Interview: ORIGINALS… Richard Norris
There are industrious artists, and then there’s Richard Norris, whose breadth of work over the past 30 years or so with The Grid, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve (with Erol Alkan), The Time & Space Machine and various other projects, is enough to fill an electronica edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Starting off his musical career with the St. Albans’ punk outfit Innocent Vicars in the early 80s, Norris has also dipped his toe into label management (with psychedelic label Bam Caruso), journalism (at the NME), and festival curation (The Lewes Psychedelic Festival), but he is best known for his work with The Grid alongside Soft Cell’s Dave Ball, which are still going strong, more than 30 years on from debut album Electric Head.
Along the way, he’s also worked with The Clash’s Joe Strummer, collaborated with acid guru Timothy Leary, subverted the acid house movement alongside Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, and written the template for eccentric electroclash with his God Made Me Hardcore project (a guilty pleasure at 909originals Towers)… all chapters in a life story that has plenty of pages still to go.
His latest project is Circle Sky, alongside Martin Dubka, whose new album Dream Colour is due out in the coming weeks. Allied to that, he’s also just put out a solo album Hypnotic Response, as well as a new The Grid record alongside legendary King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. All in a day’s work, in other words.
As part of our ORIGINALS series, 909originals caught up with him.
Hi Richard, thanks for talking to us. Let’s start by talking about the forthcoming Circle Sky album, Dream Colour. Am I right in thinking that was originally scheduled for before lockdown?
It’s been on and off for a while. It’s had a very long journey that one. I don’t know why, there’s something about this record that it’s got a long shelf life, I think.
I think something big is going to happen with it, because it’s been such a strange journey to get here. One of the tracks is going to appear in some big movie or something like that. It’s the sort of record that for the people that like it, they really like it, and nobody else has heard of it. It’s been a strange project, really.
Having said that, with a lot of the projects I do, including Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve, they come out and people are like, ‘its a new, fresh thing’. With the Wizard’s Sleeve album [The Soft Bounce, released in 2016], we recorded it literally a decade before it was released, and when it came out people were saying it was really ‘current’, that it was the ‘sound of now’. Well, actually, it was recorded ten years ago! Although I guess we mixed it quite near to the release date.
Also, with The Grid and Robert Fripp album that we have out at the moment, I think we finished that in 2014.
The Robert Fripp album uses segments that were recorded in the early 90s, though, correct?
Yes there are a few early 90s bits and pieces in there, but we added lots of new stuff on top. That one has probably had the longest gestation period.
With Circle Sky, I wanted to do something that was very simple, with very direct messages on it. Also, the vocal sound on it is pretty much made by robots, rather than humans – there’s one female singer on there who is possibly more machine than human.
From the tracks I’ve heard, it’s quite upbeat without being full-on banging. At least compared to Hypnotic Response, which is more ambient in nature. I guess Circle Sky indicates the more dance-oriented side of your personality?
During lockdown, and also for about a year before I was pretty much just making ambient music everyday. I wanted to really get into crafting something, putting on layers upon layers. It’s a bit like doing a painting or something, putting texture on top of more texture. It was sort of an experiment to see what would happen if I did one type of music for a long time. And I stuck with it, which isn’t something I had always done in the past.
After a couple of years, and coming out of lockdown, I wanted to start putting some beats down again, so Circle Sky fits in with that. Also bringing in old drum machines, and getting into different types of programming.
I really like the early Human League records where you can tell it’s a drum machine; also the sort of fills that you get on something like Nag Nag Nag by Cabaret Voltaire. The Circle Sky stuff is very analogue. Myself and Martin spent a lot of time with a big Moog 55 system, which is like a telephone kiosk.
I remember seeing Martin play live, a few years back – he arrived with this briefcase that looked like it had a bomb in it. He played this set, with some amazing tracks, and when I asked him what they were, he said ‘no, I just made it up on the fly’. So I thought, if he can make up something like that, imagine what he could do if he was in a studio. That was the start of it.
