LEGGI IN ITALIANO

Daniele Grasso is certainly one of the most interesting names in the Italian and foreign alternative rock scene. He boasts more than forty years of experience in the pursuit of sound – being authentic, beyond logic, liberated from and resistant to compromise. He loves to define himself first and foremost as a musician, but he is much more: jazz player, multi-instrumentalist, author, composer, arranger, producer and sound engineer. During his career he has collaborated with numerous artists, including Cesare Basile, Diego Mancino, Afterhours, Roberto Dell’Era, Greg Dulli, John Scofield and José Carreras. In this interview he told us about his beginnings and about how he understands music. He also gave us some delicious anecdotes (in particular, a quarrel with the great Chet Baker!).

EDITED BY S. BERTOLINO
Is there really a need for this record?

Daniele Grasso

Tell us about the beginnings of your artistic career.

I started very early. Having had a daughter before the age of eighteen, I immediately felt the need to understand and demonstrate (primarily for myself) that I could undertake the path of a musician in a professional way. In short, early fatherhood represented for me a sort of push, an accelerator. Many would have given up, betting everything on the “permanent job”, but luckily I had the support of fantastic parents (an exceptional father and a New York mother with incredible open-mindedness). So I started writing and arranging songs by playing all the instruments myself; I sent material to various Northern European labels (in Germany, Denmark, Holland, etc.) and two months later I was contacted by a Danish agency that offered me a three-month tour. It was not at all easy to find musicians in Sicily willing to follow me for a long time, but in the end I succeeded. We toured all over Europe for three years. After the European tour I went to the United States, specifically to New York. I established relationships with musicians, recording studios, refining recording techniques, production and much more. However, I did not want my family to live in the States: I am a socially-oriented person on the left, and there, although they may have liberal ideals, you will always be looked upon with suspicion for it. So I thought of returning to Sicily to try and spread my flavor and sound, making it contemporary. Then, with the support of my partner and other people close to me, I decided to invest my savings to open a recording studio. Not a small undertaking, still to this day (let alone before), but I equipped with the right machinery and got it off to a great start.

What is your concept of  ‘production’?

I believe that, on a theoretical level, there can be a producer for each song, so you risk becoming a kind of “transformist”. Personally, I prefer to produce the artist, not the record, as the artist changes or evolves over the years. It’s not unlikely that from the moment one writes a song to the moment they take it on tour, they have changed. I like to try to delve into their world, find out what they eat, what movies they have seen, what books they’ve read, etc. Every detail is important to fully understand an artist, how much he believes in it, how much he is willing to expose himself. My concept of production is based on an essential question: “Is there really a need for this record?”. We all talk about love, society, pain, but I always wonder if yet another record based on themes and sounds similar to many others is somehow useful or even necessary. When the answer is yes, I dive headfirst into it. Finding the right outfit for a song is key. If you work correctly with it, for the song to work; the piece must have both an international dimension and a precise geographical connotation (today the term “glocal” is used) without resembling anything else. From a technical point of view, I like having a capable band, lots of microphones, a console, a well-sounding room, and an ear for the “perfect take” (which is not easy). Unfortunately, I realize that this approach is gradually disappearing due to an excess of technology which, very often, hinders creativity. I’m all for a return to minimalism. I too love electronic loops, samples, etc., but if I may still imagine someone sweating on the other side of the glass, well, that’s the best for me.

What are your favorite tools of the trade?

Definitely a good-sounding room. I love the console, and in my studio I have a Harrison and many quality vintage outboards, although I like to have a 24 track analog tape (now sadly, due to cost and production time, I only use it for my own recordings). I arranged for a friend who works at Carnegie Hall to send me a live console that we had customized: it is, to be exact, a fully automated PM5000 with excellent sound. Then, wherever I go, I can’t do without a Teletronix – It’s an original vintage compressor (one of the first machines, among other things, that I bought as a kid). It’s indispensable when I work in other studios. I recently bought a Heritage Successor, a very interesting compressor, and an SSL Fusion, and both of them have perfectly integrated into my setup. As for amp emulators, I don’t particularly like them; However, I do find them interesting to make us pass sounds like snare drums and other devilry. For guitars I still prefer to wire various amps and embarrass the musician, taking him out of his comfort zone, discussing the scaling of the strings, etc. Finally, as a DAW, I use Reason, but I don’t consider myself a fan of editing.

Daniele Grasso the cave studio
Daniele Grasso, The Cave Studio, 2009

How much turmoil is there in the independent world?

To provide this answer, an analysis would first be necessary: ​​one should know the number of those who make “other” music, who are willing to understand it and bring it in front of an audience. At the moment, culture in Italy is experiencing a difficult time. There is a lot of confusion: music, having been dropped into a cauldron, is no longer seen as a representation of culture, and rather simply as pure entertainment. I see what happens in countries like France much more stimulating, both in the pop and the alternative scene. They don’t seem to obsessively follow the taste of the public; their need seems different, purer. They go after a project, an idea, a sound. We, on the other hand, in order to reach the people, end up disgracing ourselves and obtaining opposite results. There is no awareness (or enhancement) of the concept of “independent alternative”: it’s not necessary to reach the masses, but you can certainly conquer a considerable niche audience. We complain – I am talking about us musicians and insiders – that our artists do not work abroad because we do not have the resources of the British or Americans, but the truth is that our offerings are often not up to par. As in a cycling race, the back of those in front of you must be looked at, not the face of those who are chasing you. Here, among producers and artists, there is no lack of talent. What pisses me off is that I don’t see that attitude that pushes me to say: “Hey, ok, let’s take a risk.”

What is the difference between the Italian scene and the foreign one?

