Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve is the alter ego of Erol Alkan and Richard Norris. It was supposed to be an anonymous project, an outlet for their interest in psychedelia which would enjoy an entirely separate life to their own solo enterprises, but some idiot gave the game away early on and the affable duo decided there was no choice but to ‘fess up.
Having released four limited edition and already classic 12″s of re-edited old tunes – Birth, Spring, George and West – the best of which were compiled on last year’s Ark 1 CD, the Wizard’s Sleeve have become among the most inventive and in-demand remixers around, lending their curious freakbeat magic to songs by the likes of Midlake, Franz Ferdinand and Peter, Bjorn & John – all of which you can hear on the Re-Animations compilation, released last week. As they commence work on their own original material, Kiran Sande sat down with Erol and Richard in a Soho pub to hear about the origins of Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve, and its intended destination.
So, first things first. How do you two know each other? When did your paths first cross?
E: “We kind of knew each other through clubs, you know…I think we got to know each other when Richard was coming to 20th Century Bodyrockers and giving me records he was making as Droids. Or it might have been when he was at Ammo City and we were doing the Trash internet radio show there. That was around ’99-2000…”
R: “Ammo City was just a kind of bubble of internet ideas that was probably five or ten years ahead of its time…”
When did you realize you had a shared love of psychedelia?
E: “We were on Sean Rowley’s radio show. We’d been invited to go in and just play records, which has always been something which I’ve really enjoyed – just going on radio and putting on songs you really like.”
R: “Did we do it together?”
E: “Yeah, we did it together. We were on the same show…”
E: “I played an hour of music before or after – and then Richard played some music that I’d kind of been looking for in my head…I’d always wanted music that sounded like that, and you played a few songs which really touched upon what I was really dreaming about…One of the songs was ‘A Million Grains of Sand’, I think by The Freak Scene?”
R: “The Freak Scene, yeah.”
E: “Me, I love records that sound like they’re bending in and out of shape, songs that are really elastic. This record was pretty much recorded in its entirety backwards, and I love that…”
R: “It has a proper exotic flavour, there’s a really odd dimension to it…”
E: “So I was like, wow, I’d love to hear more stuff like that. Richard gave me a CD of music and it was another doorway opening into a whole different area, you know, new era of discovery. I think that’s really important for any part of your life – to keep discovering things. And the deeper I delved, the more it continued to inspire me – to the point where I just wanted to DJ these records out. I’d been playing a few things at Trash, records which worked alongside other guitar things. But then there was a complete other end of it which I don’t think would have worked in that environment, so we said let’s go out and just DJ this stuff out somewhere else. Just do sets, people can come in for free, we’ll just play in the back of a bar or whatever. We started doing a couple of nights in Catch bar in Kingsland Rd, DJing for like 8 hours.”
Why did you decide to go with the mucky moniker of Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve?
E: “Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve for me sounded very…British. A bit like a Carry On movie, that sort of thing. And I really liked that, because a lot of the psychedelia thing, the stuff that Richard was feeding me, it had that kind of distinctly British identity to it, you know?”
“It seemed to be quite a strong image, you know, and it just kind of stuck. There were a few other suggestions – I’ve got them all written down on a piece of paper somewhere – and Wizard’s Sleeve was just the once that seemed as daft as it was appropriate.”
You seem to deliberately evoke a kind of lost British eccentricity on your records – sampling people like June Whitfield, John Peel, Percy Thrower…
E: “That track means a lot to me personally…What Percy Thrower suggests, not just in the bit we samped for this track, but in his whole approach to gardening, is to me just completely Zen, you know? Here’s somebody that’s so focussed, with such self-awareness, and as far as gardeners go, he’s a genius – the way he talks about it, and the language he uses, the words he uses to describe plant life or the environment is just hugely inspiring…It’s one of those things where you hear something in there that connects with you and it isn’t just about the garden, you know what I mean? The feedback on that track was really amazing, people connected with that side of it. It wasn’t just kitsch.”
