Listening with Norm

A conversation about collaborative spaces, world-building, and listening experiences 

Published June 16, 2023
Last week, USURPATOR joined Norm O’Hagan in Listening Labs. Norm is a creative explorer, musician, artist, co-founder of Teal Process, and co-runner of The Factory, where Listening Labs is held.

We talk about collaborative spaces, imaginative world-building, and interactive listening experiences. You can follow Norm on Instagram, check out Listening Labs, or Teal Process.

You can listen to an extended version of our conversation on Spotify.

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USURPATOR: I planned to introduce you as a musician, artist, Concept Composer, and creative explorer. I don't know if those are all titles that you would agree with, or how else you would define your roles in your work.

NORM: Creative Explorer is definitely the root of all of this. Concept Composer is the raw title that we at Teal Process came up with, going between a lot of different creative directions. Musician is a tricky one. I started making music probably three years ago. It feels like I had to figure out at some point that, “Yes, I do want to be a musician.” It's nice hearing other people recognize that, and then it feels more real.

U: I guess I should probably say we're in the Listening Lab right now. So, Listening Labs is in The Factory?

N: Yes, The Factory is the host of Listening Labs. We've had this space for about two years. I moved out to New York in 2020, and it turned out to be the beginning of the pandemic. Initially, the game plan was to get a studio space. So first, we made The Playground, where we live, a studio space. About a year later, we had a sewing machine that was in a cardboard box for six months that we just didn't have any space to put out in our apartment. We just needed a space to put tools and make stations for this infrastructure. That sounded like a factory, so we found a space we could use as a factory. TBD on how much longer it goes for.

U: That was going to be one of my questions. You and I were speaking recently and you said that you guys are open to letting things die. When I was talking to Yatú a few days ago, he was telling me about how this used to be the HQ for Campus Complex before it was Listening Labs. Now you're transitioning out of that space and into a new one. How do you guys know when a space has fulfilled the purpose you set out for?

N: When we first moved into the factory, we would come and it would be a big empty room with white walls. We thought it needed some life. We need to bring people in, so the space can start to get some life into it. And then if that life leaves it, and hasn't been there for a while, then that's a sign that it doesn't have as much purpose as it used to.

I think we knew a lot of the spaces that Teal makes, or a lot of ways that we use space, leans more towards education and learning. I like blending, working, and learning. This space symbolizes a learning space and is a bit of an experimentation place.

U: Now the space is Listening Labs. How long ago did you guys start it?

N: Yatú has been thinking about Listening Labs for a minute, maybe six months. He's been thinking about it as a space for events where people go solely to appreciate the music, or just be there to listen to it. Clubs can be that, but going out is more associated with partying as opposed to just the music, right?

U: I wanted to ask you about the difference between music as an isolated experience contrasted by a shared experience. We already have these existing constructs of when music is shared versus when we're listening to it alone. If you're going to an album listening party, listening through headphones, at a club, a dinner party, those are very different vibes. I was wondering what kind of vibe you guys are trying to evoke here?

N: I mean, all the above. Listening Labs is open-ended in the sense of whatever type of listening you want to do. There's kind of a fine line between listening and playing. I've been trying to find ways to connect the different pieces of audio equipment that we have in order to merge the two.

The future state of Listening Labs is everything being hooked into one big tower and everyone can play with the knobs of the audio that's coming out, or there could be a vinyl player coming in, mics, guitars, or the organ could all be inputs. It's all hooked into the system and then coming out as an output that everyone can hear. Right now we’ve got a lot of feedback. It can be a pretty chaotic environment sometimes, which can also be fun. In regards to Listening Labs, we’re trying to find a way to connect all of these different types of ways of listening. I would say the one that we haven't explored a ton yet is the solely personal, like silent disco vibes. We can go to experience those, they pop up in parts in New York. We're trying to use Listening Labs for sound experiences that we don't get to do much.

U: Is it meant to create a venue for collaborative music creation that people play together? Or moreso a platform for one person playing their music for people to listen to it?

