Interview: Max of Confrontational talks ‘Kingdom Of Night’

Massimo Usai, or Max as he’s endearingly called, is a busy man.  In just a few short years, he’s released an EP and two highly acclaimed full-length albums, as well as a number of music videos, and managed to collaborate with a plethora of talented musicians who have performed alongside such notables as iconic director and composer, John Carpenter, all the way to Madonna.  Despite his busy schedule, he’s made time to once again speak with Target Audience Magazine about his newest release under the moniker Confrontational, entitled Kingdom Of Night.

Max, firstly, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.  

Thank you for having me, Barry. My pleasure as usual, my friend!

Kingdom Of Night is a fantastic synthesized experience.  What is it about the night that kindles your artistic fire?

I really appreciate your kind words on the album. The night is where dreams come from. And you don’t necessarily have to be sleeping in order to dream. Some of the wildest dreams I’ve dreamed, I’ve had them with my eyes wide open all the time. The night enhances this condition: it’s the opposite of the norm. To me it’s sacred territory, a place that deserves the utmost respect.

You’ve stated that Kingdom Of Night is the second album of a trilogy, which began with A Dance Of Shadows and will conclude with the next release. Can you explain the overarching vision you have for this trilogy?

Of course I could, but that would cripple the element of surprise, wouldn’t it? Subtlety is something I value highly. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovery, it definitely is something I want the listeners to experience in first person. There are visual elements and cues in the lyrics and artwork (conceived in conjunction with Branca Studio) that portray the story I am telling. I really want it to be a full immersion for the wanderer of darkness that will venture into this journey. All they have to do is carry a little research of their own to find out more… I can remark that this story started out with Done With You [EP], though I can’t vouch for sure if that’s actually how it ended.

If you would be so kind, tell us a little about your musical guests on this album and how you came to work with them?

With great pleasure. Hélène De Thoury is the mastermind behind French darkwave project Hante. I found out about her work while both our albums were at the top of the darkwave charts on Bandcamp last year. Her LP, This Fog That Never Ends, truly made an impression on me. I really love her approach, I think we share a lot in terms of working ethic, and themes we deal with. Her signature sound and lyrics resonate strongly with me. She shares vocals with me on the song “Keep Faith” and I am very proud of what we achieved together.

Tony Kim is half of synthwave titans Dance With The Dead who, along with Carpenter Brut, were the first artists I ever heard that were merging new production techniques with a retro attitude. They really made me realize I could do this, too! Send The Signal is an incredible album, and I’ve wanted to work with them for a long while. Tony loved “Stand Your Ground” and I’m really really glad to have his lead guitars on it.

Ugo Laurenti is the author of the score to Pupi Avati’s cult series “Voci Notturne” (“Nocturnal Voices”), a TV show that lasted 5 episodes on RAI around 1995. I first came across the series in 2008, when my good friend and mentor Giorgio introduced me to it. It made a huge impression, and the soundtrack really blew me away. After years of being connected to a bunch of fans of the show via Facebook I traced down Ugo, and asked him if he might be interested in doing something for the album. To my surprise he was and actually came here in Cagliari to record his parts on “Midnight Wings” – we spent a great week working together and sightseeing around Sardinia a bit.

Lastly, Cody Carpenter: he is the son of my huge influence, director John Carpenter. Cody is a true virtuoso, a lover of music and above all a really fine gentleman. He’s a very big inspiration for me. We had a chance to finally meet in person a month ago at the Live Retrospective tour in London on Halloween. It was amazing and I am so very honored he’s playing on “Crimson Curtains” – his unmistakable lead synth and harmonies are the perfect way to end the album.

Speaking of which, Cody Carpenter seems to have returned once more.  Should we expect to see more work between you two on forthcoming releases?

I definitely would love to have Cody guest on the third episode of the trilogy, for sure. I hope he’ll be into the idea! I’d really love to perform live with him one day. That’s on my dream list. He’s simply amazing.

What do you find more freedom in creating: lyrical or instrumental music?

The beauty of being Confrontational is perennial creative freedom on everything I want to do. I am completely unrestrained. Ultimately, I call the shots on every aspect of the final product. I’ve always wanted to be able to find my own balance between tracks with lyrics and instrumentals alike, as I feel strongly about both. I think both LPs have successfully achieved this goal.