So this is ‘chapter one’ of the Circle Sky story, in other words?
Yes. I’ve got no idea where going to go. It’s just a case of ‘let’s see what’s going to happen’. We have planted the seed.
With AI and future technology we could take it quite a long way, developing characters and things like that. We’ve already developed one character, the singer. That said, it’s still at a very early stage, and with a lot of these projects, it takes lots of cash. Plus, the technology is nearly there, but it’s not quite there yet. We will be looking into it.
Your career has taken all sorts of journeys over the years, but I want to go back to the start – last year marked 40 years since your first musical project, which was Innocent Vicars. You would have been in your early teens then, I guess, and once you had your record played on the radio, you must have thought ‘that’s it, I’ve made it!’
The only thing I wanted to do at that point was to get on John Peel. For anyone making a record, that was the goal – get on John Peel and maybe get a review in the NME. I didn’t really want anything else. I took the pressing of the 7-inch single to Rough Trade – my dad drove me down in our white Ford Escort – and they took most of it, and paid us out of the till.
It was called ‘She’s Here’/’Antimatter’, on No Brain Records. They go for about £150 now!
It was really scary as a kid going to Rough Trade. I was about 13 or 14 then, and obviously all the punks were hanging out there. It was about 1979/80. Also, going there with your dad didn’t quite look right.
Then we went down to Radio 1, and asked to see John, and remarkably he came down and took the record from us. I remember my dad telling some really bad ‘dad jokes’ to him. Then, the next night, he played our record, which was just bizarre.
I think it was the same for so many artists. I’ve just read the book by Will Sergeant from Echo and the Bunnymen, and it was the same thing for them. The record came out on a small label, they got ‘Single of the Week’ in all the papers, they got a Peel Session, and that was that. I can’t imagine how many thousands of bands owe him one because of the incredible things he did.
It was weird being that age in the period just after punk. It was like there were a lot of open doors for us. We used to write fanzines, and we would write to The Clash and groups like that, and they would write back! You would go to interview The Damned or something, and they didn’t sneer you at you at all. They were like, ‘yeah, these are the kids’.
I’m sure that doesn’t happen with every generation. It was a really good time for experimental ideas and a do-it-yourself kind of approach.
Did you immerse yourself in the punk lifestyle – safety pins through your nose, spiky coloured hair and all that?
I did go to school one time and my hair had talcum powder in it, so I looked like an old man. I was told off, and had to go back home and wash it out. Yeah, there was a bit of hair dye and a few homemade jackets, but I didn’t go full-on into punk.
That period going into the early 80s had so many different genres in such a short period of time. Given all the various projects that you went on to do, I can imagine that as a kid you spent a lot of time in record shops, absorbing everything that was going on?
The first time I really got into music was in my early teens – I used to have a job working at the market, which was literally just a case of opening and closing a gate and letting people come in and out.
I used to have to stand there for hours, and I remember having a cassette of soul music, with Motown and James Brown, and I would sit there for hours at a time, listening to it, wearing my American bomber jacket.
Where I lived, in St Albans, there were a few record shops; there was one called Cloud 7 and a couple of other ones. I remember buying Holidays in the Sun by the Sex Pistols and then going with my mum to Marks & Spencer’s. She was chatting to a friend of hers on the till, and she was going ‘oh, I see you’ve got a record there, what is it?’ So I pull it out of the bag really slowly, and she was like ‘oh no, it’s those horrible Sex Pistols!’ It really shocked people.
I did quite a lot of work with some of the old punks later on. I was going to do an album with Malcolm McLaren at one point – we spent some time in the studio, but we couldn’t end up doing it for some reason in the end. He was an amazing raconteur. We used to go out for dinner, and his arms would be flying around as he told all these stories. With a lot of those old punk things, you think it’s all violence and two-minute songs, but certainly within the McLaren mindset there was a romance about it.
That’s really what I liked about punk – the DIY aspect. Anybody could do it. There was a sort of freedom there, which was a great thing. The post-punk era was probably my favourite period.
