Artist and music reviewer TJ Norris from Toneshift.net got in touch recently and I was intrigued by how relatively little crossover there was between our sites. So I suggested we quiz each other and share the responses. Here are 5 questions I asked him.
Q: I see that Toneshift reviews a lot of artists not featured on Ambient Music Guide, and visa versa. How did you find your niche?
A: It’s a loaded question (for me) and I hope you don’t mind me indulging a lil’.
Before I started publishing Toneshift.net back in 2010 I had already been writing for a bit over a decade for several glossies and online spots. But when I was a kid I started writing about music, making my own handwritten fanzines. I was probably 10-12 years old (circa the late 70’s). I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone, but when I discovered British music magazines I went on a tear, learning about as much as I could that I hadn’t had access to before. I became fascinated by anything that was other than what you’d hear on a typical American commercial radio station.
And when I was an early teen I worked as an intern for a radio station, WLYN (in Lynn, Massachusetts) which became WFNX while I working there around 1982-83. I was already a full-fledged punk that was also receptive to new wave and disco, so though there was a backlash in the dominant media against all the above, I was willing to listen, and go against the grain, understanding at an early age the quiet power of personal taste.
Of course live shows always help pique one’s interest in the expanse of sound. I remember experiencing unheard of opening acts that were better than the headliner. I remember incredible shows by Sisters of Mercy, The Smiths, Daniel Menche, Nina Hagen, Laurie Anderson, kd lang and many more. Not to mention local DJs who had white labels long before radio stations, so hearing things in clubs months in advance always caught my attention. It may seem ‘random’ to some but I’ve never really bound myself by genre.
After that point I became an avid music collector, at my peak I owned nearly 20K vinyl record albums. But when music became digital I traded in my long-players for these more portable discs. Listening to everything from Billie Holiday to Björk, from Brian Eno to Nurse With Wound, from Javanese Gamelan to shoegazer alternative. And so it goes.
I’ve always been a deep listener and lover of sound in general, but it’s always been ambient that draws me back. For me there’s this transcendent feeling I get when listening to the era of early Tangerine Dream, or the power of Gregorian chant, then there’s the lush side of Cluster/Kluster or solo work by Klaus Schulze or Edgar Froese – I love the Germans approach, it’s slightly darker ambient without being modern day “dark ambient” which I can take or leave depending on who it is and how its done (without the overly gothic drama). And then fast-forward to the incredible Pete Namlook who turned my ears round many times, as well as Gas, Loscil, Thomas Koner and Biosphere, or the many who create sleep concerts in the realm of Robert Rich, etc. I have a treasure trove of examples – but in short, there’s ‘ambient’ in a lot of things ranging from pop music to chamber music, and loads in between, worthy of second spins, and even more by independent artists all over the world that’s discoverable on Bandcamp, Spotify and elsewhere.
Some sideline elements that influenced my thinking about the hybrids of sound came from scouring old-fashioned record shops in Boston/Cambridge (Twisted Village was one of my faves), Chicago, Tower Records, Other Music (NYC) and of course the Amoeba shops in Cali. But whenever I’d travel (London especially) I’d pick up new music. I bought some regional obscurities when I had a stopover in Iceland. I just happened to be at an independent record shop during an unexpected signing (that was oddly very casual) for Siouxie & Budgie’s The Creatures project, she was so sweet, easy to talk to. But each shop, whether in Portland, Montreal or Barcelona had its distinct personality, and there are always avid music lovers wanting to share “their” discoveries with you. So when blogging was in its infancy I was an early adopter, and knew what I had to say, and write about music.
I’m easily influenced by “if you like ______ try ______” recommendations, or Desert Island Discs – in fact I was once published in Tower Records’ Magazine with my list.
Right now I have at least 40 records to consider for review for August alone, so suffice to say there’s so much beyond the general public’s reach to be heard. My ears are always open and bend towards interesting, eclectic, exotic sounds.
Q. I like Toneshift’s strapline “The Future Of Music Today”. How did that come about?
A: Simply put I like hybrids, music that sounds like something I’ve never heard of before – that’s the ‘future’ part. If I sense sounds being before their time, I say something. And because I try to write every day (I skip a few here and there) that’s the ‘today’ part. But I’m also a sucker for anything that looks or appears as futuristic, even in a superficial way, it comes from loving 70’s sci-fi (Logan’s Run, THX-1138, Blade Runner), and Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus, conceptual art.
Q. In an age where anyone can make and share a playlist, and where there are user reviews for everything, where is the place for music journalism?
A: It’s a great question. Any creative can ask her/himself this question and you’ll get six degrees of separation of the same response. The answer is about newness and basic awareness and dates back to of all places, a Broadway musical composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (who answered a letter from me recently). The number is from 1957’s West Side Story, and the song is of course “Somewhere”.
Q. You’re a photographer too, and you’ve recently released a book of your work. Do you see any relationship between photography and ambient music styles?
A. Yes and no. Yes because everything is relative, right? And no because they are separate modalities, of time/light, and of perception. Music is in essence, invisible, and photography brings objects and life into the light. Though there are definitely crossovers, and similarities. To me, a lifelong working artist, it’s easier to make relationships, but they are very different practices, though I’ve worked with sound artists and composers in creating cover art and images to use in the release of music.
When I hear something it inspires me to create. After being granted to develop my installation project Infinitus I asked Christian Renou (Brume) to create the soundtrack for open-air use in the space while a dual-screen film was projected on the ceiling forward and backwards simultaneously. It was the perfect foil. I can understand the power of how image and sound can be associated of course, when you think of classic albums, songs and record jackets, or music videos.
Q. Imagine you are chosen for a manned missions to Mars, which means long flights and even longer living on a strange planet. Tell us about 5 albums you couldn’t live without.
A. I usually have a pat answer for this, because there are some definite recordings that I have played over and over and over, and worn practically every format out. But I just can’t do it in five, impossible, but for you I want to focus mostly on ambient records. But I need to sneak an extra lot in my socks:
- Nurse With Wound – Soliloquy For Lilith (1988, Idle Hole Records)
- Pete Namlook with Robert Görl – Elektro II (1997, Fax)
- The Caretaker – Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia (2006, V/Vm Test Records)
- Philip Glass – Koyaanisqatsi (1983, Antilles)
- Moebius & Plank – Rastakraut Pasta (1980, Sky Records)
- Thomas Köner – Permafrost (1993, Barooni)
- Gas – Königsforst (1998, Mille Plateaux)
- The Cramps – Songs The Lord Taught Us (1980, I.R.S. Records)
- Billie Holiday With Ray Ellis And His Orchestra – Lady In Satin (1958, Columbia)
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show Original Soundtrack (1975, Ode Records)
- Kraftwerk – Computerwelt (1981, EMI)
- David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees (1984, Virgin)
- Basic Channel – BCD (1995, Basic Channel)
Cheats (but essential)
- Various Artists – Ambient Systems (1995, Instinct Ambient)
- Various Artists – Clicks + Cuts (2000, Mille Plateaux)
- Various Artists – Synthetic Pleåsures Volume One (1996, Moonshine Music)
- Various Artists – em:t 0094 (1994, em:t)
- Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour (1990, Parlophone)
- The Plasmatics – Metal Priestess EP (1981, Stiff America)
- Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – Dazzle Ships (1983, Virgin)
- Rachel Sweet – Fool Around (1978, Stiff Records)