Johnny Normal has been a fan of synthpop and electronica since his mid-teens and has always had a passion for music. Fatherhood encouraged him to turn his own musical ideas in to reality and he has since released numerous albums and has worked with – and become friends with – some of his musical heroes. After a long and serious illness, Johnny is back in the saddle and has numerous projects on the go; as a musician, promoter, radio presenter and more! But we’ll let the man speak for himself, eh?
You’ve certainly had a long and varied career in the UK electronic music scene so first of all, tell us a little bit about the story of Johnny Normal.
I started writing music and experimenting with sounds when I was about 16 or 17, just messing about really and seeing what noises I could make, combining poetry and the odd narrative. At 14 years old I was listening to the Peter Powell show on Radio 1 and he played XOYO by The Passage, and it had an instant effect on me. I fell in love with the brassy synth and risque lyrics. I recall the thrill of buying my first Casio VL-1 from my local Dixons store and racing home to attempt songs from the Dare album. Gary Numan and Adam and The Ants were big influences on my life and stayed with me I guess through the years. After a few half-hearted attempts at being in bands in my teens I left the music behind for a couple of decades at least, life just happened: marriage, houses, a career in TV and events, children, etc.
Many years later, in 2007, we had returned from a family holiday in Charente Maritime, France, and I was sat at home, listening to the rain hitting the window, and had a bit of a Eureka moment. I grabbed my daughter’s little keyboard that was in the room and just started singing a few verses. That became Memories of Summer. The next few weeks I became more enthusiastic and song ideas just flooded back after all these years. A collection of 19 eclectic songs became an album, which I created so that my children could listen to one day long after I had left this earth, and my friend suggested I put it out on my own label, which I promptly created and did. There’s Nothing was released on Noise Control Records and distributed by Ditto Music. Two tracks, Jakes Ride and There’s Nothing had actually been commissioned specifically for a film soundtrack for the British gangster movie Stagger.
I then realised that an album sitting on a shelf was no use to anyone, I had the notion of taking it on the road and performing it. But this was a solo studio album through and through and never meant to be performed with a band. There’s Nothing and particularly Mini Metro were picked up by a few radio stations and after a few interviews I decided to take the album to the public and see how it went. A friend of mine, who was decorating our house at the time, said he would perform with me and add guitar to the line-up. Seemed a good idea (and also some company on a lonely stage to be honest). We performed at Birmingham ArtsFest, Resurrection, supported Nash the Slash, and appeared at a few festivals. It was fun. People seemed to like us. I also recorded a World Cup promo song for the England team which is still on YouTube today.
In 2010 I had a series of messages on Facebook from someone calling themselves Adam Ant and asking if we could do some music together. Of course, I was more than wary (social media attracts all sorts), and I managed to find an email address on their profile, which I contacted. I said something like “the game’s up now, come clean, who are you and what do you want?” That day a lady rang me saying she knew it sounded crazy but she was chatting with me on behalf of Adam Ant, who was a fan of my There’s Nothing album, and he was planning a comeback which he wanted me to be part of. I went along with it… partly thinking “oh dear”, and partly thinking “yeah, but what if…”
She said Adam wanted to meet up in London and have a chat. I’ll never know what possessed me, but I travelled to London to meet Adam, or at least whoever this was and try to understand what it was all really about… Well, she did turn up, and I met Adam in an art gallery near Fulham. We had a chat about this and that and he said he was a fan of the music and wanted to relaunch his music career. After a brief conversation he said; “Well thanks for coming Johnny, I’ll be in touch, now f**k off cos I’m gonna buy some art, mate”.
A couple of months later I was opening his London Scala show in front of 1100 Ant fans. My original guitarist was unavailable so I drafted in a last-minute replacement, Pete Walsh (Psycho), who I had worked with on corporate events a few years ago. Pete slotted in just fine and took our sound to a new place too.
