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, 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. Part two to follow tomorrow
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, and the sort of fills that you get on something like Nag Nag Nag by Cabaret Voltiare.
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 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 and 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 loads of bands and loads 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. One of them was a lecturer in Cambridge, I think.
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 we just 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, and he really abused it I think. They were really great people, and they were really good fun but I was petrified half the time.
[Main image by Pete Fowler. In part two, set to be published tomorrow, Richard discusses how a fanzine interview with Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge led to his foray into electronica, the formative years of The Grid, the line-dance craze of 1994’s Swamp Thing, and a lot more besides.]