Scoring the Apocalypse: In Conversation with Eraldo Bernocchi

Modern technology is crushing the human spirit into a husk of data. The nature of truth is arbitrary. The environment is choking on our waste. These are bleak sentiments, and ones you may choose to ignore, but there’s no doubt they haunt the collective consciousness. It’s these sentiments also that rest at the dark heart of the latest Simm record, Too Late To Dream

Simm is the moniker under which Eraldo Bernocchi has intermittently released his dark, minimal beats ‘n’ bass since 1996. The Milan-born guitarist and producer has been active since the late 1970s, cutting his teeth in the Italian underground punk scene. In 1985 he co-founded the ritual ambient collective Sigillum S, his longest-running and most acclaimed project, and since then has expanded his disciplines as a sound designer and experimentalist into the realms of metal, drone, electronic, hip-hop, world music and beyond, working with renowned musicians across the globe. 

Too Late To Dream is out on heavyweight electronic label Ohm Resistance, run by Kurt Gluck (aka Submerged). It features East London grime cult figurehead Flowdan and South African house trio Philumencasi. In the wake of its release, I spoke to Bernocchi about the record, about influences and inspirations, about rejecting politics and religion and about the future of music and those who make it.

Your first release under the Simm moniker was Welcome, in ‘96. You’ve composed and performed under many aliases, been involved in many projects. What’s the story behind Simm? What was the main inspiration for starting that project as something separate from your other work?

In ‘96, I was working with Mick Harris. He started a label, Possible Records, and he asked me, “Will you send me a couple tracks?”. So basically I created two tracks for a 12” single. One of the main obstacles I found is that I do so many different things, I’m forced to use different monikers otherwise people are completely confused… Well, they are going to be confused, anyway. After those two tracks, he asked me for an album, and that album was Welcome.

Your second album wasn’t released until 2013, 17 years later. You’ve worked on a multitude of projects over and beyond that period. Was there any reason there was such a long gap between these releases?

No, not really. The main reason is that it’s something I need to feel, something I need to do. So, Kurt was saying, “Well you should do another one, there’s a lot of people into those two outputs”, and so I did Visitor. It took me like two years… I’m never satisfied.

I know the production and post-production stages can be very difficult. You’re never happy with it and it’s difficult to finalise the project.

Yes, I avoid listening to my records once they are pressed. Each track has its own story, and if you live through it, once it’s pressed, you need to move on to new stuff.

With the new record, Too Late To Dream, there’s an unmistakable dubstep influence. It would simplify it to class it as just dubstep, but there are elements there of the classic structure. For better or worse, dubstep came out of underground and reached more of a mainstream in the 2010s. Are there any dubstep artists that provided some sort of influence for the record?

Not for this recent record but there are artists I really like, for instance I love what Leon Switch does; what he did with Cryptic Minds, who for me are fantastic. Also Kode9. With Leon, we have a project together that eventually we’ll put out.

You’ve worked with rappers before: Almamegretta, Spectre, Sensational. Where did you first hear Flowdan?

Through Lady Chann. She does bass ‘n’ beats, from freestyle to dubstep to grime to whatever you call it. Funny thing, she even has a boxing program on Facebook, she does live broadcasting of boxing matches. I was checking various tracks from her on YouTube and in the middle of one track comes Flowdan, he has a feature in there, and I said, “Woah, this is some serious vocals, I need to understand more about this guy,” so I start to research, we were in lockdown, so we had a shitload of time to research. I connected him to Kevin [Martin, aka The Bug] and I said, “Oh god, that’s the guy who is doing stuff with Kev,” so I wrote to Kevin and he very sweetly put me in contact with Flowdan and we started to do a back and forth of ideas and concepts.

This is your first record under the Simm moniker to have vocal features. Were there any lyrical themes you guys agreed on to bring the tracks together? Was there an overarching theme?

Not really, but when he sent me the demo of the track ‘Too Late To Dream’, there were a lot of sentences there that were so powerful, like, “Sometimes you’ve got to look for disaster.” I want to do a t-shirt with that sentence. You have out there a lot of rappers and MCs, most of them are really good. A lot of them are exercising three, four hours a day, that’s all they do, but one thing is having an amazing flow, another thing is having an amazing flow.

From the artwork, the track titles, some of the lyrics, I’m sensing themes of death, human extinction, destruction, fallout. Am I on the mark?

The title is definitely a statement, but I had the title before making a single note. I had in mind a cover, and Petulia Mattioli [Bernocchi’s wife and long-time collaborator] proposed to me the cover, found this photo from this photographer from the ‘60s and ‘70s, an American photographer who travelled all over the states documenting what would happen – what was already happening – if we weren’t taking care of the environment. So Petulia found this photo and she kind of infected it with other colours and it’s perfect. You have a train in the background and I’m negatively obsessed with trains. I always see trains as the moment people are saying goodbye and they never see them again… you are on the mark, but there’s a very personal side of it from a certain angle… and there is a more apocalyptic side. Well, I don’t even call it apocalyptic, I just look outside the window.

