The Uncanny In The Everyday: Kemper Norton Interviewed
, June 19th, 2013 06:49
Sussex resident Kemper Norton's music tells tales of community conflict and tensions between urban and rural worldviews. He tells Russell Cuzner about prank calls to J.G. Ballard, burial chambers and water poisonings
The mysterious music of Kemper Norton draws its power from its apparently conflicting facets, which put the listener in a confused but entirely pleasurable state. The sound is formed of acoustic folk miniatures swimming through pools of synthetic texture, while found sounds float to the surface, dredging up tiny hints of dance rhythms in their wake. These ingredients - far from being a casually picked, if natty, selection from the twentieth century's smorgasbord of genres - are stirred together with idiosyncratic focus to produce a strange, heady brew that's neither folk nor electronica, neither analogue nor digital, but something else; boasting new flavours with familiar seasoning.
Much, if not all, of Kemper Norton's output is borne of strong, sometimes elaborate concepts that are only fully revealed in sleevenotes. They often focus away from the typically urban concerns of electronic music to face folk's rural heartland, but eschew idyllic, pastoral stereotypes to reveal tales of domestic violence, "party melancholy", burial chambers and the dire consequences of industrialisation for rural Britain.
Kemper Norton was initially described as a collective, yet has been presented in recent live settings as a solo performance. Equally, there are over ten releases under his (or their) belt, but less than half that amount remain available. These ambiguities and conundrums are perhaps best explored on his latest release, the Rough Music EP, part of Manchester-based label Front & Follow's Collision/Detection project. For it, the label invited a series of artists to each make an EP using sounds from a shared pool of audio, which was provided by all the participants at the beginning of the process. The EPs were released throughout last year and this year, and are now being collected together in a box set released this month. Despite being largely formed of other people's noises and notes, Kemper Norton's contribution sees him alchemically transform the shared material to sound like no one else.
"The concept was a kind of community, the idea of community really appealed to me," says Kemper Norton. "I think you could use as many or as little [shared sounds] as you wanted. And I think in theory you could add stuff as well but, weirdly, I decided not to do that with my stuff. I thought it was quite fun to use as little extra as possible, apart from the voice… I mean, it's horribly, heavily processed. But I got to meet loads of interesting artists from a range of genres, really - Australian death sea shanties and folk pop and noise and dance – it's really good."
Your four tracks are based on a concept of 'rough music' – what's that all about?
KN: It was a method of the community indicating their disgust for a particular member of that community by going 'round to their house, usually at either daybreak or in the middle of the night, banging pots and pans and creating an absolute kerfuffle to keep them awake and, basically, intimidate them. Usually it would be something like a landlord who'd cheated people or someone who'd inordinately beaten their wife. In a way you think "oh, what a sweet thing", but then it's got that destructive element of community as well, in the sense that some of these reasons would not be as noble - it could be someone who was unpopular for some reason, and who'd be driven out simply by this method. I think the 18th- and 19th-century was the most popular time of it happening. The first song on the EP ('Him') is a found lyric that's been reported as being used to drive away someone.
Like a banishing ritual?
KN: Yeah, it's a banishing ritual, basically, and the lyrics [are] what they went and sang to him - for this case it was someone who committed domestic violence, which is the main theme. So the EP starts with this ritual of them coming together to do this, and then ends with the female character banishing the man herself.
'Her', taken from the Rough Music EP
That's a good example of what consistently comes across from all your material - these strong, original concepts you use. Arguably they seem to relate to 'occult' or 'psychogeographic' themes, particularly folk and rural traditions.
KN: That's fair enough. I'm more likely to say it's the uncanny in the everyday. The word 'occult' I'm a little uncomfortable with because of the ritualistic elements it brings in. I'm not really into the whole dark occult strategy, setting up ritualistic sorts of things. I'm not a student of the occult, I'm definitely more concerned with the uncanny within the everyday, I think that's what I emphasise.
Is it perhaps a signal of frustration with modern, urban life, then? A little bit of a green anarchist or pagan attitude?
