Thursday, 26 March 2009
Interview: Alex Novaga
We present an interview with one of the most legendary names in Italian disco music that ever there was - Alex Novaga. In a genre full of one-hit wonders and labels that disappeared as quickly as they emerged, Alex forged an incredible track record with his varied and consistently brilliant productions, ran the classic label D.I.D. and also found time to contribute his musical skills to the near-mythically remembered Cellophane club in Rimini... a truly unique talent indeed whose personal modesty should not be allowed to stand in the way of the recognition he so clearly deserves!
Hi Alex! Can we begin by asking you about your early life and first musical influences?
I was born in Forlì, a city between Bologna and Rimini where nothing usually happens but it's good enough to live in. I remember the first record I bought, Waterloo by Abba... It was followed by an LP by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity...
My father was a musician so I had a lot of keyboards at home to play with, but I was too lazy for practising. When I realised that elecronics were starting a revolution in music-composing I became very passionate about it. I wrote many songs together with a friend who was playing guitars, but we never produced a record.
It all started when I joined a group of friends working to set up a free radio...
What are your memories of Italy in the 1970s and what music affected you most in this period?
The 70s were my high-school days, my first loves were Pink Floyd, Santana, Genesis, Jethro Tull and all "progressive rock"; ELP above all, but I was also listening to classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Debussy) and the famous Italian singers/writers (Battisti, Baglioni, Bennato etc.)
From 1977 to 1981 I worked in a radio (Radio 2001 Romagna as I said before) and I became a DJ during these years, discovering and playing what we called "disco music". I remember that I liked the most "energetic", some of my favourite tracks were Beat the Clock by Sparks, Anikana'o' By Kongas, Disco Inferno, Crusader by Traxx and so on.
You first came to prominence in the early 1980s - what was your first record and how did you get involved in the music industry?
This is funny... there is NO FIRST record, but THREE. I was recording my very first record for a radio based in Venice (Superradio), they wanted a song about what we now call wrestling , this song was called Catch and the artist was this "Sun-La-Shan", so I composed, performed and recorded in a Studio called Sky Record in Forlì, my hometown.
This was very funny because I had been in a studio only a couple of times because my father was a musician, but I was called because I was just passing by... Anyway, we did this recording, all sequences played by hand by a completely not professional guy (me...)
In the same building there was an Import records firm called DID (this would be my future company) that had produced a song called All Night Long by B.B.Band, a song that had good sales in Italy, so they wanted to start making music and they called me... (Mario Boncaldo from B.B.Band made another track in the same period, the famous Dirty Talk by Klein & M.B.O).
At the same time I was working as a DJ together with Giorgio Paganini at Cellophane Disco in Rimini and together we made a cover version of our favourite I'm Your Boogieman by K.C & The Sunshine Band, but in a very "electronic" way (Digital Game). The boss of the disco (Cellophane) had the idea to make a 12" to promote the club itself so we holed up in the same recording studio (Sky Records) and recorded Gimme Love, the same way as Catch and I'm Your Boogieman, all by hand...
Franco Scopinich from Superradio was so happy with Catch that he asked me to make a cover version of Ali Shuffle by Alvin Cash, the same way as Catch. And I did it. (To be honest I was not really happy with the resulting product, but he liked it).
(Paganini, Oriolo and Novaga at Midem Cannes)
So all together - me, my future partner (sales manager) in DID and Giorgio Paganini - we participated at Midem 83 in Cannes, trying to sell the track from Cellophane, the one from Digital Game and to take a look at the international market. Going back to Italy, we were surprised to find out that Cellophane's Brain was signed with Emergency Records in New York, so me and Paganini were put under contract with them, and Digital Game was licensed to ZYX (a newborn label at that time).
Also, thanks to Elvio Pieri, a great DJ and a friend, we found a cassette tape from Sweden from a group called Fake and we decided to remix their record and sign them under us: we started a label. The conclusion: Fake was a best seller in Italy (distributed By CGD for the 7" and LP and by Il Discotto for the 12"), Cellophane was re-edited in New York by the staff of Jellybean Benitez (a major american DJ of that period) and made good sales also in Italy thanks to the soundtrack of a national TV Spot for Rimini Riviera, and Ali Shuffle became a major hit in 1984 in Spain reaching the national radio top ten ( - this was another story, but a lot of fun). After all this, music became my job.
Which producers/artists did you collaborate with most at this time?
Of all the people that worked with me at that time some changed their field of work (you know...it's been more than 25 years...) but some found their way in the music business and they still work in it. Remember; i was young, but they were younger... you can see about all the team working around DID records in the Camaro's Gang video of Ali Shuffle on youtube... There is me too, 40 kgs ago...
