In an exclusive, revealing interview, 20 years on from his classic album “Time Capsule”, saxophonist/arranger/composer Chris Bowden talks in-depth with UK Vibe’s Mike Gates about the making of the album, his subsequent release “Slightly Askew”, the unreleased “Cash Bodean” recording, his life, love of jazz, thoughts on music and drugs, rehab, and what lies ahead in 2016.
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
MG: So we’re sitting here with two strong coffees, a packet of “under the counter” Marlboro cigarettes and what has to be a Weather Report live album singing out from the CD player across the other side of the room. Good evening Chris, how are you?
CB: (coughs alarmingly loudly) I’m well thanks (laughing).
MG: So what is it about Weather Report?
CB: It’s the journey. All of it really. The tunes evolve you know? It’s not just ‘head, solos, head’, it’s not just a theme that’s repeated. There might be one moment of beauty, something special that happens just once in a ten, fifteen minute piece. It’s not hammered home. It requires concentration. I think it could be easy to miss just quite how beautiful it is. You can get totally immersed in it, which I like. It’s very clever.
MG: It’s not doing the obvious I guess?
CB: Yeah exactly. You have to listen. I suspect they certainly didn’t write thinking ‘this will appeal to people’, or ‘let’s write it this way’, I think that’s just what they wanted to do. And so some of it is really quite bonkers you know? They’re not trying to pander to any trends or anything. And by doing that they’re innovating and making new trends.
MG: So in the early days Chris, when you were learning to play, what were you listening to, back when you were in your teens?
CB: I guess really I got into jazz through my dad. Quite a normal thing I suppose, big bands and the like. I used to go to Birmingham library and really got into things like ‘Ah Um’ the Charlie Mingus album, and other albums that were quite accessible but at the same time I felt had a real spirit to them. And Roland Kirk. Again quite accessible but also a little bit out-there in a way. It’s not just obvious, it’s very earthy. And a bit more ‘punk’ maybe. It’s a bit away from men in suits, a bit messier in a way and I liked that.
MG: More of an edge to it?
CB: Yeah, absolutely. I was listening to jazz and interested in the idea of jazz, I think much before I was interested in the actual notes, it was the idea of it really. It was definitely the sound and feel of it. That turned me on. And before those albums we were just talking about, it was the idea of these guys wearing hip suits, taking drugs, being quite subversive… and yet being highly intelligent. And to be honest I probably didn’t realise just how intelligent they were at that time. I knew that it was progressive and they were going out on a limb, be-bop, specifically, it’s all very fast and technically proficient. And they were very hip.
MG: I suppose at that age as well you’re looking for something aren’t you? Something cool…
CB: Oh yeah, totally. I mean all those photos and stuff of the nice suits, the club environment, 52nd Street, that all comes across when you listen to that music. So I was much more into the idea of it than thinking ‘ooh, he’s flattening his fifth there, how exciting’. You know, I wouldn’t have listened to it on that level back then. But I did start to try to play that sort of music, with a very vague understanding.
MG: And was that on the Alto, from word go?
CB: No no. The first saxophone I was bought by my mom and dad was a Soprano. I was twelve maybe? Eleven or twelve.
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
MG: And was it through your dad that you got introduced to playing with other people? MYJO (Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra) was it?
CB: Yeah, he would take me to see things like The Southside Big Band and stuff, which was all Glenn Miller and the like, and apart from anything else I liked going out with my dad, and having a couple of pints as a young teenager you know? It was great. But also it was that whole entertainment thing. He worked in television and knew that sort of environment and I was turned on to that sort of thing. And I love swinging music, it’s always appealed to me, that feel. I know not everybody likes it but like anything in life I suppose, because I like it, it’s hard for me to understand why everyone wouldn’t go ‘bloody hell, that’s really swinging!’ It’s really exciting to me. It grabbed me straight away and I guess it must’ve turned me on enough to go to Birmingham library and discover more music.
MG: Those were the days weren’t they? When you had to physically make the effort to go out to wherever it was to search and discover new music.
CB: Oh yes, it was a thrill. And that’s the other thing, I didn’t mind the fact that it’s not what everybody else liked, I never felt the need to belong to the… the norm I suppose. I don’t know, maybe I missed out on what all the other kids at school were listening to but it was actually another appealing thing, the fact that none of my friends were into this kind of music. So yes, I was playing in MYJO and when you’re in big bands you get the chance to play solos. So I was doing that and as a teenager I didn’t know enough to know that I didn’t know anything. So I didn’t mind just having a go. And very quickly, well they did big band concerts and there were three bands. I was in the youngest group in the third band and we’d play as little offshoot groups. So it’d be me and my mates, playing things like ‘Norwegian Wood’. On a Sunday lunchtime they’d put a little slot on for us to play.
MG: So it was a really encouraging atmosphere?
CB: Absolutely. It was just a case of having a go. Giving you the chance to do it rather than just think about doing it. But I did have a remarkable lack of knowledge about it all considering the things we were trying to do. It took me quite a long time to even see it in that way.
MG: Do you ever remember getting to the point where you actually thought ‘Do you know what, I’ve cracked it now, I do know what I’m doing’. Do you ever get to that point as a musician?
CB: Well no, I don’t think you do. Well, I don’t think I will. I sometimes wonder about other people and ask myself if that’s why they play so well… that they don’t worry about that stuff. It’s a dangerous game between constantly trying to get better, and that turning into ‘Oh God, I’m crap’.
