One-Man Band Series, #4: Mr. Occhio
Based out of a remote mountain village in Italy, Cristian Bergoglio, who writes and performs his songs under the moniker Mr. Occhio (and sometimes Mr. Occhio & His Imaginary Friends Band), has just self-released his first full-length album as a one-man band, “Hard Boiled.” Mainly, in its present state, it serves as a promotional tool, with the goal of finding a willing label to take it on and supply it with proper production and distribution. Having already listened to “Hard Boiled” in its entirety at least half a dozen times, and quite possibly more than that, I have come to appreciate it on a few different levels, but mostly for the concoction of diverse styles that Bergoglio has employed to create his sound. Primitive rock’n’roll, garage trash, and old dirty blues are the three ingredients that are most recognizable on the eleven tracks that make up the whole of “Hard Boiled,” in addition to some of the sounds of his native Italy.
Each song seems a composition extensively labored over, from the first song, “Dice di Amarmi,” which is a trashy primitive rock’n’roll piece of music, to the last, “Lei Mi Tratta Male,” the shortest track on the album, which is a frantic garage number. In between those two songs, however, there are nine more, each of them different and worthwhile in its own right. Take the second song, for instance, a cover version of Fred Buscaglione’s “Guarda che Luna,” which Occhio has transformed into a mighty dustbowl blues arrangement with slide guitar and heartbroken vocals. Then there’s the seventh song, “Hanky Panky,” one of three songs sung in English on “Hard Boiled,” with its repeating note pattern and steady cymbal-work, altogether a rather simple body of music consisting of stripped-down and dirty neo-blues, and then its transition into a combination of raunchy roots rock and tremulous vocal intensity. “You Got to Move,” the ninth song, almost like a rock’n’roll spiritual, is probably my second favorite song on the album after “Guarda che Luna,” with its rootsy feel and haunting blues properties. All in all, it’s a crazy soundscape of guitar, drums and vocals, all played simultaneously, cultivated by Bergoglio himself.
Mr. Occhio occupies an altogether different musical geography than the noisemaker luchadores of the garage one-man band set, the lads wearing Mexican wrestling masks, with fierce vintage guitars in their hands and strange homemade drum apparatuses at their feet and harsh, distorted vocals offered up through beat-up microphones at their mouths. Instead, he appears to belong to the novelty-free one-man band set, just the face with which he was born, no gimmicks, sort of like Pete Yorko, Bloodshot Bill, John Schooley and King Automatic, among others. That is not to say that the luchador garage rockers don’t have their place. Hell, some of them are remarkably good at what they do. Of course, some would argue that being a one-man band is a novelty in itself, though that kind of thinking would promote the logic that every genre of music is then a novelty to some degree, and I quite simply cannot stand by that.
While listening to “Hard Boiled” one almost immediately takes note of a strange sort of rustic isolation, no doubt a direct result of the environment in which Bergoglio writes and practices his one-man band songs high up in the Italian mountainside. When he hits the streets and ventures out to his gigs, those same songs take on a worldlier feel, a bit more raunchy, raw and primitive, which also comes through a bit on the album to make his hard-boiled sound. And he has shared that sound onstage beside other notable one-man bands, such as The Dad Horse Experience, Junior Disorder, Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave, O’ Lendario Chucrobillyman, The Fabulous Go-Go Boy from Alabama, Chuck Violence, and so on.
Mr. Occhio is not by any means the only one-man band in Italy deserving of recognition. There are also, if my mind serves me well, Bruno Gourdo Hot Buttered Wolf, Number 71 Band, El Bastardo, Wasted Pido, Seth Evol Tracks, and The Big Sound of Country Music, just to name a few. In fact, more and more I have discovered through my research on one-man bands that the movement is evidently far more prevalent in Europe and South America than in the United States. But that’s just one of the many things that make it such an intriguing phenomenon; it’s global, and as such there are so many variations on how it is done, so many different styles that are applied to it in so many different ways, so many wonderfully drastic cultural differences, so much ingenuity, so much diversity and open-mindedness and solidarity.