We made the tour as "Camaro's" because "Camaro's Gang" was only a name on a 12", so we made a band for "going on promotion" with some of our performers like Maskio, Lipseye, Symona, Barry Mason from Superradio (the singer) etc.
The thing is that I was frequently receiving and listening to a lot of demo tapes, so we produced and created a lot of artists and sub-labels after the recording. Example: on all my records the vocoder voice is always me, but in Digital Game Please Don't Go the singer was Romano Bais and the "face" was a dancer from Bologna...
Anyway two of the guys I worked with on a lot of productions are now serious musicians; I want to remember Mike Centonze, now one of the major music producers in Italy (Olympics, Pavarotti etc.) and Mark Sabiu, most well-known in Great Britain as Mark "Rapino" from Rapino Brothers...
The two Cellophane records, Gimme Love and Music Colours are among your most well-known - what's the story behind them and what was the connection with the Cellophane club in Rimini?
As I said, I worked in Cellophane club in Rimini during late 1981 and all of 1982 but what i did most of all was performing with electronic drums, a bass-line and a keyboard during and on top of the tracks Giorgio Paganini (resident DJ there) played.
About the story, you can read it above. Music Colours was composed by me and Mark Sabiu with lyrics from Mark Howells.
You produced under a variety of different aliases such as Stopp, Fake and Digital Game. Which were you favourites and why? Can you tell us the stories behind a couple of these records?
We made records and in our region, Romagna, we were in my opinion the most prolific. So it happened that we became friends with a lot of artists, DJs, etc.
One of these was Francesco Paolini, still my best friend, that wanted to produce a record: so I made with him I'm Hungry by Stopp and Don't Worry by Lipseye (fact: the B side of Lipseye was a song by Angelo Valsiglio, the man behind the early success of Laura Pausini).
(Polar Studio, 1985)
Fake was our best selling band, we lost them at the time of Brick, when "real money started to flow" and I think that this is one of the reasons that made me leave production. But the work I made with them is still my favourite; Eric Stromblad was a great musician and Tony Wilhemmson a great singer and melody writer. Definitely my very best production experience.
(Alex Novaga - wearing sunglasses - with Fake)
Digital Game was a game. It was one of my first productions and the first we sold to ZYX. The sound is very similar to Cellophane, same recording studio and same "hand perfomance".
The second one from Digital Game, Please Don't Go, was recorded at Rimini Studio together with Mark Sabiu who also wrote the B-side with me. It was funny because to mix these tracks we covered all the LED bars of the mixer (a 52-channel MCI) with toilet paper to "listen only to the sound"... I must have some picture of that day... I remember this because the owner of the studio, Mario Flores (the writer of Maybe One Day by The Creatures) was a maniac of cleanliness and order and when he was not in the studio we (young and bastards) start "parties" and "have fun" with all his very expensive hardware... Ah the sleeve-art of I'm Your Boogie Man (as a lot of others) was made by our graphic partner, Checco Montefiori, today playing lounge music in his band Montefiori Cocktail, very popular in Russia and eastern countries.
(Mario Flores in Rimini Record Studio, 1985)
You were also released on a huge amount of very prestigious labels such as DID, Discomagic, ZYX, Blanco Y Negro, CGD, Break, etc. The list is like a 'who's who' of classic Italo labels! What memories do you have of working with them?
DID records was my own label (I was the major owner) and we had a lot of sub-labels because we produced and remixed a lot of tracks. Our company was made up of three people: me, working in studio, plus a sales manager and a secretary (Canadian from Toronto). When the big work started my main interest was to "make the music" and I had no time to "make the papers" so I did not deal directly with Discomagic, Blanco Y Negro, ZYX etc. because I was all around Europe working in studios; all the publishing and distribution contract were in the hands of my sales manager.
Companero by Camaro's is another Italo classic that you produced - is it related in any way to Camaro's Gang? What's the story behind your involvement with the Suprradio label?
After Catch and the success of Ali Shuffle in Spain, Franco Scopinich wanted to make another record, this time a Long Play (today you would call it a CD) with a lot of new songs. So I called all the people we toured with in Spain and asked them to join the project. To make things quick after the choice of the songs I divided into three the production team in three different studios walking from one to another. Lots of problems... When I started to mix there were different levels, diferent sounds etc. A nightmare!
Anyway, we finished more or less, and released Companero as a new track for the 12" together with Move A Little Closer. So as you can see, Superradio was an "external" asking DID to make some songs and I wrote and produced for them.
Afterwards, they started producing things themselves, and I believe that they are still making music.
