Lino Monaco and Nicola Buono are the two masterminds behind Retina.it duo, making their contemporary electronic music in their studio located on the southern side of Mount Vesuvius in Italy. For this edition of MNMT Live we are happy to host a recording the two prepared for us, together with an interview with Lino. Please enjoy these unique 80 minutes while taking a deeper glance on Retina.it’s work.
The foundations of Retina.it were established in 1994, when you started “Qmen” project. How did you meet, and how you started making music together?
Lino : It happened in a small venue around the early 90’s where I was throwing small parties and djing, discovering new electronic music from Europe. At that time Nicola was working there as sound technician, he asked me which kind of records I had in my bag, so I invited him to take a look. He focused on a compilation of an Italian underground label called Minus Habens. Not many people knew about this label, and for me was a nice surprise to hear “I got the same” from Nicola. I felt we were on the same page on many things and I invited him to catch up again to talk a bit. We discovered a strong common interest in exploring further electronic music, indeed he got some studio equipments, just like me. Since young age I have always been part of a band, and for me was really important to share my inspirations and discoveries, and Nicola seemed the right person with whom I could start this amazing and surreal adventure.
How, when and why Qmen developed into Retina.it? Why the name?
There is another step you missed. Before Qmen, we were ‘Quiet Men’ (a tribute to the great John Foxx, you should check out his vision of quiet man). With this name we released on Disturbance, a Minus Habens’s sublabel. It was for a compilation with Richard D. James included as Polygon Window. Then we met Rino Cerrone, one of the faces of 90’s Neapolitan techno scene. We invited him to join us to explore the way to make electronic music with instruments and perform live on a stage. That step gave a change to our project and name, so we used Qmen. The first release as Qmen was on Marco Carola’s Design music, then couple of other mixes were out for other labels.
But mine and Nicola’s goal was to investigate new form of music and sound, the four/four techno tracks were an imposition that we couldn’t give our obedience, we were nervously obsessed by the weird sounds coming from Raster and Warp and that was the reason why we choose to remix every idea and change again our name into Retina. We choose Retina because is a name that sounds the same in Italian and English. Also Retina was the name which Plinius wrote about, about a place really that was close to Pompeii, now knows as Herculaneum. Maybe you are curious about the ‘.it’ in the end. That’s a bad story. When our Volcano Waves album hit the scene in 2001, together with good news, like charts and reviews around the globe, we received a mail from a Los Angeles based lawyer. In the letter he asked to cease the use of Retina name, because it was copyrighted by a band who did a 12’’ in the early 90’s. WTF – they asked to retire all the stuff pressed from the market. It was a nightmare for us. Hefty (the label we released the album) denied to do it, it was impossible for us to do that. We told him that if the record would have been repressed we were going to change our name. The easiest way was the same choice the Charlatans Uk did in the 80’s to avoid legal problems with American Charlatans, so we added the .it.
In the previous interviews you have said that Lino was discovering post punk, industrial, synth and new wave music in his teenage years, younger Nicola started with the 90’s disco and acid sounds. How did you combine your musical interests?
The 90’s were the year of crossover style, remix was the practice, it has been named as the remix decade. And that was the spirit we embraced in our search. in a way were the same mood of the 80’s but with a difference on the aesthetics and quality of the sound, 80’s were discovering the analogue synthesizers while 90’s were approaching to digital, influencing dramatically music production. The common basis between us, were the search of old instruments with analogue features who musicians gave away in order to buy new digital workstations and save space in their studio. Happiness for us! We bought lot of old synthesizers and drum machines for few €. I remember paying 75€ for a Juno 106 ! That was the real cyberpunk/scavenger feel, to get things someone would throw away and make music in a different way, just modulating oscillators.
One of my personal Retina.it favourites is track “Grandangolo”, originally made in 1999, but released in 2006 on Hefty’s Rec. Could you recall the process of making this track, and why it took 7 years before being released?
The making process of a track hasn’t changed so much. We are just more comfortable to mix the track in a second time when all separated tracks are recorded on the computer. But at that time we only have had the chance to mix straight on a dat recorder, which is capable to record only the mixdown. Computers were not so sophisticated as now, well equipped of memory card and separate input. That was a midi era and digital was growing.
I’ll try to explain better. At that time our instruments were only synthesizers without memory or maybe broken and not fully functioning, on some other we were only able to save few patches in their memory storage, but other synths couldn’t do it, we were forced to mix the track in the moment we were satisfied of the results. So almost all tracks we did were experiments recorded in one session of few hours.
All the material released on Hefty were pushed out 2/3 years after, Grandangolo is one of those track that did’n fit on the album so we left it in the DAT since John Hughes from Hefty rec. asked to release it in a free podcast on iTunes titled “The Vault Selection“.
A track that perfectly captures Retina.it’s contemporary and unique sound, in my opinion, is “Language From an Inner World” released on Substrato in 2016. Would you agree this is your “signature sound”, and if not, what is it?
However the Name of that track could lead you think that is a kind of our unconscious trademark, we do not consider it our signature sound. Just love that randomly pizzicato sounds. In Napoli we say “any cockroach looks beautiful to their moms”. We like that way but we try continuously to change in a way our sound and beats to explore always new solutions to reach a result.
There is almost 15 years between those two before mentioned tracks, but still the sounds feel equally timeless for me. How have your sound writing techniques changed or developed during the years?
A sort of radiography of our sound is practically impossible, we only do in silence our long sessions in studio. Many people say that our sound is recognisable. We don’t know in which way. We can only see ourselves changing through the perception of our audience.
