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In Conversation

Cigarettes & Fine White Wine: Asia Argento & Alan Bishop In Conversation
The Quietus , August 7th, 2013 06:39

Asia Argento has finished recording Total Entropy, her first full-length album. Between shooting scenes for a new film in Corsica, she speaks to Alan Bishop of Sun City Girls and Sublime Frequencies about the album, music, writing and, of course, smoking

When I was first asked to interview Asia Argento about her new record, I thought to myself, 'Why can't somebody else do it?' I don't conduct interviews and I despise music journalists because most of them aren't qualified to sharpen a pencil. Fuck this bullshit. But I saw the album cover with that cigarette smoke circling over her face and remembered that she is a militant smoker. And then I saw the song title 'My Stomach Is The Most Violent In All Of Italy', so I could not refuse. I had two questions prepared, both about cigarettes. But thankfully, she saved my ass and basically interviewed herself. How can you not dig the A-23?

Your new record is on vinyl. Do you collect vinyl?

Asia Argento: Yes. Since the age of five. I only have vinyl at home, I cannot even listen to CDs, I don't have a CD player… I have three record players and my kids play with them and I tell them they cannot, because if they touch them they're going to break the needle, so I constantly have to have needles in my home... In Italy there's this record shop, I am very good friends with them, and sometimes the son of the owner even comes to my house and brings needles and other stuff that I need...

...because the kids destroy everything?

AA: Yeah, it's mayhem at my house… I DJ for my kids, and my older daughter. I have a kids' day and twelve kids at a time every weekend, and it always ends up with me playing records with them and dancing… it's a pretty good way to manipulate young egg-shell minds.

Ok, c'mon, did you ever steal any of your dad's cool records?

AA: To be brutally honest with you, my dad did not own any records.

NO!?

AA: No, it was my mother who was the savant… she was the one who actually introduced him to Goblin. My father was a bit of a petite bourgeoisie, I mean, he knows everything about cinema, but my mother was the savant aficionado of music, and she instilled that onto me at a very, very young age. She had all this vinyl that I cherish. I remember this first encounter with the Beatles and Apple, this apple on the vinyl, it was so symbolic and so profound…

It's true.

AA: And she was very much into funk and soul and also very weird and psychedelic shit, I still have a lot of her vinyl which I still play when I DJ to disturb people… I play her Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed to disturb people. She had an amazing collection, and I managed to save a lot of those from destruction.

The graveyard of vinyl, but it's still around and always gonna be there… it will never die.

AA: I know, absolutely not. To be quite honest, people predict the death of film and people I admire very much, artists, filmmakers, DPs… the death of film, of 35 mm, of this beautiful medium, of the grain or lack of grain, something absolutely authentic, organic like film that is made out of trees, out of water, out of leaves and to be replaced with something that duplicates reality like a robot. That's why I insisted that my new movie - speaking as a director - be shot on film, because they predict that in two years that film will be absolutely dead. But I do not agree with this, like I do not agree with the death of vinyl. It hasn't happened, tapes and cassettes have died, CDs are useless, completely useless - I don't know about you but I throw them around like frisbees - but the vinyl, somehow it remains.

Your new album seems as if it was created as a collage of tracks from different places, using different musicians and producers, sessions, styles. Were you thinking about it consciously, doing an album this way, or did it develop in a random state?

AA: It took me 12 years to do it.

It's very interesting because of it, I think.

AA: Yes, because of the way I make art, which is varied. I love collaborating with people, [through] making movies, over the years, I have contacted or met musicians because of my obsession with music. All of a sudden, when I was 25, people came to me and asked me to do things which were spoken word, because I did not have the courage to bring my voice out, and also because I have this very hoarse, masculine voice - definitely not a singing voice but I'm a songwriter, I've been a poet pretty much since I was seven years old. So to me it was natural to find a new way to write poetry within the confinements of a metric system of melody. To hear a song and then find poetry for it, to find a story… a beginning… an end… an arc.

...and doing it in a lot of different styles as well.

