After working in obscurity for nearly three decades, the Italian singer and synth artist is finally getting his due. Andy Beta hears his story.
Masin has been making music since the mid-'80s without ever quite settling into any one sound, bobbing between ambient, new age and dreamy Balearic pop. Until recently he'd barely been heard outside of Italy, and even there his music was never met with much fanfare. Through most of the '90s and '00s, he all but abandoned music entirely as he raised a family and worked a day job.
His fortune began to turn in 2014, nearly 30 years after his 1986 debut album, Wind. He released Hoshi, a collaborative album with Italian downtempo duo Tempelhof, while Talk To The Sea, a spellbinding retrospective on Music From Memory, introduced him to a new generation of listeners. Next came his new group, Gaussian Curve, which also featured London's Jonny Nash and Amsterdam's Young Marco.
Music From Memory had already blipped on a few radars with a compilation of Leon Lowman's music, but Masin put them on the map, validating their mission of seeking out rare and under-appreciated artists and making their music available again. This series of releases formed a renaissance for Masin, who has since been recording and touring in earnest. There's since been a follow-up release with Tempelhof, a handful of remixes, and a new Gaussian Curve album from earlier this spring. It's quite the turn of fortune for an artist who a decade earlier had lost almost every album, recording and piece of musical gear in a flash flood.
Today Masin is hard at work pursuing his muse. Over the course of a few months of email exchanges, he seemed to always be on the move, writing from Japan, Turkey, Amsterdam, Austria and Tuscany. He spoke, among other things, about his childhood, his frustration with being a musician in Italy, and how he fell in love with a synthesizer one fateful afternoon.
You were born in Venice, but do you still live in your hometown?
I live near Venice, just 15 minutes by bus. I now have my own family, two kids, twins, age 12.
Did you come from a musical family?
I had an uncle that loved to give me cheap but lovely classical records. Listening to The Four Seasons of Vivaldi was a turning point, it was an amazing discovery for me. But it was impossible to study violin so I started to play an old used guitar that was really impossible to tune. As for my parents, they simply didn't understand why I'd love to study music. They believed to study music or become a musician or a composer was only a silly idea of a silly boy. I had to find my own way and it wasn't so easy.
To my parents it was really difficult to understand me, they were simple people and they didn't want me to be free as a young boy has to be: playing football, going around in a bike or something like that. I was sort of a prisoner, so I spent my time listening to the radio and records, reading books, watching television, playing an old guitar. When I was 12 I asked to go to a musical school, and this sounded to my parents as if I had a strange illness or a mind defect. Growing up was really hard because they didn't understand that I only wished to study music, and my desire to become a violinist was a humiliation in their minds. Now it's clear I'm a composer, but still I feel bad when I think to my early years. My life could have been really, really different.
What was the first thing you remember hearing on the radio that stuck with you?
There was a radio show on Sunday morning on the national radio, just one hour where sometimes you could listen to Beach Boys or Rolling Stones and songs from France. My favorite Stones song was "Ruby Tuesday." From The Beatles, I loved "Hey Jude."
In Italy you could understand there's a great love of opera and what's called "melodrama," so there's little space for instrumental music like Vivaldi. In this country, there's a nationalism centered on art and culture, so Vivaldi is considered a B-class music.
Did you play in bands as a teenager?
My band was called Zero and we played rock music like The Who, in a period where every band around was progressive and jazzy. I played acoustic and electric guitar and often I wrote songs. I also worked as a radio announcer, but when that job was coming to an end, I started to work as an audio technician in theaters. There I discovered the pleasure to create music with loops and electronics, where you could create a mood and make something more than a love song. I started using loops in the late '70s, trying to create sounds for the theater. It was not easy at first, but with experience I slowly learned to do it better. To be honest, there was no music that guided me in that way, it was just doing some experiments with Revox and TEAC tape recorders. Sometimes the tapes simply broke and I had to fix the problem with scotch tape.
