Interview: Elena Savlokhova
Photo: Stephan Vercaemer
Mai Mai Mai is the noise and experimental music project of Italian artist Toni Cutrone.
Get the Isola / Azione album here.
Every person has a void deep inside, how would you describe yours?
It’s a heavy and potent void, which every day reminds me I have to fight against such a void otherwise I could fall and get lost. This spurs me on to react and be proactive. I learned to live with it, even if sometimes it takes over. It’s part of the game. But the key is to never give up.
What does music mean to you? What initially attracted you to music and what did it give you?
I can definitely say it was all about relationships, a meaningful exchange of emotions, culture, thoughts, feelings, ideas with people; dubbing tapes for good friends, spending hours in dirty garages playing loud music, going anywhere and everywhere to see concerts of favourite musicians and techno raves, trading vinyl…
Since I was a boy, music has always accompanied me step by step, representing discoveries, surprises, places, people, fears, love. I am glad that listening to and making music is still both my favourite hobby and my job.
What emotion is your music?
I could imagine my music as an old memory that elicits a mixture of nostalgia and astonishment, making you feel closer to something that usually feels distant in time and space. It can be a sorrowful emotion, but even in this, I feel it’s still a positive one – mixed feelings.
As you become more and more experienced, does it become difficult to start a new song from scratch?
I reckon it really depends on the nature of the experience. I have had really creative periods, with a lot of ideas and projects come to fruition and other periods with an internal ‘tabula rasa’ and very little progress with creative input. Sometimes I’ve just started making sounds and ‘a song’ coalesced from what felt like an initially insubstantial chaos. In other situations, I had what I felt were great ideas in mind, but there was no way to make a good tune out of them. The whole experience has just taught me that I have to wait for the right moment.
Is it important for your work to have a meaningful context?
Absolutely yes. Both on the creative side and on the part of the audience. The context is really important in order to have the right input to keep creating, experimenting, researching, to have the chance to be understood, and to lay the basis for a real comparison. What I do in music cannot be considered ‘easy listening’ and is not easy to understand. I could say it’s intended for a ‘niche’ audience, not a ‘pop’ one.
We all learn from the context in which we live.
Who is or was your biggest teacher in life and what did you learn from her or him?
I can’t say anything of great detail about particular teachers in my life. But there was a strange occasion that probably changed the direction of my life: as a teenager, I went from my small village in southern Italy to Rome to see a great concert – Neurosis and Unsane playing together!
In addition to teaching me the value of volume, power, sound, and performance, at the end of the concert, I was at the merch table and I had a look at a fanzine curated by Neurosis. On the back cover, it began with a quote from [Friedrich] Nietzsche’s ‘The Antichrist’. I was 15 and had no idea about who Nietzsche was. I followed up the reference, bought the book, and read it. I started reading related works and getting passionate about philosophy in a broader sense. So much so that three years later I went to university to study philosophy and it became my passion alongside music. Thinking that this all started at a concert always makes me smile.
What do you realize as you get older?
Looking back, I understand that everything I have done can be interpreted both as a mistake or as the right thing to do; it depends on the point of view. So,
there’s no need to be nervous about a choice or a crossroads. However it works out, all these choices will still be both right and wrong at the same time.
Do you ever feel confined in your own imagination or is it always easy for you to access a creative space?
I must say that I like not always having access to a creative space. It’s as if this has made me even more creative and stimulated and made me productive and focused when needed. It’s a bit like when you try to make something, but with fewer elements or with unusual instruments, and the result goes beyond what you imagined.
Sometimes having restrictions helps you to push your limits.
What was the last thing that really mesmerized you? Are there things that you still find surprising?
Here in Italy, we have been locked in the house for almost ten weeks because of the pandemic-related restrictions. In May they gave us the opportunity to go out again. As soon as I had the opportunity, I went to the beach. The beach was deserted and diving into the water after all those months of confinement at home gave me a strong mix of emotions. It was a deep feeling; it definitely mesmerized me.
However, I often find things that surprise and amaze me. I feel lucky in this sense. I’m often mesmerized by experiences connected to music and art, by more intimate and personal moments, and by connections with other people.
What are you curious about right now?
For the last few months, I am really curious about the future, something probably connected with the lockdown and the situation related to the pandemic. It’s a different way of living, with this sense of curiosity, born from the fact I feel unable to imagine the future, and what different and possible scenarios will transpire. It’s like I am stuck in the present and I can only look to the past. I am trying to be active and work hard, building an ‘escape route’ from this situation. And I’m trying to imagine something which is not the ‘old, normal way of life’.
What is your goal and purpose as an artist and musician? What are you trying to achieve with your work?
