Tour Alaska : An Interview with Gerry Norman
I sat down with charismatic A Plastic Rose frontman, Gerry Norman for a chat about what he’s up to at the minute with solo project, Tour Alaska. There was a little reflection on the awesome period in Belfast music he was a part of that give rise to bands such as And So I Watch You From Afar, Two Door Cinema Club, Mojo Fury and of course his own APR.
Their discography, comprising of two full length NI Music prize nominated LPs and a few EPs, show an expansive, diverse range, from anthemic rock songs to stunning ballads chock-full of honest, emotive lyricism. Kids Don’t Behave Like This and Garavogue probably demonstrate this dichotomy best.
Check out Ian, Dave, Troy and Gerry in those respective videos, below, if you haven’t already seen them. Gerry and I chatted about working solo, the current state of the scene and a little about creative process. Hopefully there’s something in there for everyone.
This interview took place in LOFT. We talked a little past, the present and what the future holds for Gerry. Enjoy.
DB: So, I’ve already written the little synopsis myself…
GN: Very impressed (laughing)
DB: Maybe you want to read it…
GN: No, no, I trust you (laughing)
DB: So, how’s it going man?
GN: Not bad, life is good.
DB: Life is good. Good. So we’ll just jump in then, getting reflective for a minute, I’ve chucked the little synopsis of some of the achievements you’ve had through APR, what would you say your favourite moment with the band was?
GN: Well, there’s been a few, but it’s hard to beat walking on the stage at two arenas supporting one of the biggest bands in the world. The Odyssey Arena was amazing with the crowd but the sheer size of the O2 in London…
DB: And that was Snow Patrol?
GN: That was Snow Patrol. Yeah, yeah. Sorry, Snow Patrol (laughing) Just the whole couple of weeks lead up to it,travelling to London. Of course we’d been on tour in London before but I think that last venue we’d played in before the O2 was a pub. I think it was called The Bullet Bar? In Kentish Town or something. (laughing) So that was the last time, and then we were driving up to the Millennium Dome, just the whole thing was amazing, it’s hard to beat that. When you’re playing an arena, you’re behind the massive curtain and you can hear the atmosphere in the room.
DB: It’s more monumental.
GN: Yeah, it just blows you away. So, there was us, Everything, Everything and Snow Patrol. You get to feel what they feel on the main stage. They would probably play to 10,000 more people than you because you know, only the psycho fans go in first but it’s still a lot of people. Even doing your soundcheck and Gary Lightbody’s looking at you and having your dinner, like, seafood linguine with caviar (laughing). It just made us feel like this big band, that we weren’t. (Laughing)
Even though I think the Odyssey was better, because Irish crowds are just better, in general. (Pause) Oops. (Laughing) No but it’s true, the Odyssey isn’t as big but the crowd was closer and the screaming was mental and you’re walking up the ramp to the stage with this big crew of people around. But, it’s the O2 isn’t it? You know that’ll probably never happen again and if it doesn’t I don’t care, we did it.
DB: So, the last LP which was released through a Pledge Music campaign. What was that like? Times have changed, probably even since you started A Plastic Rose, the way people consume music and their expectations, what are those challenges like?
GN: We’ve obviously been releasing stuff for years and we’re always trying to push the boundaries, so to speak. Luckily, our label, Third Bar, allowed us to do that. So when it came to this new album, we just thought the people that were consuming music would be completely different. They weren’t buying physical records, not much vinyl, and not too many more CDs. So myself, and our manager, Davy Matchett, we had a conversation. We were living in England at the time and I just said well if no one’s buying the physical anyway, shall we just do a vinyl for the vinyl lovers and come up with an inventive way to sell the album?
People are always asking why we didn’t release it on CD swell and I’m like, give us another two grand then?! (Laughing) Pledge actually came to us saying they wanted to work with us. The album was already recorded, printed and they still wanted to help us out and sell the record. We thought of this idea to put it up on Spotify around Christmas time last year before it was actually released on iTunes or physically. That was met with a mixed response. A couple of DJs were confused not knowing if it was a 2014 release and can we play it? But I think we were the only band to ever do that. I don’t know if it’s been repeated but we haven’t heard of it. That extended period with the project. It’s either quite nice, or an absolute disaster, whatever way you want to look at it. (Laughing)
DB: So it was just testing the water and trying something different really?
