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Studio Talk: An in-depth conversation with Italian legend Marco Passarani

For over thirty years of tireless service, Roman nimble-fingered DJ and machine wizard Marco Passarani has been operating on all fronts of the electronic scene, seamlessly threading his way across analogue house and techno territories, via soul, jazz, disco and electro meanders, and back again.

This daring, multi-branch studio approach of his was further explicated by the variety of labels he got to grace the grooves of: from Peacefrog to Running Back, through the likes of Cin Cin, Numbers, Desolat and Nature Records.

Fresh off the drop of his latest solo LP for Vladimir Ivkovic bold-as-brass Offen imprint, ‘W.O.W.‘, and Tiger & Woods just-out new album ‘A.O.D.‘ on Running Back, the timing felt perfect to take a look back and go into the origins and destination of one of today’s most respected names in contemporary dance music.

From dabbling in production with a Commodore Amiga back in the late ’80s to juggling with a jaw-droppingly well furnished two-story studio, the following interview throws a further comprehensive light on the craft of a real outstanding genius – as comfortable bending minds behind the decks as he is shaping new forms of expression in the discretion of his workroom.


Interview by Baptiste Girou

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"I think that going in different directions, but still
keeping the same approach and attitude is the key to longevity"

Hey Marco, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Few can boast about such longevity in the game but you’ve been around for three decades now, witnessing the growth and expansion of electronic music whilst taking a crucial part in its stylistic evolution, from underground praise to more mainstream currents. How does it feel looking at everything you’ve accomplished since your early days in the industry?

Well I don’t know really. I have mixed feelings about everything, it seems like a lifetime I’ve been doing things but it also feels like I started maybe 3 years ago.

If I concentrate enough, I can confirm what you said… it went from a bunch of freaks, to the majority of people. It changed in a way that you were almost not accepted for what you were doing to be just one of the many, and even your random neighbour might ask you a question about a record. Very different, not worse nor better, just very different.

I don’t think I’ve achieved so much though, I’m constantly living in a search for improvement on everything, so I don’t spend much time looking back. You might even be right, but I really don’t know. I’m so concentrated on keeping myself moving on – there’s still so much to explore and improve.

What was your first foray into the world of electronic music?

Working in a record store from back when I was 13 (in the afternoon after school, and actually in the video game side of the store), gave me the chance of being exposed to whatever those two older colleagues were listening to. And they were into any sort of sophisticated music, be it pop or alternative.

So my daily exposure was from Japan to Kraftwerk, from Depeche Mode to Human League and many other things. But not only, they also helped me find the more “obscure” or hidden side of the things I naturally liked (stuff a teenager could like)… so I started digging the more alternative side of Prince, and they made me become familiar with those who were behind the records… let’s say starting from Madonna I got to discover Jellybean Benitez and Nile Rodgers, onto similar transitions.

Still, the explosion of my passion for the electronic sound started when I realised I could actually make music with a Commodore Amiga, so we are talking about 1987/1988. The early house music and those Kraftwerk records, combined with Prince or maybe with a sample from a Brian Eno record, made the magic happen in my brain. I was doing this in the store when the boss wasn’t there (laughs).

Were you raised in a music-loving family?

Not really. I come from a very simple family. My father was a bus driver, and my mother a home-dressmaker. They were not lucky enough to have the chance of finishing their studies, actually they both had to stop super early due to the second world war. So, they only got to know the word “work”.

There was no time for them to think of music and arts. While my father always encouraged me doing what I was doing, my mother is still skeptical, but finally happy as she realised I’ve put the same work attitude they had into what I wanted. They didn’t show me the way to music, but they taught me how to fight hard to achieve a good result.

"Double K is not only DJing, but he’s also combining beats,
and that was my dream. So think of that, plus all those records
that we were selling that were called “house” –
I thought “ok, this is my chance"

From listening to making music, there’s a leap to take. What provoked you to start producing your own beats?

