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Interview with Jim Norman (Brian Records)

James Norman

Interview with Jim Norman (Brian Records) – March 2015
By Paul Lockett.

Brian Records was started by James Norman, aka ‘Jimlad’, in 2010. The label has released a number of highly collectible and sought-after releases across an assortment of formats – including lathe-cut 5” and 8” vinyl, cassette and CD. Releases have included artists such as Nils Frahm, Simon Scott, Peter Broderick, Machinefabriek & Moon Ate The Dark.
The words ‘small-but-perfectly-formed’ spring to mind when describing Brian Records. As a label, it issues only 2 or 3 releases a year, but several have been ambitious in scale – ‘The Bandstand’ by Mitchell Friedland included a set of five 5” lathe-cut discs, a CDr and a booklet, all of which were housed in a box stamped with the Brian Records logo. Johan G. Winther’s ‘Of Use’ 8” lathe-cut was issued in a quantity of just 50 copies – each sleeve being completely unique and designed by Brian Records collectors themselves – everybody purchasing a copy was invited to design a sleeve which would then be randomly shipped to a different purchaser. Images of all 50 sleeves were included in a book which was included with the release.
Brian Records’ most recent releases, ‘No Claim’ by Immigrant, available as a limited-edition 3” CDr, and also ‘Picture Of The Hostage Holding Today’s Newspaper’ by Andrew Broder (from Fog) are currently available directly from Jim (while stocks last).
I recently spoke with Jim and asked him about the label.

Paul Lockett: Hi Jim, how are you today?

James Norman: Really good, thank you.

PL: I’d like to start off with you describing how you first got going with the label, what inspired you to do that – and where did the original idea come from?

Jim Norman: Well, erm, you’re jumping the gun a bit on the book I’m doing for the ‘Brian Box’ which will spill the beans on all of this, haha… So – where did it all start? It starts with a very boring train journey about 12 years ago when my minidisc player decided to run out of battery; I was bored and I found some scraps of paper and I started doodling how I might run my own record label. Unfortunately those doodles just went into the back of my sock drawer for several years!
I guess I suddenly had the realisation that a minidisc was such an easy technology for making recordings on, because I bought CDs and just copied them straight across to minidisc and I thought –hang on a minute – I’ve got a CD with someone’s music on which I could just rip to minidisc and sell them – not illegally, but someone could give me a CD with their music on and I could turn it into something to sell. But then that thought kind of just went away for a while.
A couple of years later, I joined a music club with a bunch of guys who were called ‘Brian’; Basically, we’d been running the club for about 5 years and I wanted to do something a bit special for a release for club members, so I thought – rather than choosing material that had already been released, I’d write to musicians and see if they were interested in writing some original material.
Keith Fullerton Whitman, one of the musicians who I wrote to, thought it was an awesome idea, but he personally didn’t want to commit. He said – why don’t you press up a few more copies and sell them? I suddenly realised that I could probably break even on the project rather than have to spend a whole load of money funding it – and at that point Brian Records was born. The ‘Brian 50’ release (named after the club’s 50th meeting) became the first Brian Records release; it went really well and I just totally got the bug.

PL: Was it about getting some of the artists who you were really interested in or were you happy to work with anybody – including those who you’d not necessarily discovered before?

Jim Norman: For the first Brian Record, I wrote to Machinefabriek, Peter Broderick and some other guys, all of whom had been featured at the Brian music club previously – and said – look, I featured you at my music club, everyone loves your music, would you consider writing an original song for a Brian Records release? Everybody else on the record was just mates of mine – people who I begged, borrowed and stole music from, so that kind of made up the rest of the release.

PL: Some of those artists, certainly initially, I’d not heard before and they’ve now gone on to be successful artists in their own right, particularly the likes of Nils Frahm – and also Machinefabriek, who releases lots of material and has a large following. Do you think that your involvement in drawing attention to these people has helped that process?

Jim Norman: No, not at all, haha! I think they’re brilliant, but I think it was probably more a small digression. Certainly with regards to Nils, Erased Tapes pushed him really hard and my release was just a small momentary diversion in a stellar career. They initially weren’t 100% happy because they preferred him only to release with them.

PL: So they wanted exclusivity?

