I was born in ’72, so until the late Seventies or early Eighties there was only the national state television, so there were only two or three channels, like BBC One and Two, you know? They were showing a ton of Italian movies. Not that I realised that, but now that I think about it, I realise that I was really immersed into those soundtracks. It was really the only entertainment that you would get, so I remember it was something very special. I would sit on a Sunday night… I think they still show The Good, The Bad And The Ugly about four or five times a year. Back then they were relatively new – they had been made in the mid-Sixties, so they were ten years old – and they were showing them even more frequently. I just remember I was immersed into that, and the music played a huge role. I started to study classical piano at eight or nine years old, so I liked that, and I liked to play those melodies by myself, rather than studying too much Mozart or Bach. And I remember something that really made a big jump into my knowledge of these soundtracks was that I remember my father bought me this tape cassette recorder – very basic – and I remember I would sit in front of the TV when the TV was broadcasting those spaghetti westerns, the Fellini movies, and I would ask everybody to be silent, and I would record the audio from the TV speakers. And then I would listen in my bedroom to that recording over and over and over. I was just building this world of fantasy, I guess, when I was much younger – I’m talking about ten or eleven years old – and I loved it. Also, a cool thing I’m sure you can share, back then you didn’t have any Internet or anything. One record that I was given was of the biggest movie themes or something, and you see this little picture of Ennio Morricone – I still remember it – and he had a lemon tree behind him, so in my mind, I was like, ‘Okay, this guy lives in Sicily!’ (Laughs) The cool thing about back then was that without the information, you just focus on the music. I built this whole world of atmospheres, of sounds and emotions that was fuelled by the music that I was listening to. And of course, when you’re a teenager you don’t want to go the way that your parents have been, but then you get back to it and you appreciate it – I would say by the early twenties, when I started to think about the record that I did previously to ROME, which is called ‘An Italian Story’. That record was really my realisation…Like, ‘Okay, that’s a big part of what I am’, and it feels very easy to do and is comfortable and meaningful. ROME is like a bigger step into that – a more complex and more sophisticated approach.
What was it that you felt you wanted to do with music, become a musician or a composer?
The thing is, really what happened from very early on, I was really into playing and doing my own thing – I mean obviously if I look at them now they were incredibly simple and silly sequences of melodies or whatever – but I always had this idea…In my mind it felt easy for me to think melodies and things like that, so melodically and harmonically, rather than really being someone that sits down and technically performs something incredibly well. I never really thought about being a musician. I did that a little bit playing in some jazz clubs late at night, but I really didn’t do that much. I was always into orchestrating and sitting down and composing – maybe what a rock star would say is the more boring aspect of the music business – but I always enjoy to sit down and really calculate exactly what was going on in the studio, and yes, write music rather than perform it.
You have previously been involved with soundtracking movies. What are your methods for writing a score? Do you think you approach it from a more analytical approach?
I would say that this is more like a European way to approach something – I say this because I live and work in the US now. I always try to find a melodic theme or something that could stand on its own as a decent and valid piece of music – something that you put on a CD and you can drive and listen to it. Whereas many soundtracks are taken from a very different perspective – maybe they are not meant to be hear by themselves. So the way I work is I try always to add an element that serves the movie but also could stand on its own. That’s the biggest result, if you can achieve that.
Rome certainly stands on its own. It’s almost like a soundtrack in reverse: there is no accompanying film, but it’s a very visual album. Were these your intentions?
Yeah, maybe. I would definitely say that the writing there is very cinematic, but again, I know it’s very hard to figure it out, but the way me and Brian wanted to do it was to do like a pop record. So we wrote songs… But then, having these players that were so used to doing soundtracks in the ’60s and ’70s, these veteran players from the Roman music scene, and the whole enthusiasm about those soundtracks in the ’60s, we definitely coloured ‘our songs’ – we dressed them up a little bit as soundtracks. So that element comes out, but we didn’t do an imaginary soundtrack at all. We didn’t want to do that. I would say it could be a soundtrack, but not to a movie; maybe just emotions, like melancholy, love, death, happiness… Maybe it is a soundtrack to an imaginary world, but not really a movie. Each song is an emotional journey. The goal would be to be even more universal, rather than just a specific image from a movie. It could be something more universal that applies in a broader sense. And also, the fact that we… A broader sense, but also the time – we tried to stretch from back in the ’60s to now by having the old guys playing our music, which is new music, but then we also got Jack and Norah, which are super contemporary. So we were kinda stretching in time and visually and sonically as much as we could. We really tried to stretch out as much as possible. Hopefully we achieved something similar.
