Richard Norris is a man of many talents, he has worked with a number of key figures and clearly he isn't someone who'll shy away from broadening his horizons. Perhaps best known for his time in The Grid, alongside David Ball of Soft Cell fame as well as his superb Beyond The Wizards Sleeve project with Erol Alkan, Richard is an innovator and a experimenter who has plenty of strings to his bow.
He's back in London firing on all cylinders and producing a rather weighty amouny. Ahead of his contribution to Matt Walsh's n 'Clouded Vision Experiment – Level 2' - that we premiered last month - we caught up with him to discuss his illustrious career and how the music industry has changed drastically since he first started out;
So in my ears music is at a really interesting point again because it’s had this glut of... let's not call it shit but a wave of average-ness over the last 5 or so years and I think it’s finally reached that boiling point and there’s loads of interesting music being made again which I think is great. When I say glut, there's always great music being made but...
Well I think it’s really just because it’s gone between the majors and the indies. They’re so far apart now that you don’t get interesting records coming out on big labels. But the upside is that the stuff below that is better and more interesting.
It’s not the greatest term Neo-primitive but I do understand the need to loosely group things so let's call it that but this whole thing's very cyclical. You could even go back to Wizard Sleeve stuff, that must have been close to 8 years ago?
The reason me and Erol did the Wizard Sleeve stuff was because I’d just burnt him a load of CDs. He’d never heard a lot of the tracks and got excited, so we started playing them out. We were playing 18 minute Can records in a bar really loud, it sounded fantastic! We'd never heard this music played loud before. That was just a return to doing very basic cut ups. We’d play them out and then say ‘Oh that’ll sound loads better without that bit’ or ‘the bit should be longer' and then they became the edits. It seemed like a very natural thing to do. I think it’s the same with the track that I’ve done for Matt. I just want to hear almost functional house records, that are just warm analogue and a beat and maybe one thing like a vocal hook. Then try and find a basement with one light bulb and a bit of dry ice. There are particular things about certain basements. I remember playing in Sonic Mook at 333 in the basement and it would always be around 4am and there was a certain sound. It was always simple records with a lot more space and not many effects on them that would work. That’s what I’m trying to do with these records.
It’s all a 7 or 8 year cycle isn’t it... and then edits kind of just ate themselves didn't they? You were the really good side of edits whereas everything else was...
Yeah, just getting a disco record and chopping it about slightly and then selling it on Juno is not really much... At least with our ones we were trying to put out records that people had probably never heard of and some of them had bits of other tracks in them and lots of other stuff going on, including bits we'd played. Hopefully we’re going to do some more, as we’ve been doing quite a bit of work together lately. We did a mix for Temples and one for Dan Avery as well. Since then we’ve re-animated the whole of the Temples album. They wanted us to remix all the tracks, but instead of doing that, we’ve said we’ll take the record and turn it into one track. So it’s a 40 minute track that includes probably around 9 tracks from the Temples album. It's coming out as a standalone record. There’s probably 5 or 6 full 8 minute versions and then there are interludes and it all goes into one whole. You can listen to it all in one go.
Like a Music For Airports kind of thing?
Yeah, you could play the track individually but it really is meant to be one piece.
You did that with something else didn’t you?
I did it something similar with Jagwar Ma last year, as The Time And Space Machine, doing 5 mixes for them as a separate record to their main album. But this a bit more of a trip!
Some of the stuff for Matt is more techno but then Temples is, well it's more 'Heavenly' again. Heavenly always have that thread running through all they put out. The whole Heavenly Social was all about taking the best of all corners of music. You do that really well as well, but you begin to find that it’s becoming even more compartmentalised and insular, a lot of dance music these days.
I’ve done quite a wide variety of things, ambient to chart pop to filthy analogue and Balearic. I see it the same way as anyone else that’s listening to records - you don’t just like one style of music. It ebbs and flows - sometimes you get really excited about one thing and at other times about another. Right now I’m really excited about making dirty basement jams, next week it might be something else!