AA: Yes but to me, this is the way I listen to music at home. I like all sorts of music except shit, I do not like shit or incompetent people, all the bastards too, I do not have any pity for them. But I did not have the ambition to have a band or to go on tour, it's not about that. I wanted to make a collage which is also kind of like a diary, and have meetings with people, as I think this is the most important thing in one's life - to meet people and to connect, to create and to make art together. These are the most exquisite moments of one's life.


Asia Argento & Tim Burgess - 'Ours'

You mentioned a diary. In one of your films, Scarlet Diva, there is a collage book in a scene when you are on a boat, and also it appears in the final credits, I'm assuming that's yours and you've made many of these over the years…

AA: Yes, but like everything I do it is amateurish. I also draw and paint, I do small drawings, and that [went into] a diary I kept when I was writing Scarlet Diva. The movie was dedicated to a man I loved when I was 23, he was an American musician, I also wrote the book for him, and then I gave it to him, so I don't own this anymore. I thought that he had thrown it away, but after 15 years I spoke to him not very long ago, and he said he still has it. So an important thing of art is not to keep it for yourself, but if you do it, it must go to others. I don't make art for myself - there has to be a discussion and criticism (which I don't like very much - I don't read it. Praise? Yes, but I can spot fake praise, and I don't need it.) I like to share what I do, sharing is very important, as much as I share when I meet a musician and we make music together, and most of the time these musicians write the music when I am with them, or they come with a song that's already written. But sometimes, like songs I did with my ex-boyfriend, the father of my first child, Morgan, I will tell them 'let's do this melody' or this and that, or let's put a Moog in, or let's start the song 'Liebestod'…

That song is amazing. The orchestration is magnificent, the way that it all plays out.

AA: He's a genius, a multi-instrumentalist, and we were obsessed with this idea of 'Liebestod'. It means the death of love, and we were actually at the end of our relationship, so we wrote the song about the death of our love and we're [still] great friends. The few concerts I do, we do them together, and he also did the music for my second movie. We still collaborate, he's truly a genius. And he did all the orchestration - there's even a Theremin in there.

You must have a huge collection of writing that's lying around somewhere.

AA: Yes, that's a huge salvation. When I went to work with this incredible genius Anton Newcombe - and I don't use this word lightly because I haven't met that many geniuses but he is a genius in what he does, music. So we connected somehow, on fucking Twitter, and we said 'Let's make some music'. I went to Berlin for five days and I slept in the studio, and he would come with his wife and his beautiful two month old child, and we would work fourteen to sixteen hours a day. I would just observe him and he would play so many instruments and come up with melodies, put one melody on top. I had this well of poetry and words written over many years before I went to Germany and I wrote, I don't know, maybe about 40 pages and put them together from my diaries, from my ideas, songs, lyrics, whatever, rhymes - all of it unreleased material. Then I went there and we did five songs. Unfortunately there's only one on the record, but I hope the others will come out someday. So I would listen to what he was doing and then I would take my words and put them together into something different, like the song on the record, 'Le Sacre Du Printemps'. This song takes this idea about dots - that we are dots on a line and the lines are parallel and the lines make an angle and through this angle an angel is born - and it was really what I felt in there with him and his family and this moment in life. When I left Berlin after this incredible moment we had, I forgot the fuckin' diary…

Ahhhh.

AA: Yeah, I forgot it on the plane. It was stolen, but what I say is this: 'Easy come easy go.'

Well, yeah, then you just write more.

AA: It's a little scar I carry in my heart, but it's tiny. I don't care if they steal anything from me but that, it was a complete fusion of the brain for me and this beautiful artist, Anton. Very few people that I've met in any field of art are as illuminating as Anton. It can bring a lot of confusion and complete chaos to make art every day, and this kind of person makes me think of Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson. Lots of artists have this blinding light coming from them, and it must be difficult for them and the people round them to live with.

On your record I detect so much humour and absurdity…

AA: Thank you, because in Italy for instance nobody gets the humour. Outside Italy, people seem to have more of a sense of humour. I'm all about that, and I laugh all day and every day with the few people who I share the same sense of humour with. I never take myself too seriously, except in the moment when I create [art]. Even though its humourous, I must concentrate.

People in general these days are too serious and so politically correct and they don't get the humour, it's really difficult… It's like smoking in a way… You're still smoking, right? Don't tell me you've quit?