You know, confidence is everything really. And that’s why as a teenager I could get away with playing in a small band and people not going ‘Oh for God’s sake what’s this crap’. Because you’re none the wiser and full of confidence and self belief. It wasn’t until much, much later, with lots of things in between, that I started to realise what I wanted to work on and feeling a bit lacking… and since then that’s been an ongoing thing that still goes on now. But you do have to be careful that doesn’t turn into total self-criticism. It’s a really fine line. Personally I think it’s a really weird thing being a musician. It’s a real paradox of being quite egocentric and totally the opposite of that, so self-critical it’s beyond belief. But then you wouldn’t get on the stage if you didn’t have some self belief.
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
MG: Dangerous to dwell on it too much?
CB: Well yes, otherwise what’s the point? I will never know enough. The right way to look at it is how exciting it all is. It’s like a metaphor for life, you’re always growing and you have to try to look at it as a positive. It’s a journey. And I’m sure that if you listen to all the really great musicians, the reason they were great is ’cause they were constantly trying to improve. Rather than saying this is it, I know what I’m doing now. It’s because they’re in that constant, evolving cycle of trying to look for new things and master them.
MG: So presumably it got to the point where you realised this was what you wanted to pursue as a career… and you moved to London?
CB: Well apart from anything else I couldn’t do anything else. It’s the only thing… I don’t know if this sounds a bit stupid, but it’s the only thing people ever said I was any good at. And so you kind of think, well I’d better do that then, or in a pretty crap way I suppose, I seem to get some positive feedback if I do this thing. There was really nothing else that I got that from, you know? And then you get that confusing thing, what do I actually think about this? But actually, before moving to London, I very much knew it was what I wanted to do. By that time I’d been gigging in and around Birmingham with my own quartet… we were so young… I was like fifteen or so…and sitting in on other gigs. Places like ACAFESS, Moseley Dance Centre, The Trafalgar, The Cannonball, The Vic. There were some cool venues around at that time – a really exciting time for me. But yes, I liked London and because I’d got into jazz I’d seen TV programs like Ronnie Scott’s in the 50’s and I got really interested in that idea of Soho and associating that with 52nd Street in New York and all my heroes. It felt like the same sort of thing, I found the thought of that very exciting, even though it was obviously very different it’s a city for young people, a place to develop.
MG: And it was Trinity College you went to, yes?
CB: Yes. Actually I only auditioned for Guildhall to start with… and I got through the audition, but I acted like an arse in the interview, I really did. Everyone else was in suits, I had ripped jeans on. I thought I was… this is the arrogant bit of me, all slumped in the chair… And they’re like ‘Do you want to teach?’ And I’m like ‘No way I don’t want to teach’. Whereas the absolute answer to ‘Do you want to teach’, when a teacher is asking if you want to teach, you go ‘Yes, of course I want to teach!’ And actually, as I’ve got older I’ve come to realise that teaching is a very important part of being a musician. But as an arrogant eighteen year old, you know. And funnily enough they wrote to me to say that I hadn’t got in. So then it was all panic and I applied for Trinity.
MG: And did you have to do an interview there?
CB: I can’t really remember, I suspect so. But I knew where I’d gone wrong. It was very humbling getting that letter. It was a slap in the face really. But quite rightly so. Trinity wasn’t as hardcore an audition environment… but I think I’d learnt my lesson. I suspect I might even have worn a suit.
MG: Moderating your attitude somewhat?
CB: Ha! Yeah that’s right. That’s been an ongoing issue of mine…
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
MG: How did you find it there? Did you enjoy it?
CB: I enjoyed… Well yeah, I really really enjoyed it, that’s the problem! Too much. I mean I guess it was very different to how music colleges are now. You could’ve engaged in lots of things if you chose to. I loved living in London and I got work very quickly. There was a big band there although there was no jazz course there, I was doing classical saxophone. That in itself is quite a strange genre. There is classical saxophone music obviously but there’s not loads. It’s not what the saxophone’s known for… John Harle, but he taught at Guildhall. He was at my final recital actually. I expected it all to be stripped down and to learn loads but it wasn’t really like that. In my first lesson it was like, well ok, you can play the saxophone so take up your flute and clarinet… that’s not why I went there, you know?
MG: You’re not so interested in being the ‘all-rounder’?
CB: I’ve been sadly lacking in the idea of being a professional musician who can earn money. I’ve got lots of respect for people who do that, loads of respect, but that was not really ever going to be my goal. I had a bit of a romantic idea of being a bit more of an artist and I’ve always approached it like that. I still do now.
MG: That’s something that’s carried through over the years isn’t it… to your detriment?
CB: Well yes. Financially most definitely. And it would have been very easy for me to do work for the sake of money. Actually in my early twenties in quite a big way. I was getting offered things like that. And again, in no way am I saying anything bad about doing that, I totally respect people who do, but it’s not what I chose to do. I’m a bit of a bum, it’s selfish but I want to do things musically because I want to do them. There’s no two ways about it, that is the way I’ve always done things.
Mg: So when you finished college, obviously you were getting regular work, how did you get to the point where you were able to pursue your career as you wanted to? Reaching the point where you were able to make ‘Time Capsule’?
CB: While I was at Trinity, and again doing that small band thing, we’d play in these jam sessions that the college would put on, and people from NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra) would go there and sit in, and blow us all away. This is when you start to realise just how much more is involved in playing jazz. But on one of those sessions, a guy called Andy Bromley – otherwise known as Xen – was in the audience one night and he saw me play.