Yeah! I put a record on today just before I left - the new Tinman. Like early Plastikman and Sheet One, before he disappeared up his own arse. Really metallic.
Things like Paranoid London as well, they manage to make a kind of music that’s been around a long time seem fresh just by going back to the elements of it.
It’s so difficult in this society that we live in and it’s just so fast moving you get, let's say, L.I.E.S. for instance and then all of a sudden everyone wants to be L.I.E.S. A year ago they were hot as shit and now, they're still hot but before it would have taken a couple of years for them to catch fire... this world is so fast moving. And I don't think that's just me being old(er)!
Yeah, and you can get a track up on a digital label and it’s out there straight away. I like that stuff, they make some good records, but it’s also about finding people through friends and connections. Like Dimitri Veimar or Heretic and Craig Bratley, there are a lot of people out there making records that seem to fit right now but they probably all came to it from different angles. They somehow seem to fit together and it was only a matter of time before someone put a name on it basically!
Yeah, I like the way that the chug, let's call it, has been notched up a few bpms and that’s nice to hear, even though it’s only a little bit.
Yeah because what was it. They were Never Knowingly Exceed 122bpm and I think we’ve gone up to Never Knowingly Above 124 now! We’re slowly going up the bpms but hopefully it won’t creep up too much.
Scott and Tim's Crimes label etc there’s just so much amazing music being made... I guess the thing that worries me is no-one’s making any money out of it. If you don’t mind me asking, do you make your money doing engineering things?
I make my money doing remixes, from PRS, gigs, production. I’ve got tracks dating back 20 odd years so I still get a little from that. Producing people is definitely tougher now but it’s still possible to make things work. You can still do it, you just have to have a bit more of a resilient attitude towards it and be a bit more lateral. For instance one of the Time and Space Machine tracks was on CSI New York - that helped for a bit.
And do you do that for yourself?
Nah, someone else did that for me.
Even still, it’s just about diversifying isn’t it?
I think I’m quite fortunate in that people to come to me and offer stuff. It does happen when there are a few weeks when there’s nothing coming in occasionally, but then a couple of months ago I had six things all come in on one day. It’s weird how it happens like that, and there’s no reason for it. But if you can tough out the lean periods you’ll be alright. You see people like Weatherall or someone like that, stick to what you do well and keep doing it. And never try to diminish quality.
I think you’re kind of alright if you’ve got a few years worth of stuff that you’ve done and you can get through the first bit, as when you’re fresh and new it’s all bright and exciting to get work. If you can tough out on the next bit for the next few years until it starts coming back round again you'll be okay. I'm definitely in for the marathon rather than the quick sprint.
You know there are those times where some people say they don’t really like music? Well, I’ve never really felt that. I’ve always been an enthusiast. There’s always something that I can get excited about and I can make a record that reflects that. It’s always the next thing.
It is an exciting time to be collecting records but then it’s also a difficult time.
When I was a kid I was like ‘Right I’ve got NME, I’ve got to walk down to my shop which is a mile away' and I’d get mildly excited about that and listen to the evening session or whatever.
But then there are positives to it. If you do get into a certain type of music then you can find it a lot easier nowadays. I remember when I used to work at Bam Caruso, reissuing psychedelic records, and we used to just write to other people that had sent in lists of these obscure 7”’s and we didn’t know what they were! It would be like, Encapsulated Marigold, is that any good? A lot of them were really bad easy listening records but it would just takes weeks to find this thing. There would be little beacons of other trainspotter fans all over the place as it was a smaller thing. Now, you can just click on YouTube and look up Turkish Psych and you’ll get ten million tracks you’ve never heard of before.
And on Discogs!