It’s also the thing of not using something that’s patently, self-consciously psychedelic…
E: “Yeah, totally. You know, we’re not conjuring potions and lotions as such… Jon Savage has written the sleevenotes for Reanimations, and he talks about our approach and how it hints at what psychedelia could be – hopefully so much more than a naff, hippies in fields smoking draw sort of thing…”
R: “I suppose we’re trying to tie together all the different pointers…I mean, my introduction to psychedelia was when I was about 19 and I became label manager for a very interesting label called Bam Caruso. We put out psychedelic compilations, things by The Seeds, the soundtrack to The Prisoner, just loads of stuff…To what was very much a retro, very small market at the time – we only sold, like, a 1000 of any given release, and in very extravagant sleeves – it was at the museum end of retro psychedelia. And sure, that’s one element of what we’re trying to do, but when we think of psychedelic it’s more about that very open-minded approach to sound – you might find it in cosmic disco, you could find it in Lee Perry records, you can find it in anything that sounds out-there, really…It isn’t just to sound like Tangerine Dream…”
Your edits aren’t restricted to the obscure – you’ve re-jigged The Beatles among others – have you had any problems with copywright infringement or anything like that?
E: “Er, next question…” [laughs]
E: “My view on it is that the quantities we were doing were so small – smaller even than those of a promotional copy that a label would send out – so it’s not as if we were into it to make fortunes or anything…”
R: “We’re doing it purely as fans – it’s an extension of us swapping CDs and having chats and saying things like, “Wouldn’t that be great with an edit” and “Let’s lose that bit” and “Let’s make this bit longer”. It was more of a fan thing…There is a ceiling on that, you can’t put out thousands and thousands of copies. So I think it was just a starting point for us, and we’re probably not going to do that again.”
To begin with, were the edits you made mainly for the purposes of DJing out?
E: “Totally. How it was began was, obviously a lot of these recordings have a stereo split – and the rule was, you get the drums and bass on the left hand side, and everything else on the right hand side. So you can take the rhythm track and you can split things apart and rebuild the track. That was the basic idea. It was almost like you were left quite explicitly with the tools to create something new. The first edit that Richard did was ‘King Midas in Reverse’; the first edit I did was The Monkees. And for both our agenda was definitely ‘Let’s find tracks that are split and then rebuild them’.
“The funny thing was that if you took ‘Light Years’ by The Rolling Stones, and you panned it hard left or hard right, you’d get two completely different tracks. One of which Primal Scream lifted pretty much note-for-note for ‘Burning Wheel’. It’s exactly the same, really…” [laughs]
R: “Yeah…” [laughs]
E: “I guess you have to do enough to recontextualise it into something else. There’s no point in just going, ‘Take the drumbeat, take this other bit…’ . Even like on The Small Faces’ ‘Bubble Burst’ – you know, listen to that rhythm – when it’s looped, it becomes hypnotic, it turns into more of a krautrock rhythm than a beat rhythm. You look at these little things and you shuffle them around a bit and because we’re blessed with the fact of all this stuff being history now, and understanding the history of music, you can almost trace things…You know, you can say that this record preceded that record…”
And even when there’s not necessarily a direct or explicit link, you can almost here premonitions of the future in records from way back when…
R: “It was a very different approach from the standard remix where you say, ‘What BPM is it?’, ‘What drum loops shall we use?’, ‘How do we make this a dancefloor thing…’ But of course because it’s all live drums there is no BPM, it’s all over the place…It’s great, because it totally frees you up to think, how can I make a new piece of music? You couldn’t just do a four beats to the bar thing…”
E: “It’s a liberating feeling…And we never did that thing so many people do – taking these old records and just banging them on a tight grid…Because we love the fact that those drummers are surging ahead or pulling back. I mean even when I’m producing bands, I don’t really use a click track – you don’t really need them unless the song says, ‘I want to be rigid..’”
“Let’s explore their limitations, and see the furthest horizons as well. Not just put it in Ableton and do it and make it sound like shit. We actually work really hard in re-EQing these records and compressing them and limiting them and pretty much re-mastering them as well, so that they sound really good – if you played some of them out in a club now, they’d absolutely thump…and that’s through careful EQing and stuff, it’s not just from turning up the volume.”
