Photo by Sophie le Roux, Sludgeworld
When Berliners Ossi Viola and Lo Selbo (real names: Albertine and Sebastian) met in Rome, they not only fell in love but conceived their musical lovechild Itaca. Throwing cheesy Italo pop hooks into the mix with cool synth washes and, to top it all off, Italian lyrics, the duo created a genre fusion to make Adriano Celentano blush. Before the up-and-comer's performance at Exberliner's 14th Birthday Party at Humboldthain Club on Friday, June 17, we talked to Lo Selbo about language barriers and trying to make it big in Boot Country.
What's your connection to Italy?
Our connections to Italy are deliberate or were established by us. Albertine once did an Erasmus year there. Until 30, I had never concerned myself with the country. I hadn't even visited. Then, by chance, I ended up there. Albertine and I met and fell in love. That was the initial spark from which we developed a mutual passion for Italy, and Rome, in particular.
Italian culture has been very prominent in Germany: Spaghetti Western in the 1960s, Italo pop of the 1980s. Did this have any influence on you?
Not really. As a kid, Albertine vacationed there occasionally; my focus was more on Spain as I was born in Cuba – the son of a diplomat. We both don't have any real connection to Italian culture rooted in childhood. Of course, growing up in East Berlin, you couldn't eat a pizza at a restaurant without having to listen to an Al Bano & Romina Power album in its entirety, but it wasn't the reason for forming Itaca.
So, what are your influences?
Before we started Itaca, I played in a rock band for 10 years, drawing from post-rock and noise rock. Albertine was similarly socialised, with PJ Harvey, Björk, etc. We thought we already had well-established tastes and knew what we liked. So, it was definitely a surprise to be suddenly fascinated by this country and its culture from the moment I set foot in it. For example, I didn't know Lucio Battisti, a famous singer-songwriter from the 1960s, until five years ago. This guy inspired so many bands I liked. He's one of the key inspirations for Blonde Redhead, who I love. I was totally flashed (blown away).
Is Itaca a concept band?
I wouldn't say it like that. Of course, there's the decision to sing in Italian. This could be regarded as a conceptual decision, because we're both not Italian natives deliberately singing in Italian. But in terms of recording music, our process hasn't changed. We might reference Italian culture, but we're not trying to make music like Lucio Battisti, for instance.
What's the advantage of singing in Italian?
The rhythm of the language is very important. I always compose melodies which are slightly too long. Structure-wise, the Italian language is similar, and you always add a vowel at the end. It's a very convenient fit. I usually write the lyrics in German first, then we both sit down together and translate it into Italian, and our Italian friends then proofread. Apart from its basic idea, the lyrics often change a lot in this process. Albertine speaks Italian pretty well, I still don't. I can only say what I sing. With every song, I learn new vocabulary. [Laughs] From an Italian point of view, we sometimes write pretty unusual lyrics, because the metaphors sound Germanic.
For all other non-Italians out there: what are your songs about?
I always aim at writing very personal lyrics, which might not be comprehensible because it's too close to what I'm dealing with. It's like how pop music should be in general. At the core, it's very specific, but it's expressed in a mundane story. It's often about discovering new grounds, leaving for other countries, about identity – exodus songs, actually.
Would you describe yourself as romantic?
Absolutely. I think this is one of the top five adjectives you would choose if you saw our show and listened to our music. The reason for this is also that we write these songs as a couple, a connection we act out on stage and in our music; it's all very colourful. "Cool" is kind of the antithesis to what we are doing.
Were you surprised about your success in Italy?
I had thought it possible, but I also very much doubted it. When we started, it was clear to us that Itaca worked in Berlin, but the Italians' reaction was much more important to us. If it hadn't worked in Italy, we wouldn't have continued – or we would've become a wedding band, not taking it seriously. But we got wonderful positive feedback from our first performances in Italy. They really got it. Playing Italy is also our focus at the moment. I have a bucket list of things I want to achieve. Originally, when we formed the band, I said that I wanted to perform on [public TV station] Rai1; then I'd retire. Meanwhile, I've added the Sanremo Music Festival to the top of my list. We're still working on that one.
EXBERLINER: 14 YEARS! 150 ISSUES! Fri, Jun 17 | Humboldthain Club, Hochstr. 46, Wedding, S-Bhf Humboldthain