A Room Of My Own: Nort & Epichead Studio
Strange noises are emanating from a converted industrial mews in Sheffield, where ex-Cabaret Voltaire and Hula member Nort records local bands and gets experimental with a diverse collection of gear. Nigel Humberstone makes himself at home.
Addiction and obsession are terms more normally associated with psychological behaviour, but they can quite easily be used to describe many an individual's dedicated and compulsive pre-occupation with music. One such individual is Nort (a school nickname that has stuck as his favoured term of address), a musician who evolved with and contributed to the musical infrastructure of Sheffield. The early '80s saw him playing drums and percussion with the legendary Cabaret Voltaire before joining Hula, a highly rated group who, despite releasing a number of influential and experimental records and supporting a European Depeche Mode tour, failed to make any commercial headway.
Epic Head is the name of Nort's 16-track studio, a modest but workable setup located on the fringe of the city centre in part of what is thought to be an 18th century Irish work settlement. The listed building is a kind of mews; the small community used to live upstairs and work down below in the various workshops. Until recently, Nort had to compete with an original forge blacksmith underneath his studio — which usually meant keeping the noise level down until late afternoon. The interior is original and therefore rather ramshackle in appearance. There's no fancy design work here, but the control room and rehearsal/recording room have been effectively sound-proofed and acoustically treated with crude carpeting and hessian sheets. Aged gas-brackets still hang from the ceiling and, as the sole form of heating, are regularly used. The surrounding buildings are slowly becoming a small complex of rehearsal rooms used by up-and-coming bands, whilst the top floor provides offices for the likes of Swamp Circus, a community circus co-operative. Epic Head Studio is essentially a facility for Nort's various musical projects, encompassing preparation for live work with his band, Hed, recording and mixed media events. The place has become a home-from-home for Nort.
"I took over this place just under five years ago with my girlfriend at the time and a friend; it was about a year since I'd left Hula and I'd done an album and single on Red Rhino, which was starting to have problems. The people I was working with were into the Acid Jazz scene and we initially set up the place as a rehearsal room. The group of friends eventually dispersed to pursue other careers and occupations, whilst me and Dave carried the place on and decided to set up a small studio. Then Dave got heavily into religion and my girlfriend ran off with the Devil! Well, she couldn't cope with the fact that my head was completely in this, met another guy and moved to London. So it ended up with me going it alone, which I'm a lot happier with because you can't argue with yourself. I often wonder what it's all about, but then what's politics all about? What's being a doctor all about? You all contribute — a doctor gets home and puts a record on so he can relax. So in the scheme of things everything has its place."
A particularly dated but interesting piece of gear in the studio is an Akai S612, the first of Akai's famously long-running range of samplers. The item still gets considerable use. "I use it if I quickly want to mess around with something. It's easy to just whack something into it and toggle the editing thing around. Plus it was one of the first samplers that became popular. When I was with Hula we did some work with Depeche Mode's producer [and Mute label boss] Daniel Miller; he had one of them, and I thought 'If he's using one then I've got to use one' because I was dead impressed by him. So it was one of the first things I got, even before I got the 16-track."
Nort's 16-track setup features a Fostex B16 which was running alongside a Series II Soundcraft desk. "The thing is about 15 years old and a solid workhorse despite having a couple of little things wrong with it." But as we spoke plans were in motion to upgrade to a Studiomaster Series III desk and budget league Aces 2-inch multitrack which were on long-term loan to Nort. Because of the the studio's location, with numerous bands practicing in the immediate vicinity, Nort has been able to supplement the studio upkeep by the occasional demo and recording session.
"As I make money I spend it on gear. Otherwise for me it's wasting away — it's got to be spent on gear. Sometimes I invest in rubbish, like the Korg EX800, which can just go in the bin. It's like a module version of the Poly 800 and probably has three or four good sounds. But maybe in a year's time it'll get dead popular and I'll be able to sell it for £500 — because that seems to be the trend! Having a studio is like being a kid in a toy shop; buying toys to mess around with, see what you can do with them and pulling them to bits — which is what I seem to do."
Nort's collection of equipment certainly does display some weird and wonderful 'toys'. There's a Korg MS20 which, although not unique in itself, has been teamed up with an ominous-looking purpose built sequencer, complete with a host of knobs and switches. Like the Roland SH101 and Sequential Circuits Pro 1, these old synths can be MIDI'd up via a Groove Electronics MIDI-CV convertor. A remnant from the early days of the studio is a Yamaha CX5M Music Composer. "I still use it. There's a couple of good sounds, like the FM bass, which is very deep. Get that mixed with a modern synth and it sounds great." Other peculiar items include an Electro Harmonix 'Clone Theory' unit, part of a range of antique foot pedals which are currently attaining cult status amongst many musicians.