Even with psychedelia, I’m still finding new records, even though at Bam Caruso we thought we had all of the British ones as we were that obsessed with it. Once we had them all we were like ‘Well what are we going to collect now, shall we look at Esther and Abbey Oferim records and collect them instead?’ But there’s still non-British and American stuff coming here, and the quality is good as well. You’d think that we’d be just getting the dregs, but you still find amazing Swedish or Polish records. There was this Polish record on the government label Polski and we’ve found amazing records on this communist label. It’s the same with Hungary and Asia.. there are some great Thai records.
Is that Thai psychedelia? I only got into it via that Soundwave record but that’s amazing.
I mean, even if they’re private presses or limit copies they’re amazing things. And that’s what was great with the Wizard's stuff, we have a rich variety of music to choose from. People used to think that psychedelia was this one sound, but it’s as wide as rock really.
The main things that I like in music are sensation and atmosphere. So dub for instance. All music that uses the studio as an instrument and cranks it up way too far, The great thing is that you’ll never hear all the records that you like in your lifetime. There’s always something fresh round the corner.
It’s always exciting! So how did the Wizard's Sleeve stuff come about then?
Well, we were just playing them out, we used to play at Catch 22. There was a purposefully bad photocopied electroset poster that looked like rubbish and didn’t really tell people much about it. We got like 50 quid between us. We used to play 7 hours back to back and it was literally one on one off. We had so much stuff... we’d be like ‘Have you heard this, have you heard this?’ and that 7 hours felt like about 2 hours, it was just amazing fun! I think that’s the same with all the people on Matt’s compilation and all the surrounding people doing stuff it’s great because every week someone I'm in touch with sends me a new track. It almost bypasses any kind of PR or promo lists because there’s 15 people that regularly email me the stuff and it’s all good quality. It’s definitely a good time for it.
You are your own natural gatekeeper in a way!
Exactly, which is great!
It’s just direct contact and that is the beauty of the Internet really. It’s not waiting around to get it pressed up…
And it could be like the guy who did the posters for my new Throne of Blood night. He's in the Philippines, I was just like can anyone make me a poster? And he did it there and then! It was great! I know what you mean that it is hard to find anything financial about it, on the other hand, there is a lot of good stuff about it too.
Everyone wants to help out! You just feel that everyone’s just helping each other out. It’s a real Internet thing. That is the ethos of it really, it’s very Internet DIY. But it’s not just one person in one area of wherever - it’s everyone!
Finding things like Tim’s Heretic records, for me that was amazing. They just sounded so good. It was like, put that on anywhere in the world and that will work.
He’s making brilliant records. They’re a really big talent; I think they’re going to go on to make some really brilliant records. It’s not necessarily about money, but I hope they can jump ship and make something of it.
For me, that was one of the real bonuses of moving to London. There are a load of good connections around at the moment. I've only just moved back to London this month, I've got a new place and studio in Stoke Newington. I’m just excited... It’s fun at the moment.
It is a really good time. The only issue I see at the moment is the lack of venues really and I think that is a real problem.
I’d love to find a good one around here. The problem is with a lot of sweaty basements, the basement thing works but then it’s the sound system and you can’t really get both, having it good quality and scuzzy.
I’m looking at doing various things really, like we're doing a Basement Filth party with XOYO and I'm doing some Throne Of Blood nights at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, which start on Sept 19th. Sean Johnston's guesting, and Dubka's doing a live modular synth set.
There are a lot of good small venues around at the moment.
That’s the problem with London now. The financial stuff. You used to be able to just go and hire a pub and get on with it but now it’s a wacking deposit on a venue, hiring a decent sound system and before you know it you’ve spent 4 grand.
Any thoughts on starting a label?
I’m looking at possibly starting one in this area of music, but not at the moment. I’m mainly doing a Grid collaboration record with Robert Fripp at the moment. Me and Dave Ball are doing an album with him which we’re working on at the moment. We haven’t really done any Grid tracks for years. We just happened to find these old unreleased tapes of us and Robert Fripp, which were recorded when we did the second Grid album. Fripp came along and played on it and it was an amazing session. He turned up with a roadie and these two massive stacks of equipment, with TC Electronic delays on each side of the room, where the delay was up to 71 seconds... he'd play a sound and then over a minute later it would come back! You’d get these mad loops. He came in and played the tracks and then was like ‘Got any more, got any more?’ He went away with a smile on his face and never even charged us! It was just an amazing session and he really enjoyed it, he just likes collaborating.
