The art of making strange things happen - Interview with Richard Norris
Wednesday, October 25, 2023
Richard Norris is an exception to the rule, that as most artists get older their productivity and quality of music stagnates and often declines. Yet over 40 years on from his first teenage kicks with music and the St Albans punk group Innocent Vicars, Norris continues to flourish and grow as a musician. This has been most noticeable in the last decade or so with his collaborations and solo works which have navigated dub, ambient, psychedelic music in expert fashion. There is no sign of slowing down following the release of Oracle Sound Volume One with Norris reminding us that he is a gifted writer with a forthcoming memoir on top future solo works and collaborations.
Let’s start by talking about your latest release, Oracle Sound Volume One. The release states that this is your first excursion into dub, how long have you been producing dub and as the title implies, do you have a stockpile of tracks ready for volume two?
I have been interested in music that creates a spatial landscape for many years, so I'm naturally drawn to dub. Space is vital to dub. Even though I haven’t made records before that were 100% dub tunes, the spirit has always been there in my mixes.
You’ve got an ability to successfully turn your hand to different genres, ambient, psychedelic rock, breakbeat. Can you describe the underlying inspiration that makes you think; ‘Today I’m going to start making a dub album, or do you switch between styles constantly’?
It really depends on what’s on offer on any given day, or what mood I'm in. It's a great blessing to have a studio nearby where I can realise these projects and mixes within a few hours or days.
Oracle Sound has a real mixture of inspirations going on, with Birthday Dub an infectious deep house groove, whereas Lightning Version and Shark Tooth Dub have that Basic Channel, Rhythm & Sound feel. It’s a great album, you must be rather pleased with how it’s turned out?
It was an album where I got into things super quick, without thinking too much about the influences. I just knew I was after bass heavy, driving, rhythmic grooves. Certainly, Basic Channel and Rhythm & Sound are an influence, as well as various remixers; such as Andrew Weatherall, plus Scientist, Lee Perry, King Tubby, Joe Gibbs and the rest of the reggae greats.
You started your own label Group Mind in 2019 and have since then kept up with a steady flow of long form releases. What was your rationale for starting your own imprint?
I started mainly as I didn't have a record deal, and also wanted to keep my releases all in one place. Bandcamp has been a godsend - I've been able to connect with people directly, in a way that would have been far more challenging before. I also wanted to explore certain styles, such as ambient, drone, dub, etc, in a broader way than before. I wanted to really dive deep into these sounds by continually making and refining tracks in these genres. I'd never really done that before - I'd always be working on very different projects, productions and remixes, from a very varied spectrum. It's been useful to really get under the bonnet of this music, to craft it.
The series of ambient albums Music For Healing on Group Mind generated profits for the mental health charity MIND. Given the timing and what has happened in the last three years, how important were these releases, not just for the funds they raised but also your own wellbeing?
I started the Music For Healing series just before lockdown, mainly as a safe sonic space to take my head away from some mad stuff that was going on every day on the street, outside my front door. It was very helpful, so I thought I'd share these longform ambient tracks with others. Straight away people started writing in, saying that the music had helped them with stress and anxiety relief, helped them with bereavement, to concentrate, to get to sleep. Someone wrote in saying they'd given birth to the music, and someone else uses it to put their dog to sleep every night! It's been great to make a kind of music that has a purpose, above just an aesthetic purpose. I hope it helped people in lockdown, and will continue to do so.
This is quite a comprehensive series of long form pieces. Did you feel pressure to produce a large corpus of tracks, or did the process allow you to shut the world out and focus on a single large project?
There wasn't much pressure, which was helped by setting up certain rules and boundaries within these pieces. They are all 20 minutes long, all 60 BPM (although there aren't any beats), and I generally make them in one sitting. I lock myself away and get in the flow, and see what comes out. It's interesting hearing them change over the months and years - I make at least one 20 minute piece a month. The library is growing!
What was the catalyst for releasing music under your own name, which is only just a recent thing?
I'm not sure - it just seemed appropriate as these are very much solo works. Most of my other music has been collaborative. It's quite a different thing, spending months, years working on your own. I'm used to it now, but love working with other people, too.
In terms of influences, it’s clear that your eclectic music tastes have meant you rarely stand still and continue to evolve as a producer. But what about the Discordian movement, what part does that play in shaping you as a musician?
Discordian thought has a lot of chaos in it, which I always like to bring to recording sessions in some way. As I am not a 'trained' musician, and come from a more art school/experimental approach. I love throwing things in and seeing what happens, bending synths and effects pedals to get them to make noises they weren't meant to.
I was lucky to catch you playing live earlier this year supporting Martyn Ware in Sheffield. Parts of your set leant towards the raw sound of early 90s breakbeat and hardcore which is vogue again. Are there plans to release any tracks of this ilk?
I did put out one - Water (Remix) - which was doing just that, putting a rough break over Bishi's soaring vocals. I wanted it to sound dirty, thrown together. That was one of the tracks I played in Sheffield, where I added a ton of delay and distortion to it. Which was fun.
In the past decade you’ve collaborated with Erol Alkan for Beyond The Wizards Sleeve and Martin Dubka for Circle Sky. Are there plans to revive either of these, or are there future collaborations in the pipeline?
Yes, Beyond The Wizards Sleeve is gearing up again, with some remixes, reanimations and remodels coming out very soon. That's been a great thing to be involved in. I've also been working with Dave Ball again on a new Grid record. We plan to release tracks and tour again next year. Exclusive!
Tell us about your trip to France to be part of the Convenanza festival and as a panellist reflecting on Andrew Weatherall’s life, that must have been a bitter sweet experience?.
I was a last minute addition to the panel, and very much enjoyed it. Yes it is bittersweet, but it was more a celebration than anything else. I'm glad the festival is continuing. It's such a great experience. Very inspirational.
What was the highlight of Convenanza?
David and Ivan playing one of my Oracle Sound tracks on the Sunday, Ivan and Chloe on Saturday, John Higgs and David Keenan in conversation. The food, the weather, meeting hundreds of like minded people. A very good crew indeed. A highlight would have been hearing Sean play on the Friday, particularly as he played the new Beyond The Wizards Sleeve mix of Flowered Up's 'Weekender', which was its first play anywhere. I hear it went down well! Unfortunately I didn't get there until Saturday. I won't make that mistake next year!
What future plans have you got lined up, will we see more of you playing live and DJing?
I've just finished my music memoir 'Strange Things Are Happening', which will be published by White Rabbit in late March 2024. Many tales lie therein. Then there's the Grid and BTWS work, more Group Mind and Oracle Sound releases, a psychedelic compilation, and a couple of other projects on the go. I probably won't be doing any solo live work, but there will be Grid shows. DJ wise, I only really play when people ask me, as I have no agent or anything like that. So if anyone wants to book me, please get in touch!
How do you discover new music these days?
Internet radio, Bandcamp Daily, various email lists, friends, online articles, playlists.... all over! I tend to get really into one band or singer, and concentrate on their releases, rather than continually listen to a ton of new stuff. The great thing about music is that it is endless. There's always some superb music out there that you haven't heard before. You've just got to seek it out :)
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