Intervista a Hugo Race con Massimiliano Larocca (English)

Hugo Race playing in Zielona Góra, Poland, May 2006. Photo by Grzegorz Koprowicz via Wikipedia

Qualche anno fa per un periodo ho frequentato il circolo ARCI Btomic nella mia città, un circolo fondato da miei amici, che non esiste più. In quel circolo avvenivano un sacco di cose interessanti e tra le altre cose spesso c’erano concerti molto belli. Mi avevano chiesto di fare delle interviste agli artisti, che venivano pubblicate su una zine del circolo (Btomiczine) che non sono più riuscita a trovare su internet. Ora, senza un perché, ho deciso di pubblicarle qui, per non lasciarle morire tra le pieghe del mio hard disk.

Non ho più le date precise delle interviste ma sono state fatte in un arco di tempo che va dal 2013 al 2015. Questa l’ho fatta a Hugo Race, artista dalla voce ipnotica con una storia di progetti bellissimi a partire da Birthday Party, Bad Seeds, Wreckery, Sepiatone e negli ultimi anni Fatalists, con cui ha appena pubblicato un nuovo disco con Santeria Records, Once Upon A Time In Italy.

Nei Fatalists ci sono membri dei Sacri Cuori e all’intervista ha partecipato anche Massimiliano Larocca. Per un po’ di tempo mi sono detta che le avrei tradotte in italiano, ma sono lunghe e il tempo latita, così le pubblico come sono.

L’esperienza è stata molto bella e mi ha fatto capire ancora di più quanto mi piace ascoltare le storie delle persone.

LR=Laura Rescio HR=Hugo Race ML=Massimiliano Larocca

LR: You seem to have a solid relationship with Italy, would you like to expand a bit on that?

HR: I have a relationship with Italy, it’s true. Ghost Rider was made in Sicily. I love the South of Italy. The North is interesting too, it’s just that in the South there’s fewer people, there’s a sense of space and freedom, although it’s not really a place of great freedom. It’s quite a contradiction. I think Italy is a country of great paradoxes. I don’t think there’s any other place I know that has quite this self-contradictory quality to it like Italy. There’s sorts of extremes in beauty and ugliness, inspiration and banality, this great tension between opposite ideas… you see it in little ways, like the Italian Communist party, it’s a very strange story from the perspective of people of other countries. But it says a lot about idealism, the fact that it even existed.

Italy is very cynical and very idealistic at the same time. People believe in philosophical or political concepts that people don’t take seriously in a country like Australia, which is kind of a more shallow reality with less contradictions, less paradoxes. Australia is all about practicality, it’s a really pragmatic society. Australia mistrusts philosophy, it mistrusts ideals, it mistrusts religion, in a certain sense. It doesn’t really believe in anything, except survival of the fittest. A little bit like America, in that sense. Very competitive. You get things done by any means necessary, and the more simple and the more direct solution you have to a problem is the first solution.

Still, lots of Italian people migrated to Australia and feel very much at home there. One of the people I work with in Melbourne in music is an Italian painter from Campobasso, Michelangelo Russo. He moved to Australia twenty years ago and he really has no intention of ever coming back to Italy, which I find really strange, but we have different ways of looking at things…

LR: Yes, well, you have lived practically everywhere around the world…

HR: Well, not everywhere…

LR: …and now you’re living in Australia again.

HR: Yeah, I don’t know how long for. The way I am, nothing is definite. I’m exactly the kind of personality that can’t make clear decisions about anything because everything to me is just a sea of options, or possibilities, or probabilities. The idea of the Fatalists sort of comes from this way of looking at things. It’s not that things will happen anyway, like you don’t have to make any effort or do anything. I don’t believe that at all. I just think that we try and do things the best we can, and usually things turn out completely different from what we had anticipated, so…

I never planned to live in Italy, I never planned to spend so much time in this country, it was kind of a natural evolution of things that were going on. But Michelangelo – he’s one of my best mates – he made a very clear decision: I’m gonna go to Australia, I’m gonna live there and I’m never coming back to Italy. I joke with him about it all the time. While I’m here I send him photographs of beautiful things, make him envious… he’s one of my main musical collaborators. He’s an interesting musician because he’s completely untrained; he’s a trained painter, so what he does with me musically is he adds sound, he kind of creates instruments and creates sounds… the only instrument he plays is the blues harmonica.

LR: Does he create his own instruments?

