Old Masks And New Waves: Hyperdub’s Mana Interviewed

Ahead of an appearance at Club To Club festival in Turin, Fergal Kinney speaks to Hyperdub signing Mana about The Italian New Wave

Portrait by Andrea Cossu

Earlier this decade, the Italian electronic music community was facing a cocktail of pressures that were, to British audiences, boringly familiar. Club closures, a lack of arts funding, declining revenue from physical sales. It wasn’t this, though, that was gnawing away at Club To Club, the excellent progressive electronic music festival in Turin. No, the frustration was that young Italian audiences were keen and happy to fork out for big international names, but weren’t sufficiently engaged with Italy’s own domestic artists. From 2013 onwards, Club to Club has set about – with much success – changing that narrative.

The Italian New Wave was the term devised more as an exercise in consciousness raising than any attempt to categorise what was going on in Italian music as a scene. First, a merch stand was set up at the festival selling a range of Italian electronic artists under eye-grabbing screenprints repeating the slogan.

Then, in 2014, the festival released a compilation in a joint venture with Bleep that aimed to tie up these loose ends for audiences at home and abroad. Club To Club’s vision of The Italian New Wave covered all points from the grinding industrial of Stump Valley to ambient artists like Oobe – and while there may not be much that aesthetically links the day-glo trance of Lorrenzo Senni with 72 Hour Post Flight’s jazz-inflected world of echo, putting them under the same banner has been catalystic in introducing these artists to audiences and labels across Europe.

One artist featured on that 2014 compilation was Daniele Mana, then operating under the moniker Vaghe Stelle. Mana has spent this decade on something of a journey, with his work moving away from club sounds and moving towards Seven Steps Behind – released this year on Hyperdub – which is a haunted, hyper-frenetic vision of neoclassical. Mana’s electronica is highly impressionistic and refuses to stay in one place – a few minutes of glowing minimalism will be quickly punctured by fevered beats that drop from view as quickly as they arrive. The effect is something untethered, like the top notes of anxiety.

As Lottie Brazier put it in her tQ review earlier this year, there may be a lot of different stops on Seven Steps Behind, but fundamentally the record is "underpinned by an existential melancholy".

Sonically across Vaghe Stelle and now Mana, you’ve been quite hard to pin down – prior to all this what were your formative influences?

Mana: I grew up listening to a lot of hip hop. When I was a kid I listened to a lot of Wu-Tang Clan and I still listen to a lot of hip hop now. When I started doing Vaghe Stelle I was highly influenced by rap and grime, so I started using a lot of beats but was also trying to pull in all my more Krautrock and psychedelic influences that I was really into when I was younger.

But then growing up I found a place where I was more comfortable, and it was modern classical. I’d been listening to a lot of composers from the 19th and 20th century and started to feel uncomfortable with Vaghe Stelle. I’m a self-taught musician, I never went to any school and I don’t have a proper training, and so I then started listening to Morton Feldman or Ingram Marshall, also Michael Gordon. I felt the need to change project and name and to find a proper evolution of sound, basically.

Seven Steps Behind quite markedly continues your departure from club sounds, did you feel restricted by operating in dance music?

Ma: I found myself not really comfortable in making people dance, I was forcing myself. Vaghe Stelle was a little bit confused because I wanted to use club sounds and beats but it was never straight enough to be considered dance music. So my choice then was to move away with that and let myself free from the beat greed – you know what I mean? I found it a big limitation for my musical creativity. As soon as I put a 4/4 beat on my timeline I feel caged, you know? I cannot really move, I cannot really express myself so I just [wanted to] get rid of that.

One of the most interesting things about the record is how constantly it shifts in mood in pace, but there’s constantly an undercurrent of a real sense of melancholy – even anxiety or stress. Is that something you recognise in your music?

Ma: For me making music is getting rid of things inside, things that aren’t making me feel good like stress, melancholy, sadness, anxiety, all these kinds of feelings. It’s like the spleen – working to get rid of something and to feel better afterwards – it’s like that. I’ve always made music because I’ve needed to feel better. It’s something that’s not really conscious though, it comes really naturally, and I don’t like to put borders on it because it’s something I do for pleasure. I always felt that if I make music, I need to be completely free to do whatever I want. These mood changes, these mood swings, you can’t really follow a line as it’s just my way of thinking and what I feel. It’s the place I feel comfortable.

The use of organic sounds on the record is really interesting – cello, flute, marimba, especially the use of harpsichord. And at points treated to the point where they’re almost unrecognisable. What’s the decision process over what instruments to bring in?

