For Emanuele and Francesco Giannini, house music is like jazz: a raw and improvised form of self-expression. Will Lynch sits in for one of their live jams.
As for the speaker-lamp (lamprifier?), they'd dug it up just for kicks. EMG, or Emanuele Giannini, had made it in university, where he studied industrial design—the assignment had been to create a product fit for mass production. "He's too creative for that, of course," John Swing, or Francesco Giannini, joked. Francesco pawed the keyboard as he spoke, his chords taking on a warm, sepia-tinged tone as they drifted from the speaker at the lamp's base. "It actually sounds really good," he said.
Francesco lives in London but comes to Berlin every few months to record tracks with Emanuele. They release music together as Vinalog. This time they'd had a gig at OHM as SPS, an improvisational live project with their friend Battista. They'd spent the past few days preparing for the set, and Francesco had to fly home in a few hours, leaving them just enough time to squeeze out a couple new tracks.
The reel-to-reel was huge, and Emanuele spent a few minutes fiddling with its innards. He recorded a test, played it back and decided everything was good to go. The machine clicked into motion, one metal wheel feeding tape into the next. Positioned by the mixing board and drum machine, Francesco conjured up a lean, snaking rhythm. Emanuele set his hands on his Juno, easing in some spacey chords. And with that they were off—for the next five or six minutes they worked silently, letting intuition guide them as they shaped this dark and thumping house cut. When they finished, there was still some time left on the tape, so, without thinking about it too much, they improvised another track. To my ears, this one sounded better than the first—more confident, somehow, more natural.
Emanuele stopped the reel-to-reel and gave me a sidelong glance. "We don't usually have people in here while we jam," he said. "It's an intimate process. When you do music, it's like a language, an expression. Say you have a dancer. Even if he's a good dancer and knows what he's doing, it's not something he thinks about—it has to do with that single moment, what's happening, who else is there, how he feels. With his dancing he'll even surprise himself. It's the same with us. We do it live to see where it brings us. I've done this piece of music in this situation, spontaneously. And sometimes, of course, it's not the day. But sometimes, this magic happens."
Since they released their first record in 2009, Emanuele and Francesco Giannini have worked separately, together and with friends under many different names—The Shippers, SPS, ACE, K-Nights, Invisible Men and more. They've launched seven different labels—LiveJam Records, LiveJam Ltd., Relative, Warm Sounds, Experiential Learning, Sperimentazioni Sonore and Appointment, a collaboration with The Analogue Cops. All of these projects have been driven by the same method, one that often feels more like a philosophy. Everything is played live and recorded straight to tape. Computers are never involved, and the tracks are largely improvised. The result is music that, much more than most electronic productions, reacts to the mood and circumstances in which it was recorded, documenting a moment in time that's gone forever as soon as it happens.
Central to this approach is a love of tape itself, something the Giannini brothers owe to their first main influence: their father, a film actor, director and audio technician who did much of his work at home, recording dubs for Italian versions of American films in a studio he built himself. Francesco and Emanuele were fascinated by his equipment, and over time inherited much of it—the mixing board and many of the tape recorders they use today came from his collection. He instilled in them a love of these machines, and taught them how to use, fix and rebuild them.
"Soldering, building circuits, sewing cable," Emanuele said, "These things look impossible if you've never seen them done, but in fact they are very simple. Our father taught us all this."
Both brothers got creative from a young age. By the time he was seven, Emanuele was making crude mixtapes by recording music from the radio to cassette, hitting "record" at just the right moment so each track dovetailed from the one before it. By the time he was eight, he decided he wanted to be a DJ. His mother already had one turntable sitting around, and he asked for one more for Christmas, plus a mixer. His parents obliged.
"He was having parties when he was in elementary school, just eight or ten years old," Francesco said. He shot his brother a look. "You probably forgot that, but I remember, because I was really small and you wouldn't let me in the room."
Emanuele got into rave music, and his brother followed him. "I started to buy vinyls," he said. "Mostly trance and hardcore, but really I was listening to everything. Some records I still have here and would even play now."
"You were going clubbing a lot, too," Francesco said. "I was too young. So for a year I was on Napster, downloading DJ sets from the parties he was going to."
"In Italy in the '90s," Emanuele said, "the minimum age to enter a club was 16. The first time I went I was 12, but I looked a lot older. By the time I was 14 it had become a regular thing. I started with house. Then there were these parties that went from midnight to midday—MezzanotteMezzogiorno, that was a techno and progressive thing. And there were after-hours. I didn't like the club environment in Milan, but I had friends in Tuscany and Florence, so I'd travel there once a month. Get on a train, spend all weekend there, get my dose of techno, come back."