One track on Too Late To Dream that really stood out to me was ‘Gqom Squbolo’. It really pulls you out of the kind of stargazing dub dream you’ve been immersed in. It features a South African group, Phelimuncasi? You have a long history of working with musicians from different cultures, different countries. What drew you to working with these guys?

Well, it happened during lockdown. I had the beats and bass looping, and I wanted some different vocals. By chance, I rediscovered Nyege Nyege Tapes and there is some really heavy dark stuff on there. There is some stuff that is really twisted and one video hit me and it was called ‘Private Party’ from Phelimuncasi. You can see it’s shot on a smartphone. They use a weird beat, what we usually hear as a hip-hop or a house or a dub beat, but on top there are all these African rhythms, constantly moving in a strange way. For the first time you think, that’s so fucked up, but it’s not, it’s perfect, so I contacted the label and we made a deal.

You’re someone who much prefers working with others than you do solo. You’ve mentioned a little bit actually about this already but how did lockdown affect your creative output?

Having a daughter, at that time she was like seven, so most of the day was going through parental duties but in the night I was starting to work and so a part of Simm came together. The album I did with Hoshiko Yamane, violin player from Tangerine Dream, a very electronic and cinematic album, we did during lockdown. It changed the way you create and changed the way people collaborate between themselves. Many people for the first time in their lives had time. I had a lot of time to study new machines, to experiment. There’s one part of me that’s working in the advert field, music for adverts or social networks, but everything slowed down, kind of disappeared. No-one was shooting anything, so in one year I scored four things. Usually I do 15 to 20. But I started to put together a lot of new projects.

You’ve spoken about rejecting the idea of “the band”, like with Sigillum S which was more of an open family of ongoing projects, ambitions and ideas. To me, a lot of what “the band” means is a brand, investing everything into one brand. Did you ever consider branding yourself, or nurturing one specific idea, whether it be for money or recognition?

I had a band; more than one. I tend to see them as projects. For instance, Obake, it’s something I really like to do, but what I reject with the concept of the band is going on stage and playing the same stuff every night. This is something, like with Obake, or with Metallic Taste Of Blood, there’s always in every track a section that is completely improvised. Otherwise I can’t handle that, I get bored. But going back to branding… I realised, in the end, I became a brand… a confusing brand.

We often talk about art as a reactionary form, and I think we’re inspired by what we hate as much as by what we love. Was there anything you hated about music that was contemporary to your youth; that drove you to react against it or strive to do something different?

Definitely. There was a lot. Being Italian, you grow up in a musical environment where the so-called canzoni Italiane, the Italian song, the melodic song, it’s something you are surrounded with since you’re a kid, and most of it to me is horrible. I couldn’t stand 95% of Italian rock bands because the Italian language to me sounds horrible in a rock context. You grew up surrounded by this thing and you grew up surrounded by twats with an acoustic guitar. I couldn’t stand that. Indie was another thing that I couldn’t stand when I was a kid. I loved The Sex Pistols, Motörhead, The Damned… I couldn’t stand The Smiths, Morissey… I couldn’t stand the fact that he was throwing flowers at the audience… Latin American music I can’t stand, except for Sepultura, extreme bands, some hip-hop stuff.

Progressive rock was very big in Italy in the ‘70s, bands like Premiata Forneria Marconi, Le Orme, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. You cut your teeth in the Italian punk scene in the ‘70s. Was punk there as much of a reaction against prog rock as it was here in the UK?

Yeah, it was a reaction to a lot of things. You had the monarchy, we had the Vatican. So, each one of us has got his own pillars he wants to destroy. Progressive rock was really big in Italy. I have some records from those years. Some stuff was really good, but if I listen to it today I don’t know, it’s so distant from me. I did an experiment last year, I chose to listen again to some Genesis records. I have the first five or six. And I was amazed. I said, “Woah, this is some serious music here, amazing.” The one I still love most is The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. But again, Italian progressive rock has been really successful outside of Italy. A lot of people are buying reprints of those records but when I listen to it, there’s an Italian thing inside that you may appreciate but to me, it’s something that is really not my cup of tea, so in a way, punk and metal were a reaction, the turning points were Discharge, ‘Pistols, GBH. I stopped listening to The Clash because to me they were sounding like a kind of a Beatles version of punk. 

Around the same time you started your Simm project, you began a collaboration with your wife, Petulia Mattioli, later joined by Bill Laswell. On these recordings you worked with Tibetan monks. How did that come to be?

Well, we created this project, Somma, and introduced the concept to Bill who eagerly accepted to work with us. The idea was to involve different shamanic traditions, creating on stage live rituals involving different cultures and Tibetan monks were for me a natural choice because I’ve always been following the shamanic part of Tibetan Buddhism. So we did a record and just three live gigs because it’s very difficult to bring Somma on stage, it’s a very expensive project. The second one, we played for the Dalai Lama, in Italy. The music we were playing was an offering, because usually for Tibetan monks, music is an offering, it’s part of a ritual, but slowly they enjoyed it, they detached from the strictness of rules and they got into the flow. Eventually we’ll be able to do another Somma.