Can you tell us about how you first met Brian?
We met in 2004. I had a record, ‘An Italian Story’, which came out, and he’d just done ‘The Grey Album’. He talked about my record in an article, and I had spoke about things that I liked at that moment like ‘The Grey Album’, and it turned out we had a common friend that introduced us. We really hung out like friends. We exchanged a bunch of records and ideas. We were just driving around and having lunch and listening to music. I guess we appreciated each other artistically. The bottom line was we were thinking, ‘We should do something together’, but we really didn’t know exactly what. Then in 2006, two years later of just hanging out, he called me to basically help him arrange ‘St. Elsewhere’, the Gnarls Barkley record. So we went in the studio and it was just fantastic, super easy; not even one small issue or problem. It was so great, and the thing became so successful that we thought, ‘Well, now maybe is the time to actually do something where we both write and produce and do our own thing, and let’s try to do that together, 50/50’, and that was Rome. So Rome was pushed by ‘St. Elsewhere’.
Were you surprised that it was so easy? Previously you’d been in total control of your own music, and now you were sharing responsibilities with someone else. Did you go into it thinking, ‘Am I going to be able to relinquish control?’
Yeah. First of all, when I arrange for someone – I do that sometimes; I did it with Brian on Broken Bells and Dark Night Of The Soul – in my mind I am actually co-writing. I am trying to write so well and so melodically and so meaningful that I’m adding something – it’s not just a filler as an arranger. But I would say that Rome was really the first time ever that I was going to write with someone. I never did it with anybody else but Brian. He did it with other people, but I never did it with anyone else. So I don’t know if it’s just an exception or if it’s the norm, but it was really fun and super easy. I would say because we are two hopefully decent people, we know when to step in or to step out. We are very respectful of each other’s opinions, so the whole thing was super smooth. He wrote a string line and I wrote another one, and maybe we ended up recording both, but then we just decided what was the best one. We never thought who did what. So it was really smooth, incredibly smooth. That’s why I don’t want to try it with anybody else! We were a winning team, and we definitely had a good time.
What was the music that you were bonding over? What were the musical foundations of what became Rome?
It would be hard to nail down two years of exchanging tonnes of stuff, but I would say we both like the soundtracks, because back then the majority of soundtracks were done from people that also worked in records. And also there was the idea that every movie had to have a successful song in it, which was not like today when it’s something that already existed from a record; it was actually created for the movie. But anyway, I would say I am attracted by the craftmanship that you can hear in these soundtracks: real sounds, everything recorded live… So we bonded over that element. I think we both really like a lot of the psychedelic elements to that music. Because, you know, in the late Sixties everything that was happening in the world went through the soundtracks, so you have sitars and very space-out effects and stuff like that. Very experimental, so that was interesting. Definitely we like the darker side of these emotions that go through these movies – the decadence; I would say I’m very attracted to that. Attracted as an observer, to the decadence, to what happened with all those crazy moments that were happening in the late Sixties, early Seventies. And movies. We really are cinephiles. We both like to watch a lot of movies and appreciate them. We kind of bonded over that. It’s hard to describe, but it was almost three years of sharing things as friends, and it was so clear, the path… We have the same tastes, really. That’s the biggest thing. Even though we come from completely different backgrounds and culture and everything, I don’t know why, but we do share the same tastes.
You had to source all the original instruments and musicians that were used on the soundtracks of the ’60s and ’70s. Did you think this was going to be an easy challenge?