Over the months, Bergoglio and I have corresponded at length, during which time we had a little interview session. What follows is from that interview…
It is typical of me to begin my interviews in an introductory fashion, so as to let my readers know a bit about the artist with whom I am working. Having said that, I would like to ask: Who is Mr. Occhio, not just as a musician and singer/songwriter but as an individual, as a human being of this vast and crazy world in which we live?
I live in a small village on the Italian side of the Alps Mountains. The village is called Dairin. Dairin now is a “one person village” (haha)…apart from me nobody lives there. I live in an old stone house, and I spend a lot of time alone. In the winter there is sometimes more than a meter of snow, which gives me a lot of time to play music. Anyway, music is not my business; I must work some jobs to survive and pay my rent. Just a few minutes ago, as a matter of fact, the owner of my house called me and said something like: “what the fuck, man?! You must give me my fuckin’ money!! I haven’t seen you in two months!” He’ll never understand that having a house is a right of human kindness, not a damn privilege. Now I work in the undertaking enterprise. I’m a porter and I drive a hearse. Before this I was a pizza chef (I am Italian, after all!), body-worker on cars, bellboy, and a lot of other shitty jobs. But I try to work the least amount of time possible, as I prefer to have more time than money. That’s a form of wealth to me.
Some time ago, I was very engaged in political anarchist stuff. I lived in some radical squats in Turin, Geneva, Paris, and so on. We were very influenced by the Situationist experience and culture. We were trying to live in the way of Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, etc. Living a radical critical existence of that style continues for me, though in a different way right now. All the Italian punks in the ‘80s and ‘90s were politically engaged, and the biggest punk rock gigs were in squats or very alternative halls. I’ve seen shows with bands like Fugazi, Teengenerate, and New Bomb Turks in a big squat called El Paso in Turin. A lot of kids in my generation came up in this culture. Of course, that was all before the plastic punk generation of Green Day and Offspring carried the young kids from some radical stuff to some “alternative fashion club.”
You have an interesting sound, to say the least, with a primitive rock’n’roll feel, together with garage, trash, and old dirty blues qualities. And you sing in at least two different languages in your songs on your latest album, “Hard Boiled.” How did you develop this well-stitched patchwork of sound?
In the beginning there was the hardcore. When you are young, you must to be a part of something strong. I think that kind of attitude is a great form of start. You must take your life in your hands and do everything by yourself as an individual – make a fanzine, or start a label or a band, promote some shows, etc. Those are some of the best things you can do when you are sixteen years old.
Back then, I learned it was better to pump my volume then make some virtuoso solos!! (Hahaha.) I also discovered that it was better to be on the street with my skateboard than in my room studying music. Later, I tried to discover the roots of the music I loved, and thus started to go back in alternative music history looking for some wild sensations. Now I can find the same violence of Napalm Death when Blind Willie Johnson sings “John the Revelator.” It’s the same fucking attitude and the same fucking desperation. That’s what I love in music, and that’s the same emotional feeling I try to put into my own music. I sing in Italian, French and English. Writing songs in Italian is my natural way. Italian is a complicated language; we can say everything in ten different ways, and there are a lot of synonyms for each word. We are a nation of poets…(hahaha!) The Italian/Latin feel in rock’n’roll is similar to Spanish; it has a “La Bamba” quality, which I think is cool. I like the way some artists, like Fred Buscaglione, Lucio Battisti, and Paolo Conte, make American music by Italians. And I like the Tav Falco’s way of playing some Italian songs. I like to sing in French, too. I lived in Switzerland for a while, and I have a lot of friends in France. I like very much the French patwa, some popular expressions of Paris Argot are so funny…and I try to put something like that in my songs. I’m so fascinated by French cinema. And I live near France. The patwa of my country, Piemonte, is very similar to French and to Languedoc. I live on the Cajun side of Italy…(hehehe.) Singing in English is cool for me. I think having an Italian accent on English gives a “hard-boiled” feel to my songs…like The Godfather Blues or Soprano Beat.
