In Celebration of Life: An Interview with Nosound's Giancarlo Erra / "Scintilla" (video) (premiere)
Nosound mastermind Giancarlo Erra offers an insightful and honest look into the making of Scintilla, among other things.
When it comes to sophisticated, tasteful, and wholly moving music, few bands do it better than Italian art rock outfit Nosound. Formed 15 years ago by vocalist/guitarist Giancarlo Erra, the band perfects its skill at capturing beautiful tragedy with every release, and its fifth studio effort, 2016’s Scintilla, is no different. Filled with gorgeous arrangements and heartfelt lyricism, it’s yet another powerful entry in Nosound’s catalog. Of course, Erra is more than happy to discuss its creation, as well as his plans for 2017, his favorite musical discoveries of 2016, the purpose the group’s new video for “Scintilla” -- which we’re premiering below -- and even his reflections on the legacy of Nosound thus far.
Hey, Giancarlo. How are you?
Good. How are you? We spoke a few years ago, I think, for Afterthoughts.
Yeah, we did.
I thought so. Let’s stick with the three-year deadline [laughs].
Well, we’ll just have to see when the next record comes out, right? Speaking of Scintilla, though, I thought we’d start with the obvious question: where did the title Scintilla come from? From what I understand, it translates roughly to: “A tiny spark of a feeling”.
Yes. Actually, it comes from the fact that it’s a term that’s also used in English, surprisingly. Not many people know that, and it’s not widely used. Around the time I realized that I knew that Andrea Chimenti would sing on the album. It was a nice coincidence, in a way, because it was kind of fitting with some of the things that were present on the album. It was also a nice way of summarizing all that I wanted to say on the album. It was one of those “eureka!” moments where you just get this inspiration out of the blue and lots of new ideas start growing in your mind. It seemed fitting to name it Scintilla since I had all these new sparks of creative fire. It just seemed like the perfect title.
It certainly fits. Along the same lines, it’s been marketed as “the brave beginning of the second phase of Nosound’s fascinating career”, to use the actual quote from the press release.
Yea, I know. They always write them like that [laughs].
True, true. Still, in what was does that description fit?
Obviously, the point of view of the artist and the point of view of the listener can be quite different. For me, over the last few years, lots of things have changed. Part of it was my private life, but also some changes in my approach to music. It was something that was always there; it’s not like a jazz-rock album that would make you say, “Oh, that’s something that he’s never done”. It’s the same kind of emotional music, but my approach is more minimalist here, if you want, from the writing and thinking about it. My listening tastes as well. It’s something that was always there and was getting stronger and stronger with every album, and now it’s really a part of me. It’s not just growing; it’s just me now, and it’s what I like in music and what I’m trying to do more and more. Of course, there are some things, like “In Celebration of Life” or “The Perfect Wife”, where there are possibly more links to the previous stuff. There are also more hints of what I’d like Nosound to be in the future, such as with the opening track [“Short Story”] or “Love is Forever” or the closing track [“Scintilla”]. They’re shorter and more stripped-down and direct. We stripped out elements to make the message stronger, in a way.
It reminds me of what Bruce [Soord] is trying to do with the Pineapple Thief. He’s taking away some of the earlier abstract, progressive rock elements to make it more singer/songwriter and accessible but still distinctive and poignant.
It’s not a narrative record, but there seem to be consistent themes on Scintilla, correct?
Um, well I guess a major concept across the songs is that you need a kind of journey, let’s say, through pain or other negative things. You need to accept them and live them to enjoy the positive side of things. That’s something that you realize only with age or experience or whatever because you learn that it doesn’t make sense to avoid the negative sides [of life]. You need to live them and get past them. That’s all summed up in the middle song, “Sogno e Incendio”. It’s in Italian, and it’s about things like dry leaves and dead branches of trees, you know, old stuff that you’d say is dead, but it is the very stuff you need to ignite a new, powerful fire. A scintilla. It’s not the whole concept of the album, but it’s an idea I had with Andrea that I wanted to translate to the album.
You definitely do. That’s a powerful sentiment.