Oddly enough it was a very bad night for me, I remember getting blown off the stage by a young trumpet player, Gerard Presencer. We had a – reluctantly on my part – proper battle on stage… it really upset me at the time for some reason. But anyway, he was there and he offered me a gig with The K-Creative who Gilles Peterson had signed. It led me into that world, that whole emerging acid jazz world. And I was with them for a good few years I suppose, I’m not quite sure how long. We certainly did albums, singles, went to Japan, toured a lot. So that was what got me into that world and through that I met Simon Richmond (Palmskin Productions)…he was in that band as well. So again, that was a whole scene… going to a place called Bar rumba… that whole acid jazz scene. Bands like Jamiroquai were around, and Incognito, Brand New Heavies… So I was in that scene because of K-Creative initially. Some of the bands were signed to quite big labels but also it was the emergence of small independent labels like Mo Wax, who I did work with. I was introduced to Soul Jazz Records by Jessica Lauren. I think I’d met her going to Japan, through Straight No Chaser, putting a band together, and I did some brass arrangements for her and she was signed to Soul Jazz. So I met Stuart Baker of Soul Jazz, got on really well with him and eventually I plucked up the courage… I turned up with an awful keyboard, it was one of those eight track workstations, it really sounded like a dodgy keyboard. And so I’d record eight tracks into the keyboard, put some drums on it… it really must’ve sounded awful… And I’d then record it onto a tape – a cassette – on my stereo, splicing it together you know?
Just pressing record and play. So ‘Time Capsule’, ‘Mothers and daughters now mothers’ and ‘Epsilon’, which are quite long tracks, I wrote on that keyboard in their entirety… so like fifteen minutes of a lot going on. I’d do say thirty two bars and then another, scoring it out and writing and recording it… as I say, it must have sounded dreadful really. I had done something else for Soul Jazz before then. I’d written quite a long string thing for a single. I was starting to get asked to do singles for people. It all felt very small-time to be honest with you, at the time. In retrospect it was much bigger, it was amazing.
MG: It was an emerging pool of talent…
CB: Yeah, properly. It was a real golden moment in time, and a great scene to be a part of. But you’re not aware of it at the time. So anyway, it was after that string arrangement that I plucked up the courage to see Stuart and to actually go, with this cassette, and play it to him sitting in his office in Soho, listening to this crappy cassette. I was aware at the time that it was a bit embarrassing, these keyboard sounding strings and keyboard sounding brass parts…
MG: But he obviously saw something in it.
CB: Well I asked him, can you listen to this but as if you’re squinting? D’you know what I mean? Look at this picture and squint, it looks really good if you squint. Squint with your ears whilst listening. But he, amazingly, got into it and saw the vision for the whole thing, the whole album. He knew how to make it…fit. Even though it all seemed quite weird and no-one’s going to like this. But that was part of the thing, it was always going to be an obscure record, people at that time were into buying obscure records. I felt like it was almost trying to be an album that people wouldn’t buy in a strange sort of way. Almost like if you were too successful you must’ve sold out. I don’t know if that was a cynical way of looking at it but I think it’s true. All those people wanted the record that no-one else had got.
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
MG: What a great environment to work in, to be able to create an album in.
CB: Absolutely. And if you think about it now it’s amazing the amount of studio time that he was willing to give me. It’s astonishing in retrospect, you’d be so hard pushed to get that now. And to have the time to allow it to develop.
MG: So did Stuart become quite an integral part of the album? Because ‘Time Capsule’ has got a very specific sound to it?
CB: He was very much a part of all of that, yes. It was quite a weird feeling at the time. He obviously had a strong vision of how the album would sound, and how it would look. And who it would appeal to. But I’d written it all and he was true to that…even to the point that when we were recording some of the drum parts and the rhythm section parts, he wanted to play my shitty keyboard. He’d be like, stop guys, listen to this. And I’d be like, noooo, don’t play that! So he obviously was very much into that original idea… I actually thought he might be quite happy to put my shitty tape out. It was at Milos Studios, a really nice studio in Hoxton. We had so much time to develop things, to bring string sections in, a lot of hours. And it was engineered by someone who was also very much into that scene, and it could have come out much more polished. And Stuart was adamant that it shouldn’t have that polished sound. I do remember feeling quite stressed at the time.
MG: Did you ever feel in that environment that what you wanted to create was different to what Stuart wanted to create? For instance, when it got to the mixing stage, was it an obvious ‘this is how it needs to sound’?
CB: I’d like to say that’s how it was, but in reality it was Stuart who had much stronger opinions about that. And that’s actually really useful, although it didn’t feel like that at the time, which makes me realise how different I was in my early twenties. I did worry that it was maybe going for like an old 70’s sound and how he was going about that. But I totally think that was the right thing to do. He just wanted the music on there, flat. And the music would be enough, it didn’t need to be polished up or anything.
MG: It’s a very dry sound…
CB: And I didn’t totally understand that at the time. It would have been a very different record if it had been polished up. And he understood that. And not just that, even the look of the album, how beautiful the design was, just astonishing. Fair play to him, and he supported me for a long time after that as well. He really understood things. ‘Time Capsule’ is as much to do with him as the mountains of manuscript…it really was a lot of writing on that, a lot of work. I was very pleased to have a record out and it got really good reviews. So I did thrive off all that, I was early to mid twenties and I really did feel like I was starting to achieve something. Especially at that point with the album coming out. It did all feel a bit special.
MG: So presumably it was during that period that you started working with the likes of 4Hero and Herbaliser?
CB: Yes. During those five years. I stopped living in London when I was thirty. I think Time Capsule came out when I was twenty four, five, around there. And yes I was working with 4Hero, Jhelisa Anderson, Basement Jaxx and the like. I guess at that time all that drum and bass thing was kicking off in that London scene, which was still influenced by jazz records and still in that acid jazz mould. And I was lucky, although I never felt like this at the time, but because of Time Capsule I wasn’t considered to be a jazz musician at all, I was doing lots of different things, probably more arrangements for other artists as much as anything else. I was writing with 4Hero and arranging for them, working on ‘Two Pages’ and the like…just a small part really considering their large catalogue. But yes, they had a studio in Dollis Hill and it was a really nice time. I wish I’d appreciated it more at the time, but it all felt quite chaotic.
