Intarview: Casino Royale – ’30 Years of Urban Soundscapes’ (December 2017)
If you mention Casino Royale to any Italian music enthusiasts born from the 60s on, they won’t suddenly associate the name with the 007 movie, but their eyes will light up all the same recalling a band that has possibly ‘soundtracked’ more than a few moments of their lives.
That’s because Casino Royale are a musical heritage of the Italian independent and alternative scenes. They are a project that has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary (next to the 20th birthday of CRX, one of the band’s masterpieces) and their sound still musically proselytises among young artists. In a scene in which its contemporaries hardly add any stamp to their passports, and rarely adventure to play beyond the national borders, Casino Royale are one of the most well-travelled bands, having grown up fond of sounds coming from London and Bristol, but also Jamaica, Berlin and New York.
A few months ago, we met Alioscia Bisceglia, band leader and founder member, and Patrick Benifei, vocals and keyboard, in Turin when Jazz:Re:Found Festival welcomed them in grand style, hosting on stage the CRX – 20th Anniversary Edition album launch and possibly a new beginning for the band.
Our chat inevitably started form the ‘presentation ceremony’ and how to introduce a band with three decades of experience on their shoulders to someone who has never listened to them.
Alioscia Bisceglia: “I’d say that Casino Royale are children of a new-wave cultural approach because our sound is a synthesis of different styles. We started travelling 30 years ago and like many other musicians, we followed a fil rouge, which might be invisible at times, but we are still able to follow it. Following this fil rouge, we went through a continuous development, which is represented by our styles. We went from Jamaica to New York, and London to an ethno-urban exploration. Then, if you add to it a bit of metropolitan empathy and a pinch of introspective investigation, that’s Casino Royale!”
Despite the fact that if you listen to Casino Royale’s albums you can find the world and its sounds in them, one of their main inspirations has always been the UK music scene, with London and Bristol as their main references.
Alioscia Bisceglia: “Going abroad to play hasn’t been a constant for Casino Royale. We were singing in a sort of broken English, but we were quite linked to a particular period and some places in London. I’m talking about what was happening around 30 years ago, between 1988 and 1991, around Finsbury Park, at the Sir George Robey pub and during the London Ska Festival.
We were travelling a lot at that time, visiting Germany too. Then we started singing in Italian and we also changed our style, passing from ska to a mix and match of styles. I’d say that it was a crossover between rock, reggae and dancehall. Our focus started to move on Italy and we started to play something like a patchanka from Milano without the ‘world’ element in it.
Anyway, we have always had a strict link with the UK and apart from Dainamaita, all our records have been produced or mixed in London.”
Patrick Benifei: “For CRX we were in London even for the pre-production.”
Alioscia Bisceglia: “London has always been our second home. France was a bit too much protectionist; there was great music, but only produced by French musicians. So, we were more British-oriented, and people always considered us as an anomaly in relation with the Italian panorama. There’s still this cliché abroad of the Italian musician who has to be linked to bel canto and melodies, while in our DNA we had London and its sound.
We still have a good relationship with the UK music scene, but it goes without saying that since we’re a band singing in Italian, we’re a bit weakened by that. I guess one of the ways in which we can have an impact would be through an instrumental key, because the sound always hits the target and it’s still quite international.
If I look back at our story, I reckon that we reached the perfection in our style with CRX, which can also be considered as a non-Italian album. I think that it has more a global approach while, for example, on the album before, Sempre Più Vicini, you could find many elements which are essentially Italian, like vocal parts.”
Bringing back an album that is 20 years old is inevitably a throwback, so we wondered how they feel when they play CRX and what their memories of that eventful period for Casino Royale are.
Alioscia Bisceglia: “I always say that CRX is one of the few albums that I’ve recorded of which I don’t want to skip any song. I recently listened to it once again and it’s always the same feeling. I’m still pretty amazed by its quality.”
Patrick Benifei: “Also, the new mastering has helped to keep it young and fresh. The original was a bit dark because in the 90s, when we recorded and mixed it, we had to cut some of the highest frequencies. While today – with the new mastering – is definitely fresher. It really sounds like a brand-new album; it sounds more contemporary.”
Alioscia Bisceglia: “CRX was a pretty important album for us, but that’s also because it was the prelude to a quite distressing period, a sort of Royale schism of which we are still carrying on the wounds. As I said more than once and repeated recently, the CRX tour was cursed. On paper, strategies were right, but when we put them into practice, they collapsed because of the contrasts between our label and us. They weren’t happy about our work, but they also couldn’t tell us to fuck off. They were understanding that we were something different and our sound was quite ahead of the time, but then there were contrasts between our management and them. If you add that during the tour – that we had in sports arenas, which left part of the audience a bit confused – some technicians were arrested, we had drugs problems and confrontations between musicians… you can see that it was a pretty tough period.
