Italian musician Alessandro Cortini has made a name for himself as a longtime performer for Nine Inch Nails, his alternative electric project SONOIO, and through his solo work as an innovative synth artist. Cortini’s latest album SCURO CHIARO, set to be released on June 11, is a dark, atmospheric record in which Cortini continues to push the boundaries of sound. mxdwn spoke to Cortini about designing his own synth, his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the creation of this latest album.
mxdwn: Your newest solo album CURO CHIARO is out on June 11, did you work on this album throughout lockdown?
Alessandro Cortini: Yes and no in the sense that I didn’t write anything new during lockdown. The last thing I felt like doing was expressing myself with music, it didn’t feel like it was a time where anything was being processed into a creative output. At the same time, it has always been my habit to spend time in the studio, my routine, and make music for myself without any specific goal or task, unless obviously it was for a job. So I would come into the studio and press record and just fiddle around and do something that make me feel good in a therapeutic way, just doing that for myself and recording the process, to the point that sometimes I wouldn’t even remember if I recorded months later if that day I had done four hours of white noise before I actually wrote something that had melodic progression or whatever. So, when the pandemic started, I actually began to catalog and start digging into those archives because it’s like a few drives worth of material that I’ve never really listened to because it never even started with the process of opening a recording program, I didn’t even get that far. I would record on a digital recorder so I wouldn’t even have a screen on. There wasn’t any sort of sign of what would make you feel responsible for the recording process as in, ‘Alright now,’ whether it’s a demo or an idea, ‘I’m actually printing this.’ None of that. It was just really for a passive documentation of the creative process of feeling good. So basically I spent time just going back and as I listened to these things, some of which are remembered and some I didn’t, they started to sort of connect like magnets or little cells, some of them made sense together, and it’s started from two pieces that I already had, as candidates from VOLUME MASSIMO, the previous record. Somehow they didn’t fit, but it’s not like they didn’t fit because they’re typical b-sides or something. None of that. It’s kind of like a recipe, like steak is great, the spinach on the side is great, the glass of wine is great – whipped cream is great but that doesn’t mean I’m going to put it on the steak. It doesn’t cut anything from the value, but it doesn’t fit in that specific recipe. So that’s how I felt about those two pieces – even though now I explained it to you fairly quickly, it took me a while to digest it that way. Yeah and I’m Italian, so there’s always going to be some food comparison. But the moral of the story is that those were the first two pieces that made me start fishing and digging for what became SCURO CHIARO as a record. I would say the more active process was that. The sort of archaeological aspect of it. And then obviously to shape everything, shave off this or add this and that, a layer of paint to make it all sound like a record. So, instead of being single statements together they create a dialogue which is the record and I feel like as a whole, it feels like a record. It doesn’t feel like a collection of archival work. Even because they weren’t works until I went back to them and sort of started elaborating them and developing them.
mxdwn: The album is such a deep, hypnotic electric record was there anything specific that you hoped to channel when you began making it?
AC: You know it’s always very hard to answer. I understand it because as a reader of reviews or a reader of music, I always like to know as much as I can about the artists and the process and how the record was done, but I realize, in my case it’s very hard to put towards what it’s about because sometimes I don’t know what it’s about until the record is done. And for the most part when I get to the end the majority of time it is about an emotion more than a specific subject. For example, the recordings that I did that came out in the record SONO, they were lullabies that I made with synthesizer when I was on tour to fall asleep but I never sat down thinking I want to make a record with lullabies so I can fall asleep, actually I didn’t want to make a record. Dominic from Hospital Productions listened to it and he said ‘I want to put this out,’ to which I replied, ‘Put what out?’ Because it took me a while to connect that something I made for myself to feel good could become the product. So I don’t really have a rule of trying it. I never directly have been influenced by something in the outside world to have it digested in a way that would translate to my music in a conscious way. I’m sure it does, last year was a very hard year. I lost my father. We all went through the crisis of the pandemic, even though obviously we did it in a century where we were as connected as much as we could be so it could have been much worse but still, I lost all shows, a lot of my colleagues were in a much worse position than I was. I luckily was able to do other things to keep myself afloat including Bandcamp. So I’m sure some of that reflects on the general mood of the music I put out but I wouldn’t say there is a specific subject. I think it’s more of a continuation of the emotional sonic discourse that I started with the other records. So I think it’s not a part two per se, but I think I’m still talking. I don’t think that it is just a ‘Volume 1 , Volume 2, Volume 3…’ or anything like that but I do feel like I’m still figuring it out and I’m learning how to say, emotionally and sonically, what I feel.
mxdwn: You’ve mentioned in the past that this album is built on contrasts, and you often use dark and almost harsh electronic sounds to create really beautiful, spacious music, do you enjoy playing with these contrasts in all your work?