GN: Yeah, bands need to keep coming up with ideas like that until someone comes up with the right one. We’re glad that we did it. I don’t know how many plays we have on Spotify at the minute, 150,000 or something, which, is nothing really. Sadly. You know it sounds impressive but that’s not going to get any big record label or promoters interested. 150,000. Should be getting that for every song, that’s just the way it is.
But I liked the Pledge campaign. I think between Pledge and Youtube, that’s how people are getting their music. I think Youtube’s only really taking off now, it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.
DB: It’s all about the subscriptions.
GN: Yeah, it’s turning into a TV channel or something but…
DB: And “A Flickering Light…” is nominated for the NI Music Prize?
GN: I’ll be suiting up, yes. It’s great. That’s two albums, two nominations for that. We wouldn’t be favourites now to win it. But you never know, the favourites don’t always win. It would be nice to win, not only for a bit of recognition but also to sell a few more copies of the album because we’ve got like 5 boxes of them. (Laughing) It’s definitely hard to see anybody but SOAK walking away with that prize now. There’s some amazing albums there but she’s been nominated for the Mercury Prize, you know? Either take her off the list or just give her the bloody prize. (Laughing)
We are living in a transitional period in music though to get back to the original question and I think there’s still no answer. Streams and video plays count towards to charts now. The artists are getting absolutely nothing for that. And we had to make that decision when we put it on Spotify. We’d worked so hard on this album for two years and we were just so desperate you know, we just wanted people to bloody listen to it. If anything good came out of it for the band it’s not because of sales, it’s because people heard it. The reviews for it are unbelievable. There was a couple of 10/10 reviews and maybe one really mixed one but the rest were positive. Does that turn into selling albums? No.
The older audience just aren’t buying music. I’m so ashamed to say that the last album I bought was The Villagers, on vinyl, about 3 months ago.
DB: Well, off the back of the Pledge campaign, you had a gig here in the studio in LOFT. You played one my favourite song from you guys, Indian Sheets, one of the older records. Are you protective of your writing or do you just let it go once it’s out there? That personal element…
GN: Yeah, I think what you’re getting at there, is once it’s out there, that’s a little love story that you’ve written to your woman and now everybody sort of. (Laughing) There’s songs I’ve written that I wouldn’t put out there I suppose and maybe they’re good, maybe they’re amazing? (Laughing) They’re probably a bit too close to the bone maybe but I remember writing that one in Edinburgh about 10 years ago. After a long night’s work in the bar, went home, had a couple “drinks” (laughing).
DB: Drinks, right. (Laughing)
GN: But yeah you have to be careful. There’s some artists that you listen to and you’re thinking, man. What if this person is listening to this song? They will hate you or feel really uncomfortable. I think I have a really nice balance. I don’t mind, if it’s written about someone, I want them to hear it. If you write a negative song, you just don’t tell them it’s about them. (Laughing)
Once you release it, it belongs to the world.
DB: Cool. So, you’re running an acoustic night, Different Vibes in OH YEAH, how’s that coming along? Where did that come from or rather why did you start it up just because you’ve had quite the year, moving back from England, release the album, get married. Quite a lot has happened and now you have this little thing going.
GN: (Laughing) I know. Well, I wanted to make a living through doing music first of all and I knew I’d never be rich doing that but it’s okay, I’d be happy. We haven’t been touring, there’s nothing happening with the band at the minute. I need to be doing things to make me happy. I used to run a gig in Charlie’s Coffee Shop when I worked there. Were you ever?
DB: Yeah, yeah, I remember Charlie’s…
GN: It was great. I used to get people in, maybe 3 or 4 acts a week and it was all be about them. It was great craic and we had some amazing nights. It went on for 2 and a half years. I wanted to do something like that again and the opportunity was offered to me in the OH YEAH. I just turned the cafe into a similar vibe as Charlie’s, we started in the summer and it hasn’t been the success that I wanted it to be unfortunately. I just couldn’t get people to play and then the people that could play couldn’t get the crowd down for any number of reasons. But it’s not done. I’m changing it around ‘cause we’ve worked a lot on the branding and it’s got a cool name. I like the name. Just not enough people came down to witness it so we’re thinking of doing it monthly or something.
When I was doing “Charlie’s Presents…” I was working in there as well, at the time, having people coming in during the day giving me their demos and asking about having a gig sometime.
DB: How many years ago was that?