MG: There was then quite a long gap between Time Capsule and your next major release, ‘Slightly Askew’. I can remember John L. Walters in The Guardian giving the album 5 stars and I also recall a BBC review by Colin Buttimer ending up with the comment about it taking so long between albums, asking you not to leave it as long next time?
CB: That rings a bell. I can’t remember exactly how long it was. I think I did Time Capsule in my early to mid twenties, and Slightly Askew was in my early to mid thirties. I know I’d moved back to Birmingham because I was travelling back down to London to make the album. Much more haphazardly than Time Capsule where I’d written it all before going into the studio, with Slightly Askew a lot of it was written on the train on the way to the studio to be honest.
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
MG: Was it a similar process in writing for Slightly Askew? It’s got a very big sound…especially on the opening track. It’s far more wow, in your face almost. Was that a purposeful statement in a way?
CB: Yeah, well maybe. I was advised not to put that track on first, but that was the first track as far as I was concerned. It really was, it was the thing as a whole. And the thing is, with Time Capsule I was so proud of it as a body of work, I was influenced by that, even though they’re not the same in any way. Slightly Askew is a much more produced record whereas the whole point of Time Capsule was that it felt under produced.
MG: You talk of how you had a lot of guidance from Stuart Baker at Soul Jazz, did you have that same kind of relationship with Ninja Tune?
CB: No… not in the same way.
MG: So did they know what they were getting?
CB: I think they probably were a bit taken aback. They put it out bless them. They stood by it. But I’m not sure it totally fitted the mould of what they would generally release. And… the first track did put a lot of people off…as predicted!
MG: And so as you say, you were still writing parts on the way travelling to the studio. Was it a pretty frenetic, angsty time for you?
CB: It was an angsty time in my life. Yes, in the period between the two albums things had got quite chaotic in my life. But having said that I’d still written clear ideas of what the tunes were and what would happen with them. But then, in terms of arranging strings and brass parts, a lot of the donkey work of putting notes onto paper so that people could play it, I did quite a lot of that thinking, well I know what I want to do…here’s the vague idea of it. Now I know I’ve got two hours to get to London, that should give me enough time…
MG: With that in mind, when the other musicians came into the studio were you still able to give them a clear idea of what you wanted, or were they left to try to figure it out somewhat?
CB: No, it was all very mapped out, both albums were. One of the things is I’d written a lot of the drum parts, and bass lines. Both Tom Gordon and Andy Hamill, drums and bass, played on both records and then we had different percussionists and piano players coming in. I think they’re probably allowed to shine a bit more on Slightly Askew as there was more room for improvisation and there’s a lot more going on. It all made sense to me. It’s always been quite interesting to me how when you play people stuff and they go, well that’s a bit bonkers, a bit out there… and I was thinking oh, I thought it might be a bit too predictable.
MG: You obviously have everything mapped out in your head at least before recording. I’m curious as to whether some of the smaller things are there at that point. For example, the voice coming in on the first track?
CB: Things do progress as you’re going along definitely. I think I might have even been playing that tune in my trio with Neil Bullock and Ben Markland. Possibly before we recorded it. It’s just basically a bass line with a melody over the top. The reason it sounds so big is just the arrangement of it. I would hope that any tune I write will stand up to different environments, that should be the mark of whether it stands up as a tune or not. You should be able to bring it down to its bare bones or have lots going on. But actually, the voice on that first track, I had used the exact same thing to be honest, on the first record I’d ever made, called ‘Apollo’, before I did Time Capsule or anything. I remember Simon Richmond saying to me when he heard Slightly Askew, you’ve plagiarised yourself! I guess if you’re going to plagiarise someone it might as well be yourself. I’ve always liked that. I like that line, ‘even the users’. I’d use it again. It’s from a Charlie Parker record. There’s a guy saying to the audience, an old school comedian comparing the gig… it was live at The Apollo actually, which is why that first track was called Apollo, and he’s talking about the ushers in the audience. That’s the joke, even the users, you know? ‘Cause everyone was using heroin, and they all laughed, which shows how mad it must’ve been at the time. It always appealed to me that did.
MG: Both Time Capsule and Slightly Askew seem to have very clear concepts… themes. Slightly Askew, although only four tracks feels much better and coherent when played as a whole…
CB: I would hope so yes. That’s certainly what was in my mind. It would have been interesting to get Stuart Baker who produced Time Capsule, to produce Slightly Askew, but you know, that’s the way life goes. I guess it worked out for the best.
MG: Crockers and Killers, from Slightly Askew, is such an incredible piece of music. It was released as a 12″, and there were a few remixes of it as well. Where did the inspiration for that come from as it had some very specific lyrics on it, whereas most of what you’ve released has been instrumental. Was that something that you just had to get out?
CB: Yes I think it was something I needed to get out, something I had to say. It’s named after two drug dealers. It’s about heroin, my idea of drugs in general. And that’s the reason I was back in Birmingham. It had all developed in between those two records really and I was holding onto the record deal by the skin of my teeth to be honest. I wasn’t even sure the album was going to happen. I’d written the piece of music as a tune and I knew I wanted to do something with Lizzy Parks, the singer. I’d written a lot of it before I left London actually. So in the period of having to leave, because of a drug problem, it all seemed very relevant to what was going on at the time.
MG: Is that something you were aware of when you were younger? The likes of Bird and Trane. Looking at your idols and seeing them taking drugs?
CB: Yeah but the strange thing is, as a twenty year old I’d have said don’t be ridiculous, that’s stupid. At least that’s what I would have said out loud, but in reality, yes I was attracted to it. Always have been is the honest truth. But I certainly would’ve liked to have thought that I wouldn’t have been so stupid as to romanticise about that stuff. Especially because it’s mad to be into that scene and to know the history of it, and to know the totally detrimental effect it had on people but still somehow romanticise about that. And I did do that. I would love to say I didn’t do that because I’m a bit embarrassed to have done that, but I did do that.
