hackedepicciotto talk about their ode to friendship, “Keepsakes”

For their latest album, Keepsakes, hackedepicciotto decided to dedicate each song to a person important to their lives. The result is an intimate and varied collection of songs that push their musical styles into interesting directions. As with previous releases, the place they made the album had a creative impact as well. With “Keepsakes,” hackedepicciotto drew inspiration by recording at the historic Auditorium Novecento studio in Naples, Italy.

Hackedepicciotto is comprised of Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten) and artist, musician, and filmmaker Danielle de Picciotto (Crime & The City Solution, co-founder of Love Parade). Over a Zoom interview, the duo discussed their new album.

Could you discuss the concept behind the album?

Danielle de Picciotto: Well, it’s basically a reaction to the pandemic. I mean, it’s not such a huge insight, but we realized that the most important thing in life is friends and family. Because you can do without all the other stuff, but without friends and family, the pandemic would’ve been a nightmare. I mean, it was a nightmare, but it would’ve been even worse. And so we thought we would do an album of gratitude.

We would choose our friends, who were and are some of our most important friends and inspirations, and dedicated each song to somebody that was very important in our life. And on a musical level, it was interesting because these people are mainly musicians. To dedicate a song to them, it would somehow have to be reflected in the music. But of course, we had to keep up our own signature sound. So it was an interesting riddle, how to do that with each song.

Was it clear who you wanted to dedicate these songs to? Were there any potential subjects who you had difficulty writing a song around?

Alexander Hacke: Well, I suppose we decided to keep it mysterious for the time being. I’m sure this information will surface during the course of, even at by latest, by the time we play the stuff live. And probably then also we will not be able to contain ourselves to talk about these people .

Danielle de Picciotto: Considering the music, we did have a couple that were very difficult for us. And it was incredibly interesting to do that, to somehow see how can we do it so that we’re still there, but it’s also kind of musically like the person that we’re dedicating the song to.

Without actually saying who they’re dedicated to, are there particular songs that you can mention that had that aspect to it? That may have evolved in interesting ways because of the challenge?

Alexander Hacke: Well, you know, the thing is that we usually, or on the past albums, we kind of covered themes of epic gravity or magnitude. The course of mankind, deep philosophical themes and stuff like that. And that kind of produced a rather epic, monumental sound. If you deal with persons or personalities or dear souls, you tend to be much more gentle and tender in portraying a certain character. And therefore, some of the songs sound a lot different from what we usually do.

Danielle de Picciotto: The only song that’s dedicated to two people that are not musicians was actually the one that was the easiest for us, and which is the most typical for us. And that’s the song ‘Song of Gratitude.’ That one is actually dedicated to our fathers.

So that’s musically the one that is closest to what we actually do. Also, because fathers are a personal thing, but also a very kind of universal thing. It was also possible in that specific instance to do both, to like be personal, but also kind of universal.

Was this the obvious path to take on this album? Were there any other thematic ideas, or from the start did you really know this was the way to go?

Alexander Hacke: Well, yeah, that was what we decided to do. And from the point when that decision was made, the album or the art just becomes its own entity and asked for what is needed.

Danielle de Picciotto: Well, it was funny because we had decided that we were going to record in Naples, because on tour last year, we discovered this studio there. The studio is just totally amazing because it’s like in seventies style, just the look of it is absolutely seventies and it’s huge. And Naples is such a special city that we said, okay, we’re gonna do it there. And after we had decided that, I was thinking, because we always are very influenced by the city or the place that we record stuff. And I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know.’ I couldn’t think of any Italian music that somehow would influence me. I got a little nervous until we got there and they told us that Morricone had actually recorded there. And Morricone is one of my greatest influences. And then I was like ‘Oh, wow, this is like just falling smack into place’ and immediately everything just changed. Because for some reason, I had like Italian folk songs in my mind, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this going to make our music go totally weird?’ And [to find out about Morricone] somehow totally influenced us then to get back to our sound because he’s such an influence. Anyway, so that was actually a real help. It was unexpected, but really great. It was really great recording there.

When you went into the studio, how far along was the material?

Danielle de Picciotto: Ah, well, with us, we always have such little time that the way we record albums is completely insane. We hardly had time at all to prepare anything at all. Usually, like with our other albums, we had like at least two weeks to prepare, two weeks to record and two weeks to mix. But in this case, we hadn’t really had time to prepare either. So all we knew was the people we wanted to dedicate the songs to, and that we were going to be recording in this studio, that was basically it . So it was a very, very tight schedule. It was the tightest schedule we’ve ever had, I think.