A day after releasing Kingdom Of Night it became the #1 best-selling darkwave album on Bandcamp, followed closely by A Dance Of Shadows.  Nearly 2 months after its release, it’s still in the Top 20, with A Dance Of Shadows holding strong in the top 10 [as of this interview, 11/29/16].  Congratulations!  To what do you credit that longevity?

Thank you! I think people are sincerely enjoying the songs. The retrowave and darkwave community are taking notice, and those listeners usually tend to be very supportive if they find the music deserves it. Also, the presence of all collaborators involved surely is playing its part, and the Bronson Recordings release of A Dance Of Shadows on vinyl has extended visibility among the LP collectors worldwide. I am extremely grateful to all of these amazingly supportive listeners out there and I look forward to seeing them in person once I’ll get to play more live shows next year.

You’ve mentioned that songs have come to you out of nightmares.  What is the most unusual way that a song idea has presented itself?

“Like A Curse” off of A Dance Of Shadows is the most prominent so far, which literally was all ready as I woke up after a nightmare. All of it – lyrics, music, the whole arrangement. That’s surely the most peculiar one. Some other times I’ve had ideas while watching movies, or while reading stories. So far, “Like A Curse” is the weirdest that’s happened. I still can’t figure it out.

Are there any books, movies, or artists who can be credited with having impacting you during the making this album?  What are some that are impacting you right now?

During the writing sessions, I’ve been influenced by several Italian artists: Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond” with its score by Fabio Frizzi, and “The House By The Cemetery” with its score by Walter Rizzati, and obviously Pupi Avati’s “Voci Notturne” with its score by Ugo Laurenti. I’ve researched heavily into my surroundings, namely the Necropolis of Tuvixeddu here in Cagliari. The title itself, Kingdom Of Night, is a definition by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, whose memoirs made a big impact on me when I read them around 2011. Most of the album was conceived right after the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. I felt, in more than one way, we were all descending in a kingdom of night. The rise of extremism across the world, the way people are caving in to fear. Dark times. One year later those writing sessions, here we are. I’m honestly recovering from the sessions of the album right now, so I am not actively watching or reading anything with a writing mindset, but as of now I’m re-reading a lot of my faves from my fave author, Stephen King. “The Running Man,” “Roadwork.” Very telling stuff. He wrote about the future. I’ve also just watched “Serpico” by Sidney Lumet for the first time. We need more of that kind of courage these days, the courage to stand up to what we know is wrong.

If you received advanced warning of an impending natural disaster headed your way and you could only grab a few things aside from the bare necessities, what would you grab, knowing the rest would be destroyed?

That’s one of the things I fear the most. I don’t know if, facing a situation like that, I’d be able to actually come to my senses and make a conscious decision. Besides making sure my dear ones are safe, I think I’d fill up my car with all of my musical instruments. I’m pretty sure I might die trying.

With all of your collaborations, who have you yet to work with that you’d like to happen in the future?

Oh, the list is never ending. Never ending. I would love to work with so many people. Fabio Frizzi is on the list. Daniel Davies is there too. K.K. Downing. Slash. Johnny and Nile Marr. Marty Friedman. Andrew Eldritch and The Sisters Of Mercy. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. Tobias Bernstrup. Miland Petrozza. Eric Peterson. Stefan Olsdal and Brian Molko of Placebo. Tying Tiffany. Light Asylum. Vincent Feit. Kim Gordon. Tommy Victor. Steve Di Giorgio. I’d like to work with Darren Travis and Monte Pittman again. I could go on and on…

If you could only choose one to work with: Guitar or Synthesizer?

No, I don’t want to make that choice ever. But I guess if I really had to, probably forced at gunpoint, it’d be my guitar treated to sound like a synth. That’s actually how I do things on many songs – “Flat / Line” and “In The Line Of Fire” being most notable examples.

Confrontational has now played at not one, but two Synthzilla festivals.  Did you notice any difference in how you were received at the latest one?  Were there any particular moments that stood out to you?

Both were incredibly amazing and so far, the best shows I’ve ever had a chance to perform at. I’d say the 2016 edition was even more incredible than the first, because more people knew the songs and the whole front row was chanting choruses along with me. And getting to share the stage with Tony from Dance With The Dead for “Stand Your Ground” was absolutely unbelievable – a moment I’ll never forget.

What’s next, Max?  And can you give us any hints about the final album in your ongoing trilogy?