Did any of the Innocent Vicars go on to do anything else in music?
We all met up last year, actually. Aaron, the guitarist, is a great blues guitarist. He’s been a blues guitar teacher for many years. I asked him how it was going, and he was like ‘yeah, I’m still practicing, I’m nearly there’. His dedication to becoming an old blues bloke was really quite endearing. Give him another ten years, you know?
So you were doing fanzines as well, and you ran a label – I guess you had caught the musical bug by that stage?
I was really lucky because there were loads of people around where we lived – around Hertfordshire, Watford, Hatfield, St. Albans and places like that – that were doing the same thing. There were groups like the Marine Girls with Tracey Thorn; we used to do loads of gigs with them. We would have been around the same age, 15 or 16. They were great. Kurt Cobain was a big fan.
There were lots of gigs in church halls and youth clubs, as well as St Albans City Hall. Innocent Vicars used to support all sorts of people, such as the Q-Tips with Paul Young, and another group, The Tea Set, supported Level 42.
The Tea Set all went on to do other stuff; Cally, the drummer, became the head of Island Records’ art department and managed Bill Drummond at one point. Nick Egan went off to do music videos, like Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U. Ron West designed the Duck Rock ghetto blaster for the Malcolm McLaren album.
They were all three or four years older than me and they were doing really interesting things, but they didn’t seem pushy or anything like that. They were doing stuff because everyone was doing stuff. There was a real joy in it, and a desire to get things going. That wasn’t the same everywhere though.
By the time I went to college in Liverpool, when I was a bit older, I did this club called The Hangout which was a psychedelic club. It was where the 051 Club was later on. I remember some people saying to me that I was ‘doing too much’, that I was ‘trying too hard’. The rest of them would rather head to the pub and do nothing else other than look cool. But it was instilled in me. It was a different vibe; a lot of people were more interested in looking cool than doing any work.
Did you have a career in mind at that point? Or were your parents trying to push you in a particular direction?
When I went to college, I did English and film. I was probably going to end up being a writer, or a journalist. But my parents didn’t really push me into one particular career path. They let me have rehearsals in our cellar, which was really loud, but they were alright with it. I was really lucky; a lot of people don’t have that.
I lived really close to school and at lunch time we would sometimes have 10 people around to my house to play music really loudly in the cellar. The neighbours didn’t really like that, I think.
How did you end up writing for the NME?
There was a label called Waldo’s which turned into Bam Caruso, the psychedelic label, which I was involved with. I started bringing around Bam Caruso records to the NME and chatting to them about things like acid house, which they weren’t really covering. They had done a few things, Stuart Maconie had written about house and techno, Jack Barron and Paolo Hewitt had done some pieces, but other than that they were a bit sleepy about it I think.
They were really looking for the angle, they didn’t understand it. Plus, it was difficult for them to write about because it was pretty faceless.
I guess at that stage, The Face had embraced acid house, and for the NME, it was a case of ‘leave them to it, and we’ll do our thing’?
For them, if you’re just reporting about a nightclub, or an artist that might just have one track, it was difficult to expand upon that. It wasn’t until James Brown came in as the main features editor that it changed – he really went to town on the Mondays and the Roses. That was when they started to understand it. The Happy Mondays were on the cover of NME pretty much every other week in 1989 and 1990.
When you started writing about acid house, how did you pitch it so that it appealed to both the editors and the readers of NME?
With a lot of very naive enthusiasm! I found a couple of pieces recently, and they were quite cringe, actually. If I was writing now, I wouldn’t write like that. Having said that, they let me go to Ibiza, I was going to Amnesia back in 1988/89, and reporting on that.
The editor at the time, Alan Lewis, was incredible; if you had a strong idea, you could just go to him. If you wanted to go to Ibiza and what was happening there, he would say ‘ok, great’. He died recently actually, there were a lot of tributes to him.
