Sometimes music appears so quickly and seems so right that talking about it seems pointless; cheap even. It is what it is, and what it is is an instinctive force of nature. Conversely, when music comes unnaturally, there’s often a desire to overexplain it in order to justify its existence. As such, expect all the Late Night Laments interviews to be filled with silence and, in-between the silence, pauses.
As with no-man’s Together We’re Stranger, Late Night Laments was something I didn’t expect to make, but felt compelled to complete once I’d started. Also, as with Together We’re Stranger, the music seemed to be dictating the creative process and I felt like an editor or spectator. From titles to arrangements to artwork, the making of the album was very much a case of ‘first thought, best thought.’ The sequencing on the other hand….
The last song on the album was the first to be written. Composed in the early hours of the morning after I’d just finished re-reading John le Carré’s masterful and melancholy The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, One Last Call emerged fully formed. In some ways, I was still adrift in the world of espionage, personal loss, and attempts to find meaning in flawed political and religious systems. After creating the atmospheric backing track, I sang the song quietly into my computer with the window open and the sound of the breeze almost drowning out my voice.
Overnight, the song reverberated through my mind and I was sure I’d hit on a direction for a new album.
The next morning I sent the results to my co-producer, sounding board and fellow veteran of the Northern Wars, Bob/Brian/Bobian Hulse. In the accompanying email I presented the idea of Late Night Laments. After the eclecticism of Flowers At The Scene and the big beat grandeur of Love You to Bits, I wanted (needed?) to make something that operated in a very focused sonic and emotional territory.
Luckily, Brian liked what I’d done and added a few lovely overdubs to my demo. Within a few days, he sent me some backing tracks he’d written in a similar vein. Never A Place was completed within the week and the game was well and truly afoot.
Both One Last Call and Never A Place felt fresh and felt necessary. The subject matters for the songs surprised me and they both possessed a particular intensity whose origins I couldn’t quite place. Lyrically, there was an overwhelming (and overwhelmed) sense of the external pressures that impact on individuals, plus the frequent le Carré theme of small lives being sacrificed for the supposedly greater good.
Late Night Laments came together in two bursts of activity between August and October 2019 and January and March 2020.
Very quickly, Brian and I knew what constituted an LNL piece. The requirements were unusually specific and impostors were shot on sight (or consigned to ‘the hard drive of doom’, at the very least).
With one exception – Hidden Life, which started life as a song I’d co-written with Pete Morgan – the music exclusively came from me or Brian. In all cases, I subsequently worked on the vocals and lyrics in my home studio and Brian and I worked on arrangements.
After Flowers At The Scene had been completed in the late Summer of 2018, all my attention was focused on No-Man’s Love You To Bits. After 25 years as background noise, the oft-discussed ‘Disco epic’ was finally becoming a reality. Beginning in the Autumn of 2018, Steven Wilson and I refined sections, recruited guests, recorded overdubs, re-wrote some ‘Bits’ and composed some new ‘Pieces’. Unlike the slightly morose atmosphere that surrounded the making of Schoolyard Ghosts, the time spent putting together Love You To Bits was a joy.
Throughout most of 2019, I re-recorded my vocals for LYTB, continued to tweak and add to the lyrics, and attended some of Bruno Ellingham’s mixing sessions. The resulting album was everything I wanted it to be and, like the band’s early work, managed to combine no-man’s core identity with something more outgoing.
By August 2019, I’d not written anything totally new since What Lies Here in July 2018. One Last Call ended the drought, and this time, the musical gaze was most definitely inward.
LNL finds me retreating into exclusively introspective moods for the first time in a while, but with the benefit of a decade or so of experiences.
From the beginning, I very much imagined the album as a late night headphone listening experience and saw it as representing someone (locked in a small world of favoured ‘comfy chairs’, records, films and books) lost in a beautiful sensation, while hearing the sound of the news murmuring away in the background. In the era of 24 hour news channels and social media, it’s harder than ever to escape the march of history and a lot of current themes – generational divides, hate crimes, political extremes, terrorism and more – found their way into the songs.
For me, the artwork (another hyper-detailed Gosling/Bowness collaboration) provides a perfect summation of the album’s contents. Although it’s not a narrative story, Late Night Laments possesses a strong conceptual continuity throughout.
By mid-March 2020, 53 minutes of music had been recorded (plus a couple of demos that hadn’t been fully realised) and the album sequencing had begun.
As always, Steven Wilson did a wonderful job of the mix and the cherry on top came in the shape of mastering engineer Calum Malcolm, the sonic perfectionist responsible for favourite albums of mine by the likes of The Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout and It’s Immaterial.
After 27 attempts at ordering the songs, I found what I was looking for and everything suddenly clicked. On one of my last listens through, I became so absorbed in the experience that when the album finished I had to gradually re-remember that ‘lockdown’ and ‘the virus’ were real things. The music (or my exhaustion) had made me forget what was happening in the outside world and for a few moments the all-too depressing reality we’re living through seemed like far-fetched fragments from a bad dream.
