These are Tim’s sleeve notes from the August 2014 double cd reissue of Schoolyard Ghosts.
Schoolyard Ghosts came together between Spring 2006 and Spring 2008 and unlike other no-man albums, its starting points almost exclusively drew on material I brought in. What resulted felt unified and like an evolution of no-man, but the process of making it was probably the most convoluted in the band’s history.
Due to a typically busy schedule, Steven had suggested that I write material with a view to him helping me refine it and giving it a no-man identity. Initially, this was intended to be my version of no-man with Steven ‘executive producing’ and suggesting areas the songs could go in. Inevitably, the finished album had a lot more of Steven in the mix than he’d originally intended.
Previously, our way of working comprised combinations of me bringing in a couple of complete songs for Steven to develop further, Steven sending me half a dozen backing tracks that I’d write lyrics/melodies over, and the two of us writing some songs together in the studio. After we’d assembled an album’s worth of material, the debates over mix, arrangements and sequencing would commence. Obviously, the ratio of these approaches varied from album to album – Wild Opera was mostly written in the studio with both of us present, for example – but in general that was the pattern for how we made the likes of Flowermouth, Loveblows & Lovecries and Returning Jesus.
In 2006, I was writing a lot of solo material as well as co-writing with Alistair Murphy (for the as yet unreleased Postcards From Space), Giancarlo Erra (for what would become Memories Of Machines) and Peter Chilvers. It was a time when several things were almost, but not quite, coming together, so I had plenty of material at my disposal.
My original idea was for Schoolyard Ghosts to be based on a series of songs I’d written about how experiences in adolescence could still negatively shape adult lives. A bona fide concept album, at last!
From Sweetheart Raw onwards, I’d been preoccupied by how single moments – some obviously significant, others seemingly trivial – could determine the course of lives or linger in the memory, and this was something I wanted to develop on a larger scale. The songs concerned an individual scarred by the past and incapable of functioning in the present because of that. My own time at school and as a young teenager had been difficult, so naturally some personal experiences informed the lyrics. Real incidents and names were included (especially in the title track) and a friend of mine who’d been seriously affected by his time at the school we were both at (ending up bi-polar and bed-ridden), was also an inspiration. By the third day of the sessions, the concept idea had been dropped, along with the proposed title track.
Playing the demos to Steven for the first time was surprisingly daunting for me. We got together in the Autumn of 2007 and in typical no-man fashion, the comic insults were flying at a rapid pace. Steven had just finished a Porcupine Tree tour and I was feeling unusually fragile (perhaps because I knew my songs would be judged in a very direct fashion!). As a result, we were probably more at odds than we’d ever been during the recording of a no-man album. The atmosphere was still mostly harmonious, but it differed from that in the Together We’re Stranger sessions, where we were in agreement over almost everything. That said, from the very first three day recording session, it looked like something good would result (All Sweet Things, Truenorth and Mixtaped came together during this time). Having to let go of ‘the concept’ and to significantly re-write material I’d carefully prepared was disappointing, but by the time we spontaneously wrote Wherever There Is Light and recorded the orchestra in early 2008, Steven and I were strongly in sync as regards what Schoolyard Ghosts should be. Albums often dictate themselves and there was a strangely optimistic spirit of overcoming adversity that permeated all the songs from the beginning that, as it turned out, was also acted out in the realisation of them.
When it was complete, my feeling was one of relief. We’d made a new no-man album that sounded like no other, but still retained the essence of the band’s identity. It also felt like we were trying to better ourselves, especially in terms of arrangement and compositional sophistication. The supporting mini-tour was the best we’d done to date and the band appeared to have found itself in an exciting new place with possibilities ahead of it. Together We’re Stranger had come together effortlessly and seemed like the pinnacle of a particular type of no-man music that Steven and I valued. Overcoming TWS’s stranglehold wasn’t easy, but I think we did it.
All Sweet Things:
One of my favourite no-man songs, this developed out of a song I’d written with Peter Chilvers (an atmospheric ‘electronica’ piece). Steven liked the vocal melody and wrote new music to fit it, while I re-wrote some of the lyrics to tie in with the Schoolyard Ghosts concept and Steven’s changes. A chorus and variations were added as the new piece took off in the studio, Steven was favouring a more acoustic sound palette, so the synths were out and the glockenspiels were in. The ghostly treated piano coda was the one remnant of the Bowness/Chilvers demo.