I want to perform live as much as possible. Got two shows lined up for January in Italy and after that I want to travel across Europe. As for the trilogy, I can only disclose that if all goes according to plan, the third album is planned to come out on October 1, 2017. That’s what I’m aiming at: three solid albums comprising of 9 tracks each. It makes for a satisfying storytelling arc.

Thank you so much for your time today, Max!  It’s always a pleasure to speak with you, and we here at Target Audience wish you the best of luck.

Thank you once more for your time and support my friend. Greetings from Sardinia!

 
Buy Kingdom Of NightFrom The Band

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Interview: Massimo Usai of Confrontational

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Italy’s CONFRONTATIONAL recently released its first full-length album, entitled A Dance Of Shadows.  This has been labeled as synthwave, as well as dark retro wave.  I’d label it as addictive! I’ve been a fan and follower of the band’s mastermind, Massimo Usai [Max], for quite some time, so when this LP arrived, touting the names of some very esteemed musicians, I dug in with great anxiousness.  I haven’t been the only one.  It seems that a ton of people have fallen for Usai’s newest effort, and for good reason.  Coming off of the Done With You EP, Max has created a truly cinematic, captivating experience.  I sat down with him on Dec. 1 to discuss this creation, the involvement of his cohorts, as well as the band’s well-received performance at France’s Synthzilla Festival.  Join us, won’t you?

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First and foremost, Max, I want to congratulate you on Confrontational’s new album, A Dance Of Shadows, which was released on Oct. 1!  I’ve heard it, I’ve reviewed it, and I love it.  How has the reception been thus far?

Thank you for taking the time to check it out, Barry! Honestly, so far the reception has been absolutely mind blowing. I’m really grateful and honored to see the album being part of more and more collections on Bandcamp as each day goes by, and the YouTube version of the album hosted by NewRetroWave is already well over 18,000 views (at the time of this interview) since the initial upload on Halloween. Messages of praise are coming in from all over the world… I couldn’t be happier, really!

You’ve garnered some impressive attention: NewRetroWave gave you some love, as did Metal Sucks, which has been hosting an exclusive full-album stream.  What do you think it is about this album that has attracted such different audiences?

They all did, along with Bloody-disgusting.com, MetalRiot.com, TerraRelicta and Drive Radio and I am extremely grateful to all of the people involved. I think first and foremost the contributions by Cody Carpenter, Monte Pittman and Darren Travis certainly played a big part in raising interest. Secondly, the songs on the LP are very direct, have pretty big choruses and they showcase a wide array of my influences, which might have also helped. After years spent honing my craft through several projects, I finally found my dimension and I’m very comfortable with how I do things sonically. My unrestrained love for the 80’s is now something that works within the current cultural climate, which made way for the tracks to get noticed within the beautiful synthwave/retrowave scene. My metal roots probably also played a part, I think…

You’ve said that “the old ways stopped working, so I became confrontational.”  Can you tell us about the origins of Confrontational?

I was being labeled that way by some people in my ex-band, for apparently wanting to cause distress by addressing issues I saw in the way the band was operating. We were actually not operating as a team at all, so I honestly confronted them with the hopes and expectations I had for that project. I did it face to face, looking straight into their eyes, with all of the passion that I’ve always brought to the music. Apparently, that was wrong to do. I realized then that things had to change for me to be able to make what I really wanted to do with my songs. A number of things had to also work differently in my everyday life, and since quitting that band a lot has changed in my life. It has been weird. I embraced confrontation as a catalyst for positive change. I started questioning a lot of aspects in my life. It’s been a really tough time, but I’d never go back… this is who I am now.

There’s definitely a cinematic feel to the progression of A Dance Of Shadows.  If you would, tell us about your inspiration, both musically and lyrically, for this effort.

Music and lyrics are together as one throughout all of the album, really. Most of the songs came about in pretty much their final form, the most notable example being LIKE A CURSE – which really wrote itself  upon waking up after a certain morbid nightmare I had. I’ve always been inspired by the works of my fave film makers, George A. Romero and John Carpenter, and around this time I’ve explored the work of two other incredible directors, William Friedkin and Michael Mann. I’ve been a fan of all of them for a long while but never before did I take the time to study them as in-depth as I did during these last months, while writing the album. Being exposed to their films made me realize I had something to say about certain things. So I went on and tried to convey those atmospheres into songs, in the most direct way I could.

