Strange Things Recollected: Richard Norris Interviewed

Music maverick on his excellent new memoir...

Richard Norris is living evidence that – sometimes – a lifelong passion for music is all you truly need to get by. Growing up in St Albans, he was enraptured by punk and post-punk, quickly drawn into the DIY nexus as a teen. Gaining an on-air John Peel plaudit when he was 15, the aspiring guitarist then started work for seminal psych re-issue label Bam Caruso.

It’s then his life started to take on dayglo hues. Encountering Genesis P-Orridge, the two forged ahead with Jack The Tab, before Richard Norris parted ways to form post acid house fantasia The Grid.

Techno crossover hits followed, with Richard Norris spending a decade conducting bizarre experiments on the mainstream. Encountering Erol Alkan at the dawn of the Millennium, the two found themselves to be kindred spirits, with their lysergic club endeavour Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve breaking down electronic tropes to reveal the transcendental DNA within.

His new book Strange Things Are Happening is an odd to the maverick spirits that surround him, while also giving Richard Norris space to explore his world view. A testament to the role community plays within music, it also offers abundant evidence that a rag-tag bag of iconoclasts on the fringes can alter the path of the mainstream.

CLASH spoke to Richard Norris about his memoir, and the process of remembrance.

What makes this a good time to write your book?

Well, during the time The Grid was working, I wouldn’t have the overview that I have now. I had the stories, the anecdotes, but I’m now more aware of the over-arching themes – DIY, community, and remaining creative over long periods of time. It just felt like the right time, basically. Plus, I had all these anecdotes stored up for so long… I wanted them out there! I just felt ready.

Community and music always seem to go hand in hand for you – from Bam Caruso to acid house and onwards.

Absolutely. Even with the book, some editions have a special CD and all the money goes to the Music Venues Trust, just because I think it’s massively important to do stuff locally, and develop that. Some of the best nights I’ve had, there’s only been 50 people there! This idea of community is really important. You have to think about who’s involved in that – from the door staff to the person designing the posters… all those elements make the whole thing. It’s an eco-system, in a way.

I’ve just started a film club here in Lewes, called the East Sussex Psychedelic Film Club. We rent them through the proper channels and show them to 60 people in a chapel in Lewes… and it sells out within hours. People love it. It’s possible to do interesting stuff. I don’t know if it’s possible to build careers, or anything like that, but DIY remains just as easy as it ever has been.

One over-arching theme of the book is that these close-knit communities of true believers can genuinely alter the shape of the mainstream – people on the environs can really change things.

I felt that about the Scala cinema. As a kid, we would go every weekend and see these films that were… really trash, to be honest. And also real art – and everything in between! I only realised recently how much that informed my idea of culture, it’s gone really deep inside me. That’s what led to ‘Swamp Thing’ – us wanting to make the soundtrack to a John Walters movie! The great thing about ‘Swamp Thing’ is that it came full circle… and John Walters actually used it in one of his films! We could have died happily at that point.

Your recollections of the Bam Caruso label are interesting, because that scene is so often overlooked – yet at the time, it really existed in parallel with, and deeply influenced, indie.

Oh totally. For me, independent – before it became indie – was Rough Trade, Probe Records, your local record hangout. And all those people – from Creation Records, the Primals, Jeff Barrett who formed Heavenly – were all on the same thing… we all revered these American icons, like Roky Erikson and Sky Saxon. They seemed like these myths from another place and another time. It’s the foundations of indie culture, really. ‘Nuggets’ and Bam Caruso. I mean, those compilations were quite successful – if you were the weird kid in the corner, you probably had one of those.

There’s an excellent scene in the book where you and Bobby Gillespie are levitating to Sky Saxon’s first ever London show…

Oh God it didn’t seem real! We kept pinching ourselves!

There’s a psychedelic aspect in everything you do – from The Grid to Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve… but how do you pin down that psychedelic instinct?

I think there are two things. One is how it’s made, and the other is how you feel. I’ve always liked records that have some type of studio element, whether that’s mad phasing or an echo or an electronic noise, which could go across, you know, dance music or, or dub music or ambient… something that creates a space, or a landscape. 

Also, I’ve always been drawn to music that makes me feel weird inside. I don’t know why, perhaps that’s my sensibility. That goes through all the records I’ve made, that’s the link – studio-based records that make you feel weird! That’s the path I’ve taken.

Jack The Tab is a remarkable project. Much like punk, acid house must have felt like a clearing away of cultural debris, a time when anything felt possible.

I like those times! Times when culture feels like it’s in a petris dish. The post-punk era felt like that. And definitely the acid house and post acid house period. I still find The Orb playing chess on Top Of The Pops – or some of the stuff the KLF were doing – wouldn’t feel right at any other time. Or with The Grid – we made three records with three big labels… off the back of Jack The Tab! I mean, who felt that was a commercial prospect? I’ve been very lucky with timing. I put out my first record when I was a kid – like 14, 15 – and even five years before, that would have been impossible. Suddenly, just post-punk, you had people who informed you, and people like Rough Trade who genuinely would help you. Before, it seemed totally impossible. A lot of it is good luck, and a passionate desire to do it.

A lot of mavericks make appearances in this book – Andrew Weatherall, Joe Strummer – and that seems to be a hallmark.

I’m drawn to them. They’ve got a strong flavour. I’m more of an observer or a back room person, really, but I’m drawn to the nutters, the frontmen who are leading the cultural charge. Mainly because they live in the now. And that’s certainly true of Genesis P-Orridge saying “let’s make an album next weekend” when we’d only just met that day! Making an acid house record without ever having heard acid house. Which is totally bizarre.

And it’s the same with Joe Strummer. It was always very forward looking. With Joe, we did a song called ‘Yalla Yalla’ and it had this lyric “distance no object” and that was his mantra. He’d phone you up and say “we’re going to go see Black Grape in Nottingham… tonight! Get in the car! C’mon!” It was very much that idea. I’m drawn to those mavericks that live in the now… because that’s where I want to be, as well.

Joe Strummer had a kind of gravitas, didn’t he?

He did. He was similar to Andrew Weatherall, in a way, in that he gave everyone the time of day. Just a graceful person. When you spoke to him, he was interested… and that made you want to do something creative. He gave you this get up and go. One thing I’ve really enjoyed about the book is that a lot of people say, it makes them want to do something. And that’s something I want to get across – you don’t have to be a slave to your mobile phone.

One thing that binds 60s psychedelia, 70s punk, and 80s acid house is a sense of culture being on fast forward.

Time seems to change during those periods… it becomes elastic. Everything becomes about now. Like, you can’t wait for anything – it has to be now! And you can hear it on those records. I heard ‘Substitute’ by the Who last night in a café in Glasgow and God, it’s got so much nowness to it! It still sounds incredible. When we did Jack The Tab, we did each track in one hour, so it’s all first impressions. As a result, it’s totally unpolished, and amateur, but it has this energy to it. I mean, it still sounds weird now! The only thing I can compare it to is our cut-up Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve records.

You and Erol have a long association, what makes that partnership so fruitful?

It’s weird because personality-wise, we’re very different. If you put us in a room, you’d think “oh that won’t work!” But it’s something else, some alchemy that just appears. If we worked seperately we might come up with similar ideas, but never in that space. That’s why we called the label Third Mind as well – it creates something else. I’m not too sure what it is, and I don’t want to pick it apart too much because it works.

Strange Things Are Happening is out now via White Rabbit Books.

Words: Robin Murray

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