Along with Lost In The Ghost Light, the artwork for LNL is the most detailed of any of my covers. I explained what I wanted to Jarrod in January (including the face mask image on the TV, the LPs, the chair, the record player etc) and J took it even further with his customary skill.
My original idea was for it to have the painterly approach of Alfreda Benge (Robert Wyatt) and Maja Weber (Eberhard Weber). Jarrod subsequently suggested referencing the claustrophobic and slightly squalid nature of Mark Wilkinson’s imagery for Marillion’s Script For A Jester’s Tear. The character on the front cover is a Jarrod self-portrait from 2030!
As with Lost In The Ghost Light, detail upon detail piled up. Initially we used actual album covers, but Sony lawyers dissuaded us from going down that route. Patti Smith’s Easter, The Blue Nile’s Hat’s and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira were in there, as were Robert Wyatt’s Dondestan and Marillion’s Script For A Jester’s Tear (as they’d been something of an influence on the artwork).
The socially distanced photo shoot – by Mark Wood – was a lockdown special. We met at his lovely photographic studio (15 minutes away from where I live) and Mark skilfully created a number of different backgrounds for me to pull my ‘old stone face’ pose in front of.
Originally, he wanted to go for an unflattering, hyper-grainy, Tom Waits style look, but I suggested that we go for a gentler (more forgiving!) approach. Our new role model became Roger Moore as we imagined him taking on his final James Bond PR shoot!
The lyrical subject matter was often surprisingly specific in terms of its inspirations, but I tried to write the songs in a way that was more ambiguous that could allow for wider interpretations (so other people could imagine their own experiences or ideas reflected in the songs).
Here’s an individual breakdown:
To an extent, this is about a person seeing their partner slowly descend into the fog of dementia, reflecting on their happy life together and coming to terms with their powerlessness and eventual demise. I’m more of a ‘rage against the dying of the light’ person, but this is a song of blissful acceptance; a song about coming to terms with ever-shifting change and being replaced.
It’s a sort of companion piece to the Bowness/Chilvers song Sleeping Face (which has a similar scenario, but deals with a ‘malcontent’ closer to myself) and was influenced – in the abstract – by the difficult experiences that my dad and step-mum and Brian’s parents have been going through over recent years. There was also an echo of their lockdown experiences in some of the lines. The ‘You’re laughing; a laughter close to crying’ phrase was inspired by seeing a seriously ill friend.
The music has its basis in a wonderful Hulse piece written at the dawn of the 1990s, but the arrangement, lyrics and performances are from early 2020. Brian rightly felt that this was a perfect fit for LNL and as soon as I wrote the melody and lyrics, it felt like a key song for the project.
Evan Carson’s restless percussion, Tom Atherton’s vibraphone and Melanie Wood’s backing vocals breathe life into the predominantly electronic arrangement and Brian’s synth solo provides an unexpectedly powerful blast of hope amidst the ruins.
I’m Better Now
This is written from the perspective of a perpetrator of a hate crime.
For a variety of reasons, society has become increasingly febrile and polarised over the last half-decade and along with an increase in intolerance and aggression, there’s been a real sense of more and more people feeling adrift in the modern world and feeling like they’re slipping through the cracks of society. When people feel unheard and invisible, violence can result. In Britain, we had the tragic killing of a politician (Jo Cox) and that may have been one of the many stories that lodged in the back of my mind.
I wanted to present an extremist view and an extreme act in a way that ‘almost’ made it appear normal. The banality of evil.
There’s something of A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver in the song’s unresolved tension, especially in the ambiguous assertion of the chorus lyric.
Kavus Torabi and Mel Wood’s contributions came at the very end of the album’s recording process. I knew I wanted a particularly type of singer to back me on a few of the pieces and I also knew I wanted a particular type of ‘bite’ in the IBM guitar solo. I was getting nowhere finding what I was looking for when I received an email from Kavus with a link to his excellent Hip To The Jag album. Remembering his and Mel’s fine work in Knifeworld, I knew I’d found the missing pieces.
I’m Better Now evolved out of one of my demos and as with most tracks on the album, it utilised marimba, vibraphone and mallet instrument samples. To humanise these, throughout the album, the mighty Tom Atherton replaced fake with real. Beyond being a talented Rock drummer, Tom’s a gifted Classically trained percussionist. He’s a useful asset to have.
More late-life regret! The title was inspired by a Warren Zevon quote where he said – when he was dying of cancer – that he wanted to live in order to write ‘that last dark line’. The feel of the lyric was partly influenced by Margaret Atwood’s magnificent Hag-Seed (which in turn was based on Shakespeare’s barmiest play, The Tempest).
As good as the demo was, I could hear a Richard Barbieri shaped hole in it. After much deep contemplation, I came up with the extraordinary idea that there was no-one better to fill that particular hole than Richard himself. Luckily, the great man agreed. RB’s lead and textural synth lines were exactly what the piece needed and greatly enhanced Brian’s existing electronic pulses and atmospheres. RB has rightly been recognised as an exceptional sonic architect, but his ability to create astonishing solos (a synth equivalent of Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew?) has been greatly underestimated in my opinion. The Hulse / Barbieri combination of ‘woozy’ electronic textures is a delight.
