What is “Scared to Get Happy”? It’s funny, as it somehow fits with the (most probably stereotyped) image I’ve got of you: as a journalist, I see that 90% of the stuff you write about is not really considered ‘happy music’: industrial, gothic, dark, experimental, isolationism, concrete… I often asked myself if you – like others in the field, like Paolo Bandera of Sigillum S for instance, have for real such a ‘dense’ listening for most of the time…
It is a compilation of British indie pop that covers the entire 80s, with a magnificent title that recalls the fanzine ‘Are You Scared To Be Happy?’ that Matt Haynes had before founding, with Clare Wadd, Sarah Records. Said that it seems to me very wise to be afraid of happiness, I have always been a fan of indie pop, in fact romantic soul prevails over every other aspect, obscure and catastrophic too, of myself, aspects which I manifest writing, especially in recent years, more often. After all, that kind of pop is an evolution of post-punk, gladly, romantic, with which, also for one, fortunate for me, coincidence, I was born in ’64, I grew up. I see a taut thread that starts from the new wave and arrives at least until the shoegaze of the early 90s, almost fifteen years of ideal continuity. The wave was no longer ‘new’ since the advent of the Smiths in ’83, and in this period many historical wave groups collapsed under the blows of a misunderstood evolution, the indie pop maintained the often and willingly lost and afflicted dimension that was typical in many wave bands, especially the dark ones. The passage for the season of C86, Sarah and many other labels and twee pop perpetuated these moods with a genuineness so spontaneous as to appear naïve. A spirit of independence that became an act of antagonism with the simplicity of feelings and marginality, often singing of loves punctually unrequited. Lines like
‘I could speak to you, you could speak to me/Oh but it will never happen, what will be will be/so I’ll just lie and dream of the chances I’ve missed/I’m in love with a girl who doesn’t know I exist’, from Another Sunny Day, or, at proposal of shoegaze, ‘the world was large/and I felt very small/what’s gonna happen?/How will I know/when things are back/the way they used to be before?’
from Pale Saints, I find that have an existential intensity near to the power to what is easy to consider as the verse that best sums up my way of feeling, and obviously of many other wavers of the time,
‘here the young men the weight on their shoulder/ here the young men where they have been?’
from Joy Division’s “Decades”.
You seem to have most (maybe all?) Vinyl On Demand boxes. That stuff is really special, and tells venn more about your musical tastes. They’re by the way most of the times re-pressing of obscure (in every sense) material. How is your relationship with nowadays music? Is there any recent band or label (let’s say born after the 2000’s) you fell in love with?
Of course, I think that in those who followed certain labels in the early ’80s with manic application, I refer to Crepuscule, Factory, Èl, 4AD, Mute, Fetish, Rough Trade, Postcard, Cherry Red, Sordide Sentimental, Creation, Glass, Industrial Records, Some Bizzare, Third Mind, Independent Project, even more meticulously, in the hunt for every single title of their catalog, when inside a label there was the search for a well-defined aesthetic, not only musical but also graphic, with the work of artists like Peter Saville, Vaughan Oliver, Neville Brody, Benoit Hennebert, Bruce Licher, remains the desire, even if the times are radically different, to search and support those who continue to pursue the idea of a label that is not just a sequence of records without relationships between them. I carefully screen each emission of today’s labels like Miasmah, Room40, Home Normal, Time Released Sound, 12K, for example. I mention only one band, the japanese Tenniscoats, I deeply love them.
A cute wooden locomotive with two pictures in it. I love to peek into personal life details in the shelves… Are those in the frames you and your wife? Or children? Or also musicians? I always wonder if people like you can have troubles in the family for the listenings. I do have, for instance… I can’t listen to Whitehouse while the wife and the daughters are around, usually.
You guessed, they are pictures of me and my wife when we were children. It looks like a competition, she is sulky and takes advantage of the suggestion of black and white but I win easily because in the moment of that picture I was starting to cry. I like to think I already had in me, in this second half of the ‘60s, a very basic and revolutionary concept for the dark, or gothic if you prefer, of eighties, that ‘boys can cry’. No problems for my listening, rather it is a source of hilarity when someone comes to our house, a wall of noise or scrawls always make their effect in untrained ears, and I confess that I like that sense of awe that inspire. Only once my wife showed a serious risk to collapse. I remember that I had to review a Merzbow box, “Merzbient”, twelve CDs for more than ten hours of listening. It was just arrived from the United States and it was the day of the deadline for Blow Up. I did not want to slip it a month later, so I was forced to listen in one day, obviously from the first to the last second, as I do strictly with any record, although I admit there were not a lot of surprises or variations in that infinite waterfall of noise. And I do not use headphones, I hate them. After about eight hours she came to ask me how much was still missing at the end of the torture, questioning the sense of so much trial, my trial but also the trial of Merzbow, which for me is like questioning about the most basic principles of human existence. We have exceeded the crisis, anyway. As for my daughter, as you can imagine she is vaccinated from earliest years, is not scared of anything, she doesn’t think industrial or similar sounds are something disturbing or unconventional. Maybe boring.
