Italian outfit I Fenomeni have been making head-turning, head-swirling psychedelic beat music for a few years now, and their "Un Vuoto Appeso" LP for the Psych-Out label proved to be an excellent vehicle to release their super authentic stylings, most of the set brimming with moves towards the realm of ear-piercing psychedelia, with a few songs put over in more of a garage-style approach; basic yet melodic and hugely appealing. Now and again they could really take you to the edge with an almost spooked atmosphere, incendiary bursts of fuzztone guitar, and led by some great, impassioned vocals.
With this new project, the group have decided to keep that basic blueprint in mind overall, but in order to channel their songwriting sessions for maximum potential they also came up with a more conceptual storyline for us to follow. The gist of "Dodicesima Dimensione", revolves around the story of a boy and a girl who have fallen hopelessly in love with each other ... but then they make a strange choice and decide that they are going to leave themselves and everyone and everything in this world behind ... In the interview which follows this review, Matteo gives us a little bit more of the story's back line and how the writing then unfolded. The main thing readers need to know is that it's a really great collection of songs; the sounds all presented through a wide range of instrumentation that rides through the LPs core, coming over in its projection as would such a similar project were it to bear a late 60s date mark instead of early summer 2015. So of course we're thinking of the usual line-up of guitars, drums, bass and vocals, plus one or two other things like sitar, and dulcimer to add a distinctly exotic flavour, and a variety of different percussive elements all of which serve to enhance each song's rhythmic pattern and mood. But they've also paid particular mind to the overall sound they wish to convey, with the arrangements carefully falling into place so as not to disturb their wholeheartedly psych-imbued fixation which, as alluded to earlier, also brings in the essence of swinging garage, beat and also elements of folk-rock. So if you dig the likes of the Byrds (the set's only cover version is a neat adaptation of McGuinn and Crosby's "Fifth Dimension" classic 'I See You'), Electric Prunes, Chocolate Watchband, Seeds and 13th Floor Elevators, and have the tendency to want to swoon over the type of melodics as imparted by such as Love, the Beatles and Barrett-era Pink Floyd, oh and don't mind too much that the group sing in their native tongue; Italian, then I suggest you go forth and duly seek this one out. While you're at it, Veals & Geeks have also issued the group's latest single 'Mai Piu' / C'e Fango', which, doubtless, you will find to be another fantastically squealing, modern-age example of exploratory garage psychedelia.
I FENOMENI – Interview
First of all can you tell our readers where exactly you are from, who is in the group, and which instruments you all play?
Pier: We're from Genova, Italy. Here's the whodoeswhat: Matteo, the main body & soul behind the band, is lead vocalist and also plays guitar, tambourine, maraccas, sitar, dulcimer; Pier does backing vocals, sometimes lead, and plays guitar, organ, piano; Franco is the drummer, and also does backing vocals; Andrea was our bass player but has recently left the band without realizing it, and has been substituted by Fabio (long-time friend and band mate of mine).
Matteo: Genova is in the North-West part of Italy in the coast near France's Côte d'Azur, so to say. It has a relatively “southern” feel and lifestyle if compared to other cities of Northern Italy. So it’s kinda relaxed and not much happening, unless for some underground scene, which is anyhow limited but has always existed since the 60s (from relatively depressed singer-songwriters, to some early heavy/prog bands, etc.). So a good scene paradoxically. This is not directly answering your questions I guess, at least not this specific initial one. But in a way it does as it suggests how and why we got together. This said, I am no longer living in town since 2000, when I moved to Rome and played there with few 60s/70s-inspired bands (more heavy 60s, such as Tandem Cycle or Powerpop – Wow!), and then to Paris, London etc. I am now based in Brussels, Belgium, which makes the whole concept of a “band” a bit complicated, but it has been working so far, so I guess it’s ok! We have been knowing Franco (drummer) for ages and after some thinking his name popped-up… we asked him to join and he was enthusiastic. Andrea also was very much part of the thing since the beginning and then family and work duties made playing outside Genova a challenge, which caused some friction and so we decided to call it a day. Fabio is now with us since last Christmas more or less and he’s an impeccable bass player really! He comes from a different “musical angle” which adds to our musical mix as well.