Adam invited us to perform at a number of live shows over the following three years and Pete and I started working on the Robot Rock album, now fusing together the electronica with the harder guitar edge and also a version of Kings of the Wild Frontier. Work on the albums was well under way in 2014 when I was struck down with Swine Flu in March, the night I guested on the Bluetown Electronica live radio show in fact.
I spent 7 months in 3 intensive care units and 4 hospitals, fighting for my life daily, and it was a truly horrific period for my family as well as myself. My children were called in twice to say goodbye and it was so traumatic for them all.
Aside from Swine Flu, I had Double Pneumonia, collapsed lungs, BocaVirus, EColi, liver failure, kidney failure needing dialysis, I was in a coma, resuscitated from two cardiac arrests and then finally a stroke. The life support was turned off twice. The doctors were convinced if I made it there would be permanent severe brain damage. God only knows how I pulled through. Through the coma my wife had the Kings of the Wild Frontier album playing constantly 24-7. I was paralysed for a few weeks, and had to learn to sit, stand, walk, eat and talk again. I guess someone was looking after us all, because people just don’t make it through these things.
I came home in a wheelchair and in a matter of days was laying down the vocal tracks for the Robot Rock and Kings albums. I was feeling really motivated and ready to take on the world. Music certainly helped my recovery. My first gig back was Digital Darkness in Birmingham and the atmosphere was special. Jay Smith from Deviant sang I Die You Die with me (how appropriate!) and it felt amazing. Ian Wall from Among the Echoes and my guitarist Psycho Pete had visited me in hospital many times throughout and were incredibly supportive. I will always remember that.
I continued with the live gigs, as much as my health would allow, pushing myself each time, including the amazing Electro London Festivals. I also took my radio show to Radio Warwickshire, and really enjoy working with an enthusiastic and effervescent team of creatives. AbNormal Productions and Synthetic City Events evolved nicely and being active in the wider electronic music scene really excites me.
What motivates you and inspires your music, aesthetic and vibe?
Not dying is a good motivator…! Seriously, I have endured so much physical pain, mental torture, being paralysed and watching helplessly as my loved ones grieved waiting for me to die. There is no better motivator on this earth Adrian to make you do things. The Johnny Normal ‘look’ just happened really. It’s just me. Hopefully it suits the music. I always was a fan of militaria and space, and reasonably patriotic, so I mildly combined them together. Undoubtedly my sound is influenced by the early pioneers of post-punk such as OMD, The Passage, Numan, Adam, Soft Cell, but I hope there is a distinct Johnny Normal vibe to my music… It’s just me being me, and I am grateful people like the music.
You’re a music veteran, but your new project The Rude Awakening is a fairly new venture for you. How did it come about?
My God, sounds like I was in Dad’s Army, lol. Well, after the long illness I wanted desperately to get the Robot Rock and Kings albums finished, and probably to make a point, to aim at something worthwhile, a sort of mental milestone that I could still achieve something. When they were done and performed live over the next couple of years, I realised that I needed to write new material. I had so many new ideas and new motivation inside me, which didn’t fit with the old sound. I loved working with Pete, and he is a friend, so much more than just the music side… but a new chapter was tugging me in another direction… a more electronic direction that made sense. I didn’t want a band as such, that can be too restrictive creatively as I tend to listen to others and not want to hurt feelings, which ends up in compromise, and that’s bad for the music.
So, having chatted at length with Martyn Ware (Heaven 17) this year about his B.E.F. project, I was enthused and motivated to do something new. The Rude Awakening is a fabulous hook to hang the new music on, because it’s just that… I have been jolted to life (quite literally!) and it’s a new chapter. I get to write my songs and a collective of my music industry friends (who are great artists in their own rights) create their own remixes of the track in their own style, with no direction from me. The results of this first project/release have been absolutely stunning. Each artist has created not only a great remix, but essentially a new stand-alone song. Dragan Vujcic mastered the release as well as contributing an X-Mouth Syndrome version.