From those sessions, and some work afterwards, I found a load of unreleased tracks. We did loads. I put one up on Soundcloud and Bill Brewster picked up on it and put it on the new Late Night Tales compilation. And then from that I got back in touch with Fripp and asked whether we should release these tracks as an EP. We got talking and just ended up saying we’d do some more. So he sent me about five hours worth of ambient drones, which I think are all from roughly the same period. I've got that down to about 80 minutes now. Me and Dave have been adding sequences and Prophet V and rhythms. We’re working on that as an album which should come out next year.
He’s going to put it out in America and we’ve got a label that we can’t talk about who may be putting it out too. It’s quite an interesting record to make, because some of the tracks are 12-15 minute drone things - a lot of it you could put it out as they are, it sounds like a Fripp & Eno record just with his stuff on it. So we’re trying to be really sympathetic to it and not putting banging beats on it. It’s all sort of pulses and drones, it’s got some drums on it but not a full thing. It’s got an atmosphere and a feeling to it. I just want it to be the sort of record that you can put on for an hour or so and it’ll retain a kind of atmosphere, which it kind of does because his work has this weird flow. It’s got amazing sounds, his guitar sounds like some of the stuff that he’s done with Eno, but then these weird choral things come in and it just sounds like choirs of angels... but it’s all him playing! Just drifting in and out.
Are you going to get people to re-work it or not?
Yeah, we will. We’ll do some mixes of it.
But there’s some interesting stuff coming up around the album next year, which will be part of a big project with Moog. I think it’s the celebration of Robert Moog's life as I think he died something like ten years ago. There’s a lot of stuff going to be happening next year for that that is yet to be finalised, but all very exciting. So there’s lots going on!
So what does Dave Ball do normally?
He’s been doing bits and pieces, he’s currently doing a record with Gavin Friday in London and Ireland.
How come you haven’t done as much together recently?
Well I was living out in the country really and we’ve never got together. We never really spilt up, we just do separate projects and then get together again. We’ll go to the pub and he’ll have 50 ideas. Dave's an amazing, proper old school art school ideas person, he’s really got that thing. Having spent the last year in this almost kind of monastic existence in my studio near Brighton not talking to anyone, just on my own, it’s really great to able to bounce things off of people. I think living back here, I’m just looking forward to doing loads of collaborations. I’m going to be doing my own record but collaborating with loads of people. I’m also doing some stuff with Steve Mason at the moment.
What kind of stuff are you producing with him?
We’ve been talking about doing some EP’s... it sounds really good! He’s a great musician in ways that lots of people don’t even know. He’s a phenomenal drummer!
Oh yeah! When he was in Beta Band they always used to swap round didn’t they?
He’s just got this amazing kind of shuffle and really gets it right.
It’s so great to see him finally producing stuff and also getting the acclaim that he’s been threatening to - and deserved - for all these years. That last album was just absolutely flawless. And the one with Dennis Bovell was flawless too!
The Beta Band just never got the acclaim that they should have got.
He moved to Brighton a couple of months ago and I was just up the road. We’d just started work and got to know each other really well. We formed a regular Thursday evening social club in Lewes. There’s one pub that you can take vinyl to. Every Thursday we’d have this little vinyl club! Steve's also started a night in Brighton - literally it's just at the bar of this tiny little pub where he was just walking along the road one day and someone just said ‘Ah you’re Steve Mason! I’ve got this pub here’ and then he just asked if he could do a night! So he’s been doing that and I've been introducing him to loads of people in Brighton. We'll pick up where we left off at my studio in Stoke Newington. It’s good to collaborate, as I’ve been working on my own for ages. It’s fun to work with other people, it’s a different dynamic. I've really enjoyed working with Dave again, and with Erol more regularly too. It kind of informs your other projects as well, as you can take that energy and use it in different areas.