HR: Yeah, with electronics… mostly with electronics, but he’s also created electro-acoustical instruments. He studied architecture so he can put together boxes and wires and things that resonate and make sound, we play around with these kinds of things. When I travel around Italy, which I do a lot because I play quite a lot of concerts every year, I’m always amazed by the natural beauty, it’s just a very beautiful place. There’s very ugly spots, but… Sacri Cuori came and did a tour in Australia last year and so I drove them to Adelaide and Sydney and a bit up the North coast beyond Sydney and they were really surprised by how deadly boring the landscape is. I mean, you drive for a thousand kilometres and nothing really changes. There’s just a few small towns with basically the same industrial food provided by the same corporate franchise.

There are beautiful things in Australia but you have to make a big effort to go and appreciate them. In the psyche of the country there’s this kind of emptiness. It reflects the landscape and the landscape reflects it back, whereas in a country like Italy you have constant variations of regions and landscape and dialect and light and it’s rich with content. In Australia the emptiness makes people feel very small and empty, in a way, while in Italy people feel oppressed by their history and incapable of changing anything because to change anything you have to take on thousands of years of aggregated culture. Italy and Australia are two extremes. A lot of the Italians who moved to Australia in the 50s wanted that. They wanted to relax.

LR: Can you tell me about your collaborations with Italian bands, like Sacri cuori? You have done a lot of music with Italians, how did you get to do that? Just because you lived in Italy?

HR: Before I first started playing in Italy the common perception of musicians abroad was that it was very difficult to go there and make music, because the system is a little impenetrable and by the system I mean how you create contacts with people, how you get connected to clubs and agencies, and from a working musician’s point of view, how you put the whole puzzle together, for example countries like Holland and Germany have proven to be very accomodating for professional musicians to play there and do things, and Italy’s proven to be extremely difficult. Language barrier, cultural differences… it’s not that Italy was off the map, it was just that it was too complicated.

The only band I knew that had managed to really tour in Italy was Died Pretty, who had quite a success in the 90’s… they also did well in France… that was the only band that I was aware of that could actually do this kind of tours… for everyone else it was… “no, that’s too difficult”. It was easier to go to Scandinavia, France, or Greece. So Italy had a certain mystery about it. I guess I was lucky, because I met someone who worked as my manager in the early 90s and through him I met a lot of other musicians and things just started to snowball and to gather momentum and I started to learn to speak a little bit of Italian so that it was possible to communicate better… but I had a previous reason to pursue all this, because my first wife was Italian and I met her in Australia when I was a teenager, so I obviously knew her family quite well and I was already accustomed to this strange parallel world. It was really a series of lucky coincidences or, from a fatalistic point of view, it was destiny: because of something I did wrong in a previous life I was punished with being put in Italy for 20 years of this life.

LR: You have a lot of dates now, so it must be a lot of work!

HR: Well, I do enjoy it, it’s really hard work but I do enjoy touring in Italy more than anywhere else. I like Eastern Europe a lot because it’s very different, very interesting to see all of that, although it’s not so different as it used to be. I was in Poland recently and there’s a huge cultural shift going on there as a lot of capital starts to get thrown around and the country becomes corporatized… that’s what you see at first sight, but when you go a bit deeper and you meet people you find out that there’s still a completely unique way of looking at the world. I think it’s actually true about ex-Jugoslavia and the Czech Republic and Poland and Hungary and Bulgaria and Romania and all of these countries where I do go and perform and I always find that they’re very interesting, although not as confronting as they used to be in the 90s, when it was quite a shock to deal with such a different parallel universe. Compared to Italy it was another planet.

LR: What about other Eastern countries, do you know Russia?

HR: No, I don’t know Russia, I haven’t been there yet and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that I will, we were trying to set up a concert in Kiev in Ukraine since about 5 years… now they’ve got really bad things happening there so that’s not going to work out but [ed. this was around 2015 I think] actually even 5 years ago when my Polish agent was trying to set up the show and we’d made dates and he said no, no, it’s not going to work and I’d always asked him why and he said: “You wouldn’t understand, it’s political”. Russia is scary and it’s always been like that, even in the 17th century. I met a fortune teller once, a guru, who told me that part of my destiny in this life is to go to Russia. So eventually I will. Or he might have been wrong.

LR: Tell me about your work with Sacri cuori. Do you perform regularly with them?

HR: The Fatalists essentially are me and Sacri cuori. That project started before Sacri cuori became Sacri cuori, so I knew the musicians before they had formed this incarnation of their band, so going back maybe seven or eight years. I met them through the Blues and Roots festival, Strade Blu, I was invited there to perform and I went back a few times. One of the reasons was that I was living in Sicily then. The best things in music happen without trying very hard. In music you need to meet people who make sense with you musically and personally and you need to meet them in the right place at the right time. I was just really lucky to meet them because I know a lot of others who’d dream about that kind of opportunity and there’s no way that you can organize it, to force this kind of thing to happen. These things just happen.