R: “Even though some of them might sound quite linear, like a looped drumbeat, they’re invariably drifting in and drifting out of time…”
E: “It’s just the human quality of it, being allowed to breathe. I would hate the idea of taking some incredible beat that some drummer had sweated his arse off 40 years ago to pound out, and then just making it sound like shit in Ableton…”
Sometimes you draw attention to your loops and edits – like your reminding the listener that what they’re listening to is in fact a modern rendering of something old…
E: “It’s important that even if you do something as a statement or a trick in your production style, that it is at the very least going to subliminally effect people on first listen.”
R: “I was really amazed listening to the Ark 1 album as a whole – there really is a sensibility about it, it’s fairly out-there – I was genuinely quite surprised at how mind-expanding it actually sounds. At the time we were just excited, but it really has got an otherness to it which wasn’t that apparent when we made it. Which is great. It’s a slightly different beast to the remix album, though, they have different qualities reality…”
R: “There’s a lot of colour in those older records. There’s a broad,very open-minded approach – but we’re talking about records that wouldn’t really have sold many copies when they first came out. There were hundreds of crazy bands on labels like Decca and they’d have one shot really – they’d release the weirdest records, all sorts, a six-minute record about a fight, or whatever – they were never going to get on Top of The Pops, but they still did it, and they did it with such a degree of dedication that the music still sounds amazing today. It sounds like now. People forget that this stuff wasn’ the going rate in the 60s – people think that everything was all weird and out-there, but it wasn’t: Engelbert Humperdinck was one of the biggest artists…”
E: “Having said that, I think the natural progression from psychedelia in production actually led to Trevor Horn. If you listen to like ‘Videoteque’ by Dollar – listen to the production on that. For me, a lot of people say Todd Rundgren is an amazing producer – and obviously he is – but when you look at Trevor Horn and what he did after that, and also the Frankie Goes To Hollywood stuff – even like ‘Relax’, it’s just amazing – it’s so…subliminal.”
E: “It’s all about how they embraced inhabited the new technology, there was the Fairlight and another new synth…I’ve just been listening to a lot of Trevor Horn stuff recently. And it’s pretty fucking weird, to be honest…”
Even with then state-of-the-art studios, 60s producers often to make strenuous efforts to create unusual sonic effects, and how their records turned out had a lot to do with luck. But in the digital era I suppose there’s less room for these kind of “creative mishap”. Are do accident and chance play a part in what you do?
R: Well, I was really lucky with the edit on ‘King Midas in Reverse’ – it just so happened that on the original all the vocals are in one channel and you can’t even hear that there’s this enormous orchestra, so I was able to make that more pronounced on our edit, completely transforming the song without having to actively change much at all.”
E: I put a Nirvana track on my Bugged In mix a few years ago, and the guy from [obscure but reverered 60s psych band who later tried to sue Kurt Cobain’s outfit for nicking their name] Nirvana – Patrick Campbell-Lyons is his name – turned up at Trash one night, before the doors opened. And this guy was like, “I’m looking for Erol”, and I was like, slightly worried, ‘Er, OK, who shall I say is asking…’ [laughs]. He said, ‘My name’s Patrick, I’m from the band Nirvana. You used one of my records on your compilation…and I just wanted to thank you. I’m really happy that you’re bringing my music to a new generation’, that kind of thing…And we got talking, and he explained that when they made [1968 single] ‘Rainbow Chaser’ they had like only an hour, maybe two hours in the studio to play it. So they got in, set up, the band played, got the tape down and then they listened back and the tape-heads (or something) were out-of-phase….
R: It’s massively phased, that record.
E: And they were like ‘It’s fucked! What’s happened?!’ and they had to put it out because they weren’t able to re-record. But obviously the track is not meant to sound like that…
R: But it’s brilliant. The phasing is what makes it.\E: Without the phasing it would still have been a great song, but it wouldn’t have had that edge to it. It’s a shame that in the modern day you kind of miss that chance element. I’ve had it in the studio a few times – I still use tape and analogue equipment so you get these happy accidents – but much of the time in the digital domain there’s too much freedom and not enough limitation for you to stumble across anything, really.
R: And people don’t proceed in such a bold manner anymore. If you listen even to ‘Nathan Jones’ by The Supremes, when the phasing comes in on that it’s even more extreme than on ‘Rainbow Chaser’!