Beautiful Songs You Should Know:
Describing the optimism that comes at the start of a relationship, I wrote this with Giancarlo Erra in the midst of an early Autumn heatwave in New York in 2006. Utilising the talents of cellist Marianne de Chastelaine, who I’d previously worked with in 1996, it was recorded in Jeffrey Sapara’s compact Greenwich Village apartment. Marianne’s virtuosity and the idyllic Manhattan setting added to the magic of a memorable musical experience (an enhanced version of this session ended up on Memories Of Machines‘ 2011 album Warm Winter). The no-man version took a more direct approach and, in some ways, the stripped-down, almost bossa-nova take that ended up on Schoolyard Ghosts was a Wilson vision of a Bowness/Erra piece, with only Marianne’s cello remaining untouched.
Steven liked most of the demos I’d played him, but felt a lot were, “Too pretty by half.” He wanted to hear something more extreme and ‘different’, so I played him one of my more aggressive GarageBand demos, The City Sounds. He thought it had potential and wrote new instrumental intros and outros (with a real harp and something of Danny Elfman’s film scores about them). I re-worked the lyrics to the song section to make it even more dark and paranoid (most of the original lyrics were dropped and made their way into a very different piece, more of which later) and asked Pat Mastelotto to replace the demo drums I’d recorded. I’d previously worked with Pat in Centrozoon and knew he’d bring enthusiasm and the right amount of energy/madness to the piece and that proved to be the case. Something of an anomaly on the album, I always felt it sounded like a more fully realised version of certain ideas we’d tried out on Wild Opera. Offering a necessary contrast to what the band had been doing over the previous decade, it also hinted at the more aggressive no-man live band sound to come.
The epic and, along with Things I Want To Tell You, my favourite no-man piece ever. I like(d) the fact that via three logically linked, yet very different, sections the song moved from despair to hope without seeming cheap (the lyric was about positively overcoming a state of depression and inertia). Part One came from my GarageBand demo Another Winter, which I’d always imagined as an intro for something grander. The piano parts came about by me manipulating samples and playing rhythms and effects off one another in a way I thought echoed Steve Reich’s early compositional processes. I then added synth strings and arpeggio guitars, along with a vocal. Before I played it to Steven, I’d also recorded Fabrice Lefebvre’s exotic yang t’chin in France. Regardless, Steven didn’t like it. I played it once and he dismissed it casually. I played it again and he said, “Meh!”. After an hour had passed, I played it for a third time and he said, “I thought it was shit the first two times I heard it, what makes it better now?” I launched into a defence worthy of Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird suggesting that it could lead to something else and form the beginning of an interesting ‘chain letter’ style piece. Semi-convinced, Steven started improving sounds from my demo and quickly developed Part Two out of what my arpeggio guitars suggested. I thought it sounded great immediately. I sang over what he’d written for Part Two and suddenly, we were both getting excited at what was emerging. A few days later, Steven sent me the music he’d written for Part Three. This was turning into one of the most sophisticated and ambitious pieces we’d ever worked on, and when Steven suggested that Dave Stewart arrange parts for a full string orchestra, I was delighted. Dave, the orchestra and Angel Studios, Islington were booked and we committed three quarters of the album’s budget to this single (long) song. Despite the end product featuring contrasting elements such as lo-fi GarageBand samples and an immaculately recorded large orchestra, my primitive guitar and Theo Travis’s virtuoso flute, and Steven’s hand percussion and Andy Booker’s electronic drums, everything gelled. In all respects, this seemed like an exciting and magical upgrade of the classic no-man sound.
Wherever There Is Light:
Perhaps the most popular track on the album and the last to be completed, this was the only piece that we wrote in the studio together. We thought it would be interesting to see if we could still write something ‘the way we used to’. Steven started playing the guitar and – using discarded lyrics from The City Sounds – I started singing. Almost instantly, we felt something special was happening. After the first listen through, I suggested the flute melody (initially recorded on a Mellotron and later performed by Theo Travis) and it was done. It had taken us around five minutes to come up with something that tied the album together in the way we were looking for. I’d always loved Bruce Kaphan’s playing in American Music Club and approached him regarding adding some pedal steel guitar parts. He agreed and contributed a beautiful solo to the piece that fitted perfectly with what we had, while offering a new sonic dimension to the band’s music. Strangely uplifting, the piece subsequently became a live favourite for both fans and band.
