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Interview with Graham Bowers

img  Tobias Fischer

Graham Bowers' biography is marked by as many suspenseful contrasts as his music. Over the years, Bowers has both collaborated on an ident for MTV and scored experimental soundscapes; created a gloomy and sceptical galaxy of the absurd, but
filled it with his never-ending fascination for the wonders of life; released a quartet of highly praised albums in a mere four years time before lapsing into a decade-long silence; shunned the spotlight as a musician, but managed to secure prizes for his films as well as public commissions for his sculptures; remained solitary for many decades only to recently team up with Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton for a string of remarkable collaborative releases. To anyone familiar with his concepts, meanwhile, these seeming contradictions can hardly come as a surprise: Bowers compositions emanate from the principle of associative listening and take on a form the Wales-based artist has referred to as 'Sound Theatre', in which seemingly unrelated musical characters act out an abstract plot and narrative is arrived at in the mind of the listener, who must use his imagination as a machete to cut through the brushwood of metaphors and clues. To arrive at these deeply idiosyncratic and personal forms, Bowers has spent lengthy phases of his life trying to work out why the music playing on the radio did not fill him with as much passion as the more abstract cosmos of abstract sounds did; why a guitar would move him to withdraw strange noises from it rather than strumm a rock riff; why dreams and alternative realities were so inspiring to him. For our interview with him, we did what every psychologist would do and went back to the beginnings to uncover the seeds for his work in his youth. As it turns out, Bowers is well aware of what motivates his choices. But that doesn't make his oeuvre any less mysterious, doesn't explain away the intriguing riddles contained inside its innards.

Your biography interestingly mentions you were born during an air raid. Is this more a piece of trivia or do you feel this is significant in any way?
It feels like trivia to me, as I didn’t know anything about it. But it certainly wasn’t for my mother. I’m told it was a difficult birth which would have compounded the anxiety and fear she must have felt. As far as I am concerned it wasn’t significant in any way ... but who knows? It could be the sound of air-raid sirens arouse the thoughts “it would have been more comfortable and safer living a life within the womb than having to venture out of it” (my attempt at humour) .

What was your childhood like?
Normal, I had two older sisters who ‘spoilt me’, my mother fussed me too much and my father was quite remote, but kind. The first ten years were lived like millions of other working class families in England, rationing of all products was the norm until 1952, so everything was very basic which didn’t mean anything to me, as I didn’t know anything else. My father had been in a 1930s dance band as a banjoist, guitarist and singer and would occasionally sing through his repertoire of songs to all of us, which was rather special, and on other occasions would take us to see music concerts at local music halls.

Life around the age of ten changed considerably as my parents took over the running of my maternal grandfather’s pub in a heavily populated area of Manchester. The area was a lot tougher than I had been used to, there were no fields or gardens, just rows and rows of terraced houses, lots of smoke rising from the chimneys of every house, and the remains of bombed buildings, but being that age I soon adjusted to the new environment. The big change was that my parents were so busy with the business I found that my mother didn’t have the time to fuss over me, which was great, and became even more wonderful as I entered my teenage years and had the freedom to dream and wander.

Tell me about the importance of dreams and alternative realities for you.
What follows may seem trivial and a waste of words and space, but it had a significant effect on my private world of imagination and experience. At the age of about five I had a Teddy Bear that I used to take to bed with me. I was frightened of the dark so the bedroom light was left on and I found that by positioning the bear in a certain way and bringing my eye close to the glass eye of the Teddy Bear I could enter a completely different world, a very private and liquid world with membranous pathways and roads leading off into magical places. I floated and journeyed into this world observing countless amorphous life-like objects and an ever changing scenery, much like a present day aerial camera would ... that was my initiation into something other than what I believed to be reality. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that I was looking into and through my own eye, and what lay behind it, by means of the light and the reflection from the Teddy Bear’s glass eye. It wasn’t a disappointment, as it brought about a fascination for the nano-world of cell biology ... an area of scientific research, that if given my time again, I would happily spend my working life within.


What kind of music were you interested in at the time?
My sisters took me to a concert to see Johnny Ray, one of the first American pop stars. It was an incredible and frightening experience, I was totally perplexed and confused by the screaming fans. I thought there had been a fire or a murder.
Traditional or New Orleans Dixieland jazz was a big favourite in the house, and I had the opportunity to see many visiting bands at local music halls. Chris Barber the trombonist is well worth a mention, as he broke his set in to three, the second part being a country blues session, Chris Barber on double acoustic bass, with a blues harmonica fixed in a harness, Lonnie Donegan would switch from banjo to guitar and sing, and Ottilie Paterson on vocals and backing vocals. Songs that I was familiar with through my father were performed, Rock Island Line, John Henry, Midnight Special etc etc ... this was the birth of Skiffle in the UK and I loved every minute of it.
On Friday and Saturday nights there would be a pianist playing in the ‘best room’ of the pub and I would lie in bed listening to the muffled sounds of the piano and the chaotic choruses of singing coming up through the floor. I found it enchanting and soon realised that was as close as I would want to get to it. The distance and ambiance had a quality all of its own ... I was an anonymous part of it, yet at a comfortable distance in a voyeuristic sort of way, and to this day that aspect of listening still has the same appeal.
Rock n’ Roll was just starting to happen, Bill Haley, followed by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran ... the list goes on and on ...