KN: Well I grew up in the country [in Cornwall] and I feel happier in the country, and I live in a city [Brighton] and have very ambiguous feelings about living in a city - but I've also got very ambiguous feelings about living in the country. Like, there's no way in the world I feel 'let's go back to the country', or want to go back to a previous age, ever. Because there was never a golden age, ever, in this country, and it's a dangerous thing to look into. I think the problem is that some music at the moment is looking back to the idea that there's this wonderful England which, you know, was peaceful, was interesting, was white - which I think is a subtext of a lot of that - which I feel very uncomfortable with. So yeah, I'm from the country, so a lot of my stuff is about being in the country, [but] also I hope those feelings are ambiguous as well, it's not like going 'oh, it's fantastic, I wish we could all prance around in meadows all the time'.
That comes across quite strongly - that even though it's clearly rooted in rural ideas, it's not idyllic.
KN: No. Cornwall was an industrial county - it's a post-industrial county now - but rather than be inspired by the beaches of St Ives or Newquay or whatever, it's definitely more inspired by mid-Cornwall, Redruth, Camborne, the industrial revolution parts which are now faded, and the poverty, and the idea that it's now second home paradise for people to have two weeks in the summer. Failure and defeat and all those things I'm hoping would be in there.
What's the concept for your next release, Carn, that's due out in August on Exotic Pylon records?
KN: It's based around two uncanny experiences I had at two different locations - one in Cornwall, one in Sussex - and it's really about moving from Cornwall to Sussex, which was more traumatic than I thought it was going to be in terms of place. [I moved] about five, six years ago for a very boring reason, for financial reasons: in Cornwall there's no work down there. I wasn't born in Cornwall, I'm sort of a bit all over - I was born in Scotland but then moved to Ghana and West Africa, and then lived in Oman until I was ten – [but] Cornwall was where I grew up properly. So I found [the move] a bit traumatising, so I got stuck into Sussex folklore as a way of feeling at home. It's really about two specific places: Carn Euny fogou in west Cornwall, where I saw in the eclipse in '99 and had some strange experiences, and Chanctonbury Ring in West Sussex, which is a place that's quite odd and has many myths around it.
'Velan Dreath 1', taken from the Carn album
So what is a fogou?
KN: Burial chambers. Carn Euny is a very special one in west Cornwall because they generally don't know what it was for. There are all sorts of theories that it was for unknown ceremonial purposes, and you could pretty much project your own strange fantasies onto what went on there. It's quite possible it's an everyday sort of place but with some ritual purpose attached. Me and a friend stayed down there for the eclipse, we camped there the night before and it was a kind of unusual experience. It's just a very special place really, and I recorded down there. I brought down a Casio keyboard and played with that down there.
To get the natural ambience of the place?
KN: Yes, but it felt a bit wrong to be doing it in a way – I don't really believe in ghosts or anything, but there's definitely a presence there and I didn't want to be taking the piss. I was trying to do it in a way that was respectful as well. I'm not sure I'd call it a supernatural experience, but I definitely experienced [something] that I don't want to talk too much about, that was a bit sort of strange while under there. I'm not generally a ghost spotting kind of person, but it had a very big impact. And Chanctonbury Ring was the same, when I moved to Sussex. It's got a really good myth attached which I was quite interested in, but when I got there it was more that it was an unusual place in itself. It was more than the myth.
So what was the myth?
KN: There's a couple of different variants, but the main one is if you walk round it seven times then the devil will appear. In some versions he'll delete your soul and in other versions he'll give you some soup which seems quite nice - like 'oh! … thanks!' [laughs]. So I wrote a couple of things and did lots of recording up there as well. The field recordings from Carn Euny are on every track on the first side, and field recordings from Chanctonbury on the second side. It's a way of dealing with two interesting places and maybe saying some wider things about community as well.
It felt like a really personal [record]. I mean, who gives a shit really about whether I moved from Cornwall to Sussex? But I find it hard to do anything unless it's rooted in something really personal first. And hopefully it says something else about other things afterwards.
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I noticed on the Collision Detection EP and the two Carn sides there's a lot more vocals than your earlier works. Was that a conscious decision?
KN: It came out of playing live. I didn't suddenly think "the world must hear my voice" but I did think that I want to do a song, so I sang a folk song at one of Jonny Mugwump's Exotic Pylon gigs, at the Vortex alongside Philip Jeck. It was the first time in my life or on record and it was a version of 'Died For Love', which is on Carn, and I really wanted to sing it because it says a lot about what I'm trying to do. I loved doing it so much and it felt right, so I expect I will carry on and do more vocal stuff.
