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Mauro Picotto interview: 'I don't want to feel like I have a limit'
The Italian DJ and production legend discusses his influences on the Afro scene, his early days as part of the house music explosion in Italy and his entry to techno.
Date published: 25th Sep 2018
Mauro Picotto is a charmer. And he charms you effortlessly. Warm and sincere in conversation, he is an instantly likeable man. He has no airs and graces, despite having been at the top of the dance music game for almost 30 years.
Enthused by the discos he visited while still a teenager, he entered the world of DJing and production around the same time house music was arriving in Italy. He laughs as he remembers taking early demos to one of the country's biggest and most important dance music labels, Media Records. His first single for them, issued as R.A.F. became a considerable hit in 1991. Eventually he would become so important the to label he would become a partner.
He released his breakthrough track 'Lizard' under his own name in 1998 and followed it with a string of releases that helped epitomize the trance music scene of the time. Around the turn of the millennium he drove his attentions in a more pure techno direction and has produced many classics, and played many classic sets within the genre since.
One of Italy's greatest DJ exports, Picotto took almost half a decade away from producing and his Alchemy label from 2010 in order to concentrate on raising a family. Since he's been back, he's released two great albums From Heart To Techno and A Call In The Club on Alchemy as well as a string of releases by other artists that have shaken the walls of the world's nightclubs.
You are from the Piedmont region, about 40 kilometres from Turin. That's quite close to the borders with Switzerland and France. In what kind of ways is life different in this region compared to the rest of Italy, because of the influence of French culture?
Well, as you say, we are very close to the border with France and Switzerland. But because we are surrounded by the mountains, the Alps, we never really had any strong influence coming from them. If you look on the map, yes, it looks like we are close, but I never felt that strong influence from them.
It's quite unique. Especially if you look at the food. You just need to cross the border and you will find completely different food to what we have, and I will always prefer to have our food, that we have in Italy than what they have in France. With full respect to the French people, of course.
You now live on Jersey, is that correct?
Yes. My wife is from Jersey. We met around the world and a for a few years we lived in London. When we had our first baby we realised that it's important to have some family around. I don't have my parents anymore. We thought it was important for our boy to have grandparents around. It turned out to be one of the best decisions, I would rather be in Jersey than in London.
It's a nice quiet place. With the lifestyle I had a few years ago, travelling around the world all of the time, working in the music business, to come back and be on this peaceful island was really good to recharge the battery. I really like the atmosphere here. We have a lovely beach, nice fish to cook, it's perfect. For growing a family it's a beautiful place.
You were part of the Italian house music movement in the early 90s as part of R.A.F. And others. Can you tell me a little about how life changed for the youth of Italy after house music arrived?
Well, that's a long story. For me the music has always been my passion. I grew up with Afro music and that was very much indicative of the underground scene of the time. It was more downbeat than house, the bpm was always around 104 or 106. Very slow, very tribal, with some kinds of electronic sounds coming through, like with Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk.
Then arrived more commercial music and then after that house music. When house music arrived it was perhaps not only about a change in music but also about a generation change.
I went clubbing when I was 13, going to dance in the afternoon. The clubs would be busy at that time. I had so much information from a really early age. So, for me, I never found that there was any very big change in the crowd. The music was changing around them and the crowd would follow the trend.
Do you remember which DJs you used to enjoy on the Afro scene?
When I was young my inspiration from DJs came from people like Beppe Loda, Daniele Baldelli. It was really underground, their music. You could not hear it on the radio. Probably they are my strongest influence as a DJ. They were the first DJs who were actually mixing. It really was the beginning. In other clubs they had DJs too, but really they were just playing one track after another, no sense, no clue about bpms or mixing. But with the Afro scene, that for me was when everything changed.
The music changed again, because of the technology and I've always seen the Germans as the leaders in technology. One of the best DJs already at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s for me was Sven (Vath). I would drive to Germany to go and hear him at places like Dorian Gray and Omen in Frankfurt. He was so eclectic. Laurent Garnier is someone who I admire as well.
Those, for me, were my influences, not the music of the last 10 years. In the last 10 years almost nobody influenced me at all. Many sound like they are a copy of the other, to be honest.
When house music took off in Italy the piano sound sound was really popular for a while.
Yes, it was. I was more following the Chicago house music and the things from Detroit at the time. Because, for me, after Eric B and Rakim, a lot of the dance music that arrived was pop. 'Pump up The Volume'. Richie Rich 'Salsa House', that was more my kind of house. That was my world at the time.
But, when I get bored, I always change, because I am a crazy one who always likes to risk and take a chance. I would get bored if I always played the same kind of music. Sometimes I really need to refresh. That's why every 3 or 4 years I seem to change completely. It's just within myself to do that.
There was a jump stylistically again between the time when you were at Media Records and your 'Lizard' track.
Well, yes, and again that is a longer, deeper story. When I prepared my first demo and I took it to Media Records, Gianfranco Bortolotti didn't even listen to it properly. He was more like, it doesn't matter what you did, you come here and do it with us and it's going to be even better. At the time I agreed. They persuaded me to release my music as R.A.F. Because it was already a brand at their company. Obviously I was young, very unaware of what the music business was.
I became quite successful as a music producer and so Media Records offered me a place within the company and then a share of the company. When I became the partner of Gianfranco Bortolotti, that's when I was able to say, OK, when I release a track that I made myself, my idea, my sound, it's going to be released as Mauro Picotto. End of story.
That's when I started to make 'Lizard'. That was 98. I remember in that year that I sent the track to all of the companies in Europe for licensing. And everybody said, sorry, it's not for our market. Two years later, it was everywhere. What was good for the clubs wasn't necessarily in line with the tastes of a lot of other people in Europe. It was music for the clubs, not music for the radio.
