Few musicians are as capable with words as Richard Norris. An established writer as well as an electronic music producer, Norris has not only written punk zines, biographies and NME features, but he also spliced together some of the UK’s earliest acid house tracks as Jack the Tab, produced hit electronic records as The Grid, and has now grown into a prolific wizard of ambient electronics. Richard’s next title, Strange Things Are Happening, will be out on White Rabbit Books in 2024.
Rob Smith chatted to Richard for our Bassbin Book Club series about his work, favourite reads and ambient music awakening…
Ambient music can often be heavily grounded in a sense of space. Are there any particular spaces you enjoy making music and/or reading in?
I like making music here in Lewes, in Sussex. It’s next to the South Downs, so there’s a sense of wide open space here. I find it very relaxing and inspirational being next to these rolling hills. I mainly read at home, somewhere quiet. I don’t have music on while I’m reading. Well, maybe something very ambient, but certainly nothing with lyrics. My brain can’t read and listen at the same time…
Particularly your early music practice was full of playful sampling. Do you still get to play with samples in your ambient work? Any favourite literary or cinematic samples?
I don’t use many samples in my ambient work, but I do use similar techniques – taking a random slice of noise or a field recording, cutting it up, playing with the pitch and tempo, reversing it… I’m doing a new project at the moment called The Pillars of Wonder, which involves large outdoor events as part of our performance, and will be making mixtapes for these events, so will be digging all kinds of samples out for that.
When were you first exposed to ambient music? What about the practice lured you into producing it yourself?
Mainly through Brian Eno and his EG label. So things like Music For Airports and albums by Jon Hassell, Laraaji, Harold Budd and the like. I was a big fan of all of the releases on the label. A bit later on, The Grid were managed by the E out of EG, David Enthoven, who was a very fine gentleman indeed. His working with Eno (and Fripp, T Rex, and Roxy) sealed the deal!
I have worked off and on with ambient projects over the years, as Furthur, with Billie Ray Martin on 4 Ambient Tales, and on selected remixes, but it wasn’t something I had produced in depth. Until three years ago, when I started producing weekly and monthly ambient releases on my label Group Mind, particularly the Music For Healing releases. I’ve released hours and hours of these now, spurred on by the feedback I have got for the series. People have said the music has helped with depression, anxiety, bereavement… someone even gave birth listening to the music! So what lured me into making ambient music was the sense of purpose it has given me, knowing that it is helping people. You can’t get better than that.
Ever encountered any books you want to burn straight away?
No…. you know where that leads.
You’ve previously said you wrote Paul Oakenfold’s biography to prove you could. If you could choose another figure from music to biography, who would it be?
I think Mark Moore should have one; he’s had a fascinating musical life. Also, Jayne Casey, a Liverpool lynchpin who was right in the thick of it from Big In Japan to Cream and beyond.
As an audiophile, are you into audiobooks?
Sometimes. Jarvis Cocker‘s one is good on audiobook, and the Beastie Boys one, which is read by a large cast. I’m writing my memoir Strange Things are Happening at the moment, so I’m looking forward to doing my own. It’s a useful process to read what you have written out loud – if it doesn’t work that way, it needs rewriting. That was a useful lesson I learned during my first live book reading!
Any reading recommendations? From either inside or outside electronic music?
I always recommend The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield to anyone working on creative projects. It’s excellent to get you motivated and looks at what holds you back from creative acts, which he calls ‘resistance’. That section is very useful. It’s only a slim volume but I get something new every time I read it. Highly recommended. I’m also currently enjoying Sacred Nature by Karen Armstrong, which is about how we can reconnect with the natural world via re-enchantment. In fact, how we must have a new relationship with the natural world if we are to survive. A highly stimulating and thoughtful read.
Any books that have been on your reading list for ages but that you’re looking forward to reading?
Happy Trails: Andrew Lauder’s Charmed Life and High Times in the Music Business, which is forthcoming on White Rabbit. He was an early inspiration for me when I was working at Bam Caruso records reissuing psychedelia in the mid-80s, in the releases he put out via United Artists and Liberty Records in the 60s and 70s. A man of impeccable taste. Also, Emma Warren’s Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through The Dancefloor is out soon. Can’t wait for that.
You’ve previously worked with the mental health charity MIND. Do you think reading helps maintain mental health? If so, do you know why?
It’s certainly more useful late at night than staring at a blue screen or texting! It certainly helps me unwind at bedtime. It does encourage a sense of balance.
Your practice and career started with punk and its fanzine culture. We’ve seen a recent spike in self-published zines and indie music publishing. Does this feel like a resurgence of original fanzine culture or a new contemporary scene?
A bit of both. There are some more upmarket quarterlies now, like Disco Pogo, who I have written for, which are both left of centre/underground and also glossy. I’m enjoying the emergence of a host of A5-sized new magazines on nature, folk horror, psychogeography and magic; there are half a dozen of these around, at least, and new ones keep popping up, all with great long-form writing in them. I like the resurgence in indie publishing a lot, where excellent work such as Sheena Patel’s phenomenal I’m A Fan can go from a small run via Rough Trade to a bestseller. Rough Trade Books publish a lot of great writing.
Like Neil Tennant, you have worked in music writing and have several hit records yourself. Do you see music writing and making music as compatible practices? Can they inform one another, or should they be kept distinct?
I find them quite different disciplines that seem to come from different parts of your creative brain. Currently, they have to be compatible, as I am writing 1000 words daily in the morning before I start a full day in the studio! It’s nice to chop and change, though. It keeps you interested.