A mainstay of disco and electro since the early 1980s, Italian producer Alexander Robotnick has also dabbled in jazz, ambient and global sounds throughout his long career. His latest album, ‘Simple Music’, suggests there’s no sign of him letting up

Of all the lessons that the long and colourful history of electronic pop can teach us, perhaps the most crucial is never to underestimate the potency of cheap music. Veteran Italian electro producer Maurizio Dami, aka Alexander Robotnick, is living proof of this golden rule.

Under this sardonic Franco-Russian synthpop alias, Dami made a minor splash in the early 1980s, then progressed to numerous other projects. But his Robotnick alter ego then took on a life of its own, acquiring cult kudos as an unsung pioneer of European dance music, and eventually helping to rescue the Italo-disco subgenre from its tawdry reputation for unsightly mullets, soapy melodrama and cheesy novelty hits.

Thankfully, Dami has not made the Day-Glo, plastic, synth-heavy sound of Italo-disco wholly respectable, but just credible enough to reclaim its rightful place in the pop pantheon as a key ancestor of eurodisco, Italo-house and electroclash. The genre once dismissed as disposable holiday romance music has become an immortal part of the connoisseur canon.

Indeed, you can hear its DNA pulsing through Robotnick’s latest album, ‘Simple Music’. With its neon-lit Betamax futurism, flirtatiously cooing vocoder chants, fuzzy bleeps, warm melodic ripples and chunky analogue synth riffs, the album is a Proustian feast for the senses. Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1985.

Simple Music’ is the first in a planned quartet of connected albums, each revisiting and rebooting genres from Dami’s four-decade back catalogue of club-friendly electropop.

“The next one will be out in late February,” says Dami down a scratchy video link from his studio HQ in Florence. “It’s kind of disco. Then I will make a sort of Italo album, and the last ‘Simple Music’ project will be kind of techno, to give more focus to the emotion that arises from melodies and harmonies in a simple way because I am not Herbie Hancock. I miss this music from the 1970s and 1980s.”

A spry and lean 72-year-old, Dami is not quite the oldest swinger in town, but he has been making music since the dawn of the electronic age. In that time, he has seen fashions ebb and flow, superstars rise and fall, and entire movements crash and burn. He has endured fallow periods over the decades too, but never given up on music, rebooting and reinventing himself for each generation. While the nine lives of Alexander Robotnick have kept him agile and adaptable, random fate has also played a role in his multiple career rebirths.

Born in Florence in 1950, Dami grew up with teacher parents in a house without television. He had a freewheeling youth, dabbling in music and politics.

“I was an activist on the extreme left side, not a terrorist!” he recalls. “I was a hippie – or really we would say a freak – in the 1970s. We were living in the countryside in France and also working on the fields in Tuscany.”

When punk came along, he was drawn to bands like Suicide and James Chance And The Contortions, but not the overall lifestyle.

“I could never be a punk as a person,” he insists.

Dami’s early route into making music was studying jazz guitar.

“I started very late,” he says. “I was already 27 when I went to jazz school. I played jazz guitar with a quintet of students, nothing special, for a couple of years. Then I moved into electronics because, starting so late, I couldn’t reach a very high status on guitar like Carlos Santana, ha! Electronics was easier. I had studied music so I could arrange things without being so good.”

As a founding member of Avida, an early 80s new wave act also featuring Daniele Trambusti and Stefano Fuochi, Dami made the switch from jazz to electropop. The band took their name from “Avida Dollars”, the anagrammatic nickname given by disparaging critics to painter Salvador Dalí. The trio emerged from Florence’s buzzing underground music scene, centred around a nightclub called Tenax which opened in 1981 and still operates today.

“Florence at that time was really good for new music, for disco, for everything,” recalls Dami. “It was really ahead compared to Rome or Milan or other cities. Avida was experimental music coming mostly from the 1960s but made in an electronic environment, with lyrics in Italian. It was very interesting but maybe too ahead of its time for Italy, so in the end I decided to leave it and start with Alexander Robotnick.”