Absolutely. I also wanted to express it with the album cover. It’s not obvious, I guess, but the picture is very joyful, but someone could argue that the music itself isn’t truly as joyous as the cover would suggest. The whole joy of the album comes only at the last two or three minutes, maybe, when all becomes positive and festive. As I said before, you need to go through the entire journey before that to fully experience what arises last: the positive side of it. There’s a bit of a parallel between the music and the cover, and also the contrast of darkness, like “The Perfect Wife”, with some brightness in the middle, like “In Celebration of Life” and “Sogno e Incendio”. It’s this play on contrasts.
I agree. Nosound is sort of known for being mournful. You don’t make the most uplifting music, at least overtly, yet it’s often the saddest songs that are the most beautiful and uplifting because they touch upon the human condition so well.
Being happy -- there’s something in our modern society about seeing only the most superficial means of happiness or exhilaration. Obviously, it’s good to have that when we, I don’t know, fall in love or are at a party, but it’s not really happiness, at least to me. Real happiness is just enjoying all the parts of life. It’s normal to have all of it, so real happiness to being able to appreciate and share the negative things so that the positive things are less heavily on us. We can get rid of these weights on our shoulders, and music can help. This is mournful music, but it’s purposeful to help you find the goodness in life.
Well said. I wonder, then, how the music is written. Nosound is your band, so do you compose all the outlines and then the rest of the band adds to them, or is a more communal process from the start?
There was a basic change with this album, but not in the way things were done. Because this music is born from personal experiences—it’s kind of autobiographical -- writing it is kind of therapeutic. It’s a healing process. Usually, it’s so personal that it always starts from me, anyway, and I always try to finish everything in a completed demo, more or less, in my studio. Just to have a general idea of what I want. I think what changed this time is that although I had several things done by myself -- first of all, I didn’t do all of the things. Basically, I just said, “Okay, this just a suggestion, which means that if nothing else comes out, this is how I’d do it, but I’m happy to let you tell me if it’s good or bad or if you have a different idea”.
Oh, that’s kind of you.
I was more open to external contributions, either from the band or from, say, Marianne [De Chastelaine] on the cello. We’ve been working for six or seven years, and this time I just gave her the album and said, “Look, this is the album and these are the lyrics. I’m not telling you where to play, what to play, or how long to play. You just listen to it and let me know what moves you”. We have a special connection in terms of feelings. I just booked the studio; I had no idea what she was going to do, and this is the kind of approach I had this time. For example, for some guitar parts, I just told Paolo [Vigliarolo], who’s worked with me for about ten years, to do a similar thing. I know that he can do the classic thing if I ask him to, so I’m more relaxed. If anything goes wrong, we can always go back to the plan of what I will like. I think everyone was bringing more on their own, especially the people I’ve been working with for a long time. In this case, our drummer, Giulio [Caneponi], and our keyboard player, Marco [Berni], came just after Afterthoughts, so we’re still getting to know each other even though there’s already a fantastic feeling on stage.
Regarding being on stage, this is possibly the best version of Nosound that’s ever existed, I think. In the studio, they’re just starting out, but we still know each other very well. Again, things were made in the same way, but the approach was different in that everyone was freer to bring in ideas. That worked surprisingly well; as soon as I let things go a bit more, it was much easier. This was easiest and smoothest album we’ve done, and yet it was also perhaps the most complicated one.
Well, it turned out wonderful, however it was created.
You already mentioned that Andrea Chimenti and Marianne De Chastelaine are guests on Scintilla, but two songs (“In Celebration of Life” and “The Perfect Wife”) also feature Vincent Cavanagh, the lead singer of Anathema. How’d that happen? Both bands do a remarkable job of finding beauty in sorrow.
Well, again it was very democratic. He decided which songs he’d be on. We listened to the album together, and he immediately liked “In Celebration of Life”. I told him what it was about: Alec [Wildey], this fan of Nosound and Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson, etc.
Oh, I didn’t know it was about Alec. His story seems to have impacted a lot of people within the progressive rock community. Wilson and Mariusz Duda (Riverside) adapted one of his poems into a song called "The Old Peace" a couple of years ago.
