Stupid Things That Mean The World was finished in late April 2015.
In terms of release dates, it seemed to emerge quickly after Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, but the truth felt somewhat different.
All the recording for Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had been completed by December 2013. As a result, there was a lot of time to prepare the final mixes, track listing and artwork at the pre-release stage. By the time of the album’s release on June 23rd 2014, ADD already felt as established and historical to me as anything I’d ever done. Caught up in the packaging, live performances and promotional processes for the album (as well as dealing with a big cross-country house move) meant that I didn’t find time to write any new songs for the first seven months of 2014. It seemed like an eternity.
The starting point for Stupid Things… was the album’s title track. I wrote this in my home studio a few weeks after Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had been released. ADD generated some of the best responses I’d ever received for an album and I was feeling positive and enthusiastic (shocking, I know). I was keen to see how I could take what I thought were the best aspects of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams further. Rather than creating blueprints for a future no-man album (as ADD had begun), this time things began with the idea of building on the ‘solo’ identity that ADD had presented.
Over the following months, I wrote (and co-wrote) more material and listened through my archive of unreleased songs to see if anything resonated with what I was coming up with. By October, I had 15 songs that I was considering for the new album.
Outside of my working on pieces at home, recording started proper in late October/ early November 2014 when I ventured into Peter Hammill’s Terra Incognita studios to work on Everything You’re Not. Peter was a massive influence on both me and my work when I first started making music and between the ages of 16 and 23, his intensely personal album Over was my undefeated desert island disc (I was also a fan of his work with Van Der Graaf Generator and Robert Fripp). As always, it was an honour to work with Peter and on a one-on-one collaborative basis he was surprisingly warm, encouraging and accommodating. Alongside assisting me with the song, Peter gamely joined in on my spontaneous instrumental ‘homage’ to his work with VDGG, which he wisely suggested calling Everything But You.
Elsewhere, the 15 songs circulated around ‘the band’ (the returning veterans of the ADD Wars, Stephen Bennett, Michael Bearpark, Colin Edwin and Andrew Booker), and Baron Bennett and I sent files out to Andrew Keeling, and Anna Phoebe, who – as they’d done on ADD – provided some inspired and inspirational string parts.
As the source material was more diverse than on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, the performances were also more adventurous. Colin tried out a variety of basses and styles and showed the tremendous adaptability he’s become known for. Ideas flowed. Andrew Keeling’s arrangements offered new perspectives and Anna, Stephen and Michael gifted some excellent textures and solos. The Booker Boy was quintessentially Bookerish.
This time, there wasn’t an overriding concept running through the songs, though a few themes – which might have ultimately blended into one anyway – seemed to dominate the lyrics. One was the simple idea of stupid things that mean the world: Seemingly pointless objects, things or ideas, we cling onto in order to make life more bearable. Another was the ongoing saga of the Third Monster On The Left. Third Monster is an album I’ve been trying to make for years. There’s been no shortage of songs and lyrics, but it’s never seemed to work as a whole for me. As a result, songs from the project have appeared on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams and now on Stupid Things That Mean The World.
A Monstrous Digression
Third Monster On The Left is a Rock Opera (Scaramouche, brothers!!) which started with the noble yet somehow tragic image of a sixty something jogger in an expensive tracksuit rifling through the vegetable racks at my local Budgens. His intense glare and assured sense of self, allied to his thinning long grey hair and patented Mick Fleetwood beard, left me wondering which veteran Rock band he’d once played with (or was in).
This got me thinking about the link between the moment when music first came into this person’s life and whether it still informed his (possibly imaginary) music making in the present. Other questions followed: What were the human costs of dedicating a life to music? How much did ‘real life’ and ‘growing up’ get in the way of the ‘magic’?; What was the impact of the changing nature of the music industry on the nature of music itself: As physical objets d’art became unpaid streams and younger audiences seemingly no longer valued music in the way they once did, were, as Brian Eno suggested, professional musicians like blacksmiths, strange echoes from another age? If so, what was the psychological impact of that realisation on an ageing performer playing to an ageing crowd?
