How would you best describe what you do to the uninitiated?
I’m a funk, soul, R&B sax and flute player, who dabbles in jazz.
Where would you say you are with regard to your career right now?
This question is the real reason it has taken me so long to finally
complete this interview, because the answer kept changing.
I moved to Hamburg in Germany in November 2018, having lived and worked in London all of my adult life. I was gigging quite a bit in the UK, on a semi-professional basis, mostly with my own bands, The Gene Drayton Unit and The Fantastics, but also freelancing, including gigs with Rhoda Dakar, The Getup and Crowd Company.
2019 was a tough year for me, Hamburg is a music city, but it’s full of shit-hot saxophone players, all of whom are competing for the same gigs. And I’m new in town, with no opportunity to be heard. So I focused on building a studio at home, to concentrate on writing and production, so that I could get my music heard that way. I have appeared on four records already released in 2020. I released a track on Bandcamp under the name The Towerlane Orchestra a few weeks ago. Initially, I was going to call it “Theme from ‘The Virus’”, but I thought that was a bit negative, so I retitled it “Mission To Vega”, because being able to see the stars is one of the positive things to come out of the Corona situation.
My first record EVER under my own name (“LISBON” by markpaulnorton) was released on 12 June on MJDC Records..
The Fantastics album, “TAKE A SHOT” is scheduled for release on BBE Records later this year, with some singles being released from it before that and another label has asked me to do a solo album. I am also developing material with a guitarist here in Hamburg, so I’m very busy. If it wasn’t for the Corona pandemic, I would have said that 2020 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for me, musically.
Who would you say has been your biggest inspiration (musically or
There’s a list of people that have inspired me, in various ways:
My Dad, Stan, was a passionate music fan and record collector and my earliest memories are of being a toddler, surrounded by his records, playing them on an old auto-change turntable.
Bill Richardson was the head of music at my secondary school and he encouraged me to focus on my instrument, when I really wanted to do sport and hang out with girls rather than practice the clarinet. Joining the school big band meant that I got to play saxophone AND hang out with girls, so it was a win-win in the end! John Stevenson was his successor, a much younger man, with a passion for soul and jazz-rock, who played Hammond organ. It’s his fault I’m hooked on the sound of the Hammond. I did my first proper gigs with him, his mates were the rhythm section and me and some other kids from school were the horn section. Great experience for us all. Andy Mackay of Roxy Music and Roy Wood were the players that made me decide I wanted to be a sax player.
King Curtis and Gerry Mulligan are my sax heroes, but I also love
Stanley Turrentine, Junior Walker and Grover Washington Jr.
Is there anyone amongst your influences that you think would
surprise people and why?
I imagine that seeing Andy Mackay and Roy Wood in my list would
surprise people as I’m largely perceived as a black music enthusiast.
What are you most proud of?
That’s a tough one. The fact that I’m having any sort of success at this stage of my life is probably the best answer.
I’m proud of all of the work that I’ve done with The GDU and The
Fantastics and it still totally fills me with joy whenever I hear a track that I’ve written played on the radio.
In the quest to get the music ‘out there’ have you ever done or
agreed to anything you’ve later regretted?
Apparently, I had a reputation as a bit of a tough person to deal with when I was in charge of getting gigs for the GDU; its fair to say that I’ve never had cause to regret any of the decisions I made.
What’s the most ridiculous request that’s been asked of you/the
Sadly, the most ridiculous request continues to come up: can the band do a gig for 250 quid? Or worse: “We can’t offer any cash, but think of the exposure”.
Oh, one night, I was playing with a ten-piece soul band, you know, Hammond organ, 4 piece horn section etc. A bloke came up and asked the singer if we knew anything from “Grease”.
What do you think is the secret to a good working relationship
It boils down to one thing: respect. Whether that’s recognising the
contribution that somebody makes musically, or the fact that he always gives you a lift home after the gig, or being aware that somebody isn’t well. It’s like any relationship, except that you potentially have to sustain 3 or four or seven or ten relationships simultaneously.
How do you make the balance between music and personal
I’ve missed a few family events in the past because I had gigs
(weddings etc), but I have been very fortunate in that my girlfriend and the rest of my family are all very understanding of what I do. I have always been a musician, and everybody in my life knows the importance of music in my life, so for the greater part, they let me get on with it.
In light of the internet and downloading do you feel that fans are
missing out on the record buying discovery/experience?
As well as being a musician, I am a passionate music collector and DJ, a dyed-in-the-wool vinyl man, so I do think people are missing out. The abiding culture in the 21st century is moving away from ownership of things, but I’m a collector, hoarder, call it what you will: I like stuff!
That said, I have moved a house a few times in the last few years and all that “stuff” has made it quite exhausting and expensive!
Do you think that success is your motivation and do you have a
preset gameplan for your music/the band?
I guess if success was my only motivation, I’d have given up a long time ago, but of course, that depends on your measurement of success. Music hasn’t made me wealthy, but it has enriched my life and the music I make has enriched other people’s lives, and that is my primary motivation - to make people happy and to make the world a nicer place to live in.
DJ’s are now as famous as a lot of the bands they play, what are
your views on this and do you think it’s deserved?
As a DJ myself, I appreciate the craft that goes into the job, but I’m sure that most DJs would admit that if they could play an instrument live and get the same reaction that they do from playing records, they’d rather do that.
To date, what has been your most memorable gig (either as a
performer or as a fan)?
The gig that immediately springs to mind is the Gene Drayton Unit’s performance at the Rhythms of the World Festival, in Hitchin, back in 2007. It’s the biggest crowd we ever played to. Two weeks before the gig, I broke my finger in a zipline accident and I was told that I might never play again. Thanks to a good surgeon, some very strong painkillers and a comprehensive adjustment in my playing technique (i.e. not using the broken finger!), I got through the show without a hitch, and when the 30,000 strong crowd sang along with our tune “Cake
Shop”, I literally cried. Playing with the legendary Reuben Wilson at St Paul Soul Jazz Festival in 2012 was pretty special too. It’s my favourite festival anyway and to be in his band for that show was a dream come true.
How do you overcome pre-gig nerves (if you get them)?
I do get a bit jittery before a gig and the only way to deal with it is to get on stage and play. I’m usually okay by the end of the first song, once I know how it sounds and what sort of audience we are playing to. The reaction of the audience is hugely important to me as a performer, there is nothing worse than playing to a crowd that doesn’t look like they’re enjoying themselves.
When did you last write something?
I write every day. I am very lucky that music is now my job as well as my passion.
Have you ever reached a point where you’ve thought about
throwing the towel in and walking away (and if so, what persuaded
I think giving up music is the last thing I would ever do. I thought about selling my records at one time (dark and desperate times they were, believe me), but I’d never give up playing my instruments.
What are your views on electronics muscling in and replacing live
instuments during recording?
I’m extremely grateful that I have pretty much every instrument you can think of at my fingertips, in my own little studio. I can’t play the guitar, but I do have good piano keyboard skills and also have a wind controller, (like an electronic sax) that can trigger all the digital sounds. It’s always better if I can get other people to play the instruments that I can’t, of course. On my single, I wrote and arranged the track, then sent it off to the bass player (Raydn Hunter from The Fantastics! and GDU) and the drummer/percussionist (Mark Claydon of the Getup and GDU)
to record their parts. Electronics in music is totally acceptable, these days. I wouldn’t have said that in the Eighties though. Technology has come a long way!
Lastly, thank you for your time. What made you agree to answer
I was very flattered to be asked. The delay wasn’t reluctance, I promise!