I did something similar a few years prior when I did ‘An Italian Story’; that was really an ice-breaking experience for me. When I did ‘An Italian Story’, that was really an homage to that ’60s/’70s sound. I wrote this music for my record and I thought, ‘Who would be better to play that music than these guys?’ I’m so inspired by that music that it should be the people that played it – it’s such an homage to that. And so I nailed down a couple of guys, and once you really become friends… First of all, they’re really cool guys. I mean they’re so cool. These guys were like the playboys and the hipsters of the ’60s, of La Dolce Vita, the cool cats, and so it’s kinda funny to see them in their mid-seventies and early-eighties, but still you can tell that they have that vibe. The big job when I did ‘An Italian Story’ was to nail down these people. Once you befriend one, I mean, they know each other so well that it’s easier to involve other guys. Just the fact that you’re calling this person who is retired and you say, ‘Maurizio gave me your phone number’, and ‘You’ll be playing with…’ They’re like, ‘Wow, great. I can’t wait!’ So to do Rome, I expanded that network a lot, so there was definitely a lot of extra work, but in a way, I kind of knew very well what I was doing, because I had done it in the past. But it was exciting, yeah. But one thing is to get the musicians; the other thing is to get the instruments. The instruments is actually harder than the players, because the players I had the network and I knew their personality – I knew that one guy would freak out over certain things; I knew what to do with them and how to do it best – but…
Pianos don’t have phones.
Yeah. The instruments were a problem. You might think the players might have their old instruments, but some do, some not. Because the majority of them stopped playing in the mid-’80s. So they tried first to come to me with the instrument that they finished their career with – mid-’80s: I don’t need to say any thing further! It was something not cool. Like, the guitar is the biggest thing to me. If I ask a guy, ‘Do you have a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz pedal?’ And the guy showed up with an electronic unit that simulated all those effects, but it sounded like Eighties bad. So I was like, ‘Bring the one that you used in ’68.’ And they would say, ‘Wow, do you really want that dusty rusty thing that makes a lot of noise?’ ‘Yes, exactly that!’ ‘Okay, so I’ll go to my basement and bring it to you if you want.’ ‘Yes, that’s what I want!’ And then, you know, favours; find out who collects these cool vintage guitars, and they’re not for rent, so you go as a friend… As I’m saying, it’s more difficult to get the instruments rather than the players, because the instruments you have to borrow from someone, who might not be the guy who plays, and there’s no price, so it depends on who you’re going through. It’s Italy, right? So, if you say, ‘This guy gave me your phone number’, maybe the guys had an argument forty years ago, so he’s like, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to hear from you’. But if you say it was another guy, it’d be, ‘Oh yeah, he’s my brother’, and you’d give him a couple bottles of wine and he’d give you the instrument? You know what I mean? It’s fun, but now I know this balance; I know where to step and what’s to say.
What was the most time consuming aspect of Rome? Why did it take so long to be completed?
First of all, during the five years, I think we worked on it like a couple of months every year. But those other ten months were actually crucial to get inspired and really think about where are we gonna go next. So, as far as executing the process, it might have taken six or seven months, but to get to what it is now, it would have been impossible. We did it in phases. The first trip we did the music, as in the band, and we recorded a bunch of tracks. And then when we got home, we let it rest for a few months. I think we came back in November, and then in May or June the next year we started to go back to the tracks and listen to them really carefully, saying we should keep this one and not this one, or whatever. The material kinda called by itself what was going to work or not. I mean, there were obviously tracks that made a lot of sense together. I think we left out very little – maybe one or two. It worked out really well in a sense; we were lucky. And then we spent a lot of time thinking just what we should do next. Extra time was a luxury, and it allowed us to not do the obvious next step. Because when you record music, probably ninety percent of the people would say, ‘Let’s do a fake soundtrack album. Let’s mix it retro’. But the more time we spent thinking on it, the more we realised this is something special, and let’s try to push it even further. So time gave us the energy and the enthusiasm to keep pushing, which maybe you would be worn out after five months of the same thing. I remember not listening to the tracks for a few months, then listening to the tracks again it was like, ‘Wow, this sounds really fresh, and there’s a great energy to it’, so that gave me a motivation to keep pushing. You can tell by the music that it’s not something fast. I think you can spend some time with it, and you might enjoy little things every time that you are hearing it.
When it came to vocalists, what did you have in mind? Who did you ideally want singing on these songs?
