“Firmly rooted in Detroit sound, but holds the mark of the Canadian landscape,” according to Faze Magazine, Toronto’s John Norman has just released his highly-anticipated debut on Todd Terry’s Terminator Records. “Withdrawal” showcases his blend of driving-hypnotic techno to excellent result.
6AM had the chance to chat with John ahead of the single release, which comes out tomorrow September 22nd on Beatport and other select music stores.
Hi John, how are you doing mate?
I’m doing well, thank you. I have been going through some personal stuff over the last while which has put a few projects on hold, but that’s behind me now, and I’m putting some focus back in the label, UNT Records, as well as into my own productions once again.
You’re Canadian with deep-rooted love for techno, especially from the sound originally out of Detroit. Can you tell us a little about how you first discovered the genre?
I wouldn’t say I discovered Detroit Techno directly. A lot of artists might say for instance that they first discovered Detroit Techno when they heard a particular song on the radio or, vinyl, cd or at a club. For me I think that the discovery of Detroit Techno was an accumulation of everything I had already discovered in the past, throughout my childhood. If you explode the different parts of Detroit Techno, it can be traced back through many different influences and other genres of music that the artists who made Detroit Techno were influenced by. Music was a big part of my early years; my Grandfather who was a concert pianist, and both my Dad and Step Father who had pretty decent sized record collections played huge roles in it. My grandfather played on his Baby Grand piano at home all the time, very often around me. So I was exposed to music from Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and many other great composers before I even knew how to speak. A lot of piano, strings, chords, beautiful progressions.
When I would spend time at my Dad’s place, my sisters and I would get together, play some vinyl and sing into microphones attached to my dad’s stereo system. Recently we were driving and my daughter asked us to put on some 80s and 90s pop music. One of the songs played was Madonna’s Vogue. Listening to it again for the first time in a very long time I recognized a lot of the similarities from earlier Detroit Techno. It was then I realized that I had actually been exposed to a lot of the elements of Detroit Techno from much earlier an age than I thought – it wasn’t when I was 19 or so and stumbled on a Kenny Larkin record at a used record sale, but far far earlier, as a kid, hearing that Detroit style piano riff over a Madonna tune, for example. Of course, the more futuristic elements of Detroit Techno came to me earlier as I discovered more current forms of dance music, early techno, etc, but the roots were there far earlier.
Who are some of your go-to Detroit techno artists?
Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Stacey Pullen, Jeff Mills, Eddie Fowlkes, Juan Atkins
If you could share a stage with just one Detroit techno legend who would it be?
I have had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Kevin Saunderson, so I would probably have to say Derrick May. The man is a relentless machine. I have seen him a play a couple times and each time, what he does with the music is incredible.
How do you feel about the Detroit vs German/European techno argument that gets thrown around sometimes?
Any argument about Detroit vs German/European techno should be put to rest. There is no denying that Techno originated in Detroit, and after some time made its way to Europe. Some would say that in the hands of the Europeans that Detroit Techno was ruined, others would tell you it got better. Everyone has an appreciation for birth of Techno in Detroit, but like anything that travels, it can take on new meaning where it ends up and inevitably evolves. We have to accept that. Someone hears something, and with their own combined influences which may not be present elsewhere in the world, provides a new take on an existing genre of music.
This is not a specific argument to Dance Music. It’s well documented throughout the history of all music. For instance, the new wave of British Heavy Metal coming over to the US. It influenced bands like Metallica. I’m sure some would say that the US destroyed that in a way. But did it? Or did it just morph? Change is something a lot of people struggle with, because people like to be comfortable with what they know. Techno is not about being comfortable, it’s futuristic shit. It’s there to disrupt what we think we know. Music evolves, as it should. However, as times change, and we become more connected through the internet, the differences between genres over time will become very blurred. We are now already seeing that in Techno these days, which has been partially, knowingly or not, an influence on the re-release of various synth instruments. This has disrupted the norm again, but for a new generation of artists, and has seen a resurgence of more specific differences in genres. This disruption will allow change to happen again, and grown and evolution to continue.
