Q&A: Legendary Electronic Musician Alexander Robotnick Talks Italo Disco And His First DJ Gig In Advance Of His First Ever Dallas Stop.
Apart from the infamous "club kids" and the days when MDMA was sold at bars in Dallas, the city hasn't ever really been known for its electronic music culture--not in any important or globally relevant way, at least.
So maybe that's why I jumped at the chance to interview Maurizio Domi, who performs as Alexander Robotnick, as soon as I heard he was coming to town. Robotnick's a legend in the electronic music world, having long established himself as an icon with his work in the early '80s. More impressive, he's still out and performing all these years later.
We met in the lobby of his hotel after he finally slept off the jet lag of a flight from his hometown of Florence, Italy, and talked about his unique name, his start in electronic music, and how he keeps things fresh.
Today is his first and only day in Dallas, the first stop in his current American tour. He'll perform tonight at Brooklyn Jazz Cafe. Check our Q&A with Robotnick after the jump.
You're Maurizio, but I see that some people call you Alexander anyway.
Do you know what Alexander Robotnick means? Robotnick is a Russian word and it means robot worker.
Then why did you use Alexander?
It just sounded good. Also I wrote a novel about a character called Alexander Robotnick in the '80s, but it was like a joke.
Which came first, the music or the novel?
They were at the same time.
So you went to school for jazz guitar?
Yeah, I started pretty late because I was 27 when I started music. So I went to school to learn jazz guitar for two years. Then, in the early '80s I started with electronics. Also, because starting so late, I couldn't reach a high status as a player. With electronics it was easier to write music and be noticed.
How did you get a hold of synthesizers at the time?
I'm not from a rich family. So at the time in the early '80s, to buy a synthesizer you had to work for one year. So I started with cheap equipment from Japan, like the TB-303 and the TR-606, and then I bought a Korg Mono/Poly, which is a good synthesizer actually. And then I made this song "Problems D'Amour," which was a small success--an underground success.
Well if you compare it to Prince or Michael Jackson.
Or to the shitty Italo disco of the time. "I like Chopin"--I don't know if you remember, but it's the most sold worldwide Italian song. Now, everybody forgot about it, but, at the time, that was Italo disco: Sandy Marton, Sabrina Salerno. And all of those sold millions of copies, "Problems D'Amour" was nothing compared to that, but 30 years later, I'm still here.
Well, it was still influential among the world of underground dance music, and pretty important in places like New York and Chicago at the time. Do you ever go to those places?
Yes. A couple of years ago, I was playing in Chicago at Smart Bar, and I was finished, it was morning and I went outside to smoke a cigarette and a police car stopped in front of me. The police came to me and I was just looking at my cigarette like, "Oh, no. What do you want?" and he took a poster from the wall and asked me to sign it. It's because, in Chicago, they used my song for a radio jingle for 20 years, so he recognized me.
What about in the mid '80s? Were you going to Chicago then?
No, I started going in 2003. Before that, I never went abroad. And, at that time, I went with Alexander Robotnick just for two or three years. Then I started a different kind of music.
I noticed that you stopped making electronic music for some time and began making world music.
Yeah, I started making world music in the late '80s with international musicians that were living in Italy. A man from Cameroon, a Kurdish man, with an Algerian singer and a bamboo flute player from Bombay. I spent all the '90s making concerts with this music in Italy and traveling with my band in a van. And I enjoyed this music a lot, but, in the early 2000s, that music was not in fashion anymore. The reason was because "chill out" and this fake world music made using samples started coming out.
Like the Buddha Bar compilations?
Yes, like Buddha Bar. This destroyed world music totally. So, in the early 2000s, I was ruined--no job, no money, because I always live by music. From about 1998, I started browsing the Internet and discovered that Alexander Robotnick was still someone on the Internet! So I started to think to go back to Alexander Robotnick, and in 2003 someone sent me an email saying, "Do you still DJ?" I had never DJed in my life, and I come from a generation that had no consideration for DJs because, for us, a DJ was just someone that was too shy to dance, so he stayed in the corner playing records. But I answered, "Yes, I'm still DJing." So I started in 2003 in France because The Hacker and Miss Kittin invited me to a party. I went there and played. I wasn't paid, but I did it just to try, and I was successful, so I started doing it more.