Basically, I’m just a punk rocker who tries to play like a band formed by Son House, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams and Edwin Starr, directed by Lux Interior, and produced by Phil Spector…based in Napoli, of course.
In recent years the one-man band movement has seen a lot of growth, with artists from all over the world striking out on their own to play guitar with their hands, work the drum kits with their feet, sing, and whatever else they can convince their bodies to do musically, simultaneously. Many of these artists are doing old things in very new ways, with endless creativity and diversity, ushering the one-man band concept into a new era. What are your thoughts, experiences and observations on the current one-man band revival?
Now, there are a lot of one-man bands. Some of them make good music, but many one-man bands are boring. Like so many other things, the one-man band craze is a “MySpace phenomenon.” If you have a PC, you can do all the music and production work: recording, CD pressing, album covers, not to mention you can promote yourself without money or press office, etc. That’s so good. It’s the same thing as the garage explosion of the ‘60s. In those days it was everybody with guitars and caves, making a band with their friends and playing rock’n’roll. That’s a little bit of democracy. But you must have some good ideas too. Playing as a one-man band is not so special; it’s just a means to realize your musical concept. You can make a good song, unique and original, just with your voice and clapping your hands; you can make a good song with your guitar and your voice; you can make a good song with a big band of eighty elements; and you can make a good song playing foot-drums, guitar, etc, with all the means necessary.
I really appreciate the musicians who try to be original, who create unique sounds. When I listened to Hasil Atkins, Bob Log III, King Automatic, and Reverend Beat-Man for first time I said, Wow! All of these artists have a different sound and play some different set. It’s fantastic!! But when I listen to a wannabe Bob Log clone on MySpace, I feel embarrassed for him. A lot of people think to themselves, Ok, man, I take a bass drum and a hi-hat, I make some tu-cha tu-cha tu-cha rhythm, I play a noisy guitar, I put a mask on my face, and tomorrow I setup a show, maybe make a recording. Maybe one in a million can make something good in this way. But surely all the others are gonna make a load of shit. Sometimes when I listen to some one-man bands on MySpace, after three songs with the same rhythm, the same distorted voice, the same high frequency guitar, I just get a little bored…but after fifty artists with the same sound, same rhythm, same mask, etc, I simply can’t survive no more! To do it successfully, you must have something unique, or a bunch of charisma. To play good rock’n’roll you must have that. To play music, you must be very motivated, and you have to try and try a lot of times. You also have to try a lot of different combinations of instruments and techniques, and then more and more, ‘cause you don’t have the same possibilities as a three-piece band. Instead, you have just two hands, two legs and one voice…and just one mind, maybe, if you’re lucky. That’s the price you pay for autonomy! I think the one-man band is not a music style, nor is it a movement; it’s just an individual concept of autonomy. Yesterday night I attended a conference of my favorite American author, Joe R. Lansdale. Somebody asked him something about “the difference between writing stories for books and movies.” He said that when you see a movie, there is a story, a director, some actors, a lighting engineer, a photography director. So many people collaborate to make a film. Each puts his or her individual ideas into it. It’s a collective creation. When you write a book you are the author, but at the same time you are the director, the actor, the photographer, and you decide everything. You must do that with only your words. I think being a one-man band is a little bit like being a writer of books.
I created a lot of pieces of my drum set by myself. I play bass drum, snare, hi-hat, one pedal crash, some tambourine, and two maracas, simultaneously. I’m used to playing two hours a day, and I’m still not satisfied with my sound and my music. I try to play different kinds of songs with different rhythms, speeds, languages, instruments, and guitar tunings. I try to play some bass lines with my thumb, while picking strings with the other fingers, so that the gigs and recordings are not so boring, so that I create a complete sound. But I can do more! That shit can be better! Sometimes I write a song, but before three days pass I say “Oh shit! It’s just too similar to some of my other songs or to another artist’s style.”…and I put that song in the trashcan. I think we have to be inspired by other artists, but we can’t be clones.
