scene’, it’s simple yet, for me, poignant and apt.
Song By Song
I Go Deeper
This was one of the last tracks written for Flowers At The Scene. I co-wrote it in the Summer of 2018 with Italian musician Stefano Panunzi for use in a film.
The film version was developed in the more romantic tradition of mid-1990s no-man (and Porcupine Tree at its most lush), but I heard something very different in the piece and set about accentuating the differences between the sections and changing the instrumentation.
The song immediately struck me as a potentially strong album opener, and I wanted the introduction to sound as big as it possibly could. Somewhere in the back of my mind were the likes of David Bowie’s What In The World, Simple Minds’ Up On The Catwalk, Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain, and Flaming Lips’ Race For The Prize (all pieces that possess colossal walls of drum-heavy noise). Elsewhere, I wanted the jittery grit of the verse to be contrasted with an almost contemporary Classical legato approach in the chorus.
Colin Edwin (whose lithe and slippery playing brought to mind two of his formative influences, Bill Laswell and Mick Karn) and Tom Atherton made for a formidable rhythm section – bringing out the best in one another’s considerable abilities – and the soaring guitar solo by Brian Hulse was an undoubted highlight.
I had a very strong sense of how the song should sound and knowing what I was after, Steven Wilson’s powerful mix further emphasised the definitions between sections.
Lyrically, this may appear more abstract than most of what I do, but there’s a concrete story at the core. The lyric is a depiction of a person with a fragmenting / medicated mind slipping through moments in their life while wandering through a hospital at night. Part Slaughterhouse Five, part psychiatric ward, it’s all pure comedy, as usual![youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptY7m76xAps&w=560&h=315]
The Train That Pulled Away
For whatever reason, ’The Train’ is set in the seaside town of Cromer. For added authenticity I asked the curator of the Cromer museum Alistair Murphy (aka The Curator) to score the strings for the piece. He obliged.
There’s something of Billy Liar, Look Back In Anger, Cloudbusting, Philip Glass and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots in the mix here and in my mind it’s a plot for a Channel 4 film from the 1980s set to music (directed by Neil Jordan, or Ken Loach on one of his happier days) . Images of Bob Hoskins crying behind comedy sunglasses while sitting on a pier staring out at a grey English sea spring to mind.
I love the propulsive string quartet and the way that the rhythm section crashes in on the Mozart party two thirds of the way through.
AKA Lost Quiff.
God bless school ukulele lessons! I wrote this while helping Sonny Bowness out with his music homework. I was demonstrating writing and studio overdubbing by creating a densely layered ukulele symphony about a Rock’n’Roller who’d misplaced his quiff. An epic developed that took in several continents, at least one reference to the Holy Grail, and contained the occasional ‘fuzz ukulele’ solo.
Reflecting on what was written a day later, I set a new click track, re-played the parts, added textures, and wrote a completely new lyric over the chord sequence. Although simple, what resulted was one of my favourite purely solo songs. I passed this on to Brian Hulse who added some lovelier textures and evocative piano playing and Jim Matheos, who gifted a glorious solo (he’s good you know). I wanted something direct but interesting from the mighty talents Atherton and Edwin, and they gave the piece exactly the momentum it required rhythmically.
Steven Wilson then took the files and made even more of the component parts by – amongst other things – erasing some performances, highlighting hitherto hidden playing, and extending the ending.
Once more, this has a cinematic touch lyrically and blends hopeless romanticism with an apocalyptic backdrop. Mills & Boon meets The Road? The mass vocal ‘ba ba bas’ are the sound of optimism flying in the face of harsh reality.
Not Married Anymore
Featuring one of the most desolate and direct lyrics on the album, there are three different versions of Not Married Anymore.
The first features a rolling piano and a textural guitar solo against a stark drum machine backing. The second revolves around a bed of brush drums from Dylan Howe and a superb showcase of Jim Matheos’s guitar prowess. The third and final version combines the drum machine with the brush drums and replaces the percussive piano with softer keyboard textures and drops the guitar solos altogether. David K Jones subtle bass playing survived the chop in all three.
Like a no-man score for a David Lynch movie, the final cut is something of a Steven Wilson slant on the piece. He felt that less was more and that stripping the song to its essence was the way to go. He was right.
Flowers At The Scene
Along with Not Married Anymore, The War On Me and The Train That Pulled Away, Flowers At The Scene was co-written with Master Hulse in early 2018.
