I am the dark and Liz is the light. I hope she can pull me out of the darkness.
Pale Blue’s debut album, The Past We Leave Behind, which comes out Tuesday, marks the moment when people stop decorating renowned DJ and producer Mike Simonetti’s name with some variation of “formerly of Italians Do It Better.”
Going forward, it’ll be “Mike Simonetti of Pale Blue and Two Mikes Records,” or maybe “Mike Simonetti of New Jersey,” or even just Mike Simonetti.
Either way, Simonetti told Vehlinggo recently that he’s rebuilding and starting over, a fact underscored in every turn on his brilliant new record, and represented by the underground, more obscure focus of Two Mikes Records, the new dance label he started with Captured Tracks honcho Mike Sniper.
“There are songs specifically about Hurricane Sandy on that record,” he said, “and there are songs that were written when my wife was in the hospital for four months a few years ago — as you can tell by the titles — but there are also songs that were written as I was leaving IDIB. [Vocalist Elizabeth Wight’s] lyrics are her own thing, but they all fit in with the record. ”
The record’s 13 contemplative and moving songs, recorded from 2010-2014 and sung primarily by Wight with a guest spot by Jana Hunter, span Simonetti’s diverse background, everything from experimental dream pop, house, techno, drone, and noise. (He did, after all, start Troubleman Unlimited, which in addition to releasing work from Zola Jesus, Harvey Milk, and The Walkmen, also released Glass Candy before the duo moved on to Simonetti’s and Johnny Jewel’s Italians spinoff.)
‘I Taught Myself to Make Music in Order to Survive’
As much as Pale Blue is a symbol of moving forward, it’s also Simonetti processing a whole lot of bullshit after a couple decades in the music business. For one thing, the new record’s genesis is in some ways tied to the Capricorn Rising EP, which aside from “The Magician” from both Italian’s compilation After Dark 2 and the film The Guest, has so far been his most popular release of his own work. Italians fans might remember it as the 2011 record with the ice cream sundae on the cover and Sam Sparro as a guest vocalist.
Before Capricorn, Simonetti was primarily a DJ and running into some obstacles and had to get creative.
“I was seeing a shift in the landscape happening,” he said. “There were more and more DJs coming out of the woodwork and it was becoming harder and harder to stand out and get gigs. These days you need to make music or have some sort of brand to be taken seriously as a DJ. It’s just the way of the world and I saw it coming in 2009. So I taught myself to make music in order to survive and not have to work a ‘real’ job.”
When someone gets booked for a DJ gig these days, the first thing promoters ask is “What’s your affiliation?” That affiliation, he says, is more important than the event itself.
“They want to know what to put next to your name on the fucking flyer,” he said.
I do recall him being billed with the Italians label attached to his name, and when he would DJ with Tim Sweeney or James Murphy, Beats in Space and DFA Records were, respectively, slapped onto their names.
“It’s not about the music as much as it is about ‘so-and-so from this label is playing our party!’ That’s why they stack DJ bills these days,” he said.
All of that is part of a larger problem, though: The way people live their lives now. Another purpose of this project is to offer a sort-of counterpoint to the way we are.
“It’s just the human condition we are living in in 2015, where ‘bigger is better.’ It’s about the Facebook invite and tagging the famous DJ and all that shit. Everyone making music or making parties out there is nervous and afraid because there’s so much competition,” Simonetti said. “I see artists I once respected selling their souls and doing these ridiculous things to stay relevant and make themselves seem like they are ‘making it’ and living some sort of great life.”
“The nonstop Facebook posts, the silly photo shoots, the barrage of Instagram shots of parties… Clearly, these people must be dying inside, right? I mean, it’s no way to live. The really crazy thing is that this is how people choose to represent themselves,” he said.
But what’s his point? How did all of that bring us to where we are today, at the cusp of the release of the Pale Blue record, with Simonetti fresh off a back-to-back gig with Jamie xx at Brooklyn’s Bossa Nova Civic Club? (There I go with my affiliations and DJ-tagging.)
“This leads me to Pale Blue, actually,” he said. “The reason I went off on that maniacal rant just now is because Pale Blue is, in a way, a reaction to everything I just mentioned. It’s optimistic music for dark times. I am the dark and Liz is the light. I hope she can pull me out of the darkness. That’s what Pale Blue is: That constant struggle to get to the light.”
Art For Dance Music That Isn’t Art For Dance Music
The music isn’t the only part of the Pale Blue project to pick through the pieces of the past in a bid to make for a better present and future. The album’s art also achieves this goal, although it is far from the type of artwork you’d expect on a dance record — even one like Past.
Simonetti said that was exactly what he wanted when he sought the conceptual input of photographer Ivan Bideac and art director Andrew Porter, who interned about 10 years ago at Troubleman.
“It was all their concept,” Simonetti said. “When Andrew mentioned The Ice Storm as an influence, I knew it was going to be great.”