But I was also petrified for the whole time that I was at NME. Just crossing the bridge over the Thames, and going up to the 25th floor, I would have this huge sense of terror. You would have all these really strong personalities – Stephen Wells, Danny Kelly, James Brown. Stephen Wells would have an argument with you just for fun. I was this young kid and it was kind of terrifying, but I was compelled to do it it, even though I was very shy.
I remember James Brown used to shout at people over the phone and slam the phone down; he had the power to make or break bands. They were really great people, and they were really good fun… but I was petrified half the time.
How did you come to first meet Genesis P-Orridge, which ultimately led to your work on the Jack The Tab album?
That was when I was editing a magazine called Strange Things. I was a bit nervous going to interview him/her, because you had heard all the stories, and you didn’t know what to expect. But he was really interesting, he/she was filled with lots of energy and really quite positive and wanting to do stuff.
Gen was the one to say to me ‘have you heard acid house’, and at the time I hadn’t. So he said ‘ok, let’s go and make an acid house record next weekend’. I didn’t know what it was, I don’t think he/she knew what it was either at the time.
So we decided to make a psychedelic dance record, which was Jack The Tab. I brought along six people from the Bam Caruso label, and Gen brought three or four people, including [future The Grid partner] Dave Ball, which is where I met him first. And then we set about making this mad record, over the course of two days.
There were lots of made up artists on it, and I had actually done a similar concept to that previously, which was a psychedelic album with Bam Caruso, which featured lots of made up bands on it. But that was the first time I saw samples being used on an album.
Also, it was done really quickly. Gen had this rule that every track had to be made and mixed in one hour. When Dave and me did the M.E.S.H. track, it took us an hour and a half, and Gen was like ‘come on, what are you doing?’.
If you listen to that record today, it still sounds around the bend. There’s a strange sort of energy there. I find it quite joyous, even though it’s really odd.
Were you a bit of a Throbbing Gristle fanboy?
I sort of was. I was into cult stuff, and Gen was a great disseminator of that. There weren’t the same outlets for finding out about these things at the time – there was a bookshop in London, Compendium, where you could get William S Burroughs and all these other writers at the time. Gen was really good about finding out these things.
When I spoke to him/her before he/she died, which was quite recently, we had a good chat.
Of course, Gen massively ripped me off as well – he/she licensed the Jack The Tab record to Brazil and the US, and it ended up being quite big in the States. But he/she was such a trickster that I kind of forgave him for that, because if I hadn’t have met him, and done that album, I might not have gone on to do what I ended up doing.
When you did Jack The Tab, a lot of people hadn’t even heard of acid house, and here you are subverting it before it has even got a foothold.
We finished the album in September 1987, which was around the time that Adonis’ No Way Back came out. It took a few months to get the release together, so it wasn’t sorted by early 1988. And by that time, we had been to Shoom, we had been to the various clubs, and so we put the M.E.S.H. track out as a single, because there were lots of acid noises on it.
Jack The Tab doesn’t sound like an acid house record, although we sold lots of copies of it. I do quite like the idea of the football soul boys going to buy their acid house records, and then going to buy ours, which has wolf noises on it!
That mishmash of styles on Jack The Tab isn’t all that different to The Grid’s first album, Electric Head, is it?
In reality, there was only about six or eight months between them. We started doing The Grid stuff in the middle of 1988, which was pretty much straight after Jack The Tab. I guess we were looking to make a slightly more refined version of it.
The Grid was originally supposed to be myself and Gen, and we were going to be signed to Warners, but Gen didn’t want to be on a big label, so they signed my and Dave instead. That was very strange, because we didn’t have any demos, and suddenly we were on the same label as Madonna and Prince, based on this album that’s comprised of odd noises. I don’t think that would have happened at any other time.
With a lot of artists at that time, they got signed to a major label, who then didn’t really know what to do with them. Was that the case with The Grid?
Yes. Flotation came out as a single, and we got Andy Weatherall to remix it. I think it was his third remix ever. It did incredibly well on pre-release, and there were quite a few shops around that had a poster in the window saying ‘No Floatation’, because of all the people that would come in and ask about it.
