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Confrontational - Interview

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Interview with: Massimo Usai
Conducted by: Ines

Synthwave or retrowave is on the rise for the last couple of years, whether you like it or not. 80s influenced music with accompanying iconography is on the peak of its revival and new and new artists are swimming on the surface of it daily. Massimo Usai, a Sardinian musician, is also not immune to the nostalgic charisma of the past and from his passion towards music and artistic movement of the 80s - which was a big part of his life growing up - his newest project was born. With his eerie melodies with a strong soundtrack and videogames music vibes and emotional vocal style, which will remind you even of the great Brian Molko from time to time, Massimo joined the legion of great musicians such as Carpenter Brut, Perturbator, Nightcrwaler, Dance Of Dead (to name just a few) and broke the ice with his 2015 EP Done With You, under the name Confrontational. But before there was Confrontational, there was also Dahlia Indaco. And Recs Of The Flesh. You can imagine Massimo and I had a lot to talk about: how he shifted from darkwave through noise rock and finally landed in the realms of synthwave.

Ines: Hello Massimo and thank you for taking the time to do this interview! How have you been lately?
: Hey Ines, thanks a lot - it's really a pleasure for me. I'm good, pretty busy with a bunch of different things, mainly focusing on the studio work these days, finishing tracks for the new Confrontational album. Quite excited!
Ines: Given your incredibly rich and diverse musical history, I don't even know where to start…. So, let's do it the classic way and start from the beginning and move on slowly. With you, first there was Dahlia Indaco, a darkwave band you co-founded with Elisabetta Patrito in 1999 which disbanded in 2009, but for the beginning, I'm interested in what was going on before 1999 – what was your musical background before this first band of yours was formed?
Massimo: I had no formal musical training prior to starting on guitar. I took some piano lessons when I was 6 years old and the whole thing just freaked me out - it seemed so demanding and not much fun. Growing up, I took an interest in drums, but never actually got to play them - I just thought it'd be something cool to do. I liked cinema a lot and I fell in love with soundtracks - it was all about the Ghostbusters theme back then! At about age 9 I got my first album - Michael Jackson's Dangerous- and that really changed a lot of stuff for me. I started to pay attention to lyrics, and so I started to translate the Michael Jackson stuff from the trippy slang he used into Italian. That album taught me so many things about rhythm, pacing, the flow of a tracklist and American English language of course! So at around age 11 I asked my parents to get me a keyboard for Christmas. I was never able to play it properly but I could recreate some melodies I liked on it. When I was 14 years old I saw Dawn Of The Dead by G. A. Romero for the first time: I was just blown away and I thought "Ok, this is it dude, you have got to do a movie - a zombie movie". In about a year or so I came up with a script that I pitched to some classmates in hopes to find people into it, so we could shoot it together. The only one guy into it was my friend Paolo Vargiu, who was already super proficient on bass, guitar, piano and programming. This was around 1997/98. He had a software sequencer on his PC so we got to his place, I'd whistle or mumble a melody and he'd pick it up from there or he would propose something. I drew a storyboard for him and I'd show him what I had in mind, ask for a slower or faster BPM count, then I'd watch him come up with a song from the hints I gave him. It was very cool to witness that process, and I still think to this day that the script was actually fine. The movie never got done of course, but we had the soundtrack ready: the plan was to sell it on cassette tapes and use the money to finance the project. But doing a movie was really too much of a mess for a looney teen into zombies, and I discovered I could tell stories through songs... so that's when I bought a sequencer - "Music" for the Playstation - and started messing with it. After using it to its limits I thought I needed a more physical approach - doing music with a joypad was not exactly what I had in mind - and I was already listening to more guitar driven music, so I decided to pick up the guitar. After putting some songs together I played them for Elisabetta and asked her to join me. That's how it all started!
Ines: What a fun story! Seems we have a lot in common, I do too love Michael Jackson and zombie movies. But back to you, of course. How does one come from being inspired by Michael Jackson’s explosive and flamboyant melodies and soundtrack music to creating darkwave music, which is – stylistically and musically - expressive in quite a different manner, as the ambiance and use of instruments take a whole other direction?
