Mike Simonetti was perhaps briefly defined by the rich, romantic nu-Italo sound he championed alongside his former creative partner, Johnny Jewel, over the course of their Italians Do It Better label. The style had enormous appeal even beyond the dancefloors it sent into a refreshing slow-motion, reaching a cultural zenith when it hugely influenced the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, a cult hit that followed suit in capturing mainstream attention. In the wake of this success, Simonetti and Jewel’s relationship waned, culminating in a tetchy Twitter call-out.
Since then, Simonetti has been as quietly prolific as ever with two projects. There’s Pale Blue, his melancholy-tinged shoegaze-inspired, house project alongside singer Elizabeth Wright, that has recently found a home on Crosstown Rebels, and 2MR, the New York based dance label he runs alongside Adam Gerrard and Mike Sniper of Captured Tracks Records. Since 2015, the vinyl and digital outlet has zoned in on a largely-US based rave underground, featuring young blood and old hands taking on multiple, charismatic strains of house and techno, each with a streak of offbeat charm.
Thirty years in music has helped defined Simonetti’s loose fitting but fiercely independent approach to music, one often reflected in the artists he works with. Prior to the hype of Italian Do It Better, he was already embedded deep into the East Coast music scene thanks to his once prolific label, Troubleman, an ‘indie’ in the classic mould. A sort of seven-inch testing ground for the musical landscape of the noughties, Simonetti’s keen ears gave airtime to groups including The Walkmen, Wolf Eyes, Zola Jesus, Camera Obscura, Black Dice and Devendra Banhart.
Currently comfortably mining his vast dancefloor knowledge to increasing acclaim, and fostering a new community of artists, John Thorp found Simonetti in honest and reflective form for this edition of The Forum.
You don’t do too many interviews, and while you’ve been very much focused on your Pale Blue project, perhaps the last-time you were in the news cycle as Mike Simonetti was following your public fall-out with Johnny Jewel of Chromatics, with whom you ran the label Italians Do It Better. Without getting into the specifics of the situation, I wondered if you could reflect on how it feels to be an artist involved in a very public dispute of that sort? Was it a difficult choice to call him out on Twitter?
Well it wasn't difficult, because I did it. I choose to do it, whereas I could have chosen to be quiet about it. I mean, listen, I'm going to be honest; I was just angry, and I acted out. I'm like a human being, and that's kind of what I think happens. Some people internalise it, and I tend to externalise it.
I read back the tweets from the time, and you could really sense how angry you were, and by the time you had completed the first Pale Blue record, which was a kind of breakup album, it felt like that anger had faded into a more melancholy kind of form?
Oh, definitely. When you work with someone for so long, it's like a breakup. I don't have a brother, but I considered him like a brother, you know? And it came out of the blue. It was really shocking. And I still have never spoken to him about it. But at this point, I'm over it. It's over, it's in the past.
I think that when the first Pale Blue album came out, it confused a lot of people who were listening for the next Chromatics. Or the next Italians Do It Better. But that wasn't ever really me, I don't write that kind of music, as you can probably hear. And a lot of people were like, “What is this?” It looks weird, it sounds weird. And when I completed the record, I told Adam, who I run the label with, that the record wasn't going to sell well. That it would take years for people to come to it. And luckily, I was right! So I think my A&R skills really worked, on myself. I can't force it on people, because it's long. It's really dense, The whole thing was like a fit. The moment, the time that was ten years of my life. But since then, I've moved on, and I think the tone of it, the sound of it, is a little more confident. I'm more confident as a songwriter, not to be that guy talking about my songwriting process, but I'm confident with what I want. I'm done with the Italians stuff. Well, except for this album coming out, but that's all archival.
I feel like, as seems typical throughout your personal, musical history, you've somewhat done your own thing and people have come to you. I didn't see you signing Pale Blue to Crosstown Rebels a few years ago, but here we are...