It wasn't just your voice either, there was a lot of other voices…
KN: Oh yeah, that was again this idea of a community, a crowd-sourcing of vocals. I put an open call out, which is basically tied in with the Chanctonbury Ring legend. I wanted to do something that felt like a community response to evil, so it was basically like "okay, I want you to record yourself reciting from one to seven, whatever way you want, and we'll put it together". So some people did it in Cornish, others did it in Welsh, a couple in Portuguese, and the stipulation was that everyone who sent me something is on that EP somewhere, buried or explicit. Someone did it in semaphore!
You seem to be part of a growing community of artists united by their appearance at the Outer Church [a semi-regular Brighton-based club night that has featured a wide range of outsider musicians, such as Hacker Farm, Pye Corner Audio and The Haxan Cloak to name but a few]. This is being commemorated on a compilation due out in August on Front & Follow.
KN: It's very much fellow travellers and people who feel the same way about music. The Outer Church was a way of being asked to play live really, and it's been fabulous, I've met loads of interesting musicians, and people just got to know each other. I haven't bought an album for the last year or two that hasn't been from someone I've met through these sorts of nights. The only person I knew on The Outer Church compilation from before is IX Tab, who I was at university with. Apart from Sone Institute, [who I knew] from MySpace, that's about it.
You perform solo at these nights, whereas your website makes reference to other 'members' such as Burnthouse, Speckle and Rradiant Boys - so are you just a one man band or is Kemper Norton a collective?
KN: Well, I think the mythology I stupidly set up is that Kemper Norton went solo and kicked all these people into touch - Burnthouse is a fusion of three different people and is a real person as well, Speckle is an identity of a real artist who I know in Cornwall - Emily Jones - who's terrific, Rradiant Boys are kind of frightening, but they were kind of a part of me I didn't want to think about too much. So it's a fusion, a kind of a mixture, a light-hearted idea of surrounding yourself with others is comforting.
Did they make musical contributions to some of your earlier releases?
KN: Oh yeah. Burnthouse definitely did and there's more to come from Burnthouse I think. Speckle, Emily Jones, is someone I work with now. I've just done some recording for her, and she's someone I think should be more widely known anyway. Employeeseven is myself and two of my friends, it's our feelings of being at work. It's basically the work persona, because I think that's something that's often denied in music - that most people who do this stuff have real jobs, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, you know? Loic Rich is another one who is in my collective – he's real as well. He's playing pubs in Cornwall at the moment; he's Cornwall's own Billy Bragg. So a mixture is the quick answer.
And this term 'slurtronic folk' that's attached to you – where's it from, and what do you take it to mean?
KN: I think I made it up [laughs]. Slur was because I wanted music to sound like a slur, I didn't want it to be jolly, happy folk, but I didn't want it to be doom folk or anything. Slur was kind of what I was after and still am in a way. When you're drunk you slur, and a lot of music I do is to do with quite boring altered states [laughs]. Slurring is that gap in reality, but in an everyday way. I guess it's back to that 'uncanny in the everyday' - that things slur, things are slightly off. And 'folk' – I'd never call myself a folk musician though. I just don't see how. I really love folk music.
That comes across – you seem to have a rich understanding of folk music.
KN: I'm very, very new to it. I'd never want to put myself down as being an expert at all, but I love it, I'm very passionate about it and I'm still exploring it. I wasn't that interested when I was in Cornwall. Moving to Sussex, strangely, is what did it. Because there's a big, rich tradition of that in the county, and I needed something to feel at home and just get stuck into. Like The Copper Family, who are based in Sussex and have written some great songs, and Shirley Collins is basically Sussex-based.
What would you describe as your musical roots and influences then, if folk is such a new interest. What were you listening to when you were in Cornwall, for example?
KN: I was listening to Autechre - I love how they just keep doing their own utterly abstract electronic stuff. Some industrial and post-industrial stuff which I got into at university, like Coil. Scott Walker because he just does his own thing, but also, you know, prog [laughs] - Genesis, Pink Floyd, that's the stuff I had when I was a kid. But more so than music, books and artists really: Cornish artists like Walter Langley, who painted people who are widowed because of sailing accidents, Alfred Wallis - who was a St Ives artist who died in penury but was really creative - and also Blake, Max Ernst. Leonora Carrington, who was with the surrealists but got neglected because she's a woman. J.G. Ballard – the man! – who is just amazing. I talked to him once!
