Meet me in Tuscany: a report from the Arezzo Wave Love Festival
by Anna Battista
See, summer is made to have fun, to see the sun and to go to festivals. The Arezzo Wave Love festival is probably the only free one in Italy with decent guests and a nice location. Settled in Tuscany, not that far from Florence, Arezzo, which lies on a hill at the edge of a plain in which the Arno river flows, boasts very ancient origins and was, in the past, part of the Medici Grand-duchy. The town bears the imprint of its Medieval flourishing and, amazingly, also the organisation of the festival has remained to the Middle Ages. Their advanced methods to sort the press passes out are the cause of the total chaos that reign in their HQ. They manage to mess around with my pass, my life, my photographer's pass and my photographer's life. Though I shouldn't I forget them, I do it all the same, and, after finally sticking the green infamous pass on my wrist, I have access to the backstage. Here journalists are rushing, trying to understand which singers are scheduling interviews and press-conferences. We get to know that St. Germaine, tonight's headliner, is not gong to let anybody get near him. He's accepted talking with one of the channels of the Italian national radio, but the interviewer has apparently committed the horrible mistake to remark that he plays "jazz" and St. Germaine has answered in a pissed off tone, saying that, NO, he doesn't do jazz at all. Well, thanks a lot, let's move on and find someone else who wants to be interviewed.
The first volunteer is hip hop troubadour Saul Williams, who tonight is going to launch his album Amethyst Rock Star. Saul is a poet, before being a musician and a fine lyricist, so it isn't improper to start our chat with him by asking about his third book: "Sorcery of Self, my newest book, is not out yet," he explains, "it's in the final process of being edited and I think that it can be considered a collection. Between 1994 and now, I've written 25 journals, I filled around 25 books with words. Sorcery of Self takes about 21 of those books and basically underlines the process that I came through as a writer and more specifically as an individual. I've been through several moods of writing, several moods of thinking, hence in this collection I pretty much describe the process of a young person finding his own voice, analysing social and political issues and also analysing the personal influences and experiences. So I think it is mostly extremely personal, like my last book She, however it is more along the lines of thoughts, prose and culture, as opposed to just poetry. The interesting thing about it is that it is called Sorcery of Self because I started it out writing with the serious idea of what I wanted to become and what I wanted to do and I felt that when I put those ideas into words they became reality, they became the reality that I'm living in now."
People might think that it is rather easy for a poet to write a song, but being a lyricist and a poet are two different things. "There is a difference in that," Saul claims, "the first experience I had at writing songs was when my producer gave me The Beatles' White Album and said 'Listen son, you're an amazing writer, but doing an album means writing songs and you need to find the difference between simply writing poetry and songwriting.' And so I listened to what he said and I agreed that for the most part there is a difference between writing songs and writing poetry. However I do also aim to find ways to incorporate poetry into songs, which means breaking the format, which is basically what hip hop has done from the beginning. The way that I've been involved into writing now is much different from before. For the most part, when I'm writing songs now I'm singing, or rapping, which is quite different in a sense from the poetic experience, that's why now I also make a distinction between poetry and songs. As far as creation and destruction in art are concerned I think that the two always happen simultaneously. For instance, as someone who deals with hip hop when I write, my purpose is on one hand to destroy the bullshit as my lyrics aren't like the average lyrics in a hip hop track which often contain bullshit. At the same time when I'm creating something I'm aiming to create a new style of presentation, I'm aiming to say it in a new way and to create a new style of delivering what happens, so on the one hand I'm here to destroy something and on the other hand I'm creating something."
Having mentioned hip hop, Saul Williams gives us an insight on the scene, "What's happening on the West coast as far as hip hop is concerned is extremely diverse. I mean if you go to San Francisco, you get the core of the underground hip hop scene, this kind of people that come out of the West coast don't represent the gangster scene that you get from Dr Dre, Warren G and so on. There's an interesting thing about hip hop which can be connected to the way that people did LSD in the '60s. In the '60s everybody was just taking that drug at parties, it was a party drug. Eventually more and more people started learning that native Americans were using a mushroom with similar hallucinogenic effects in a ceremony-type form and they learnt that they could take the LSD high and use their high as a ritualistic ceremonial type thing. It is the same thing that we've learnt with hip hop: because you have fun and you have parties with hip hop, we learnt that words and microphones are powerful and if they are used consciously we can control the hype of people's consciousness across the world. In the late '80s with groups like Public Enemy, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Rakim, all of a sudden we learnt that this party music could be used strategically to uplift political consciousness and spiritual consciousness, racial consciousness or whatever. The problem with contemporary hip hop is that hip hop singers are turning their back on what we've already learnt, which is silly. Before the late '80s they had never realised it, so it was OK that hip hop was party, girls or whatever. But after you'd learnt the lesson, why would you neglect what you've already learnt?"
If the late '80s groups managed to give a consciousness about social problems, music has a power on its own and can be connected with politics. "The majority of young people, before the election of George W. Bush have been apathetic," Saul states, "and that is totally connected to the apathy that you find in hip hop right now, it is the same apathy. When Public Enemy were rhyming and were at the top of the charts more young people were politically involved than ever before. So that yeah, music and politics are totally connected and as soon as we lose that sense of apathy in the music then we'll see it reflecting in politics. The thing that is interesting about hip hop is that a lot of young people in the States and across the world feel like they own it, they feel like it is theirs. A lot of MCs have yet to realise that what they say can affect reality and affect their own personal lives. For example, if Notorius B.I.G.'s album hadn't been entitled Ready To Die, he probably wouldn't be dead now. As soon as the MCs realise their power, the listening audience will also realise their own power. A lot of people don't participate politically in the States, especially young people. They don't even realise that power, the power of their consciousness could really affect politics. And if you look across the globe in the music industry, you can see that most major record companies are afraid right now, they say the market is changing all of a sudden because young people are buying stuff off the Internet, but it's not only that that frightens them. What frightens them is the fact that for instance artists like Ani Difranco in the United States is one of the best selling acts there and she is not connected with any major label, and what accounts for it is the fact that young people across the world are starting to realise their power."
