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Sergio Messina Q&A

-Hi Sergio! First of all, how you doing? We know it’s been a while since you left the city; how’s the countryside treating you?

I was very lucky to move in a very remote area 15 months before the pandemic started, so I didn't really have a lockdown. I love living in the country, I've done it before, it gives me plenty of space to make music, write, think. I miss clubbing, but everyone does nowadays (and streaming DJs are NOT a good replacement).

-Who’s writing is one of your numerous ex students who always appreciated your capability to develop several talents. You’re a gifted talker, a skilled musician and a great journalist. Is your versatility something you’ve been aware of since ever or is it something you discovered later along the way?

First of all thank you, you're far too kind. No, in fact I was quite slow. I begun with music radio in my teens, and I though I'd do that forever. Then around 25 I started making music with drum machines and synths, and my first single came out when I was 30. I started writing at 37, performing (as a speaker/comedian) at 41 and teaching at 45. At 50 I changed the way I make music, and have since become an effective bass and percussion player. So I'm not really a master at something, but I can do many things.

-For those who don’t know, Sergio is one of the founders and still is a teacher of the Sound Design course at IED, in Milan. One of his most most inspiring classes is the ‘Listening’ one. Sergio could you talk us through what’s the true meaning of this course and what kind of emotions you aim to convey to the students with it?

At the start, all students have is a sensibility for sound and their own taste in music. The idea of that class it to take them through some of the basic concepts of music and sound design, and at the same time raise their awareness of "the secret life of sounds". Also, many students think of sound as something separated from other forms. In class I point out the many similarities with painting, sculpture, architecture - even cooking. Sound is a mysterious thing, and one of the aims of my class is to suggest ways to use this mystery, to manipulate it in order to achieve certain results: differently from most other forms, sound happens in the mind of the listener. One of the joys of teaching is to see lightbulbs light up in the head of students. It's great because that light doesn't mean they understood something, but that they have been able to put that information in relation with something else they know. This is one of my jobs: to provide connections, informations that can dance with other informations to produce meaning.


-Being a teacher for many years means being a witness of the growth of many generations. How have you seen youngsters evolving? Can you spot any difference between the 20yr old students now and -let’s say- fifteen years ago?

Sound design students from 15 years ago seemed to have a much clearer idea of their career path - music. Today the spectrum is much broader: some are into sound art, others want to do film, theater or installations. In 2021 the notion of Sound Design is much clearer and broader. It's always nice to see students bloom. I meet them when they're 20 years old, so I have the opportunity to see them become adults, as well as professionals. Some do better than the others, but I have the impression they all grow and learn during the three years, and it's a privilege to be part of this process. I learn a lot from students, their questions, angles, curiosities and perplexities.


-Your career as a musician and as a record producer is long and successful; a success often achieved through a rare ability to experiment and create music that strikes for its simplicity, yet not being simple at all! Even in you articles you have such an admirable succinct way of putting things. Is the ‘Less Is More’ theory something you go after or it comes natural?

"Less is more" gets much easier with age. When I was 20, more was always better. But in time I understood one very good rule: if you say (or play) less, your audience will fill the gaps, and that is a very beneficial process for everyone. I have a passion for simplicity, and I believe that you can say very deep and complex things in a simple way. Writing is communication, and so is music: once you make people believe they will understand what you'll say, then you can take them into uncharted territories, and they will follow you because they feel comfortable. It's the same at school, both in the Sound Design and Cultural Anthropology classes. Also, I hate being patronised, and I have tried to avoid that since the beginning. So I think of everyone (readers, students, listeners, etc.) as equals, and this simple trick worked for me. Let me comment on that adjective. In order to be "successful" you've got to focus and pursue that: success. In my case, I've always been too strange (and busy changing careers) to actually enjoy what we describe as success in 2021. Some people know what I do, but not everything: my readers are not always my radio audience, or buyers of my music, and viceversa. I have a few faithful "fans" (some of which have been with me since the beginning), but I'm certainly no celebrity, you don't see me on Tv, I have little following on social media. So I would describe my career as long (which helps), strange, perhaps interesting, certainly eclectic, bizarre for sure, but not really successful.


-You’ve recently released your EP ‘The Alto Nido Sessions’ by Sergio Messina & The Four Twenties. Tell us something about this new project (where the guitars are still very present).