Well, we spoke briefly about it, but I remember one day I was driving and I heard a White Stripes song on the radio, and I felt like, ‘Wow, his voice is perfect’. Although it was completely different from what the music is, I thought he’d be perfect. And then, the next thing you know, Brian met with Jack White, and he was thinking the same thing about having Jack contributing to the record. So we sent him the music, and he got back to us a few weeks later with some demos, and they were just fantastic. I still remember thinking it was amazing what this guy added to the music. It was perfect in the sense that it was a twist – it was a step in another direction. I remember a few friends who knew about the record saying, ‘Why don’t you get this old singer that did this soundtrack?’ Yeah, of course you could do that, but that’s kind of easy, you know what I mean? And Jack brought this completely broader sense to the music, and it was perfect. And then, Norah was basically very different from Jack. Because you think Jack, okay, he’s kinda working against the type of music which is very polished and elegant, so you might think to get another very aggressive female vocalist from a punk band or whatever. But no, we went to Norah, which is like smooth as silk. But that was the challenge: a lot of twists and turns and smart decisions that would create something different, something unique, something special.
The group seems to be based on polarities: you could not have had a different upbringing than that of Brian’s, while Jack and Norah are two very contrasting singers, but it all comes together so well.
Right, and then you put into the mix the old players. Yeah, it’s a very eclectic group of people, I would say.
Were the singers given free reign with the lyrics?
Well, Brian wrote the lyrics for Norah. To write English lyrics for me would not be something ideal! And Jack wrote his own lyrics. So that’s how the songs were made.
You didn’t want to put any Italian lyrics in?
No, we had to avoid that at all costs! I figured there was enough Roman elements for both of them!
Do you hope that any success of Rome would inspire people to listen to the original soundtracks, and check out the movies?
Well, if I have to give you a very honest answer, I think that world of soundtracks is so huge – I mean, they produced so much music that I still feel like a beginner. Sometimes I find out about a soundtrack that Morricone did, for example, and I’ll be like, ‘Why have I never heard this one?’ I would say maybe the people will hopefully get to that level of knowing the biggest movies – the Nino Rota soundtracks, or the Morricone soundtracks. I doubt that anyone will have time to go really deep into it – maybe somebody will do it – but I think it will expose them to that. We tried to do a pop record, so as much as the sound has the same atmosphere and vibe to many of those soundtracks, we still really don’t think of it as a soundtrack record. So I don’t know if anyone who listens to a Jack or Norah track will go and listen to a soundtrack and feel the connection. I would leave it to the people to decide about it. I think the people that already know about it will understand where the sounds came from, but people that never heard anything, I think they will be intrigued by how different the sounds are that they are hearing from the rest of the stuff that you hear on the radio today, that’s for sure.
What is the next logical step for Rome? Are you going to be able to tour this album?
There is definitely that possibility. There’s nothing set as of now. If it gets done, it has to be done… I mean, the only way I see for it to be done would be really paying attention to the sound and make it sound like the record sounds, as in with the same care. It has to be done right to respect all the work that we put into the record. Also, I don’t think it could be something really extensive – I mean, it would be a big show if we had the full orchestra and choir, and Jack and Norah. It’s a lot of people! The same bassline played on a different bass, it would not transport you in a certain mood and a certain emotion. And so to not respect that with the live show, I think it would be a big mistake, because it would lose a lot of the charm that the record has because of the way that it sounds.
Will there be a follow-up to Rome?
Hopefully we will work on something else together, but a Rome 2? I highly doubt it.
Perhaps you and Brian would do something similar with different singers?
Oh yeah. There’s nothing that we are discussing right now, but it’s always a pleasure to work with him, so yeah, hopefully that might happen, but I don’t see anything in the same path as Rome.
You sound like you are particularly proud of this project.
Yes, absolutely. For me, I’m Italian, so Rome to me means something, and to Brian means another thing. It’s from the country I’m from, you know? Maybe it’s a little less exotic, so he might have a very different perspective than that. I think his perspective is he is an American man who looks into that world of Italian soundtracks, whereas I’m an Italian man who is actually bringing outside the country that thing that he is so familiar with. So it’s a pretty drastic difference, I think.