Anyway, I realised that in the end that’s the way bands work. Many bands I love went through this sort of experience; many bands that had some artistic peaks, and if you listen to their album you can feel the magic and wizardry, they recorded those peaks when they were fighting with each other. I can mention The Fishbones, who were playing great music, but when they were on stage you could understand that they didn’t stand one another. The same happened with The Clash. Now, I’m making some names not to compare them to Casino Royale, because we are nothing compared to them, but just to give you an idea of what was going on under an ego and personality fight perspective.
What I can say about that is that we have always given our best and we have always given our soul even when we were fighting each other. We were always faithful to our credo and willing to keep on with our path. Tons of people asked us to reunite for CRX, but the truth is that even today we can’t stand to share the stage together. On the other hand, yes, it’s definitely true that we could have kept alive different solutions which could bring our personalities to coexist, but in the end, who cares? Right now, I’m feeling well with the people I’m working with and that’s a reciprocal feeling. Also keeping alive a band for many years, it’s a hard job.
We died and came back to life a few times now and I can feel that is still a shame that we gave up in that particular moment. That’s because the Italian music scene, I mean the rock one, started to grow at that point. It happened thanks to the support of MTV, which wasn’t present before and helped quite a lot of bands like Bluvertigo, Subsonica, in a way also Afterhours, who had lately the clarity of mind to organise themselves in a better way.”
The Italian music scene has to thank MTV, but it also has to thank Casino Royale for having been a trailblazer and pioneering a forward-looking independent approach. It’s not by chance that hundreds, if not thousands, of projects born in Italy in the 2000s account the band from
Alioscia Bisceglia: “We had many experiences within the Italian music scene since then. Also, different ones, from playing solo, to play [sic] with other bands or for someone. We created music labels too, because at a point, we understood that the major music label world was still and not developing. Then, we produced bands. I can mention Sud Sound System for example or Alien Army, who can be considered one of the first turntablist in Italy and was pretty experimental when he came out. Finally, I work in media. So, what I can say about the changes happened [sic] in the Italian music scene… We have been a reference for many band, not only considering the sound, but also the attitude that we were embodying. Since then, it has always been an exchange between artists and bands: everyone is influencing each other. Macro Marco was our fan and opened a label, then, he produced Ghemon, who can be considered quite near to our sound and the way he’s singing, that sort of spoken work/pseudo-rap with a melodic refrain. It’s something that we introduced in Italy with ‘Treno Per Babylon’ or ‘Cielo’. I’ve never been a really good rapper, but if you take those songs and consider their rap, it was something new. With all my limits, I created quite an empathy with the audience, because if there’re people today who came here to see us after having travelled for miles and miles, well, that means that we gave something to many people from different generations.”
Next to opportunities for looking back at the past, anniversaries are also food for thoughts for the future. We closed our interview with Bisceglia and Benifei asking them to have a sneak peek into the crystal ball and foresee where Casino Royale will be in 20 years’ time, starting from the voices related to a new beginning for the band.
Alioscia Bisceglia: “I hope that this 20-year project represents the incipit of a black page. If you ask me what you expect from it or foresee, I really don’t know. I also don’t know what we are going to do next. Starting from the next dates to the next project, I really don’t know. Also, because some of us, like Patrick, play with other bands like Bluebeaters, and they’re really strong in the summer period. What I can tell you is that magically, working on a remix for CRX, a brand-new track came out and then a second one, so I told myself, maybe it’s time to start doing something new once again, still preserving and bringing along the best of what we have done in the past, but looking at the future. There’s an EP in progress which, at the moment, we reckon that is the right format for us.
“Right now, I’m really happy to gather together our community, but what I ask myself is what we can do together in the future, where our path will go. I’m going to be honest and I don’t deny that I had some hard times considering my song writing. Because writing new music is not like riding a bicycle, you need to dedicate time to it and experience things. You need to be able to synthesise your experiences too. If you write silly songs is one thing, but I’ve never done that. Or I integrate my personal experiences in my songs, or that’s not the way I work, and it wouldn’t be fine for Casino Royale either. So, we take the time we need, and we go on with this flow, because I think that the 20 year anniversary project finally rewards us, and it gives us the opportunity to get back in touch with people who we were near. We also hope that the two new songs will be appreciated; we’re quite thrilled about them because it was five years that we haven’t been playing together and we put everything together with the time limits of people who have families, sons, other jobs and music projects…”
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