You’ve released on KMS before. What’s your relationship with Kevin and his team?
I can still remember the first day I met Kevin. It was at DC-10, and I was invited down by Dantiez, one of Kevins’ sons, whose track Zebroo Anthem I had just remixed on Stripped Recordings run by Norman Hines. I was supposed to be on the guest list that night but something happened and there was a mixup, and my name was nowhere to be seen on that list. Somehow I managed to blag my way in anyway and I made my way to the booth where Kevin was playing to meet up with Dantiez who I was also meeting for the first time. I got up in the booth with him Kevin, and Damarii, and next thing I know Dantiez looks over and says… “look what he’s playing next!” The chords from my remix of Zebroo Anthem hit and the place went crazy. What an introduction!
There was Kevin Saunderson, playing my track to one of the most famous clubs in the world, packed full of people, and I was there to witness it. I spoke briefly with Kevin afterword and things just developed from there. I released two collaborations with Dantiez on KMS, Resonance and Stuck In My Mind which both got some pretty heavy play. I got talking with him at Movement in Detroit the next year and we eventually released my track 313 which was released around the 313th Birthday of Detroit. It was a special moment. We’ve gotten closer over the years. KMS has a real family vibe to it. I brought my daughter to Movement one year, and our daughters hung out and just did kid things. It’s a great team to be a part of. Really tight, and really professional. I’m very proud to be a part of that family and call them friends!
You now have a track out on Todd Terry’s new Terminator label, which focuses on techno. What was the inspiration behind this particular one?
My musical creation process is very much influenced by my experiences. There’s a deep emotional connection to most of the music I write. The influence behind Withdrawal came at a time where I was going through some personal stuff. I was feeling down and apathetic about things. Making music had taken a bit of a back seat and I hadn’t really written anything new in a couple of months. Things started to settle down and sort themselves out and I really felt the itch again to write. I had known Alexander Technique, A&R at Terminator, for quite some time before I sent this track. Alex was chatting with my wife and manager, and mentioned that they’d love to have a track from me.
I had met Todd a couple times in Ibiza and Amsterdam, and thought… yeah sure let’s do it. I had just happened to finish something earlier that day, so I quickly fired off the track. Alexander was sitting with Todd and listening to new tunes for the label and within minutes they listened to it and Alex told me that Todd loves it, and they’d like to sign it. It all happened very, very quickly. I’m very happy to be releasing this one with Terminator. It’s a great label signing a lot of cool tunes.
Where did you record it?
I recorded the track in my studio in Toronto, Canada. This one will actually be the first Solo Original tracks released that I’ve written since getting my new place in Toronto.
What are your go-to hardware and software in the studio?
Because space is limited for me, I don’t have a full complement of hardware. However, I do have a Ronald TR-8 that I rely heavily on for drum samples. Being able to just dial in a sound on piece of hardware feels so much more free than just selecting a drum kick sample from somewhere. I also have a Roland SH-1000 from 1973 that my uncle just recently gave me, that was sitting in his Garage in a box for a few decades. For those who don’t know this, the SH-1000 was the first instrument Roland had made. That will be getting some heavy usage when it comes back from the shop getting cleaned. That said, a lot of stuff happens in the box for me. For software, aside from a whole suite of effects from Waves, Slate Digital, Valhalla and others, I use a fair bit of synth plugins like the Sylenth, Serum, and Jup-8 from Arturia. As space allows again, I will be adding a full collection of the Roland Boutique series, Moog Mother 32, Moog SUB 37, a Roland Juno 106, and some rack gear from Synthesizers.com I think sound fantastic. Slowly I will move away from the box for a lot of things, and back into some hardware.
You just had a gig in Chicago and will also be popping over to Amsterdam for ADE next month. How was the gig in the Windy City and what are you looking forward to the most at ADE?