Emaneuele still has cassettes of those parties in his flat. Listening to them in the gloom of his living room, their influence on his and his brother's music was obvious: in both John Swing's house groovers and EMG's more out-there cuts, you sense the wild urgency of old-school rave. The tapes had a surprisingly transportive quality—preserved on this dusty strip of celluloid, the dark and sweaty scene of a late '90s Italian rave was weirdly vivid, even if I had no clear mental image for it.
By the time Francesco was old enough to go out, Italy's rave scene had changed. Most clubs closed at 4 AM, the all-night parties of his brother's era were now a thing of the past. "You can imagine the difference," he said. "You don't get to hear anything interesting that way, just the usual stuff. And it wasn't easy to be creative in Milan."
In 2004, Emanuele went to university in Barcelona, where he befriended Alberto Marini and Domenico Cipriani, two fellow Italians who would eventually make music as The Analogue Cops. When he got his degree three years later, Emanuele moved to Berlin and started selling wine. He had connections with a few "wine families" in Italy, and distributed bottles to restaurants and individual buyers in Berlin. In doing so, he established a distribution method he'd later use for his labels. Without exception, he brought his product to his clients in person, forging years-long relationships with each of them. Meanwhile, he eased into the city's music scene.
"I came to Berlin and I started to go to parties," he said. "It was the era of minimal and 'vinyl is dead,' and I was searching for a certain kind of environment—the intimate side, let's say. And I found this wherever vinyl was still played. So it all matched together. I was buying records. Then, slowly, a piece of gear. Another piece of gear. Started to make music. Since then has been a process of investigation."
By the time Emanuele got to Berlin, Cipriani and Marini were living there and getting heavily into production. Cipriani gave Emanuele some tips, and eventually suggested they make a track together. Cipriani laid down a beat, and Giannini grabbed a mic. Without thinking, he started ad-libbing a short story: a man wakes up with a strange feeling in the middle of the night, wanders the streets of an empty Berlin, arrives at a door, the door opens, a man lets him in, and he finds himself in a wild, circus-like party. They pitched the vocal way down, giving it a demented twist. The result was "Winter Night," which, along with three other live jams featuring Emanuele, Cipriani, Francesco and Marini, formed LiveJam 001, Spontaneous Music From Natural Feelings.
"That was really the beginning," Emanuele said. "I was still researching sound, discovering how everything worked."
"It was his idea to release the record," Francesco said, "so he basically did everything. I wasn't thinking, I was just jamming. I was young as well, so I was just having fun and making music, feeling like a kid. We made 500 copies. We said, 'We don't care if they stay in our flat forever, if it's our one and only record, our first and last. We can do that. Try it, at least.'"
Francesco was still living in Italy then, getting ready to make a move. "Emanuele was in Berlin but I wasn't so into it—learning the language and everything else. I had a friend in London so I decided to try there." He took a three-year course in commercial music and explored the city's record shops. Many of the ones he'd read about online were closed; those that still existed were struggling. Still, they treated him warmly. Many happily agreed to stock LiveJam 001. "I think it was interesting for them to see a young guy hanging out, hungry to know everything," he said. "So it was cool. We got lots of support from record stores for that reason."
"It was a personal thing with the record stores," Emanuele says. "Delivering the music in person made sense. That's always where the best encounters happened."
Even beyond their musical pursuits, Emanuele and Francesco are face-to-face people. They'd always rather meet in person or have lunch than speak on the phone or email. They are generally suspicious of the internet, and though they understand its value, they're uninspired by social media. This made self-distribution a natural choice, and while this method undoubtedly limits their music's reach, it's something they stand by. "If we used a distributor, our record would be in a list of hundreds of others, and you'd have to look very closely to see it," Francesco said. "Its the personal relationships with the people supporting our music that kept us strong."
With Francesco in the UK and Emanuele in Berlin, the Giannini brothers could make it to many of Europe's most important record shops on foot or by train, like traveling salesmen. "You know Vinyl Junkies, the shop?" Francesco asked. "It shut down the first year I was there. I remember playing a record in the headphones, and then suddenly I hear this voice—this really funky voice, and somehow it fit perfectly with the record I was listening to. I thought, 'What the fuck?' And it was Moodymann. He was in the shop, I only saw him from the back. When I went to pay, he was like, 'How you doin'?' I couldn't believe it was him. This was my first year in London, so you can imagine. When I went back, the guy said, 'Hey, I sold your records.' Later I found Moodymann was playing LiveJam 001. Imagine the energy you get from that."