That track is still very much loved. It is an enduring anthem at places like Gatecrasher. What do you think is the secret to its longevity?
It was among the first of its genre. It had that bass reverse, really clubby, but with something that identified it. And with the break in the middle which created emotion. At the time, trance music was very popular. People having a great time in the clubs, turning their world upside down, it created a happy memory. I think that's why it became an anthem. It's a link to the lifestyle that the kids had at the time.
There were many at that time. Cafe Del Mar, some of the early Tiesto, Emmanuel Top. It was amongst them, one of the top tracks in the club. You played it and the dancefloor exploded. That's what makes an anthem. This happens when you do something that is really special, memorable for the people and for the time.
A couple of singles later, you released 'Iguana'. Listening back to that now, it really sounds like the beginning of what's now called EDM. Would you agree?
Yeah. I would say that was still on a fine line, without crossing over into what I might call stupid commercial. We were still working on music that had emotion, but was still a bit cool. Without excess. I feel EDM exceeds, with a stupid drop every minute. Every minute there's the counting “10, 9...4, 3, 2, 1, boom!” It became more like music for a child than music for clubbers.
People who are 40, 50 years old still recognise those early tracks as anthems for the club. I struggle to imagine that in 20 years people will be able to recognise an anthem from the current EDM music except for a few. One or two maybe. The rest? In Italian we say “Banale melodia”. Too simple melody.
For me, music is like having a fine dinner. If you go in a nice restaurant and they give you a good starter, nice first course, good main course, a dessert and a coffee, you have a complete dinner. That's like a good night in a club. With EDM it's just about giving you dessert, dessert, dessert all night. After a while, you will feel sick from that.
Another stylistic jump that's been more noticeable since the turn of the millennium has been in your underground techno productions. Something like 'Baguette', for instance, sounds nothing like the early singles on BXR.
Well, actually, it was still released on that label, but as I say, at the time I was partner and I could do what I wanted. At the time, Gianfranco was building a house, doing architecture. I remember he was never in the studio at that time, not for months. So, I would be in charge of the production.
What made a real difference at that time was the introduction of Gigi D'Agostino. He was a guy from Turin who I recognised as a fantastic producer and he came to make his music at Media Records. Thanks to him we had some fantastic hits at Media Records. He was having great success with his own particular style. It was a really good time.
But, the reason I started to do techno was, after 'Lizard', 'Iguana', 'Proximus', all of these kinds of tracks, which were my own sound, I found that a lot of people were copying it. A lot of producers started to sue the same kind of bass, the same kind of sound. And I just felt like there were new genres coming.
I was still going to Germany for all the parties, playing at Mayday, Love Parade. And after I played I would always go to the underground clubs to listen to where the music was going. I was hearing all of this music that, to me, felt like the real techno. So, I started to make tracks like 'Baguette'. If you are a complete producer, if you make music from the heart, it's not impossible to go in the studio and make something that's completely different.
If you already had this hugely successful record company like Media Records, and all of its subsidiaries like BXR, why did you decide to go and make your own record label in Alchemy?
It's very simple. At Media Records I was responsible for three studios, in a company which has nine studios. We had over 40 or 50 people working in that company. It was important therefore to stay at a certain level, to produce and be successful so many times in each month. We had minimum targets. And, when you see this target going down, month after month, year after year... When Media was successful we could have been doing 100,000 sales a month. But downloading music was coming.
When I started to see my friends like Richie Hawtin and Marco Carola play with something like Final Scratch and MP3, I thought, "Wow, if the music goes in this direction, a record company like that isn't going to exist any more. Not that kind of record company."
I felt that I didn't want to have that kind of responsibility. My decision was to leave Media Records and to just do my own thing. Have my studio in the house. I stopped believing in that kind of record company any more. I'm so happy I made that decision because after that, I was even more successful. I left at the right time. I became Mauro Picotto around the world. If I was there another year or two, it's possible I could be finished.
You took 5 years away from electronic music from around 2010, because you wanted to concentrate on your family. A lot can happen in electronic music in five years. When you came back to the music, did you have any worries about the advances you might have missed?
I have to be honest, no. Because I still went dancing, listening to other DJs. What I saw in that time was that the club scene was becoming more about infatuation with the DJ. People playing loops, cutting the bass, bringing it back, endless drum rolls. One of the few who was still creating a good history in the clubs was Sven (Vath).
With some of the others, I felt like something was missing. I didn't enjoy it. In the clubs it was quite boring. Hearing so many people bringing back classics now tells you that people were a bit bored for a while, hearing the same kind of sound, nothing happening in the music, no vocals, no melody. You would have to take drugs to stay in that kind of club otherwise you go home early.
So, yes, I was away, but I was only away on the side. I was never really away. Away from the music business, maybe, but I wasn't away from the music.
I actually feel now like maybe I could release some music that is pop music. I sometimes like to try and make music that is more for my children, something they can enjoy on the radio or in the car, not just in the club. My son loves Avengers: Infinity War and the music in that. The soundtrack is quite cool! I like the production sound, really well produced.
One day I go in the studio I might have an idea that I want to make techno. On another, I might have a melody that I want to explore. I like to experiment. I don't want to feel like I have a limit. I don't want to be the kind of DJ where I feel like I'm making an excuse, oh, I'm a techno DJ, I can only make that style.
That's all of Skiddle's questions answered for now Mauro. It sounds like you're in a really happy place right now, which is great, good to hear. Thanks for such a great interview and good luck with your forthcoming dates and projects.
Well, I ticked most of the boxes in my life now and I don't regret. I feel like I want to share this moment with people when they ask me why and why not. That's just the truth. And when you tell the truth you can never go wrong. Thank you!