Song Of The Surf:
Co-written with Alistair Murphy, this was scheduled for the still unreleased Postcards From Space album. The Bowness/Murphy demo was 10 minutes long and sounded like a Cosmic Rock adaptation of a 1960s Burt Bacharach ballad. By contrast, the no-man version was more minimalist and featured some additional writing in the coda by Steven, plus a set of sounds (glockenspiel etc) that were rapidly turning out to define the Schoolyard Ghosts aural experience.
This was a comparatively straight no-man-isation of my demo Ominous Dancefloor that retained the original’s washed-out ‘end of Summer school disco’ feel. Pete Morgan provided the bass (on both the demo and the finished product), Steven refined the sounds/composition and Bruce Kaphan provided another gorgeous pedal steel contribution.
A favourite for both Steven and me, this had a troubled beginning and in some ways set the agenda for the album as a whole. I played Steven my demo for the song Schoolyard Ghosts, which I felt was one of the strongest things I’d written as well as being something I wanted to form the lyrical basis of the album. Unfortunately, Steven didn’t like the vocal melody or the pace of the piece (which, admittedly, had more than a whiff of Pink Floyd’s Breathe about it). Steven suggested it be slowed down and the vocal melody improved upon. The change of pace rendered the original lyrics redundant and I reluctantly started again from scratch. Staying in a less than salubrious hotel overnight (‘in rooms where people go to die’!), amidst the ghosts of discarded ashtrays and the presence of a busted, filthy shower and copious amounts of the previous guests spit on the bedside table, I re-wrote the melody and lyrics to Steven’s radically slowed down version of my original chords (while occasionally drifting off and watching the evocative Australian film, Little Fish). Something clicked and an emotional quality that partly came to define the whole album evolved from the forced changes. We recorded the vocals on the next day at Nomansland. Steven developed the haunting coda over which we both added musical box parts played on Japanese ‘Beatles’ Musical Boxes’ (in the closing mayhem, if you listen hard enough, the strains of Love Me Do and Yellow Submarine can probably still be heard). Gavin Harrison supplied the slower than slow Jazz-tinged drums and made the difficult sound effortless. In a live context, the song grew and grew and became the closing piece for all our performances (the snail-paced grind of the coda thrilling in its relentlessness).
Lucky You, Lucky Me:
Another Bowness/Erra track which ended up on Warm Winter, this was first given a no-man treatment in late 2007 and narrowly missed out on being on the finished Schoolyard Ghosts. Not so far removed from the Memories Of Machines‘ version, Steven’s guitar solo was a highlight of the Schoolyard Ghosts sessions for me.
This was a no-man version of my demo The Place Where You’d Hide and lyrically was part of the Schoolyard Ghosts concept. I liked the sweeping orchestral synth drift of the original, but the acoustic rhythms and guitar noises in the no-man version were equally effective, if not more so. The track came about when we were being filmed for Richard Smith’s no-man documentary, Returning. He asked us how we wrote material together, so we showed him. With the cameras on us, my demo was transformed into a collaborative no-man piece in less than an hour. Both the pace and the process recalled the exhilarating Wild Opera/Dry Cleaning Ray sessions. I subsequently recorded Steve Bingham’s violin at my house a month or two after no-man’s Autumn 2008 mini-tour.
Death Was California:
This was written in late 2008 when, unexpectedly, Steven sent me the backing track for a work in progress called Country Song. I liked it a lot, wrote lyrics to it and recorded the vocals at my home studio soon after. Liking the raw results, Steven added my vocals to his backing track pretty much as they came. We released the song as one of the b-sides for the Wherever There Is Light single in 2009. It remains a personal favourite amongst the songs I’ve been involved in writing and one I’m still eagerly waiting for Dolly Parton to cover!
The GarageBand demos:
These are four of many demos I wrote between 2006 and 2008. I like the fact that they’re hidebound by technology and the limitations of what GarageBand could do at the time and I also like the fact that because of that, they share a consistency of sound. I manipulated samples and notes, played keyboards (all hail the M-Tron!) and guitar, and used multiple treatments in ways that were new for me. As such, these pieces evoke a great period of discovery. The music was written purely for the sake of it with little regard for genre, purpose or context. Aside from my parts, prior to his involvement in the no-man live band, Pete Morgan contributed bass to Ominous Dancefloor.
Tim Bowness, February 2014.
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