KN: Yeah, well he's been a hero of mine, partly because he's so amazing with the sci-fi angle, but partly because I didn't grow up in England and he didn't. That idea of an outsider's eye of England. People forget that he's very funny as well. I mean, he can't write dialogue at all, but it doesn't matter, because it's really funny. I was working at a call centre - you'd phone people up to ask about which petrol stations they'd shopped at. I went, "I wonder if J.G. Ballard's in the directory?" and it was there - J.G. Ballard with a Shepperton number. I thought, "well, I'm never ever going to get the chance to speak to him in real life", so I called him [laughs] and then this bloke, it was clearly J.G. Ballard, went "hello?", I think he was having his dinner. Then I absolutely panicked, I said [puts on high voice] "…Hi! Is this J.G. Ballard?" and he went "Yes it is. How can I help you?" - obviously a bit grumpy. So I said "well I'm doing a survey about petrol and car habits, would you want to do that?" He paused for about five seconds and he said "no, thank you", so I was like "I love your work Mr Ballard, thank you very much!" and hung up [laughs]. Which is the most excited I've ever been about meeting anyone.
Are you musically trained at all?
KN: I took piano when I was younger but not really, it's mostly self-taught really.
Various layers in your music have got acoustic instruments, but it's hard to tell whether they are short pieces that are looped or long pieces that are repetitive.
KN: That was always the idea - to make it "is it acoustic or is it digital?" I like all that, because I'm not an acoustic obsessive or a digital obsessive, I love the idea of thinking "where's that sound really coming from?" The answer is: it's both. More so now I tend to be going towards performing stuff, I guess because I'm performing live, and then recording it and then chopping it up, I can't resist hacking it up a bit.
So do you have a fairly describable, fixed compositional process?
KN: Usually it starts with an idea of what I want to talk about, a concept, and then I'll do either a vocal or a main section of it. The first job seems to be finding or recording bits, like gathering together stuff. You think "okay, I'll need vocal and harmonium first, for the main bit, then I need samples of this – oh, I haven't got them, I'd better go and record them", and then see what idea still feels nice, feels like it's worth bothering with. And then, usually, some crazy drinking and recording a bunch of stuff with modular synths or whatever. Then put it together and see what works. I haven't got anything expensive, though. I never go to a studio ever, it's all just in the front room with my two quid mics I got at Cash Converters.
I've got a laptop and stuff and software which I use, which is totally not designed for what I'm trying to do, but it's really good fun to make it do it. And then I've got the harmonium and Casio, quite cheap stuff really, but I always like to think of doing it as part of everyday life, really. I could never do it in a studio I don't think, because it's so separate. I like looking up at the cat bothering me and that kind of thing, so I suppose it's always been a sort of organic way of doing it.
I notice that fantasy novelist Mark Chadbourn and particularly graphic novelist Warren Ellis big you up online. How did you gain their attentions?
KN: [Warren Ellis] will scour the internet for things that are unreleased, he finds stuff on Bandcamp, and he's fully aware that a lot of people will read his blog. He found me randomly on MySpace, I think, and said "I'm currently listening to this, it's really good". He was the first person to do it and after that he carried on, he did a weird little podcast and I'd send him things and he'd always put them in his podcast, The 4am. It was really nice to have someone who you didn't know - who you respected as a writer and as someone who was doing their own thing, and was successful - who actually said "this is good". He's a really interesting guy I think. And Mark Chadbourn I think was the same. He just sort of found it and went "I like this".
What else have you got coming up?
KN: Some sort of EP about the Camelford water poisoning of 1989, which is really interesting because it was on the eve of the privatisation of the water industry [and] it was hushed up. There's actually a statement reported by a Cornish paper, which [says] "we very much don't want to have anything reported about this incident because people in favour of privatisation think it's going to be a problem to it going through". So it was basically a mass poisoning incident, an accidental one, but the response to it was very much to cover it up. But now I feel I'm much more angry about a lot more things politically - privatisation is one, education, health, the usual things. It just so happens that the first things to hit you are always things that affect your immediate vicinity.
And then there's another album I'm on now called, tentatively, Loor, which is Cornish for moon, which is going to be a bit of a weirder one. And basically begging people to play live. I want to play more gigs.
For more on Kemper Norton, click here to visit his website and Soundcloud. Front & Follow's Collision/Detection box set is out now, featuring Kemper Norton's Rough EP. For more information visit the Front & Follow website. Carn is due out in August via Exotic Pylon.