Dami created his Robotnick alias after the boss of Avida’s label, the small Italian indie Materiali Sonori, recommended that he try to cash in on the emerging Italo-disco movement. The persona came with the fanciful backstory – that of a suave Russian exile in France – largely because Dami could speak better French than English.

“At the time, in the early 1980s, when I wanted to make a project myself, everyone had English names,” he explains. “So I chose a Russian name to create a little distance from such people. Anyway, it was just a joke.”

The debut Robotnick single was ‘Problèmes D’Amour’, a proto-techno throbber laced with melodic synth motifs and wry French lyrics, released in 1983 and now widely regarded as a classic of left-field Italo-disco. Dami was also an early pioneer of making dance music with the Roland TB-303 bass synthesiser and TR-808 drum machine, later to become crucial tools in the acid house boom.

“The main reason I used such instruments was because they were cheap,” he laughs. “The TB-303 was considered a toy, something for musicians to play with. Then eight or 10 years later, the same instruments were used by acid house, but in a different way.”

‘Problèmes D’Amour’ was picked up for US release by Sire, who promptly commissioned a sharper new mix by legendary French DJ François Kevorkian.

“He didn’t remix it,” explains Dami. “He mixed it better, but he didn’t change the music. For many years, I considered the mix of Kevorkian really good compared to mine. But later, when I started DJing, our mix with original keyboards sounded much better. Ha!”

But even with superstar DJ support and a growing international profile, ‘Problèmes D’Amour’ only sold around 10,000 copies in its initial run, a modest number for the period. Hence Dami moved on to other projects after releasing the first Robotnick album, ‘Ce N’Est Q’Un Début’, in 1984. Around the same time, he also quit his civil service office job to work in music full time, much to the alarm of his family.

“My parents were desperate about this decision,” he grins. “But after a couple of years I was actually earning more money from music than I had in the office, so they were OK with it.”

In 1984, Dami joined the multimedia group Giovanotti Mondani Meccanici and began composing soundtracks for theatre and film, fashion shows and art installations. In the late 80s, he also started playing with African, Kurdish and Indian musicians on various ambient and international music projects, notably the Indian-Italian band Govinda, and this continued until the early 2000s.

Robotnick was consigned to history as a one-off novelty, or so it seemed to Dami at the time. If his electro-disco persona had been more successful, perhaps he would have stuck with it long enough to capitalise on the DJ-driven dance music boom of the late 1980s.

“Maybe,” he shrugs. “But it’s also my character – I am curious about everything. So immediately after doing this, I started to play with African guys… electro-African music. I’ve made completely different types of music throughout my life.”

In fact, when house music and rave culture exploded in the late 1980s, Dami was thoroughly unimpressed.

“The first raves I went to, I was disgusted!” he laughs. “I would listen to the music, especially in the early 1990s – deep house was fantastic. But I hated clubs and crowds and all these people. So I went my own way completely, working in world music, playing in Italy in villages, which was a really good experience. It was successful, but we were five people, and back then the fee was one million Lira – that’s about 500 Euros, so we got 100 Euros each. But it didn’t stop us doing it. We really loved that music.”

Dami has now been a professional musician for 40 years. But there have been sparse periods along the way when fashions changed, bookings dried up and survival looked precarious. At the turn of the millennium, he even dabbled in more conventional work to pay the bills. It’s the perennial dilemma of most self-employed musicians.

“Yeah, 2000 was bad,” he says. “I tried different jobs – like being a web designer, for example. But music is an addiction. You cannot stop. I have given up many things, but not that.”

Around this time, the notion of a Robotnick renaissance dawned on Dami after noticing his long-dormant electro persona being namechecked online as a cult figure in euro-dance circles, and younger artists and producers hailing him as an unsung founding father of Italo-disco. This led him back to the vintage music he had always dismissed as commercial trash, digging beyond mainstream bubblegum acts like Sandy Marton and Baby’s Gang to find more respected cult artists like Mr Flagio, Ciasco, Bob Salton and the seminal Klein & MBO.

