Label Love #55: Haunter Records
In a depersonalised exchange of email threads, it can be hard to get a fair grasp on where a label or artist is really coming from. To not talk them into a corner which revolves around a line of questioning lifted from a one-formula-fits-all approach, yielding platitudes and transient fodder for PR campaigns. But talking to Daniele Guerrini and Francesco Birsa Alessandri of Haunter Records, it’s abundantly clear that their outlier spirit and nuanced outlook doesn’t cohere with the manufactured angles frequently cooked up by attention-hungry blogs and magazines in a bid for clickbait content and advertising revenue.
The notion of forcing such preconceptions into a conversation is a trait we touch on during the preliminary exchanges of an interview conducted over email, but with a scope which attempts to defy the often reductive nature of virtual interaction and contemporary music criticism. At the very least, it’s not a glorified plug for a new record masquerading as a critical article. That’s the hope anyway.
As for the substance of what we talk about, it’s encouraging to hear from a label who reflect the political context that shapes them, but who aren’t ruled by that confrontation. This engagement seems to be the natural product of operating in and around Milan’s squat party scene and the ‘free spirited approach’ engendered by that connection, not to mention the links with the radical left movement these venues harbour, another one of the associations Daniele and Francesco divulge.
Like many labels of their stature and by the necessity of oppressive economic circumstances, Haunter inhabit a self-sufficient world built on the back of the legacy of Italy’s illegal rave scene, the embers of which were imbibed by Daniele and Francesco during their early years. Their subsequent years were filled with stints in noise and hardcore punk bands in the case of Francesco and an exposure to a dominant emocore/screamcore scene – along with punk – in the case of Daniele. Having shared a past affinity for punk, it’s easy to see where the origins of Haunter’s fiercer moments lie. But as displayed by the contrastive sound of recent releases, this isn’t the place for hackneyed precedents, formulaic rehashes and clumsy punk/rave hybrids, but where a more complex crossover of ‘cracked electronics, irregular noise and post-structuralist dance music’ thrives.
SSSS’s Just Dead Stars For Dead Eyes for instance, conjures up another dimension entirely, one of dead gravity drift, severed transmission hiss and colossal expanse. Yet where SSSS unravels weightlessness and immensity, Cage Suburbia – a duo which comprises Daniele and Haunter cohort Matthias Girardi of Weightausend – unloads a writhing overspill of deviant noise techno and pitch black jungle. Ferocious and distorted, it sounds like it’s been doused in an acid bath.
Nestled within 'Copkiller' – the opening track of Cage Suburbia's Argument #03 release – is a Genesis P-Orridge quotation lifted from the 1984 film Decoder, a cyberpunk staple that starred William S. Burroughs. It’s testament to one of Haunter’s finest moments so far that it doesn’t feel unnecessarily shoehorned in for the sake of affectation, but suitably engrained in the track’s blistering momentum.
These recent outings – the breadth of sound they convey and the influences they exhibit – give an imposing introduction to where Haunter are coming from. Hopefully the following conversation, traversing contemporary Italian politics, Milan’s squat party scene, and the day to day running of the label helps to fill in the detail. As Daniele and Francesco go some way to attesting, this is the spun out, fucked up music our broken everyday lives deserve.
On one of your first releases, 2013’s From Northern Italy, While On Our Way To Social Collapse, there was a bit of text affixed to the release. It declared a ‘purpose to document the sound of what’s currently haunting Italy’ and mentioned ‘a state of utter rage and deep frustration’. You stated the music you make ‘can not avoid portraiting the motionless, suffocating environment we’ve found ourselves in.’ What’s the current situation like in Italy for the younger generation? Have things changed since then? People seemed to have been hopeful about the prospects offered by Matteo Renzi…
It makes very little difference who is in office. We're so far removed by the actual decision-making that trusting for government politics to actually relate to the people really makes no sense. They lie by telling us the economic situation is a little better, but the causes for this condition of ever-impending decline are of course systemic. “Hope” itself is quite a meaningless concept: it's not a matter of hope but of sincerity and action. Back when we made those statements, we weren’t concerned with mere economics, but with the utter absence of cultural and emotional agencies for change in the people around us. Without that, without any sincerity in the exchange of existential urges and ideas, there’s no traveling out of this static age. Anxiety is still a very common condition, fuelled by economical pressure but also of course by the constant, worldwide state of surveillance and information extraction that’s now been somewhat accepted by most. People make it “bearable” by accepting mediocrity in the form of shallow fun and disposable stimuli. Rage and frustration are very well present, but also very well hidden, unconfessed secrets that everyone feels but nobody admits to, since any depth and intelligence in everyday human relations is basically banished. Even when they do admit them, they couple them with a sort of fatalistic grief that obviously doesn’t help.
Do you still feel driven by these impulses? I think it’s a situation which a lot of people in the UK can relate to…
Very much so. We guess many people in many countries can relate to this feelings…
Do you think sound & music, and the intents of record labels, should reflect social and political grievances?