At what point did you decide to start using Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve as an outlet for remixing contemporary artists?
E: Well, I guess it was 2006. Wichita got in touch and said we’ve got this track and we want you to remix it – it was ‘Young Folks’ by Peter, Bjorn & John. I listened to it andl I loved the track butI thought, well, I don’t know what I’d do with this “as Erol”, if you know what I mean – that wasn’t really where my head was at. I thought this would be great for Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve….So I said to them [Wichita], we’ve got this thing called the Wizard’s Sleeve and we could do it for you that way, and they were like, ‘O-kay…’ – a bit unsure [laughs]. And I was like, trust us, we’ll do it right. So they sent us the parts, we uploaded them and did the mix in a day or something like that and sent it back and they were like ‘This is great, we love it!”
R: It was one of those happy accidents actually, because Erol sent the parts to me and I uploaded them at the wrong speed, which is why our remix is faster than the original. I always thought that it sounded right at that faster speed, but it was actually a mistake!
E: Sometimes as a producer I want to have what I call the 5-year-old’s facet – you’d want a 5-year-old with a fresh sensibility to hear it and connect with it, and I think ‘Young Folks’ was like that. Then I think after that it was Dust Galaxy. Around that time I stopped doing my Erol Alkan remixes in the vein of what I was known as, going for longer, Balearicy-kind of mixes, just different stuff.
R: I certainly think that Wizard’s Sleeve is influenced by the openness that you had during the whole Balearic era – lots of different types of records played alongside each other, records that didn’t necessarily have to be the same BPM – as long as it was good, it was played. I like that spirit.
It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to remix song-based records rather than dancefloor tunes…
E: That’s why we called it Re-Animations – ‘cos we wanted to give the songs a different life to what they already had. Which is I think is the greatest part of remixing anyway. Because they were quite song-based as well – more so than club-based anyway – I think we achieved that on a few. And I think that they’re also the ones with the strongest songs – so we’re still supporting the artist’s vision, you know what I mean? Putting it in a different light.
R: They’re pretty sympathetic remixes. We’re not saying, ‘Right, this is our sound, let’s stamp that all over the original song and it’s got to fit with that.’ It’s more about putting the song in a slightly different light but bring out its kind of latent strengths..
But then your latest remix, of Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Ulysses’, is quite a radical re-working. It’s also your most dancefloor-aimed and explicitly electronic Wizards’ Sleeve cut to date.
R: With the Franz one, they were running a competition on the internet, giving people the parts to do remixes. So we knew that there would be a lot of versions that were going to be based on the song. So we decided to go another way. We remixed it as a very uptempo hi-energy disco track at first; then we remixed it again, a version which we scrapped; then we remixed it again in a slightly different version. With each successive version we did we found there was less and less of the original track in. It was kind of mutating…
E: don’t want to use the word Balearic too much – but it kind of had that feel to it, and then that lyric, ‘I want to get high’ or whatever…So it kind of leaned towards that already. But I still think it enough of a kind of outsider music feel to it for it not to be a fully-fledged, you know, electro mix – you know, it sounds a bit unhinged, like if Wesley Willis tried to make a Chicken Lips record…[laughs]
R: It’s at 115bpm – it’s not exactky a banger or anything. But it’s great that it’s out now because people at Phonica have been asking for it on vinyl so that they can play it out.
E: It’s great when people outside the sphere of what you know will kind of take to something you’ve done. That’s the thing with Wizard’s Sleeve – there’ve been so many people, and a lot of DJs as well – DJs that I massively admire – say, you know, I love this remix I’m going to play it…And those are people that I really look up to, people like Ashley Beedle, Aeroplane and those guys…And there hearing something in it that relates to them.
R: I think the good thing about it is that the mixes wouldn’t have sounded the same or as complete if Erol or myself had done them on our own. Working together brings an extra element to it because we’re both strong-minded people and we both have strong ideas where we want to go. We’re both very single-minded, but together it creates a ‘third mind’ when we get together.
E: You can see what we did there…[laughs]
R: It’s quite hard, because we’ve both got our own stuff that we do, so it’s great that we can get together. A lot of the time we’re mainly solo artists..
E: I’m impossible to work with. I’ve been told on several occasions.