"All of a sudden people from the music industry are realising that young people could simply not support the industry. For example, I come from the poetry scene in the United States, and in this poetry scene, what's interesting about it, is the fact that all these young people are interested in writing poetry and the poetry they're writing is basically saying, 'Look, I live in a propaganda, you're trying to tell me what to do, what to think, how to dress, but you know what? I can think for myself!' And of course they have to express it through poetry because to be a poet is the most rebellious fucking thing you could be in the United States, it's absurd! In a dog eat dog capitalist state, to claim 'I'm a poet!' and 'I can think for myself!' are the biggest fears of any institution. And that's why all of a sudden MTV has started to do ad campaigns to try and get people to watch it. They're telling us that we should like them. The idea of young people in society thinking for themselves frightens the industry because that makes the listening audiences unpredictable. For instance, before Radiohead put out Kid A and Amnesiac, people in the industry said 'It's terrible, there's no song eligible as single, what are we going to do? It's fucking terrible!' But young people heard it and said, 'This is fucking great! I don't even give a fuck about the radio, I can play them in my car.' And so, the industry wonders, 'What the fuck?' and then decides to push these albums because people like them. According to the industry those two albums were absurd, they thought they were unmarketable, but it doesn't matter anymore because what's selling now, most of the things that are happening now, most of the best selling acts that are happening right now are the sleepers, the unpredictable, like for instance in the R'n'B world Jill Scott. People got it and the industry is just jumping on the bandwagon."
Saul Williams has read his poetry during lectures at various universities: New York University, Morehouse College, George Washington University, Cornell University and Harvard. Universities are generally considered as fossilised institutions, but his poetry is generally well received by academia. "I think that basically in the universities I'm seen as somebody who represents the link between academic poetry and hip hop which is hip poetry, which for professors is extremely important, because if they don't make that link, nobody will pay attention in the class anymore." Saul reveals, "So suddenly you have students telling their teachers about me or teachers who want to tell their students about me for the sake of getting that common ground, because I guess that for far too long there's been too much of a distance. For the past twenty years America has basically aligned the entertainment industry with the same things. So that you don't go to see the films to think or, you know, to contemplate your family life or whatever, you usually go there to avoid thinking at all. But once that happens people become hungry, hungry for a substance, hungry for something that it is going to make them think, that's why all of a sudden a film like Slam plays an important role because it encourages people to think for themselves whereas most films just aim at entertaining the audience. The mainstream is changing, definitely. America's a very young country compared to other countries on this planet and we might even compare it to a boy. Let's say America is about 14-16 years old. You could say that things are moving fast and it's 19 and about to turn 20. What's happening is that that boy is about to turn twenty, it's about to find its voice, to find its power. I think that it is always the young people that define the language of the time, but a lot of young people are really educating themselves on political issues right now. Look at the effects of Rage Against the Machine and think about how many people went to see them. I think that in a sense the language of young people in the future will be academic, but not academic in the sense of what it is taught by the academic institutions. For instance, a bunch of what I speak is extremely academic, my credentials are academic, but I don't speak because of what I learnt in the schools, but from what I learnt from travelling and from my personal experiences. But it is still an academic experience outside of the class, so that I think young people in the future will have an academic language defined by their own experiences."
" I'm absolutely positive about the future as I AM the future!" Saul exclaims, continuing, "It is only a matter of time before the truth reveals. Look at the effects that America has and still continues to have. I do think that within the next ten years things are going to be terrible. Terrible, terrible things will come out of the States through entertainment, through laws, policy and warfare, I do think that terrible things will come. But in the next twenty years, you'll see some of the most amazing connections and global connections being made than ever before as far as people working together realising the responsibility that comes with power. Look at George W. Bush in office, right? It's amazing that he's in office, it's perfect that he's in office. There's no better way than to wake up in an apathetic community, you give them a figurehead, they point to it and say 'I fucking hate that!' and they'll make sure that it won't happen again. George Bush represents the underbelly, the subconscious of the white American majority, he represents that. To have that leader in that position enables people to say 'It's fucking crazy!' I grant that he will fuck up things and we will probably be recuperating for the next ten years, but none the less I think that after that things will be better." So with a scary prediction for the present and a very positive belief in the future Saul Williams goes away to rest in the backstage, allowing the next act, Khan, Julee Cruise and Kid Congo Power to hold a public press conference.
Can Oral, better known as Khan to the music world, started making music in Germany, where he was brought up, but then moved to New York. Music magazines have been writing about the New York music scene, highly praising a few bands, but given his experience Khan can tell us the truth about it. "New York is really quiet regarding electronic music, there has to be this point where electronic music goes more into entertainment or punk or whatever you call it, but it's not like you go out every single night in New York and you see some wild electronic shows, it's more like a bunch of people jumping around on some shit. It's a media lie!" Khan concludes while Kid Congo Power laughs behind him. Julee Cruise and Khan do different kind of music and yet the result of their music efforts is remarkable. Julee tries to explain how in their featuring tracks the two different aspects of their music mix and melt together: "I think we get along well more perfectly because when you have something pure and beautiful behind in your music and put it together with something dark, disturbing and ironic, then the result is really cool! Working with Khan is the most natural thing in the world, it's like somebody finishing a sentence for you. It's amazing!"