N: Yeah, so far, it's more to bring folks together and then see what they want to do. There's a lot of facilitation that needs to happen because there's a lot of different levels of comfortability that people have, even just approaching an instrument or knowing how to ask about using types of equipment. If a person is looking like they want to play on the organ, but we're jamming from the CD-J right now, how can we transition to it? There's a lot of music that fits together in some way.

U: Do you do a Lab session every day or just as needed?

N: We went every day for maybe the first 15 days or so. I think we've only been doing Listening Labs for 20 days. It was kind of a call back to when we did the first studio space in 2018, we had a studio that we went to every day for 30 days. For me, it's been very grounding to be going to the Listening Labs because all I have to do is walk in, select the record, put it on, listen for a little bit, and then I can go about the rest of my day. But sometimes I'll come in and I'll just start wanting to jam. The purpose of it is to get back in tune with music in general, the past month I hadn't been able to—I didn't really have any instruments since we were doing a bit of traveling. I’m trying to get back in touch with the artist side in the role of Artist-Founder. If we go too long on the Founder side without kind of getting in touch with the Artist, then it's very easy to feel a little lost.

U: I was wondering if you have any intentions to experiment with how people are encountering music, how they're listening to it, how you want to package it in this space?

N: Yeah, I've been questioning: what is an album, and why? What is the EP? What's a single? You know, on Spotify it'll say it’s a single but if you click on it there are like, three songs. This structure of how the music world has started packaging it together almost feels like it's setting expectations for what you're about to listen to. A demo is super rough, it's just the essence of the song. I think the definition of an album was a blank white book, a photo album is a blank book that you would put photos in. It's kind of this blank canvas.

My artist name is Wadeful. I've been slowly working on its realm of music. I think of it as this world, and there's four areas in the world. There's the forest, the ethereal, the ocean, and the clouds. Last year I made a demo tape called Solemn Autumn, and that took place in the forest, and now I'm in the ocean. I'm trying to figure out the type of sound that I want to make here in the ocean. The world in general for Wadeful is called Won't You Build This World With Me. At some point, I want to be bringing in others to create the sounds the world is going to be developing with. It feels like there could be more ways that folks experience that world. Right now, we're in the Listening Lab, but it’s like the Lab is listening to us. So it kind of goes both ways.

U: People just need a platform to be able to play around with these things. So, what’s involved in your guys' setup here, and what parts do you feel are missing, or what parts do you want people to bring in?

N: Any and all instruments are welcome. I have a three year old niece now, and she’ll start using something and hitting it on something else, and my mom will be like, “That's not a toy.” But what makes it not a toy? I feel like that's the same with instruments. Everything's an instrument, like percussion is just hitting something. Something we need to add to Listening Labs is to start getting the jargon of all the audio equipment, because it can feel pretty daunting. We got a couple of speaker setups, mics, a record player, we’ve got this drum box and then we got the CD-J, and then we have the organ that I found at a thrift store. That was actually the first object that was put into The Factory. I've been trying to record some stuff on the organ. I was also trying to use a mic to record the general ambiance of whatever is happening.

U: I was going to ask you about field recordings, since this place has such great ambience. It's so big here and there are so many windows, I assume you guys have to keep them open all summer, which changes the sound of everything.

N: Right, the ambiance of the immediate environment is essentially becoming a part of everything that's going on in here. It's a much more industrial area, we hear a lot of trucks.

And the birds are great, they're very loud. It definitely becomes a part of the ambiance.

U: When I was a kid, in the bedroom that I still have at my mother's house, it's really close to a sawmill. I can't describe it, and it took me years to figure this out. I would always sleep with my window open, and I had no idea what this beautiful ambient sound was. It sounds so ethereal and like nothing else I've ever heard in my life. I didn't know if this was God speaking to me or just something that was happening far away that I couldn't figure out. After years of hearing this, I realized that it was the sound of the mill that I was hearing, and that it had changed over the course of the distance from the mill to my window. It's still my favorite ambient music and I'm searching for it everywhere I go.

