After a couple of months of silence, I am glad to have the opportunity to post this outstanding interview with Dario D’Alessandro of Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res (undoubtedly one of the best modern bands to come out of Italy for a long time), conducted by fellow music enthusiast Michael Björn.
Dario D’Alessandro interview
(Japanese language version originally published in Strange Days #198, March 19 2016)
Text & interview: Michael Björn
Already with the first propulsive beats in odd time signatures on their debut album in 2013, Homunculus Res made it clear that great things were happening on the island of Sicily. With their new album Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era, there is no longer any doubt that they are the new heirs to the throne of Canterbury-inspired progressive rock bands.
When the organ resolves the last 40 seconds of “Doppiofondo del barile” you could swear that Hatfield & the North are in the studio control room, clapping their hands. But although the humour, the inventive song writing, the short pop songs, the mass of ideas piled on top of each other and the complex arrangements all firmly root them in the Canterbury music tradition, Homunculus Res are no copycats.
Whereas Egg, Caravan and National Health all had a lovely cup of tea waiting for them at the end of a song; there is no such romantic dream of Albion in the music made by Homunculus Res.
When you leave that cup of tea behind, strange things happen. One could argue that Henry Cow did exactly this and the result was the RIO movement. Homunculus Res, however, are less overtly oriented towards politics; their focus instead seems to be the modernistic tradition of mainland Europe. They re-examine and re-invigorate their Canterbury influences in every twist and turn, outfit them with retro-futuristic sounds from space machines and dance moves from the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub.
Although such modernistic influences were certainly an integral part of the Canterbury scene, particularly during Soft Machine’s early years, here they are developed into a unique strain of rock music that touches a deep nerve in the listener.
How did Homunculus Res manage to develop their singular vision? We asked bandleader Dario D’Alessandro to tell us more.
How, when and why was Homunculus Res formed?
Dario: The band was founded in 2010. At that time, I wanted to play progressive music that was complex but at the same time pleasant to listen to and fun. I had already written several songs. The meeting with the Di Giovanni brothers – Daniele on drums and David on keyboard – has made this possible because they also wanted to experiment with odd time signatures and musical mathematical games. Like me, they also they a strong taste for melody.
The current line-up is a prog-rock quintet, including Mauro Turdo, to whom I willingly leave the most difficult guitar parts, and Daniele Crisci on bass. When we play a live show, we try to involve horn players, flute and /or sax, to complete the arrangements.
We are all interested in the arts. As for myself, I am primarily a painter and graphic artist. In fact, I curate all the graphical parts of our project.
Is it true that the band name Homunculus Res comes from Otto Rippert’s six-part science fiction film “Homunculus” from 1916? What does the name signify to you?
Dario: I wanted a band name that was mysterious but also funny. Initially, it was Homunculus REX, haha! A graceful mockery of the seriousness of certain themes that still fascinate me. The name can also be a derogatory version of Man himself; a small man with no soul, morally poor. Probably this character metaphorically represents a critique of modern society. The inspiration mainly comes from Goethe’s Faust.
You have a different approach to music than most other Italian progressive bands.
Dario: True, we have a different approach than the Italian style in general; less “romantic”, more amused and perhaps more geared to the North-European and American tastes.
I don’t know why.
My two favourite Italian bands are Homunculus Res and Breznev Fun Club. Would you count yourself as part of the same scene?
Dario: We can probably both broadly be called Avant-Prog, but it is obvious that there are huge differences in our styles. Breznev Fun Club leader Rocco Lomonaco is a great meticulous composer who looks to the contemporary avant-garde music; whereas we are a band that basically uses the rock language.
But Rocco and I hold each other in high regard and we will write something together soon.
You have called Picchio Dal Pozzo the most important Italian band. Do you see Homunculus Res as a continuation of their music?
Dario: For me, Picchio dal Pozzo is something wonderfully unique and unrepeatable that happened on the Italian music scene. I am very pleased that the critics compare us, but we feel very tiny compared to them, although they are an endless source of inspiration. Maybe what we have in common is a surreal sense of humour.