Again, in the store I was working one day I received a little box with “sampler” written on it. So I connected it to the Commodore Amiga and realised I could use that computer to do what I had always wanted to do when watching the movie ‘Beat Street‘.

The character from the film, Double K is not only DJing, but he’s also combining beats, and that was my dream. So think of that, plus all those records that we were selling that were called “house” – I thought “ok, this is my chance“.

I can play records, and make records. And one day I can play the records I produce! One year after I was sampling Mister Lee’s ‘Get Busy‘ and playing a sample from Brian Eno’s ‘Regiment‘ on top. I wish I still had some of those tapes… all gone, all in my memories.

Who were your musical heroes back then?

In that very moment (’87/88) Prince, Depeche Mode, David Sylvian, Bomb the Bass, Public Enemy… a bit after that De La Soul, Kraftwerk and an unknown bunch of people from Chicago who were featured on a tape called ‘The Best of House‘. Later on, when I was more conscious, I found out that the tape was filled with material from Phuture, Mr. Lee, Fast Eddie, Armando… etc.

Which artists have your interest these days?

It’s a bit different these days as we are exposed to so many things and I can hardly focus. But right now, some of my favourites are Marie Davidson, Todd Osborn, Perko, Dorian Concept. And about stuff I found out only recently, the libraries written by Claude Larson are on heavy rotation.

Your latest solo album ‘W.O.W.’ came out last month via Vladimir Ivkovic imprint, Offen Music. Can you tell us more about its conception and making?

Me and my Tiger & Woods partner, Valerio Delphi, wanted to change the layout of the studio, expanding the setup to the upper floor so that we can have a second station to work separately and have a space to do rehearsal for the live shows too.

So basically I started building a smaller setup, testing various solutions. By doing that, I found myself after a few weeks with tons of new music, to the point where I couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden 30 new jams were on my hard disk, and I didn’t even realise how this happened.

Since Vladimir is one of my closest buddies in the scene (since about 2002, perhaps even earlier), I always send him some new music for feedback. And he came back to me saying “No matter what, we have to release some of these songs“. And I just said, “WOW“.

1

"While my father always encouraged me doing what I was doing,
my mother is still skeptical, but finally happy as she realised
I’ve put the same work attitude they had into what I wanted"

Knowing it was made utilising a limited set-up, what gear did you mostly use for the album?

Exactly, as I said before, my intention was to build a new system, smaller, and that could work for a live show and writing music in different places. Something to disconnect my life from the studio. While touring so much for Tiger & Woods I had been suffering a lot of being far from the studio, so I wanted a new system that would allow me more flexibility.

In most of the tracks the Novation Peak is the main polyphonic synth, then Elektron Analog Four, and few plugins such as Op-X, Monarch and Pg8X. Clearly the TR 909 helped, but also the incredible emulation of the LinnDrum made by Aly James, Vlinn Pro. Mostly everything written and sequenced on Push 2, with the Ableton screen turned off.

But this was just the beginning of the compact setup, now it has a different shape already, and not that compact anymore… but more independent from the computer thanks to the Akai MPC Live. It fits in the corner of the room of the studio’s upper floor, so yes, it’s compact, and part of it is actually core to the live set-up as well.

So what’s your studio set-up currently comprised of?

Well there’s a lot of stuff, but I will focus on what is my current core.

MPC Live + Akai Force + Elektron Analog Four + Elektron Octatrack + Waldorf Blofeld + Roland SE02 + Roland TR8S + Behringer Neutron + Novation Peak + E-Rm Multiclock + Ableton Live / Push2 on a MacBook Pro.

Then downstairs I have my oldies like the Roland TR909, Roland TR606, Korg MS20, Roland SH101, Roland JX3P, Roland Alpha Juno2, Moog Little Phatty, Midas Venice F32 and few other toys that are taking a rest for the moment. As I said before, to move on you also need to explore new areas, new colours… so it’s time for new machines for a bit of time.

What’s your most cherished piece of gear and why?