N: No way, someone's got to have some field recordings. There's got to be a place where people are making sound requests. Put a bounty out for it.

U: I was wondering how you want your music to be heard— if you have any preferences around how it’s curated?

N: Excellent question. Solemn Autumn was a lot of sad and slow songs on an acoustic guitar, so that feels like it needs a more intimate audience if it was going to be played live, a solo listening on headphones experience. I actually did an experiment with some loops that I had made about a year ago. As I said, one of the areas is the clouds. So I made loops for every stage of going on a plane— when you’re aboard, when you're sitting there, when you start taxiing, and then you go to take off, and you're up in the air. For all of those phases, I had made a little looper and I set a loop to each phase, and then I could tell it when to continue on to the next phase. To me, it's like making a soundtrack for your life, you know? That would be wonderful if I could be making soundtracks for people's lives.

U: Do you think that a song is an Artifact or an Experiment?

N: Well, I think a song is a form. It's a form of an idea. We have the funnel of Concept > Experiment > Artifact. It can be all of the above. A song could be a little five second brew, and I could call that a song and no one can tell me that's not a song.

U: In reference to what you were saying earlier about the concept of a demo: there's a demo versus a song, a live version versus a mix or a mastering. These can be attached to the stages of Concept to Experiment, into Artifact. An album is definitely supposed to be an artifact, while a demo is a Concept. But, people can also love concepts, like with Jai Paul. People love his leaked demo, and I don't even think they really want it to be changed anymore. It's scratch vocals, you can barely hear him singing or what he's saying half the time. You can tell that it wasn’t a finished project. But I do think that's what people like about it, it's part of the charm. It's sad that's how it ended up working out, but the silver lining is that people get so much joy out of it. It's inspiring to see something do so well and people have so much love for something that wasn’t a finished project.

So in your own process, you were telling me about how you did demos. Where do you see this going in the future? Do you enjoy doing demos? Do you enjoy this aspect of the process and showing its evolution?

N: Yeah, in terms of showing the process, we love documentation in general. We love that form of art. Someday, hopefully soon, I would love to be living in a Listening Labs type of space. So there's not that much barrier between listening, making music, recording, and playing around with it. The goal is to be trying to score films or games for friends, and engage on those levels of creative activity. I'm curious to kind of see how that changes the process. I'd love to get to witness that at some point.

U: You said that you're in the ocean now. So what does that mean, in terms of the world you’re building?

N: Yeah, there are also characters. There's one character in each of the areas. In the ocean, there's Knaut, so it's nautical combined with knots. The world is a developing story and Knaut is currently lost in the ocean. The compass on their sailboat stopped working, but we don't know why yet. And then there's Bewill in the forest, short for bewilderness. Bewill has just gone into the ocean looking for Knaut. To me, it’s this phase of life I'm living in the ocean. I'm just mapping everything that's happening within it. When I was in the forest, it burned down at one point, then entered into a recovery phase. I'd say the story of the ocean is still being figured out, but something I came to yesterday as I was chatting with our friend Tania, she was bringing up the idea of dyeing my hair. I was thinking about how I could dye my hair gray, then a potential name for this demo tape could be Into The Fog. It's the mysteriousness of the ocean.

U: I like that. So, it's the forest, the ocean and the clouds and the…

N: The ethereal. The ethereal is in the center. You could see it as being in the center of the forest. It's like a source of energy, but no one really knows what's going on.

U: How did you map out these four places in your expanding universe?

N: I did a little doodle one day and mapped them out. It felt like there should be some sort of grounding areas and they should be tied to elements to some degree, or different biomes. I was visiting with family when I drew it out, using crayons for those couple of days where I was hanging out with my niece and doing sidewalk chalk. A lot of that energy. I definitely see Wadeful as a return to childhood. I just enjoy the vibe of being a kid all the time.