I wouldn’t be in your house when you listened to that massive Merzbow box set! Your wife and daughter should be patient persons then. By the way, this brings me to another question, as I always noticed that you are one of those reviewers that feels like obliged to carefully listen and describe every single bit of any record they write about. Do you feel this as a mission? How many times you said to yourself is this worth the effort?” And which kind of satisfactions or achievements you think you got along these years of music writing?
You say well, obliged, I apply this rigidity also in what I hear outside of writing, it is unthinkable for me to lift the needle from the turntable plate if there are still grooves to read, also if they were already silent. I would not call it a mission in itself, maybe it ends up being so when I try to tell, through a series of apparently separate pieces, some 80s, very different from the common opinion, in Italy, that has handed down as the years of hedonism, between yuppies and ‘think pink’ t-shirts, or when I seem to face revisionist theories that want to deny the existence of the new wave and incorporate it into the insignificant, indiscriminate, container of ‘rock’. With you I can be as honest as explicit, ‘rock’ is a word that I hate, in the first place for its generality, a word that I make a huge effort to write if not to give it a worse value, the pomposity with which the ‘rock’ is presented as a philosophy of life disgusts me and represents for me the opposite of the post-punk feeling, after the tabula rasa of ’76/’77. With a small component of fun, childish I admit, a couple of months ago I reviewed the reissue of The Work’s first album, the band Tim Hodgkinson founded after Henry Cow. In Blow Up above the reviews in few words we give a definition of the genre of the record, more or less standard, this album is art rock, no doubt, but I had written ‘art ****’. For the first time since I write for Blow Up, since ’97, the director Stefano Isidoro Bianchi has ‘corrected’ one of my things, decoding those four asterisks in ‘rock’, asterisks that could then be interpreted also as ‘wave’ or ‘punk’, because in that record there are many ‘contemporary’ influences, probably mine was a subliminal message. If this worth, you say… Consider that, apart from the fanzines, with 2019 I have been writing for music magazines for exactly thirty years, starting with a weekly magazine that was very popular as Ciao 2001. In these thirty years I have never stopped, not a month has passed without my writings have been published, so it is a component of my life determinant, so much so that in the satisfactions and achievements I would put this as main, the continuous aim for the next thing, where writing is more important than seeing published, obviously having the certainty that it will be, or thinking about what could be achieved, also because I have never been interested to the ‘mundane’ side of this work, understood as various benefits, that especially when I started were potentially, for others, rather gratifying. In January my book about Swans came out, a few days after I handed the text to the editor I was already struggling to find a contact to know more about The Last Man In Europe Corporation, who made only one album and on which I wanted to write a retrospective page in the newspaper, telling a new, submerged, story. A page or a book makes no difference to me, same ferocity. Towards myself.
I notice some cool VHS: Young Marble Giants and Eyeless in Gaza surrounded by a weird set of pink ones on the left, and four “Gustav” on the right? What are these?
I don’t know if is accidental that they have a privileged position in the arrangement of shelves, however, never forget what has formed your way of being, at the beginning even only at the level of suggestion, I would say better than fatal attraction. The shape that is difficult to distinguish in the four pink boxes is Fassbinder. He and the ‘new German cinema’, in particular Wenders of the trilogy ‘Alice in den Städten/Falsche Bewegung/Im Lauf der Zeit’, the first Herzog, the magnificent Reitz of ‘Heimat’, have been a great influence for me as person, as well as a boy who was interested in cinema and made films in Super 8 first and then in VHS. With ‘Gustav’ I go back to my childhood years. The Italian television, only two channels at the time, when I was a child after the news at lunch time interrupted the broadcasts and resumed at 5 pm with la ‘TV dei ragazzi’, so there was not much space in the program schedule for cartoons. Gustavo was a Hungarian cartoon, without dialogues, only grammelot, which Italian television broadcast, I would say for mysterious reasons, until the early ’70s, if I remember correctly. They lasted a few minutes, with incredible and alienating stories of everyday life, perhaps they were trying to be funny, often with a surrealistic vein that was scarcely understandable for us on this side of the iron curtain. Despite the intentions were, I think, others, in fact transmitted an infinite sadness, which, clearly remember, attracted me a lot even if I could not quite understand it, with extremely bare sceneries and drawings amplified by the obvious absence of colors. I think it was a decisive vision, even in instilling in me a strong curiosity for Eastern Europe and especially towards the cinema of those countries, when there were still blocks and the cold war, a cinema that represented a world that fascinated me by its diversity. When I found Gustavo’s videotapes many years later, in Germany, I was thrilled as to find a vinyl that had been searched for years, when there was no internet yet and you had to travel in Europe as much as possible, hoping for good luck.
Paolo Bertoni lived his youth in the ‘ice age’. He wrote about ‘difficult music’ both in commercial magazines as Ciao 2001 or FareMusica and in alternative as Blast! and Dynamo!. He is one of the leading names in the magazine Blow Up for over twenty years. Among his publications are books about Einstürzende Neubauten and Swans.