AA: No, I'm like the worst smoker, are you smoking too?

Oh everyone tells me I'm the worst; this is why I'm doing the interview.

AA: Last night I met this gangster here in Corsica. He's an 80 year old and he said, 'Look, you'll die young' and I said, 'No no no!' because I need to smoke. I tried quitting smoking but it's part of me. I started smoking when I was nine years old. No, you cannot take this away from me, never! Maybe one day I'll be disgusted, I don't know, but for now, do not take away my cigarettes.

I know what you mean. I met this guy in Greece named Nicos who formed a political party in Athens called the Smoker's Party, and he carries five packs of Gauloises in his hands everywhere he goes, so I really bonded with this guy.

AA: Haha! Props to Nicos.

How many packs do you smoke a day?

AA: I smoke two. What can I say?

That's good.

AA: I buy four every time I buy.

Do you smoke two and everybody else smokes the other two?

AA: No, no, no. I do not mingle with people. I'm very solitary… I like encounters. Like I said, last night I spent three hours with an 80-year-old who was probably a fucking murderer and gangster, but a beautiful person, and we spoke about everything; religion, spirituality, murderers, life, death, children, cancer… We smoked, I don't know, one pack, we drank a lot of wine, because I also do drink a lot of white wine. I do not drink hard liquor because I do not eat very much, and the white wine really helps this because of the sugar. So I need to drink white wine, and ain't nobody gonna take this away from me.

Two packs is manageable, I'm more like three.

AA: Well, the gangster, he said 'You will not live long', and I said who the fuck…

Well it depends...

AA: My grandmother is 85 and she smokes three packs of Marlboro Reds 100s, the long ones, she smokes three packs of those a day and her brain is fine, she also drinks white wine. When I go to visit her we drink white wine and we smoke a ton of cigarettes, and I'm not gonna die young. I mean, I'm not gonna die because of cigarettes, that's for sure, I can tell you that much.

I think you can detect a problem. If you can't handle smoking, you'll know…

AA: Some people cough a lot. I cough a bit in the morning, but I owe a lot to cigarettes for this voice of mine which scares people. I'm like a witch with this voice of mine I inherited from my mother and my grandmother, the great smokers, I can do wonders with this voice…It's comin' from the cavern, it's a voice not from the dead, not even the living dead, it's a voice of a male-female-he-she-wolf.

It's a combo! How did you get this fucking 'Dark Lady' moniker?

AA: That comes from those bastards. It's just because [my art is] dark and scary, but to me it's lighter than that, so if you met me and we're here together having a glass of wine and smoking a ton of cigarettes, you would see only light.

Of course, yeah, they don't get it.

AA: And even like that murderer I met yesterday, he was full of light, illuminated, and I have nothing dark about me because, for instance, what is dark? I am not kinky. I am not evil. I only do good, I'd rather die than kill someone. Dark is Berlusconi, dark is what happened in Turkey, Egypt, that's fuckin dark. I'm not feeling dark… I make art.

Exactly. I watched the video to 'Ours' and noticed in the comments section so many haters. What the fuck's the deal with these people, because your singing style is expressive in a different way…

AA: Oh, they can suck my dick. You know what the difference is between me and them? I make art every day and they don't. This video which me and my soon-to-be ex-husband paid 200 euros for, I would have done it differently but that's another story. My husband was very judgemental about my aesthetic sense. I wanted to make a video that was a macro of the body, the veins, the landscape of a body in macro. But he wanted this, and I gave him that so he wouldn't break my balls. I recorded the song for free at a friend's house. People can say whatever they want - this is what I have the urge to do. If I have the urge to do something, I do it. I do not read the fucking comments. I just put it out there and people say, 'How is your record going?' And I have no fucking idea. It's the same with my movies. I don't care because I make them and they last forever, so it isn't really about now, how much money they're making. Maybe in 10 or 20 years time some old guy in Turkey or Egypt will find this, and it may open doors for them because of the purity of intent. The art may touch people, and even if it is only ten people, that is who I'm making it for.


Alan Bishop (photo by Marina Gioti)

After doing this record are you interested in making more music?