I’m fascinated by the iron grip that music has on the lives of musicians and fans alike. What’s still portrayed as a teenage obsession can have an unshakeable hold on people until the end of their lives. Hitting the grand age of 51, it’s a source of constant wonder to me that I’ve managed to make a living being involved in something I love and that’s preoccupied me since my early teens (three quarters of my life so far). It’s an even greater source of wonder that I still feel as enthusiastic about both my music and other people’s as I ever did. Wasn’t this what I was told I’d quickly grow out of by my relatives and friends? There have been magical highs and despondent lows, but the emotional and transformative qualities of listening to or creating music remain a constant in a life of dramatic changes.
Could I turn all the above into an album? As it happened, I couldn’t (not yet anyway). The subject seemed too immense, too trivial, too limited and too important to do justice to. Individually, I felt the Third Monster songs were amongst my strongest, but put together they seemed to lyrically cover a lot of the same ground and not tell the story I wanted to as well as I’d have liked to.
For the curious, The Warm-Up Man Forever, Songs Of Distant Summers, The Sweetest Bitter Pill, The Great Electric Teenage Dream and Everything You’re Not were written with Third Monster in mind. The as yet unreleased Henry Fool songs Moonshot, Nowhere Good To Go and Worlds Of Yesterday are also a part of it, and Dancing For You, Abandoned Dancehall Dream and Stupid Things That Mean The World are somewhere in the margins of the invisible Third Monster libretto.
Expect a 32 hour version of Third Monster On The Left to hit the virtual shelves sometime in 2050!
In February 2015, along with Michael Bearpark and Stephen Bennett, I did some vocal recording in NAM Studios. I’d just recovered from a two week throat infection that had left me unable to speak, so the singing was more of a struggle than usual (as was the talking). Regardless, time was usefully spent going through the material and working out what felt right for the album and why.
Another positive was that the pondering over coffees resulted in practical action as two brand new songs emerged, The Great Electric Teenage Dream and Know That You Were Loved.
The Great Electric Teenage Dream – a collaboration with Stephen – immediately felt like it had a quality the album needed. Recording the vocals and guitars live in a late-night session at NAM was memorable and thrilling and a forceful reminder of why I love doing what I do.
I wrote Know That You Were Loved in early February. In terms of its structure and chords, this felt like something different for me and emotionally I felt strongly attached to it immediately. In March, Guitar God and all-round lovely man, David Rhodes transformed the song into a pulsing, feedback-drenched electronic Rock piece. I genuinely liked what he’d done – particularly his spiky coda and haunting backing vocals – but felt the song had moved away from the intimacy that made it special to me.
More vocal recording at my home studio followed in March and April and at the same time the files were being sent to Bruce Soord for mixing. Bruce had been recommended to me by Steven Wilson. I’d really liked the sound he’d achieved on the Wisdom Of Crowds album and my feeling was that Bruce’s style could both complement what I did while taking it somewhere different. For me, it did.
Bruce added some powerful guitar parts to certain songs and re-recorded Know That You Were Loved in the style of the original acoustic demo (albeit greatly improved). Gathered together and almost mixed, it became obvious which songs worked and which songs didn’t. A last minute culling began!
In late April, immediately following home-studio replacement vocal recordings and some wonderful final touches from Rhys Marsh, the album was completed. Overall, the process had felt more arduous and drawn out than with My Hotel Year and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, but the result seemed as strong (if not stronger) than both albums, and definitely felt like the logical progression from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams that I’d been intending to make all along. For me, it was more accessible and more experimental, more acoustic and more electric, and overall an even more honest reflection of multiple aspects of my taste.
Some Song Notes:
All These Escapes
The vast majority of Stupid Things That Mean The World was written in 2014 and 2015, but All These Escapes is a slightly re-written version of a song from that far off time the 1980s. It dates from over half my lifetime ago (1988) and was first performed by a Liverpool-based band I was in at the time called Plenty (with Brian Hulse, David K Jones and a very young Michael Bearpark). I rediscovered the song while listening through my archive of unreleased material. It remained one of several Plenty songs that I still liked and felt deserved to be re-recorded.