R: Earlier in my music past, during The Grid, I was pretty difficult to work with as well. I think that you just have to take it on board and do things in a slightly different way the next time.
E: One thing that I guess I’ve learned is that “ripping it up and starting again”, though it might seem like quite a radical gesture at the time, is as creative as finishing something…Being able to say, ‘This is good. It’s alright. I like it. But neither of us love it…’ I think that settling for being merely OK is a trait of a lot of modern music that we’re all aware of, sort of “alternative” guitar stuff – there’s a lot of stuff out there, but what of it do you really love? Do really give a shit?
R: We started the projects as fans, really, and as long as we can keep that element in it. I think that’s why we’ve turned down quite a lot of stuff, because we’ve got to love it, otherwise there’s no point in doing it.
Which leads me to the grindingly inevitable question…
E: Are we going to do original music?
E: Well, we’ve stopped remixing and we’ve stopped doing edits, so if we’re going to do anything we’re going to do something vaguely original . As long as it embodies the creative elements of what we’ve put into the remixes and the edits and such… but I don’t think either of us is going to start picking up acoustic guitars and start singing songs. We’ve already started on some things, we’ve already got some demos and things like that, ideas.
R: It should embody the best of the re-edits with the re-animations.
E: Again, it’s one of those things where we need to do it totally right. We don’t want it to be kitsch or a pastiche. We want to look at what we’ve done up to this point and say what are the favourite things that we’ve done? And we could say, well it’s this edit , that remix and hopefully we’ll make original music that is in line with those things. That’s the way we’re looking at it. More so than to rebel against what we’ve already done and just try to do something that’s worthy in it’s own way. It’s pretty interesting at the moment because there’s also quite a strong identity with it [Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve], I find it very easy to write and think of ideas. It’s so easy to find inspiration for it, like when you’re fresh to something. It’s different to if I had to sit there and say “Right, I have to make an Erol Alkan record” – there’d be so many questions that I’d be asking myself that it would probably turn out to be..I don’t know. Whereas sometimes when you’ve got an identity to hide behind, things just turn out fine.
You don’t seem to be DJing as much as you used to. Is it something your consciously avoiding?
R: We haven’t really avoided it…
E: Richard lives near Brighton, that’s why. Before, when he used to live in West London we would try to do like maybe four or five gigs a year. Because we used to do Catch and stuff, when we’d play for 8 hours at a time or whatever. But it’s harder now because I’ve got my schedule and I’ve got to do that stuff; Richard lives down south now…
R: Weirdly enough we’re not really asked to DJ a lot, we really aren’t – we don’t get hundreds of calls saying, ‘Do you want to come and DJ?’, partly because it’s more of a backroom than a mainroom thing…
E: Exactly. We did things like G-Mex which was really interesting and fun but when you’re DJing it falls into two camps – you can do the thing where if it’s a room half the size of this [i.e. a roughly 100-capacity room], a load of friends and people just into music, having drinks, socialising and dancing, where you’ll play one record after the other and it’s great fun and people dance or whatever, sing along to the big choruses. That’s great. And if you do a booked gig and it’s like billed as BEYOND THE WIZARD’S SLEEVE FEATURING EROL ALKAN AND RICHARD NORRIS and you walk out and there’s, like, 1000 people standing there waiting for me to play la big electro record or whatever, it’s just pointless…We also don’t DJ that much as well because, when we started, some fucking magazine revealed who we were when we wanted to keep it really anonymous. We wanted to just put out music, do DJ sets and literally do things where it was free for people to come in, we’d just DJ for £50 between us, or do it for drinks or whatever, and to have that complete detachment from our existence as a DJ every week, you know what I mean? Then this magazine decided to print a big picture of me and whack Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve next to it and that really broke my heart – because I really wanted this thing to have its own life and it kind of ruined it a bit….
Also some promoters like to bill it as something that it isn’t and stuff like that, so…we’ve been forced into a corner a little bit. Now, because there’s been music out there and a lot of kids are maybe aware of the other things that we do and have maybe heard a remix that we’ve done and are like ‘Oh, I really like that’, it’s opened their doors to something different and they’ve gone away and have done something different. There’s been stuff on forums and talking about Wizard’s Sleeve and how that’s got them into something else and that’s great, because that’s what we always wanted to do. So hopefully if we did a gig now hopefully those people would know what to expect and would know that it’s going to be good.
