For Mannequin Records' Alessandro Adriani, "there is no such thing as old and new music, only the music of now." Holly Dicker explains.
Since 2008, the label has been extending outwards in all directions, forging links between '80s Italian industrial and today's wave and minimal synth scene with little regard for chronology or stylistic coherence. Even Adriani can't peg it down: "I always used to write 'spreading cold waves,' but this was probably more in the beginning. Now I don't know. I mean, it's hard to tell." In the end, it boils down to his personal listening habits. Mannequin is a true extension of Adriani himself.
Adriani is an avid record collector, and has been since the age of 13. He's amassed something like 6,000 vinyl over the years, and his tastes range from the industrial noise of Orphx and Coil to jazz, Italo and disco. "It just all makes sense to me, you know, if it's in the same mood. That's most important: the emotions and the mood." He started playing keyboards as a child and dabbled in bands as a teenager. Andrea Merlini, of the record label and collective MinimalRome, turned Adriani onto synths. Along with Dave Grave, the three of them hosted a show on Radio Onda Rossa between 2002 and 2003, playing new wave and minimal synth—an anomaly in Italy.
Adriani developed a chilly musical project, Newclear Waves, and ran a blog that shared obscure 7-inch rips from his collection. He was also feeding his vinyl habit with regular trips within Europe. Berlin was an especially fertile source of music. Record stores like Das Drehmoment and Genetic Music were Adriani's favourites, and the flea market at Mauerpark also became a source. "You'd just go there and think, OK, the records cost one euro," Adriani says. "Let me buy, like, 20 of them. Then at home you find some records that will change your life or your music vision."
In this same spirit, Mannequin Records is all about discovery. You are repeatedly encouraged to take a chance on something you've never heard before.
The label is essentially a one-man operation. There is another founder, Carlo Cassaro, but he has a full-time job and leaves the day-to-day business to Adriani. "He's not crazy like us," Adriani says. "He has a normal life." Valentina Fanigliulo also played a key role in the beginning. She created a lot of the label's early sleeves, under the direction of Adriani, and released several records through Mannequin as Phantom Love and Mushy. Between 2012 and 2013, Giandomenico Carpentieri was the label's chief designer, but now Adriani handles this, on top of everything else. He's not a designer, however, he's a psychology graduate with a Master's degree in music coordination and marketing, and Mannequin pretty much evolved by accident.
"I never had the idea to make a record label, to be honest," he says. "It was not my priority in life. The intention was to make some of my releases on CD-R and tape, and then maybe this wave compilation." He's referring to Danza Meccanica, a compilation of Italian synth wave from the '80s, and Mannequin's first official release as a record label. Adriani had the idea for the compilation while running Mannequin as a mail-order service. He was importing vinyl from the US, from labels like Minimal Wave, Wierd Records, Captured Tracks and Sacred Bones, just as they were all starting out. Most of the Danza Meccanica material, however, came from Adriani's personal collection. The rest was lifted from tapes rescued from Disfunzioni Musicali, a now defunct record store in Rome.
Danza Meccanica took around four years to complete. "It was really hard to track down the bands," Adriani recalls. It was his first major reissue project and it was fraught with difficulties. Handling a single recording often involved the cooperation of dispersed or sparring band members. He's curated many other compilations since, with Mannequin and for other labels, but even today the process can be tricky. "You don't know what can happen," he says, the weariness of experience in his voice.
The compilation was eventually released in 2009. That December, Adriani visited New York to play a release party hosted by Wierd Records. He also guested on Veronica Vasicka's East Village Radio show for the first time. Adriani and Vasicka had connected online several years before, in a darkwave room on Soulseek. "It was called La Guerre Froide, and there were all these big collectors inside," he tells me. "It was a cool period, very free. People were just sharing their own record collection."
It's hard not to make comparisons between Mannequin and Minimal Wave and Cititrax, Vasicka's labels. Collectively they've helped stoke interest in forgotten synth, wave, industrial and the rest, while providing a platform for contemporary artists with a similar sound. But where Vasicka reissued music from all over the world, Mannequin was focused on Italy, at least to begin with. "I wanted to expose the Italian sound," Adriani says, referring to the Soulseek forum. Most of the people on there were from Germany or the States "and they were like, 'What is all this music?'"
Many artists featured on Danza Meccanica have now had full reissues on Mannequin. Musumeci was the rarest find. They're one of Adriani's favourite bands on the label (although he kind of says that about all of them). He chanced upon the group in that box of recovered tapes, which he bought for 50 cents each, from Disfunzioni Musicali. Musumeci were the one act he couldn't track down. He decided to release the catchy "Harry Batasuna" without permission, with a note appealing to the band to get in touch. The risk paid off. Mauro Massaglia replied to the call and was thankful for the exposure. Massaglia also had a load more music, and the two Der Zeltweg compilations were the result, a compendium of '80s industrial music (all written by Musumeci members in different guises) that would otherwise have gone unheard.
Musumeci were even unknowns in Turin, their hometown. Now their music has been given a new lease of life, getting picked up by DJs like Illum Sphere and Silent Servant. There have also been modern club reworks on Mannequin from Traxx and Lee Douglas. This repurposing and redistribution of music is probably the label's best asset.