Massimo: You have such a good taste! As I mentioned, I've always been into movies, and that exposed me to several different types of music. From the Blues Brothers soundtrack to the Screamsoundtrack, from the Alien score to all of the movies by John Carpenter with his incredible use of synthesizers, I gradually got into more orchestrated and guitar-driven music. For some reason I've always liked dark moments in a track. There's certainly no shortage of dark moments in Michael Jackson's music... if you think about a song like ‘’Who Is It?’’ - it's almost like a short movie itself: it depicts a situation with just hinting to what's happening in the life of a person, and it's done in such a great way. It all comes together clearly when you see the video for that song. As for ambiance and instruments used, Michael worked exclusively with sound engineer Bruce Swedien during his solo career and Bruce is a masterful creator of depth and sound textures. I could literally feel the environment Michael Jackson would sing about in his lyrics while listening to his songs. I think that's a big component of his success and also vastly under rated. When it comes to instrumentation, he's worked with some of the best musicians out there. One of the persons that made me pick up guitar is Jennifer Batten, who has been his guitar player for all of his tours since the album Bad. I saw her on the worldwide broadcast of the Bucharest gig in 1992 - I was ten years old at the time - and there she goes onstage, dressed in a palm shaped neon dress, blazing through the ‘’Beat It’’ guitar solo like a killer. I was simply blown away! And of course, there can't be enough words to stress the importance of Thriller - both the album and the video clip (by John Landis, who also did the Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London...). Ground breaking - to say the very least. The obscure, mysterious component has always been prominent in his persona, and although maybe not the one thing he got a lot of credit for, it is one of the elements that made him so famous. He was well aware of this. So he's always been, to this day, somebody who I'd look up to when creating music. He understood the importance of the craft; he was after the perfect song, the big hit. It set him apart. I'd love to make people dance & move around with my music, regardless of whatever labelling it gets... that's a thing I've kept in mind since starting out as Confrontational, that's why I feel it's all connected to what I'm doing now.
Ines: I understand where you're coming from, as it's not so uncommon to me to sense the influences of Michael Jackson in goth-associated acts, whether it was his darkly theatrical approach or the beats, but they rarely see it as a compliment. As we are already talking about influences, what other artists would you say inspired you directly for what you've done with Dahlia Indaco in particular?
Massimo: Both Elisabetta and I had an interest in horror movies and various dark, industrial and metal bands. She was really into Depeche Mode, Enigma, Rammstein. I was more into Sadus, Prong, The Sisters Of Mercy. We were both into Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth, Killing Joke and the Silent Hill soundtracks from Akira Yamaoka. Pretty wide array of crazy stuff to put together...
Ines: What was the reason to call it quits with Dahlia Indaco in 2009?
Massimo: We never really quit, we just stopped playing together, I guess we both lost interest. We worked two full years on our full length album, Chronicles Of Nowhere, which was a very stressful thing personally. That's all I can say for myself. But it was fun while it lasted and we did some cool stuff, like having Darren Travis from Sadus sing two songs on the album. That is still unbelievable to me!
Ines: I understand. While in Dahlia Indaco you took another interested turn in your style and formed a noise rock band Recs Of The Flesh. So you probably know what I'm going to ask now – how come you went for the noise rock?
Massimo: I think noise rock is the closest I could come to describing the sound of Recs, which was a mix of several different styles ... It's been called noise, dark rock, death rock, and even cosmic rock by Greag Burkart. When you try and sum up several different influences under the "rock" umbrella you never know what the general response will be. I had a formulaic approach to the creation of those songs back then, which was to incorporate elements from all over the place and assign a specifically "equalized" role to each of the instruments. Sonic Youth was definitely one of the biggest influences in terms of the depth of field they could achieve, and the way they'd let melodies filter through apparently just a bunch of messed up noises. It's like a recreation of a language. And I love that approach. Seeing them live in 2002 in my hometown was nothing short of a revelation. I remember meeting up with Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore in 2007... they signed my copy of Hold That Tiger, which is a live bootleg recorded in Chicago in 1987. They were actually playing as a four piece for the first time in years. I handed Thurston a cassette of our EP at the Pitchfork fest in Chicago. He was very cool about it. That was absolutely surreal. I feel they're also vastly underrated- they're absolute pioneers and never got enough credit for what they've achieved.
Ines: With Recs of the flesh you’ve released three full length album, a demo and an EP so far and even though Confrontational is your, let’s say main project lately: is there still going something on with Recs now? Are you on “stand by” or still creating for this particular band?
Massimo: Recs is really gone for good. I have something like 10 unreleased tracks from that band, which never got recorded properly. Maybe I'll put it out one day, but it was definitely time to move on. I am focusing on Confrontational full time now, and it feels great!