Obviously all our listenings influenced our music. A great role has the way we live our life, too. Social diseases, low job profile, infinite loop of bureaucracy. There is still an innate energy, will of being, maybe the volcano does its part. All this gives a great tension and power to react in our psyche, maybe kind of energy as sparkles to our neurones that we translate into sound. At least all is electricity. Also Atoms are made by same matter.
Your fifth, and so far the last (if the live recording album does not count), album Descending Into Crevasse was released in 2012. Do you have a new album in the agenda?
Yes, many stuff coming. Nicola with his solo project Resonant Coil released in this month his second tape on Subsidence. Retina.it has an Ep coming on Nonplus Rec, followed by a double EP compilation of old tracks collected from our Hefty period that will be released on Midgar in Fall 2019. In the meantime we are working with Donato Dozzy on a couple of projects, and Frank Bretschneider is working on the recording sessions we did together last April in our studio. As you can see we never stop.
Around two years back you started sharing your studio with PRG/M and Ruhig. By experimenting together, the r²π project was formed. Now you have released EP’s on Midgar Records and Unità Psicofisica as well as shared a V/A with Mike Parker on Subosc. Could you describe how you work as r²π? Is it still based on experimenting?
Easy, we meet each other one day (almost) every week, Wednesday is the day. Then we play and cook, sometimes we order also a great pizza. Like a band, we improvise stuff doing jam sessions. We record each thing then we listen again and choose which could be arranged and mixed.
r²π is a live act, and your 2-hour live PA at OHM Berlin was an unforgettable experience for me. How do you prepare your live performances as r²π? Or are the performances experimenting together – or reading each others minds?
Ahahhahaha, no wizardry and no ESP power, we do in the same way we play jam sessions, we rehearse each time before a gig. We test the complete set for hours before going to play on stage.
Some of the tracks we play live are released on vinyl, but we don’t like to play same way they sound on it, we just use some parts of the structure then we improvise on top doing overdubbing and adding other sounds. We have enough space to do improvisation.
How do you divide the time between Retina.it and r²π?
For two years we met each other every weeks, but now we had to stop the meetings because Luigi (Ruhig) moved to Turin for a job, he can join us only when he get some holiday or we have a gig. Pier (PRG/M) is is still regularly coming. Our Hd is full of recordings that are waiting to be edited and arranged. In a way we continue to evolve our work with him in studio and then we share via internet the results with Ruhig who gives his last touch. In the other days of the week I meet Nicola in his house basement where the ‘sy6 studio’ is located. Every time we stay in studio we are focused on a different projects and collaborations we run. Beside Retina.it we have another project called The Ne 21, more synth-wave oriented. With this project we released on Domestica and She lost Kontrol labels. We’ll play for the first time live as The Ne 21 in Berlin in July. Recently we have also opened some tracks we did with Donato Dozzy and recorded myself singing on top.
Back to retina.it. When looking at your past gigs, I only see live PA’s. Have you ever played a DJ-set? Why or why not?
Nicola and I started as a dj, but we were more interested in productions rather than playing records. I often do parties here, but are local, I never moved outside to do gig as dj. I still do dj, but more than a dj, I feel as a selector. Anyway I still like to play old new wave vinyls as i did in the 80’s.
You are making DJ-podcasts regardless. Do you find it challenging, easy, or something in between? How does this process look like?
We enjoy doing podcast. Usually we like to play our tracks and music by friends with whom we are connected. Technology helps us to do that easily since we got no dj’s turntables. However it can only help us in mixing but we have to choose the right material and create a mood, computer doesn’t make a choice or create a mood for you, it’s you behind the desk that control the game. It can make it easy in a way to help the mixing, but its still difficult to put together the right material.
What does the future hold for retina.it?
The only thing that we can say, we don’t see a future without music. So we continue to develop our search of happiness trough out music.
But more than future we look at Now, for us is important be “here and now”, we follow the heiddegerian/hegelian “Da sein”, “There Be”, in Italian we say “Esser-ci”. So that’s the way we choose to live a life constantly modulated by music rather than taxes.
Together with this interview we are very honoured to host a live recording that you specifically prepared for us. Could you tell about the process of making this one? Was the preparation process similar as you would prepare for a live performance?
We feel more honoured to be hosted by you guys. It takes the same time we need to prepare and do rehearsal for a live set. When we feel comfortable with it we’ll record, but before sending we test and re-test it.
Finally, I am constantly praising the unique mood of your work. Is there a mood, a sound, a moment that specifically inspires you at the moment?
Summer is coming, and we are waiting sunshine hit the roads of our cities. We live in a place surrounded by art and culture, people from all over the world come here to enjoy all this beauty and we like to see our cities crowded. Our wish is to build up a nice festival supported by the local authority which could put Pompeii on the maps of summer festivals. It’s a utopia since are 10 years we run our micro fest, held in a small dismissed depurator, with the only help of the attendants and free workers of the structure itself. This is the mood we surf for a long time, a “new wave of contemporary culture”.
Retina.it – Rodeo
Retina.it & Frank Bretschneider – Unreleased 1
Retina.it – Horses
Retina.it & Frank Bretschneider – Unreleased 3
Retina.it – Word as Sound
Retina.it & Svreca – Aquatermae
Retina.it – Here and Now
Retina.it – How Learn Reality
r2π – Library
r2π – Ad Vitam
Retina.it & Svreca – Avenza