AA: I'll continue, and it's probably gonna take me another ten years [to make another album].

Yeah, but that's ok, there shouldn't be a deadline on creation.

AA: Yeah, I don't know, it could be September or only three [years], because I am very illuminated in this period, so I am making more music. I've made three songs in the meantime with different musicians, so who knows...

And you said you have four other tracks with Anton sitting around…

AA: Yeah. And there's more. For example, I'm having this concert in Paris and I've decided that apart from four of the musicians from the record, I'm improvising with four different musicians. We're completely improvising music onstage, and this to me is much more fascinating than having a band, doing a concert every four or five months and changing musicians.

It's more of an encounter, experiencing the moment which is unlike anything else…

AA: Yeah, and you're in front of people too, and there's mistakes. You know, through mistakes you can create something new. I'm not, as you can see from the record, I'm not obsessed with perfection. It starts with aesthetics - I have my own idea at least, and that has to be perfect. I don't know if all the people who work with me can understand this idea, but coming close to perfection - because, of course, perfection does not exist. In referring to the concert, I think perfection is improvisation. Most of these people I've never even rehearsed with, some playing the glockenspiel or the omnichord, and we go for seven minutes just making noise, and we're having fun, and this is what I'm doing this for - it's for fun, and I don't want to prove anything to anyone except the urge of making this. This is an urge for me, I'm not doing this to sell records or to be appreciated as a musician, because I'm not, I'm a poet, and it's not really a message - it's the urge of communicating with people who I don't want necessarily to have a dinner or a glass of wine with, but I know that for me it's important and it might be for them too.

[Laughing] You use the line "upsie daisie". [in the track 'My Stomach Is The Most Violent Of All Of Italy']

AA: [Laughs] It's the fascination of writing in different languages, and as you can perceive I'm somebody who reads a lot and picks up sound and things that are humourous and funny to me. "Upsie daisie" is absolutely a funny sound. I wrote that song with this Portuguese artist [Tigerman] - I wrote it on SMS, on text messages one night when I was kind of drunk years ago, shooting a movie who knows the fuck where, and we said 'Why don't we write some lyrics like that, just exchanging text messages'. "Upside down or upsie daisie" came out from the drunken foolishness.

That's a great title - 'My Stomach Is The Most Violent Of All Of Italy'.

AA: This is important for me too. It's a message for the country where I live, it's so retro, and I'm really an alien in this country. But at the same time I feel like they need somebody like me, because they're all so fucking politically correct. People outside of Italy - maybe because it's not in Italian and they speak other languages - seem to get this album a lot more than in Italy, but it's not a surprise to me. Otherwise I would have written an album in Italian.

I think you could expect that and you did expect that…

AA: But at the same time I'm necessary for these troglodytes - you say 'troglodytes'?

Troglodytes! Haha, yes of course, the Jimmy Castor Bunch…

AA: Yeah, the women who are either a whore or a virgin, with two opposite doors for these women to be who they want to be, and to be artists, and not to be scared - especially of their sexuality, which frightens me in Italy. Believe me, I'm not obsessed with sex, but because of the church in Rome and the Vatican there, all these women pretend they are fucking martyrs, and they're martyrs of the state and of their husbands, of society. You see them so unhappy and I want to free them. So it's a message, you know. There's an Italian saying: 'non si è mai un profeta nel proprio paese' - 'you're never a prophet in your own country'. So you have to come from far away, and then you will come to them after many, many years. Like I said, it's really, really retro in Italy right now.


Asia Argento - Total Entropy artwork

I think what's great is that you do whatever the fuck you want and fuck what anyone else thinks…

AA: Fuck 'em all, kill 'em all. [laughs]

This is the freedom you need, the freedom we all need.

