Features I by I 17.09.13

On Record: Daedelus on Roberto Cacciapaglia’s 1979 head-spinner The Ann Steel Album

On Record is a regular feature on FACT in which we ask an artist we admire to pick a record that means a lot to them, and use it as a jumping off point for a conversation.

These days, Daedelus‘ reputation precedes him. Over 15 years of unpredictable releases for the likes of Ninja Tune, Brainfeeder and Plug Research, he’s become something of grand seigneur to the L.A. beat scene, pilfering indiscriminately from piano hardcore, jazz, bossa, boom-bap and sea-shanty. He’s set up his own label (Magical Properties), collaborated with the good and the great (Prefuse 73, Boom Bip), and, in FACT’s unassailable judgement, he’s also the nattiest dresser in music, bar none.

Next up is Drown Out, his twelfth full-length to date, and his first for alt.rap stable anticon. As you might anticipate, Daedelus opted to discuss something well off the beaten track – namely, Roberto Cacciapaglia’s much-loved 1979 oddity, The Ann Steel Album.

Where and when did you first come across The Ann Steel Album?

So, for a period of time now, I’ve been doing the thing that a lot of sampling artists have done, and allowed myself to get overwhelmed with material that kind of washes up. You listen to a recording of an artist you like – especially that great period of the ’90s both in electronics and in hip-hop where people were sampling willy-nilly – and what would end up happening is you would get into a song, and then realise that their song was just constituted of a thousand other samples. A lot of their drums, but also some melodic hooks and stuff, and I would allow myself, through the process of record digging, to discover these sources. So, the occasional drum break, you’d figure out that it was from some classic early funk from the ’70s, or maybe even some weird rehash from the ’80s, some hip-hop kind of break. The same thing would be happening with melodies – film soundtracks a lot of the time figured highly for me.

In doing this, I came across the band Telex, and Telex is a weird French band – it’s like they want to be Italo, they want to be strange experimental electronics, but they’re so firmly rooted in good songs that it was just a joy. Their most famous song, I think, is called ‘Moskow Disco’ – a great, great chugging along song that’s so got so much onomatopoeia it’s crazy. It sounds like a train, and it’s talking about trains. It’s great, it’s perfect – birthed whole. And on the same record that they have this ‘Moskow Disco’ song, they have a song called ‘My Time’, which is a cover, of course, of The Ann Steel Record. And I was a fan of this ‘My Time’ song for a while – it was like, “Wow, this group can have this kind of crazy Italo, but they can also do this real good songcraft.” Little did I know that it was a cover. And so, one day, because the internet is so good at this, somebody basically corrected my talking about Telex in this highfalutin fashion, and directed me towards the Roberto record – and then it really got down and earnest.

Then, in the funny way that happens,the record was stolen from my grasp. Here I was: I’d discovered the gem of the sea, I’d dived deep and found the best thing ever, and I couldn’t wait to present it to the world.  And then, all of a sudden, Pitchfork decides to do a special on the record, because one of the dudes from Animal Collective [Avey Tare], was like “Oh, I’ve discovered this great record”. And I was like, “Damn them!’, because here I was ready to unleash the sampling goodness back out into the world! It’s totally fine, I think music should be heard, it shouldn’t be sat upon by dragons in their lair, it should be given air – and this Ann Steel record was just this kind of record. From top to bottom – super-special. Although I wouldn’t have minded if it had been my thing to present forward, I’m just happy it exists out there in the world. It’s been reissued now a few times by different labels on better quality vinyl than it ever was originally. As a conceptual piece, it’s so brilliant that I’m just glad people can get a hold of it on iTunes or wherever, easily, rather than my hard discovery.

Whast is it that makes it such a particularly, as you said, “super-special” record, to your ears at least?

To my ears, it’s one of those things where you take this producer who was in this very narrow scene – he was kind of prescribed to be the strange Italian in the room, as so many of these Italian producers were, and he realised that if you put a pretty face on something, it can sell, right? But the thing he didn’t realise is that the person [with] the pretty face was actually super-Surrealist and willing to go the extra place. And so it became a collaboration more than just a record that was a conceptual record. From what I understand, he took this British model and put her on the cover and dressed her up a little bit, but it totally transformed itself from being, “Oh this is just a pretty face” to, “Oh, this is a very compelling thing.” It’s made more interesting by the addition rather than lessened by the baseness of it.

I’m struck by what you said about coming to the record through the process of digging, and following the sample trail, because when you listen to the album it’s a very future-facing record – not only in the sense that it does a lot of things that might be deemed ahead of its time, but it also has this vibe of cultivated naivety about it. It’s funny that lots of people have come to this record through the process of looking backwards, raiding the past, digging – and coming to an album that has a really sweet, Futurist quality to it.

That’s the thing – a lot of the time, the future is this menace of the oncoming, the onslaught, the inevitable, right? And then you have this record, which is kind of dealing with it in a much more complex fashion. And this is someone who doesn’t have English as a first language, arguably. So, where does this come from? How do they look at so nuanced? I’m sure that, at the time this record was made in 1979, there was a little bit more of an oncoming future: one that was one-part Blade Runner and those metaphors (and what would be come things like Alien and Aliens), a fear and uncertainty of an alien future, and then also an embrace that the future was going to hold all this possibility and promise and future robotics. The kind of off-the-cuff things that get said on this record – like, the little talking segment during ‘My Time’ is so crazy! It’s so much more than the future. He channelled something really directly down. A lot like lightning, I think.