So yeah, that’s some of the projects, I’ve got 4 or 5 others bubbling!
Well we can do a part 2! And what's the William Burroughs handshake?
I was just trying to think up a fact to tell you then. When I was working with Genesis P. Orridge when we did that Jack The Tab album, which was probably the first record I did really. I’d been in playing guitar and singing in bands since I was about 14, doing these strange Undertones and Buzzcocks records as a kid, but Jack The Tab was the first kind of proper album that I got involved with. I co-produced it with Genesis. One strange night we went out to see William Burroughs, he was doing an exhibition of his paintings, I think it might have actually been in Hackney. With these paintings he’d been shooting the canvas. It was a really strange event as there were all kinds of people there, Lord Longford, Sleazy, all kinds. William was on Methedrone at the time and offering it out to people! Genesis’ two daughters, who were 4 and 5 at the time were running rings around his feet singing ‘Grandad Grandad'! Anyway, I just remember his handshake being particularly boney but he was this amazing character.
We had quite a fun time with Genesis. Just his approach on how to make records was really mind expanding. For the Jack The Tab album we had this limit that every track took an hour to make, which included the mix. I hadn’t really been in the studio much before, and we had this amazing engineer, who went to be Peter Gabriel’s main engineer. He had the first Akai sampler that could hold 4 seconds worth of sampling with an Atari computer and he was just super quick this bloke. I remember when me and Dave Ball did our first track together called M.E.S.H which was on the album. It took us an hour and a half, and Genesis was like ‘Come On! You’re taking far too long.’ That actually led me to think for the next couple of years that all records should be made in an hour. I genuinely thought that that was how you made records. It was great though, 12 of us in this tiny little studio with kids and a dog and people with a video player getting samples off a video and Walkmans, taping things. It was a great way to make a record, that Public Enemy jamming in a room thing. I’ve never done it since but it really works. If it’s well organised and the technical guys are really on it, you can make a great record in a weekend. That album still sounds out of time, it doesn’t sound anything like acid house, which is what it was meant to be!
So, in comparison, how long did it take you and Erol to make a record?
Oh we’re super quick! Super Super quick. A couple of days maximum for the longer mixes maybe, with a bit of tidying up here and there. Most of the edits would only take a few hours to do. Not as quick as Jack the Tab mind...
So you could go back and do another Grid album in an hour and half?
Maybe not a Grid album but if you got a bunch of great artists together and good team then yeah! Kanye West’s albums sound like there’s a bunch of people in a room doing stuff. I would like to get back to that. There’s something about it, you get a really different energy on it and as a rule of thumb it does work and as everyone says, your first idea is often your best. It’s good to just do it!
Rather than it sounding a bit too polished. As people do just keep going back and polishing.
Yeah, the real thing is energy levels. And yeah, sometimes it might be a bit scrappy but it’s got a vibe too it.
Yeah, rather than polishing the life out of it in a way.
Even with the Temples thing that we did, we did 12 mixes, 9 of which made it to the record, took us a couple of weeks.
So you’ve done the whole of the Temples album?
Yeah, it’s coming out as a separate album with a 3D sleeve. They’re talking about doing listening sessions with this B and W speaker company and they’re building some kind of weird machine to play it.
I think my friend Tom designed the first Temples sleeve, I’m not sure if he’s still doing them though. Beautiful sleeves, really nice.
Maybe he is, looks good in 3D!
Richard Norris's track 'Dim The Lights' will be released on 'The Clouded Vision Experiment – Level 2' on 15th September.
His Time and Space Machine remix album 'The Way Out Sound From In' is out August 25th.
'Freaks'/'Yeah' is out on Throne Of Blood on Sept 5th
Check Mr Richard Norris facebook for all upcoming gigs with added live modular synth shows.