GN: It was about 4 or 5 years ago, which is crazy. The scene was buzzing back then. Even the acoustic, singer song writer scene. It hasn’t gone to plan but it’s okay. I’m used to failed projects. (Laughing) We just need to pick ourselves up again and maybe I’m just out of touch. There’s just not the same amount of gigs going on in Belfast. It’s unfair to compare it to 2008-2012 because that was just the Golden Era, for us anyway.
DB: I actually touched on that in the synopsis, bands like And So I watch You From Afar, Mojo Fury…
GN: Two Door, General Fiasco. All that stuff. A different time but I think with Different Vibes, we’ve had a few great nights and it’s a shame with some of the acts only have a handful of people came down to see them, because they’re phenomenal. There’s still great talent in this town and maybe it’s just going in a different direction but I’m very passionate about sitting down listening to people play their acoustic guitars. I love that. But look, I’m older now. I don’t go out nearly as much as I used to so I’m not denying potentially being out of touch.
DB: Well off the back of loving the acoustic stuff so much, you’re doing that with the Nooneman thing you have going on which is essentially doing cover gigs. How do you feel about doing them? Was there ever any question in your mind about it or d o you see it as opportunity.
GN: This is not what I planned doing when I was 32. I thought I’d be touring the world at this stage so it’s kind of sad really. (Laughing) Again, you just have to see things at face value. I’ve worked every minimum wage job you can think of from the age of 15 right through to my late 20s. It took me a long time to become a self employed musician and I’m just not really willing to give that up. Pub gigs, you play for a couple of hours, you get well paid so I’m not going to lie, it’s very much financial. It pays the rent. But it pays the rent with an acoustic guitar and if wasn’t for that, I’d just have to get a regular job.
DB: And it’s 39 Gordon street?
GN: Yeah, just there for now but I haven’t really put myself out there that much. Just got in there and it’s a lovely pub so it’s something that I’m good at. Five years ago, I was too cool to play the songs that I’m playing. I would have preferred to be in poverty than play pub gigs. But then…
DB: Life happens.
GN: Life happens, you stick a ring on a woman’s finger and you kind of start looking to the future. I still have ambitions beyond the pub for sure, this is just something that’s fun keeps you playing. Some of the songs I’m playing, they’re tricky. You have to practice and you’re always getting better at guitar. I see myself as always developing. It’s not my intention to do this for life though, no way.
DB: Playing guitar for BRY then, how did that come about? BRY is, as you said before, a bit of a Youtube sensation…
GN: Yeah, it’s a weird one isn’t it (laughing) Everyone’s saying how the hell did that happen? It’s just one of those funny things. I’m just good at being in a band right. So, there’s better guitar players, better singers, better piano players, not too many better entertainers. (Laughing hysterically) I just love being in a band, working hard and Davy Matchett (Manager) found out about this guy as his daughter was going to see him play in the Oh Yeah centre. Davy was looking around saying this gig is packed, who is this guy. He got chatting to him. He said to Brian, “Who’s your manager?” Briansaid, “Me”. “ Who booked this gig? ” “Oh, me”. Davy asked if he had anybody else working for him and the answer was no. He asked him where he played last. ‘Australian, America, Ireland, U.K…” and was there people at the gigs, he was selling loads of merch and making a living from it. So Davy, said right, we need to talk (Laughing).
Davy got his team around him which is really great and where I come in, is, they were doing a tour in the U.K which BRY booked all himself. He promotes through one of his Youtube videos. He’s got about half a million subscribers. I was the driver and the merch guy, just giving a hand pretty much. It was only 10 or 11 days. That was all it was supposed to be. I said see you later. I can’t remember when it was but he messaged me asking me to play guitar in the band. I said yeah man, no problem. I’m not involved creatively at all. All the songs are written, it’s just playing guitar but your first gig is Belsonic supporting 21 Pilots and All Time Low and main stage at Electric Picnic after that. I’m interested. (Laughing)
I’m a session guitarist pretty much but that’s how it happened. BRY is lovely, the band are all really, really lovely and professional. They’re great with their fans and it was an easy decision. That sounds fun, basically and then I sort of said, is there money? (Laughing) Bry said, yeah every time you play, you’ll get paid. I thought, that’s new. (Laughing) So yeah, met up for a few days and ran through the set a hundred times, played to 4,000 screaming fans and it was a lot of fun.
It looks like Bry’s going to do really well. He’s going to L.A. next week to record with Greg Wells who does Katy Perry, Deftones and Weezer. So maybe there’ll be some fun, big gigs to play next year but I’m just riding a wave. People question that it’s the complete opposite music to A Plastic Rose, what are you doing? That's if they don’t like it. But all I’m saying is, that’s the only time I’ve been offered to be in a band apart from my mate Micky who I play piano for.