My favorite one-man bands are: King Automatic (France), who represents the modern side of one-man bands. My preferred song by him is the French one “le Redresseur des Torts.” The Dad Horse Experience (Germany). He has an incredible personality, I dig the German accent, and sometimes he sings some fantastic old German songs…with a Kurt Weill feeling! O Lendario Chucrobillyman (Brazil). He has a fuckin’ Brazilian tropical influence on his bluesy melodies. I like how his sound is inspired by Caipira music (a roots form of Brazilian cowboy music). My preferred song by him is “Hey Garota.” Number 71 one-man band. One of the wildest things I’ve seen in my life. Only one in a million can do what he does!! My preferred song by him is “Huuuuaaaaaarrrrggguuuaaaaaaarr.” Every one of these artist has a special sound and personality that no one else has in the world!!
What have been some of your wildest and most memorable touring or gig moments?
I was on tour in Brazil with Chucrobillyman, Number 71, Chuck Violence, Go-Go Boy from Alabama, and Gomez Mescalero for a month. We played in some fantastic alternative clubs and in some fantastic Brazilian honky tonks with fantastic people, fantastic women and terrible Cachaca (the most popular liquor in Brazil made from fermented sugarcane)!
One night in São Paolo we were drinkin’ in a downtown bar called Bar Bahia. In this bar is based a punk and skin gang – the Devastacao Punk – maybe the most dangerous alternative gang of São Paolo (and never forget, São Paolo is a big town in the third world. There, the angry people are very angry). Suddenly, Number 71 was beating a fuckin’ crack junkie who he didn’t know was in the gang. That angry gang decided they wanted to kill us…for real! One of them said, “I hate this fuckin’ Italian! The only good thing in Italy is Klasse Kriminale!” (Klasse Kriminale is the most famous Italian Oi Punk band. I know the singer. He’s a good guy.) And I say in my bad Brazilian, “Hey man, do you know Klasse Kriminale?! I’m the guitar player!” Whaaat?! All the people in the gang start offering me some beers, some drugs, some other shit, like I was a fuckin’ rock star! (hahaha.) And then they started asking me everything about the Italian street punk scene. The day after, my Brazilian friend gave me some newspaper with a few articles about Devastacao Punk Gang, and I learned they’d killed a lot of people, for real!
If you want to be a one-man band you obviously have to be lucky, too! (hahaha.)
Is “Hard Boiled” your debut release, or have released recordings before, whether CD or 7″ or cassette?
I have a lot of tapes recorded in my house, but I’m not satisfied with them ‘cause they all have a typical one-man band sound. One song appeared on a Squoodge Records compilation. I’m looking for a label to put out “Hard Boiled,” though.
What are some of your favorite bands and singer/songwriters, past and present?
Hu hu… What a difficult question!
Son House, Bukka White, Hank Williams, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday – the first generation of punk rockers. Bo Diddley, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – the second generation of punk rockers. The Sonics, The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Who, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – the third generation of punk rockers. The Stooges, MC5, The Cramps, Nick Cave, Black Sabbath, The Ramones, Devo, Sex Pistols, Clash, Tav Falco, The Oblivians, Billy Childish, Elvis Costello, Black Flag, The Jam, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Sham 69, Negazione…and a million of other musicians.
I’m also a collector of Jamaican ska vinyl, and I like to dance northern soul.
Italy is your base of operations, it seems. What is the underground/ independent music scene like there, with small venues and house shows and other bands and singer/songwriters, etc?
I really love the underground punk and hardcore scene in Italy from the ‘80s, with bands like Negazione, Nerorgasmo, The Wretched, Nabat, and CCCP, which were known all around the world. That scene was a unique and extreme Italian way of hardcore punk.
As far as the new bands, I like the Movie Star Junkies. Last week I bought a good record of a band called Above the Tree. I like Capputtini’i Lignu and a French band called Verduns…and many more.
Can you talk a little about your moniker, “Mr. Occhio?” Why did you choose it for your one-man band name?
All my friends have called me Occhio for the last fifteen years.
Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover, or anything you’d like to express or talk about, etc, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Mr. Occhio!
Nobody can represent you! Take your life into your hands! Stay free!