Khan has got a more technical explanation: "If you make the music for a singer you have to leave a certain amount of space for a different voice, but it's really like more what's between the notes that makes the singer's song good, that's why electronic music is perfect for Julee. We met about two years ago and started working in my house and working on my own release on Matador. I played Julee some of the tracks I was working on and she could immediately work on them. Whenever we work together I give her a tape to play and she comes back into my studio which is in my house and we start recording the music and the vocals. I think I was really interested in all the mistakes that can happen while recording. For example my windows were open, it was just New York City in the summer, outside there were police cars, mothers screaming, and Julee was 'Oh, maybe we should close the windows' and I went 'No! I actually like that!' And Julee was singing 'Body Dump' to my cat! Having Julee on my record was a shock, but after that nothing shocked me anymore! We work perfectly together I think."
Khan has recorded three albums: Passport, 1-900-GET-KHAN and the latest release No Comprendo, which is probably the most daring as on it are featuring vocals by Jon Spencer, Diamanda Galas, Julee Cruise, Andre Williams, Kid Congo Powers, Françoise Cactus from Stereo Total and Hanin Elias from Atari Teenage Riot. Creating his tracks must be really intriguing for Khan, especially because he always seems to manage to work with lots of cool singers and players. "I always start composing my tracks with an idea, a very abstract idea," Khan explains, "for example that's how I started No Comprendo. When I started writing 1-900-GET-KHAN, the idea was to make a very sleazy soundtrack to New York City, the city I'm living in. I just imagined a sound that was for me very bluesy. With my new album No Comprendo it was getting more abstract and my concept was more like 'OK, I wanna play with different singers.' So I just imagined a person, I just imagined Julee, and then I started from there with whatever comes first, usually it's the beat and I start from there, adding layers and then cutting back the finished track. Sometimes I work a lot on samplers and then I go away from samplers and add some analogue sounds. Later I've been working in my recording studio with lots of percussion and guitars. Then I just transfer it on my computer and cut it. My pieces of equipment change all the time. There's definitely some favourite piece of equipment, one is the SP1200 emulator drumkit, an electronic sampler. I work a lot with the Roland PS60, a recorder, 'cos I don't like sitting in front of a computer monitor and move the little boxes of music around the screen. I like to touch as much instruments as possible. I try not to get a label to describe my music, whenever I get one I just run away from it. Making music is my only label. Labels are more for people who go in a store and want to look under 'techno', 'blues', under one of those. As a format for music I like patterns: blues music in a way has got a very good format for what I do, although I can't be considered as doing blues music! Anyway, I'm really trying to stay away from labels. If you want to give me a label anytime I would say that my music is more like a spiral…make it a green spiral!" he concludes in a sensual voice, while Julee bursts into laughing at Khan's remark.
To create, to make music you've got have good inspirations. "I get mine from the music script, the music for me is like a film script," explains Julee, "then I get to add what I think it inspires, what I think it should say. Music for me is really full of images." Khan's inspirations seem to be more tangible: "I would say that I get my inspirations from where I live, from how I live my life, that is New York at present, as if I were trying to make a statement for myself and for what's going on around me. I've been moving around a lot, I've been spending time in Mexico right now, just because I'm not very satisfied with my life in New York. After writing a song, once I have the playback ready I leave everything else to the singers who can add everything they like, I don't censor anything. I don't tell them in any way what to do and they are completely free. When I did 1-900-GET-KHAN New York at that time was really restrictive and getting really sexually repressed. The reason why I moved to New York was to actually have fun and go out and go crazy and have lots of sex. It just became a political thing in New York that it was alright that you were supposed not to be free in the way we lived, so my record was a sort of statement, like saying 'I want to have hustlers on my cover and sell the record on the internet or whatever! And I wanna have my own phone sex line!' There's no nudity allowed in New York City, there's no strip tease bars or topless bars in New York City. But we came on stage and took our clothes off. Since there wasn't a lot of nudity, so I said alright I'm going to do it! It was very shocking for people, but I had a lot of fun doing it, but at the same time we had lots of problems selling the record because people were afraid to go with the CD to the register and pay for it with that cover, because they might be identified as buying sexual stuff! So there's definitely lots of trouble with what I do. I had very different reactions: I was doing the tour in Europe and in the States with 1-900-GET-KHAN and when I do tracks from that album I always take off my clothes, remain in my underwear or take everything off. I had really different reactions: most of the girls really liked it and the guys started shouting at me 'Faggot!'. That was a lot of fun!"
Khan has got Turkish origins, but nothing of his origins seems to have pierced the pattern of his tracks. "My father is Turkish, my mother Finnish, I grew up in Germany," he explains, "So my Turkish origins have a bit washed away, but I have a Turkish passport which is hell on earth. For what regards my music, I'm very beat oriented, I kind of start my music on a beat and I think that's a Turkish remembrance. And…they say I drink like a Finn and I fuck like a Turk!" Khan's records are released by Matador, a very cool label, which, Khan claims, never put any kind of restrictions on his music. "They must have put financial restrictions," Khan says, "as my record company doesn't give me a big budget, so I can have a restriction like I can't record in Tibet!" Then Khan looks at Kid Congo Powers, ironically asking him, "Did they ever try and put restrictions on your guitar?" "Noooo!" the latter goes in a cavernous voice, adding, " I never learnt to play guitar in a proper way, it was self taught. I was never imposed restrictions. I've been working with different artists, people like The Cramps, Nick Cave, Congo Norvell or Khan. Those are bands who are kind of limitless, that's why I learnt that everything that you do goes from that. They were all about being limitless." Julee intervenes: "There wasn't any restriction apart from DON'T SING LOUD! DON'T SING LOUD! And now instead it's DON'T SING SOFT!"