Throughout this release we see guest performers, such as Monte Pittman (Madonna, ex-Prong); Cody Carpenter (Ludrium), son of John Carpenter; and Darren Travis (Sadus).  How did you happen to get involved with these fine musicians?  Furthermore, how did they end up playing the part they did on these particular songs?

I’ve been a huge fan of all three of them, directly or indirectly, for quite a long time. Monte Pittman‘s work with PRONG has always been a fave of mine and I was blown away by his latest solo album – THE POWER OF THREE. That album made me feel sane during really tasking moments of my life in 2014. Monte is not only a true guitar hero (the biggest of our generation, if you ask me), but also a killer singer / songwriter and a very generous human being. LOST THEMES, the Carpenter family masterpiece, is a highlight of John’s decades-long career and made me discover the talents of Cody, which I further explored through his solo project LUDRIUM. Cody is an incredible talent: a stellar musician, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and an author of really compelling songs. He’s also a real gentleman. And Darren Travis… well, what can I say about an absolute hero of mine? The first time I heard him sing on A VISION OF MISERY was total epiphany. I was 18 years old at the time and I felt he was speaking directly to me, of my experiences. Somehow we connected in person, and we have been friends since 2002. They are all incredibly inspirational persons. All of the collaborations with these beautiful people took place because of the way we connected through music – I got in touch and they liked my ideas enough to be a part of the album. I feel blessed and I’ll never be able to thank them enough for making it happen. They really made the album what it is.

You released a music video for “To Live And Die On The Air” earlier this year.  The Romero influence here is quite obvious, but can you tell us about how the music and the images came together as they did?

I had the idea for the song while watching TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. by William Friedkin for the first time ever. I just heard the main section of the song playing in my head during a certain part of the movie that had no underlying score to it. My brain just heard these sounds come together, so I had to pause the film to get on my DAW (digital audio workstation) and write the parts. It was amazing. The day after that, I was listening back to the main structure and almost instantly got the idea to pair the music with a single pan shot filmed in slow motion, and that’s when the rest of the clip came together in my head. I’ve been working on it for more than five months with some incredible people, and I am very proud of the final result. It is filled with small references to not only George Romero, but John Carpenter and William Friedkin as well, as I really wanted to pay tribute to their influential work.

At one point, Crazed Pixel Comics was working on a Confrontational-inspired comic.  Any news on that and if there will be a collaborated effort between it and the band?

I found out about Crazed Pixel Comics via Alex Murd’s incredible re-imaging of MARTIN, which was posted on a George Romero fan page on FB. We got in touch and expressed mutual respect for our works, exchanging ideas, thoughts and playlists. She came forth one day to let me know how much she enjoyed DONE WITH YOU, my first EP, and she went on to show me this amazing comic that according to her was completely inspired by the songs on the EP. You can actually find the digital version of the comic here.  When I first read it, I must admit it felt as if somebody cracked my skull open to take a look into some of my most intimate thoughts – and coincidentally, some of the stuff I obsess about. I’m not sure how, but Alex captured a good portion of my psyche, re-arranged it and filtered it through ink and paper. I guess that’s what happens between artists who are fine tuned on the same range of frequencies… I’m blown away each time I read it. She’s a very talented author, I am a big fan of her work. We have been talking about the possibility of doing something together, and personally I would love to make it happen. Fingers crossed!

Not only is A Dance Of Shadows available digitally, but you have also made it available through a limited edition CD and cassette tape.  There’s even a limited edition poster!  I know that there has been a resurgence of love for vinyl records, but what drew you to make a poster and cassette edition?

Cassettes are definitely back, big time. Just ask METALLICA. I wanted to spice up the interest for collectors worldwide and have a chance to do something that I’ve actually wanted to do since starting out on music around 1998 (but that’s a whole different story). It was interesting to come up with the artwork for the different layouts and I wanted this to be a special occasion. It’s a very limited run of 50 copies, personally signed and hand numbered. As for the poster, the cover by BRANCA STUDIO (Barcelona based masters of doom) looks so damn good that it just had to be done. It conveys the perfect cinematic aspect and feel to the music. And I figured, with the digital album priced at 5 euros, you add 2 more and get a physical copy of something that looks gorgeous. Why not?