AC: I grew up with very melodic stuff. My mom was really into the Beatles, Cat Stevens, there was a lot of melody growing up so melody is always going to be a part of what I do and who I am to a certain extent. I think the harshness and let’s say the usage of frequency in a more aggressive way is just as efficient as a series of chords can be, as a major triad, as uplifting as that can be. The example that I make is that you can learn how to play a G chord on a classical nylon string guitar, but if you play the same G chord on electric guitar in a stack of Marshall amps, it’s the same chord but it definitely has a different emotional translation but it’s the same exact notes. Nothing changes, you play the same way, you could even plug the same guitar to the amp. It doesn’t even have to be an electric guitar and it will be a different translation. That is to say that the way that frequencies are portrayed has as much of an emotional impact as the chords and notes that you decide to play, or no notes or no chords and it does not necessarily have to be melodic. So I’ve always been fascinated by, on one end, the way that I was brought up, the power of chords and chord progressions and songwriting – for lack of a better description – and on the other hand, the power of sound, as a raw ingredient that you can shape into making you feel cautious or scared or in love, or peaceful or calm or asleep or tired. I think those two things together have an exponential power, essentially. I grew up with a lot of ’80s music even from a compositional point of view so people like Vangelis – particularly Vangelis because I’m thinking about the way of scoring or soundtrack-making that was linked to themes and something that was uplifting like ‘Chariots of Fire’ which to me was a very big inspirational piece, it’s just something that is memorable. You feel it, you know, you don’t just listen with your ears, you’ll feel it. So I think having grown up that way and having tasted what that feels in a way I’m always trying to chase it in what I do. I feel like I’m cheating by using dynamics and sort of like harsh sounds here and there because it’s much easier to make yourself listen to it or for people to pay attention when you do something.
mxdwn: You recently collaborated with Make Noise to create Strega, a synthesizer based around your own sound. What was it like getting to create a synth based around your personal style? Did you use Strega when making this latest album?
AC: It was a great experience. I was very lucky to work with Tony and the guys at Make Noise which I’ve known forever. Tony and Kelly from Make Noise are two of my best friends. I’ve always felt at home with them, not necessarily from a professional synthesizer designing point of view but just as people. I think that’s a common feature to all the kinds of collaborations that I’ve had, whether they’re musical or professional. And with Tony, three years ago we started talking about what it would be like to create something. Tony has always been interested in how I make music and how I got out specific sonic emotions first from specific machines. And soon enough when we started working we realized that the key wasn’t to seal physical elements, controls or sound generations from those machines, but to understand why I was coming up with those things with those machines. So to try to extrapolate the process more than the tools themselves. So Strega was sort of like this culmination of putting these ingredients together with Tony’s experienced expertise in circuit design, and obviously with having the company and having done it long enough to be confident about it. And for me to be able to find an outlet for these things, to try new things and figure out what was relevant or what wasn’t because in three years on paper certain features might sound like ‘Oh yeah we definitely want that” and then you apply it to a prototype and it’s just not as interesting as it sounded on paper. And I got the prototype fairly early so I definitely was lucky enough to be able to use it on the new record and I’ve used it in all the ways that I wanted the instrument to be manifesting itself so it was supposed to be a standalone instrument that you can make music and sound with but also that you could use it to process other sources. On the manual I talk about how to me it’s the sonic equivalent of leaving a piece of metal under the sea for 30 years, you put a spoon under the sea and you pick it up in 30 years and it’s all like green and covered by this patina and maybe the sharp corners have been sort of smoothed out by the currents and it just slipped, so it kind of injects a personality in things that might not have as much. And obviously one of the main fears when we released it was hopefully not everybody will just start sounding like I do or, maybe even worse, they don’t get it. It just wouldn’t have been a success because the idea was to create something that everyone will feel will be a canvas with them, like it will be the grammar they could speak with as opposed to just repeating the same phrases that I say. They just learn a specific grammar and then they’re able to speak their own thoughts with it. And I think we were very lucky because every day I get tagged on something and I see a video of someone working with it and it’s really fulfilling. It’s a whole other layer of reward because you do a record, even though I think instrumental music is much more rewarding than songs, simply because you know that the listener gets his own interpretation because there’s no lyrics, so you know you get your own mood from the piece and it can be different from mine. I give you a color and then you get all the nuances of that color and shades that you want. Now, you do an synthstrument, and now you’re basically halfway there because you give them a tool and then they do whatever they want with it. I feel extremely privileged and lucky to be able to do this with Tony and Make Noise particularly.