After Kid Congo Powers has pronounced his first words, Khan introduces us his friend: "Kid Congo Powers is part of my album, we're actually touring in Europe right now together, playing selective shows together with Julee. He adds another layer to the songs. He's a great performer on stage, I quite like him and he's fun to tour with, we're having a great time. We would never have anybody on stage just to play songs. With No Comprendo I wanted to work with people who had their own cosmos and personality and they weren't just a voice or an instrument, people were like the one and only sound and that's what I wanted to put in my life and into my music." Kid Congo Powers smiles and then adds his two pence: "I worked with so many mad people that working with Khan is a drop in the ocean! I sing and play guitar on his album. I was familiar with a lot of his work before and he came and gave me a lot of his records. Part of the thing which attracted me about Khan is that obviously he is completely out of his mind and obviously he is a genius. And that was a big attraction to me in the same way as working with Julee was a big attraction. I've been fortunate to work with a lot of great singers, so to work with Julee Cruise is even more more more thrilling. I'm very excited, I love it, I really do."
After the press conference, while the other journalists get busy asking questions to Tarantino impersonators The Tarantinos, who try to lamely scare them with their toy guns (dear, oh dear), I finally get the chance to ask Khan and Kid Congo Powers a couple of questions in their dressing room. Unfortunately Julee is not staying with us, but she's back to their hotel to have a rest. Anyway, we can all the same have a nice chat and go back to talk about Khan's multifarious music projects. In his life, Khan has also been H.E.A.D., Cube 40, Global Electronic Network, Khan & Walker, El Turco Loco, Super-8, PSI-Project, Black Sabbath Riot, Mass-Turbator, Radiowaves and 4E. "They were all really really important music project for me," Khan states, "they were important because they got me started with dance music like Bizz OD, Gizz TV, Fast DJ all these were like 12" projects, they were dance projects and that's where I learnt using my drum machines and my instruments, actually I also wanted to split into more different music. As a band, as a project, as a producer you can just make all kind of different music under one name. So Khan is the project that uses all the influences from all my other projects and they were all very important. 4E was very very important, it was being more musical instead of having a dance floor effect. It meant introducing more instruments and different beats, it wasn't like a floor to floor thing. All the projects were actually very important, some of the projects I do with friends, they're just very unique projects that can only work with that friend. It's like a dead sound creation between that person and myself, it's not that I could do the same music with anybody else."
And yet, tonight's gig is going to be different from the sort of gig Khan might be doing with his other projects: "We're going to be very very mellow, very soft, as for Julee you need to make a lot of space for her voice. Everything is going to be very un-festival like in a way, we don't know really what to expect from tonight, because we're not going to jump around and we're not gonna do the big party thing. You'll be able to stand or sit or whatever you want." "So you're not going to take off your clothes?!?", I ask him. "I don't think so!" Khan replies, destroying my chances to see total mayhem on stage, but Kid Congo Powers restores my hopes: "But we have a few opportunities…"
Khan will also experience tonight the reaction an Italian audience can have to his music. It looks like he and Kid Congo Powers are experienced enough to try and identify differences in between their audience in the States and in Europe. "For me being American and coming here from there, the main differences are that in Europe you are more open-minded, there are more new ideas," Kid Congo Powers starts, "Well, actually I can't even say that there are more new ideas, but more new ideas seem to be out in the open." "And there is a chance to be appreciated," Khan interrupts. Kid Congo confirms it and adds, "When I was in the Gun Club in the '80s, we moved to Europe because it was possible for us to be a successful band in Europe and live being musicians, whereas when we stayed in the United States it was not at all a possibility." Then Khan intrudes once again: "I think that, when it comes to electronic music, European audiences are more educated, have a bigger background. In high schools or universities electronic music is important in an almost scientific way. Nobody seems to really understand what this is all about in the United States. It's all about clubs and drugs. Nobody cares what kind of music is being played in the same way as much as they care if they're gonna get fucked up. It's fine for entertainment, I understand it, it's fine for people going out and having fun, it's cool, I like to do it as well without caring for what kind of music they're playing then, but there should be an understanding that even experimental electronic music could actually work on the dancefloor next to big DJs' records. It's something that nobody understands in the States which is actually possible in Europe already. A while back in the States electronic music was just a thing, it was like 'Oh we gotta be electronic!' and someone was trying to recreate Andy Warhol's factory, they had paintings, video, music and all they came out with was a big mush of bad sounding hippy stuff. Techno is not very hippy, it's not about that kind of freedom that everybody can, you know, piss in the corner, is that the right expression? I just come up with these expressions once in a while! It makes sense to me, but it might not make sense to anybody else!"
To prove the statement of European audiences being more open-minded, Khan also tells me that they've just played in Glasgow with rapturous success. "That was incredible!" Kid Congo Powers enthuses, shaking his head in disbelief. Khan sang at Greene Naftali Gallery for the opening of the exhibition "All the Best Names are Taken" by Daniela Rossell, but he doesn't seem that interested in playing in art galleries again. "The art scene is very very stuffy or let's say the gallery scene is very stuffy, I don't really see myself in that kind of scene. I'm a complete monkey on stage and in a gallery people are too cool and too unresponsive and I'm not a painting or an installation! I don't know if that would be good for me." Surely if there's one thing he'd like to do is composing more soundtracks: "I did that before, I worked on different things, I did a sort of short movie about fashion, it was more about the process of making that movie and I did a soundtrack for it. I met some people in Mexico who would like to work with me on this sort of project but we don't know if it's going to happen."