For how long now has I Fenomeni been in existence?
P: we started casually talking about such a band in 2009, and in early 2010 I Fenomeni were born. At first we were only doing cover versions of obscure Italian material from 1966/68, but within a few months Matteo had several originals, since then we've been playing a mixture of originals and covers.
M: We started in 2009 as I was in-between jobs at the time.Therefore I had some free time and, as I was based in Genova for few months for the first time since years, we just started as a joke. But we liked the way the thing was taking shape since session number 1!
What would you say it is that draws you and the group towards the kind of psychedelic-flavoured beat rock music that the group likes to play?
P: I would say, especially regarding me and Matteo, it's music we've listened to since we were kids, one way or another. And I guess we're particularly enamoured (as far as the Fenomeni's music is concerned) with what was happening in Italy in the late 60's/early 70's, music-wise and in general.
M: . In fact it all started from a common love Pier and I had for some weird late-60s Italian psych bands, and the fact that the two of us have played together in other 60s bands (e.g. The Painted Brush) from Genova. We must pay tribute to people like Ursus in Turin who started assembling compilation of weird minor Italian late-60s beat bands since late 80s and early 90s (both in tape or vinyl). So we always loved this thing, more than “standard” beat or garage stuff (which is also cool to a certain extent but might become a bit boring, especially if repeated by “cover bands” through decades again and again … often by losing the initial appeal of original tracks, and notably their bonafide approach and good punk or pop attitude). So when we decided to go for a 60s Italian Beat band the selection of the covers to start with was pretty obvious … say from 1968 onwards (although you can have some relatively backwards sounds still in 1969/1970s in Italy).
Obviously you are much enamoured of the sound that such vintage greats as The Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators, Seeds and Chocolate Watch Band etc produced, but can you tell us more about those and other influences that provoke you into creating the sounds you choose to make?
P: Well those, and so many other bands from the US and UK have definitely inspired us (Love, Byrds, Beatles, Yardbirds, Syd's Floyd, etc), but it's more of a general approach trying to focus on what was happening in Italy in the late 60's, and in particular how the Italians digested those strange sounds coming from abroad and made their own brand of psychedelic music. Think Chetro & Co, Le Mani Pesanti, among the most obscure ones, but also Equipe 84 (Stereoequipe and Id are faves of ours) or New Trolls, who were quite popular at the time round here.
M: Oh well, if you ask me (well you ask us) what bands we like we must spend the whole ight talking of it…. Personally it goes from early Dixieland to rural blues and folk, country etc. etc. Not speaking of classical and jazz. But to remain more focussed on I Fenomeni I’d say everything from 1967 towards early ‘70s really. UK, US, Eurobeat, Latin America (Brazilian and other stuff are great, even more minor stuff than Os Mutantes I mean). So again is very difficult to say. I’d like though to pay tribute to few of the actual people, I mean in person, that have inspired and supported us. Amongst those certainly Maurizio Cassinelli, from the late 60s Genova band Gleemen and Garybaldi (amazing people and great bands really!), whom has supported us since the beginning, when we discovered his studio almost by coincidence. And Spartaco Nagliero from Fantom’s, another late 60s amazing punk psych band from Turin. They both play in our last record and it is almost a “family affair” for us really, beside the great admiration we have for them. Then again, there are thousands of bands, songs andpeople, which is difficult to mention in a certain order of priority.
The group already released a rather wonderful LP "Un Vuoto Appeso" which appeared on the Psych-Out label a couple of years back; and I must say that aside from being a superb blend of psychedelic intensity and garage-beat intrigue, was also presented in one of the thickest, sturdiest gatefold card covers one could ever imagine - yes even more than the most authentically produced original US issues ... Anyway, what significant differences would you say, if any, were there in the approaches taken on that album, in comparison to how you went about preparing and recording the material for the new LP "Dodicesima Dimensione" just released on the Veals and Geeks label in Belgium?