Ma: I have a compulsive way of listening to music, so sometimes I’ll fall in love with a piece and just listen to that for a week – falling in love with a sound or a melody. So if that has harpsichord in it, I’m going to want to use a sound that’s similar to that. It’s a natural, really subconscious way to choose sounds. The harpsichord you hear on this though, that’s synthesized, I got that through Wavetable synthesis. The cellos are real cellos though, the flutes are flutes, there’s also sax on the last piece and that just uses the natural reverb of this warehouse. I wanted to have this big horn sound like a boat horn or something. I really like mixing organic sounds with synthesized sounds that sound organic.

And then that approach is applied to your voice, which has previously been quite absent from what you’ve done. The use of vocoder is really heavy, so much so that lyrics aren’t discernable and the voice becomes just another interesting – not conveying lyrics etc, just its tonal quality…

Ma: The voice is the most natural instrument of all, and using it has been a kind of turning point for me. I’m not a really good musician – you know, when it comes to playing instruments – so the voice is just really natural. I’ve got software that can correct the pitch so I feel very comfortable and instinctive writing melodies with my voice. I’ll record it, then kind of transform the wave into something. It means I have been getting in touch with my human side while making music. I have a really visual practice when it comes to making music, in that I work with the matrix of my sequencer and I write music with my mouse, instead of playing it, so using my voice is just really natural and really instinctive. I love it. Now I’m working more on separating the voice and making a proper vocal line over the music.

You sample David Attenborough on the track ‘Leverage For Survival’, what was the thinking behind that?

Ma: Every piece is inspired by a dream, I often have lucid dreams so every piece kind of comes from that dream state. And ‘Leverage For Survival ‘ I really was in this decaying nature in this dream – everything was falling apart – and that documentary was about this animal that cannot find any water in Africa, because of global warming. And I found that the most explicit way to quote what my vision was, using a really recognisable and popular voice. And I love him, I’m a big fan of him of course, as is everybody.

The visual element to the album is really interesting, you’ve spoke about your interest in symbolism and how the artwork to Seven Steps Behind relates to that, with the image of the mask split into segments.

Ma: The meaning of the album is to do with lucid dreaming – a state where you’re not really present even though you’re getting in touch with your subconscious. The mask from the cover art is from Sardinia and it’s used in a ritual that’s inspired by Ancient Greek culture where the mask is meant to be a tool to get rid of every prejudice so nobody can judge you.

You can dance and get in touch with yourself without being judged. And I took that symbolism to represent the subconscious; just being myself, as the music is coming from me. And the snake, that’s also a highly used symbol for dreams – especially by Freud – so every element in there is referring to that subconscious state.

Likewise the video for ‘Solo’, which has this kind of children’s cartoon gone wrong aesthetic to it.

Ma: I was talking with the guys who made it and we mentioned this cartoon called ‘La Linea’ (Italian animated series created by the cartoonist Osvaldo Cavandoli, which ran through the 70s and 80s). It wasn’t really for kids per se, it was this character who was popping up from a line so we thought about using this, but with the symbolism from the album – coins, face, statues, him falling, taking off the mask and putting on the mask. Again, it’s about falling into a dream state when you’re lucid.

There’s quite a lot of conversation now about a certain sector of modern neoclassical, stuff that’s maybe getting picked up by larger labels, that seems increasingly bland, safe and conformist and seems to be designed with an eye on Spotify relaxing and chill out playlists. Your work seems to really deviate from that.

Ma: If it’s something I don’t like, I try not to listen to it, I don’t dig it. People try to make money, and that’s normal, I cannot judge it – you’ve got to pay the rent. But for me, music is something that I love to do and I do it because I love it, but I don’t want to make compromises. I know that, for example, I could do something that could go straight into a Spotify chill out or sunset playlist, I would have made more money too, but whatever.

Zooming out at The Italian New Wave, which is obviously a really loose term, I’m wondering where your thoughts are on where electronic music is at in Italy at the moment and who you think are doing interesting things.

Ma: I cannot say there’s a proper scene in Italy, like what’s happening in London or Paris, it’s all in different directions. And in Italy, the scene is spread out completely across the country so you don’t meet these people every day and talk. But it’s been good as a few years ago there weren’t many Italian artists in the main scene, but then I met Steve from Club To Club through that and I owe them a lot. I don’t want to judge the commercial purpose of the Italian New Wave, and for me and Lorenzo Senni and Spime.Im and many other artists, we had benefits from this, but talking about a new wave of Italian artists is quite funny.

Who are the names in Italian electronic music who you do really rate and respect?

Ma: Lorenzo Senni is a really good friend of mine, we’ve made music, and I have so much respect for what he’s doing. I love Primitive Art, and Caterina Barbieri. The other day I met this young guy called Holy Similaun – he’s 22, 23 and just doing great things. I live in Turin and the electronic scene, there’s just a few people making things, so when I meet a young Italian like him who’s really into experimenting and going beyond genre music then I’m always really happy.

Mana plays Club To Club festival on Friday 1 November

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