AA: And you know how we get this freedom? Do you know? And I hope it's the same for you, because I never had a dream of being rich, and I never had a dream of owning a big house. Of course I have the dream - I have two children for whom I am the only provider, so I have a dream that they'll have a good school at least. Not only, y'know, for what they're gonna learn - which, of course, hopefully they're gonna forget - but that it's not a nightmare to go to school every day, that they have nice teachers, sports, things, input. So I work very hard for the school of my children, so they have a roof over their heads. But for the rest, I do not shop, I do not buy, I do not own anything of any value, so if the thieves come to my house, you're fucking welcome, and they'll get nothing…

But they can smoke in your house…

AA: Except my records, which... Anyway, an ex-boyfriend - I had this collection of 200,000 songs that I had been collecting for fifteen years, and I never did a backup, and this fuckin' motherfucker broke my computer, so everything is gone. But easy come, easy go, that was the only thing that was stolen, broken, whatever, that hurts me. So the rest - they can steal whatever they want, I don't own shit! My aunt says I'm like a fucking priest, I never had a dream of making money through what I do, never. And you can see it very well…

You can see it in your work.

AA: And some people, like me and you, we can write some more. All that matters is that I'm talking to you right now, I'm on fucking Corsica shooting some shit, so I can provide for my children as an actress, and I'm talking to you about great things and then having a blast, smoking cigarettes…

[Laughs] So on Corsica it's offshore, so you probably have a smoking room there - or do you just smoke anyway?

AA: Oh I smoke anyway. I will say 'Impeach me', I don't care, call the motherfucking police...

I was in LAX airport - this was maybe eight or ten years ago - I'm at the boarding gate getting ready to board, and looking over near the corner there are four or five Japanese businessmen dressed in suits, and they're all smoking. This is well after California passed their law. And I stood there for a moment in awe, just watching these guys smoking and talking…

AA: [laughing] Those guys are rich, they can pay the $5000 fine.

So I walked up to the woman at the check-in desk and said, 'So this has now become a smoking section?' She said 'Well, I'm not gonna mess with those guys because they are…'

AA: YAKUZA!

YAKUZA! That's right! So I walked over and sat down in the nearest chair to them, lit up a cigarette and was just part of the gang.

AA: You know what I did lately? Which is very gangster, gangster. You as a smoker, you might know, I fuckin' smoke in airport bathrooms…

Yeah, me too.

AA: I'm very sneaky, I can only have like 3, 4, maybe 5 drags…

Exactly.

AA: And I check to make sure there's no people, or sometimes they're very busy, you know, and I find the bathroom that's the farthest and use the newspaper to blow the smoke away. Then I walk out, and strangely enough the cloud of smoke always protects me, then boom, I get out and never get caught! I do not smoke in aeroplanes though…

No I don't either, I've seen people get busted for doing it too often.

AA: But in the airports, I fucking smoke all the time and I never get caught.

I do the same and pick my spots. But never on the planes...

AA: That shit is dangerous, the nicotine police. A friend of mine got kicked out and almost went to jail because of it. I do not do that, I do not want to go to jail. I know it must be an experience that's missing in my life that at some point will happen, but I will never kill or hurt. Oh, I don't do drugs by the way, but who knows - maybe one time on a 24 hour flight to Australia, I might need to smoke, and I'll go to jail for it…

Yeah, they are so hardcore about it these days. That's why I have been living in Egypt, because they have elevators with ashtrays inside them. It's for me, a welcoming. "Welcome to Egypt". It's a beautiful thing.

AA: I love it. Italy used to be like that.

Yeah, I couldn't believe Italy went down, then Ireland and France, I mean, what the fuck? And now Beirut went down. I was in the airport there last year, and I asked the guy 'What happened to the smoking sections?' And he said 'Sorry sir, but just go into the restroom' and I say 'So it's ok in the bathroom?'. 'No, it's not ok but that's what we do!' - and he was a cop.

AA: I'll tell you something else, because I'm such a nice person and people really like me - goddamn, people like me [laughing]. There's always restaurants and things, and they have the place where they stock food or change clothes and shit, and it becomes so friendly that anywhere I go I say, 'Look, can I go into the lockers and have a cigarette?' and they let me in there. In Rome there are smoking sections in the airport but they're very far away and sometimes I do that and now I'm friends in all the places where they have the lockers so I go in there and smoke…but you know what? I'll tell you something very deep, some mad shit, 'cos me and you, fire... The elements - earth, water, air, fire - everyone is afraid of fire. The cigarette is our last link to this element within us. I'm not gonna give up.

Asia Argento's Total Entropy is released this month on NUUN Records

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