P: Well, the sleeve weight is the main difference... Jokes aside, the first album was a collection of songs, and only halfway through recording it we realized there was some kind of concept underneath (a bit like, ahem, Sgt. Pepper, if you like). At a certain point we had the idea of doing the whole Byrds 5D LP in Italian, at least for a live show, but then the project imploded, and Matteo went on with the idea of a new concept, progressing from the 5th to the 12th dimension. Basically not many differences in the recording approach, only a little better and more focused I think. Only our version of 'I See You' remains from the original idea.
M: Our Belgium producer, well I mentioned I live in Brussels, so basically Stan from Veels & Geeks is a friend and has a great taste in music, as well as a great record shop and label. So the match was easy. Well the first LP started (again) as a joke really, and initially was an “improved demotape” so to say with almost 100% covers, partially from Italian bands, partially adaptation in Italian of US/UK songs, the latter quite “mainstream” in the 60s scene. The idea, as I mentioned, in the very beginning was to play for our own amusement. But suddenly the situation changed, and particularly as it was clear that the actual recordings were pretty cool (credits should be given to Pier in this respect), so we thought it could have been worth trying something a bit more “special”, if you see what I mean. So I started “writing” material, if you allow me this expression, and so did Pier. And quite immediately we started building a personal repertoire which was quite interesting, at least this is what we thought. We had some discussion with Brian from 13 O’clock Records at the beginning, but our stuff was not really in line with his production, and by the time of our conversation the “non original” material was still the majority. So I can’t blame him for not being fully convinced. But we added songs to song and in a short while we came with our first LP which, although not necessarily “monolithic” in all its songs, was quite interesting. It was easy to have it co-produced by Cosimo (the great man!) from Psych Out. Through time other songs came and I felt I wanted to have a more thorough “concept” approach (we had it to a certain extent already in the first LP), if anything as it is more challenging and fun to do. Also we wanted to have a better production, in terms of sound (we were supported by a professional mastering) but more importantly in the arrangements. It took sometime to finish it, and I am the one responsible in harassing Pier until we’re both fully convinced (a process which might take some time I tell you!). But we’re still friends it seems.
Is there any reason that this new album hasn't been issued on Psych-Out this time around?
P: Psych Out's main man Cosimo is a fan (and we're fans of him as well), and we obviously approached him first for the LP, but at the time he was involved in other projects so we had to ask elsewhere. He likes the album a lot though and we're definitely looking forward working with him again in the future!
M: Indeed Cosimo from Psych Out was busy and we liked the idea of “experimenting” with other productions. So Stan from V&G was a good option and it all went very smoothly and we’re all happy!
Veals and Geeks label has also just released a single from you guys, and I must say it too is a decidedly cool piece of finely-tuned, fuzzed out garage psychedelia if I may be so bold. I wonder if this is being well promoted or (like other I Fenomeni records) is it just a bit like being part of a secret society ... in that if you want a copy you'll find a way to get it somehow ... or not!!? But I genuinely hope that the record will receive many positive reviews and that way many more folks will be attracted to it.
P: Well it's true, it's a bit of a well-hidden secret, but so far all 7”s and LPs have sold out, so yes... if you want a copy you'll find it somehow. Hopefully the new LP will be reprinted soon, and the first LP should be reissued in Germany within the end of the year.
M: Well after all who cares of good distributions. I mean, if people are interested in it either we know them already or they can easily have access to it (i.e. they are “friends of friends”). It’s a small world nowadays and our fan-base, if you allow me this term, is not that big anyhow (both in actual and potential terms I guess).