It didn't happen just by chance. One thing I realised when Italians was over and I wanted to walk away from it, is that Italians is a very insular label. With me less so, but now especially, he doesn't work with outside production, artwork, it looks the same and it kind of sounds the same. And when I was there, we were releasing bands from all over, not just me and him. And it was always the same when I was at Troubleman Records, you know, if the band did a record on my label and wanted to do another seven-inch elsewhere, then sure, go ahead. Especially in 2018, if you're doing a record on your own label and you're not working with other people you're kind of shooting yourself in the foot. There's so much music out there, you can't keep on top of it, so a good way is to work with other labels and make remixes and stuff like that, because it's not 1999 anymore.
The Walkmen, Zola Jesus... In retrospect, it feels like Troubleman was something of a testing ground for artists who went on to sign much bigger deals elsewhere. Were you happy with being a one-stop shop for those bands?
As you probably know, given my lack of interviews, I kind of hate being in the spotlight. When I put out the Capricorn Rising LP, I realised I needed to put out music, as it was getting harder and harder to get DJ gigs, and producers got more gigs. And that's kind of how I feel. I don't mind being a one-stop shop. I mean, nobody is making any money.
Given what you've been through, a lot of people would have probably avoided setting up another label such as 2MR, but you dived into that, and it feels like it has a similar feel to Troubleman, more so than Italians Do It Better. What sort of knowledge have you gained and applied?
Well, under Troubleman, I had to start another sub-label. I wanted to release house and techno and stuff I DJ. What was cool with Italians was that it didn't have any particular sound. So I started another sub-label, New Jersey Records, with Dan Hill from Above Board. I released seven records. We did a Legowelt record, a record by a guy called Son of Sound, who's coming back into the scene, and a few solo releases. And it was all very under-the-radar. We pressed 300 copies, and they're all readily available. But nobody really knows it exists. And when I started 2MR, I wanted to do it like I did New Jersey. To release records I like, and just pump them out. And I want to do records with all different kinds of music, but keep the focus. I won't put out an indie rock record, but I will put out a noise record or an ambient record, because it fits.
And I did it with Mike, from Captured Tracks. I released his band, Blank Dogs. He was a record store guy, and I put out his record, and Blank Dogs were really popular for a minute in New York. You know, we were friends before that and stayed friends after. And after Italians, I finished the album, and I had it just sitting on my computer. I sent it to Mike, and he emailed me back the next morning, saying he loved it, “Let's do it.” I told him I wanted to start a label too.
I feel like the label has provided a good cross-section of older producers – Bottin, John Berera – but also, newer talent. Would you say there's a similarity to what you were doing with Troubleman two decades ago, and the sort of underground you're uniting now?
Well, that's the only way I know how to do it, that's how I run a label. Mike is very hands-off, a guy I'll talk to about money stuff or art, but Adam Gerard is the guy who runs the label, day-to-day. He started off just assisting, but this is his music, so I said, “Let's run the label, partners, 50/50.” And more like, 70/30, because to be quite honest, I'm kind of burned out on record labels in general. I don't want to be involved in the manufacturing or dealing with that stuff. But Adam works in the office, at Captured Tracks, and he can handle all that stuff. And he's discovered some of the biggest groups on 2MR. He's the guy, and he's great. Working with him has been easier than working with anyone in my life. And he understands, he gets it. I'm the biggest artist on 2MR, and if I put out records on other labels, that will draw people towards our label. That's how it is, that's how it works. It's not 1999 any more. When we started 2MR, we weren't selling records at all. My own were the only ones that would sell out. At first, we were a very small label. We didn't have any distribution.
I feel like 2MR has connected with a very confident, somewhat righteous US underground, signing artists like Savile. I imagine that appeals, as that attitude is very much your personal roots.
Absolutely. When I hear new artists, if they're young, and they're confident, and they're not assholes... If they don't name drop, if they don't post how grateful they are on Facebook, if they're just kind of level-headed, then it's good. Because of social media, you can kinda tell if someone is an asshole right away. So, with Savile, or the music coming out of Atlanta, that wasn’t the case. There's this artist called 'Fit of Body', his name is Ryan, he runs this cassette label. Everyone is so nice, they're down to earth, mellow, friends with one another. It's because it's Atlanta, and not New York, there's no need for competition. Everyone is just supportive.
Does New York still have that ruthless, competitive edge?