"I look for older pieces of gear," explains Nort, "because they've got characteristics that you never find with a lot of modern things. Take, for instance, the Foxland compressor — if I put a snare drum through it, it really affects the sound, it doesn't just compress it. Maybe it's just the cheaper components but it does something unique to the sound that I like. For me, compressors are the ultimate tool to have in the studio. I'd have hundreds all lined up if I could — I just think that there are various ways that they can be used, like if you overdrive them. I have this philosophy that when machines break down they're trying to tell us something. The fault might be producing a strange sound that you should analyse and use before getting it repaired. Don't just disregard it. As with the compressors, I use my Drawmer gate more for experimental purposes than as a standard noise gate, like loading rhythms in on the duck effect and treating them."
"My concept with the studio is to take a more experimental approach — buying cheap and nasty analogue equipment, which I do because I don't want to get too involved with the digital side of things and lose the feel of older ways of working. To me experimentation is a normal way of working, but some musicians find it very bizarre — they have to be in tune and play it right. There seem to be certain rules that musicians have, and you find when the rules break down that something more alive, from inside you, comes out. It's just my personal experience in working with music, but I find you can get more out of it if you take things just that little bit further. Like for bands going into a studio, just think that you're going in to record a piece of art that's probably going to last forever. In my case you've got 16 tracks of tape, numerous delay units, machines that can do wild and wonderful things. You don't have to use them all, all the time but it really is worth getting interested in what this technology can do. When I first started I just literally wanted to make noises rather than write songs. It was nice doing that but experimentation can be put into music making. People like Seal and Massive Attack are proving that, and then there's things like Prince's Parade, which has got to be one of the 'producer's' albums of the century. I still don't know how he did it. I've listened to it over and over again and I know I will never ever, in a million years, ever do anything that is anywhere near that. I know that — I don't even aspire to get that close. But then maybe one day I will, maybe that's the whole thing about having a studio, the schizophrenic side of it. One minute you're completely mad and insane, then you get over a threshold and realise that you have been learning and that there are things that you can offer."
Made Of Water is the title of the first CD release on Nort's new Epic Head label. It's the result of a collaboration between Nort and Sultan H.U, a Malaysian called Ibali, studying Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield. "It was a 50/50 thing. When Ibali first came in and played me one of his songs I hated it, it made me cringe," admits Nort openly. "But as we started doing the sessions, I began getting into his music and his words, which are a real comment on what's going on in this country from the point of view of an outsider. It may be the old hippy thing of peace and love but it's got to be that because we're destroying the world. I mean I'm not destroying anyone in here — or am I? I'm buying these machines and I don't know if their components have been tested on animals. I go to the Body Shop but there are things in a keyboard that might have been pushed near a dog to see if it radiates, or whatever!
"Ibali's songs are very organic even though we've used a lot of technology and samples. There was also a massive cultural difference — our senses of humour were completely different; what I laugh at he finds bizarre and vice-versa. So we got into each other's cultures and I loved that aspect of it.
"I want Epic Head to have a general feeling of positivity all round, because I care about the world. I see people like Bob Geldof doing his thing and think 'that's the sort of person I'd like to be'. Not because he's an Irish asshole, like everyone calls him, but because he fucking did things that the government couldn't do. How can you knock things like Band Aid; it was one of the best gestures that music's made for years. And I want to be part of things like that, things like Peter Gabriel and WOMAD — that's where my heart is in the bigger scheme of things, and I realise that the only way of doing it is doing it yourself and being strong minded."
As with many personal studios, there is always the question of finding the motivation and incentive to persevere with a musical endeavour. Does Nort find this a problem? "Yeah it is at times. I go swimming every alternate day as a way to relax and I have to go out at least once a week and get blind drunk because it's the only way that I can get that complete detachment from it all. I also do Tai Chi and I'm into Chinese philosophy — that's what gives me my will to keep going. The fact is that I'm here, I'm alive and I've got to keep moving. I take a lot of vitamin pills each morning; about 30 of the bastards! Eat as good as I can, make love as often as possible and that's it. Everything else seems to fall into place." Or, into the 'scheme of things' as you might say.
Further Information: Epic Head Studio (Contact Details).
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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