MG: At the time did you consciously think there was a link between taking drugs and how well musicians played?
CB: I don’t think I ever believed it would improve my playing, or be the secret to playing, but I think there’s something to be said in terms of composing…if you’re using drugs – at least initially, before it becomes problematic with all the chaos that ensues – initially, if it means you’re quite happy spending eight hours in your flat, just in your own little world, writing music… but I don’t think it gives you any answers or anything. I can still see the appeal of having a nice buzz on, on a nice sunny day while you’re sitting working, and that did appeal to me. It all ended up making life very difficult and not helping anything and I certainly don’t believe it gives any answers to anything. Sitting down and doing stuff is hard. Spending a long period of time on your own doing something is hard when nobody’s telling you to do it. And getting a bit hammered makes it easier. I’d always practiced playing the saxophone, but I got into properly practicing, a lot, five, six hours a day, which I’ve only done for a short period in my life, and let’s face it, smoking weed all day makes anything a lot easier. So I was spending a lot of time on my own, putting the work in. But I didn’t ever believe that Charlie Parker played well because he was a drug addict. I think he was who he was, and he was also a drug addict. He was an artist and it was all rolled into the same thing. I don’t think it makes it better or provides any magical insight but obviously if someone’s expressing themselves, it’s all a part of that. I do feel a bit embarrassed about all that stuff, it’s just awful. I’d have been much better off not doing any of that stuff. Believe me, it’s certainly not the golden ticket. At all.
MG: So it was a pretty chaotic period whilst making Slightly Askew. That said, when you’re in the studio recording do you get chance to enjoy it? Or does it all just feel way too stressful?
CB: Oh it’s pretty stressful. I enjoy receiving the finished thing when it’s done. I did more so I think with Slightly Askew than with Time Capsule. But again, I’d written it for me really. Is that bad? I don’t know.
MG: But that’s what you wanted to do isn’t it…
CB: Yeah man, fuck everyone else! Ha! This is what I want to listen to… but with any luck other people might like it. It got good reviews, nominated for awards even. The Heritage Orchestra took up playing a couple of songs off it, and Time Capsule. And ‘Ballad for strings’ of course, which I’ve never recorded. I’ve played it with Heritage Orchestra and there’s a recording of that. Think we played together for a couple of years after Slightly Askew actually, Montreux jazz festival and other stuff.
MG: At this time you were working a lot with Herbaliser as well?
CB: Yes. Herbaliser had been going a long time by then. I guess I started performing with them, and recording to a lesser extent, in my early twenties, and that carried on into my thirties. A long way into my thirties. Although it was very much that I was just working for Herbaliser. We did little writing things as offshoots from the main band but it was a good long period of performing, seeing the world…
MG: You enjoy touring?
CB: I love all that. Love it. A lot of people don’t like it but for me yes, it’s always appealed to me, not having to live in the real world…being nannied about a bit. Not having to think for yourself. The way I saw it at the time was that as long as you were on stage and able to do your thing, then anything else goes really…which isn’t really the best way to get on with people and to lead your life. If I could’ve been on a tour bus every week of the year I would have. Although maybe now I’m getting a bit older I might not feel the same. I would still like to do that, but I don’t know if I could do that. When I was able to enjoy, in my mind, myself… party…
MG: When you could happily burn the candle at both ends?
CB: Oh yes, that very much appealed to me. I’d do that into the ground. And strangely, in some ways it’s quite healthy for me, going on tour. Even though it’s properly full on, because it had got so that when I was in my home environment the drug use was much more chaotic…much more. At least when I was on tour, even though to a lot of people, that would’ve been the hard time of doing it in, it was actually a bit of a break. A bit more routine and you had to be reasonably together…well for 10 o clock showtime anyway, and then as I say, anything goes. But…you do have to get on with people, and I lost my way a bit.
MG: What happened following the release of Slightly Askew once you’d settled back in Birmingham?
CB: It’s hard to understand it all in lots of ways. I guess that in my mind at the time I didn’t really know what my options were. Slightly Askew didn’t sell amazingly well. Ninja Tune generally sell quite a lot of records and even though it’s an independent label I guess they have a certain level of sales that they’d expect… A lot of my… it’s been a consistent thing really… a lot of my professional relationships, and other relationships, were breaking down and I didn’t really know where I was or what was going on. I got the impression that that was it. My manager at the time, Will Tipper, who was brilliant, everything went through him, and I wasn’t communicating very well and not in a very good place to be honest.
Everything was up in the air. So I find myself back in Birmingham, a bit lost really, not knowing what to do. You feel like events are out of your control. In retrospect they’re not really. I could’ve tried to take charge but my confidence in these sort of things is often pretty bad so I just felt stuck in the situation I was in with the world going on around me. Really, throughout my whole life and musical career it’s quite rare that I’ve made things happen. I have made things happen, You know, to say ‘I’m going to make this happen’ and actually do it. Time Capsule was a bit like that… So after Slightly Askew, I expected to come back to Birmingham for a break and then go back to London to be honest. But that would’ve involved me, getting my act together, getting myself well and doing it. But I properly felt like things were out of my control really.
MG: You’ve always enjoyed an excellent relationship with Tony Dudley-Evans, who ran Birmingham Jazz for many, many years. Presumably it was that connection, along with performing more regularly in the city once again, that led to a commission, which was called…
CB: The Incredible Death… No hang on, let’s get this right… ‘The Incredible So Called Death of Cash Bodean.’
MG: The resulting concert was recorded and filmed. Nothing has ever been released, so explain a little about what it was about, who was involved etc.