We don’t necessarily think they should reflect them, we just think they end up reflecting them, in one way or another, even when they try to avoid them. But reflecting is one thing, taking direct action is another. It is not the place of art to give answers, though it can very much be made of the same vitalistic urges that end up generating an argument, a fracture and thus, a conversation. We never set out to be political. Never, at all. We just ended up reacting to what we were seeing around us and living everyday.
This from an artist’s point of view, while the job of a label probably comes with bigger responsibility. You have to be aware of how your business choices affect the world around you. But again even in that, being honest with your artists, giving your best, and staying true to yourself (even by questioning your own actions) are the most political acts of all.
I’m interested in your ventures as squat promoters, what led you into that world? How did it appeal to each of you?
We’ve been gravitating around it for a long time now. It used to be very common in Italy, up until some years ago, whoever had any interest in counterculture and underground music had to relate to that world. There’s also a strong political kinship, of course.
What does a squat offer that a small/mid-sized independent venue doesn’t? Is there an appetite for squat parties in Milan?
The only rules we apply are of respect for one another and for the surroundings. Plus, we basically have no time limits, apart from those generated by fatigue, of course. Patrons are not customers, money is collected just as a form of support for the performers, in the same way we do not relate to the market when making artistic choices. Of course this implies that we have to work very hard to keep the place going, since it’s totally DIY. The artists we invite have to be willing to support by compromising a bit, although we make a steady point in meeting everyone’s needs.
This said, it is always hard to tell if people’s interest is dictated by the actual artistic content or just by curiosity, or even by the perceived “coolness” of the context. We feel there’s a great energy and a need to escape the structures of conventional social spaces, but there’s very few people who actually make an effort to understand what they’re taking part in, and what it takes to make it work. Because of this, it is always difficult to bring it to the next level and making it trenchant, truly prolific. Milan is a very shallow city, to build something that’s not vacuous as shit is a real tough job.
I think the misconception in the UK is that they’re just fronts for illegal activity and violence. Squatting actually became an illegal offence in the UK in 2012, people can be sent to prison for 6 months or fined up to £5000. Beyond ridiculous, as most of the people they’re convicting are squatting because they have no other option. What’s your impression of how squatting is perceived in Italy?
In Italy, squatting’s always been an illegal offense, but nonetheless, from the late 80s to mid-00s the squatting movement has been incredibly strong. Apart from being shelter to many in need of a home, squats also set up a strong platform for most kind of countercultural efforts that were being made (given they were devoid of any discriminating and hate-breeding values). Most underground music and art would take place at what we called “Centri Sociali”, which were the headquarters of the radical left movement, and also providing space for cultural and communal activities. The italian hardcore punk, reggae/dancehall, hip-hop and rave scenes have all been part of this big movement.
Now there’s very little left of that movement, Macao is one of the few remaining places. But the housing problem is more urgent than ever, and squatting is now perceived by most as stealing, so this misconception is used to keep everyone scared of poor people and immigrants. It’s become a tool for the rising xenophobic forces.
How do you feel about the scene in Milan more generally?
It’s such a weird city. There’s an incredible amount of great artists, musicians, DJs… There’s also a number of very good labels, but the audience for underground music is still as scarce as it is spoilt, which also makes it hard for the scene to maintain its unity.
As for the music that Haunter releases, many of the acts you release are Italian, what do you think has influenced the ascent of this current crop of artists?
We can only speak for ourselves and the artists we work with. We’re more or less all rooted in post-punk sensibilities, with a taste for intensity that’s born out of industrial music and rave culture. The latter, especially, might be a crucial point: the Italian illegal rave scene was huge when we were younger, and even if none of us had any active role in it, we’ve all lived it and filtered its power through a more experimental, free-spirited approach.
When did you get a sense that something significant was emerging in Italy? What kick-started your decision to launch the label?
It was very spontaneous: we had just started our own projects, and many of our friends were doing brilliant things with electronic music. Some other friends in the area (such as Simone Trabucchi with Hundebiss and Lorenzo Senni with Presto?!, as well as our brothers from Gang Of Ducks) had set an example with their own labels, coming from a similar background, so for us it was pretty obvious to go on that route as well. We just went along with our own excitement.
What were your backgrounds prior to setting up the label?
Francesco was and still is a music journalist, he had also been involved in many short-lived noise projects and hardcore punk bands. Daniele had grown up in Forlì, home of the world-famous italian screamo/emocore scene, and had been involved in punk bands prior to developing an interest in electronic music.
How did you meet each other? What instigated your decision to link up?
The usual: we’d been introduced by mutual friends and hooked up with each other by talking about music, going out and doing drugs together. We’ve been brothers since.
How do each of your tastes and aesthetic interests compare?
This is a very difficult question. We both have very broad taste so we can’t really tell. We’re linked by a passionate attitude for expression and the urge for personal/collective growth that lies within the creative process.