Alexander Hacke: It is a common issue for Italian students of the arts that they are kind of overwhelmed by the art history of Italy. And it’s very hard to come up with something exciting and original if you are so overwhelmed by this . You know, like the classical art, Michelangelos and everything. And that was a little bit of a worry too, as opposed to working in the desert or in a medieval church, that we might be without motivation or would just pull a blank. But quite the contrary.

It seems like in terms of the instrumentation, it’s a bit more varied than some of your other work. Is that the result of dedicating songs to different people? Were there things you had been wanting to do, instrumentally, that this provided the chance to try out?

Danielle de Picciotto: Well, one thing, when we entered the studio, I was completely delighted to see that they had tubular bells, because bells are something that I have loved all my life. Also from Morricone, because he was the first music I ever heard. My father gave it to me and he said, this is music, my daughter, when I was four something. And those bells, you know, with ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ or whatever, there’s always these amazing bells. And we’d never really used them before. When we entered the studio, there were like bells everywhere. So I was, ‘Yep, now it’s time.’

Alexander Hacke: With tubular bells, we used a few of them with Neubauten, but so far we could only afford to buy single keys. One of those bells is like 300 euros or something. And they had like a two-octave set, so we were happy.

Danielle de Picciotto: Yeah. It was amazing. So that was influenced by the room itself. It’s the first studio that had as many instruments as it had. It had a grand piano, it had a celeste from Morricone, one of those small little ones, the little piano thing, that he always uses in his music too. And so we had the possibility of using them, which we usually don’t have. I learned piano when I was five, so being able to play on a grand piano in the studio is something really special. So those instruments were not necessarily because of the people we dedicated the songs to, but because of the studio itself.

Alexander Hacke: And then another important factor was just the studio itself. It’s like a huge live room. And they had a fantastic collection of old valve microphones and stuff like that. Basically, stuff that is on its way out everywhere else in Europe, because people tend to produce their music on their laptops these days. And you know, it’s like a real grand old-fashioned studio with great ribbon mics and what have you. So that really played a part. And we basically lived there for 10 days. We stayed in a place, in a former monastery just around the corner. This meant that we didn’t have to cross streets in Naples, which is a good thing too. If you’ve ever been to Naples, the point is that you will have to just walk into the running traffic. There’s no other way. They’ll not hit you, but don’t expect for anyone to stop.

Danielle de Picciotto: And because the studio is also so old. When was it founded?

Alexander Hacke: The studio was founded in the early twenties.

Danielle de Picciotto: So, recording there and being in there all the time … and it was not only a studio originally. It also had the printing plant next to it and the office of the record label. And in the bottom, in the basement, there were the vaults with all the old records of all those, the archives. It looks totally ghostly. Like the walls were kind of crumbling and they were super dusty, but there were like rows and rows and rows of all the original records of all the Naples opera singers like Caruso and that whole scene. And so we were really kind of in a bubble outside of time. And I think that also influenced the music, besides the fact that a couple of the people that we dedicated to have passed. So it had this kind of timeless, ghostly atmosphere, because of the studio and because of the theme too.

With the tight timeline, how did you budget your time? Did you allocate a set amount of time to each song/subject?

Alexander Hacke: Well, we brainstorm on the chosen subject, and we kind of research certain atmospheric sounds or audible concepts. And then we pretty much take it from there just by interacting with each other. And as I said before, at a certain point, the music will take over and make its own demands. And we might offer things that we find really important or that would be really cool to apply in the production at any given point. But then the piece will go like, ‘Nah, you’re too fancy.’ So basically we just surf. We just surf the music where it wants us to go.

Danielle de Picciotto: I don’t know how we actually start. I always forget, it’s really weird. But I know that once we’ve started, someone will do something, and then the other one goes, ‘Oh, I have an idea.’ Alex does it, and then I say, ‘Oh, I have an idea,’ and then I do it. So we always basically do alternate. We rarely play at the same time. I honestly don’t know why it happens to me; every time we record a record, I have no idea how we start. But as soon as we have started, we kind of do it alternately.

Alexander Hacke: I suppose it’s like having children or giving birth, apparently. You forget all the painful parts. You know, nature, it’s an instinctive thing that you do it again, it’s all wonderful and we don’t know how it happens.

Given that each of your albums is influenced by the place you were at when recording, does it ever make you re-think your past work? Perhaps influencing how you perform it going forward?