Sure. I've been going to New York since I was fourteen. And what I;ve learned is, and I'm sure other people could also agree, is that New York is very cliquey. And that's fine, but I've found that if you don't go out all the time and appear at parties and party with these people, then you don't really get noticed by them, and it's kind of strange. You have to get involved in the scene in a different way to everywhere else, and you have to hang out.
And that was probably more possible say, in your twenties, whereas now your a father with other responsibilities, it's not a priority to reassert yourself with a bunch of kids?
Yeah, I mean I don't want to go out and drink and take drugs all night. I don't have it in me any more, I'm 46 years old. I don't really have it in me. I never really did that anyway, but I can't DJ drunk really, or DJ coked up out of my mind. You can say anything about the 2MR crew, but everyone's kind of down to earth and nice. Sage Caswell, who also does visuals for Pale Blue, is one of the nicest people I've ever met. So we have a really cool crew of people. It's really important, maybe because I've been thumbed over in the past, that I need to be surrounded by great people. And maybe I'm afraid to get close. That's why I tell other artists to release on other labels. I don't want to deal with the stress. I feel weird telling other people what to do with their music, you know?
Troubleman began in 1993, and it wasn't until twelve years later in 2005 that you were suddenly 'New York Label Of The Year'. It was a very slow burn, and as we discussed, some of those bands you signed in that period went on to sell a lot of records and do great things within the musical landscape of the time. Were you ever tempted to take your obvious talent spotting skills to a major label?
There was a period when Troubleman was going through ADA, Warner Brothers, before it closed down, and it was a disaster. They gave me a manufacturing deal, a distribution deal, and told me to just go for it. And I was young, I was naïve and I was excited. I thought I was going to change the world by putting out these harsh noise records that nobody understood. And nobody bought them, and I became really in debt to ADA. So much money. I was releasing double albums of experimental music, because that's just where my head is, and it didn't work. And we parted ways, settled up financially, and then towards the end of Troubleman, I stopped doing CDs entirely and went only to vinyl. And the last five bands I did ended up being huge groups. Zola Jesus, Tamaryn, Woods, Titus Andronicus..
You just basically named the majority of the Pitchfork 'Best New Music' of 2008!
Yes, but I released them in 2007. (Laughs.) The bass player of Titus Andronicus was my intern. And at the time, I was travelling the world a lot Djing. And I basically gave them away to XL. I just didn't want to deal with bands any more. I could see the writing was on the wall, and it was time for a change to dance music. I didn't want to do indie rock, and I was also running Italians Do It Better. So I was releasing Chromatics on Italians, and it was becoming crazy. My head was spinning, I had no time. I once got back from Europe, got a taxi from the airport to my house, and there was a palette sitting in front containing 5000 Devendra Banhart LPs, that had been sitting outside for three days. It was too much, and I gave all the bands their rights back. And I just thought “Fuck it”, and closed Troubleman. And I guess a lot of those bands are popular now. But I don't care about this stuff, I just never cared. If you're fighting with artists over this music, it just makes no sense. Why are you doing it? It's silly.
Have you always had that attitude, or is it something you've learned over time? That you can't always engage with that level of competition?
I mean, I've always thought, in doing a label, what's the end game? If you put out a record by an artist and they become huge, then that's it. It's over for them. They have two or three big records and then they break up, or they become a legacy band, 5.5 ratings on Pitchfork, playing every festival, releasing mediocre records for the rest of their life. And I've always wondered, how do you avoid that? That's kind of what Italians did, and that's what Jonny's doing, delaying shit. It's fear. And he has every right to feel that way, because he realises that if Chromatics put out their magnum opus now, how are they going to top it? And Chromatics are amazing! They're so good, and that last record, 'Night Drive', was such a good album. And I've heard all the Dear Tommy tracks, I've heard the record, and it's an amazing record.
Well, in that case, what's your ‘end-game’? Do you want to just keep this rolling to feel refreshed or creative?
The end game of 2MR, or my own?
I guess in my head, the two are intertwined, but Mike Simonetti – the DJ and producer – you have a family now and different aims. But as for 2MR, what's the plan there?