I mean, when I first started playing with Antonio Gramentieri we only did it for fun and we just did some live shows here and there, it wasn’t a band, Sacri cuori didn’t exist, the Fatalists didn’t exist, we just had the opportunity to do some live shows and we did them and gradually Antonio was forming a nucleus of great musicians around him… it took him some years to do that and the fruit of this is this band, Sacri cuori, where all of the musical elements fuse together and make something which is uniquely Italian but hasn’t really been heard in Italy in quite this form before, not that I’m aware of… they seem quite original to me. They’re doing something with really traditional roots, so it echoes the liscio and all of these things they draw on but they do it with a modern mentality… we thought we’d just do one record, and now we’ve done sort of three records, because there’s the new one that’s come out right now but it’s half a record…

I think we’ve influenced each other, I think I’ve been influenced by Sacri cuori and that shaped a lot of the Fatalists’ music and I think that they’ve been kind of changed a little bit by the process of working with me, it kind of goes both ways… but of course you’re not really aware of these things when you’re doing them, it’s only when you look back that you see this. When you’re doing things, you’re doing them usually for other reasons. Musicians’ lives are very strange, aren’t they, Max? A lot of things in music happen by accident, you meet people accidentally and great friendships form and great collaborations form… and at the same time someone may approach you and say “there’s somebody you should really work with, you should work with this producer”, or something like that…

ML: What you mean is that you cannot separate the musical relationship from the human relationship. You can’t work with sessionmen. You need a strong human connection and you can feel it in the music.

HR: You just made a record with Sacri cuori and they’re kind of like your sessionmen, but it’s different because you’ve known them for quite a few years so you already have a personal relationship with this crew of people… it’s not like when you’ve got a mainstream artist and they have a producer assigned to them by a record label and the producer hires a bunch of people that don’t know each other and don’t know the artist and put them all in a room together and set up microphones… this is kind of rubbish to me. When I started in music in the punk time, in the late 70s, when I was 13 or 14 years old, you were doing music for political, cultural reasons, you weren’t doing it for musical reasons. You were doing it to piss people off.

ML: It’s important to note that you’ll always be part of this kind of “officine musicali”, like the Bad seeds, a sort of workshop; one musician can leave and another one can join, but the chemistry will still be the same, and you’ll always be part of this thing. True Spirit is also like that. How many musicians have you replaced? Many…

HR: 15.

ML: But the chemistry is always the same.

HR: The True Spirit was always about getting people who had the right feeling and whom I liked and then letting them do whatever they wanted, that’s why all those records always sound incredibly different, because there’s no control. It was a free space.

ML: Yeah, but if you ask someone to join True Spirit, you ask them to take part in a chemistry that’s already going on.

HR: And you have to sense that they have the chemistry that’s going to work.

ML: But I think even in the Bad Seeds it was always like that.

HR: Yeah, it sort of was. But the Seeds became a sort of fixed thing after about 10 years. And you notice the music changes when the band really locks in and it’s basically the same people. The music gets less and less interesting, because you’ve got the same people playing the same kind of part in the story instead of having this freewill zone, moving around. The freewill zone is a beautiful thing creatively but it’s very hard to organize it and it’s pretty difficult to exploit on a financial level, it’s not a great way to make money. A great way to make money in music is to have a fixed lineup of people and to continue to do the same thing over and over again.

ML: The key thing that I got from you was that you should first create the chemistry and then you create the music. It’s kind of a reaction, music is the result of the chemistry.

HR: When I first moved to Europe to live with Giusi in 1989 I didn’t have a band at all and I started playing solo, so the concept that I’m doing tonight is very familiar idea to me, it’s been going on for years and years. You start on your own and then you see if you can draw people into your orbit. The right kind of people. That takes a little bit of time but that way of thinking about music was not a conscious decision of mine, it was just an accident because I happened to end up in Europe on my own.

LR: Did you come to Europe, like some Australians do, for a sort of “grand tour”?