Selling records through shops might have seemed like a dated method, but for these two it worked out fine. "All these shops are closing, but they do manage to sell the records," Francesco said. "So we thought, 'Maybe this can work after all.' And we decided we might as well support the shops as much as we could."
"It was really painful to see all those stores closing," Emanuele said. "It still is."
On the train home from one of their sales trips—to Birmingham, if they remember correctly—Francesco and Emanuele got to thinking. Their records were selling easily—the second LiveJam EP, Through Dimensions Of Sound, had come and gone already—and they were sitting on a lot of unreleased music. "We thought, 'Maybe we need another output,'" Francesco said. "It could be more varied, we can be free with it, without thinking too much. So Relative 1, we put it out. It went good as well."
"And then things happened as they happened," Emanuele said. LiveJam Records slowed down after four releases, partly because Emanuele and Francesco became more focused on their solo efforts and their tracks together as Vinalog. Relative became the main thing, releasing 16 records over the next five years. Each of them found his voice during this period. EMG was harsh, driving and more exploratory. John Swing was all about slamming house, with a warm, fuzzy sheen and the occasional hint of UK flavor. Each soon started his own label to further explore his sound.
For EMG, that was Experiential Learning, a label that released four extravagantly packaged cuts of noisy, experimental house and techno between 2011 and 2013. Francesco started Warm Sounds, a thumping, rough-edged house label with him as the main artist, reinvented as The Raw Interpreter. In 2014, the brothers launched Sperimentazioni Sonore, a platform for extended, improvised pieces with their friend Battista.
This cluster of labels formed an insular world. Mr. G eventually appeared on Warm Sounds. In 2015, EMG released music on Berceuse Heroique and The Trilogy Tapes. But by and large, they released only on their own labels, which by now numbered a half dozen. Their records found a loving audience, namely DJs, vinyl merchants and the vocal denizens of Discogs. But the Giannini brothers have operated mostly in obscurity. As self-distributed vinyl purists, their music is hard for most people to get. Their myriad labels and pseudonyms, most of which are not connected in any clear way, give them fractured identities as artists. Their online presence is perfunctory and reluctant. And sometimes their format purism can seem a little self-defeating. In 2011, for instance, Ben UFO asked to license one of their tracks for his Rinse: 16 mix. That might have been their biggest break so far, but they turned it down because the mix would be available on CD.
"From the beginning," Emenuele said, "I thought, 'If I sell records, I'll do it this way. And if I don't sell them, that's OK.'" It's not just music these two are passionate about, but also recorded sound itself, something that extends to format. For them, equipment that might seem purely functional to others has obvious creative value. "Maybe you plug in a new cable and hear the kick drum sounds different," Francesco said. "Or you try recording the same thing with different tape recorders. Some have better mids, some sound warmer—there's even one with what we call a 'party sound.'" In his more philosophical moments, Emanuele describes both sound and existence itself as a form of "vibration," something that's preserved on tape and vinyl, but lost in digital formats. He refers to his production method as a form of "research"—that is, an investigation into the very nature of sound.
This is something that comes to the fore in EMG's latest big project, a limited-edition box set marking the 100th anniversary of the Italian designer and sound sculptor Harry Bertoia, released jointly by Experiential Recordings (Emanuele's newest label), Important Records and the label run by Bertoia's estate, Sonambient. Bertoia is perhaps most famous for his chairs, but he's also recognized as an early pioneer of ambient music, thanks to his famous sound sculptures, carefully arranged pieces of metal that, nudged by a breeze or a person's hand, emit rich, shimmering walls of sound. This is what drew in Emanuele, eventually driving him to get in touch with Bertoia's family. He befriend his son, Val, and eventually made new recordings of the sculptures, which are presented on Giannini's box set, Tribute To Harry Bertoia 100th Year Anniversary.
"The almost meditative, restorative chorus of the sculptures feels intrinsically connected to the cosmos and its vibrations," Giannini writes in a book that comes with the box set. "Bertoia rarely signed his work: he believes his art spoke for itself regardless of its creator's identity. His sounds belonged to the universe."
For Emanuele, the Bertoia project is just the latest stage in an ongoing "investigation," something that began with that first LiveJam record. Sitting on the rug, listening to that night's recording, he grew nostalgic. "It's nice to look back and remember the feeling of that first record," he said. "How the vibe was, how we felt in front of the machines. That obviously shaped everything else."
He and Francesco sat there for a moment. Ultimately the evening's output would not make the cut for any future releases, but they both looked pleased and relaxed. Suddenly, Francesco looked at his phone. "I have to go," he said. He threw on his shoes and jacket, grabbed his duffel bag, and five minutes later he was gone.