Making music is not only Khan's life, he also…sells it. Khan opened in 1994 a record store in Manhattan. "Can I go and shop there? Do you recommend me that shop?" I enquire. "Absolutely!" he proclaims, broadly smiling. "Why?" I persist looking at Kid Congo Powers, as I want to know the answer from a possible client's voice. "Don't ask him, he doesn't buy records there!" Khan snaps back. "It's a DJ electronic music shop, there's definitely a very wide range of electronic music," Khan explains, "It's called Temple Records, it has a very good selection, you should go!" Our man also owns the El Turco Loco label. "Right now I've been travelling too much to actually taking care of releases, it's not so bad if I fuck up a release that is my own music, I'm only responsible for myself. But if I put out music by other people and nobody is taking care, well, I'll feel bad about it. So it's kind of going really slow now, the only thing I'm working on is El Turco Loco. But now we're on tour, after Arezzo we'll be in Ravenna where we're playing in a museum, then in Bologna and then we have one more show in Germany. We're planning to come back in Italy in October. We'd like to do more shows in Italy, especially in the South as we've already played in Turin, Milan and Bologna."
Before I leave, Kid Congo Powers tells me "I'd like you to see our show, because it's a different story from this festival. Usually there's lots of jumping on each others, lots of loud guitars going really crazy, but tonight it will be very special all the same. Wait to see Julee on stage!" While Khan explains once again: "When we play with Julee it's very mellow, otherwise the rest of the tour is very crazy, with lots of nudity…" So, after Khan tells me to buy his album No Comprendo, I finally go to have some fun among the rest of the ordinary human beings who are following the show. First on the stage are the Tarantinos, who are practically ridiculous. Imagine the Blues Brothers, only playing and singing in Pulp Fiction. Personally I don't know what to do with a bunch of Quentin Tarantino imitators. At least they offer the chance to make new friends, look around the festival area and realise that the camping site offers the widest selection of drugs available on the planet. Khan's second on the list. And it's when he gets on the stage that I finally realise why he claimed while talking to the journalists that his music was a green spiral. Our hero gets out clad in a green suit, which enhances his skinny body, asking "Arezzo, what's up? Are you with me?" and receiving not that great enthusiasm from the public.
The set starts with a few encouraging electro beats and Khan introduces Julee on the second track with the words "Please welcome, the one and only beautiful Julee Cruise!" "Respect!" shouts King Congo Powers. "Booker To Hooker", an evoking "Nowhere" and a great "Body Dump", all tracks from the 1-900-GET-KHAN album, follow. Julee gets rapturous cries from the crowd when, at the end of one of her song, she stops, freezes for a moment, looks at a precise point among us and then smiles, as if she had finally found the person she was looking for, and beckons with her hand to come to her. She's a true star, theatrical and professional, and the set is certainly more mellow, but also sensual. Surely this is not a brothel and there's not an orgy going on among the crowd, but there are all the premises for it. Julee then goes away to allow Kid Congo Powers to sing in a cavernous voice a mesmerising version of "Why Hurt Flesh", followed by Khan howling on "The Wolf", the second track of the night taken from the latest album No Comprendo. Khan strikes a pose, struts and frets his hour upon the stage, sings and, after wiggling his body, unexpectedly, takes off his clothes remaining in pants and red braces. The whole after saying, "I'm feeling so ugly tonight.." and putting his microphone in his mouth, in his pants and finally asking, "Arezzo, are you in my underwear? Everybody get naked now! Yeah, show me what you've got. Mine is small, I'm Turkish, have you ever seen Turkish men naked? You have to look a long time, baby!" Phew! This is happening though he had promised not to take off his clothes. After a while Khan gets dressed once again, only to proclaim, "We're now back to the second part of the show" and let Julee and her pink boa come back. Of course, Julee has by now absorbed Khan's mood and let us see her black and pink lace panties. More madness seems to follow and by now everybody is really creaming their pants. Triumph comes right at the end of the show, when a dreamy and nostalgic "Say Goodbye" is played and Khan, Julee and Kid Congo Powers agitate their hands as if they were on a boat leaving us on the shore.
Saul Williams follows and goes down rather well. Drenched in a blinding white light, Saul and his musicians, viola, cello, electric guitar, bass, drums and DJ, launch into a few tracks taken from the album Amethyst Rock Star. "La La La" is one of them, but it is the apocalyptic "Om Nia Merican", "A song about the responsibility that comes with power" as Saul introduces it, that grips the minds of the audience and "Our Father", which allows Saul to recite at the beginning a poetical introduction in which he asks to redefine things in the world and eliminate the bullshit reigning everywhere. A Radiohead cover, "Lucky", follows in remixed attire. Saul has got the energy of Eldridge Cleaver's most violent political letters and the sweetness of Cleaver's love letters. The gig finishes in an endless mayhem of viola, guitars and more flashing lights.
When St. Germaine's gig starts, the stage fills with lights and crowds with musicians and we suddenly discover why St. Germaine, also known as French composer Ludovic Navarre, doesn't want photographers to film or take pictures of him: it's clear, he doesn't want to ruin the magic of the moment and doesn't want people to discover that he doesn't do much apart from having great musicians. His set is made up of sax booming, trumpet exploding and bass pumping tracks, studded with sambatastic elements, that turn every now and then either into a 4/4 thing or into techno anthems. St. Germaine and his musicians manage to make us dance, even though sometimes his music sounds not that new and rather recycled. People clap his musicians, in particular the saxophone player and the amazing percussionist, indeed both of them manage to harangue the crowd and make us dance and shout. The set lasts for almost two hours and after it ends, we can still hear St. Germaine's music in our heads, so we decide to stay around and have fun for some more time. Tomorrow's gig and tomorrow's fun are still far.