If I look at the past, the only music in Italy capable of building an identity so strong as to gain global appreciation was the Neapolitan one. For too long, in my opinion, we’ve had mainly remakes of foreign bands and artists (with some exceptions). And then, perhaps, we must ask ourselves what really happened in our country compared to abroad. Numerically, the Italian population is slightly lower than that of the United Kingdom, but there is no comparison with regards to the music scene. Here it becomes difficult to associate two or three labels to support a good project idea. The artist does not move alone, but waits for something to happen or for someone to commit to him, but it doesn’t work like that: as a result, we find ourselves frustrated, badly treated artists and organizers without the slightest idea of ​​how to get a project going, never mind export it. Music is a bit of a mirror of our country, of politics, and I don’t think we are in good shape from this point of view. Of course, the emphasis should be placed on the centrality of Italian culture, music and artists… It would be too long of a discussion, albeit a critical one, especially if we consider the experience of the pandemic.

What advice would you give to someone looking to make a difference?

I would advise them to “be” the difference. No acting, no pretending. I am reminded of the Stones concert in Hyde Park, the one in 1969: out of tune instruments, Mick Jagger out of tune like a bell … but always exciting. They made a difference, and they are still there. We shouldn’t be creative “with the sling” while fearing taking risks. Some artists will fail because, frankly, they do not have it in them to go further, while others will be able to set themselves ablaze as an example for an entire generation. We are all so aligned, clean, linear, but it is not enough to have green hair to be different (these are things we have already seen forty years ago). You need a plan, an idea of ​​the path and the ability to work with a team. If they are not there, you need to find allies who see the difference in you, who are willing to invest. Of course, that’s not always enough. Knowledge is important. And at the base of everything is risk – the history of music production is full of people who have taken risks and have succeeded in their intent.

Who are your clients today?

I don’t work for third parties. I didn’t do it before Afterhours and I probably never will. I don’t even think I would be able to: I only give and say certain things when I feel inspired by a project. For this reason, together with my partner Rosy Galeano and our collaborating friends, we founded the Dcave records label about ten years ago. Some people contact us because they have clear ideas and are chasing a certain sound, a precise identity. Others are selected for an artistic direction – or what I like to call “the trademark”. I can say, fortunately, there are still those out there who are hunting for a highly identifying original sound.

Daniele Grasso, Giorgio Prette, Manuel Agnelli, Andrea Viti, Dario Ciffo,2005
D. Grasso, G. Prette, M. Agnelli, A. Viti, D. Ciffo, 2005
Roberto Dell'Era e Diego Mancino al The Cave Studio, 2003
R. Dell'Era, D. Mancino, The Cave Studio, 2003

What inspires and drives you to produce more music?

There is a kind of “obsession” in the search for one’s own sound and voice that knows neither pauses, nor fear, nor affections. It takes into account only oneself, and those who share it. Music is an obsessive lover: it haunts you everywhere. What inspires me is this supernatural, ultra-human component. I don’t know if I mean… The universe has its own sound characterized by the rotational frequencies of the planets, and since we too are frequencies, it’s like being electrocuted on the road to Damascus. This is what forces me to continue. If one day, getting out of bed, I felt bored with the idea of ​​making music, I would stop immediately; but at present the motto is “die on stage”. So I’d like to call it a disease that forces me to listen and try to capture wonderful things while the world, alas, is distracted. This is an ongoing challenge. When I learn something new, I am stimulated to put it into practice and each time I hope that I will be given an extra week on this earth to do it (laughs).

Do you believe in a “reset” and a turning point after the pandemic?

My father was a historian and from an early age he talked to me about the “magnificent thirty years”. He said that, after a catastrophic event, people want beauty, moral well-being, and that this search lasts about thirty years and then fades. Despite all the negative of the pandemic, I believe there are the conditions for hope to start again. As shocked as I may be to see a “strange humanity” (certain characters such as anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers) spreading any kind of bullshit on social, which may obviously lead me to become pessimistic – I do, after all, have hope that we will amplify the desire for beauty. The musician lives the reality of his time, is interested in politics, society, does not only look at the composition of the government but at the actions that will take place. Regarding the funds and the raise that is so much talked about; are we really so sure that this money will be available to the people? Will I be able to go to the bank and have more money to invest in my business? Will I be able to bring artists from Northern Europe to the studio, do more promotion, etc.? If a series of important structural measures are added to the desire for beauty, I believe that a “reset” in the industry is possible, but we need a spirit of collaboration, a commonality of purpose. We need to make a common front instead of acting as “mavericks”.

Can you tell us a memory or an event you are particularly attached to?

I had a fight with Chet Baker. At the beginning of my career I was lucky enough to work as a live sound engineer for big names, including Chet Baker. One day after rehearsals we met in a club where I remember that he complimented me on the sound. Then he went up on stage to play two notes before the concert but he was a little “upset” about something. I was a kid, he was at the end of his career and he had already suffered the famous beating for which he lost his teeth. Shortly after the concert began, he stopped and yelled at me from the stage: “I told you, don’t touch nothing!”. I was lowering the channel faders of the mixer that I wasn’t using, while he continued to yell amid general disbelief. So the lights came on in the club and I (who was a bad boy) with all my courage yelled at him: “I’m trying to do the best I can! Why don’t you do the same?”. At that point he got off the stage and went into his dressing room. The organizers were upset and asked me to apologize, but I didn’t. I thought I had ruined my career even before starting. Shortly thereafter I knocked on his door and, surprisingly, it was he who apologized and explained to me that his behavior was due to his tiredness. So we hugged and walked back to the stage together to end the concert.

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