My first choice for vocal assistance on this track was easy, my old friend from the USA Brooke Calder (Lolly Pop, A*O*A, POP INC). I have worked with one or two brilliant vocalists, but for this song Brooke was perfect. We have collaborated on a few songs over the years and I knew she would add something special to the final vibe. It’s also a sentiment she feels passionately given the political state of the USA, and indeed the world at the moment.
The other collaborators were approached based on their individual style and creative work. Mr Strange, Blott, Nature of Wires, Illustrial, Motionsonic, X-Mouth Syndrome… I have been a fan of all of the artists and featured their songs on my radio shows, and it is a real honour to have them on board.
What’s the inspiration behind your new single Let Nothing Take Your Pride? The title alone is a real call to arms!
Let Nothing Take Your Pride is a searing, anthemic debut track about defiance, resilience, fighting your corner and never backing down. This is an extremely intimate sentiment for me, having spent the majority of 2014 battling to stay alive. Having survived that horrific period, and learning to face new psychological and physical obstacles, there were further challenges involving people I once called friends, but I had a new-found resilience which saw me through. But with the quite frankly ridiculous and frightening political goings-on around the world the message is much more than personal: it is a call to arms for anyone, anywhere, who has taken a beating and bounced back up to give fate the middle finger. This is our global rude awakening.
As well as being a musician and radio DJ, you’re also a promoter. How do you manage to juggle all your different roles? Have you any exciting events coming up?
That is a very interesting question. The boundaries all merge together at some point, one leads into the other, so there is an organic vibe to the way it works… I source new music, play it on my radio show, interview the artists, work with some of the bands, invite them to live events, feature the live events, collaborate with some… it’s a really lovely natural flow. There will be some new Icon Interview radio specials coming following on from the success of the Leee John, Wendy James, Martyn Ware, Gary Numan and China Crisis shows. Some of our Radio Warwickshire shows are currently getting regular 50-60,000 listeners a night, that is stunning. The boss Clay Lowe, Station Manager Kirk Pickstone and the team are doing a grand job in association with our sister station Sweet FM. The radio station is fantastic but many people don’t realise the global coverage we now have… and we don’t shout about our successes enough, but that will change this year. I am proud to be part of the driving team for Radio Warwickshire, so I find the time. I am now permanently disabled and so have certain limitations at times, apparently, but don’t tell anyone 😉
My video and multi-media background inevitably gets me involved in producing video promos and trailers for bands and events, which I love creating. I am also writing a book about my near-death experiences and my life in music, and yes, you feature in there Adrian, but you don’t need to worry. But there are some home truths in there for sure.
I am running and promoting the Ants Invasion live music event in London on Sat 27th January (a celebration of the music of Adam and the Ants with live bands, Ant-themed disco, videos, guests, competitions etc)… also planning already the next Synthetic City London electronic music event, and weighing up one or two special events around the country for 2018.
What’s up next for Johnny Normal? Any upcoming gigs, new music on the horizon, other projects?
I am enjoying a rest from live gigs probably til the new year (unless something fabulous crops up!). Batteries are on charge. You know it’s odd because being a promoter, I don’t get asked to perform very much at other people’s events. I suppose promoters and other bands think I don’t want to be asked… but of course I bloody do!
Synthetic City London 2018 will be earlier in the calendar this time and the line-up will once again be a wonderful international cross-section of the modern electronic music scene. The publicity and PR from the 2017 event has been fabulous. It was an inclusive and friendly event.
I’m sure the new Johnny Normal/Rude Awakening sound will be heard at one or two gigs in 2018, and maybe something live from the radio station… but at the moment I have too much to do this year to think about that.
It’s been lovely having the opportunity to have a chat Adrian, and I do want to convey my respect and admiration for you, Mark, Gary and the team at AnalogueTrash/Electronic North for the selfless, relentless and enthusiastic job you do promoting electronic artists and providing a platform for their music. My cap is doffed. Thank you.