The original was hymn-like and optimistic, and I wanted to preserve its atmosphere and message, while updating it to complement my contemporary approach.
At The End Of The Holiday
A Bowness/Keeling composition and something of a relative of ADD’s Waterfoot in its combination of acoustic singer-songwriter stylings, orchestral elements and narrative lyric.
The words need no explanation, but as with Waterfoot, it was strangely fulfilling to create a short story in song about a life far removed from my own.
Sing To Me
Originally a no-man demo called Best Boy Electric, I heard this for the first time in over 20 years when Steven Wilson sent it to me in October 2014 for consideration for the reissue of no-man’s Lost Songs album.
I’d completely forgotten the song, and on hearing it again couldn’t believe we’d not pursued it further. The no-man version was skeletal with an improvised, incomplete lyric. It also featured a bizarre coda in 7/8 featuring me doing uncharacteristic choking and screaming noises as SW randomly pounced on a Hammond Organ like a frenzied toddler. It was written soon after Flowermouth had been released in the Summer of 1994. In retrospect, I can only guess that the idea was dropped as it was something that didn’t fit our idea of where we wanted to take no-man on the band’s next album (Wild Opera). Regardless of the reason, it was quickly abandoned.
On re-hearing the song in 2014, it immediately felt special to me and I knew where I’d like to take it musically. A new lyric was written as were a couple of new instrumental themes. The demented 7/8 coda was ditched (though attempted) and Stephen Bennett suggested doubling the first half of the song, which led to my demand for epic Bearpark and Phoebe solos (transforming them into Classic Rock ‘foot on the monitor’ titans!).
One of my favourite songs on the album, it reminds me of aspects of the early no-man that I loved, while also feeling very much a part of the music I’m currently making.
Where You’ve Always Been
Written just as Abandoned Dancehall Dreams was being completed, I recorded the vocal at Phil Manzanera’s Gallery Studios. The song appeared too late for ADD, but it was something I hadn’t forgotten.
The musical components come from a lovely Phil Manzanera piece from his album with Ana Lee called Nth Entities. I liked it a lot and thought it a pity that it hadn’t been widely heard.
Feeling that there was a song in what he’d done, I wrote something to Phil’s music. Luckily, Phil – as gracious as ever – liked what he heard and sent me the original files to tamper with and add to.
Stephen Bennett and Andrew Booker complemented the existing parts and the result was a piece possessing a sweetly narcotic insistence that suited the lyric well, I thought.
The Longford Lover
Perhaps the outtake I was most reluctant to lose from Stupid Things. It offered something different and its addition would have undoubtedly altered the album’s dynamic flow in an interesting way.
A frantic combination of Rock, Afro-Groove and Minimalist Classical elements, the structure was right, Andrew Keeling’s orchestration was fantastic (and genuinely surprising), David Rhodes’ guitar was blistering and the Booker/Edwin rhythm section were on fiery form, but…..
Ultimately, every mix of the song revealed an ambitious mess. Additionally, it sounded wrong wherever it was placed in the Stupid Things song sequence. As always, the main album was more important to me than a single track (however interesting that track was), so it had to go. For now, the lover sleeps, but who knows he may be reluctantly woken up and subjected to another 12 failed mixes before being finally consigned to his kingsize water bed for eternity.
Following on from Jarrod’ Gosling’s striking cover for Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, there was no question that I had to involve the Sheffield maverick again.
One thing we had in mind from an early stage was the almost symbiotic way Genesis’s Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot album covers worked together. Both album covers were extremely different from one another and yet they looked and felt very much like a pair. As well as possessing an obsessive attention to details, the covers also seemed as if they belonged more properly to another distant time and not the early 1970s. As such, the idea with Stupid Things That Mean The World was that it should be both something very separate from Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, yet also be a recognisable companion release to it.
I sent photographs, lyrics and ideas by email, while in his Pig View Studios retreat Jarrod (‘the gatefold king’) pondered on what had been sent and subsequently created another evocative Gosling universe, which was both wholly in keeping with what I wanted and what Jarrod uniquely does best. Don’t you just love a happy ending?
Tim Bowness, 12th July 2015.