mxdwn: Has there been any music you’ve heard from other artists who have used Strega now that it’s been out?
AC: I mean everyone is really a favorite because all of them, in one way or another, show me a different way of using it. And the cool thing is there are two camps, there’s the people that tag me on Instagram which is mostly people that bought it who enjoy it. I don’t know anything about these individuals, so it’s even better in the sense that it would be easy if I give it to a friend of mine and ask them to do something so there’s a certain amount of responsibility for them to do something that I would like to a certain extent but these people who tag me are just people that were generally interested in the instrument and bought it, and they’re able to be themselves with it so it’s an extremely positive sensation. And on the other hand there are those other ones that we sent an instrument to in order to demo and make demonstrations online or to be a part of a compilation record that will come out in July, which is basically an old-school way of promoting the instrument. A few companies like NED with The Synclavier or the Fairlight CMI sampler or the EMS Synthi back in the day, they would release a record with artists’ examples of what you could do and what you could achieve sonically with that instrument. And so we wanted to do that with the Strega, to have a varied team of musicians so there’ll be Marta Salogni, Ben Frost, Caterina Barbieri, Pye Corner, Rob Lowe, Drumcell, and many others have a piece in there. Tony from Make Noise will have a piece there and we will have a piece together. Julianna Barwick will be in there as well, which to me her record from last year was such a therapeutic release so I was very happy to hear her using Strega with her voice. It’s great to be able to hear so many people that I respect as friends, as musicians, or both, to be creative and to sound like themselves not to copy or for the instrument to be overpowering and taking over their dialogue or their identity.
mxdwn: For a while, you were releasing work as SONOIO. Is there a difference between the projects you were doing under that moniker and the ones you have released recently under your own name?
AC: I think it just changes, as a person you change. SONOIO was fun and it was a great project to have at the time. Writing lyrics and creating pop or rock songs is just not interesting to me anymore, it feels like too much work for the amount of emotional response or emotional feeling that I get from it .There’s more stress and more frustration in making a record like that than there is pleasure. To me it’s like lobster, I mean yeah, lobster is good but I don’t want to spend that much time to get stuff out of it. I’d much rather go for something much simpler, a lot simpler. But that’s just me. So, I’m not saying I’ll never go back to that it just feels like right now this way of making music that is directly connected to my need of feeling better. I also feel that the purer I am, the truer I am to the way that I make music, I seem to notice that the more people connect to it. And I’m not saying more people as in MORE people but rather that people get more and more attached to it. It’s not really about the number to me. It’s more about when I play a show or somebody writes to me and they talk about the music and how it affects them, that’s what I’m talking about. It feels like the more I do it for myself, the stronger the connection is with the people that listen to it.
mxdwn: Last year Nine Inch Nails was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, what was that like for you?
AC: It was weird! I mean, I was flattered for two reasons. One, for being in the Hall of Fame and also flattering because of the fact that Trent decided that the band should have been inducted with him. When the news came that he was going to be inducted none of us felt like ‘Oh damn, I wish they recognized us too,’ I truly believe that Ilan, Robin, I, and every other member had a pivotal role in Trent’s ability to become what he became, but [it was] not essential. There’s a difference. Each one of us could have been at a certain point replaced or was replaced and things might have sounded and evolved differently, but one person that could have never been replaced is Trent. So for him to think and to feel that we are part of what was being inducted, it’s almost more important than the induction itself to me. Not that I’ve ever felt unappreciated but for him to go out of his way to have us included, I think it was great and from a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I mean, what can I say it’s just such a surreal thing. Also, I found out I’m the only Italian in there! It’s crazy! The funny thing is that I go back to my hometown and to my friends, luckily, I’m still the kid who was 14 running around the city and the other people have no idea, which is even better. There’s no change in anything but a personal satisfaction, obviously, and a statue on the fireplace mantel.
mxdwn: Nine Inch Nails announced two shows this year in Cleveland with Pixies. After a year of canceled shows, what are you most looking forward to with these two performances?