CB: (long pause)
MG: Testing your memory?
CB: Well both my albums were on a big scale, in a way, and I’ve always liked writing for a lot of instruments, with loads of textures – another reason why I enjoyed working so much with The Heritage Orchestra as well – and Tony Dudley-Evans would have been involved in some of that stuff as well, which is where the link came from for us talking about a commissioned piece of new music. I remember having the idea for the piece in the bath actually, at a rehab centre. Cash Bodean is, was, a nickname I was given in The Herbaliser, whilst in America. Which really, was not a good thing as far as they were concerned, but I’m afraid to say that I took it on board as ‘Yeah man, cool, I’m Cash Bodean’. So, Cash Bodean was my alter ego, when I was behaving badly. And joking aside that does show some confusion to me, because I thought that was all good. I loved touring America and I thought we had a great time. I couldn’t understand why people were getting upset with me. It was horrible actually, getting back and doing a gig in England and someone putting on a kind of home movie of that tour… and I am acting like an arse, really out of control. I don’t think I’ve ever been very confident as a person, and I think I must’ve thought I’d found my confidence, but really I was just being a bit of an arse. What I thought was standing up for myself was actually being unreasonable.
The Chris Bowden Dectet at The CBSO Centre on November 3rd 2007 Photo: Courtesy Russ Escritt
MG: And so for you, the Cash Bodean tag was like, it’s good to be bad?
CB: Yes. And I can remember going to the airport where they came up with the name, which might even have been on a trip before the big long tour, where I was full on Cash Bodean for six weeks all over America, thinking it was great… And I was talking to Ralph Lamb, Easy Access Orchestra, trumpet player in The Herbaliser, and very good friend, and we’re talking about some of the issues I’ve had and he says ‘Of course, I do feel a bit to blame for inventing Cash Bodean…and now you’ve gone and taken it on as a mantle!’ Rather than me seeing it as a warning I was like ‘Yeah I’m Cash Bodean!’ So that was the thing. And one of the first times I went into rehab, I had this idea of Cash Bodean, my alter ego, dying. You know, so that Cash Bodean dies and Chris Bowden comes out and is able to live a nice, normal, stable and happy life. But the truth of the matter is that with the nature of that sort of problem, there’s still something attractive about being Cash Bodean, but it always leads to lots of unpleasantness, very much so. It just shows you… I’m in rehab which is one of the few times when I’m thinking I’m going to do the right thing, having thoughts about potential music I might write, to do with what’s going on in my life… and that’s essentially what a lot of my writing is based on, certainly with Time Capsule, that music represents that period of time in your life. But it is quite telling I suppose, in that it was called The Incredible Death of Cash Bodean, but the fact that I then called it The Incredible ‘So Called’ Death of Cash Bodean, I think shows that I didn’t totally 100% believe that that was true. And when we finally got it together to perform the piece, which was unbelievably chaotic, again, very chaotic, with among many other things me trying to hold onto my girl… One of the tunes was called ‘He misses French kisses’… I was full on Cash Bodean at the time of trying to kill him off. At that time I was using and so in a strange way what I’d written was a total farce.
MG: Though the thought of straightening yourself out must have been there as a seed for you to be thinking that way…
CB: Well I think that is the truth about all of these things, it’s part of the journey. There’s no point dwelling on something taking ten years or whatever, it’s an ongoing process and it takes time to sink in. So there’s no point beating yourself up about that, but it does seem quite ironic in retrospect.
MG: As for the music itself, you obviously had a clear idea of how you wanted it to sound. I think I’m right in saying it was a dectet? Who were the musicians involved?
CB: This is what I’d envisaged… though I’m not saying this is what happened… A lot of the records I love have a lot of pads, keyboards, Herbie Hancock is a good example. It’s not ‘Thrust’ like in the least bit, but it was that sort of thing, again, Weather Report-like with lots of sounds and textures. Layers within the music as an accompaniment. So that sort of idea but played on brass and woodwind. It was written in movements and it was supposed to be telling a story, of the demise of this character.
It was effectively an autobiographical thing. There’s this person who has this troubled side of him and is trying to put it to rest. That was the story running through it, but because that was actually what was going on, without the person being put to rest, it was all just… frenetic and totally chaotic. It got done, and performed, thanks to the brilliance of the musicians involved. There was so much going on, I mean, none of the band had seen the music in advance, I was still writing certain parts out while the band was setting up for rehearsals during the day… and the rehearsal itself, just a few hours before the gig, was very… worrying! There was certainly a lot of running around, getting people who were there to try to find photocopiers to copy and print scores out, and yes, plenty of panic, on all fronts. But then it’s not the first time this has happened, but this was pushing it to the limit. But in the end, the musicians ‘got it’. In a proper way, and that’s the beauty of having that sort of talent. Everyone pulled together and made it happen. I had Neil and Ben, who have been my one constant, musically really, my ‘go to’ people to play with, as long time friends and musicians, on drums and bass, Andy Ross on baritone sax and flute, Andy Rogers on trombone, Neil Yates on trumpet, Ollie Parfitt on keys, Mike Davies woodwind plus I think probably another trumpet and tuba – apologies, it’s hard to remember it all exactly. We also had art, film and images projected on to a big screen, by artist Ian Muir. Anyone would have thought it was all planned! By the time of the performance it almost seemed like we knew what we were doing.
MG: How do you feel about the music now, looking back? Do you wish maybe you’d taken it further or done something with the recording?
