John D. Norten speaks with ReGen about his new collaboration with the inimitable Groovie Mann in Trash Deity, with a few insights into the pair’s creative process and what’s yet to come.
An InterView with John D. Norten of Trash Deity
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Known for his inimitable rock star swagger and abrasively decadent vocal style, Groovie Mann – a.k.a. Franke N. Nardiello – has been heralded for three decades as one of the most distinguished voices in the industrial/dance underground as the front man of My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. A fellow veteran of the Chicago WaxTrax! era, John D. Norten has carved out his own niche as a producer and musician with his own band Blue Eyed Christ. So, what would happen when you put together these two eminent figures in a new collaboration? You get Trash Deity, who in a short time has begun to make waves with the strength of such singles as “Run 4 Your Lies!” and “Finger on a Trigger,” showcasing a new blend that draws on key elements of the pair’s respective bands, but refined into a new concoction that stands apart… from the aggressive dance beats and Groovie Mann’s slithering vocals to the caustic blend of synth and guitar, Trash Deity presents a sound that is sure to appeal to those with a taste for the rivethead raves of the ’90s, but with a modern sheen. With ReGen hosting the band’s fan art contest for the new “Frantic / Cross & Divide” single following the September 7 release of the Cross & Divide debut album, John D. Norten speaks with ReGen Magazine about the formation of Trash Deity, his writing partnership with Groovie Mann, the pair’s lyrical and artistic inspiration, and what is yet to come from this lurid and lascivious duo.
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way – can you tell us about the formation of Trash Deity? How and when did you and Groovie Mann first meet, and what then motivated the two of you to work together?
Norten: We ran in a lot of the same circles in Chicago in the early ’90s, but didn’t really know each other personally. I worked a lot out of the recording studio Chicago Trax where Thrill Kill Kult and Blue Eyed Christ both recorded, as well as MINISTRY, obviously, who pretty much lived there. We both ended up in Los Angeles. I went to an art exhibit of his down the street from me in Burbank and that’s when we first started talking for a bit. We met up a couple of months later in his neighborhood, hung out at a bar, talked about working on music. He came to my studio shortly after and we wrote ‘Run 4 Your Lies!’ the first day… things went so great that a song turned into an EP, which turned into an album three years later, which brings us here.
With you responsible for the music, how did your musical approach – the way you write, produce, arrange tracks, etc. – develop from what you had previously done in Blue Eyed Christ and your other past projects?
In what ways did Groovie’s presence and vocal style affect your outlook on the songs as you were writing them?
Norten: As a producer and engineer, I’m always working on music with various artists, usually their vision. Most of my professional career is with pop artists like The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Dr. Dre, etc., which is very different from Blue Eyed Christ. I’m always working on more industrial style tracks for myself, or movie placements, etc., and whatever I end up doing vocals on becomes a Blue Eyed Christ song. So, when Groovie Mann first came over, I played him a bunch of the more industrial style instrumentals I had, and whatever he liked was put in a big playlist. Groovie would come over with journals of lyrics, pulp books, Life magazines from the ’60s, and other inspirational goodies. We’d go through those and start to conform those into songs. Each one is a bit different and took on a life of its own – sometimes things were improvised and cut and pasted, some things were written more linearly lyrical. After we had the lyrics down, I’d go and edit the music around the vocals, changing things up, adding some things, etc. The sound of the album is very eclectic because it’s literally the sound of us discovering our sound.
Conversely, and I realize this is a better question for him, but in what ways do you feel Groovie’s style was affected by the material you were writing?
Norten: I think Groovie was really excited because it felt different than Thrill Kill Kult, so it was something new and exciting for him. He really seemed to enjoy in our early days painting to the instrumentals I’d send him.
Was it ever a concern for you that his very presence would spark comparisons to Thrill Kill Kult?
Norten: I think Groovie has a very distinctive voice, so no matter what, it would evoke that. My concern was actually that it would be too Blue Eyed Christ, since I do the music for both. I’m the vocalist too for BEC, so it was a very conscious decision not to perform too many vocals.
You do perform vocals on ‘Emotions Matter,’ which is pretty much through a vocoder for that ‘robotic’ effect that seems to drive home the point of the song. What were the sorts of lyrical themes the two of you wanted to pursue with Trash Deity, and what was the writing dynamic like between you two?