The lyric wasn’t what I was expecting to come up with. When I’d completed it, I felt drained and surprised. As with many of the lyrics on the forthcoming Bowness/Chilvers album, it’s unusually bleak but not necessarily indicative of the state I was in during writing. Clearly, my subconscious is more Westworld than Disneyland these days! This is a two line newspaper article about a stabbing on a park bandstand expanded to expose the painful reality behind such a mundane and all too familiar story.
This went through several renditions with three drummers and two bassists providing very different takes on the song. Brian and I had a strong idea of what we wanted and despite some excellent contributions nothing was quite working for us. We’d turned into Becker and Fagen making Aja! Performances were too odd, too straight or too much. Eventually, Tom Atherton provided exactly the feel, groove and style we wanted. David K Jones’ wild double bass part was impressively dexterous and all the more remarkable for it being the first time he’d played the instrument. Jim Matheos was on hand once again to deliver a beautifully intense Jazz-tinged solo.
It’s The World
Curious origin #1.
This started with me looping an unused guitar part Jim Matheos had recorded for a Memories Of Machine song and overlaying some loops I’d created out of Estonian/Russian trumpet player Aleksei Saks’ recordings for Slow Electric on the top. Pretty quickly, I expanded upon this and wrote a lyric to what I’d come up with. The song’s all too obvious working title was Metal Miles (referencing the genre and the genius of the trumpet himself Mr Miles Davis).
On hearing the demo, Brian Hulse liked the feel and the lyrics, but felt it was missing a chorus. He added some rollicking guitar and a new sequence and, voila, a basis for a chorus was born.
The lyric is an account of someone blaming everything external on what might be an internal problem. On some levels, it’s self-pity on a global scale but with the current state of the world it’s not exactly clearcut.
I felt I sang the chorus well enough, but I could hear a Peter Hammill shaped hole in it. As you do. One trip down the road later and PH himself had added the vocals and venom that I felt would lift the song, while also replacing Brian’s chorus guitars with a far more savage and loose slice of rifferama. Rikki Nadir had entered the room! Peter had spotted exactly what was wrong with the song and fixed the problem in his own unique way.
Well versed in the ways of Metal, the Atherton/Edwin rhythm section took to the piece like twin Lemmys to whiskey.
Mr Wilson beefed up what was there with his usual flair and added a haunting synth towards the end of the song.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohSYbX4qHzc&w=560&h=315]
Curious origin #2.
This started life in 2003 or 2004. Roger Eno had given me some of his albums and while listening to a piece called Crossing The Border I immediately heard a vocal melody. I sang over the CD in front of Peter Chilvers and we subsequently developed a fully fledged song out of what I’d come up with. There was an additional session at Roger’s house (including recording some RE accordion parts) and Borderline seemed Bowness/Chilvers bound.
Many years and many re-recordings later, the song was sounding good but not quite right for the Opus Miserablis that will eventually become Modern Ruins (Bowness/Chilvers 2.0).
Feeling it was too strong to remain unreleased, I sent the song to Brian Hulse who liked it and re-recorded / re-imagined the entirety of the backing track. I re-wrote half of the lyrics (again) and asked Dylan Howe, Ian Dixon and David Longdon to add parts. After years on the back burner, I suddenly had a clear vision for the piece. I imagined it slightly faster, looser and more Jazz-orientated. I could also hear some Gaucho style backing vocals on the chorus. Becker and Fagen were back in the studio.
I’d loved Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans album (a glorious Coltrane-esque spiritual Jazz homage to David Bowie’s Berlin era music), so knew he’d be an ideal choice for the drums. Ian and David’s trumpet and flute contributions further enhanced the song and the final addition was David’s rich Michael McDonald meets Guy Garvey (a la Longdon, of course) backing vocal.
Who knew a song about depression and self-destruction could sound so sweet?[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDuOJWLXM28]
On both Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and Stupid Things That Mean The World, there were pieces which originated from the 1980s. Ghostlike completes this trilogy of trilobites.
Written in the era of Thatcher, Reagan and shoulder pads bigger than the Empire State Building, Ghostlike started out as a Plenty piece called Sacrifice. The original is very much of its time and heavily indebted to then contemporary releases such as David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth and Talk Talk’s Colour Of Spring. With DX7, mannered voice and Drumulator dominated soundscapes, it’s as bold a reminder of the age of avarice as Tubbs and Crockett’s Miami Vice jackets.