HR: No, I came to Europe to get away from Australia. I found Australia very boring. It’s a fact: Russia is big, the sky is blue and Australia is boring. I don’t think there’s much to discuss. People in Australia can get annoyed when Australians like me say it, but it’s a fucking boring place and it’s getting worse, with the politics and with the ownerwhip of the media by Rupert Murdoch, it’s absolutely tragic what’s going on there at the moment but it’s still worth fighting for, it’s not like a lost cause or anything. Anyway in the 80s I just thought “there’s a whole world out there”, Australia is really far from everywhere, you can’t just fly out of Australia and go to Paris or London for a couple of days, like people in Italy can. In Australia you need to have a lot of money, you need to have a lot of time, you need to have a visa, you need to have connections, otherwise you can’t even leave the country… we don’t have any land borders, you can’t drive your car out of Australia. You have to get on a ship or an aircraft.

LR: So, did you get on a ship?

HR: No, I got on a plane and went to London. I did some acting in Australia to make enough money for me and my girlfriend to be able to get out of Australia. Then from London I went to Berlin because some friends were telling me “what are you doing in London? Come to Berlin where you can do some solo gigs in little clubs” and that’s what I did, that’s how the True Spirit band started. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken the chances. I like taking chances or rather I like throwing all the cards up in the air and see where everything lands. Security, signing a contract to work for a company for a year or two has never worked with me.

LR: Was it in Australia that you met Nick Cave?

HR: Yes, in Melbourne, in a way the Melbourne of the 80s was much smaller than it is today. We were all middle class kids from the Eastern side of the city and we were really just a few degrees of separation away from each other. And out of that group of a few hundred people a whole kind of music scene developed, but no one knew it was developing at the time. It’s funny because now there’s a lot of interest in what happened in Melbourne in the 80s, largely because of Nick Cave… there’s movies, there’s a lot of documentaries like there was some kind of cultural phenomenon… I don’t know if there was, I was there and all I know is that no one had any idea of what was going on. People were doing things for personal reasons of their own, because they wanted to rebel or to antagonize people.

LR: Was there some center of attraction, a place were the people went?

HR: Yes, there was the Crystal Ballroom. It was a place near the port which had been kind of a posh hotel in the 20s-30s and then it became very run down, very decrepit, it was like a falling down old building from the Victorian age, a hundred year old building. In fact my grandmother used to stay there when she used to come out of the desert where she lived with my grandfather when he was working on the railroad, out there right in the center of Australia, so she’d get a train down to Melbourne and she’d stay in that hotel and that was like 1925, 1926. It was very weird because when I came across the place it was 1979 and it was full of junkies and it had two music venues, a big one upstairs and a small one downstairs, and that’s where all the bands played, that’s where Nick Cave played. It wasn’t the only club but it was the cool spot, the place where people felt like they could act and dress in any way they wanted to, whereas in a lot of the other music clubs in the city it was quite risky dressing or acting in a certain way, because you’d probably get beaten up. It was kind of rough. Australia’s got a rough side, you know.

ML: It’s the white anglosaxon side.

HR: And the convict, police state history. They started Australia by getting English slaves, siding them out on big ships and then chaining them together and forcing them to build big fucking roads. In America they did it with black slaves, in Australia they did it with their people. The worst place was Tasmania and Sydney, Melbourne was like a free city that started a bit later because of gold money so the history was a little different but there’s this very brutal side to Australia that a lot of Australian writers and filmmakers and musicians use as creative material, but no one really ever talks about in the rest of the world.

It’s like when people think about Italy, they think about the Colosseo in Rome, they think about the Uffizi Gallery, they think about Piazza San Marco and this is their idea of Italy, a million miles away from the reality of what Italy is. And it’s the same with Australia, when people think about surf beaches, Uluru, the big red rock, and this kinds of things: it’s true, but it’s far away from the reality of things. Australia was a very brutal place, and it still is, except it’s got this friendly face. Most people I know that have been to Australia like it, they feel safe, they have good feelings. It’s like with Italy, people come to Italy and they just see what they want to see, but the Italian point of view is completely different. People here see the great museums and the great works of art, but it’s been like an oppression, a way to stop people from being creative, a way to stop the country from developing a weight.

Turn everything into a big museum under the fucking Vatican, and that’s true, but that’s not how an American tourist sees it. And it’s the same with Australia. It’s a rough place, weird things happen there that you would never hear about, like people disappearing, or families that interbreed and live in really faraway places so no one knows about them for like 50 years, husbands killing their wives and burying them in the backyard, it’s got a sort of a gothic dark side to it. That’s one of the things that Nick Cave draws on a lot in what he does.

