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Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini talk Nine Inch Nails, video games and musical love letters

The British and Italian techno artists go in-depth for our Back 2 Back interview series

  • Interview: David Pollock | Photography: Steve Gullick & Emilie Elizabeth
  • 18 February 2020

Bournemouth’s Daniel Avery has proven to be one of the last decade’s most fluent and innovative techno producers, with two classic albums in ‘Drone Logic’ (2013) and ‘Song For Alpha’ (2018), and a reputation as an intelligent and uncompromising DJ. When he was given the opportunity to open for industrial rock titans Nine Inch Nails in 2018, it was as a result of touring member Alessandro Cortini’s lobbying. The pair have long been fans of one another, and now Avery and Italian electronic musician Cortini – who releases under his own name and as SONOIO – are set to issue their first collaborative album ‘Illusion Of Time’. In our latest b2b interview, they tell us how it came about.

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Daniel: A few of my friends recommended your music at the same time and the pressure became too great, so I had to listen – and I fell in love with it instantly. From there I discovered the Nine Inch Nails connection. NIN are a band I grew up with, and it made complete sense to me. I’d be interested to know how you first heard my stuff...

Alessandro: I think I first heard your ‘Drone Logic’ album while on tour in 2013. You know how it is, you go from hotel room to hotel room, and one thing I got into was digesting a lot of electronic music – so much of it that I rarely felt the need to stop on something, but then I stumbled upon ‘Drone Logic’ and it was incredible to me. It screamed early Chemical Brothers, a young but dressed-up approach to electronic music; really natural and instinctive, but presented in a very polished way, very grown-up. It felt like it was supposed to explode and leave a mark in your heart. I kept on playing it and I remember Trent (Reznor) asking ‘What’s that?’

Daniel: Wow, awesome.

Alessandro: I think from there, you and I exchanged compliments online and – correct me if I’m wrong – the opportunity to work together on a seven-inch came. It was a no-brainer.

Daniel: Yeah, that’s what happened. We started talking on Twitter, and then we were both playing FYF Fest in LA (in 2017): I was DJing and you were with Nine Inch Nails. The idea came up that we would do something special for that event, a seven-inch which we’d only sell at the festival. The two tracks, ‘Water’ and ‘Sun’, both made it onto the album [‘Illusion Of Time’] in different forms. That’s how that started, but what was interesting was, at this point we still hadn’t met, and we didn’t until I curated a day at a festival in Lyon. It’s interesting that we had this mutual respect but had never actually met. It’s a very hyper-modern relationship, in that respect.

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Alessandro: I would say that my expertise in machines and the world of sound comes at the price of human interaction! We kept exchanging these love letters to music, to write on and respond to – that kept me connected as a musician, and not thinking of the nervousness of having to meet in person, or time the situation right, or be in a rented studio but feel a little awkward the first time. I was in my own environment, and I didn’t have to think twice about what to do when you sent something. It just felt natural to come up with something that I felt was complimentary and respectful – and all of a sudden we found ourselves in New York, and within three hours at my studio the record was done. Could it be this easy? It was.

Daniel: Nothing felt difficult at any point. I really like the expression you used there, ‘love letters to music’, because we were both travelling so much during this time, and there’s something about that in the record. There’s a certain lightness there, and a freedom. I remember waking up in different cities, in different time zones, and you had sent something over so I would travel with it, listening to it and thinking of ideas for where it could go, but never labouring it too hard. When we first started working together I was in the final stages of making ‘Song For Alpha’, which I had been working on for five years by that point, on and off, and I definitely believe that our working process together taught me a lot about finishing music and letting it have that life. Our working together was the final push that album needed.

Alessandro: To me it was just as revelatory a process, because I’m so used to working on my own. It didn’t matter what your background or your influences were, and I didn’t have an idea of where things were supposed to go. I just went for it, for the most part, and being an instrumental record, what I like is that it lends itself to collaboration with listeners, too. The music on this record doesn’t give explicit directions.

Daniel: It’s no accident that we share a love of video games and video game music. That’s exactly the job of video game music: it doesn’t rely on songs or traditional structures, but the best stuff has an atmosphere that stays with you and goes deep into your soul and your memory. It was never an explicit reference point, but we made another connection on that level.

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Alessandro: I agree. Video game music is a part of the action, it feels like it’s connected to what you’re doing in the game, you know? Have you played Death Stranding yet?

Daniel: Not yet – have you got it?

Alessandro: I’ve downloaded it, but I’m leaving for the US tomorrow and, you know… you can’t start the Star Wars trilogy if you’re going out in twenty minutes!

Daniel: It’s going to be a big undertaking…

Alessandro: It’s almost like games mutated from being simple entertainment devices to being something like books and movies. It was the beginning of that era; obviously it’s more obvious now that games have a higher budget than movies themselves, but at the time a game like Metal Gear Solid, there was writing involved, a story. In a lot of ways these games were my books, the books of our generation. I never read much until I got older, it was all about the video games, and they had a story which kept you glued to them for hours just trying to get the story to finish. You were waiting for the end, the big finale, the explosion where you could understand what and how it had all happened.”

Daniel: It’s also nothing we’ve discussed as such, but Nine Inch Nails are a band I grew up with, and I would have listened to them while I was playing video games in the 1990s. So when we made the connection, it just felt completely natural – in a way, it felt like I knew you better than I did. You played and promoted my music within the band, then I got invited to open on part of the American tour last year [and] it was a new experience. It was entirely different to the club setting and I did something different to what I would play in a nightclub.

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Alessandro: Trent has always made a point of presenting material that’s different to what the typical Nine Inch Nails fan is used to, and you took the show as an opportunity to reinvent your set in a way that was very new and interesting.

Daniel: It was designed specifically to feel right in those beautiful venues. It was my first step towards doing a live set, and I made a lot of new music specifically for those shows – there’s a recording of one of the sets online, I think it was maybe Texas. I don’t like shoe-horning club music into places that aren’t clubs, that doesn’t resonate with me; I’d much rather create something that feels unique to the space. It was very much focused on my love of drone music and that side of my brain. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve done, for sure.

Alessandro: How much Nine Inch Nails pay attention to contemporary electronic music would be a question for Trent and Atticus [Ross] – I’m just an occasional participant in the creative process. But I would think to a certain extent they definitely do. No matter how revolutionary they appear to be, I can tell you they’re very attentive to the sounds out there, and they pick and choose elements that they find inspiring. For you and I, we can’t wait for the record to be out. I think it would be exciting to try and find a way of playing a few select shows.

Daniel: If we can find the time to turn this into some sort of live venture, then sure – but at the same time it’s not an integral part of the record. I think it has almost a solitary, private feel to it; it’s probably best absorbed on your own with headphones and a nice set of speakers. That’s part of its charm. So the live aspect is an exciting idea. It was a project that was never laboured over, but it was one which was full of love, and I believe you can hear that throughout the record.

Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini’s album ‘Illusion of Time’ is released on March 13 via Phantasy

David Pollock is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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