DB: Which is Son Of The Hound which you hilariously…
GN: Yeah, yeah, forgot existed (laughing) In my whole I want to keep developing as a musician, I thought, I get to play lead guitar in another band so yeah, it’s good.
DB: Pulling it back to your own stuff, Tour Alaska. How’s the process different just coming up with concepts, melodies and stuff by yourself? Playing piano is relatively new as well.
GN: There’s a piano record on the last APR record but yeah, I’m still only beginner to nearly intermediate. Piano is just the most frustrating instrument, in the world, ever, it’s just heart breaking. There’s no learn a D and a C and you can strum all day and have fun. It’s annoying. (Laughing) With the whole Tour Alaska thing, there’s absolutely no time limit on this. I’m not chasing a scene or a sound so if I put an album out in 5 years time, it doesn’t really make a difference, I just want it to be as good as it can possibly be.
I haven’t had the headspace to write over the past few months, with getting married, cover gigs, other bands and stuff, but when that time happens, it’s very very important that it's got to be amazing. Otherwise, you’ll just blend into the crowd with 5 million other singer songwriters. You know what I mean? I’m still trying to find that sound but I don’t have any members. I don’t even think I want members, probably just work with session musicians. That’s something BRY has taught me, is maybe, a good thing. There’s no emotional involvement then. That’s kind of what I’m like for Son Of The Hound.
DB: Has anything changed between this and writing for or with APR? Is there a separation, different influences or what is it that you want to communicate with Tour Alaska?
GN: Aw, definitely yeah, a lot of times, I’ll write a song with A Plastic rose and think aw, that’s too singer songwriter, you know? So that’s where Tour Alaska was born ‘cause I started off writing acoustic stuff, songs like Indian Sheets type stuff. Actually, I’d definitely play that song in a Tour Alaska set and we NEVER play that as A Plastic Rose. That gig in here was rare. Really rare. The influences are different. I’ve always been influenced by singer songwriters in the way that I write lyrics and bring that to a rock band. When I write a song, I always picture myself playing in front of a crowd and with APR, it was always a big, big crowd. I’d just been in my bedroom (laughing) Giving it loads and you have the three other boys around you, jamming every week you can imagine everything.
It’s different, when you’re just on your own and where I’m at, at the minute, for example, I hate doing APR radio sessions when they ask you to do a big rock song, acoustically. You just can't do that. You’re screaming down the mic, the vocal’s too high and it’s just not right. Tour Alaska is made for those times, it’s a nice, comfortable register and you can play the song start to finish with just the acoustic. It doesn’t matter. The whole song is there in it’s entirety. I think every song for Tour Alaska needs to stand alone then a full band will only enhance it if that were to happen.
Working with Ian, in A Plastic Rose, essentially he’s kind of a poet which is great. I needed that and he pushed me as a lyricist so I take that into Tour Alaska as well. I’ve got maybe, 4 songs that I really like that I could probably turn into an E.P. but other than that, I’m going to go on a writing spree but the lyrics have to be heartfelt and passionate.
DB: What artists do influence you then, just to get really general, could you earmark some of those people that shaped what you like?
GN: I didn’t grow up in a musical family at all. It was football. It was either football or football and if you didn’t like football they were going to get rid of you. (Laughing) So there was about four CDs in the house. I think they were Garth Brooks, Celine Dion.
GN: My brother had some sort of Oasis thing, and Westlife. (Laughing) It was basically just a group of guys that I met in school when I was 16, at that stage where they were going to Radiohead and I was like, ah Radiohead are boring. (Laughing) Fast forward 12 months and I was a big Radiohead fan but basically dad bought “OK Computer” thinking “Creep” was on it. It wasn’t, so he gave it to me and it blew my mind.
So that got me into music, so obviously Radiohead. It’s great because that sort of came full circle when dad drove us over to Reading and Leeds and we played with Radiohead headlining the two nights in a row which was awesome to see. Obviously, Nirvana. Well not obviously, but it’s obvious to me, because it’s me. Big Nirvana, Green Day, Pop Punk, Grunge fan. I didn’t get too deep into Grunge but mainly Nirvana. Alanis Morissette was a big one for me actually. “Jagged Little Pill” is just an unbelievable album and I think it was the first album I heard a woman be really fucking angry. She was doing it so well too, vitriol.