So the first time you ever DJed was in 2003?
Yes, in the summer of '03. I was 53 years old. This must be a kind of record to start DJing.
And you started doing it on a computer, right?
Yes, I used a laptop. I'm from a generation that doesn't like vinyl. Vinyl for us is like a finger in the ass, so we welcomed the CD age as a liberation. I still think like this for general music like jazz and classical music--I couldn't listen to jazz on vinyl because I want to listen to the instruments, not just the sound. Talking about dance music, things are different because dance music on a CD sounds very crispy and has no fashion. I don't know. I don't know really what happened, but I started to understand that vinyl is important for dance music. So I started to buy vinyl again and I have a wall of vinyl now, and I sample the records at a high resolution into the computer, so when I play it still sounds like vinyl. But, recently, I started to buy mp3s on Beaport and other sites because there are less and less record stores, at least in Italy, but also in London. In London, 10 years ago, there were 50 good record stores. Now there are two. But it's also because mp3s are cheaper. Most of the records I buy, I use just one track, but when I buy an mp3 I save a lot of money because I buy the track I need and I don't buy that other bullshit. The other side is that an mp3 has no value because when you buy a record, you can think to resell it. When you buy an mp3, it has no value. But even mp3s are sounding better because producers understand it's not worth it to compress a track to death because in clubs it sounds too noisy and too loud and the sound is not good. Now people have to think about making tracks that sound good not only in the club but on a computer and other kinds of speakers. The compression must be right.
How much of the engineering do you do on your own tracks? Like, how is it changing your production?
I've changed thousands of times my style in producing music. I would say recently that I'm working in a very old way using just analog synthesizers, mixing not too loud, not compressing too much the master, then giving it all to a mastering studio.
When did you make "Dark Side of the Spoon?"
I played at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival four years ago, and there I met the staff of Global Darkness, the Dutch people. They asked me for some unreleased tracks from '80s, so I sent them 12 tracks or something taken from 4-track cassettes, and one of them was fake. By "fake," I mean I sampled it from the cassette, but it was a new track I had made, and it was "Dark Side of the Spoon." So they were enthusiastic with the track and they were saying, "This is such present music! It's so new!" I told them it was fake, but they said if that's what I mean by fake, then all their music is fake.
So it's fake because you made it recently?
Yes, I sampled it from a cassette from the '80s, but it was a song I made four years ago.
I think of all the people still making electronic music--those Dutch electro guys are making it in a way that's most similar to how you made it then and still make it now, achieving a similar sound using analog gear. What do you think about that? Do you think you have a direct influence on them?
I'm not the only one making music on analog gear. I am Alexander Robotnick, not Kraftwerk. I am an influence especially because of my use of the TB-303, the Bass Line. Before me, it was not considered at all an instrument. It was considered a toy. I demonstrated with a toy that you can still do something good, and then this behavior went on with acid music in the '80s. But they made totally different music than me because acid was just a pattern repeated over and over, working with the sound. My use of the Bass Line was totally different because I wrote songs, but it was very difficult to write songs on the Bass Line because the programming is like science, like rocket science.
It is kind of like doing math.
In the past, I was the only one who knew how to program the 303, so I worked in the studios because they wanted that sound but were unable to program it.
What do you think about other Italian producers like Marco Passarani and Francisco? Do you ever speak with them?
Yes, they are friends. I met them in 2004 and I played with them a lot of times in Rome, which is the best scene for electronic music in Italy. So they were my references in Italy, Marco and Francisco. I don't know what they're doing now; they had a not so good period last year, maybe now they're doing better. I hope so, because I love them.
So is this your first time to play in Dallas?
Yes, but every year I play in the USA. I play in San Francisco, LA, Chicago and New York. Also Washington DC.
What's your opinion of Dallas?
OK. Dallas has a not very good reputation. Sometimes, this kind of thinking is just bullshit. Everybody told me that in Texas there's just one good city for music, and that's Austin, and the rest is shit. But I don't know, they're just opinions.