Norten: The vocoded parts were actually manipulated samples, not either of us. I performed the vocal parts that actually sound human on ‘Emotions Matter.’ That was another example of the kind of blur between things in the initial creation of tracks between Blue Eyed Christ and Trash Deity. I had that track with the vocoded part, and Groovie really loved it, the retro ’80s dance vibe, the subject, etc. I did vocals for it figuring I’d use it for the new Blue Eyed Christ album, but Groovie wanted it for Trash Deity. I was cool with that if he was. Now that Trash Deity’s sound is more defined, it’s a bit easier to tell. I have a pile of new instrumentals for Trash Deity and Blue Eyed Christ separate now; I can usually tell which should go where.
Regarding the songwriting in general, we’d pull up a track, I’d help with arranging and tweaking lyrics and forming them into songs, but really wanted to make sure it was more Groovie Mann’s lyrical writing style and voice. I’m not used to this kind of collaboration and I really do believe we ended up with a ‘sound’ and an album that really is more ‘us’ than him or me.
You both have a long history as part of the WaxTrax! family and sound, and if I may say, Trash Deity does possess some very discernible traces of that.
First of all, how would you personally define this aesthetic as you’ve come to understand it? What defines the aesthetics that we tend to associate with WaxTrax!?
Norten: Fans can be very specific about genres and sounds. I never minded the ‘industrial’ label is it can encompass so much. The WaxTrax! style of that had a lot of great records and eclectic sounds, but I’d say when people think of that style of industrial, it’s usually heavy electronics mixed with heavy samples and drum machines that comes to mind, and sometimes guitars mixed in. People always thinks it’s weird that the industrial Blue Eyed Christ works with artists like Dr. Dre, but to be honest, what’s a lot of hip-hop? Heavy, aggressive, electronic music with samples and drum machines. I always say the cliché, two kinds of music, good and bad.
As well, with the resurgence of interest and even some of the bands from that era, what are your thoughts on the way newer bands are approaching or progressing from those ideas?
Norten: I really like this new generation carrying the torch and bringing attention to all things old and new, and reinventing, throwing it in the blender, and making something new. Bands like Youth Code and 3TEETH are great. I dig Night Club. There are lots of great modern artists influenced from that era. It’s great to see the festivals like ColdWaves carrying the torch and keeping that scene burning bright too.
From a visual standpoint, the album has a distinctly glitched out, chaotic and colorful, yet strangely minimalist look, with Neil Kull handling video direction and Groovie providing the actual artwork. In what ways do you feel the visual style we’ve seen from Trash Deity so far is an extension of the music? How involved are you in the visual conception – or is it all Neil and Groovie?
Norten: We’re both involved in the visual direction. The artwork were old pics of Groovie Mann’s from back in the day that we both liked and felt fit the concept after trying some other ideas. Most of the glitching was in the photo. David Babbitt, who we both know from back in the Chicago days, was the art director and did the CD layout and design with us. We both have a long history with Dave going back to the early ’90s when he worked for the Chicago merchandise company Interzone and helped design early Thrill Kill Kult, Blue Eyed Christ, and WaxTrax! T-Shirts; he also did the cover of my first BEC 12-inch single back in the day on KK Records, ‘Catch My Fall,’ so it was like a mini reunion all these years later. Neil is the director of the two Videos we released – ‘Finger on a Trigger,’ which was all Groovie Mann artwork edited to a video, and ‘Run 4 Your Lies’ is a collage of sporadic chaotic lighting with pics from a Life magazine from the ’60s about acid. Neil has also become part of the fabric of our digital aesthetic.
What about touring? Will we be seeing Trash Deity on the road? If so, what do you feel would be the major challenges – for you personally – in translating the material to the live environment? Would it be just the two of you, or would you have additional band members onstage?
Norten: We keep threatening to put together a show and play out. We both would like to; it just has to make sense, like a tour with another established Metropolis artist or bigger events or festivals rather than booking our own tour and a getting in a van kind of a thing. It may be the two of us, or we may try some additional members, lights, etc. I’m looking forward to putting together a live show. I really enjoy designing the arc of live shows. Putting together tours and shows is big part of my career. We’ve designed live shows for everyone from Cee-lo to Estelle to The Backstreet Boys current hit Vegas residency.
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