It appealed to me because it allowed me to explore a new path and discover a new language to express myself, more than picking up a guitar and playing. Cutting tapes, slowing records or playing them in reverse, trying to record strange sounds and make them part of the music, using electronic stuff to find some nice sound you've heard before... that made a big difference for me.
What led to the making of Wind in 1986?
To release an album was a lifetime desire for me, but I've always imagined I would be making a guitar album. One afternoon I was in an instrument shop to see what acoustic guitar I could ask for my birthday. I saw two very young guys who were trying to create some sounds on a synthesizer without any result. When they moved away, my curiosity told me to go and try it out. It was really amazing the way the synth sounded so good, in such an unexpected way. It seemed that everyone loved to play with the Roland Juno and the Korg Poly-800, both of which were on the stand in the store. So I tried them out and it was like an epiphany for me. To me the Roland synth was a little funny, but the Poly... its sounds were really strange, but they had soul to them. I forgot to buy an acoustic guitar for my birthday and took the Poly with me instead, it was instant love. It was so nice to listen to the simple sequencers, it changed my way of thinking about music, like a work of "subtraction," going to the bone of a feeling. It had a simple sequencer and a simple way to create sounds, the perfect approach for a non-musician like me. I changed the original presets on it and it was soon clear that something nice was happening. I became a synth man in a single afternoon!
How influential is Venice as a city on your music? When I was visiting the city and walking along the canals I couldn't help but think of your music and especially how the use of reverb and delay seems to mimic the slow ripples of the water. Is that an intentional part of your sound? Do the canals still soothe you when you go back?
It wasn't a direct effect on me. I mean, it's natural when you grow up in a city like Venice to feel a bit different from the rest of the world—no cars, roads that are channels, boats, water. The noises when you're a child are the swallows, the sound of the bells, the sound of your feet on the cobblestones and more than a few tourists around. It feels like the silence, the quite silence of Venice, flows into your veins, becomes a part of your living, no stress, no traffic, no hurry. It was a surprise when Sub Rosa asked me to paint some sounds about Venice. It's my hometown and I love her, but there are too many iconic visions about, especially from the foreigners, looking to Venice with a sort of Byron-esque eye: too romantic, too reverential. So I tried to look behind the curtain and gave names and sounds to my personal life in Venice, like a human in a town and not in a postcard.
There is a long gap after your 1991 album, The Wind Collector. What happened?
I felt the desire to stop making music. I was really disappointed and frustrated by the music scene, by the poor respect, by the material world that I was surrounded by. Some situations in the past were really unbecoming and offensive. I am more than sure that making music is a natural way of speaking without words, of creating your own language. But at that time it became absolutely necessary to stay away from the music scene. I started to listen, to read, to think about myself and my life.
Were your albums met with indifference?
On the contrary! When I released Wind it was for free, because I believed that was to be my one and only record, so there was no need to be a superstar. I sent the record to some magazines, but it was met with really poor reviews. Only after it wound up being played on a local radio station late at night did people start to phone me up and ring my door, writing letters to ask for the record, to see where I live, to have a chat. It was really a magic moment that gave me the idea that my music was something I've never understood before.
Were you not able to play shows?
No shows. No one was interested. Here in Italy, if you're making your own music, but it's not jazz, not love songs, not rock, you're out of luck. Italy is deeply xenophobic in that way. There was a sort of intellectual haughtiness in the Italian media about Italian musicians in general, and they look down on those that try to do something different from the mainstream. There's a poor sense of culture here, a paradox for a land that's full of art and history, but that's the truth. Here it's common to play for free where there's no respect for the music because people would rather drink and chat than pay attention to the music. Now I'm travelling a lot outside Italy and everywhere I go I feel a great sense of respect and have lovely audiences that are a joy to chat with after the concerts.
What did you do for work in the intervening years? Did you ever think you would play again?