Walking. Aimlessly. I'm aimlessly walking through the streets of Arezzo. Here every stone, every pebble has got a story and you can amazingly feel part of that story and dream of having suddenly gone back to the Renaissance just walking, allowing your feet to tread on those rain beaten, sun eaten roads. And you walk and walk, meeting on your way gothic and romanesque churches, cathedrals with huge aisles characterised by double mullioned windows, polystyle pillars, pointed arches which long to reach the heavens up above. The coloured glasses that form the delicate texture of the windows of the cathedrals reflect cones of fluorescent lights which illuminate the scary remains of the saints preserved in old see-me-through coffins. Here Piero della Francesca's 15th century frescoes telling the Legend of the True Cross and the crucifix by Cimabue can be admired, while Renaissance Madonnas stare at you from frescoes and paintings, from one in particular, the Madonna dei Fusi by Leonardo da Vinci. In this painting the light blue in the background creates a contrast with the intense blue of the Madonna's mantle and the sweet face of a vivacious baby Jesus and his mother's face are enlightened by a special beam of light. I feel like Marion in Hubert Selby Jr's Requiem for a Dream: Marion hugging herself, lulling her drug habit with dreams of Italy and suddenly experimenting her mind being filled with "the bright blues and brilliant light of the Italian renaissance", realising that "Italians were masters of light" and can "use blue like no one before or since" and…RRRRIIING! RRRRRRRIIIINGGG! Goes my mobile, in one of the few epiphany-like moments of my life. When I answer a frantic voice on the other side of the line tells me that somebody is waiting to be interviewed. And then I remember why I'm here in Arezzo, I'm here for the Festival where, among the other stars, Nick Cave is also highly awaited. The prince of darkness, the master of black atmospheres and murderous ballads is indeed here at the Hotel Minerva, turned into his and The Bad Seeds' temporary headquarters.
Facing the Caveman is not easy. For a moment, any kind of dream of Renaissance is temporarily destroyed by Nick's white complexion, accentuated by his sunglasses, hiding his piercing eyes. He's playing with some rolling papers, unassumingly trying to build a cigarette with his skinny fingers. I'm almost scared to fire him the first question as if my voice would suddenly unbalance the precarious equilibrium of the universe. Long time has gone since The Birthday Party, long time since the first album and since Nick's wandering soul brought him from Melbourne to London, Berlin, Sao Paolo and back to London. Allegedly, the year 2001 marked for Nick Cave the year of his eleventh release, the album No More Shall We Part. In an attempt to put him at ease I mention him a friend of his, Shane MacGowan. The Pogues' father says at a certain point of his autobiography A Drink With Shane MacGowan (Sidgwick & Jackson), written by Victoria Mary Clarke & Shane MacGowan, "(Nick Cave) doesn't fuck around. He doesn't make any attempts at compromise or anything like that … I thought he was great, I thought he was one of the coolest guys I'd ever met, he just was cool …I loved his music and the fact that he lived up to his music by being really cool … Everything Nick Cave does has got a groove."
I wonder if Nick Cave would like to tell something to Shane MacGowan regarding the book and I wonder if he thinks Shane has portrayed him under the right light. "Well, yes, I'd like to say something to Shane," Mr Cave breaks the curtain that exists behind a star and his interviewer and starts explaining. "I mean, I say something to Shane quite a lot as we're friends. Sometimes I don't see Shane for maybe a year and sometimes I see him quite a lot, but we're always really close, we're always really good friends. I read the book and I really liked it a lot, Shane has got this incredible memory, I mean if you knew Shane you wouldn't believe that he really has this memory, but he has this incredible memory. It's a very beautiful, quite sad, but very beautiful book, I think and funny as well. As to whether I recognise myself in that, well, I think that this huge thing that he actually said was that I keep my sights quite low, that I don't try to go for anything too big and so, therefore, I'm not involved in the music business as other people whose sights are much higher and I think I agree with that. I have a tendency when things start to get big to somehow deflate them and make them small again. I like things when they're small. I just like to get on with my own work, do you understand what I mean? I must admit that it was a very nice thing Shane said." But after pausing for a moment Nick Cave seems to have more to say about his peculiar way of making music: "The whole process of writing songs and making music for me is absolutely an essential part of being alive, I think it makes me happy, it makes me a better person, it makes me better. When I'm not working very well, which happens sometimes when I'm writing, I'm less of a person and that's why I do it. I think that rock music still has a very relevant, very powerful meaning. A lot of people think that rock music is dead, but I don't believe that at all. I think it's an extraordinary thing and I'm very happy to be working in this field."
Despite Nick Cave's stormy past, he claims he can detect some kind of discipline in his life. "I've always been disciplined, there's just always been chaos there as well," he points out, "I've always attempted some sort of discipline within the chaos. To tell you the truth, now there isn't as much chaos. I've recently been comparing what I do to working in an office for example. At present I'm writing in an office, but all my career in The Birthday Party was like working in an office, it's something that I've always done, so it's not a new thing. I wrote my novel in an office, it's always been a place where I can go, where other people are welcome and where I can focus on things. "
Listening to Nick Cave talking you realise that he doesn't like revealing to his interviewers a lot of stuff about him. Hence when questioned about his choices in his life, you have to expect the answer to be diverted on his songs and his music. "I guess I feel there is a path that is the right one for me to take and a path that is the wrong one. With every question, every thing that we do, there is a choice to take the wrong path or the right path. I feel I had a tendency to wind things up, so I guess my true destiny would be a series of right choices. On the contrary, regarding the destiny of the characters of my songs, I feel I have no control on them whatsoever. I never sit down and have a former story, basically the song pretty much writes itself. I invent a couple of characters or one character, write a verse and let that character go off and do what he wants to do and I just can see what happens then. They have their own lives. I also often feel that the characters in my songs seem to know more about what's going on in my life than I know what's going on in their lives. Very often the songs dictate the turns of my own life. The songs are in a way like a child: I often find that my songs are like children that don't like to play with other children. They sit alone sadly, violently and don't like to play with other children, that's how I look at my songs."