Going back to the new album it features as its main focus the rather strange and alluring story of what happens to young lovers Bernardo and Patrizia ... would you like to elaborate a little more for us, at least for the benefit of those not yet acquainted with I Fenomeni's electrifying and psychodelically-infused charms?
M: Oh well I mentioned that I wanted to work more specifically on a “concept”. Partially as this would have sounded as a more genuinely late-60s inspired record, but mainly as it was more fun to do. Just seeing how tracks evolve and you can build a story through each piece, it’s interesting. In terms of the actual story, this was more due to the “title track” which came to me one day and I started to think how this piece of little story (i.e. a couple deciding to leave this world, both in physical and spiritual terms) could have evolved. Well not evolved in fact, as the story is just that one but how to use further songs to explain the reactions around such a story. So what would have family members said and done, what might friends and lovers said, etc. etc. So in the end it all came by itself, as is always the case. I think it was Keith Richards who once said that songs are in the air “waiting to be captured by musicians”, like radio antennas do with airwaves. Then I stuffed in a lot of my obsessions and there was naturally quite a lot of implicit thinking about life and death, which is bizarre when I think back to it as in that period of time my father was basically dying of cancer, without him or any of us in the family being aware of it. So there are complex emotions connecting me today to that simple strange story that first came to me a couple of years ago now.
P: And somehow some of those songs and emotions, directly connected to Matteo's life, were also resonating with me and my own life, it felt strange...
How often do I Fenomeni go out and play gigs, and do you find it difficult to get the level of accuracy and deliberation into the material in the live setting, as opposed to collectively letting your creative juices flow in the studio?
M: Well we play far less than we would like to, but we’re all busy with family, work and the fact that I live in a different town does not help either. We actually played the whole LP track-list in a row last winter in Genova (I told you we don’t move much!) and it was funny to discover that the songs are actually relatively easy to play and perform and even without much arrangements they play quite cool! If you invite us for a gig in Edinburgh we will show you!
What's been the funniest, oddest or perhaps most incredulous thing that has happened to I Fenomeni, either as a group or that has happened to any individual members?
M: Well the most incredulous is the fact that we actually still exist after 6 years now. And that we are quite productive, despite the fact that we barely rehearse, even prior to a concert (or a recording session)! Then for funny and odd memories I count on Pier, as my memory is notoriously awful! I must say that it was to successfully involve James Lowe from the Electric Prunes, as we initially proposed him to read the actual recital in Italian… we have translated in English phonetics so for him to read nonsensical words which would have resulted (in our wishes) into understandable Italian sentences. A bit how Satchmo did in the 60s when he sung some Italian hits quite impeccably). And I must say James really tried to do it like that. The man is a music genius and an icon, so essential in contemporary music history, and still so approachable and easy to deal with. It’s impressive really!
P: Not much to add, as in most bands (except Oasis probably) we have our own quota of inside jokes and such, but in a couple of occasions when we had to reach far places for a gig we have used what we labelled our 'psychedelic Sat Nav', which belonged to one of us. Which regularly brought us to lands beyond the beyond, but never to what was supposed to be our destination. That and quite a lot of beer; but we only realized right on the stage, where the owner of the Sat Nav nearly passed out on both occasions.
Lastly could you tell us what are the plans for the group in the next period?
M: Oh well we have the double live album in Japan to be recorded! Kidding (although would love to play there). No idea really, we would have to work something out it seems. We are now producing a flexi record, which might be sold during our concert at the Festival Beat in Salsomaggiore (IT) in July. But it’s taking ages and becoming quite expensive for us (not the public). We have this idea of i “Fenomeni Atmosferici”, a folk-psych spin-off whch might actually materialise soon, if we manage to involve a couple of guys in Genova playing sitar and tablas. And that might also result in an LP or a 10” (I always wanted to do a 10” format … In any case, if anything new materialised we will let you know. Thanks Lenny really!!!
Cheers Matteo / guys and thanks for your time and for all the great music you are making.
Your pal Lenny
Review & interview made by Lenny Helsing/2015
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