Probably still the SH101 and the TR909 as they are in my setup since 1993 (together with the MS20 actually) and they are always loyal when it comes to achieving a sure shot.

Also, a recent piece I got and that became the solution to many problems is the E-Rm Multiclock, which is fixing any possible flaw in the way the more modern machines talk to the older machines. That little jewel is literally a universal time/tempo translator.

Your next acquisition?

Oh shit, everything! (laughs) So difficult these days, I just would love to buy everything.

Rblp13 Cover Artwork

"We wanted a strong new direction for a project that became
prisoner of easy definitions like “edits” or “nu-disco”,
when we actually feel something quite different in our productions"

You recently released your third album as Tiger & Woods through Gerd Janson’s Running Back imprint. The record is actually based upon samples lifted from Claudio Donato’s seminal Full Time and Good Music back catalogs. How did you approach this one-off and much singular revisit of two of Italy’s most beloved dance music imprints?

Being sick of this definition of “edits” for mostly everything we have done, we wanted to celebrate the 10th anniversary with a grown-up record that would draw a thick line with the previous productions. But we didn’t want to give up sampling, so we decided to do some sort of work research on Full Time’s catalogue to celebrate our city and a bit of its dance music history.

Claudio was happy with our idea of putting those sample in a completely different context, pitching them down -20% in some case and adding 80% new music on top. We wanted a strong new direction for a project that became prisoner of easy definitions like “edits” or “nu-disco”, when we actually feel something quite different in our productions. So we decided to tell a story rather than being “dancefloor functional”.

Teamwork implies different rules, as well as shaking the habits and reflexes one may have acquired over years of practice. What’s a T&W recording session like? Do you assign yourself a particular role / duty in the studio?

Well, in terms of attitude we have different roles. I might be more musical, while Valerio is more of a sound engineer, a sound explorer. But seriously the roles can easily mix up, we are quite complementary. We even start some songs separately and then the other one starts messing with it. There’s seriously no rules.

Italy has remained a steady purveyor of quality electronic music over the years, from the legendary Roman techno scene to the ever proactive London-via-Berlin based Italian diaspora. How do you explain this constant artistic emulation inside and outside of the country’s borders?

What I know is that Italy has always had a vibrant production scene. Very disorganised and not visible in the same crate. Seems like the potential scene has always been sliced in small pieces – lots of families, crews, groups and no one could refer to it as a national scene. You can point out tons of producers though! Especially these days.

3

"I’m so concentrated on keeping myself moving on
there’s still so much to explore and improve"

You’ve released music on labels as diverse as Peacefrog, Skam, Running Back, Desolat, Cin Cin and Numbers, to name but a few. Do you believe the polymorphic quality of your music is also its greatest asset for lasting in time?

I don’t know really, but what I do know is that if you always eat the same dish you will soon get bored. I think that going in different directions, but still keeping the same approach and attitude is the key to longevity.

You have to be curious about possibilities and about improvements cause there’s a universe to explore. And even if you won’t succeed in exploring the universe, even just the tendency to try and do it will make your sound grow and help you move on.

We gotta move move move, there’s a world of sounds, people, colours. And every year there’s more, and I hope to be able to talk to the new kids around for a long time.

What makes you happy?

A comfortable DJ booth with tons of bass on the monitors.

What pisses you off?

Juventus Football Club never winning the Champions League.

What was the last record store you visited and what did you cop there?

Actually not really a record store, but a flea market. Always trying to find old libraries on Parry Music and Sonoton, forgetting that there’s Discogs for that and those Italian flea markets are the worst spots for this kind of records.

What will you be up to in the coming weeks?

There’s a new project called Unrelatable that will keep me busy, it’s the new label that will take most of my time in the future. Then I have a few remixes awaiting on my to-do list, both on my own and with Valerio. And as per usual, gigs on the weekends.

Photography by Dan Wilson

Discover more about Marco Passarani on Inverted Audio.

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