After talking about the characters who live in his songs, Nick Cave passes to talk about less imaginary shadows which haunt his life, The Bad Seeds. "The Bad Seeds have always been a basic rock set up. For some reason we just keep getting bigger and bigger, more and more people, I don't know why that is. Actually there are so many of them now! But I guess the major inclusion of the last few years has been the violin, we have Warren Ellis playing violin, but the reason I like it is because of the way that he plays. He plays a really rough, aggressive, abandoned violin and I really like that. I think on the last couple of records there hasn't been a lot of kind of strange sounds. I don't like strange sounds. I love looking for new sounds actually. As a singer and the leader of a group I feel like directing The Bad Seeds as if I were an orchestra director, so if I'm not putting my whole heart into the band, the rest of the band respond to that with things they don't like. And it's pretty much up to me to put everything into it so that it gives them the license to do the same thing, but they know what they're doing, they're a great band. I think I feel more a part of the band now than I ever have, I feel more part of the music, and that feels really good. You'll see what I mean tonight."
"The Bad Seeds can play all sorts of music. We can play very fragile, very quiet music, but basically they like to play aggressive music, especially in a live situation. It's almost impossible for the Bad Seeds not to play aggressive music. We've done quite a lot of concerts on this tour, this is getting towards the very end of the tour, and they say we've been getting more and more aggressive. This seems to happen on tour, I don't know why. The more delicate aspects of the music seem to get worn while on tour, I think. The songs we play decide for themselves if they are good songs. We record a lot of songs, but not all of those that get on the record are always good. You find out which one of the good songs lay wrong and you find out which are the good songs when you start playing live. At the beginning of this tour we were able to play pretty much all the songs of the new record, we rehearsed them all, we could play them all, but after a while some of them just sort of died as they didn't work. There are some songs that I bring into the studio that The Bad Seeds don't like. Let's say, it's not often, but usually one song on a record, they kind of say 'Look, this is not a good song.' I actually think that the song is really alright, but they just like to be able to say that one song is not good to sort of flex their muscles in the studio. And they usually give one song a good kicking, so now I deliberately write one bad song and take it to the studio and that's the bad song that gets punished by the band and the other songs can get through, that's what I do! But don't tell them that!"
In Nick Cave's discography, Murder Ballads is the album that sold best. "It wasn't according to me that it was the best selling album," he points out, "It just WAS the best selling record. And I don't really know why," he suddenly states, but then he quickly changes his mind. "No, actually I DO know why. It's because Kylie Minogue sang a song on that record. If Kylie Minogue hadn't sung a song on that record, it would have sold the same as any other one, in fact it would have sold less. But I think that there is one element to that record that I really like and that perhaps isn't on some of the other albums and it's a really good sense of fun. We kind of played about it, we weren't taking the record seriously. All the music was pretty much written collectively with The Bad Seeds, I just went into the whole lot with very violent lyrics and not a lot of music and we wrote 'Stagger Lee' and recorded it in about twenty minutes, so it was all done very fast and very deliberately. We didn't really care and I think we got a really great kind of playful record from that. Actually I really like this record a lot. In some other record you go into, there's so much pressure that the record itself has got to be great and so much effort goes into it that in the end a lot of the enjoyment and playfulness involved in the process get lost. You start taking yourself too seriously and that's often a danger with records and I think that it's certainly clear on some of our albums that we've taken ourselves too seriously. "
Nick Cave is not only a musician and a talented lyricist, but also a proper writer: apart from recently writing the introduction for the Gospel According to St. Mark, part of King James' Bible printed by Canongate Books, he published two collections of lyrics and essays, King Ink and King Ink II, and a proper novel And The Ass Saw The Angel. In September 1998 he was even invited to lecture at the Poetry Academy of Vienna. A lot of the influences Nick Cave had while writing the novel leaked onto the album The Firstborn is Dead, but different influences marked the writing of the latest album No More Shall We Part. "I guess the stuff that I was reading around the time of writing the album had a huge influence on what I was writing," he admits, "I was reading a lot of poetry, I was reading a lot of Larkin's poetry, Auden's poetry and I think that you can hear that sometimes. I guess really the main influence that happens on a record is the previous record. They seem to always inform what's written next. Very often you try and repair on the mistakes you made on the record before, all the things that you weren't happy about. I felt that The Boatman's Call was kind of too confessional for my taste, a thing which I don't really like. It felt to me too confessional in the sense that I was making out of some situations in my life which were pretty standard, ordinary situations, something that was great and heroic and I felt a bit uncomfortable about that. With No More Shall We Part I wanted to write a record that wasn't so inward looking, that was one thing. I don't know if I actually succeeded in doing that but that was certainly one of the things I wanted to do."
The future is bright for Nick Cave and his band and, apart from a new record, apparently, Nick Cave is also planning to write a film script, as he did with Ghost…Of The Civil Dead. "Basically I want to make another record very quickly. The idea we got regarding my musical career is to go to Australia where we're going to do some concerts in February and while we're there make a new record and to make it more in style to what I was talking before about the Murder Ballads record: we're just going to have a few lyrics, not a lot of music, we're just going to write things as a band. One of the things I want to get away from, which has happened on the last two records, is this kind of piano-driven music, very piano-heavy. That's because all the songs were written all on my own in my office at the piano, just sitting there like that and consequently the songs are so thought out by me. When I write them in the album, they're absolutely complete and there's not a lot of room for The Bad Seeds to move around and, though there's much I really like on these last two records, I wanna get back to a more of a band-orientated music at least for the next record. So we're just going to try and record something very quickly and release more of a band record. I would like to write a new book. I go to the office everyday, I sit there from 9 o'clock till 6 o'clock. This I do for five days unless I'm on tour. I don't do that on Saturday and Sunday, but every weekday, it's just a discipline and I figure that from doing that I could write a book. All I have to do is write three pages a day and a hundred days later I would get a book so why not? But at the moment I have other things going on: I've just finished a film script! I can't actually specify what the film is about because there hasn't been a film made about this particular subject, but it is set in Australia in the 1880's and it's a fictional story that happens there. I hope you will soon see it on the screen. It's about the bushrangers in Australia, they were criminals who left the city and went into the bush and robbed, murdered and stuff like that. It's a fictional story about some of these characters," he concludes, before enquiring "Have you ever heard of Ned Kelly?" but all he gets is a very ignorant "No!" and a vigorous head shake. "He's an Australian hero! An Australian Ironoutlaw!", he rebukes, but then he mellows out, beams a beatific smile, mumbles "OK, forget it!" and he's gone to get ready for tonight's gig.