Jim Norman: Yeah, I started speaking to him early on because him and Pete [Broderick] were – and still are – really good friends, so before I’d even released the first Brian record, I’d started to contact Nils and talked about doing some stuff with him. At the time, he wasn’t known at all really. I think he’d probably just released some of his early work on the Sonic Pieces label. He had a contract in place with Erased Tapes at the time – but it was kind of early doors and he explained that he couldn’t release with any other label if the recording was longer than 20 minutes and I said, well I‘d like to do a 5” record with you, so that’s two minutes per side, so I think we should be okay! He agreed and Erased Tapes took the unprecedented step of allowing the release to go ahead. They said that we could do the physical release providing that they retained digital rights, which is rare.

PL: Has this kind of thing happened elsewhere?

Jim Norman: No, that’s the only time. As a result I always check now that everyone involved ensures that the release is okay to go ahead, there’s no big label involved etc.

PL: Does the artist have free rein on what they deliver to you – or would you guide them in terms of what it is that you might be looking for?

Jim Norman: It really varies; it depends on who they are. Generally, yes – but if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t release it. Some people have given me material and I’ve said – okay, could we do this or could we do that? Or – I really like this but I’m not sure about that – I’ve occasionally had that conversation, but it’s very rare.

PL: For your most recent release, the ‘No Claim’ 3” CD by Immigrant, you received a ton of tracks and that must have been a nice situation because you had such a large choice – but then I guess it’s a case of do you pick two tracks, or do you release them all?

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Jim Norman: Yeah, that was a different project really because it was a retrospective – all those tracks have been released before. He self-releases loads of stuff in tiny runs, so he’s started to do quite a few retrospectives to collate what he’s done before, so that was just a little retrospective which came from me saying to him – I love your music

PL: Which is your favourite release – and it doesn’t have to be the one which you have necessarily listening to the most, but the one which you’ve most enjoyed putting together.

Jim Norman: I think my favourite one was the Johan G. Winther one. For me where I got everyone to design their own sleeves, send them in, copy them, and then send them back out. It was also by far the hardest to put together, it was a real headache.

PL: It’s funny you should mention that because I remember it vividly as I was one of the people who designed a sleeve. You mentioned that it was problematic – I’m guessing that (and I’m reading between the lines here) some people didn’t get back to you when they should have done, some people didn’t get back to you at all.

Jim Norman: Yup, all of that!

PL: Haha, so what happened? – because I sort of have a feeling that you ended up designing several yourself because you simply didn’t receive the sleeves back from people who’d committed to that as part of the purchase but didn’t then failed to deliver.

Jim Norman: Well firstly, I always undersell because I don’t trust our postal services, so if I’m making a release of 50, though I’ll actually make 50, I’ll only sell 45 leaving 5 copies spare in case people’s orders fail to make it to their destination.
Some people didn’t send their designs back, though we’re not talking lots & lots – but then I always try to make too many anyway, so I have a few spare in case some go missing. Also, if I contact an artist, they might say that they’re really interested but they want to see something of my work – it helps to be able to send them a release, it’s a good way of getting people involved.

PL: Was there a real surprise when you received some of the sleeves back, because people are obviously hearing the music and they’re maybe seeing different things in it – and certainly from the images of the various sleeve designs in the little booklet which accompanied the release, there was a huge variation.

Jim Norman: Yeah, I love that booklet; it’s one of my proudest things because I felt it worked really well as a thesis.

PL: I loved it too. I really enjoyed looking at it and thought it was really well put together. For me, the most striking thing was the fact that there was such variation because I know when I play a piece of music, I hear something that’s personal to me, but you might play the same piece of music and hear something completely different.

Jim Norman: Yes, and a big part of that was people’s ability to express themselves creatively, so kind of almost by allowing open access where everyone does what they want, people were probably quite bound by what they felt they could achieve, I guess?
So partly it was their response to the music, but partly it was probably also their own thoughts of what they could achieve in terms of that response.
But I loved it and one of the things I loved was – with Brian Records, I don’t want it to be a commercial thing or a consumer thing – I loved the fact that with that release, everyone participated, everyone who bought it didn’t just consume it, they all got involved – that was really exciting.

