James Norman : I’ll show you mine…

HC: What do you look for when you go record digging?
JN: Peace. Time apart. Space to think.

Hi, my name is James and I run a Micro Record Label called Brian Records and have recently written a book called, you guessed it, Micro Record Labels that I am currently running a Kickstarter campaign for. I hope it is both a ‘how to’ but also a survey and reflection on a number of Micro Labels I love. It is easy to read, funny and honest. If you are interested in the weird and wonderful world of music you should consider checking it out. Below I have answered the questions from HC. I am sorry that the answers are a little turgid and I am even more sorry that some of the releases I mention are crimes against music. I hope it makes you smile and that you can feel smug knowing your record collection is cooler than mine.

How many records would you say are in your collection?
I’m not really sure. Maybe 600-800 12” and 200 7” (plus 30 10” a few 5” a few 8” and now a 2”) may be a few more, maybe a few less. Let’s say some. But not a lot. And probably not enough.

Do you consider yourself a ‘collector’?
Absolutely 100% not. I am really bad at looking after my records and cataloguing them. I put my fingers all over them. And store them in the wrong place at the wrong temperature. I would consider myself a hoarder rather than a collector. I can’t let go of records, even ones I truly hate remain in my collection forever.

What is your playback setup like?
Firstly I have never been one of these people who spends loads on equipment. As a kid, I spent all my money on buying records and never had any left over for buying kit. I think that approach has stayed with me. Secondly, that depends where we are talking. Most of my listening is done on the move. On trains, walking, in coffee shops, and I use my iPhone and whatever headphones I can find in the house. Right now I am listening on a lovely pair of Bose headphones which my brother in law kindly gave me as he no longer needs them. Before I had these I would normally use the free apple headphones.

If I’m listening to records then most likely it’s in my office at work. I have a little portable record player on my desk. Currently, the Jessica Pratt record is permanently on it. Partly I love the record, and partly it didn’t have a download code with it and I haven’t bothered to rip it yet! At home, if I am working then I have a record deck, some OK speakers and an amp I got for my 18th birthday. It sounds OK I think.

What was the very first record you purchased?
By record do you mean vinyl? My first purchase was Bad by Michael Jackson. I was 11 years old and for my birthday I was given 3 £5 vouchers for Our Price. I went to Our Price on my own and bought the cassette that was most popular at the time. I took it home and listened to it over and over. A few days later on my second trip, I bought the soundtrack to “Buster” because it had Phil Collins on it. It’s fair to say my music buying did not start well. But when you start at the bottom the only way is up, right.

My first record, I would love to say was Headz on Mowax, because that record really means something to me, it opened up an entire universe of awesome music and the whole excitement around labels. But I will be honest, I’m procrastinating. Because my first actual record purchase was, no I can’t do it. Sorry.

It was
It was
It was ‘So Damn Cool’ by Ugly Kid Joe.

I am sorry. I wish it had been something cool. But no. I feel ashamed. But I still have it in my collection.

Tell us about the most prized record in your collection.
This is a crazy hard one. But I think it is my Hymies basement live CD. I am a huge fan of Andrew Broder and especially his Fog band. They are just incredible. I saw him live a few years back and he was selling a live CD of his Hymies basement release. Just a brown card sleeve with a black letters rubber stamped on the cover. Limited to 100. I love it. I prefer it to the album (this is generally the case for me, I am less about the polish, more about the raw) I love that I bought it from him in person. In many ways it made me realize how easy it was to do this (I used to think that about Andrews music as well, but on that front, I was very wrong, what he does is quite incredible).

What are your thoughts on the “inconvenience” of vinyl?
I honestly don’t think that music on vinyl is inconvenient. In fact of the physical formats, it is the most convenient. In my book, I talk about a wide variety of different formats. I think that for most people the inconvenience scale is as follows:

Most Convenient
– MP3/Streaming
— Vinyl/Cassette + download code
— CD
—- Vinyl
—– Cassette
—— Minidisc
——- Microcassette
——– Reel to reel
——— 5 1/4” floppy disc
Least convenient

Here’s why. Most people listen to a digital stream. A download code is easier to access than a CD. I don’t have a CD player in my house. So I can only listen in the car or rip to my computer. A vinyl with no code needs to be ripped but my deck is set up already. Cassette is more of a pain but doable, I have a couple of walkmans, the issue is a) finding batteries in my house and b) hoping the Walkman doesn’t chew the tape. After this, the question becomes do you have a player in the loft, if not can you buy one on eBay and finally even if you can buy one on eBay what the heck do you do with it. I released a 5 1/4” floppy once. I have no idea if anyone actually managed to access the music but I doubt it. I have no idea where to even start. But I paid the extra dollar a disc to have the file put on despite having no idea how to check!

What makes you want to purchase an album on vinyl as opposed to any other medium?
Based on the above the answer is quite simple. They are the most convenient physical format. Plus I love them. I love their physicality. I love the size. I love the artwork. They are just amazing.

Ever consider digitizing the collection and selling it off?
Yes and no. I digitize everything I buy these days (although it can take me a while) but I have no intention of selling up. Maybe one day if I decide to quit my job and start up a coffee shop/book shop/record shop/synth shop I will use it as a way to bulk out the collection but until then no plans.

What album has your favourite artwork and why?
Oh boy. This is a huge one. I can spend weeks thinking about this. I am going for the Third Version EP by Money Mark. It’s just perfect. Simple card sleeve. Great concept. The handwritten text. A spaceman playing a synth on the cover. The Mowax label at the bottom. And then you slide it open and inside is one of those 3D viewfinders with all the pictures. And the disc is the picture disc to go in the viewfinder. I loved those as a kid. So it just works in every way. Plus it’s a great EP. Sometimes You Gotta Make It Alone is in my top 5 all time favourite songs.