I guess, with 2MR, I have two goals. The first is to sell out of the records that we release on vinyl. If we can sell out of 300 copies of a twelve-inch, then it's a success. And if the artist is getting gigs Djing or performing, then we've done all we can. And if we put out some syncs, or some licenses, then we're all happy. I think you put out records these days to get gigs, that's just how it is.
And for you? Are you happy for that to be your purpose, on a personal level? To run 2MR?
No, I'm not actually. I have a whole different way of looking at things. When I put out the Pale Blue album, I realised it wasn't sounding like anything else, and it sounds really corny, but I wanted the mainstream dance audience to kind of get it. I was always aiming for that height. Because if you listen to big room, mainstream shit, it's so bad.
To pay you a compliment, I feel like the more overtly emotional elements of Pale Blue are coming from a place of sincerity. It's not 'emotive' club music that feels contrived...
It is what it is. I think very hard about things, like what drum sounds I use. If you listen to underground techno, it's the same kick drums, it's the same pads, the same keyboard sounds. If you listen to big room, it's the same shitty sounding fucking plug-ins, you know? If you listen to Chromatics, for example, what's the first thing you hear? For me, it's the snare drum. It's the best sounding snare. Johnny's snare drums are amazing. That's what you're drawn to, that and the voice, but the snare first. And that's how it's always been with me. If you can make something that sounds like your own, that references other things without copying it, then you've succeeded. I hear My Bloody Valentine in there a bit, I hear DJ Koze in there, a lot. He's a huge influence, and everything I aim for with Pale Blue. The quality of music, how he's tongue-in-cheek a lot of the time.
How he's both constantly taking the piss and yet completely sincere, often at once?
Exactly. The way I see it, he takes his shit very seriously. But, well at least I feel like this, I'm taking this shit very seriously, but I'm just playing music for people. I'm playing other people's music and getting paid money for it. So you've got to take it with a grain of salt, but also take it seriously as well. Because if you become too self-important, then you're just like a guy with a V-neck, looking down at the DJs. And when I DJ, I just can't play techno all night. I don't know how people do it? Maybe it's drugs? And maybe because I don't take drugs, the music has to go up and down, there has to be vocals, there has to be melody.
You've been through so many scenes, released so many different types of music, surely it'd be something of a waste of your versatility if you just played a variation on the same record all night long?
Sure, but this is the only way I know how to do it. This sounds very self-important, and I kind of feel uncomfortable talking about this stuff, but how can I surprise everyone but not clear the room? What do you do? Will it be weird to play a Kraftwerk song after playing two hours of nothing that sounds like Kraftwerk? But it works, because it's Kraftwerk. I never hear anyone play Kraftwerk! Does anyone play Kraftwerk?
I've been known to play the Kraftwerk hits...
Well, electro is back!
It sure is. In fact, I think it might already be on it's way out... I'm just waiting for the return of microhouse...
Shit, talking of microhouse, I loved minimal techno. That mid-period Villalobos stuff, that's a huge influence on Pale Blue. A lot of drums happening, you know?
You’ve been releasing mixes of records from your collection as cassettes as part of a series. What is it about the cassette format that continues to capture your imagination?
I like them because you can make them instantly. You can have them in your hand, instantly. Records take forever to put out, you’ve gotta deal with all the bullshit. You could dub a cassette and have it in your hand in a minutes. CDs are so shitty, they’ve never been good for anything. When I started Troubleman, it was 7 inches only, and then we went to CD and LP, and then at the end we went back. I saw the writing on the wall with CDs, then everything went digital.
And now, people are opening new record pressing plants in order to meet demand. Could you have predicted it?
Yeah, I don’t know how long this vinyl thing is going to last. I feel like it’s ending slowly. I go to record stores, look at the new arrivals section, and there’s a lot of records just sitting there for thirty dollars, and nobody is buying them. People are buying second-hand records, because they’re cheaper. Even a three hundred press of records is hard. They’re 12 dollars in stores. 12 dollars for two songs? I asked if we could sell twelve-inches for seven bucks, and it’s impossible.
John Thorp, May 2018