Ines: So let's put our focus on Confrontational, which is another twist in your already rich musical history, as you again turned into another direction and went for the 80s influenced electronic sound. I won't ask you about the influences because what we've talked about in the beginning clearly influenced what you do with Confrontational, but still, where did the idea and wish for this particular project came from?
Massimo: Honestly, I've always had this 80s edge in all of my stuff, but yeah - it's very apparent here. I wrote the first song while Recs was disbanding, which was a pretty painful thing to witness. This was early 2014 and in a spur, I wrote four songs in a couple of very spontaneous sessions. I thought it would make for a cool solo EP to release. I got labelled as a pretty "confrontational" individual during one of those last band meetings we had, because I would always question a lot of the motives that came into discussion. That is what defines me in more than one way and in my lyrics the theme of confrontation has always been recurrent. I think facing issues is crucial for every one of us and that was a moment of great issues, huge changes. I've spent most of 2014 working on a bunch of songs - those first four I've worked on are still unreleased as of now. The idea was to explore this side of myself and let it flow into new tracks - without the restraints I used to have in my previous musical experiences. Working on your own is exciting and scary at the same time, but I really enjoy this amount of creative freedom right now.
Ines: It’s safe to assume that creatively and musically you’re completely on your own in Confrontational then?
Massimo: Yes. I've had some friends helping me out for the live shows, while I handle all the song writing and recording on my own. Maybe this will change in the future, but I want to work with the right persons. And since I'm trying my best to make this my full time job, we'll see what happens.
Ines: Would you mind presenting who's helping you out for the live shows? And how does your live shows look like; are there any special visualisations, light show going alongside with it?
Massimo: So far it's way too early to know what the live shows will look like, we'll try to put on something cool of course but the details have yet to be discussed. I'm in talks with someone to expand the live line up; we will see where this collaboration brings us to.
Ines: For now you've released one EP under the name Confrontational with 4 tracks and it may be a bit too soon to ask, but are you currently working on any new material?
Massimo: I am indeed working on the follow up to Done With You - I've been very busy in the studio. It's called A Dance Of Shadows and it contains 9 new tracks, coming out on October 1st. I'm beyond thrilled to announce that it will feature some amazing guests and I'm very honoured that they agreed to be a part of this: Darren Travis from Sadus, Monte Pittman from Madonna/Prong and Cody Carpenter from Ludrium. I feel blessed by their contributions. just did an exclusive preview of the first song, leading into the album pre-order.
Ines: You got me thrilled there, can’t wait to hear it! Can we expect something similar with the new release, like a continuation of Done With You; or will we perhaps hear something on the new album we don't expect?
Massimo: It will be very much a continuation of the first EP, a direct sequel. Stylistically it's in the same direction, there's more of an 80s vibe in the new songs. I have been going back to my roots and expanding on my original love affairs with more recent musical finds, so I'm constantly mixing it up...
Ines: Well, keep us posted! By the way, now that you've got so much experience with music and also a better knowledge of the entire process from the stage when the idea is born up until it's released in its final form, did you ever think about finishing that zombie film you talked about earlier? Or at least the music, which was meant as soundtrack?
Massimo: You know, that is a very good question. I might just release the soundtrack one day, we will see about that. I thought about turning that original script into a 16bit type of videogame. I'd love to make that happen somehow. I actually had the original cassette I made in 1998 sitting in my studio all this time. I played it back a while ago and it sounded very much like contemporary synthwave. It was weird and also very interesting to notice that some ideas have been around in my head since then. I listened to it around last April and that's when I realized I had to go back in time, sort of, to come up with a new chapter. I'm trying to cope with this radical notion that you just can't escape your own past: you'll have to confront it to be able to choose your next steps in life. And that's precisely what I intend to do with my music.
Ines: Well, I personally would love to see it come true! But…. It's your art after all. And your thoughts on the current retrowave scene? I know I love it; it came perfectly for me, since I wasn't able to experience the 80s, but fell under its influence anyway. Ever thought about it, why this 80s, vintage revival even came to be?
Massimo: I don't know why it started! I like David Hasseloff's take on it - he insists it's because it was a relatively more innocent time. It might be true – I think we're somehow in search of a new authenticity. I love the passion in the scene, and I am also really glad I found out about it – it was totally by accident. There are a lot of amazing artists – Ludrium, Future Holotape, Europaweite Aussichten, Dance With The Dead, Carpenter Brut, The Foreign to name just a few – and the quality level is generally so high, it's a constant inspiration to strive for more. I love it! I am so happy to be performing at the first retrowave fest in France this year, Synthzilla! It will take place on be on 30th and 31st October in Lyon and to know I'll be sharing the same stage as Carpenter Brut, Perturbator, Thomas Barrandon and Dan Terminus makes me go crazy with excitement!
Ines: Congratulations on that! That are some pretty exciting names, especially Carpenter Brut, Perturbator and Dance With The Dead, which all became a steady part of my playlist in the last couple of years. Anyway, Max, we covered a lot about you and Confrontational and your future plans and I’m sure we’ll be in touch in further; but before we finish all this, on to a lighter subject - what's on your playlist these days – besides your music of course?
Massimo: Here we go: The Day Of The Dead OST (1985) by John Harrison, Robert Hazard's ING On Fire (1984), Tobias Bernstrup's Killing Spree (2005), Ludrium's Pleasure Of False Past (2015), Monte Pittman's The Power Of Three (2014), Disasterpeace's It Follows OST (2015), Shriekback's Oil And Gold (1985), Light Asylum's In Tension (2010)... To list a few.
Ines: Now I’m surely going to have check some of those out! Again I’d like to thank you deeply for your time and words – for me, it was a blast, you are so nice and easy to talk to and of course I’m wishing you all the best in future, hope to hear from Confrontational any time soon and of course, have the chance to see your perform live! Before we call it a wrap – famous last words?
Massimo: Thank you Ines for having me on Terra Relicta and for taking the time to do this, it's been nothing but a pleasure for me. Famous last words? Words are just dust in deserts of sound...

Confrontational links: Official website, Facebook