AC: I’m more looking forward to what comes before the performances, to be honest. I love being with those guys, it’s a family and we haven’t been together since 2018 so the whole process of getting the shows together is really what I miss. I really miss being in a room together and playing with those people. I really am looking forward to spending time in rooms with them to the point where we’re going to hate each other because now we’re also used to being on our own. And obviously it will be a pleasure to play live, but you know live for me, I’m always in my corner and more concentrated in playing with the other guys. I’m not as aware of how people are reacting to what I do because what I do is just a cog in the big machine. In order for me to do my job that’s how I see it. I see it as part of this machine, it’s like one of those superhero robots like Voltron. I think it works the same way, when I’m on stage with them I feel like I’m part of them and never feel like it’s my moment. It feels great to do your thing and together we’re creating something very special. So I’m definitely looking forward to the shows and to be back out there but the thing that I’m looking forward to the most is just being in a room with the guys.
mxdwn: You’ve also worked with Reznor on the project How To Destroy Angels, do you know if there are any plans to bring that project back?
AC: I have no idea. I mean I would love to but I’ve never heard anything about a sequel or anything. It’d be great, but usually if I hear about something like that it’s at the point where it’s been in motion for a while already. I kind of like that, that there’s a very self-sufficient entity where I get called in when things are already in motion.
mxdwn: Do you have any plans regarding solo shows for the next year?
AC: To be honest, for obvious reasons like a lot of my colleagues, I’ve lost my booking agency and lost all the shows. The booking agency, it wasn’t their fault they had to find something else to do. I don’t feel ready to play shows and I don’t think I’ll play any of my shows this year. Also, we have a baby coming, a little girl coming in October. And so, I’d like to spend time at home. Playing with Nails is more than enough for me to feel like I can play live and have a good time. I don’t want to be out of the house the whole time. Part of the reason we moved to Portugal and why I built a studio here was because I wanted to do more work at home and I didn’t have to hire a studio so I could do it from here. So while I’m really excited to play shows with Nails I’m not in a rush to get out and play my own shows. Even because when I play my solo shows, I need to prepare a visual counterpart. And the work that Marco Ciceri has done on the videos for the new tracks, I’m very happy with it. But, you know, preparing a whole show visually it’s a bigger task.
mxdwn: Last summer you remixed music for the PlayStation game Ghost of Tsushima, did you enjoy lending your talents to a different medium?
AC: Well I fucking love video games! I was born in the ’70s, grew up in the ’80s, and I have two thumbs still so of course I’m a gamer. Yeah, definitely. To a certain extent, even though I’ve been trying to get my feet wet with scoring for movies, I can tell you that I have a much stronger affinity with video games because I feel like I have a direct connection with the sonic aspect of gaming, as opposed to the more, I don’t want to say, passive way of scoring your imagery but passive in the sense that when you start writing music for the most part for film you’re locked to the picture in other words, that’s what’s going to happen. So you’re sonically narrating something that has been already sequenced. Now, how games are developed these days from a sonic point of view, they’re governed by an engine called Wwise, this engine basically orchestrates the musical content according to the physical rules in the game. So if you’re playing a level in five minutes and I played in two minutes old school would have a theme that would be two minutes and then since you’re going to be in that level for five minutes you’ll hear the theme twice, and then some. Nowadays, the musical elements and the sonic elements develop according to your motion, and your action. So if you have enemies and the enemies don’t see you, there’s a certain kind of music, but if they spot you then the program fades in another track, it might be drums or might be something dark like a drone, and so on. So composing for that is very exciting for me because it allows you to create a wider palette of emotions. For them to be different enough that when the software or the algorithm is mixing, it creates a new piece every time you play the game. And I think that’s very inspiring, so I really hope I get to do more of that. People might think, ‘Oh man, he’s been smart because he didn’t just concentrate on his own shows or didn’t just concentrate on Nine Inch Nails, and then he’s fucked for the rest of the three years that they don’t tour or whatever, or he doesn’t just do remixes.’ But it’s not like I’m particularly clever and tried to diversify, the truth is that I get bored very quickly. So, if my career as a solo artist would be the only way to make money it would become a job, and by making money I mean surviving I’m not talking about making bank. Like a child that gets tired of a toy, I try to find things where I can be musical and feel like I’m doing something new in a way that it’s new. And that’s why when they asked me to do a video game or remix—I actually just finished a remix for Puscifer like it wasn’t planned, it showed up. My friend Matt works with Maynard and Carina, and when the people in Puscifer ask if I want to do it’s like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ It’s a great occasion just to inaugurate the studio because I just finished it and that keeps me excited because then I can try new things and figure out new ways of making sound. So it’s really all down to trying to keep the child alive as long as possible, even though now there’s a new one coming so I’ll have to tone this one down a little.
