In a country like Italy, so imbued with American culture, it’s no surprise that artists fill their work with references to popular culture from overseas. The other way around is, however, quite rare. Simon Hanes, front man of Tredici Bacci, is that kind of rarity. Despite not having any biographical connection to Italy, he’s been fascinated with Italian pop culture of the ’60s and ’70s, with a special love for films and the soundtracks of those years since he was young. Trained at the New England Conservatory, Hanes first moved to New York in 2014, then went back to Boston for a short period of time – of which he says: “it was horrible”– and in 2015 he finally settled in Bushwick, where he initially lived in the back of a store – “that was insane”, he further comments. There, he re-started his 13-piece Italian pop band with some of the same musicians he was playing with in school.
A voracious consumer of Italian B-movies, spaghetti westerns and Fellini‘s masterpieces, passionate admirer of Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota and Armando Trovajoli, Hanes can mention Edwige Fenech and Carlo Gesualdo in the very same sentence. By his own admission, he doesn’t know what he is doing when he makes references to Italian pop culture in his work. But it looks like he does when it comes to referencing music.
Hanes started playing bass-guitar when he was 9 and, by the time he was 14, he had fallen in love with the soundtrack of Fellini’s “Gulietta degli spiriti” (“Juliet of the Spirts,”) composed by Nino Rota. He compares listening to Morricone’s compositions to looking at a galaxy. He cries every time he listens to the “Metti Una Sera a Cena” soundtrack.
His latest creation is a character named Luxardo (yes, like the liquor), a cocky and fanciful Italian singer of the ‘70s who leads the 13-piece band Tredici Bacci. Included by Rolling Stone in the November 2016 list of “10 New Artists You Need to Know”, Tredici Bacci just released “Amore per Tutti” and will be performing at The Stone, in Alphabet City, from February 3rd to the 5th.
I met Simon Hanes on a freezing Sunday morning, at Lella Alimentari, a Romagnolo joint in Williamsburg, guaranteed to be on the map of any Italy-lover in the area. For over an hour, we chatted over coffee – an Italian cappuccino for him, a black Americano for me.
When did you start Tredici Bacci?
How did you come up with that name and… do you realize it’s misspelled?
“Ha, yes [he laughs.] The original idea was: a 13-piece band, 13 kisses. Now there are 13 band members plus me, so it’s Luxardo and Tredici Bacci. The misspelling thing, it just happened. I guess at one point I Google-translated ‘kisses’ and it came out with two Cs.”
So it’s Google’s fault!
“Yes [he laughs.] It’s Google’s fault.”
Do you remember the moment you realized it was misspelled? Who told you?
“I think it was during the recording session. It was someone older and smarter than me who told me. And I thought: should I change it? But then I looked at the way it looks when it’s written out and it has a certain feel. With one C, “baci,” is weaker. And it’s also an homage to the fact that I have no idea what I am doing [he laughs].”
You have different characters for each different project you started. Are those different musicians, different versions of yourself?
“I had this character named Combman, who was wearing a costume that was covered in combs and he was obsessed with hair. Another character was named Christopher Douglas, he was a singer/songwriter from Boston. I guess I started to see them all as different extensions of my personality and different ways I could explore sides of myself that aren’t always acceptable to explore in real life. I think it’s because of Serge Gainsbourg, he had characters as well; he had a character that was an evil version of himself.”
What about Luxardo? Is he evil?
“No, he is not [he giggles.] He is unerring; he is really confident. He is based on my interpretation of what a 1970s Roman performing musician would be like.”
How did you come up with the name? Why Luxardo?
“Something about seeing a bottle of Luxardo clicked. As Tredici Bacci started to develop, in order to front a band like that, I needed a character, so that I could interact with the audience in a specific way. But I needed a back story for Luxardo. I came up with this: he is 30 in the ‘70s, and he is Jewish – ’cause I am Jewish – and at some point he is in a bar and someone comes to kill him. The mobs are looking for him by his original name, so he’s trying to come up with a fake name for himself, and he sees a bottle of Luxardo on the shelf. What do you think? Is that good?”
When it comes to Italy, it always works when mobs are involved.
“Right [he laughs.]”
How important is the outfit for the character?
“Very important. There was a certain effect. Creating Tredici Bacci was taking pieces of what I was influenced by and combining them, but it was also about using what I had. At the end of the day, it’s still me.”
Is he inspired by anyone specific?
“Perhaps Adriano Celentano a little, but in Italian B-movies from the ‘70s, there is often a character like that. He’s inspired by Adriano Celentano’s style, but having a character like Luxardo also makes it easier to unlock the kind of confidence that I needed to comfortably deal with something that is really terrifying.”
How is it going?
“Some Italians randomly came to a show in Brooklyn, where Luxardo was performing alone, and at the end of the show they told me that they couldn’t figure if I was a non-Italian pretending to be an Italian or an Italian pretending not to be an Italian. That felt good, especially because I felt like I wasn’t being disrespectful, which I am not trying to be. It’s not about mocking the culture. Initially, the label that put out this last record wanted me to underplay Luxardo a little bit, ‘cause they were afraid I wasn’t gonna be taken seriously. But I can’t help it anymore.”
What about Americans? What kind of reactions do you get? Do they know what you’re talking about?
“No, they don’t. But it’s almost like escapism for me. I don’t like a lot of my generation’s culture; today’s pop music doesn’t rock my world. It feels better to watch those bad movies with Claudia Cardinale and Rock Hudson.”
What do you think is unique to the Italian culture of those years?