We thought it was going to be a big hit, but Warners didn’t want to make it a priority, and if you’re not a priority at those kind of companies, you don’t really get anywhere.
So it came out, and to this day, a lot of people think it was one of our biggest records, but it was never a hit. It got to number 60 in the charts and then dropped out.
We’ve had lots of experience with that sort of politics over the years with different labels, and we found with the big ones that unless you’re in with the right people at the right time, you haven’t really got much of a chance. Plus, generally, that person leaves after 18 months anyway. We got dropped from the label, and then we had a six month period of not really knowing what to do with ourselves. We did a couple of remixes.
Luckily, Boy George really championed us, and got us a meeting with Simon Draper at Virgin Records. He signed a lot of the German acts, like Faust, to Virgin, and that was more in line with what we were doing. He really liked The Grid, and we went on to have some success when Crystal Clear came out. We started to get on Top of the Pops and things like that.
But then there was a massive overhaul – EMI bought Virgin and dropped half the acts, including ourselves. The next day, we signed for Deconstruction. It was a weird situation; I don’t know many brands that got signed and dropped by three labels over the course of a year or two.
But there was definitely something about that period, between 1988 and 1994. It was after Wham and before Britpop, and lots of strange things went on. You had The KLF, and The Orb playing chess on Top of the Pops. Someone needs to make a documentary or write a book about that period.
In terms of the name, The Grid, I don’t suppose that was influenced by the track of the same name on Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi?
No, we just had a list of band names, we were looking for something techno and electronic. The two names we settled on were The Grid and The Matrix, obviously that was a few years before the films came out. We liked The Grid because it gave the sense of a ‘network’.
With yourself and Dave, it must have been musical love at first sight – you fitted really well together, although you both had a musical history as well.
We were very different people, in a way. He’s slightly older than me and obviously had a lot of success with Soft Cell. He’s a very grounded kind of guy.
With any project, I always have around 50 ideas, and Dave will have fewer ideas, but they’ll be slightly more grounded ones. My way of going about things is trying stuff out, so I will try out things and I don’t mind if they don’t work. I don’t mind failing, as long as one or two ideas work out in the end. A lot of other people wouldn’t really go that far.
So, like we were discussing earlier, you’re the Malcolm McLaren, flailing his arms about?
I guess so! What drives it is having a combination of things; if it was all safe and solid, it wouldn’t work, and if it was all flailing arms, that wouldn’t work either. We’ve got a good balance. I’ve always liked working alongside people that I can bounce ideas off.
I guess that’s why you’ve never really split up?
We’ve never really had any falling out or anything like that, no. We’ve got our own odd ways of working, and it’s still going strong. We’ve just started a new album, with a few guest vocalists, one of which is Andy Bell from Erasure. Various singers connected with various phases of electronic music.
It’s got some classic Dave Ball hooks on it, and a bit of Moroder in there. It’s the first project that we’ve done together for years actually – as I mentioned before, the Fripp project, even though it seems like a new album, was put together years ago. We both just signed to Mute Song as well.
It was great; we haven’t been in a studio together for a long time, and it only took us about five minutes to get back in sync.
I remember reading an interview with you from a few years back, and you mentioned the Swamp Thing [a banjo-led curio that topped the charts in 1994] period, and how that was particularly strange for you. What was it like?
When you have to get into promoting something consistently for six months, you get woken up early in the morning and get into a car, talk about yourself all day, and do a photoshoot, a video shoot and all that. It’s quite hard to remain level-headed.
I’m quite glad that we only had a short period of that because I don’t think it suited either of us. We like to think of ourselves as two supporting artists rather than two lead singers. That said, it was good fun while it lasted.
Some absolutely ridiculous things happened, like being introduced at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, at Wembley Arena, by Superman, aka the actor Dean Cain. Or one time we flew off to Belgium to be interviewed by a skinhead puppet.