What were the first bands you would play in?
I had messed about with my father’s guitar and banjo for years, and although I had enthusiastically soaked up the various genres of music I had heard in my childhood, when it came to picking up those instruments, including the ‘plonking’ of the pub’s piano, never once did it occur to me to try and replicate anything I had heard. I just got lost in the magic of what might be called abstract dissociated sounds. Eventually I went for guitar lessons and learned the basics, and practised, practised, practised. But my heart wasn’t in it, even though I eulogised over the licks and riffs and playing of Scotty Moore, Les Paul and others ... truthfully when I picked up the guitar, to me it became a magic wooden box with stretched wire strings that made a mayhem of wonderful sounds and any thoughts of learning a tune dissipated in an instant.

The one good thing about the guitar lessons was that I had learned to read music at a basic level, the chromatic scale, the structure of chords and how to add and subtract notes to achieve this, that and the other ... so I was reasonably competent in the basics of playing conventional chord structures in popular songs, but strangely and truthfully it gave me no pleasure at all ... it was like reciting the alphabet or the numerical tables. I did play in a few bands and I either left or was ‘kicked out’ after a very short time ... I was looking for something and trying things that others didn’t share ... so from that early age I withdrew from the idea of playing with others and just made ‘noises’ on my own.

When did the concept of associative listening kick in and how did it transform your take on music?
Associative listening ... it has been a trigger for reviewers to demolish me. Not that I care ... is it pretentious? ... not to me! It merely describes in two words what gives me a buzz and sets the imagination going.
It has always been part of my sensory receptors taking in and storing the occasion of that moment in time, whether it be banal or extreme. Transposing those occasions into a musical illustration is an absolute joy; I find it draws me, like a ‘slip-stream’, into exploring and experimenting in sound that audibly illustrates those stored memories. Rupture is a good example of this.

How did you develop your Sound Theatre approach?
Sound Theatre ... another sound-bite ...Oh dear!! Discovering dance theatre forty years ago was immense. Not only did it introduce me to the world of performance art, it more importantly introduced me to genres of music that previously I had no idea existed ... the first piece I heard was George Crumb’s Black Angels. When that exquisite music swelled out of the orchestra pit I was literally spell-bound throughout the piece.
The majority of the dance theatre works were conceptual collaborations with chorographers and composers/ musicians, my role primarily being designing all that could be seen - costumes, stage set sculptures, stage sets, overall lighting ambiance and effect (not the detail, that was for the lighting technicians).
However in the latter days of my involvement in that world, and having had the opportunity to participate and contribute to the sound-scores on several occasions, it eventually led me to writing and putting together my own pieces of music for performance theatre projects.

I mentioned conceptual, because all the pieces I worked on had some story or message to tell. If I have enough time left before I leave this earth I may try composing total abstraction, the appeal is getting stronger.
It was after I had left the world of performance theatre that I had the opportunity and time to experiment in a friends recording studio, and it was there that I put together Of Mary’s Blood. For me it has all the qualities of a theatrical event but as a stand-alone musical entity.
I approached the composition in much the same way as the theatre projects, creating atmospheres, ambiances, events, characters, reactions, responses, climaxes, anti-climaxes, resolution, questions and anything else that occurred in the making, using whatever instrument or sound that was appropriate ... to me it seemed quite natural to describe the compositions by those two words.

Tell me about the importance of spirituality in your work, please.
How does one define spirituality?
Those with religious leanings have no problem, it is something they have read or been told about, and choose to believe it ... but what is it?

Is it a psychological safety mechanism in those that fear death?
Is it the conceit of those that believe we are of a higher order than other living things and are blessed with this abstraction?

I am not convinced that there is such a thing, I accept we have something that is known as personality, and is unique in every individual - much like our faces which are common in the physical make-up of two eyes, one nose, etc but no two being the same. If there is such a thing as spirituality is it a by-product of personality, or is personality a manifestation of spirituality ... I don’t know ... but what I do know is that the variations in human’s physicality and personality, although significant and diverse, are slight and insignificant in their qualities and quantities of expression, when compared to the overall scheme of every thing that is.

So ... like many, many others who experience both wonderful and horrible things in life, it is our personality, the way we are, either as a result of life’s experiences or simply the workings of our bio-chemical structures ... or both!, that define what and who we are, and how we conduct ourselves with respect to self and others. It seems to me that these qualities will naturally occur as expressions of personality, spirituality, call it what you will, in the abstractions of what is called art.

You seem to see the world as an absurd place.
I do feel that mankind, and I include myself, is an absurd anomaly; and if that comes across in the music I’m delighted ... with respect to the reality of carbon-based life, my own take on that and what it constitutes? ... reality as we know it is nothing more than a spectacular bag of molecules, made up of a few amazing things we call elements ... and we humans call it life. In reality we know next to nothing.

What is the role of the arts in arriving at the required knowledge and understanding?
I really don’t know what role art - however it is defined - plays in understanding anything ... other than creating an emotional, occasionally intellectual, and ephemeral response to the work by the viewer or listener.
I think that art has become a vacuous overblown aspect of present day society, much like the Emperor’s new clothes, where heroes are created by and for idiots in an insatiable desire for self importance.
I love looking at paintings, sculptures and listening to music, and yes I think that quality ‘art’ is an incredibly important addition to the living of a life. But let’s not get carried away that it is the be all and end all, and that in some way art is going to save the world or be the salvation of mankind ... because it isn’t ... in reality it is nothing more than brush-strokes, splashes, blobs, of colour: manipulated lumps of various materials: intentional, found, accidental series of sounds ... put together by individuals who want to spend their time doing it.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Graham Bowers