PL: Were there any sleeve designs that you received back which you weren’t necessarily happy with?

Jim Norman: Fortunately not, haha. I was really worried that I would get back something really shocking or outrageous where it was a case of “ooh, awkward, what do I do now?”

PL: When the record arrived on my doormat containing somebody else’s sleeve design, the thing that I first wondered was if you’d laid all of the sleeves out on the floor because there was a good chance that somebody out there might send you their sleeve design, only to later receive the very same sleeve back again with the record.

Jim Norman: Haha, no, I laid out every single one on my floor and made sure that everyone received someone else’s.

PL: Almost move them along one in the queue, as it were…

Jim Norman: Haha, yeah. And I tried to, how do I put it politely… the ones which Johan made I thought would probably be considered a bit special and there were others too which people would consider a bit special, so for the people I knew would really appreciate that, I tried to give them those ones. The five which were left over were the five where I felt “I’m not sure”, so they’re probably all my own designs. The sleeves were just to try and mix it up a bit so that everyone felt like they owned something which was really precious.

PL: Let’s just talk about the Brian Records packaging. All of the releases have been housed in a brown envelope with the Brian Records stamp and a catalogue number on the front. Was that something which you’d consciously decided upfront as the format which you wanted to adopt?

Jim Norman: Yeah, I guess so. So, my initial decisions were based purely on what I could buy from the stationery shop, haha, so that made sense to me. And also, in the music club, often we’d put things in brown envelopes to hand out so it felt like it captured the spirit of the club.
The thing that was really important to me was every release having a specific catalogue number. Obviously, a seven-digit number because at some point I might get up to Brian one-million!! Something which is quite possible, haha.
But yeah, I really like the idea of numbering, like 001, 002; you know which ones you have and which you don’t have. I really love that, whereas a lot of labels don’t bother with it. Also, I guess that because I knew I wasn’t going to do more than 2 or 3 releases a year, that decision felt entirely sensible and plausible, really, it just made sense.

PL: I think it’s a real collectors’ thing as well. Certainly I recall way back, that’s what Factory Records did – and interestingly, even The Hacienda nightclub even had its own catalogue number, so if you wanted to collect the entire Factory set, you’d have to buy The Hacienda!
I also remember one label who once released a series of records for a band whereby each release was numbered from 001, 002 upwards. It got all the way up to about 013 and then there was suddenly a jump to 015, which really threw me at the time because it was in the days before the internet, so it was impossible to visit Discogs.com and the likes to determine why release 014 was skipped. It eventually turned out that 014 had been pressed up as a promo-only item which was never commercially released.
This got me thinking – I know that you’ve put out the occasional release online – the ‘Brian Loves You’ download, for example. Releases like that sometimes have a catalogue number, sometimes they don’t. Are there any plans to do anything whereby you ‘hop one’, as it were – and to do a release which is either just for yourself or for a select few?

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Jim Norman: When I set up the ‘Brian Records Supporters Club’ (which is an opportunity for people to help support Brian Records by paying a subscription which entitles them to pre-release offers and exclusive extras), the thing I wanted to ensure was that this didn’t offer some kind of exclusive release which was only available to them.

PL: Like a subscriber-only release?

Jim Norman: Yeah, because I just felt like I personally couldn’t have afforded the support at that level, but I would have wanted to buy everything as and when it was released. It would have really upset me if I was effectively told I hadn’t participated in that particular thing, so that was always really important to me. The idea of the Supporters’ Club is that they get first refusal. Some releases like ‘The Bandstand’, for which we only pressed up 20 copies, which were really sought-after and only a small number of people got them, it gave you that ability to bag a copy – but I didn’t want there to be a record which was just for the Supporters meaning that nobody else could get a copy, that was really important to me.
Speaking of ‘Brian Loves You’, release number #009, it is going to make a physical appearance in the forthcoming ‘Brian Box’ (more on that below). It wasn’t originally intended to, but I thought it would be a nice inclusion – along with all sorts of other wonderful things.

PL: Several of the releases to date have been on, let’s say, unorthodox formats. You’ve had a floppy disc, CDs, digital downloads, lathe cuts and a whole host of cassettes. Are there any formats out there which you’ve yet to explore which you would really like to? Things that initially spring to mind would be formats which have been and gone such as DAT, DCC or even 10” vinyl or 78s?