Alexander Hacke: I think I am happy that we managed to constantly change and evolve in one way or another. Stuff that we have done in the past might have satisfied our state of development at that point. And I can look back at it with love, endearingly, but I might be at a completely different point now to when we did ‘The Current’ or whatever. Then also what happens in the world. When we did ‘The Silver Threshold,’ we felt that there was great potential in the world, changing to a better place at that point. That sort of didn’t happen. So yeah, a different view of it now.

Danielle de Picciotto: But also, one thing that we always have to be careful about, and that was the biggest kind of hurdle with this album, is that we have so many things that we like. Alex does so many things and I do so many things. It’s always really important for us to somehow kind of focus on staying in a certain kind of sound so that we don’t have a completely different album every single time. So that is definitely something that we always kind of try to concentrate on, to remember what sound we’ve achieved and how we can stay within this universe and still kind of develop. That was the most difficult thing with this album. A long time ago we had this project called The Ship of Fools, where we had 10 songs. And each song was a different kind of music style. One was easy listening, one was heavy metal, one was rock, one was country, one was classic. And for us it would be easy to do that every single time because we have so many [interests]. And so that’s one thing we always have to avoid. We have to stay on that one track we’ve kind of started, and with this album, it was the most difficult thing ever because of these people that we’re dedicating it to. So one of the main themes of the whole album was like, are we going too much in the direction of that person that we’re dedicating it to? Or are we still within our universe of that specific sound?

Alexander Hacke: Yeah, to stay authentic. To stay authentic within our own sound. Like in country music, you have this thing called a Hat Act, you know, like a musical group that pretends to be cowboys. We don’t want to be a Hat Act .

The first video is really interesting visually. Could you talk about that a bit?

Danielle de Picciotto: Well, it’s “Schwarze Milch’, which is dedicated to a musician who loved everything that’s black, that’s why it’s Black Milk. And he also loved Celan. And so Celan had a poem which was “Schwarze Milch,’ in German, Black Milk for breakfast and lunch. So basically all the lyrics are kind of taken to things that this specific person we’re dedicating it to was interested in, who was interested in everything that was black. He liked guns. He had a very, very dark…

Alexander Hacke: Like the composer Erik Satie at one point decided that he would only nourish himself with white foods. And so our friend, he decided that he will only nourish himself with black foods.

Danielle de Picciotto: Yeah. So that’s the reason why the title and the lyrics are like that. And also the reason kind of why there’s the kind of jazz beat. For us, it was interesting to do that kind of beat because we haven’t done it before. I had actually done film music last year for a film about Sir Michael Caine. I basically only did jazz music for that. And I was like, wow, this is actually really fun. And it’d be interesting to have that in our music a little more. So that was the perfect song for us to try it with that. And that’s why everybody in the video was basically dressed in black with a couple of accessories on it. That whole thing is dedicated to him because he loved the color black so much.

Alexander Hacke: He was a bit of an existentialist. That goes really well with the whole jazz beatnik attitude.

Danielle de Picciotto: Yeah. And somehow this time we felt we kind of wanted to depict every instrument. Usually in our videos, it’s only two of us. And so we thought this time we’d actually wanted to depict every instrument. That’s why it resulted in being such a big crowd of people. And I don’t know, the whole feeling of it was supposed to be very surreal because we liked that and our friend was like that too. Kind of like a dream sequence of odd creatures living in the black world, like a dark world, but still somehow having a kind of elegance to it. That was important.

Alexander Hacke: It certainly was a big undertaking to find all these strange looking characters. Our casting office was working full time for that.

Danielle de Picciotto: Which one did you like best?

‘La Femme Sauvage’ is probably my favorite.

Danielle de Picciotto: Okay, interesting. Because ‘La Femme Sauvage’ is the first time that I actually sing in French, and my first language was French. So that was a pretty exciting undertaking. And that was definitely the song which was the most difficult for us because the woman we dedicated it to did completely different music than we do. And we really struggled with that song. That was a song that we finished last, and at one point we were like, we don’t even know if we’re going to be able to get it. And then when we got it, we were super happy with it. We’ve actually never struggled with a song as much as with that song, which is really interesting.

Alexander Hacke: Also because her sense of humor and irony would have not really worked with our harmony, like Gregorian and choral kind of madrigal kind of style of singing. That would be an element that would be completely wrong with this person. So we asked ourselves, ‘Are we even able to do this? And so this is one of the few songs, I think it’s only the second song in the history of hackedepicciotto, where we do not sing [as] a choir but sing individually.

Hackedepicciotto has been touring in Canada and will be doing more European shows starting in late summer. For the latest info, visit hackedepicciotto.de. Purchase music at hackedepicciotto.bandcamp.com.