From Palermo to Berlino: The Tale of DJ Tennis
With Bestival Toronto in sight, DJ Tennis is ready for another taste of Canada's herb.
In the late 80s, punk was doing its best to rectify the misrepresentation that the decade had brought unfairly upon rock. This is the scenario in which Manfredi Romano grew up. In the hot and clustered coastal city of Palermo, Romano was exposed to some of rock and new wave's most influential soldiers, like The Sex Pistols, The Cure, Ultravox and The Jesus and Mary Chain, among others. It's rather surprising then that the new wave-inspired Romano would end up as a world-renowned techno DJ and the co-founder of one of dance music's most interesting record labels.
"I have been sailing in the world of music since I was 15 years old, non-stop," Romano tells THUMP. From making cassette mixes from radio rips for his girlfriends in high school, and collecting Italo-disco 12 inch singles for most of his teenage years, "every time I had money in my pocket I was buying records," he says.
His vinyl collecting quickly turned into DJing, making for his first Italo-disco record at 18-years-old. But that wasn't enough for Romano. "I always had this thing in my head that I want to organize parties, I want to change something," he says. "I want to make something happen, in a city like Palermo—which is down south in Sicily, where nothing was really happening."
Even after moving to Pisa for university around 19, Romano's focus never shifted from music.
"Even if I was studying computer science at the university, my passion and my head were wrapped around music." He was then introduced to one of the main hardcore punk Squats in Italy in the form Macchia Nera, and to Wide Records, the Italian distributors responsible for most American punk in Italy. Romano worked as a tour manager for a number of bands throughout his time in university "organizing concerts, driving them around in a van—stinky stuff that was."
After years of being in and around the music industry in multiple capacities, Romano was disinterested in the environment of his computer science colleagues. After graduation, he said goodbye to his studies. "I jumped on a van and I toured Europe with a band from K Records, called Old Time Relijun," he says.
After drifting—if only temporarily—from dance music, Romano says it was Warp Records in the late 90s, that he began releasing what he calls, "very weird, danceable stuff." His interest in DJing was rejuvenated, in part intrigued by the idea of IDM—Intelligent Dance Music. "As a DJ, this combination of weird rhythmic stuff, very analog sounding synths, big arpeggios, big glitch sounds, this still influences me," says Romano.
It was at Dissonanze Festival over a decade ago—which Romano helped found—when he says German artist Christian Kleine introduced him to Ableton Live. Being familiar and fluent in computer programming, Romano began to experiment with layers of dark sounds. "I started making music for movies, for commercials, for theater plays—there was good money making music for commercials. For 30 seconds of music, maybe at that time, the price was 8,000 Euros," says Romano. "I almost made a living out of it as a side job from my agency. I was spending nights making music and it was pretty easy for me."
But it was his booking agency, Daze.it, that stole time Romano had set aside to spin records. The label, which Romano started in university, began as an indie and underground booking agency for acts in Italy. It ended up becoming a techno booking agency along the way—sorting acts as big as Richie Hawtin in the process. "Working as a promoter and as a booking agent in Italy is a hard job," says Romano. "It means that you have to fight on the phone all day—with everybody."
After inviting Thugfucker's Greg Oreck to stay with him at his home on the peninsula in 2010, Oreck and Romano often found themselves discussing the poor state the music industry was in. After sending Oreck's new track out to labels without response, Oreck and Romano decided to put the record out themselves. Having been an instant fan of Matteo Milleri from Tale Of Us since their first introduction, Romano asked the duo for a remix of Thugfucker's new track, "Disco Gnome." The duo sent back the finished product in a mere five hours.
Through this, he began to realize that being a booking agent was no longer of interest to him. He soon gave his colleagues full control of the agency and moved to Berlin. "At the time I was 40 and I said 'I want to go back and restart from zero,'" says Romano. In 2010 they released, "Disco Gnome." After going relatively unheard for a month, it was after plays by Loco Dice, Pete Tong and Italian radio that the track exploded says Romano, "That's the start of Life and Death."
At this point, his surroundings were rife with dark, melodic inspiration to create not tracks but what he considered, soundscapes. He found himself influenced by the dark and ambient beats of Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada. "There has always been an organic exchange and osmosis," he says of the label. "I think all of us at that time, including Seth Troxler, Ryan Crosson, Lee Curtiss, who were starting Visionquest, were into that mood as well. In a way, all this stuff came together and after 2011, it became bigger and bigger—now it's huge."
Romano feels that mood has changed, if only slightly. The branding of artists and labels today account for more than they have ever before, something that Life and Death has strayed away from. "This is how media works, how people try to get as many likes as they can with a post on Facebook, or on Instagram," says Romano. "There is a lot of thinking behind that, and there are a lot of people spending money on that." Sharing similar opinions towards the "listicles" and chart-mania-focused music press of today, Romano is curious but not interested in today's form of communications. "I think that many music blogs instead of talking about music, they talk about gossip and bullshit around it."
For Romano, and his alias as DJ Tennis, the music industry needs to lose some professionalism. "In music it is important to work with the people you like and are friends; it is very important to have emotional connections with people to make it work." Citing the extreme distance between artists and labels as the reason for the fall of several large imprints, Romano seeks to close the gap between those that he works and collaborates with. "It doesn't have to be a super strong relationship," he says, "but it has to be at least, a mutual trust and good feeling and emotion. I also think this is why record labels like Innervisions work, or other records labels that are like that."
That is not to say that Romano does not understand the importance of growing the Life and Death family. This year for the first time, there will be a label showcase on the white isle. At DC10 for five Friday's of the Ibiza season, Life and Death's family will take over the terrace. "This was Matteo's idea and I'm glad he had the courage to do it—I probably wouldn't have," Romano tells THUMP. "I mean, you know Ibiza is a weird place, it is easy to overdo stuff. I think that is exactly a right balance and we are very happy about it."
That balance Romano speaks of transcends his sets, on stages across the globe and he is expected to do the same this weekend. He will be playing at Toronto Island for the first edition of Bestival outside of the UK—a festival famed for fancy dress. Favouring his sporting roots, Romano says he may pay tribute to tennis hero Johnny McEnroe. "If I find the right wig, then yes. Johnny Mac cannot be without great hair and the red headband."
Similar to the great Johnny Mac, he enjoys his time smoking joints with his friends and hippies in San Francisco. Canadians can rest assure then that Romano says Canadian hospitality is nothing short of fantastic. "I tried the Toronto herb," he admits. "It's great."
Originally published on Thump.