This is the first time I had played in Chicago and it was a lot of fun. The show was supposed to be on a patio during the early evening into the night and I was to play around 9-12. But plans changed and it was moved inside to a club called Estate, and combined with Paradigm’s Back Lot BBQ Party. Estate is a neat little space on the Chicago River across from Goose Island that is multi-level, and people can pull their boats up to the club. It’s a pretty big place, I was on the main floor and played with Jason Patrick and Bjelo. I ended up playing from 12 to 4am which was great, as I always prefer the chance to play darker late night vibes when I can. I tried to record the set but was having issues with my device so that didn’t happen. It’s too bad because it was a pretty banging set and I so rarely get to play 4hrs, so it would have been nice to have!
In a few short weeks I’ll be off to ADE and playing there as well for the My Cup Of Tech Networking event at John Doe on Friday the 20th of October. There is so much to look forward to. Last year I did a lot of the event things, this year I’m going to focus again on a bit more of the conference. For me, ADE is a conference that every artist serious about dance music needs to attend. I don’t care where you are from in the world, in October, this is the place to be. There is so much to offer, I can’t even begin to find a place to start.
I believe Canada’s techno and house scene are very underrated. The country, and cities like Toronto and Montreal in particular, enjoy some amazing events and lineups, some of which we don’t even get here in the States. How is it to be a techno artist in Canada right now?
Yes, Canada’s techno scene is extremely underrated. We have so much talent, I think a lot of people would be shocked to see just how many Canadians are in the top tier of techno talent. In some ways we don’t do the best job showing off that we’re Canadian. We have a sound here very similar to that of the Midwest, a harder edged sound kind of like marrying Detroit and Berlin together. We have a lot of great shows, and lineups, but as big as the markets are here, being able to handle 3 big shows in a week, sometimes 2 on the same night, they aren’t to the size that they can do that on a regular basis all year round. We have a great festival here called Electric Island, this is a big draw for techno artists, and there are some very cool underground series going on in Toronto. Just last week Jeff Mills was here, for a screening of his art house documentary film, and to play a secret warehouse venue; so there is a huge array of techno events every week. Because Toronto is very international city, like Montreal, we do benefit from a lot of tourism which people like to go out when they travel, so this helps a lot. And with the proximity, it makes getting multiple tours for artists a lot easier.
For an artist, however, there is so much talent, it is competitive. Our country is so expansive, similar to the US, that it’s hard to bridge any kind of gap between the east, central, and west coasts. You could be huge in Vancouver, and no one in Toronto would know who you are. Calgary has a pretty good music scene that is growing, and has a new dance music focused conference that takes place each year called AEMCON (Alberta Electronic Music Conference) organized by my friend and colleague Esette. But honestly, it’s hard to be an artist in general in Canada, let alone a Techno artist. It is a huge country, with massive spaces between cities which translates to expensive flights, making it challenging for smaller promoters to risk on new talent. It’s not like markets in Europe where you can hop on a cheap flight from Berlin to Amsterdam, or quick train ride or London to Manchester in 2hrs.
Can you share with us what some of your goals for 2018 are?
I’m refocusing this year, a bit. I have an arsenal of a few tunes that I wrote over the past year and a bit that I have been sitting on, waiting patiently for the right individuals, including some more ambient music that was composed for a theatre project I did sound design on. They are some very big tunes, I think, and when I’ve tested them at gigs they are getting a great response. UNT will also see a bit more activity, we have a number of great releases signed which will release in the next little while, starting of with an EP from London-based artist Taylor who has previously released with Poker Flat, KMS, and Frequenza. UNT are also curating a playlist series on Spotify and Apple Music called “An Obsession With Sound” which is taking the place of our podcast. The AOWS playlist series asks artists from UNT to share tracks of any genre that inspired or influenced them as musicians, and changes up every 2 weeks. I’ve got a non dance music project as well, producing for a vocal artist in collaboration on an album, which will be an exciting departure for me. Definitely follow my social media for news on all these projects!