Following on part one of our interview with electronica impresario Richard Norris, in part two we discuss his work with Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge on the genre-bending Jack The Tab, the record label merry-go-round that encompassed The Grid’s early years, how 1994’s Swamp Thing became an international line dancing phenomenon, and a lot more besides.
Over to you, Richard.
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 things like 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?
It was. 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, 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 Records 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 also 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 they 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 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. Part one of the interview can be found here. 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]