CB: Yeah, absolutely. It’s mad isn’t it, there’s so much music that gets performed and never heard again. Though I’m all for moving on, you know, you’ve done that, now it’s time to do this. But it does seem a shame not to document these things. But as far as Cash Bodean goes, I could easily think maybe I should have put more work into it, but then I always think that, whether it be Time Capsule, Slightly Askew, Cash Bodean or whatever. But really I did put a hell of a lot of work into those things, maybe Cash was pushing it, it really was right up to the wire. But yes, the tunes themselves… I’m not even very good at keeping the manuscripts and stuff so I really need someone else to be taking the music made and doing something with it, I’m ready to move on.
MG: It strikes me, possibly now more than ever, than an artist, musician, is expected to be an expert in marketing or social media or whatever…
CB: It certainly feels like that’s the case. I’m not sure though. It’s strange how people perceive things. Is it an age thing? I don’t know. I saw something on Facebook recently where people were discussing some of my music, which was lovely, in relation to the ‘Epic’ album by Kamasi Washington. And they were discussing that album, comparing it to Time Capsule, and whoever responded to the comment, it might have been Patrick Forge, I’m not so sure, but anyway they said yeah but Chris Bowden’s an established artist. And I think that’s an age thing cause I read that and thought what the fuck you talking about! I’m still trying to make it! I want to be a musician when I grow up…one day maybe I’ll get there.
MG: Talking about Neil and Ben, and the trio, you’re clearly a forward thinking musician yet you still seem to have a lot of respect for tradition and the Jazz standard. The trio does work on original material but you do seem to genuinely enjoy playing the standards. Do you feel that’s still relevant in this day and age?
Chris Bowden, Neil Bullock and Ben Markland with The Chris Bowden Dectet at The CBSO Centre on November 3rd 2007 Photo: Courtesy Russ Escritt
CB: It’s relevant to me, in that you could spend a lifetime trying to learn how to do that, so that’s one thing, as far as being a musician endeavouring to master his art. In terms of it being relevant to the rest of the world, while there are people that it still moves, whether that be coming and going in cycles, although evidence would suggest it’s not a generational thing as there are lots and lots of twenty somethings that regularly frequent these gigs – they’re totally into that music. And if you’re interested in music, how harmony works, improvising, be-bop… you understand music if you study that. I think anyone who studies music couldn’t fail to be impressed by all that, not just technically, but touching people, that’s really hard to do.
Here’s another example, classical music. People still play Mozart. It’s quite strange really to think that jazz has only been around since the 1900’s really, probably 1920 onwards. So if you think of that in the grand scheme of things, you might say well this classical period lasted for 100 years, then the Renaissance period lasted x number of years, then another and another… but with jazz you’re going, that’s from the 1960’s, that stuff from the 1950’s is old hat! It’s no distance at all is it. Look at Miles in the late 60’s compared to be-bop in the 40’s – it’s mad – such a short period of time. That’s incredible. An amazing surge of creativity in such a short timescale, I’m sure in 200 year’s time it’ll still be relevant.
MG: So with the trio, it feels like you’ve been developing your sound and style…evolving as you go I guess. Gigs, recording, touring… you supported EST on one of their final tours?
CB: Yes, it was amazing. At that point we were developing our own original material, playing some stuff off Slightly Askew, testing new things out. It felt good to be pushing things, I like that. But not so far as it feels like a foreign language to an audience. You still want the audience to relate to it. But I’ve always found it interesting to play other people’s music as well as my own. The EST tour was a really nice platform to develop and play our own material and a great environment for us as a trio. It was great to try to make the music as sonically interesting as possible. Ben played electric and double bass, as well as triggering some effects and programming from his laptop. I played keys as well as sax, it all helped create an atmosphere, textures and different colours.
MG: That strikes me as something that really comes over with your music, the different textures and colours, as you say. Is that something that you’d put down to any particular influences from the artists you like listening to, and are there any musicians in particular, or certain albums, that inspired you?
CB: Well yes. Herbie Hancock’s Thrust. Quite a few Weather Report albums like Black Market and Night Passage and even Heavy Weather in a totally different way. But yes, Thrust was a big record for me. I think actually, going right back to the beginning, K-Creative introduced me to Thrust. And Roy Ayers. But it’s that textural thing that I’ve tried to emulate.
MG: As far as your own instrument goes, do you study other saxophonists in the way that they play?
CB: Yes and again it’s an ongoing process. There’s obviously lots of people I admire. Undoubtedly I got interested in Charlie Parker to start with, and I won’t say it ended up with Michael Brecker but that’s where I always seem to come back to. Improvisation from Charlie Parker, and technically Michael Brecker, but then there are a lot of technically amazing saxophonists around, then and now, but they don’t move me nearly as much as Michael Brecker. It’s his musicianship to me, his feel and everything… he’s got a lot of soul in his playing. He was an amazing jazz player, as in being able to play be-bop and jazz harmony, but also modern stuff, pop stuff… he played with Joni Mitchell, as did Jaco, another of my heroes… and even as a session musician, he could do it all. That Brecker Brothers album, I was so heavily in to that. And yes, he is technically brilliant but he’s got so much passion, he put so much energy into his playing and that’s the kind of playing that I like. It’s immediately vital and exciting. In the same way that Charlie Parker is exciting, and of course John Coltrane really blew the saxophone, so much intensity, power and energy. That’s what turns me on. You know also, someone like Chris Potter for example, who I love listening to, one day he’ll be gigging in a big concert hall and the next day he might be playing a small backstreet jazz club. They’re great jazz players. That’s what it’s all about. And then there’s Cannonball Adderley, and your Joe Henderson’s who create their energy in a completely different way. It’s all amazing, different, but I’m always interested in a musical way, it’s fundamentals, you can’t run with your instrument til you know how to walk.