U: I mean, there's this thing about being a child. It's like you have a wound or a fissure that's always open to the world that keeps you imaginative, which scabs over with time. This childish imagination where you allow yourself to experience emotions to their fullest extent. When you're a kid, and you're scared at night, you sit there and stay up all night and sit with the terror instead of trying to distract or soothe yourself. You're sitting in the feeling. At the time, it's just experiencing the world to its fullest extent, which we’ve learned to avoid in order to circumvent bad feelings.

N: When you put it that way, it's like you're not trying to help yourself. A friend had once told me the phrase “mental first-aid.” When we're a kid, we don't really know how to perform mental first-aid.

U: How's it going in your ocean project thus far?

N: It's good. It's going. It's trying to find itself. I've been finding that I more naturally make sad and slow songs. I’ve found music as my outlet for that. That's where it can all channel out to. If folks listen to it, they're like, “Whoa, are you okay? Is everything good?”

It's a funny thing though, as I’m still trying to figure out how to play all these instruments. It's actually easier for me to make something that sounds good when it’s slow, as opposed to being able to go really fast. I've been trying to focus on being able to go a little faster so that I can get a little bit more upbeat. In terms of the songwriting aspect, of what I’m writing about, that's a tricky one. It feels like it's still a little similar to Solemn Autumn. But maybe that's okay. They're all slight evolutions of each other.

U: Is this something that you find you can figure out in the Listening Lab, or does it have to be a solitary experience?

N: I think both, it needs both. I think that's what I was missing with Solemn Autumn. It was much more of a solitary experience. We just had our friend Cory in the Lab, they were playing the organ and I had hooked my acoustic guitar up to the amp. I realized that these two instruments go really well together. It felt like an evolution of some of the Solomon Autumn sounds I had that were just the guitar. I think that's needed. I don't know if it's controlled chaos, or maybe just pure chaos is needed for the sound experimentation. It brings an element of collaboration into it as well, which can be hard. You've got to find people that you vibe with on a musical level and that's when the jams just flow.

U: It feels very exposing, going back to how you guys show your process. I really admire it because I feel so shy and so private until I find that I have a finished product. I find it hard to put forth parts of myself that I don't feel are ready to show. I want it to be the best representation of my idea. What you guys achieve in your process is showing how the final product is never a total mirror to the original idea that you have. It's extremely rare, if ever possible, that you are able to accurately bring something into the world in the exact way that you envisioned it. That's not really how creativity works. But through your guys' process, you’re able to see what the original idea was, how it changed through the material or creative constraints, how it shaped the process and turned it into something different. But you can still access that very first point of what it was supposed to be. So, do you do this with your music at all?

N: Yeah, for sure. The thing I've been thinking lately is how Version Zero is actually Version One. There's always some kind of rawness or purity to the V0. Then when you try to redesign it into V1, it sometimes loses what it had. It's tricky because you never know which way it's going to go. Sharing the process is a hard hill to get over, initially. It’s hard being that vulnerable.

U: I feel like when we're listening to an album, we have these constructs in our brain of what an album is, what to expect, and it puts music into this box through which we can consume it. I was wondering if you have any ideas about that, or if you have any creative ways that you want to present your music? This is one of them, I guess, The Lab.

N: Yeah, I have most of my music on my USB, so I'll put it into the CD-J, and throw some loops on and it's nice to see how I feel when I'm playing this sound that I made yesterday for five or six people. What are their immediate reactions to it? How does it feel in this space? I've been realizing that, with music, it's mostly about the moment. The moment that you're listening to it, or the moment that you're making it. Music is made out of time. It's all about time, in that sense. I don't know if I'll wind up being like, okay, here's the album. What I do know is it'll only be on a USB, distributed to USB Club. But that's kind of the only thing that I do know. I don't know what form it will take. I don't know if I'll make a whole new experience to be able to listen to it.

U: Is there anything that you want to tell the people about where to find you? About your work you'd like them to see?

N: You should definitely follow Listening.Labs on Instagram. For Wadeful, I have a personal IG that will become where Wadeful is. I changed the name of that to Days We Got Away because that was what I was going to call the demo tape of the ocean. I've now had like, four potential names for it. Then there’s Teal.Labs on IG. Go explore from there.

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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