What do you look for when you go record digging?
Peace. Time apart. Space to think.

I love just idly flipping through records. Most of my working life my lunch routine has involved flipping through records. less so these days as there are no shops really nearby, but most of my life. I miss the old style of the record shop. Where if something grabs your attention you take it to the counter and have a listen. I loved that process.

Where do you buy your music these days?
Mostly either online (Norman Records is amazing, historically Boomkat but at some point, I think our tastes diverged so less so now) or in shops. I try and drop into Rough Trade in Bristol a couple of times a month. Or direct from labels online.

What are your thoughts on limited editions, original releases, and reissues?
I love limited editions. Running a micro-label is all about making things limited. A release of 25 is exciting because so few people will have them. I love the idea that my record collection is unique. That no one has the same collection as me. That, like my DNA, it represents me and no one else. Statistically, it is possible that someone has all the records I have as a subset of their own collection, but when you start releasing music in tiny numbers then the probability of that occurring falls massively.

In terms of purchasing, I only buy new records. I have a very small number of second-hand records but I don’t enjoy second-hand shopping and I don’t consider myself a crate digger. I am also not a huge fan of re-issues, although they have their place. And if done well (the monster collectors box set can be a thing of beauty) they are incredible. Take the Boats boxset as an example. That is an incredible collection and a total delight. Or the recent Radiohead boxset of OK Computer. The highlight for me is the cassette. I love that it has a cassette in it and the 80 minutes of music is awesome. In many ways that cassette feels like the kind of thing, a micro-label would do. Weird noises, outtakes, and then out of nowhere an incredible song.

What were the most memorable liner notes that you’ve ever read?
Hmmmmm. I love this question. And I love liner notes. I am not one of those people who sit down with a nice drink and listens to a record whilst staring at the sleeve. In fact, for me, the packaging, the music and any liner notes live are three parallel parts of my mind. It is not unheard of for me to go to bed with a stack of CDs or 7” records just to look at them, in silence, and enjoy the artwork and the words. To take them apart and reassemble them. And then days, weeks, months later to listen to the music. I don’t feel like the three things have to coincide for me to enjoy them. But I do think that my memories enhance my appreciation. The sound, sight, touch and the words all trigger interest in my mind and it’s OK that these are not synchronous. Sorry, this is a long waffly answer.

These are some of my highlights:
Genius/Gza ‘Liquid Swords’ – The text which captures all the titles of the tracks but also tells it’s own story. Awesome (plus the best Wu-Tang record and a hip hop absolute must)
Tes ‘x2’ – I love the mathematical equations scrawled all over it, plus it’s an incredible indie hip hop record. For years I bought all the releases by lex on CD as they had this incredibly strong identity which they kept but also messed with by making cutouts, or adding 3” CDs, it was sweet. But ‘x2’ I bought on vinyl. It is such a great record and the artwork/inner sleeves are just incredible. On a side note if I ever got a tattoo I’ve decided it would be a Fourier transform written in a similar style that wraps around my arm (or face). Luckily I don’t have a tattoo.
Badly Drawn Boy ‘Hour of Bewilderbeast’ – I love this record. And twisted nerve are a huge inspiration for my own micro-label – I was gutted that the reissue of this was not a glorious box set with loads of home-recorded lo-fi songs on tape – it looked very middle of the road – but the original was a real inspiration.
Radiohead ‘Amnesiac’ – Book and music all brilliant. Love the library book concept. I wonder how much this release influenced Cotton Goods (who get a double page spread in my book, their releases are incredible).
I could go on and on and on.

What record do you think you could play all the time?
Air ‘Moon Safari’ – It was this or ‘Endtroducing’ by DJ Shadow. Both of them are important to me because they mark moments in my marriage which I want to hang on to. I have the words of ‘All I Need’ on the wall in my house which a friend wrote out for our engagement party almost 20 years ago. It’s a great record and I can’t imagine ever getting annoyed with it. It works early morning when my head is sore and late at night when I want to go to sleep. You can listen closely or at a distance. But above all else, it reminds me of how much I love my wife.

How is your collection organized?
Badly. A long time ago it was alphabetical. Then I started DJing and so I reorganized the whole thing by genre (roughly: noise/metal – heavy/alt-rock – rock – pop – folk – electronic/rock – weird beats – funk – hip hop – big beat/party – techno – ambient techno – drone – dubstep – drum and bass.) Really it only made sense to me. But then I moved it around the house a few times and so now it is in a fragmented version of the above. Frankly these days I pull out whatever I can find and listen. Part of the fun is not knowing what you’ll find. But one day I will reorganise it again.

How has vinyl impacted your life?
It has given me creative confidence. I am an engineer and thought for a long time I couldn’t be creative. But one day I started a record label and suddenly my view changed. I stole lot’s of ideas from other people. Had a play. Tried things out. Made lots of mistakes. But realised I could do it. It has changed me as a person. I wanted to capture this wild-eyed sense in my book. That running a label is for anyone who wants to. There is no special gift. What connects everyone involved in all my records, whether weird noise or huge pop success is that they chose to do it. That where others stopped, they went for it. Somehow, somewhere my record released that in me.

What will happen with your collection when you’re gone?
I would love to think it would end up as an art installation in a museum or my friends would all club together and create a micro-library which is open to all. But honestly, I am not sure. Most of it probably belongs in a rubbish tip. I would hope my boys would all like a few of the records and the rest I hope would be given to good homes.