Name: Ryan Norris
Occupation: Producer, Songwriter
Current Release: Gifts from the Ebb Tide on yk Records
Recommendations: This is an impossible question but I’ll answer it with two things that I think are relevant to Coupler.
Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci - This piece was a lodestar for me for a period. Its beauty is partially a product of its incompleteness. It taught me to not be afraid to leave some things to the imagination of the person on the other side of the frame. I missed it twice at the Uffizi.
La Jetée/Sans Soleil by Chris Marker - I’m fudging a bit here but because these come as a set released by Criterion I think it makes sense. Coupler’s second release Sunless is an homage to Marker. “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.”
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Ryan Norris, make sure to visit the websites of Coupler and Lambchop to stay up to date with new tour dates and releases.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Music was the first thing that made sense to me in a meaningful way. I started playing guitar at age 13. I would sometimes strike open chords just so I could listen to how the notes would die away. This is the first memory I have of being engaged by the visceral, sensory quality of sound. My first writing would have been as a teenager, some of which involved making Fripp & Eno-style guitar loops before ever hearing those records. It was a revelation when I finally did.
I grew up on oldies and classic rock radio. My parents listened to a lot of 60s R&B and still do; Stax, Motown, the stuff that came out of Muscle Shoals. Jimi Hendrix was an early influence and he still seems like a kind of electronic artist. The guitar wasn’t only something that produced notes but could also be used for texture, pure sound or noise. My first memory of electronic music is “On the Run” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I can hear something of its spirit in Gifts from the Ebb Tide.
I started producing music after moving to Nashville in my early 20s. I had been in some bands before that and spent time in studios but only got actively involved in the recording process later. There were some early four track experiments. I remember getting a beat out of my Lowrey home organ (acquired from my grandmother) that reminded me of something from the first Suicide record. When I started making electronic music DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin and Mouse on Mars were early favorites.
I have an appreciation for all of the arts and have always read voraciously, watched lots of movies and gone to art museums any time I got the chance. But sound/music has always been the thing for me. I’m not really sure why except that it communicates with me in a deep way that transcends understanding or comprehension, like voices from beyond.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think I’m always learning new things and pursuing my own voice, even still. I’ve found a voice, I have a voice, but to be an artist is to always be on the hunt. Almost any time I’ve tried to emulate an artist I love I’ve ended up diverted and gone off the rails somehow. This is preferable to being too good at copying. From an early age I learned to play the music I love. I still do now, though in a different way and not as much.
I guess the first time I consciously set about finding a singular voice was Coupler’s America in the Coming Age of Electronics. I’d been working with people who were taking a maximalist approach to recording; lots of overdubs, not enough space. This was a problem I had as well. It was important for me to reject this approach at that time. I wanted to try to get as close to zero as possible without doing nothing. I strictly limited the palette of sounds I used, added very few overdubs and left a maximum of space. If some of it sounded unfinished, all the better. More on that later.
Copying = learning = creating. It’s all the same to me on a certain level. Art is theft.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The biggest challenge for me as a composer is getting myself to write. I have to trick myself. I used to play with many groups and usually wasn’t the primary writer. Someone else would start something and once there was a piece of clay to shape I’d have plenty of ideas. What I do a lot of the time now is come up with a system or method that will help me generate something that I can then refine. It needs to almost seem like it was written by someone else.
My main production challenge early on was that I didn’t know what I was doing. I know better now, which is good, but that can be a cage. Sometimes ignorance can be the most freeing thing. I’ve recently dug up some early unreleased work and am amazed by how fearless it is. I was still figuring things out and obviously had no expectations of where any of this material was going to end up. I desperately want to get that feeling back.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was a four track I borrowed from one of my roommates in around 2001. My second studio was another roommate’s four track probably borrowed the same year. I destroyed both by overloading the preamps. I recorded everything in the red because I had no idea what I was doing. I was using an Omnichord and a Lowrey Magic Genie home organ for drum machine and keyboard sounds. There was also a Moog Opus 3 and an Acetone, both of which I still have. Shortly after that I got into making electronic music. Early on I was using Fruity Loops and a mix of samples of my own instruments and things taken from records and CDs. If it’s evolved it’s not for any reason except that things change and you get drawn in different directions, sometimes without realizing why.
I try not to fetishize gear too much. One thing I learned or decided or accepted while living in Nashville is that you ought to be able to show up to the studio for whatever session and use the gear that’s around to come up with something. Not that you always have to use that approach but the point is that ideas trump gear, always. That said, the Korg MS-20, Minilogue and Volca Beats have been revolutionary for me. Korg is making so much fantastic gear so cheaply right now. They’re one of the best companies out there for electronic artists. Learning how to use triggers and gates has been huge for me as well. The blurring of the line between rhythmic, harmonic and melodic has been huge. Logic is an important tool and Ableton obviously does a lot interesting things.