ML: They always mention American Gothic about him…

HR: Yeah, but everyone knew the Gothic American writers, like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor… so for the whole English speaking world they were the reference point… and Australia at the time didn’t have reference points. So somebody like Nick used these references but in a kind of very superficial way… I guess the reason why it worked was there was some personal connection because of Australian reality. There’s some very powerful movies coming out of Australia in the last few years. Things like Snowtown, Wolf Creek, these are kind of horror movies, but they’re all true. That’s what Australian filmmakers are looking at. True stories, very shocking ones. There’s another one called Tasmania, I think, with Willem Defoe, a film about runaway convicts in Tasmania like 1840, and they end up cannibalizing each other because there’s nothing to eat… so this is the modern Australian Gothic, now, it didn’t exist ten years ago. People would have been too scared to make those films ten years ago.

LR: Do you still have a good relationship with Nick Cave?

HR: I don’t really have much of a relationship at all. I’m not doing anything with him. There’s still a good connection on a human level, though. There was never any problem but like a lot of things in life, friends drift apart and take on different lives. We have a lot of mutual friends, so I hear stuff about him from time to time, but I haven’t done anything creative with him for nearly 20 years.

LR: Can you tell me about your project with Mali musicians, Dirt Music? You had a performance in Florence last night, right?

HR: Yes, it was a great night. We have a new record coming out next week, Lion City, and it’s the brother of Troubles. It’s from the same recording sessions. We recorded it during a difficult time, there was a big political crisis going on. There was a lot of tension in Mali at that point because there was a jihad in the Northern part, in the desert, that took over about half of the country in a few months and the government collapsed and we were trying to organize the recording sessions but we had to keep putting it off because it wasn’t safe. We got to a point where we thought “if we don’t go there and make it happen now, maybe we will never have the chance again” and for Chris and myself it was our dream project, we’d done one record there and we loved that record but we knew that we hadn’t gone very deep yet into the possibilities of working in Mali with musicians. So once again we took a leap of faith and I just went down there.

Of course it was crazy, it was nuts, the whole country was collapsing, and people didn’t know what was going to happen and there was a war coming and while we were there recording there was a lot of speculation about jihad attacks in the city, bombs, human bombs, that sort of stuff, so we were nervous but not too much, we trusted our friends there and you know, from those friendships and collaborations with people like Ben Zabo and Samba Toure we managed to create an archive of recordings so we worked for 2 weeks in the studio, and last night Chris said that we made 12 hours of music, so from those 12 hours we got Troubles and also the second record, Lion City, which is a bit different because on Troubles we took most of the more conventional sounding songs that we’d managed to record and we made sort of a rock album in a very West African style, but the new record is the other side of what we were doing there, it’s very electronic and it’s really experimental and it was interesting because our Malian collaborators had never worked in this way before.

So for example one of the things we did, when we got there, was that since we thought the recording studio was too small, we moved the whole session into a nightclub next door, a big old dancehall, beautiful tiled dancefloor with a high station, high ceiling and we got the engineers to move all of their recording equipment from there into the big room and then we set up monitors around the room, spaced all our musicians out in a pretty large area, I think it was about 30 square metres and then we got these sound monitors so that people could hear what other people were doing and then we put electronic beats and developed the idea of getting our musicians to work on this kind of material and they’d never done anything quite like this before. It was really an unusual thing to do for Mali musicians, because in a way, they’re classical musicians. They’re masters of their instruments, they’re not that interested in technology.

So the material that we recorded in this way was very abstract, so Troubles was like the rock part and then we had this whole other archive of experimental things which weren’t even songs, because when we recorded there was no singing, so everything was just instrumental takes, it was 12 hours of instrumental jams, basically, and then with Lion City we took the weird stuff and last year we started working in our studios trying to turn this into songs, and some of the vocals we had, but some vocal tracks on Lion City with the Malian singers were actually taken from other pieces of music, and then superimposed on other pieces of music, it was a very experimental record to make. We knew there were two records, we just thought we’d do Troubles first because people were going to go “it’s groovy, I can sing and dance to it” and it’s more easy to get into, and then this second record which is actually my favourite one. I like Troubles too, but Lion City’s got some kind of weird vibe.

LR: You have quite a lot of dates coming up now to promote the new album.

HR: Yes, it’s not a continuous tour, it’s like a block of dates here and then doing something else, working in the studio, producing a band from Sicily, working on a film in Calabria, then going back and doing some more concerts, and there’s a Sepiatone tour that starts in about 2 weeks, a band that was started in Italy 10 years ago. It’s funny, it’s just by chance, but 3 records are coming out at the same time: Sepiatone, Dirt Music and New Fatalists. And none of this was planned. Often with a record you have to wait for the right moment to put it out, sometimes it can take you a year or longer, sometimes it’s really fast.