There are definitely some interesting ideas reflected in the artwork of your releases – particularly Oddgrad’s Hardcore Plastic Surgery and SSSS’s Just Dead Stars For Dead Eyes (some editions of which included 24 carat golden foil on the front) – what do you look to do with the aesthetics of your releases?
The artwork and the package’s purpose is to add layers, to create an iconography through the interaction of visuals and the actual music. It can sprawl from the concept the artist has built around his/her music, if there is one, or just a way to organize a series of abstract impressions. Most of the artwork for the tape releases has been made by Daniele, while most of the 12”s have been curated by our friend and collaborator Federico Scudeler, who’s really great at giving each release its own graphic ambiance. Anyway, every idea has to be discussed and approved by the three of us and the artist in question, and every suggestion is taken into account. It is also important for us that when put all together the releases give the idea of a consistent oeuvre, while still being very different from one another.
Having started releasing vinyl in 2014 are you wary of the so called ‘vinyl revival’? There seems to be an encroaching fetishization and commodification of vinyl releases…
Yeah, there is. At the same time, it is important for record labels to find a way to lead people into supporting them financially. It is a bit sad that there’s no easy way of doing it without selling an actual commodity, and the fact that everyone is still giving so much importance to a physical medium is really weird. Then again, vinyl buyers are very often just very passionate people, and, being record buyers ourselves (Daniele also works in a record store, Milan’s Serendeepity) we can understand where that comes from. Also, for the more dance-oriented releases, we definitely want to give DJs something they can actually play.
You played a night with the guys from Unknown Precept and Details Sound in Milan last year, do you get the sense of a disparate community surfacing around Europe? There seems to be a lot more labels out there interested in diffuse experimentation including but not limited to industrial, post-punk, noise, rave and jungle sounds and scenes…
That night was actually just three months ago. There definitely is a community, and we’re working very hard to make it as tight as possible. It very often happens that we’re drawn towards someone because we feel some artistic kinship or they seem to show the same attitude, and then it also develops into some deeper connection. This, for us, is the true sense of the underground, we’re generally more interested in the exchange of ideas and emotions we can have with these people than with just being promoters or simply putting out records. Other labels/crews we’re good friends and in touch with are Gang Of Ducks, Repitch, Danse Noire, Young Echo, Primitive Languages, Arboretum, Contort, and Quantum Natives.
What are the challenges and perks of running a label like Haunter? What does your day to day resemble?
We both have day jobs, so unfortunately our day to day routine doesn’t only have to do with Haunter or with working on our own music. Our working practice is very chaotic and busy, there’s no day like the other. The main challenge is money, there’s no way around it. Keeping it up financially is a constant struggle, though getting to the end of a project and knowing you’ve completed it with little to no resources is extremely stimulating. What we keep on searching and loving about doing the label is the possibility to continue developing creative relationships with interesting, unique people. Also, looking back and watching the evolution of our own output is greatly satisfying.
How would you like the overarching identity of Haunter to be perceived?
Critically-minded, fierce, raw, mutant.
How do you usually source the music you release? What do you look for?
As I said, it is important to find the right attitude in the music, we have to be drawn towards each artist by some quality that’s sort of difficult to pin verbally but it's always a strong feeling. It usually happens almost by accident, we just bump into interesting stuff and/or people. It’s really hard to describe, looking back I guess each of us has a creative flow that draws from a set of genre tropes and toys with the idea of ruining them, overthrowing them until they become something completely different.
You've mentioned post punk sensibilities and a ‘free spirited approach’, I was wondering what the key records were that led you each down this path…?
I’d say the records and musicians that inspired us are the ones that show a radical attitude in terms of sound, but not in a self-indulgent way… Stuff that manages to be unique and exciting but reacts and connects to its times and reality. People like Coil were masters in that, especially with Time Machines and those kind of records. Same goes for pretty much everything Kevin Martin ever did, especially in Techno Animal (Re-Entry being an absolute masterpiece) and in The Sidewinder. Another one that’s worth mentioning is Adrian Sherwood… his work on the early On-U releases and with Mark Stewart. We also love the early DHR crew, records like Christoph De Babalon’s If You're Into It, I’m Out Of It or Alec Empire’s Low On Ice. These are, for us, the Mavericks that shaped contemporary electronic music, bringing post punk freedom into a new language, really paving the way for today’s diverse work of labels like PAN, Diagonal or Halcyon Veil. Russell Haswell is one of those people too. Jeff Mills’ first Waveform Transmission is also very important, as is Thomas Brinkmann’s Tokyo +1. The list could go on… We also share a deep mutual love for Nico and Leonard Cohen.
There’s new releases from old friends such as Weightausend, Red Army Fracture and Petit Singe coming, plus a couple of newcomers like Italian noisers Lettera 22 and more exciting stuff that’s too early to announce. On the gig side, we’ll very soon have Brood Ma and Jesse Osborne Lanthier play Milan, and we can’t wait!