Picchio dal Pozzo founding member Aldo De Scalzi has in fact collaborated on a song on our second album. He is very nice to us; a very kind and cheerful person.
How did you get so many artists to guest on the album?
Dario: Well, I just expressed my admiration to them and vice versa. For example, I found the music of Regal Worm very fresh, unconventional and similar to our intentions.
For us it was a real privilege. Dave Newhouse (the Muffins / Rascal Reporters) played many horn parts, showing great mastery and naturalness with the modesty that is typical of great musicians. He’s a wonderful and sensitive person.
There is also a track called “Egg Soup” by Steve Kretzmer from Rascal Reporters. Did he write it for you? I thought Steve Kretzmer had left music for good?
Dario: I included the opening theme from the fantastic Rascal Reporters album “Happy Accidents” on our first album. Then, I came in contact with Brian Donohoe (Volaré, Alpha Cop), who has taken over the huge Rascal Reporters tape archive in order to digitise and remaster it.
Brian put me in touch with Steve Kretzmer, who was amazed that someone had done a Rascal Reporters cover. I tried to convince Steve to play or make a song together, although he has not played for a long time. However, thanks to Brian, they had the brilliant idea to give me an unreleased 1977 piano piece, “Egg Soup”.
From what I know, Steve Kretzmer will return to write music.
What is Canterbury music to you?
Dario: For me, as for many others, it is music that quirkily and smartly blends electric jazz with the progressive rock and psychedelia: A quest into complex rhythms and delicious harmonies with a pataphysical and surreal attitude. Everything is so graceful and refined, both in the most violent raids of Egg and in the most ethereal Wyatt melodies.
You seem to have a strong affection for the nonsensical elements of that music. The absurdism as well as the humour shines through even though I do not understand a word of Italian.
Dario: The absurdity attracts me, and I am attracted to music that explores the unknown. I am fascinated by eccentric literary authors such as Rabelais, Sterne, Kafka and Jarry; and I love Dadaism and Surrealism. However I would not call my lyrics “nonsense” – it is more appropriate to think of them as symbolic texts.
I try to give a musicality to the words. If the humour comes out even for a not Italian listener, this pleases me!
Many of your songs are extremely short…
Dario: Many things can happen within a short space of time – and we tend to get bored when repeating or stretching phrases or riffs. This may stem from our love for beautiful “pop” songs, and we hope it is also stimulating for the curious listener
Your new album also contains the 18-minute track “Ospedale Civico” that seems to reference National Health. Why keep some things together and divide others up?
Dario: My way of composing is similar to the method of a writer of short stories. “Ospedale Civico” is connected by various internal references, recurring themes and self-citations, in a coherent continuum and self-sufficient form. The song is definitely a reference to National Health; it is a hallucinatory journey inside a public hospital, treated as in a J.G. Ballard story. Full of disjointed phrases uttered by patients, the general feeling is grotesque and restless but, because of that, it is tragicomic as in the Italian cinema tradition.
I also involved Wyatt Moss-Wellington, who sang some magnificent choruses. He was making a beautiful, long piece entitled “Sanitary Apocalypse” during the same period; an enjoyable coincidence, so it was perfect for the cause.
Is there any collaboration on the writing or on arrangements?
Dario: I write almost everything and propose it to the group. I have not studied music so I do not write a score, even if I try to translate the music to midi files. The songs originate on guitar or keyboard or, in the case where I need to understand things concomitantly, they are born on a computer.
We then try to find the best arrangement together, and witnessing a song take shape with the band is the thing I enjoy the most. On some parts I’m inflexible (some chords, a sequence of notes, or a precise rhythm), while for other things I leave it the group to decide all together.
On each record, there are also one or two songs written by keyboardist Davide.
I saw a live concert recording of you online. Is it very difficult to play your music live?
Dario: Some songs are not very easy to play. There are so many things to remember and many steps are very tight. Maybe we mostly love the studio atmosphere; we work on the arrangements and we have fun during recordings and postproduction.
In any case we do rehearse frequently and our few concerts are appreciated even by those who don’t know us.