I play guitar since I was a kid, but never really used in my music: my instrument until 2010 was the sampler. But at one point I felt the need to change my music, so I started playing string instruments again, relearning the guitar and bass, rand ecording on a multitrack, using the computer only for post-production. Reducing the possibilities enhances creativity (I often say that having thousands of presets is like having none, too much choice). Also, I wanted to explore different styles of music. I've played Funk for most of my life, but Funk has a problem: it's a rhythmic prison, and it forces you to use rhythm elements always in the same ways. What I do now (slow boogie/shuffle/swinging beats) can have a Clave and a matchbox for drums. It's more organic music, blissful and emotional. I am very happy about where my music is today, the main reason being that I don't sound like anyone else, despite the fact that my music is full of influences. I consider this a major personal achievement (but again, not something that leads to "success").

-During the first lockdown you started your daily radio appointment called 'Sergio Messina Racconta Cose', which has been for many of us a delightful routine. In relation to that, how much do you think is important, in this day and age, to build loyalty with your listeners/readers? How crucial is to create an archive that people can tap into whenever they want, especially in an era of volatile and intangible contents?

SMRC is part of one of the great loves of my life which is radio, and specifically talk radio without music. It's something I've already done in the past, on an actual FM station. Radio is by nature a streaming, volatile, non archivable medium. But today we have the internet, where everything is saved, retrievable, available. So I put the 58 SMRC shows (30' each) on my website, but I still think the best way to hear them was live. As far as loyalty building, I've always felt that having a direct line with my people was the way to go, and thankfully at one point the web came along. My email address is public since 1997 (at the top of my page on Rumore magazine), I have a personal website since 1999 and I've always used these channels to be there, to interact. In almost 25 years I have received (and replied to) tens of thousands of messages, questions, comments, a few "vaffanculo" even from celebrities. I consider this to be an integral part of my work, as my business is not music, teaching or writing: it's communication.


-One of the working experiences that characterises you is your incredibly accurate activity as a researcher of the world of Pornography/Softcore. How do you see it progressing? Do you still find some new oddities in this field today or you reckon people lost their ‘creativity’ as time went by?

I came up with the word Realcore to describe user generated pornography (not of the soft type) freely distributed online for fun. This kind of porn is still going strong, as well as what I called "Cottage industry porn", or Pro-ams (professional amateurs that make some money out of their passions). What didn't happen is something I had really hoped for: a general improvement in mainstream porn as far as sexism, variety (of shapes and performances) and awareness. It would be a crucial change, as many people learn what sex is through pornography. The whole Realcore work (which was presented in a live, stand-up anthropology show with 100 pictures, subtitled "The Digital Porno Revolution") had a strong political side - which is another relevant aspect of some of the things I do.

-You’ve been traveling a lot throughout your life and you’ve lived in many different countries. Tell us what’s the best thing of each and every place you’ve lived in, in terms of habits, culture, food etc. It can be anything.

Let's do cities: Amsterdam is the perfect size and it's great for music. Chicago for me is the most beautiful american city, it was the inspiration for Gotham and you can still tell, and the locals are really nice, decent folks. LA has that unique light that we know from movies, but you're actually in the picture: it makes me smile every time. My favorite city is Naples, the one I would love to live in is Mumbai (both have my favorite food in the world, along with Bangkok). In the early 1990s, Milano had perhaps the most vibrant alternative scene in Europe. Rome, where I grew up, is the most beautiful, annoying and unforgiving place I know.


-Any future project that you want to share with us?

I have an album on hold since 2019 because of Covid: Sensual Musicology (again with the Four Twenties) should come out later in '21 for Hell Yeah! I also have compiled the first of a series of archival album issues (digital only). Not a "best of", not leftovers, these albums collect sound work I have done in the past 35 years that have not been available to the public in this form: radio art, installations, live tracks, soundtracks for theater, library music. The first, A Fistful of Flies (1987/2001), six unreleased tracks and two B sides remastered in 24 bits, will be out next christmas. In the past 3 years I have been fascinated by the topic of Autism, and I've done quite a lot of reading, interviews, etc. The idea is to create a live presentation of this research, but it might become a book, a series of articles or even a podcast.

-Thanks a lot for your time Sergio. It’s been a true pleasure to chat with you on our imaginary couch and we hope to see you around as soon as possible!

Stay safe and thank you.


Giuseppe D'Alessandro

Illustrator / Editor