In this country you couldn't live with your own music. I had a job in an office. To survive I was forced to find a regular job with a telecommunication service. When you leave this country in a plane, it's like jumping to another planet, you'll find always someone that loves to listen to your music and wants to know more about your projects. I didn't play for many years, waiting for the time to believe in music again.
In 2007, I didn't live in the old city of Venice but very close by on the mainland. I had just moved to a new apartment and I left all my musical stuff in a garage under that house. One night in September, there was a strong storm. Most of the town was under the flood and all my stuff was damaged under three meters of dirty water. In an instant, I lost all of my stuff: my instruments, tape recorders, all of my tapes and cassettes, records and all the memories of my musical past.
First I tried to clean what could be saved, but I soon realized that 99% of the stuff was gone and lost forever. I started to use the computer as a tape recorder and as a synth/sampler/looper. It took many nights to find a way but I did OK. There were changes in sound of course, but technology is nice if you use your brain and be the pilot and do not let the computer take control.
What led to Talk To The Sea, the retrospective on Music From Memory?
It was truly a labor of love from Music From Memory. Jamie [Tiller] and Tako [Reyenga] asked me about a release of my music and I soon understood they were pretty special. Honestly, I had a lot of music from the last decade and so I told them to choose what they loved the most. One of the keys was to meet them in person, to know about their projects, their views on life and music.
Around the same time, I first met Paolo and Luciano of Tempelhof in Mantua after a concert. It was more than clear that those guys had talent and a shining human touch. We talked about possible projects, but for many reasons nothing came to realization. And then suddenly in few weeks we had recorded Hoshi.
With Jonny and Marco in Gaussian Curve, it was sort of an instant friendship. We didn't waste a minute trying to understand one another. We only had to sit and play, trying to simply let the music fill the space, creating tracks in a lovely and magic way.
The same with Paolo and Luciano, though we worked more sharing the tracks and the ideas via mail, but everything was done easily and without any problem. Maybe reciprocal respect could be a key to explain those situations, but after years in the music scene, you know that it's very rare that a recording process becomes a holiday of sorts. But in each case, it's a joyful experience. It's always a great surprise for me to see how much the people liked our work. Maybe it's in the nature of the language of that music, simple and true, like a mirror of our feelings and of our moods.
In music history, not all the good albums were the result of a nice environment, most of them had a strange or a bad situation happening behind the sounds. But again, I believe that when there's a strong "interplay" between humans, it can be translated into music without a difficult approach. It just happens.
Jonny said you like to go sailing. How does the ocean inform your sound? Is it important to have a sense of peace like that before you make music?
When I was younger I did a lot of races with different boats and sailing is pure paradise for me. In the last few years not so much because of my kids and job, but it's always an important part of my life. The sea of Venice is not quite an ocean, it's more quiet and not so windy, there are always lots of boats and you have to go very far to keep that silence you need away from the roaring engines. Strange to say maybe, but silence and peace aren't frequent factors in my making music. I have to wait until very late at night to find the "space," inside and outside, to think about music.
There's a certain effect, I hear it most readily on "Call Me" but also on some Gaussian Curve songs like "Broken Clouds," that most reminds me of rippling water. How do you get that particular sound?
What a vision! That sound was the sequencer of my old synth (a Korg Poly-800) that's really strange and funny. It's got something "uncertain" that's pure magic to me. Both "Call Me" and "Broken Clouds" got the same old synth moving behind them.
For all your years of being under-appreciated, what does it mean to you to play with younger musicians and find fans around the world now?
I've never thought about the age gap, because playing with those guys is simply beautiful and we always have a great time. What I learned over the years is that you have to keep learning something as a musician. It's not unusual for aging musicians to stay on past memories without refreshing their outlook or finding a new path to follow.
Jamie, Tako and Abel of Music From Memory opened a door into the dark and my life will never be the same and for that I am grateful. People that want a selfie with you, to have you sign a record cover or just to say thanks for the music, it's those kinds of things that make me wonder at what a great gift I have from life. I try to look forward and do my things in the same way I did in the past, when nobody cared.