We Caught The Light
This was written in the middle of the night on New Year’s Day 2020. I had a strange sense of foreboding and a strong feeling that the year ahead was going to be significant and not in a good way.
Concerning generational divides, part of the idea behind this is that a Boomer (the currently most hated demographic) is trying to convince both themselves and a younger person that their history was revolutionary, their intentions were good and that they had a meaningful impact on the world.
The 1960s was a great era for civil rights protests, artistic innovation, environmental awareness and feminism, yet the ‘progressive’ generation responsible seem to be the main object of the current revolutionary generation’s ire. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this, it struck me as an interesting culture war between two tribes who might actually agree on more than they disagree on.
This started off as a purely solo T-Bo demo featuring a fleet of ukuleles and primitive rhythms, and was the first outing for my electric ukulele. An odd fact is that I was brought up pretty much round the corner from where Britain’s ukulele / banjolele king George Formby spent most of his childhood and early youth (London Road, Stockton Heath). Clearly, it’s in the blood!
The Hitman Who Missed
I visualised this as being about someone who was expected to succeed in life (a school ‘jock’, a failed a pop star, a real hitman?) ending up adrift from the world around them.
There are shades of John Cheever’s The Swimmer – a favourite story and film – in this.
Brian’s backing is evocative throughout, but my favourite sections are where the song explodes into colour near the end with the unexpected entrance of Bacharach & David ‘ba bas’, Colin Edwin’s double bass, Tom Atherton’s vibraphone and Alistair ’The Curator’ Murphy’s home-made beauty, The Dianatron.
Never A Place
This was a song I saw as being about someone feeling outside of society and having an instinctive sense of not belonging. In some ways, it concerns an innocent coming face to face with a societal cruelty that brands them ‘different’.
The initial idea/feeling I had was of a Jewish child during the rise of Hitler feeling apart from most of the people around them, yet not fully understanding why. I also saw it from the perspective of being disabled in a mostly able-bodied world (one of my grandparents was wheelchair-bound for a lot of their life).
Brian’s drum programming on LNL is a league above his previous experiments in the field and they were good).For me, the constantly shifting groove on Never A Place is amongst his finest work yet.
The Last Getaway
This is a song about the children’s author Harry Horse and I partly wrote the lyric in the sentimental style of his books (the ‘Dear child’ repetition is a device he uses and his main books begin with ’The Last’ in their titles).
Harry Horse was an award-winning author who used to be a political cartoonist. I read a couple of his books to my young son, who loved them. I thought it was strange that these best-selling books of the 1990s were so difficult to find less than 30 years later, so I looked into why that might be the case. What I discovered was far removed from what I expected.
Horse and his wife moved to an idyllic spot in Scotland and were living a happy life until his wife was diagnosed with a degenerative disease. Soon after, reportedly, Horse went mad, stabbed his wife to death, killed all the family pets and then committed suicide. However it played out, I found it a truly harrowing story, and the contrast between his sweet children’s books and truly dismal end provided the inspiration for the song.
Musically and vocally this has a deceptively light and soulful quality and once more the Hulse / Barbieri team works wonders in the textural department.
This is almost a lockdown scenario. Someone looks out of their window as the world passes them by.
The original demo (made with Pete Morgan and Peter Chilvers) didn’t feature the final fifth of the song (a Hulse contribution), which I feel brings some warmth and hope to what initially seems a bleak and lonely scenario.
Once more, I go into spontaneous Bacharach & David ‘ba ba’ mode near the song’s climax. My parent’s record collection has a lot to answer for!
One Last Call
The subject is ideologically motivated terrorism, but the scenario is intensely personal. This – like I’m Better Now – is about someone finding a (dangerous) sense of purpose in a seemingly indifferent universe and committing a heinous and destructive crime in the name of a supposedly greater cause. I wrote it in an ambiguous way that almost suggests it could be a love song.
With its atmospheric textures, vibraphone patterns, double bass and mood of contemplation, this provided the sonic and emotional template for Late Night Laments.
The beginning became the end.
Late Night Laments was finished on the day lockdown was announced in the UK.
Initially, I worried that its themes would seem worthless in the era of ’the new normal’ and that possibly the idea of music itself was indulgent in the face of what was to come. Due to various events in these turbulent times, many of the themes now seem more current than they did at the time of writing.
As for the usefulness of art during the pandemic, music (in particular), films and books have become even more important to me and have provided me with inspiration and comfort throughout what has been a miserable and tragic time for many. The Album Years podcast with Steven Wilson – our ‘lockdown project’ – partly emerged as a way of the two of us giving back to music what music had given to us.
Here’s hoping that by the time solo album number seven is released we’ll all be in a better place. Until then, as the overused 2020 catchphrase goes, stay safe.
Tim Bowness, August 12th, 2020