As half of the avant-pop duo No-Man—with Porcupine Tree guitarist and composer Steven Wilson—Bowness has released more than a dozen genre-defying albums, including the recent Together We’re Stranger [Snapper]. The act is known for incorporating inventive combinations of ambient, neo-classical, jazz, dub, and rock elements into any given track.
“I truly enjoy the endless possibilities of collaborative songwriting,” he says. “I might bring in a complete track that Steven completely transforms, or Steven might provide me with a backing track that I write the lyrics and melody for. It can also be the two of us bashing out material on the spot. In addition, we sometimes take a chain letter approach, in which I’ll write a line or verse, and then he’ll provide the chorus and middle eight.”
When Bowness writes songs in a solo context—as on his latest release, My Hotel Year [One Little Indian]—he tends to take a more exploratory approach.
“When I write for myself on guitar or keyboard, it’s sometimes about accidentally hitting a chord or progression that suggests a melody—which can lead to a structure or idea that suggests far more,” he says. “The result is often reasonably simple, skeletal, yet melodically strong pieces that leave room for other musicians’ ideas in the arrangement stage. I may use my Line 6 POD 2.0 and DL-4 Delay Modeler to make guitar loops that serve as the basis of a piece, or employ the DL-4 to create vocal loops that start with nothing but pure feeling, and then go on to develop a coherent identity. The process is similar to Robert Fripp’s soundscape approach. I’ll record multiple voice loops, and then have them play simultaneously to develop some incredibly complex harmonies and interesting cross rhythms. You almost become your own choir. It’s a very intriguing, exciting, and cathartic approach for coming up with ideas. Also, the beauty of vocal loops is that they are wonderfully adaptable. I edit them in GarageBand, Cubase, or Logic, and use them in many recordings.”
Bowness also collaborated with Fripp himself, who performed on No-Man’s recently reissued 1994 CD, Flowermouth.
“We did two passes through each song,” says Bowness. “On the first pass, we instructed Robert on what and how to play. For the second take, we asked him to do whatever he thought was appropriate for the song. We used a combination of both approaches on the final release. Occasionally, to trigger inspiration or ire, we’d hold up photos of guitar greats in front of him. If we wanted something grand and bombastic, we’d hold up an old image of Robert with an afro from the early King Crimson days and say, “We’d like a bit of this.” Then we’d hold up an image of Brian May in full Queen regalia and add, “But we’d also like a bit of this.” I’ve always loved the extreme range of Robert’s expression. It was very inspiring to be around someone equally adept at making ear-splitting noise as he is in crafting ethereal and graceful sounds.”