R: Ocasionally it does come together – like when we did the tent at Glastonbury.
E: Glastonbury’s kind of made for something like that. And it was really fun because it was just an amazing atmosphere and at the end it was pissing it down with rain so we played ‘Bring My Sunshine’ by Morcambe & Wise and it all made sense. That’s what I’ve always loved about the club experience – the unity.
Do you feel an affinity with any other musicians and labels out there? I’m thinking of people like Whatever We Want and Thomas Bullock…
E: Yeah, I’m totally envious of Thomas – his musical knowledge, his record collection is fucking superb. I speak to him quite a lot because I’m a fan of Rub N Tug and Map of Africa and a lot of what he does; and funnily enough he’s a fan of Wizard’s Sleeve as well. I know we’ve slightly been put into the nu-discoey thing a little bit – I found we’d been put on some compilation called Future Disco or something, which made me laugh. But with that “scene”, if you can call it that, I think because there’s so many different sides to it, and there’s not so much hype around it, it appeals to a different audience. You get the sense that if the record’s good, you’ll be fine, it’s all going to be OK.
R: We play in Sweden a lot and that’s quite interesting because you can play there – there’s a lot of people like Studio, Prins Thomas and those guys coming out of Scandinavia – and you can be playing the obscurest freakbeat single and people will come up to you and know exactly what it is, which is just amazing.
Richard, what was you inititation into psychedelia?
Probably when I was about 17. I was basically based in St Albans and there was this little local label started by two people called Phil and Cali, called Bam Caruso. Phil and Cali were both record collectors and both graphic designers as well – Cali went on to become Island Records’ main re-issue designer. I would sit there all day just making tapes – he probably had something like 40,000 records, he’d moved house because his record collection was getting too big. So it was better than going to university, really. I was mainly just a soulboy before that so it seemed there was something about these records that was a bit wrong, a bit wonky…[laughs]
Do you feel like there’s more of an appetite and awareness – in particular among young people – for psychedelia now than there has been before?
R: I think it just comes around in circles. I used to do a club in Liverpool in about 1986 called The Hangout and I was playing the same records then that I was playing now, really…[laughs] And that was 23 years ago. Bam Caruso was just before acid house – that brought about a real feeling of openness and just a very up and positive approach. And after a few years of very monochromatic indie the possibilties seemed to be wier and more plentiful – more colour, more experimentation..Thought it’s funny, the fact that Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes were the big records of last year – I mean, three or four years ago those records might not have sold more than 2000 copies. It’s a good thing.
Do you feel the internet has been a positive influence on the pursuit and release of psychedelic records?
R: When we were doing the Bam Caruso label there was no internet and we got to the point where we actually thought, ‘We’ve got all the psychedelic records!’ We were so trainspottery about it we thought, well, we must have done it. But then with the internet you realize there’s stuff from like Turkey, Hungary, whatever – it’s actually endless.
Jon Savage wrote the sleevenotes for the Reanimations CD. How did that come about?
E: You know him, don’t you Richard. He’s a mate of yours…
R: I used to have a magazine called Strange Things Are Happening years ago, and he used to write for that.
E: He just really likes the edits.
R: And he keeps sending CDs in the post, he’s probably sent me 20 in the last few months. I haven’t dared send him a CD back yet..
E: Really? [laughs] I send him CDs…
R: It’s nice that in the sleevenotes he talks about psychedelia in a much broader sense than just the retro thing.
E: He recognises that it isn’t that kind of Austin Powers psychedelia.
One of the most interesting things about “psychedelic” records is that they’re not always conceived in that spirit. The psychedelic quality is conferred by a change of context or era…
R: Also some of the 60s records that I really like probably at the time were probably looked upon as cash-ins or exploitation – say, The Monkees or something, but we haven’t got the context of that time, so all’s that left is the music.
E: One thing about making music now is you can’t allow yourself to be too buffeted…You can’t allow other people to push you into a corner and make you restrict yourself. You’ve got to look at your record and think, ‘Will I still want to listen to this in ten years’ time?’