Your major project since ‘85 is Sigillum S. It was a project that refused to have any kind of political or religious affiliation. When we talk about politics, was this an escape from the political climate in Italy at the time, or was it a conscious rejection of it?

It was really a conscious rejection because I never could stand the political approach in Italy, especially in those years. We had a centre-right government linked to the church and on the other side there was a left that was even more orthodox than the church. I think mostly Italians like the strongman, or they like to believe in fairy tales, a jester dressed for the part, preaching poverty and swimming in gold. it was definitely a rejection of everything and still is.

For a lot of people who make instrumental music, naming songs and albums can often be an exercise in addressing what you’re most interested in at the time. Looking across your discography I see references to astronomy, black holes, quantum mechanics, mathematics, space colonisation, buddhism, sexuality, tantrism, pornography, Nietzchan ideas, where do you source most of these concepts from?

I’ve always read a lot, but some of the subjects you’re mentioning are linked to Sigillum S, and the main conceptual part behind it is Paolo’s responsibility, so we work on a concept for the album and then I propose some titles and Paolo comes in with the heavy load, conceptualising things with the titles. My titles are usually shorter, just one or two words, and tend to be a snapshot of something. I’m always inspired by images or something that’s happened to me.

You’ve expressed your distaste for Spotify and have been positive about platforms like Bandcamp. The percentage Spotify takes from artists is exorbitant. Is it just that reason or are there other reasons that platforms like Spotify don’t sit right with you?

Well, it’s a little bit of a contradiction actually because there are various factors. For instance, I’m one of the few who actually saw real money from Spotify. One of the tracks from Winter Garden with Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie has been in editorial playlists and many others for eight years, so we actually saw money. I’m not talking about life-changing money, but I shouldn’t complain. On the other hand, the share is ridiculous. I think it’s insulting. If you think about Apple music, it’s four times more, sometimes eight times more, and Apple is not a charity. So Spotify could do the same thing, they just don’t want to do it. The only two that are sticking to a decent level are Apple Music and Deezer. There’s another thing that I can’t stand about those platforms – except for Apple Music, where you can choose lossless format – the sound quality is horrible. But there are advantages. In fact, with Sigillum S, for the first time in our history, during the lockdown, we decided to put everything on the platforms, because we thought we’re not going to make money with this, obviously, not in 2000 lives, but some people will discover what we do so the advantage of these platforms is discovering things. My daughter listens to everything and she made me discover some amazing stuff made in Korea, some crazy K-pop that I actually like. The production is unbelievably interesting, but she loves Black Sabbath, Nova Twins, a lot of heavy stuff too. I’m always hoping that people, through these platforms, are going to buy the record but you have to acknowledge most of the teenagers go by single tracks, they don’t go by albums anymore.

I’m going to read something straight from an article: “Music Business Worldwide recently came across an interesting patent application Spotify submitted to the European Patent Register. On its face, the patent seems like a great piece of technology for artists as it offers near real-time plagiarism analysis that could spare them from getting into hot water and facing costly lawsuits. When you look closer, however, it appears to be a building block for Spotify to create its own AI-generated music and potentially compete with artists without having to pay for content.” Do you think AI music could ever successfully compete with real artists? Do you think this is something we might start seeing in our lifetimes?

I think we are closer to this disaster than we think. I think when you think about [JG] Ballard, it’s one of the reasons he’s mentioned in the press release for the album. If you think about what he wrote in the ‘50s, ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, we were reading those things, but now it’s the weird twisted reality we are facing, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some horrible things from people like [the platforms we mentioned]. I think Spotify are a ruthless band of criminals. They have been so good in letting people believe everything is legal just because you spend £7 a month, you know what I mean?

I do, because, to be honest, I’m someone who still uses Spotify, and I pay a small sum per month, and the amount of music I have access to for that amount is unbelievable.

I don’t pay Spotify, but I pay Apple Music, because I can have everything in a better quality, especially when I’m on wi-fi but, the amount of music, it’s ridiculous. I’m happy to pay that money, and I’m buying records. I would like to see some serious share for artists, also because a big part of that share is taken by labels.

Final question: you’re a man of many projects, what’s the next one? I assume there’s one in the works… I know there is.

At the beginning of the year will be a new Sigillum S album, coming out on SubSound Records. There’s an album with Christopher Chaplin, the composer. I can’t describe it, it’s strange, but I like it a lot. I’m working on a new album with Hoshiko Yamane from Tangerine Dream. There’s a quartet, we’ve been recording just before Covid, we still have to finish. I can’t describe it, it’s a mixture of doom, punk, metal, dub, ambient and improvised stuff. It’s a little bit of a mess but I like it a lot, there’s no electronics, everything is played… and I’m sure there will be a new Simm at some point, and not after seven years…

Too Late to Dream is out now via Ohm Resistance and can be ordered here.

Words: Rory Hughes

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