“They did it the best. The Italian film lineage of those years is just perfect. It feels more alive.”
Do you see those qualities in contemporary Italian culture as well?
“‘The Great Beauty’ seems to have a similar attitude. And, for what I remember from when I was there, when I was 13….”
Wait, was that your only time in Italy?
“Yes, that’s the only time [he smiles, almost embarrassed.] Weird, right? But I am going back very soon. I think I want to move there eventually.”
What are your memories of that trip?
“We went to Tuscany, my mother had a friend who lived there. I remember that people would come over all the time, the food was amazing, we would sit around the table and talk, a lot. I was allowed to drink wine, inexplicably, and…well, this might sound Freudian, but I was in puberty and there were gorgeous women everywhere and nudity on billboards.”
You didn’t have nudity on billboards in the US?
“In America, they are always making you think about it in the back of your mind, while in Italy there are actual people, it’s visible. I grew up in the West Coast that is a little bit more hippie, but the East Coast, it’s puritan. We are so uptight about it. In Italy, the relationship with human sexuality, even as a catholic country, recognizes that you have to make love…it’s healthy for you….”
Are those things included in your project? Is Luxardo sexually characterized?
“Again, Luxardo has what I don’t have. I am afraid to talk to women, I am the one who doesn’t know when it’s the right time to kiss – it could take me hours to make the first move, I say weird things. Luxardo would never have that problem.”
What’s “Vai! Vai! Vai!”?
But it’s also a film…
“People do that a lot. People say I wrote a soundtrack for a film that hasn’t been made yet. At that time, it felt like I needed a guide to organize different ideas and also an excuse to use limited musical ideas to write more than one music. The album reads like a soundtrack that you would find on some blog that only has the weirdest stuff; there is one theme that connects all the songs.”
If the film existed, what would it be like?
“A story of car races. There are a lot of good pictures of Italian models of the time wearing helmets, racing fast and small cars. It would be also a comedy of errors, funny. Like in “How I Learned to Love Women,” there is a scene where he meets a woman in a car and turns out she is a very good racer, and they race in a small car and at one point they have to make the car faster. So, they start getting rid of everything they can, and they start getting undressed and throwing their clothes out. They are both basically naked in the car, and they win. And the idea of two people driving very fast, naked in a small car, it’s just tooo good…See?! It’s hard to explain what’s great about Italian movies.”
About the music, what do you think is unique about that specific music?
“That the music was influenced by pop, but the composers who were writing those songs studied contemporary classical composition and were combining their knowledge of composition with other styles that were popular at the time. For me, the most important part is the orchestration. And here is my theory: take the “Good the Bad and the Ugly,” you can sing the theme [he starts singing it,] but can you name how many times that happens throughout the entire film and how many different instruments play it? If you watch the movie, it happens about 50 times, and it’s always a different instrument. Because it’s a film, the musical ideas have to be simple, they have to happen and then go away. They underscore the film – the happy music is happy, the sad music is sad, but there are no rules about how to orchestrate them. Today, soundtracks of movies like “Batman”, for instance, are all strings and some electronic sounds. Back then, it was a few strings, harps, piano, a woman singing really high-pitched, and then trumpet here, and saxophone there, and drums….”
You don’t find this to be true for American soundtracks of that time?
“Henry Mancini or Jerry Goldsmith are pretty good, but Ennio Morricone… better than them all! If you’re interested in how music is orchestrated, Morricone, Nino Rota, Armando Trovajoli, that’s gold. They invented a new sound, they created a new possibility for sound. Listening to a Morricone’s piece is like looking at the night sky: you see this huge thing with all the stars, but then you can focus on some different parts, and each one is beautiful and interesting, and when you take a step back and try to look at the whole thing again, it still works as a whole”.
Do you have a favorite soundtrack?
“Yes, it’s “Metti Una Sera a Cena” [he says it in Italian, and I have to ask him to repeat it, which makes me think how little used we are to hear our language being pronounced with foreign accents.] There is a theme I used to listen to in the train, and I would cry every single time. It’s what I would consider a perfect composition. It’s a really simple theme, and then one thing happens, and then another thing happens, and then they both happen at the same time, and each time is performed by different instruments. And the climax is like screaming at the top of your lungs, but it’s not cheesy. It’s sad and happy. It’s about seeing the beauty in the world, but also seeing that everything is so beautiful that somehow it’s sad.”
Is there anything else in the Italian culture that you appreciate?
“I guess I would say architecture. It comes from seeing it in the movies. And also, the language. I like its musicality more than the musicality of any other language. I am learning it, slowly.”
Really? How is your Italian?
“Terrible. Unbelievably bad. My pronunciation is all messed up….”
Do you wish you were born in those days?
“If I were growing up in Rome in the 70s, I would be worried that I would be obsessed with jazz of the 30s from America….”
Always in the wrong place at the wrong time?
“Yeah, my relationship with the whole thing is that of an outsider looking in, but, because of that, I am picking the grapes that speak to me in a very specific way.”
Why did you decide to move to New York?
“There is only so far you can go in Boston with your 14-piece Italian pop band. Within a week of moving to New York for the first time, I went to a concert alone, and I met someone whose work I was familiar with, handed him my card, and later I went to his house. He ended up hiring me. Being in New York, you end up in the same room with someone meaningful to your work. At first, I was scared of losing my personality, but I found that if you put yourself in an environment where things are happening, things will happen to you as well. Being in New York, you form a team with the city and you can take over the world. New York and I team up. It’s like a buddy movie.”