Yes. The lyrics for this song are from him, too. I just wrote the song with him in mind. He wrote me when he was very ill, and we had many exchanges through Facebook during his final days. I knew he liked the idea, so I wrote it very quickly and promised him that it was going to be on the new album. I managed to record the full demo so he could listen to it before he passed; I knew that the official version would come out after that. It was very sad, and I discovered that Vincent was very moved by his story, too, and he had a personal connection with Alec, too. He was shocked that the song he liked so much was actually related to Alec. That hit him hard emotionally, so it was a coincidence and a sign that “In Celebration of Life” would be the main song we’d work on.
Wow, I had no idea.
Yeah, it just worked out so well in that way. For “The Perfect Wife”, it was a matter of the technical advantage. His voice would help the angry chorus be even more desperate. It worked out quite well. Really, he and I have been in touch since we played together a few years ago. We’re always in contact, so I just told him that I wanted to have something with him. He has a very emotional voice, an amazing voice, and we have emotional common ground, in a way. He was away from touring and writing with Anathema, so it was the perfect time to make it happen.
It sounds like it.
It was the same way with Andrea Chimenti. I’ve known him for several years, and we felt a similar connection emotionally. We always said that we wanted to work together, but there was never time, for various reasons. For Scintilla, we found ourselves in similar situations personally, and he was away from doing things for his music, so it worked out. I’m always very careful about collaborations because, sadly, there are so many collaborations nowadays that always feel motivated by popularity and sales and things like that. I always want to get rid of the money part of it; I don’t like to do collaborations for that reason. It’s not that we don’t have the money to pay a collaborator -- we do, thankfully, from Kscope -- but once you start talking about money, you risk making that a major part of the reason you’re doing it in the first place. I really want things to happen purely because of the artistic nature of it. In both of these cases, it was just that: an emotional connection that would benefit the music.
That’s an unfortunate byproduct of the business, I guess. “In Celebration of Life” is easily my favorite song on the LP, as you know, and in a way, it’s the most minimalistic. The build-up is so beautiful.
It’s not minimal in terms of sounds, but it is in terms of music. It’s only about four chords and the same lines over and over again. That’s just what I like, usually: to make things as simple as I can without making the listener tired. I’m very fond of it.
It allows each timbre and moment to last so you can appreciate it all. In contrast, “The Perfect Wife” is probably the most aggressive track in the sequence. What inspired it?
When you start stripping away elements, you’re able to be more direct, and that comes out either with sarcasm, like with “Love is Forever”, which follows “The Perfect Wife” and is linked to it. They’re the two most extreme pieces here. Extreme emotions bring out extreme reactions, one way or another. I usually never go into a lot of detail about what or who inspired a song because it doesn’t really matter, in a way. What matters more is what kind of feelings it can generate in a listener. People tell me that that song is very sad in the middle and then gets angry like it’s almost too much. It’s very direct; it doesn’t move around the concept. The anger and the guilt and all the questions are right there. What I like most about that song is that it explores how people can react with anger to love or to positive feelings. In my head, a positive feeling can generate a negative reaction. I know it does, obviously, in the real world, but it’s something that always strikes me. The deeper or more tender you go with one side, the more angry and relentless you can be on the other side. “The Perfect Wife”, while telling its story, is just a good way to express that. Having these aggressive parts mixed with this melancholic middle section.
Then “Love Is Forever” is the coda of that. It’s the reaction to it. When you experience something like this, you become sarcastic about things. That’s the only defense you have. Even the title “Love is Forever” is sarcastic. It’s not a traditional love ballad; it’s what’s left after the battle. There’s a cold feeling that remains.
It seems like “The Perfect Wife” is the most narrative piece, too. It feels like a story, and I really like how bold it is.
Thank you. That’s what I wanted to do. As we say in Italian, it’s not going around the ball; it’s just kicking the ball [laughs].
Yeah, just throw it all out there. You’re also premiering a new video for "Scintilla" with us (see below). Why choose this track and this style for the video?