mxdwn: You mentioned scoring movies and that was actually what I wanted to ask you next. It sounds like you’re working on one?
AC: Yeah! Well I’m working on two scores for independent movies right now. It’s just too early for me to know if it’s something that I would want to do more than a few times. It requires more looking into it, for me to do more than one, to figure out if I feel like it’s going to be, I don’t want to say fun, but if I feel like I’ll be fulfilled doing them and I’ll be able to give 100% of what the director wants. That said, I’m definitely getting my feet wet.
mxdwn: You have a pretty legendary collection of synths but out of your collection do you have any favorites?
AC: I have a rule, which is, if I don’t play something and I’m not creative with it for six months it usually goes, unless it’s something extremely rare that is more of a collection piece. So everything that is here, to me it’s very meaningful. As far as old ones I would say, aside from the big Buchla there which has been with me forever and it’s sort of like my main go to, the EMS Synthi the suitcase synth I made the AVANTI record with is probably one of the most inspiring instruments sound wise, the portability, the way it comes up with sequences is very creative. As far as new instruments, aside from obviously Strega because it was designed to be my favorite, the Waldorf Iridium & Quantum, which is the same version of the same synth, is probably one of the most inspiring modern synths that I’ve ever played and I used a lot in the new record. But if there had to be one desert island synth it would definitely be the one we designed because it’s just designed to be that synth, it was planned from the get go to be my machine.
mxdwn: Recently you’ve been selling some of them, including your very rare Buchla 406, are you planning on selling any others that fans/collectors can look forward to?
AC: There is – with Buchla stuff particularly – there’s a fine line between collector peice and usable instrument for two reasons. One, certain machines like the Buchla 406 he only made two or three and he never really finished them. So in the process of restoration, it’s not just changing a few components, part of it is also designing and finishing Don’s work and making things work the way they’re supposed to the maximum extent possible. I sold that one because I had to and also because there’s a museum that I’m very attached to, MESS in Melbourne, and it is one of the few places that makes people play instruments like that. So part of my instruments will end up there eventually to be enjoyed by people, where it’s not just going to be in somebody’s collection in a studio to look at as a trophy, to a certain extent what I do, because with a lot of these instruments I’m able to make music once, record as much as I can, and then they’re dead. But in a place like MESS with a resident tech and with schematics and the knowledge to keep it going then they can keep it going and more people can get to experience something like that that is akin to exploring a planet that hasn’t been explored much because there’s not much recorded material with those instruments.
mxdwn: Between your own work and collaborations, you’ve released a new album every year for the past five years. Are you working on any music then for 2022?
AC: Last year I released I think 10 or 12, Bandcamp was a lifesaver simply because I was able to do more archival work and release stuff that I had there and never had the chance to release or that I didn’t want to release through a longer promotional campaign where there’s, you know, three months leading up to the release and physical and then shows. I just wanted to appreciate it for what it was and make more and move on and Bandcamp is the ideal platform, not only because it allows you to do that from an artist point of view but because people know that they’re supporting the artists directly, and they allow you to sell high-res files, the bandwidth is not an issue anymore. Now, with a new studio here in Portugal where things are a little bit more laid back I’ve found myself more inspired and so I spend time in the studio. Whether I’m working on something for myself or for somebody else or for a gig, I’ve gotten back to pressing the record button every day.