But Mannequin isn't just a reissue label, and its catalogue isn't solely about bands. There are plenty of amazing dance floor gems as well. Take the grungy electro EP Sighing Melodies Thru The Graves from MinimalRome founder Valerio Lombardozzi, AKA Heinrich Dressel, or the handful of acid-techno-meets-screaming-Italo records made by the New York foursome DUST. The latter are a formidable live act, with the performance artist Greem Jellyfish acting as frontwoman and John Barclay and Michael Sherburn providing the beats. "I love DUST because they embody my adolescent rave fantasies," said Max Peal in a review of one of their gigs last year. "Sure, they may lean a little heavy on nostalgia, but they nail the sound so hard that it hits the spot every time."
This could almost describe Mannequin in general, although the label isn't necessarily nostalgic, nor is Adriani yearning for the past. "That's bullshit, that's not my style or what I want," he says. To Adriani, there is no such thing as "old" and "new" music, only "the music of now." He explains: "I just follow what is happening in the moment. I don't think too much about the past; I don't think too much about the future." To him, a contemporary release and a reissue are the same, it's about the "vision, experience and emotion" of a record that makes it suitable for a release on Mannequin. "It's very important for me to underline that we aren't a nostalgic operation at all, that's the worst for me."
It's perhaps more like the perpetuation of a sound or feeling that was seeded in Adriani's youth, and continues to influence him today. But is there anything that binds all the sonic threads together? "I don't have a specific area where I'm moving," he says. "I just like this line of darkness all over the music. It makes me feel something when I listen to it, I don't care if it's from acid house or psychedelic rock or whatever." Mannequin is starting to sound "more raw and industrial," he tells me. "We are not always the same, we continuously change, and I'm probably less romantic than I was five years ago."
Moving to Berlin in 2013 had a deep impact on Adriani and the label. Mannequin never had much of an audience in Rome, he says, and Adriani hardly ever performed there. In Berlin, Adriani found a network of interested people who were predominantly DJs, a relatively new thing for him. "They encourage me and make me believe that what I'm doing is good. There is an interest, people are contacting me, and it's a good sensation. In Italy, nobody ever did that."
The most significant development in recent years is Death Of The Machines, a 12-inch dance floor series that Adriani inaugurated himself last summer. It's no surprise that Mannequin has moved closer to the club than ever before—Adriani describes Berlin as the "Hollywood of DJing." It's interesting just how comfortable the transition has been. What began as a couple of smart remixes of '80s post-punk and synth music is now a fully functioning techno offshoot. Adriani has a knack for talent spotting, and Death Of The Machines is where it's happening right now. There have been two nonconformist techno EPs from JASSS (an artist to keep an eye on) and plenty of new projects poised for release. Group A is one of them, a totally bonkers duo from Berlin who play live drums, violin and machines, and aren't afraid to be outlandish. With such a fluid approach to releasing music, Adriani can afford to take risks and put out whatever motivates him. The huge leaps from one record to the next is part of the Mannequin experience.
Next year is the label's tenth anniversary. Adriani already has the rest of 2017 mapped out, which includes a very special 100th release, a compilation featuring new music from long-time Mannequin friends like Silent Servant, Beau Wanzer, Lee Douglas and Willie Burns. And in August, he'll begin a new label night at Berghain's Säule floor.
Adriani has been running regular Mannequin events at Ohm, one of Berlin's best small clubs, since last February. The point of the night is to showcase the roster and its sound in full, meaning techno and dance floor sets from newer faces, as well as live performances from Mannequin's elder generation. "I'm trying to reconnect them with the audience," Adriani says, "and show them that there is still an audience for them." He's invited people like the Dutch veteran Zombies Under Stress, who's been making cranky EBM-style techno since the '80s, to perform. "After the show he said it was the best gig of his life, and the show was amazing," Adriani says.
For someone who professes to have few life goals (he didn't plan to be a party promoter either), Adriani seems exceptionally driven. He's built a small empire in Mannequin, and it's still expanding with its own twisted sort of logic. You don't need to "get" Mannequin to enjoy it—you just need to get stuck in. As Adriani says, "You will find something."
Alessandro Adriani mixes the past, present and future of Mannequin Records.
Led Er Est - Something for the Children
Shawn O'Sullivan - unreleased track for MNQ 100
Not Waving - unreleased track for MNQ 100
Group A - forthcoming track for MNQ
Alessandro Adriani - A Man Who Would Come here Of His Own Free Will
Jasss - Es Complicado
Raw Ambassador - Mental Disorder
Ron Morelli - unreleased track for MNQ 100
Orphx - Miasma (edit)
Nocturnal Emissions - Demon Circuits Bloodbath
Bourbonese Qualk - God With Us
Doxa Sinistra - Media Bomb
Nacht'raum - Maria Tanz/Maria Flieg
Atelier du Mal - Palau
Doris Norton - Caution Radiation Norton
Din A Testbild - Incorporeal
Police des moeurs - Tropisme
Sam de la Rosa - Earth Wart