“Scintilla” is probably my second-favorite track on the album. It’s a contemplative track and it summarizes all that was said before it, but then it ends Scintilla in an uplifting way. It’s kind of a resolution to all of the previous tension. The video is basically a single shot that goes on for about ten minutes, and if you’re not careful in looking at what’s happening until the very end -- once the music is finished -- you don’t really understand what it is. It’s a subtle video, so it’s not right of MTV or for just getting your attention. It’s more about emerging yourself in it as you listen. I really like the fact that this is not “easy” music; it is easy in terms of how it’s made, but it’s surely not music for every day. It’s not going to get stuck in your belly with easy emotions or stuck in your head with that kind of complex, proggy technique. It’s nothing like that; you’re either there with an open heart, or you just won’t get it, and you’ll think it’s boring. That might not help us in terms of sales [laughs], but I don’t care too much about that, to be honest.
Ideally, music is made for the artistry of it, not its profitability.
Exactly. I just want to make things purer in terms of emotions and art. That’s what I try to do from album to album, and I really think that we did it more than ever with this one. If someone is really paying attention, they’ll get that. That’s why I like the video for “Scintilla”: you have to wait for several minutes, with a single scene that goes on and on and on, but it is changing in subtle ways.
It's a great experiment if nothing else. Moving outside of Nosound for a moment, what are some of your favorite albums of 2016, and are you looking forward to any next year?
I’m not sure that I paid attention to many records released [last] year, but I can tell you what I discovered in 2016. Well, there’s the new Radiohead [A Moon Shaped Pool]. There are a couple of songs on there—like the single, “Daydreaming”, and “Glass Eyes—that make it by far their most beautiful album. The closing one, “True Love Waits”, as well. These piano-driven songs are so lovely, and not always in an obvious way. I adore that album. Also, David Bowie’s Blackstar, although I think that came out at the end of 2015.
You're close! It came out on January 8th, on his birthday and two days before he died.
Oh, that’s right. I absolutely love it. It really shows what it’s like to make new music. it’s unlike anything that’s been done before. I also discovered some obscure artists from the Northern part of Europe, and that’s what I listened to most. This kind of dark Norwegian or Icelandic folk or ambient music. Think of Ulver, for example. Artists like Árstíðir and Sólstafir. There’s also a Japanese album from 2006 that I love to bits called Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain. It’s a collaboration between Mono and World's End Girlfriend, and it’s kind of electronic and post-rock.
That’s an fantastic title.
It consists of five parts that range in length from twelve minutes to nineteen minutes; a distracted listener may find it boring or repetitive, but if you get it, you’ll think it’s a masterpiece. It’s my favorite discovery of 2016, for sure. Just to get a taste of it, listen to the song in the middle, “Part Three”. It’s a bit of classical music mixed with post-rock and electronics. There’s a clear Brian Eno influence in terms of serial, repetitive passages that build with small elements every single time. It’s brilliant.
I’ll have to check it out. It sounds very unique and interesting.
This is the kind of music I like, so maybe the next Nosound album will move towards it a bit and move away from prog rock. I’m pretty much bored of most rock music, including what people call “prog rock”.
Well, a lot of bands don’t try new things.
Do you know Gazpacho, from Norway?
Oh, yes. Absolutely.
That’s another band I put on the same pedestal as Nosound and Anathema in terms of capturing tragic beauty. Especially their 2007 record, Night. It’s a five-track suite that’s stunning.
That’s a good one.
Totally. So are there any plans to tour in support of Scintilla?
Yes. Well, it’s a very tough business because this kind of music isn’t really that easy to suggest to promoters. You know, it’s more about listening in a solitary way. We’re trying to work with people who are more proactive with us and believe in Nosound as much as we do. There are plans to do a mini-tour in Europe, so covering Germany, possibly France, Italy, and Poland in June. At the moment, nothing is set, but there are ideas in the work. Let’s not jinx it [laughs], but we’re thinking about it. I just want to push our live side more. I like being on stage more than being in the studio, to be honest, and the band is really fantastic at the moment, so it’s a shame that we aren’t playing more. The new songs are suited for concerts, too, because of how they were recorded.
I wish you could come to America and play. One step at a time, though.
