Next year marks four decades since Alexander Robotnick first burst on the scene with the seminal Problèmes D’amour. Now in his 70s, the Italian producer is showing no signs of slowing down, with the release of his eighth studio album, Simple Music, at the start of December.
Robotnick, aka Maurizio Dami, was one of a handful of artists that helped define what would become known as ‘Italo Disco’ in the early 80s, before moving into the world of soundtracks and world music – including organising the first Ambient Music Festival in Florence in 1995.
The emergence of the electroclash scene at the turn of the Millennium saw him return to the electro – disco sound that his career was founded on, with albums like 2001’s Oh no…Robotnick, 2007’s My La(te)st Album and the 2005 compilation The Disco Tech of Alexander Robotnick introducing him to a new audience. He continues to release both new music and reworkings of tracks from his back catalogue on his Hot Elephant Music imprint.
Since returning to electronic music, Robotnick has also become famous for his live performances – his sets at the legendary Electric City in Dublin’s The Metropolitan go down as some of 909originals’ favourite nights of all time.
Ahead of the release of Simple Music, we caught up with him, and started by asking whether he remembers those visits to Ireland fondly.
“I remember that period with pleasure,” he says. “Dublin was very lively then and I spent a few weeks there to improve my English. You may wonder why I went to Dublin and not London. I think Dublin is a more liveable city and then there’s a mysterious affinity between Italian and Irish people.”
The album Simple Music, blends a variety of styles that Robotnick has dipped his toe into over the years, from upfront synth-pop (as evidenced on opening track Babel) to downtempo electronica (on Virtual Empathy). Is the album somewhat autobiographical, we wonder?
“All my works include some autobiographical element, especially when they have lyrics,” he says. “I think that the style of a song is not only form but also content, and that can give a more precise significance to the lyrics, sometimes even by contrast.”
In previewing the album, Robotnick commented that “riffs and grooves are not endless, and when you are my age, you may have heard them already”. As someone who has built his career around infectious melodies, does he find the job of making music getting harder?
“It’s always hard to make something that sounds really new and fresh,” he says. “In any case it depends on the choice you make while composing.
“In Simple Music, I chose to use mostly the song form, with verse and refrain, but in a dance music style. So whenever I have a good idea my job gets easy, and I don’t care whether the riff has already been used, because the result will certainly be different.”
As someone that has been producing music for many decades, Robotnick has both influenced and been influenced by countless artists over the years, nuances of which are evident on Simple Music.
For example, the track Underpass recalls John Foxx’s 1980 synth pop classic, while we’re almost certain there’s a small Kraftwerk riff evident in I Want to Know.
“Honestly I associate that riff more with Italo Disco than with Kraftwerk,” Robotnick says. “But when you make electronic music, Kraftwerk are always somewhere in your mind. Underpass is indeed a tribute to John Foxx – Metamatic is one of my favourite albums ever.
“Each track I make stands alone, but I still feel attached to the electro sound I used in the early eighties. Much of my equipment dates back to that time. So I have a signature sound that allows me to always be myself, no matter what style I’m using.”
In fact, while Robotnick’s name is today synonymous with Italo Disco, such was the disparate nature of the scene at the time that he only got to know the leading artists and tracks of that period many years later, when the movement had a revival.
“In the early eighties, my reference was not Italo Disco but rather British electro-pop – Talking Heads, Suicide etc,” he says. “When it came to Italo Disco, I only knew the most commercial tracks that were aired on TV and I found them horrible, to be honest. It was thanks to DJ I-F and labels such as Eskimo and Clone that I discovered the beauty of Italo.
“After 2003 I started re-editing the best Italo classics, but unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t release them, I just played them.”
Robotnick’s Hot Elephant Music was launched as an avenue for both himself and like-minded musicians to release new music, as well as re-release classics from his extensive archive. As he explains, revisiting older tracks can be an “exciting” process, and one that offers him the chance to view his work in a new light.
“As with most composers, I sometimes give up tracks because they aren’t going anywhere,” he says. “Despite the time I spent on them, they didn’t really kick off.
“But then, when I listen to them maybe some ten years later, I immediately understand what is worth keeping and what is not and which direction the track is going in. It’s like a math problem – until you stare at the blackboard, you can’t find the solution, but sometimes it’s enough to step aside and look at it from a different perspective, and then the solution is clear.”
As mentioned earlier, next year marks an incredible 40 years since the release of Problèmes d’Amour, which kick-started his career [and would also go on to be featured in National Lampoon’s European Vacation!]. Even to this day, Robotnick is surprised that the track is cited as being so influential, adding that it remains a mainstay of his live performance.
“Yes, it definitely was a surprise to me,” he says of the buzz surrounding Problèmes d’Amour. “I was convinced it was a good track, but it was so off the main trend of the time, including Italo, that I couldn’t expect it to become a hit. Only when I connected to the Internet did I realise how much influence I had in electronic dance music.
“Of course I still perform it live. Why not? It’s a good song and I always have fun singing it. As to being odd – well I think that all my music is a bit like that.“
To finish, we can’t help wonder, are there any tracks – either from many years ago, or today, that make him think ‘I wish I had written that?’
“Not new – Touch Me by Suicide, from 1980,” he says. “New – Work by Black Light Smoke featuring Leah Lazonick.”
Alexander Robotnick – Simple Music is released on Hot Elephant Music on 2 December.