For Ghostlike, the lyric was re-written (primarily in order for it to make sense!) and a new story revolving around the collapse of a relationship in a Mediterranean hotel emerged. The cinematic and torrid imagery was beautifully evoked by Brian’s textures and Ian Dixon’s atmospheric trumpet playing, while the fragmented rhythm and chaotic mid-section guitars did a great job of summoning up a sense of disquiet. Charles Grimsdale and David K Jones (the bass player on the 1987 version) brought a stately and gargantuan quality to the drums and bass.
Brian and I worked on expanding the original and making the overall sound more organic, and SW took it one step further by stripping much of the instrumentation at the beginning and adding the steamy trumpet coda.
The War On Me
Lyrically this was a first person return to some of the preoccupations of Lost In The Ghost Light and Wild Opera.
It’s a heartfelt but self-piteous cry from an artist formerly seen as successful, who’s feeling adrift in a world (s)he barely understands and that doesn’t seem to want her/him.
As with Not Married Anymore, SW texturally softened the song and stripped out some of the instrumentation. Also as with NMA, it’s one of the pieces on the album that I could imagine gracing a no-man album (there’s a soulful, yearning quality that puts me in mind of the likes of Outside The Machine and Chelsea Cap).
Colin Edwin’s double bass playing on this is rich, expressive and the heart of the piece for me.
Killing To Survive
Curious origin #3.
While we were in the midst of writing and recording Flowers At The Scene, Brian and I were discovering all sorts of half-forgotten and sometimes totally forgotten songs that we’d written together over the years. The best was/is the very first Bowness / Hulse song from the Summer of 1986. A John le Carré inspired ‘Cold War ballad’ called This Side Of The Border, I’d remembered it existed while others thought I’d imagined the song. I’d always loved The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but could I really have written a lyric so directly inspired by it? As it turns out, yes I really could. Written at the same time as Towards The Shore – on an old school piano in St Helens – both songs represented the best things I’d done up to that point.
While This Side Of The Border was on my hard drive of doom, Killing To Survive was on Brian’s. I had no recollection of writing or singing it. We knew it came from the early 1990s and that was all. It featured a backing track recorded after the vocal and the two were badly out of sync in terms of tuning. The vocals sounded dreadful and the backing seemed to be for another song entirely, yet we could both hear potential.
The song was gutted, re-recorded and slightly re-written lyrically and it began to make sense. Though it is in effect a simple and anthemic Pop song, Colin and Tom’s playing is incredibly subtle and clever, and Peter Hammill’s backing vocals add strange and interesting textures to the piece.
Like a lot of the album, a bleak lyric is offset by a surprisingly optimistic melody and backing track.
What Lies Here
Appropriately, What Lies Here was the last piece to be completed for the album. Emerging in the late Summer/early Autumn of 2018, the lyric and melody arrived almost fully formed on a small Greek island very late at night.
Brian’s atmospheric backing track was haunting and reflective and I hope my melody and lyric matched it. The theme revolves around something / someone slipping beyond another’s grasp and my feeling was that it could be about a perceived sense of gradual ‘uncoupling’ (thanks Gwyneth!) in a long-term relationship, the loss of youth, or the way in which children grow up and evolve beyond their parent’s reach (Peter Hammill’s Autumn is a wonderful reflection on a similar theme). In other words, chuckles aplenty!
Andy Partridge’s lyrical guitar parts beautifully evoke the ‘end of season’ feel in the music and Kevin Godley’s gorgeous backing vocals provide rich layers of sadness and soul.
10cc’s single I’m Not In Love (with its bittersweet Kevin Godley sung b-side Good News) was the first single I ever bought, so the inclusion of Kevin on this was incredibly special for me. Godley sung songs such as Somewhere In Hollywood, Art School Canteen, Don’t Hang Up, Cry and Fly Away remain personal favourites and I feel Kevin has one of the most affecting voices in Pop. Godley & Creme’s frequently innovative music remains criminally underrated in my opinion.
Having been a fan of XTC since hearing Statue Of Liberty on Magpie in 1977, Andy Partridge’s involvement was equally thrilling for me. In the early days of no-man, a VHS I had of a Channel 4 XTC documentary (about the making of The Big Express) was the object of a bidding war in one of the (still) regular T-Bo/SW swapping sessions. Drums And Wires, Mummer, Skylarking and Apple Venus Volume One were soundtracks to certain parts of my life and I still value them highly.
Both Andy and Kevin added emotional character to the piece and both were very conscientious in terms of what they brought to it (offering insights and suggestions). Both added more than was used, but wanting to retain the integrity of the song I opted for the less is more approach.
The song ends as unexpectedly and suddenly as I Go Deeper begins.
Out of reach and waving.
Tim Bowness 1 March 2019