Yeah, the easiest thing we could do in that regard is wait until a festival comes up. The United States is so vast that it can be incredibly expensive if you aren’t always filling venues with hundreds of people. To be blunt, too, the festival business is like a small mafia. Managers and booking agencies tend to put the same bands together, so if you’re on a good roster in that way, you get gigs; if you aren’t and you’re independent—even on Kscope—bands that sell a tenth of what we sell may get the opportunity instead. A couple of times, we got kicked off of a festival because a bigger producer or promoter arrived at some point and said, “Well, if you want my big artists, I want my small artists to play as well”, so there was no more space for us.
That’s really a shame.
That’s just how it works. We’re on Kscope, though, so I’m sure that eventually, we’ll manage to find the right places for us.
I hope so. In addition to the tour, what’s on the horizon for 2017? Maybe another record?
It’s a very busy horizon. I’m working with Tim Bowness on rereleasing our Memories of Machines LP, Warm Winter, which came out in 2011. We had a few problems with the previous label [Mascot Records], and you can’t find it anywhere. It was a really great one and we’re proud of it. Then we have plans to work together on new material. Also, possibly new Nosound, too. I have a lot of material ready that just wasn’t right for Scintilla, and other things are arising at the moment.
If it’s possible, I don’t want to make albums every three years. I think we talked about this before, but unlike other music I’m involved in, I always wanted Nosound to not be the thing that’s paying my bills. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that I’d start to see it as an obligation to pay my bills instead of as entirely art. It’s okay for me to see other projects like that, but I don’t want to with my own music, my own art. As soon as all the material I have makes sense as an album, we’ll put it together. Perhaps sometime in 2017. You never know because part of the plan when you play live is to play the new songs and release something again.
It’s good that you have so many prospects.
It’s going to be a very exciting year.
I’m sure. Nosound will also celebrate its 15th anniversary in 2017. Looking back, how you do feel about your legacy thus far?
It’s a weird feeling because it’s always ongoing for me. Every album is new, and like most artists, I don’t like to listen to my old stuff, not because it’s bad but because I’m not the same person anymore. It’s always like the first day. In terms of how Nosound is perceived, we’re categorized within “modern prog rock”, and to many people, that means a genre of music, not an attitude. It means complex arrangements and weird time signatures. We are not like that at all. I mean, maybe we’ve had elements of psychedelic music, but not really of classic progressive music. More often than not, we get people who don’t like the music because it’s not what they expected. It was promoted to the wrong audience, so they were expecting a band more like, say, Rush. Obviously, Nosound isn’t like that. What I’m trying to do now is drift things a bit—and Kscope is fantastic because they’re trying to do that as well—away from “progressive” and express us more as “art rock” or “emotional music”. We aren’t progressive in the way many people would expect. That’s maybe the only downside of the classification. It’s like a burden that downplays what we are and doesn’t help us. Most people still connect with us in the ways they should, though, and that’s what’s important. It was always about feelings, even if it’s just like a guitar solo in a minimalist song. I just hope that with time and more albums, people won’t listen to us and expect “prog” but rather feelings. If they still don’t like it, hey, that’s their right.
That’s what you guys do so well.
It’s what I like so much in music and what I like to write.
I’m not sure if you saw my recent list of the best progressive rock albums of 2016, but a few people critiqued it for having bands that aren’t progressive in the traditional sense, as you said. I don’t know if they meant Nosound or The Dear Hunter, Marillion, or another band, and naturally, you’ll always get negative feedback and criticism with such divisive things. There is that negative connotation of bands being tricky just for the sake of it, but to me, a progressive band is a band that pushes new ideas and techniques. Bands that literally progress beyond what it’s “supposed” to be.
Exactly. If you named ten of the “classic” progressive rock bands of the ‘70s, I probably wouldn’t like nine of them. I just don’t listen to them, but I like the attitudes and concepts that fueled that music. They pushed boundaries, and that’s what matters. I admire artists that do that, no matter how they do it, even if it’s with electronic music or classical music or rap or heavy metal. I don’t care; as long as you’re finding the extremes of things, rather than settling on the normal side, then I like it.
You have to try something new. Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, Giancarlo. Congrats again. I’m eager to hear what you do next.
Thanks, Jordan. It’s always a pleasure.