There was this line dancing craze at the time, and you had people doing their moves to Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart and then Swamp Thing without missing a beat…
It’s actually on Wikipedia, in that order – one of the big ‘changes’ in line dancing is from Achy Breaky Heart to Swamp Thing. Line dance choreographer Max Perry came up with a dance called Swamp Thang, and if you look it up on YouTube, there’s hundreds and hundreds of people doing line dancing in Walmart to it.
It was quite bizarre, because that was a record that was pretty much taking the piss, and there’s a strong comedy element to it, so for it to be seriously taken on by that community is incredible. I love the fact that it’s a dance record that’s had its own dance made to it – surely that’s the ultimate accolade for a dance record!
It’s made for TikTok then, in other words. There was a Pump Up The Jam dance craze last year, maybe we are due a Swamp Thing revival – get you back on the road with your banjo?
Ha! It was a lot of fun but it did sort of kill us as well, because what do you do after that? We didn’t really want to go to the centre, we started very left of centre and we didn’t really want to do pop. I didn’t think we could sustain it, we had to go off and do something a bit more offbeat, just to keep our sanity really.
I went off and worked with Joe Strummer for a couple of years. Dave went and did some other bits and pieces, he remixed Kylie and David Bowie.
Skipping ahead a few years now, I wanted to ask you about the Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve period, with Erol Alkan – am I right that it was largely influenced by your time with Bam Caruso, and was something that you didn’t really get to explore with The Grid? How did it come together?
Sean Rowley was doing a BBC London show, and I had a weekly slot on it, doing the ‘A to Z of Psychedelia’. I think we got to ‘L’ in the end, ha ha.
Erol was a guest on the show, and heard all the stuff I was playing, and thought it was amazing, so I said I would make him a CD. In the end I made about ten CDs, called Spiders In My Mind Vol 1, Vol 2 etc.
That then turned into something we would play out, and as we were doing that, we started to do some edits. On the back of that, we got some remixes – Peter, Bjorn & John’s Young Folks was the first one.
It was really about discovering all these psychedelic records and the oddness about them. There’s always something strange about those records, whether it’s the arrangement, or the drum sound or whatever.
That market is huge these days, people are discovering lost psychedelic tracks from Turkey, Senegal etc.
It’s absolutely vast now. There’s constantly more and more stuff being uncovered.
You can get a lot of these tracks on Spotify now as well, which is quite bizarre. When we started Bam Caruso, we would have these lists of records, and from the title you might think that the bands were psychedelic, but they weren’t. They would be called something like ‘Floating Blossom’ and would be on the right label, but you wouldn’t know what it sounded like until you actually heard it.
With Bam Caruso, we dug up some albums that are really considered classics now, many from the basement of Polygram. Cally from the Tea Set used to work there, and found all these old Philips and Decca catalogues, and all these early labels, and you would have artists like Wimple Winch [British psychedelic band from the 60s] on them, which people had just forgotten about. It was a bit of a detective story really.
So Bam Caruso got me interested in all that, and then when I was working with Erol Alkan, it was my turn to then pass it on to someone else. We had some good fun with it.
To wrap things up, I guess you could be described as a musical chameleon – immersing yourself in different scenes. What you were doing with Innocent Vicars is vastly different to what you are doing with Circle Sky, or Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve, for example. Is that what keeps you motivated – throwing yourself headlong into different genres like that?
I think it probably looks like that from the outside, because there are lots of different projects, and sometimes when they go out in different order it doesn’t feel like a progression. But for me, it’s always been about creating a landscape, and using the studio as an instrument.
My latest solo album, Hypnotic Response was Number 8 in the record store album chart recently, which was fantastic. A record that I was able to put out from my front room sold more than Wolf Alice and Muse, at least for a short period of time.
There is a link between everything that I do. It’s a kind of texture – sometimes there’s more rhythm and sometimes this more melody. It’s quite wide ranging at times, but trust me, there is a link there!
[Thanks Richard for chatting to us. For more information on Richard Norris’ latest projects, check out his Facebook page, or Bandcamp for music purchases. Circle Sky’s new album Dream Colour is due out in October]