Ah, the name NOVADO as composer of Catch; it's a mis-spelling of NOVAGA... (thanks DISCOGS for not letting me correct this!)
What were your favourite synthesisers to use when producing in the 1980s? Was there any other studio gear that you enjoyed using particularly? I'm sure there's quite a few producers out there who would love to know!
Well.. tons of them... before and after MIDI...
I remember the first one, a Roland MC-4 micro-composer sequencer (with trigger and control voltage...) and my first love, the Korg MS-20, totally analogue! When we made some money with the music I started using everything that was affordable from out of our own pockets, all the drum machines (Lynn, Drumulator, Roland TR-808 and TR-707, etc.) My favourite keyboards were the OBX-1 from Oberheim, Prophet 5, MiniMoog, Korg MS-20, ARP 2600, PPG, all the Roland keyboards and so on. My favourite sound and mixing style was the "Trevor Horn" sound.
About the recording studios: I worked in a lot of them, during that period there were no computers (affordable) to use to make music and therefore so much work to do... I remember that in 1985 I had something like 290 days in recording studios, sometimes recording in one and mixing in another at the same time (a lot of car trips...).
This was usually the production timeline: making a demo, arranging it, making the sequences in a little personal studio (very little) - after that one or two days of recording, one day for vocals, one or two days for mixing.
(demo studio at DID, 1984)
(Novaga at Rimini Record Studio)
There were exceptions, of course; Brick, from Fake (the Swedish band) took about one and half months of recording and mixing in Stocholm at Abba's facility, Polar Studio, and another one was Space Opera by Negro, that took about two months at Rimini Record Studio in Rimini.
One other time we recorded at Rimini Record Studio and mixed and wrote new tracks at Weriton Studio in Munich with Moroder's sound engineer (that track was Love Me Like I Do by Robert Bravo, co-produced with Fratelli La Bionda). Leaving England by Skrazzo, Vision In The Mirror by Control-D and Don't Worry by Lipseye were recorded in Italy and sung on and mixed in London, at Matrix Studio.
Other studios I worked in were Real Sound (Riccione), Phonoprint (Bologna) and a lot of others.
Going back to our earlier question about the Cellophane club, what else do you remember particularly from that era in Italy? What was Rimini like in its glory days?
Yes, it was glorious. Clubs like Cellophane had 2000/2500 people every time they opened; lots of fun, music and girls...
Where did your career take you next after 1986? Did you continue producing?
During the whole of 1986 I belonged to the army service and when I returned to life as a civilian I changed (a bit) my work, making myself an artist manager. In 1995 I left music and joined a multimedia company (Ideadrome) and in 2000 I started my own company as a tech consultant. Until now.
Is there any advice you can offer to today's producers who would follow in your footsteps?
Do not follow in ANYONE'S footsteps. Try to make your OWN music. And be prepared to deal with artists...
Could you give us your personal approximate top 10 Italo Disco records?
I do not have a top 10... When we made the music that people now call Italo Disco our influences were various and many but what I tried to do was to "explore electronic music" sometimes without caring or not about selling the record...
During my career (from 82 to 86 excluded) I arranged or produced or wrote or played on more than 70 tracks... with or without my name on... I enjoyed making music, that's all....
Do you have any current musical projects? What are your activities these days?
You must ask Mr Cusato (Casco) about this... We've known each other since 1983 but two years ago after a lunch at Midem Cannes he has been trying to convince me to do some more music... maybe I will, just for fun... but only with him!
(Giorgio Paganini and Alex Novaga with Mario Colonna, voice of Boris Parker)
What gigs from the old days do you remember fondly? Are there any stories you don't mind sharing with us?
Hmm.. as a DJ I remember one gig in Cellophane (1982) that started with a big headache, so I took a lot of Aspirin and when I felt better, drank a glass full of whiskey... I was so OUT that I left my electronic drums playing for about twenty minutes only with a bass drum in 4/4, something like boom-boom-boom-boom. It was with NO music and NO kind of percussion.... I was staring at people dancing, and people danced like they had a hit song in their ears, but it was only a bass drum... When I realized what I was doing I played a record and people looked at me as if I was stupid or something... This incident made me think a lot...
Another funny experience was the Spain tour. We arrived there without any idea of what would happen, finding out that Ali Shuffle was topping the charts only when we got there. I remember a lot of things on that tour; like to have a live concert with 3000 people on a Sunday morning, on live state television and to have to perform for about 45 minutes with only ONE song... It was funny to be a rock star for a day with autographs, intervews and ALL THE COLLATERALS... this is still one of my best memories...
Do you have any final message for Magic Waves' listeners?
Wait for "ITALO MASTERS"™, maybe...