I suppose you just get into different things over the years. The Villagers, loving them at the minute. I was playing a Bob Dylan song today on piano, love Bob Dylan. Bright Eyes. Elliot Smith. I’ve been saying those for years. I really need new ones. I’ve been saying those for fucking years. (Laughing) I think for 9 years, I was screaming down a microphone and I’m thinking I need a bit of a break from that to just chill out. Ben Kweller. You ever heard of Ben Kweller?
DB: Nope, can’t say I have.
GN: He’s written a song with Foo Fighters there about a month ago which is crazy because I got married nearly a month ago there and one of his songs, I sang it to my wife on the day, in our hotel room, something that I wanted to do bacuse it was our song sort of thing. And another one of his songs, we were singing on the honeymoon all the time, the next thing he’s in the news for hopping on stage with Foo Fighters in Texas and writing a song with them. I’m just thinking nooooo, Ben Kweller’s mine! (Laughing) He’s a big one for me. Kind of a mix between quirky and serious. Loudon Wainwright III, love that guy. I don’t think there’s any act in the world I’ve listened to, maybe , apart from Damien Rice where I’ve listened to everything they’ve ever done. I’m just not that type of music listener.
In a weird way for someone who’s a musician, I listen to it casually. I like playing it more than listening to the stuff. You know what I mean? I used to go out 4 nights a week listening to live music and I just don’t anymore. It’s just because you play it so much as your job. I take influence from being on the road, bands that support you or you support. That scene is a big influence. 21 Pilots are probably my favourite band at the minute and that’s probably a lot to do with playing with them at Belsonic. They were unbelievable. We got to see Future Islands at Electric Picnic as well.
DB: Aw man, they’re great. That lead singer is a legend.
GN: Yeah, I got my photo with him backstage actually.
DB: He’s a rapper as well. Man, his rapping stuff is surprisingly good. (Laughing) Okay well we’ve touched on musical influences, the past, present, what do you see happening down there line. Or, rather, what do you want to happen?
GN: I think I’ll be concentrating on doing a Tour Alaska album over the next couple of years. I’ve absolutely no idea what the future’s like for BRY. I could get a call to go somewhere for a month, or I might not get a call but that’s fun too. Cover gigs, running Different Vibes but I just take every week as it comes and I need that. I’m not really one for routine. If the right opportunity comes, happy days. I’ve got a very, very supportive wife.
DB: Get that in there (Laughing)
GN: Friz, she’s awesome. She’s an artist and I’m a musician so we both know it’s going to be a struggle for a while but we believe there are still opportunities to make your passion a living before you have to go and be the one serving pints and listening to shite pub singers. (Laughing)
DB: Excellent. (Laughing) Is there anything else you want to say man?
GN: Eh, musically, what else have I got? I’m available. (Laughing)
DB: Book me (Laughing)
GN: Nooneman. If you need a session guitar player, I’m not that good. But I’ll try my best. Same with piano. I’m really bad at singing harmonies so I’m up for that too (Laughing) Got my fingers in a few pies. But if you look around, remember we were going to touch on all these musicians doing pub gigs now. It’s a different art form. Art form? No, you can’t call it an art form. That’s like calling someone on the X Factor an artist. No way. (Laughing) It’s a different skill, a completely different skill and it’s just weird they way all us guys knocking around a few years ago getting hundreds of people to a show and now we’re doing pub gigs. It’s kind of shit but it’s a sign of the times. Obviously it hasn’t gone to plan for a lot of us. You’re thinking, I’ve been in a band for a long time. What the fuck do I do now with this skill that I’ve learned. You know the people before me or after me during these little gigs and you’re thinking what are you doing?! You’re a legend! (Laughing) And they could be thinking the same, what’s this guy doing here playing Kings Of Leon to these people. (Laughing)
But it keeps your name floating around and it lets people know you have’t given up, not that there’s anything to give up. As soon as you say this is my job now, it’s beyond that. You aren’t chasing a dream. I am living the dream, I’m playing music for a living. But people don’t see it like that. They see it as, he’s still trying. All I can say is, I’m still working at this, you know? If you ever see me on a big stage or the TV in a few years, don’t say, Oh, he never gave up. If that’s the way you want to look at it, cool, but I’ll just keep playing. (Laughing)
DB: Well cool, that’s us!
GN: Deadly. cheers buddy, that was fun.