norm talley

5 Magazine talks to Norm Talley ahead of his appearance at this month’s Hugo Ball residency this Saturday October 20 at SmartBar.

You’ve been at this longer than most and nearly as long as anybody, but it’s been the last few years that you’ve been sort of “rediscovered” in Europe and your profile has shot through the roof. To what do you attribute this?

Well, in the early 2000s, I was DJing more than producing for about five or six years or so, and then flipped the script and started doing more producing and scaling back on the DJing. The majority of my releases in the last two years or so have been for overseas labels, and there have been a lot of licensing deals as well. Vibes & Peppers, which is based in Paris, recently put out The Westside Project – a 1997 reissue with two unreleased tracks from DAT tapes. I think that did pretty good as it’s out for repressing now. The Travlin EP was out on Landed Records in London. It’s given me the opportunity to spread my wings a bit and get some exposure overseas with people who may not have been familiar with me. Sushitech has also been a bit part of that exposure – they have really good distribution, promotion and advertisement and that opened up Germany and Berlin, where they’re based. I think having the right distribution and promotion has done it more than anything.

To old school heads from the Midwest, we likely first came across you from your mixtapes. I mean, you made a LOT!

They were very good promotion for me. You’re an undiscovered DJ in Detroit – one of hundreds – so you promote with mixtapes. In the early to mid-’80s, you could promote your skill, your ability and your style through handing someone a mix rather than telling people, “Hey, come check me out here…” I was just getting started and Detroit was very competitive in the early to mid-’80s. It was hard to get on the turntables – really tough.

I reviewed the Travlin EP on Landed; it almost sounded like a mixtape, with an “intro” at the head and scratch and samples tossed in. It was fun to sit down and listen to totally outside of a club environment and almost took you on a journey like a mixtape does.

I like to put my releases together so they make sense, including titling records accordingly. I don’t like to just go at it – you know, throw a few tracks together and slap a name on there. For me, it’s about capturing one moment in time, perhaps make it a project about one particular area in Detroit, a feeling I’ve had, and mix the tracks accordingly. I don’t put out a lot of records just so I can say that I have a record out. It has to make sense. When you’re releasing records just to have something out, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Once you decide to get it together – get your studio together, become professional and settle on your own vibe, your own sound and your own feeling – the impression people have of you has already been set from the sheer volume of tracks already out there.

It’s all about that first impression, I think. If someone releases just a boring loop or a track built entirely around well-known samples, I’m less likely to check anything out going forward.

Yeah. You’ve almost got to change your name. There’s so much stuff out there now that you need filters just to see what’s happening. It’s a really big difference from back in the day, when you had to invest money in a studio if you wanted to make records. You had to really work, sacrifice and hustle to put together a studio then. Now everyone has a record out. It’s not about putting something together piece-by-piece – with the keys, the mixing board, the speakers, the amps, everything.

What about your own productions?

Almost everything you’ve heard from me has been all analog. The Travlin EP on Landed was totally analog. It was actually mastered at Abbey Road Studio in the UK. In maybe the last two to three months, I’ve been getting into the digital side just a little bit. It’s a different perspective. I’ve never made a track that I could look at! I believe technology is a good thing – it’s just how you use it. To actually look at a mix, to see where the chords are coming in, when the bass line kicks in, and then it dawns on me that I may have to scrap this and do a whole different mix. I recorded this live, but the high hat came in too early or too late… I hear from a lot of people that you can really lose it just staring at the screen.

I do prefer analog. For me, I just have to feel that vibe and feel the music and the way I can do that is through analog. I have the most confidence there and I’m most comfortable. But a few of my recent releases have been digital. There’s a remix I did on a project on Fragil, on an EP by Society of Science called Kulp. Another digital mix is called Riviere D’Etroit, on a Paris label called Rue de Plaisance. From the feedback I think it’s going to do pretty good; that’s out in September. Those are the first two things I did digitally; up until this point, everything else you’ve heard from me has been analog.

Do you feel like the journey of learning to use this equipment and learning from mistakes has been lost?

No, I don’t feel that way. It’s what someone’s brought up on and all they know and they’re doing it to the best of their ability. It’s impossible to recreate over 30 years of experience on the fly. Expecting some 20 year old to understand that or even care is asking a lot.

If you can walk back with me here: you mentioned coming up in Detroit, and I’m hoping you can give me an impression of that experience.

Like I said, it was competitive. Let me explain what I mean by that. There were not so many records as there were now. Right now, a DJ can play 20 records and the DJ following his set doesn’t have one of them. Back then, we had mostly the same records. And it was the way you put two of those records together and mix them a certain way that got the crowd going and made the party. They were mostly the same songs – everybody had them, they were nothing new – but by taking this one and that one and mixing them in your own way, it was almost like you created a whole different record out of it, and only you could do it. The way you put those two records together – the way this guy put this acapella over the top and this one underneath it… That’s where the competitive nature came in.

Think about all of the great DJs that were in Detroit in the ’80s, all of the scratch DJs and DJs who blend in a distinctive manner. Now imagine they’re all in the same scene at the age of 19, 20, 21 years old. In the same city, there was Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Stacy Pullen, Delano Smith, Mike Clark, Mike Grant, Eddie Fowlkes and a lot more I could name. And there were a bunch of others that came before us: Ken Collier, Melvin Hill, Stacy Hale… And the testimony to that era is: How many of them are still traveling and working today? You know? At that point in time, they were all feisty, young and hungry. You just can’t imagine what a music phenomenon it was.

For many years, “Detroit” was shorthand for, basically, “Techno”. Yet today, the hottest music coming out of Detroit is the Deep House from you, Delano Smith, Rick Wade and so on. Why do you think it’s getting so much attention now?

We’re doing what we have been doing all along. A lot of our Deep House records have been re-released. One re-issue I’m thinking of sold maybe 500 copies back then. It was re-issued recently and sold 1500. There’s a whole new crowd of Deep House listeners that want to get that classic Detroit Deep House sound.

Deep House has a little different vibe than a lot of other music. There are pockets all over the world enjoying what we do and we’ve been able to travel more and take the music on the road, so to speak. People like Rick Wilhite, Delano Smith, myself, Mike Huckaby playing lots and lots of gigs… The listeners are rediscovering Deep House and maybe they hear the new tracks we’ve released since then and get into that too. It’s tying the bridge together. Someone who was born in 1992 missed that era altogether. Now they’re on it and maybe they’ll check out your profile and see you’ve never stopped working.

I think we need to follow that path to reach the younger generation who are going to be the ones to keep the vibe alive. My crowd from 1982 are now 47 years old. They’re not going to be out every night. They’ll make it to the big ones and bring their wife but they’re not going to be out there every Friday night. They support when they can. The younger listeners are the ones we’re counting on to sustain the scene.

I can play for both crowds. I try to read my room. If the majority is my age or older, I realize I need to tone it down a hair. If the majority is 25 and under, they’re going to be bored if I’m playing a horn solo. “Who’s this guy with the gray hair in his beard?!” But that’s just a spur of the moment reaction – you can tell a lot based around who booked you and who the promoters are.