Porter went shopping and bought all the objects for the shoot that are depicted: the plates, fruit, cheese cutlery, the Financial Times, makeup, wine glasses, etc. The objects are strewn about in a sort-of controlled disarray on the cover. Inside the gatefold, the art depicts broken wine glasses and such, and overall a tad less control.
“It was very complicated, actually, but it looks incredible,” he said.
“I see it as the end of the chaos,” Simonetti added. “My last days with Italians were not the greatest… That destroyed table represents a lot of what happened over the last year.”
Although he can’t really delve into what happened over the last year with Italians, Simonetti did have a few things to say about it.
“Personally, I wish Johnny would have started a new label with a new name and kept my legacy out of it,” he said. “That would have made the most sense to me. We wouldn’t be in the position we are in now, as well.
“I started Italians Do It Better from a blog — IDIB was my blog before it was a label. The blog was me writing about rare disco 12-inches and plugging DJ gigs,” Simonetti added. “The label name was my idea. I’m fucking Italian! It’s weird seeing a non-Italian running a label called ‘Italians Do It Better.’ I still have the IDIB blog archives — It’s all there, where you can see how it morphed into the label organically.”
Bottin and More on 2MR
What’s on deck over at the new label? While the Pale Blue record, showcasing the genius of Simonetti, Wight (of Silver Hands) and Hunter (Lower Dens), is certainly a high-profile release, Two Mikes Records (AKA “2MR”) has a roster of records planned that are set to challenge, excite, and, most of all, entertain.
Simonetti previewed a bunch of them on April 7 during his Beats in Space set: Venetian Italo/horror/Balearic disco producer Bottin’s new project Deardrums — which doesn’t sound like the music he has created for labels such as Italians, Perseo, and Eskimo Recordings; and Stefan Ringer, Dust, NOTA ,and a super-secret but phenomenal DJ he can’t talk about yet all will have releases on the new label.
Because the other Mike in Two Mikes is head of Captured Tracks and its Omnian empire, we can safely expect that these releases will be everywhere we need them to be.
Porter, Bideac, and Branko Vranic, who did the Capricorn art, are all going to be doing artwork for the label, according to Simonetti.
“I want the artwork to be on an equal plane with the music and stay thematic with each artist’s vision,” he said, “and I want a group of art directors working on the records, so they all have a similar feel but individual look — like an ad agency.”
‘The Label I Wanted Italians and New Jersey To Be’
As a longtime fan of Simonetti, and Italians and Jewel and everyone in their world, I thought about the trajectory of this new label. After starting Troubleman and Italians, in 2012 and 2013 Simonetti ran New Jersey Records – host to the Billions & Billions project that I’m always writing about, in addition to the excellent Sycorax, Black Merlin, among others.
But just as I was getting engrossed in it, the New Jersey releases stopped coming.
Personally, I’m very optimistic about the future of 2MR and am excited as hell about its releases. I want this thing to last a while. Things will happen as they will, but 2MR’s poised to do some good for dance music and I’d hate to see it cut short.
It turns out, though, I’m probably being overly dramatic about everything.
“New Jersey didn’t work out from a financial standpoint,” Simonetti said. “The people who were handling the [pressing and distribution] side were overextending themselves and it sorta fell apart. It sucked because there was some very good music released in that short time.”
Sniper’s an astute businessman and isn’t likely to commit such sins, so perhaps it’s best to sit tight and enjoy the probably long ride. Also, those of us mourning the near impossibility of obtaining New Jersey releases are in luck: Simonetti said he plans to buy the unsold New Jersey inventory and start selling them on a soon-to-be-launched 2MR website.
Ultimately though, 2MR isn’t about salvaging New Jersey or adding a notch on some metaphorical bedpost to prove a point. For Simonetti, it’s about finally getting it right this time, and putting out work by some great artists.
“2MR is going to be the label I wanted Italians and New Jersey to be,” Simonetti said.
But whether Simonetti is relaxing with his family in idyllic Maplewood, New Jersey, or working feverishly with his team to make Pale Blue and 2MR happen in this competitive landscape, he’s able to do so knowing that he’s ultimately living the dream.
From releasing the Unwound 7-inch, his first record — “Easily one of my greatest memories” — to traveling the world and meeting people, Simonetti has made a go of it in ways so many prospective DJs, producers, and label honchos can only embrace in the abstract. His push to learn to grow from a DJ to a creator of music is also something to admire — “Being able to release a record is a huge thing, and I’m grateful I’m even able to do it.”
But really, though, his biggest mark on this world is that family thing I was talking about.
“During all of this I had 2 kids, and that’s my greatest accomplishment!”
Also available is the release of Simonetti’s At the Juncture of Dark and Light Vol. 6 spacey krautrock mix, which my brother’s Minneapolis-based Holotape Recordings released last week. It’s available on the label’s Bandcamp page or in select stores. I wrote about it when it was released.