But that’s always been the way, it’s a metaphor for life really. Jazz education is very different these days and there are a lot of very, very good players on the scene, but I sometimes wonder if they’re missing the essence of jazz in a way, that energy and abandonment. Free spirited playing. It can be very intellectual and a lot of people are, but for me it shouldn’t come across necessarily as being intellectual, it should still have that feel, that sleaziness that suggests a big amount of heart and soul. Highly sophisticated but in a dark alley kind of way, drugs, prostitutes, strippers, all that kind of thing. It doesn’t mean you have to be involved in any of that. I’m sure Wynton Marsalis is one of the cleanest living blokes…ever, but he not only has the intellectual side of jazz, yet you can still hear the true essence of jazz in his music. He understands what it’s about, but he wouldn’t pimp girls out like Miles Davis might have!
MG: If that’s a bit of general advice for up and coming musicians, what advice would you give yourself if you were starting over as a young man again?
CB: Hmm. Live in the moment. Realise now is your time. What’s happening now is the most important thing. Enjoy it, and take it seriously. And don’t enjoy yourself so much that you stop enjoying yourself.
MG: We’re now in 2016. What are your plans for the next twelve months, and are there any projects you are currently working on?
CB: Yes, although I’ve recently had to take another sabbatical, over the past couple of years or so. But I’m well now. It was within the last year of that time when the only access I had to any kind of music was to borrow an old keyboard off someone. I didn’t have a saxophone at the time and so I wrote a few tunes…a big body of tunes actually. Quite short, but complete tunes.
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
MG: Are we going to get to hear them?
CB: That’s the plan, yes. I hope all of them at some point. We’ve been performing about eight, and we’ve recorded six of them, with Neil and Ben over the last year. They’re all recorded, ready for mixing, and the plan is to get it released as soon as possible… making deadlines and things has never been my strong point, but I don’t see any reason why it can’t be released by Springtime. With Neil and Ben we have released a couple of trio albums on Rehab Records, all pretty much off our own bat really, as The Tomorrow Band, with the help of Discovery Records who distributed it, I guess they might still stock it, I’m not sure. And I guess this is a similar thing, we’ll have to wait and see, but it is all original material, which is different to the other two releases. We always had the view that it’d be a kind of trilogy of albums, showing the development of the trio, from playing standards, which most of the first two albums are, up to this point where we’re focussing on new material. But it’s still in that trio setting, although this latest album is a bit more involved in that I do play piano as well, adding some textures and a more chordal element to the music, which seemed like a very natural thing as the tunes were written on the keyboard.
MG: Are the tunes a touch more reflective perhaps?
CB: Listening to them now, and bearing in mind everything seems to take longer than you expect it to take, when I wrote these I was, for the first time in my life, properly in recovery. It’s not about that, but that’s what was going on in my life, and they are quite tuneful tunes. If I was to write a tune tonight I’m not sure it would be like those tunes, that was where I was at then. I feel that’s quite obvious. And that’s the feedback I get from people who are close to me. So again, it’s about recording a period in time. I was living in supported housing, in a rehab centre, writing in a very positive frame of mind, looking forward to life. And I hope that continues.
MG: That’s great to hear Chris. And you say you’ve got far more tunes written?
CB: On yes! Far more. I do remember coming over to your place shortly after I came out of rehab, and I think we had intended to talk about other things, but I think I sat at your lovely piano to play you a few of the tunes, and it turned into about a three-hour recital! So yes, there’s a lot more stuff. I’ll always want to be performing and recording with Neil and Ben, they’re amazing musicians and very good friends, but I also want to play with as many people as possible. I’d love to develop the tunes into different arrangements that can be played in different settings…perhaps in larger bands with maybe brass and strings. Who knows, there are always the practicalities with these things. But I have to try to make that happen. At the moment I’m just taking each day at a time, really enjoying playing, and enjoying feeling well.
MG: As far as potential projects then, you could maybe see the tunes performed within a large ensemble. Are there any musicians that spring to mind who you would like to work with in the future?
CB: Well yes, loads…
MG: Other than Pat Metheny!?
CB: Oh! Ok then. No then. Yes, I’d really like to play with the Mondesir brothers. I’ve played with Mark before when he did a Time Capsule gig at the Jazz Cafe. Years and years ago. And I’ve always been an admirer of his brother’s playing. Yeah, Michael and Mark. I’d really like to do that. And Mark Fletcher also. In my dream world I guess Django Bates would be amazing to work with. I’ve also spoken with Simon Richmond and we’ll be hooking up again soon, I’m really looking forward to that as well. So yeah, I’d love to be playing with those sort of guys.
MG: It’s twenty years since the release of Time Capsule. Can you see a time where you’re putting something together like that again. Or maybe writing and arranging for strings and brass again?
CB: Yeah I do. It’s harder and harder though. I guess recently I’ve been composing tunes, whereas in the past it was more about arranging. But yes I would like to do that and it will happen. No doubt. In my early twenties I MD’d at the Jazz Cafe for James Mason and Doug Carn, two people who had records out in the 70’s and were quite big on the acid jazz scene, as quite underground records. And because of getting played in the 90’s they were probably quite surprised to hear, twenty years on, that people were buying their records. They were brought over to England and I organised the music for that twenty years on. And yes, it’s now twenty years since Time Capsule so who knows what might happen. My instinct has always been to move forward, but I am proud of Time Capsule and actually what would be amazing would be to be able to play a lot of the music I’ve written. You know, Ballad for Strings, some of Time Capsule, Slightly Askew and some new stuff. It’s fair to say I haven’t been that prolific so it would be cool to play that live.
MG: Well Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk. And good luck with it all. May you stay healthy and have a very productive and enjoyable year.
CB: Thank you, it’s been good to talk. All the best for the year ahead…
Photo: Courtesy Julian Walden
UK Vibe would like to thank Julian Walden, Jenny Escritt and Kenny @ Qwoonsweird for their kind help.