Second on the list to be interviewed is a Chinese rock star, Cui Jian. Born in Beijing in 1961, Cui Jian entered the Beijing Philharmonic orchestra as classical trumpeter, but, after being influenced by rock music, he exchanged his trumpet for a guitar. In 1989 he made his debut with his album I Don't Have Anything. In the same year he successfully played in Tienanman Square: "It was eleven years ago and it was mostly the choice of the students to pick up the title song of the album as their favourite track. There were actually lots of different bands who were playing in Tienanman Square, but from the outside it looked like I was the only one to play!" In a sense, the concert in Tienanman Square made him famous, but for what regards fame, Cui Jian explains, "People born in the 1950s-'60s tend to know me either if they are in or outside China. For example at a gig in New York, 95% of the audience was Chinese, but they were all from that generation. Personally I'm very influenced by American or European bands. I started making music almost twenty years ago and my inspirations changed a lot. At the beginning I used to listen to country rock, the early Beatles' songs, The Police, now I listen to hip hop, drum'n'bass and that kind of stuff. Rock is technology, but also energy. The technology comes from the West, from Europe and America and we learn from it, all my band members take inspiration from the West. The energy comes from the body, probably everybody who plays rock'n'roll would think that it comes from music, but it comes from something personal. You have to create a message for yourself. You have to concentrate on your reality and face your own problems, and you have to make people feel better when you play your music. When you face your audience you must tell them a story which must have eternal answers. They have to understand what you're talking about, I think this is the message of music. We, in China, have a different message, we have a lot of special situations we have to talk about, I'm not so sure European young people would understand, but one thing they can understand is we don't want to give up, we want to face our problems, solve our problems and tell the truth. For me this kind of feeling is rock'n'roll. One of the things I want to do by playing in Europe is to show some other side of China people don't really consider too much from the Western point of view." And yet Chinese kids' models for today don't seem to be rock musicians. "In China there are a lot of opportunities to improve one's degree of education," Cui Jian explains, "but for what regards music there aren't many chances: last year, in October there was an article in a Chinese weekly paper about who young people thought were their idols in a top ten chart. The number one position was the city mayor and there were no artists in the whole top ten!"
Cui Jian's songs aren't really known to tonight's audience, also because of the language they're sung in. "I'm singing in Chinese, my English is not that good and my audience usually speaks Chinese. Chinese is a beautiful language. Though all languages are great, singing in Chinese gives me a great emotion. I'm not trying to develop the Chinese language into modern music, because I don't know how to do it, I'm just travelling and feeling good using my language, that's why I sing in Chinese. In writing lyrics one thing that has not changed is that I'm always not really concentrating only on love songs or political songs, but it has been more a question of balancing the two themes and trying to express things that can be interpreted in different ways, so I think a lot of my songs have a double meaning, a double content. My first record was more of a romantic kind of rock record, but recently I've been talking more about society and social phenomena and I'm using more concrete observations, ideas and images, for example, the idea contained in the song 'Flying' that what I want is not up in the sky, but here, down on the ground. I had the inspiration to write the song while I was in an air plane, up in the sky, and I realised that all I wanted was to come down and go back down to earth." Cui Jian's music reveals during his gig as standard rock, with here and there some hip hop hint and even rapping in Chinese. His show doesn't manage to elevate any feeble enthusiasm in the exasperated crowd waiting for tonight's star, Nick Cave.
When the moment of the gig comes, the stars suddenly disappear from the sky and we drown in the darkness. Nick Cave walks onto the stage looking like the bad angel that he is: clad in his tight fitting black suit, he resembles an undertaker in a western movie, but behaves with the fury of a punitive God when he raises his skinny finger towards the gothic crowd as if he was going to condemn them for their sins. His wrath seems to be manifold as he leads The Bad Seeds, Mick Harvey, Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, Conway Savage, Blixa Bargeld, Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler through a set which is a sort of "best of". He truly sticks to the promise he made earlier on in the morning, presenting us with a violent set, including a wild rendition of "Papa Won't Leave You, Henry", a heartbreaking "The Weeping Song" and a doomed "The Mercy Seat". "Do You Love Me" and "Henry Lee" are also included, piano driven songs interweave with the ripping violin of Warren Ellis, who looks like he might collapse every second for the energy he gives out while playing. The gig is long and almost extenuating and after the two encores, Nick Cave leaves the stage to hide in a car and run back to his hotel. The prince of darkness has gone, the stars can now go back to shine in the night sky. Silently, we recapture a few sparkles of light in our lives and leave the stadium, hoping that we won't have any murderous nightmares tonight and that the momentarily shattered dreams of a new renaissance will come back.
Special thanks to:
- all the artists for being so friendly;
- Fabrizio Verrigni for being my photographer;
- Stefano "Teckila" Colombo, Andrea "Pulitzer" Niccolini and Simona "The Photographer" Cortona @ Il Corriere di Arezzo for giving me the chance to be at the Nick Cave interview, for letting me give them a hand in carrying it out and, last but not least, for being great friends. See ya next year!