You mention lightning – it feels like it crackles, this record, with a sense of exuberance and optimism. It really sounds like it was a hoot to make. 

Yeah – Giorgio Moroder set a really good tone for a lot of this stuff, where the synthesisers that were just being invented in that moment were being pushed so much further than what happened in the late ’80s or ’90s. It’s kind of funny. These things with really hard limitations were taken really to a future place because that’s what people did back then. And once it became part of the existing language of the electronic music, people kind of got banal with this kind of stuff. They didn’t push it so hard. I don’t know why. Take a band like Yello as well – they did that song ‘Oh Yeah’, it was like a weird ’80s hit. But man, their videos are so Surrealist. It was probably something in the scene that made all these producers tap into the Futurism that was so hated by their parents, probably. All the Futurist stuff that was so associated with Mussolini and all the Fascists – and rightly so, people were pretty rten, some of them, the things they said were crazy. But kids are supposed to buck the feelings of their parents. There’s probably some crazy paper to be written about why, and how, Futurism found its way back in, whatever Surrealist back door it kind of got through on. But they did it. These producers did it.

“There’s a Sun Ra quality to it, there’s a Moondog quality to it – there’s a different narrative that I feel like this person has entered into.”

At that time, for around four, five, six years, there were pop artists who were able to make music that dealt with consumerism – or anti-consumerism. They would talk about products, and work with slogans – people like Laurie Anderson and Will Powers. Do you detect that interest in the album?

Yeah, absolutely, and also that willingness to kind of break the fourth wall. You’re talking directly to your audience as much as you were trying to entertain them. Laurie Anderson did that quite well, Kate Bush does that well, there’s a variety of performers. And it’s funny, you have these female performers who are willing to be a bit more ‘performance art’ in the mix, and then you have a male producer putting a female on the cover and doing kind of the same gestures…I wonder if there is some gender in the mix that makes it more willing. But absolutely, the idea of the product – there’s a song on the record that’s talking about sport and divertissement that almost seems like an ad. Are you familiar with library music? This record has that distinct feeling for me – it feels like music created for a purpose that was not totally prescribed.

When you look at the works of, say, Raymond Scott, they’re commercial pieces written with a commercial purpose, but for some reason, they feel like they’re so much more – and so much stranger – than just a jingle.

It’s that ‘busy mind’ quality – the far-too-smart-for-the-room thing. Raymond Scott has that, and I don’t know if you’ve heard any of Roberto’s other work, but it’s not as extraordinary, although it does plunder that place a little bit. The next couple of records he did are quite New Age-y, and they quickly get ’80s washed-out –  they get kind of boring in the ’80s in the way that almost every jazz or disco artist got. They all got ruined on the shores of the ’80s, those rocky shores. They become a little bit more workmanlike, and The Ann Steel Album has a little bit more of the joie de vivre – that’s undeniable in those songs.

It’s totally detectable. Returning to that Avey Tare piece – possibly as a result of that, plus the efforts of diggers over the years, it’s definitely an album that’s become a quote-unquote “cult” album. What do you think of that “cult” label? It seems like it can be problematic as often as it’s helpful. 

Well, I’ll be honest – I sometimes feel a little bit like my catalogue is under that purview. Some of my catalogue has been sampled by other people, and kind of made into rare groove, and so I’m not saying that I am anywhere on the same level as this cult record, but it’s interesting how people get to this music through a different end. They don’t get there by directly looking or listening, they get there through other producers and other listeners, so I feel kind of part of the same dialogue. I feel somewhat that there’s this thing of not looking directly into something, and when you do look into it, a lot of things fall away or don’t quite work. But when you look at it through a sideways glance, they become more real. It’s going back to the library music thing: they become more real by their context. History makes a difference, but music and history don’t often go together. There’s a reason why we still uplift some 16-year-old making the same record over and over again, 16-year-old after 16-year-old making the same gestures over and over again. There’s a reason why that still maintains to be a story. Be it 18-year-old, 19-year-old – it’s still the same kind of thing, the “innocent ears” producing their classic record. But then something like this, when it’s obviously somebody who’s been a prodocer in the scene for a long time, somebody who was attempting to make something quite quite different than the prevailing winds – not succeeding [laughs] but living on forever. There’s a Sun Ra quality to it, there’s a Moondog quality to it – there’s a different narrative that I feel like this person has entered into.

In a way, I’m not surprised that you chose it, because it’s an album of strange meetings and incongruous juxtapositions and weird fusions, which seem like reasonable ways of describing your work. Are there parallels – or, perhaps, inspirations – that you’ve taken from the record as regards your practice?

Absolutely, I really do feel like there is a future that is out there that is in our grasp but beyond our imagination. And it takes an art form like music, which is full of metaphor that is not super spelled-out, to get there. Straight up. I’ve been dealing with a lot of people at the MIT Media Labs and all these other strange places where they are directly touching the future. Things that are 5, 10 years away from being in our consumer hands, or further, and it literally is that case that they’re dealing with things that people cannot wrap their head around, and therefore they cannot even perceive. An you take a record like this which was so…it’s not just about the future, it’s about this feeling of forward momentum that he was able to dive into. It resonates, and there’s something really special about that, and I feel like that’s something that I’ve directly been impacted by. And I’ve come back to the record again and again, and discovered more.



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