I feel quite satisfied with what I have achieved in music so far. The concept of becoming ‘famous’ has never been a real goal: what I wanted was to play around as much as possible, make music I like (without compromise or intrusion), produce records and connect with a global audience, collaborate with musicians and artists whom I respect and admire.
I always try to amaze (mainly myself, and then others), avoid repetition, experiment and try new directions (even when it would be easier to continue on your own path). A sort of endless challenge for myself, which stimulates me on the creative and artistic side.
Maybe what I’m starting to feel the need for is a change of work direction: at the moment I’m strongly connected to live activity and tours, which represents the bulk of my work, my income. Between what happened with Covid – the total cessation of live concerts and performances – and the fact that being on tour often becomes more and more tiring, both physically and mentally, I would like to start making works and compositions for theater, dance, and cinema. I have worked on a project like this in the past, but this has always been somewhat sporadic and ‘random’. It’s a creative road that stimulates me and I would like to continue to follow it. This could be the new goal.
What are your thoughts and concerns in regard to the current pandemic reality that we all live in now? What changes do you expect or would like to see in the world?
Certainly, one of the positive sides to all this is the time we have to rethink the current situation and the fact that we can consider the creativity that needs to be manifested in order to overcome this new reality. The majority seem to yearn for a return to normality but let’s face it – our ‘normal’ lifestyle is what led us to this point.
My first show was canceled on March 6th. Slowly all my scheduled concerts around Europe up until the summer got canceled. As a local promoter, I started rescheduling shows from March to April, and then to May / June, and now we’re postponing them to Autumn. And I’m not sure we will even make that.
What we did during the lockdown from the safety of our apartments was to mimic our ordinary lives by, for instance, streaming a concert for a festival, broadcasting musical selections for radio stations, keeping in touch, and worked on new material. This is ‘new’ and challenging and it worked toward helping us feel a sense of community that many of us have always experienced, a sense of belonging to a scene, even during the lockdown.
Although, the main problem is that musicians and performers receive no monetary compensation out of all this, which will not be sustainable, even in the short-term.
Therefore, there is an urgency to rethink our relationship with the online world. Stop mimicking on this level and use some leverage to negotiate the revenue share with mainstream digital music platforms, for example, or to make an income out of live streaming or by sharing musical knowledge (workshops, lessons).
Moreover, in Italy it’s really hard to get recognized by the government as an ‘artist’ or ‘musician’, most of us work ‘off-the-record’. This means we will probably never be eligible to acquire public grants or any kind of support post-lockdown.
We are used to the fight, it’s the only way to ensure the underground music scene survives. Nevertheless, I feel it’s time for us to knock at the establishment’s door and let them know we exist; we are valuable, and we need support to help keep this culture alive.
How do you rid yourself of negative thinking when it overwhelms you?
I usually ask nature for help. The best way for me is to get to the sea, spend time on a rock or on the beach, away from people and human noise. Or go away into the woods, surrounded by trees and plants.
There’s this film by Yorgos Lanthimos ‘The Lobster’, where single people are meant to find a partner in 45 days, and if they don’t, they must choose an animal to transform into. What animal would you choose?
I grew up on the sea, as a family of sailors and fishermen. When I was little, my father told me a theory. According to him, our lineage did not come from monkeys, but from dolphins. Mammals that had adapted to water in ancestral times. And then they eventually adapted to the earth again. I grew up with this stimulating fantasy/origin tale and if I had to choose, surely, I would like to be a dolphin (great movie, by the way).
Do you think you’ve established your own artistic vision or are you still figuring it out?
Mai Mai Mai has a very strong and easily recognizable aesthetic. I play in very different contexts, with very different types of audiences, and one thing I’m always happy about is that somehow, I always transmit powerful emotions and a message arrives (the message is not always clear, but something befalls!)
I believe this happens because my vision has very stable foundations and is clearly constructed. However difficult this project may be, the vision is conveyed in the form of emotions and sensations. That said, it remains an ever-changing project, and it’s always nice to upset your vision, especially if it seems to satisfy people.
Looking back at the beginning of your music journey, what do you wish you had known back then?
I started playing drums as a young boy so predominantly I’m a drummer. From the beginning I was also passionate about electronics: but initially, it was as if I was stuck in my ‘role’ as a drummer.
So, I decided to collaborate with musicians who played electronics to combine the two, but it was as if I didn’t see the possibility of working with electronics myself.
This shift of thinking happened much later. About ten years after these initial projects, I started to mix and experiment with other friends, playing synth, percussion, string instruments, wind instruments, various electronics, and so on. At some point, something clicked inside me, and the ‘role’ of the drummer disappeared, leaving room for a ‘play anything’ approach. Thinking about it now, I wonder what would have happened and where I’d be if I had adopted this outlook from the beginning.
What question would you like to be asked in an interview and what would your answer be?
Q: Which one LP would you take with you on a desert island?
A: I don’t know.