Jim Norman: Yeah, everything. I love it all. I’m doing VHS for my Brian Box and I’ve not found anyone who will make me a VHS, which is a pity. Minidiscs, Dictaphone tapes, they are going to feature in the Brian box. And then – what else? Anything, everything, I love it all. I talked with Gareth Davis about 5 years ago about doing a reel-to-reel release which someday I’m hoping will come true.

PL: Is this something which has happened with many of the musicians? Have they presented ideas such as this whereby they’d like to see their own material released on a certain format?

Jim Norman: Normally I drive the format. Normally that part of it is why people want to do something with my crazy little label, really, because the format is odd and everything about it is different, so that normally is the thing which catches people’s attention.

PL: In the early days of setting up the label, you likely had to do most of the running around approaching musicians trying to get people to commit to releasing tracks on Brian Records. Is that something that’s changed now that the label has been running a while and you have 20+ releases out there? Do you now receive phone calls from people aspiring to release something on Brian?

Jim Norman: Sometimes, although I’m really bad at responding if they email me – you can publically apologise on my behalf, haha, I’m terrible at getting back to people. I never meant to be but it just kind of happens.
To be honest, it’s a real mixed bag, I mostly release stuff by people who I want to release stuff by, so I tend to approach them, but there are also quite a few people who work on the label now who I think are awesome and I’m keen to do more with. For example, I’ve definitely got one, maybe a couple, of Johan G. Winther releases coming up, which I’m really excited about. I’ve built up that trust now so I don’t feel that I have to kind of prove myself, but I still do the approaching and ask for music.
I recently had my first ever experience where I went to a gig and listened to someone live and I was like, “Shall I sign you? Shall I not? Shall I sign you? Shall I not?”, which was pretty surreal. They’re a group called Ersatz who I’m hoping to do something with later this year; they’re recording some stuff for me to check out.
Mostly it’s now people I know & like and I approach them and say, “hey, I run a tiny little label, might you be interested?”.
The release we did with Danny Norbury & Simon Scott was really nice because I didn’t have a direct connection with them but I’d previously worked with people they’d worked with and that really helps. So Danny Norbury does stuff with Clem Leek, he did a remix of one of the Clem Leek releases so there’s kind of an immediate connection there, but it was really nice to do something with him because his stuff is fantastic, really beautiful.

PL: Are there any bands who you’d like to see reform and record something for Brian Records – and also why? I’m probably guessing that there’s stuff from way back which you might listen to and just think, ‘it would be great if these got back together for one album – or even one gig’?

Jim Norman: No, not at all because although I love everything that I put out on Brian Records, it’s actually a narrow part of my own personal taste in music. I also love lots of really heavy stuff, I grew up listening to loads of drum ‘n’ bass; I was also into heavy metal and quite extreme alternative rock. I also like electronic music, hip hop, all sorts of stuff. Occasionally I try to slip some hip hop into Brian Records in the form of abstract beats and stuff, but most of what I grew up listening to wouldn’t necessarily fit Brian records.
I assumed that people would have the same musical taste as me but I quickly realised that this wasn’t always going to be the case.
I should also mention a band who I’ve loved for years and wanted to do something with was Fog, which I’ve just done.

PL: So where do these ‘barriers’ come from? You’ve obviously defined Brian Records as having a certain type of sound and that’s not something which from the sounds of it, you would choose to expand into unchartered territories?

Jim Norman: Well, I try sometimes, but people don’t buy it if I push it. The hard, financial reality of Brian Records is that if I go too crazy then I would struggle to sell them, so that’s a bit tricky.

PL: What sort of things do you have lined up for the future? You’ve mentioned the ‘Brian Box’ – can you give any details on what that’s going to look like and when it’s being released?