These days I’m trying to find out if there might be label interest to also release a vinyl edition. But it’ll have to be under proper conditions. If that won’t happen, I’ll try to get it done via crowdfunding after all of the tapes and CDs will sell out – it shouldn’t take long now at the current rate.

Confrontational participated in the Synthzilla Festival on Halloween in Lyon, France.  What was it like to perform your material there and how was the reception?

Simply mind blowing, the very best performance of my entire life! The crowd was beyond amazing, incredibly receptive, totally into the tracks. I’d stare down the mic and see people singing together with me – it’s something I’ve never had the chance to experience before in such a capacity. A very humbling experience. The club was packed, the sound was flawless, the other artists on the bill were really friendly and professional. The staff was so great, the organizers are some of the sweetest people on Earth and they treated us like long-time friends. It was so beautiful and I just can’t wait to perform in France again, hopefully very soon.

 

What does the future look like for Confrontational?  Tours, releases, and music videos?

As far as touring goes, we need to spread the word out there before taking the band out. There has to be some sort of notion of the music existing, for us to be able and book some shows. We’ve been blessed with the invitation to SYNTHZILLA and I’m trying to see if we can get booked into similar situations. Every little bit of help is vital, so I’ve been asking all of the new listeners to share pics of the LP on their social media to help spread the word. People seem to genuinely care about this music, so it’s really exciting to work together towards this common goal!

Right now I am working on the MAKING OF clip for TO LIVE AND DIE ON THE AIR, and it should be ready quite soon. I’ll also resume work on more upcoming videos soon. Finally, I’m also working on new songs – I can’t seem to stop doing that. I got 8 new track ideas and a working title for a new release. But I want to take my time before entering the studio again… I don’t want to rush it.

Thank you so much, Max, for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me!  If you could say just one thing that you think would convince a skeptic to check out your music, what would it be?

DARK RETRO WAVE. Isn’t that enough?  Thank YOU for having me here and for your time, Barry. It’s been a true pleasure, as usual!

Buy A Dance Of Shadows: From The Band

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CD Review: ‘A Dance Of Shadows’ by Confrontational

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Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reviewing the debut EP Done With You from darkwavers, Confrontational.  At that time, I described my musical introduction to the band as “vibrant, full, and undoubtedly addictive.”  I continue to stand by that opinion, but upon hearing the forthcoming full-length LP, A Dance Of Shadows, I now have the daunting task of attempting to convince you that there are even more marvelous sounds on the way.

As Done With You echoed to a close A Dance Of Shadows reached out and took the mantle, moving forward with hammering beats, atmospheric turbulence, and synthetic corkscrew melodies.  At least, that’s the opening track, “Shadowdancing,” which envelopes the listener immediately and draws them into their very own 80s-inspired movie soundtrack.  But this time mastermind Massimo Usai is not alone, being joined on several tracks by some very remarkable and respected musicians.  On the burgeoning “Like A Curse” we are treated to a searing guitar solo by Monte Pittman (Madonna, ex-Prong), which tips the song over the emotional breaking point and takes it to new heights.  Sadus vocalist, Darren Travis, lends his voiceover skills to “Script,” which honestly had me convinced it was an excerpt of some David Lynch movie before noticing the track credits.  Finally, Cody Carpenter (Ludrium), son of famed John Carpenter, joins Max on the tune “To Live And Die On The Air,” taking lead synth duties that provide a lively, retro video game-esque overtone to the darkened layers below.

When I make references to movie and video game soundtracks it is quite a compliment.  The songs of good movie soundtracks flow together as seamlessly as the air, providing emotion, suspense, and levity to the scene long before an actor even makes it on the screen.  It can fluctuate through dynamics with ease and is far from a flat, monotonous line.  Classic video game soundtracks are much the same, full of captivating melodies and memorable moments that recur to us long after we’ve grown.  Confrontational is not only aware of this, but it embodies it.  With the sounds of this release in my ears, I feel as though I am passing from one scene to the next, playing out some unknown part which is manifesting before my very eyes.  This is a release to listen to from start to finish, but I can already imagine that upbeat tracks like “Shadowdancing” and “You’ll Be Mine” could find a welcome home in a dance club as standalone tunes.  A Dance Of Shadows is no ordinary album and Confrontational is no ordinary band.  It’s a violent scream, a staggering silence, and a smirk upon your lips.  It is completely infectious.

 
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