Jim Norman: Yeah, it’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be inspired by many boxes which I’ve bought over the past couple of years. For example, McSweeney’s, the literary magazine, brought out a deluxe box set celebrating 20 or 25 years, which contained a thick hardback book. The box is full of goodies – I love that. There’s another book which is about maps, which is completely random but I just love the box and it’s packed full of bits. I just thought I’d do something similar. The aim is to celebrate the last 5 years – and I’m going to call it ‘The Worst of Brian’ rather than ‘The Best of Brian’ to share with everybody a warts-and-all story and also a look at what Brian Records is about. To my mind, it’s about telling everyone that actually Brian Records isn’t something that’s out of reach, it’s something which anyone could do if they just give it a crack. I think it’s probably a lot easier to do than most people imagine.

PL: Some labels have put out releases where the contents vary according to the set being produced, so they might produce, let’s say, 100 copies of a box set, but across those 100 copies, every 10 could be made slightly different. So while there would be a consistent portion across all 100 copies, e.g. the vinyl or CD is the same, either side of that there are contents which differ. In one recent case which I discovered, Luke Haines has recorded the same album 75 times so each pressing is entirely unique, no one copy is the same as the next.

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Jim Norman: Yes, there will be elements of that in the ‘Brian Box’. I have one artist who has agreed to record for me 30 different Dictaphone tapes – on a Dictaphone. I have no idea what they’re going to sound like. He got a little bit worried about it! At one point I said to him “I want it to be like a personal sound diary, so it could be you recording what’s going on around you, or it could be you jamming, or it could be you playing a bit of kit, it could be anything, any kind of interesting sound in your life, I want you to capture it across these 30 tapes – and then everyone will receive a different tape, nobody will own the same thing”.

PL: And what was his feeling about that?

Jim Norman: He was really excited about it – then he got a bit nervous because it’s become quite time consuming. I’m crossing my fingers that we’re going to get to the end of it. It will be awesome if he comes through.

PL: Do you have pre-orders for the 30 boxes? Is there any availability?

JN: It’s sold-out unfortunately. More people have asked for a copy than I have copies available. Not everyone has yet paid for their copy. If they don’t pay then I may be able to offer a Brian Box to someone else.
I’m making 30 copies, 5 are for the Brian Supporters, 5 are for myself and the artists involved, which leaves just 20 copies to sell.

PL: What would a normal Brian release run to? About 50 copies?

Jim Norman: It really varies – the Peter Broderick and Matthew Robert Cooper split was 200 copies, that was my biggest ever. ‘The Bandstand’ was 20. I think I prefer to do less copies really well than more not so well, if that makes sense, but at the same time if demand is ridiculous then it feels a shame to not fulfil that.
I’m hoping to receive confirmation from one of the guys from Hood who records under the name Bracken, which was Norman Records’ best release of the year. I’m really hoping he’s going to do a 5” lathe cut with me, which I’m guessing will be quite popular seeing as Norman Records sold out of his record in about 2 hours.

PL: I know you mentioned in one of your newsletters that the guy who makes the 5” lathe cut vinyls in New Zealand has stopped making them, at which point you switched to an 8” lathe cut – you just mentioned a few moments ago about doing another 5”, does that mean you’ve now located somebody else who makes these or has the guy in New Zealand started making them again?

Jim Norman: No, the guy in New Zealand still won’t do 5”; he said they damage his blade. 7” is now the smallest he’ll go to. I’ve just found a company in America who will do 5” records. I’m hoping to do something in the Brian Box on a 5” record and I figure that if it doesn’t work brilliantly, it’s not the end of the world because it will be just one part of many exciting things. However, if it works in terms of sound quality and its playable then we’ll look to do more.

PL: Are there any plans to release a compilation of any of the tracks from the first 20+ Brian releases for those people out there who are interested in listening to some of the stuff on Brian but where the items are now long sold-out?

Jim Norman: Mmmm, no. A lot of the releases the artists have subsequently released electronically so I’d rather people bought them from the artist if they’re keen to find out about what it sounds like. I’d say probably about two thirds of the Brian output is now available online. I’d encourage people to support the artist by buying it direct from them.

PL: James Norman, thank you very much.

[sic] Thanks James and Brian Records. We tried to ask for a photo of James but he prefers to protect his anonymity, hence the cartoon! To sign up for news on future Brian Records releases, contact Jim in the first instance and ask to be added to the mailing list. Full contact details and information are available at http://brianrecords.co.uk/.

Brian Records official website

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