“In the early 1980s I didn’t like much of that music at all,” says Dami. “But then I didn’t know the real underground Italo-disco – I just watched TV and was disgusted by that stuff. But then people started to say, ‘You are the king of Italo-disco!’.”

Dami launched his own label, Hot Elephant Music, in 2000. Two years later, he reactivated his Robotnick alias and began making dancefloor-friendly analogue electro again, releasing the ‘Oh No… Robotnick!’ album with Rome-based techno DJ Max Durante. In 2003, he recorded the fantastic ‘Viens Chez Moi’ with French electroclash pioneers Kiko and The Hacker, who invited him to DJ at the Spartacus club in Aix-en-Provence. He said yes, carefully neglecting to mention that this would be his first time on the decks.

“Yes, my first gig was in France and I was 53!” he laughs. “I wanted to understand it, so I listened to other DJs, I learned this job, and now I think I’m pretty good as a DJ. The music industry likes to give you just one simple label but as a musician, it is always time to remake yourself. Classical musicians always did it.”

Over the last two decades, Robotnick has continued to expand his legacy as a prolific composer, DJ and collaborator. Alongside a steady stream of new albums and retro rarity compilations, he has remixed tracks by Giorgio Moroder, Little Boots, David Carretta and more. In 2010, he and fellow Florence electro boffin Lapo Lombardi, aka Ludus Pinsky, released ‘The Analog Session’, a joint album recorded on vintage studio equipment. One of Dami’s favourite antique synths is the Wasp, with its iconic striped design and touch-sensitive keyboard, made by British company EDP from 1978 to 1981.

“When you are making the music that I do, electronica, you need analogue,” insists Dami. “All the instruments are terrible – they get broken continuously. Fortunately, my mate Ludus Pinsky, who joined me on projects like ‘The Analog Session’, is a genius at electronics so he fixes my instruments.”

As the nine lives of Robotnick unfold, Dami’s musical horizons broaden. Last year he revisited his early love affair with jazz on ‘Radio Versions Vol 4’, which features eccentric covers of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’, John Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’ and Miles Davis’ ‘Freddie Freeloader’ alongside five original tracks. So, after all these years, does Dami secretly regret not following his jazzy muse?

“I never think about that,” he laughs. “Obviously jazz is where I started, so there is always some nostalgia for it, but I never thought I was good enough at it – I was always better as Alexander Robotnick. But my love for jazz is still the same. I listen to Coltrane when I go in my car to the seaside.”

Florence remains Dami’s main home and studio base. But he and his partner of 30 years, Donatella, usually spend the winter months at their house in Sri Lanka, with excursions across to India. Outside his musical projects, Dami has been shooting short, wordless, observational video documentaries across India for years, which he uploads to YouTube under the umbrella title ‘India Through My Eyes’. His latest plan is to expand these into a full-length documentary project.

It was the enforced Covid lockdown in Sri Lanka that first inspired Dami to begin work on his ‘Simple Music’ albums.

“I was stuck in Sri Lanka for six months because I couldn’t return to Italy,” he says. “So I started to compose music there.”

Dami also plays regular Robotnick DJ gigs in India, spreading the Italo-disco love in Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore and other cities. Since his turntable debut in 2003, he has appeared at numerous legendary club venues, from Berlin’s Berghain to Amsterdam’s Paradiso and Chicago’s Smartbar, not to mention Fabric, Ministry Of Sound and Plastic People in London.

Even at 72, Dami remains an infectiously sparky performer behind the decks, bouncing away and chain-smoking, although nowadays he increasingly feels the strain of travel.

“Maybe if there is a reason to stop it’s because travelling is hard,” he sighs. “But playing is always fun.”

While financial rewards are a factor, they are not the be-all and end-all.

“Money is not so important because I can live without much money,” he insists. “I did it for many years. There was a thin period when I was really poor.”

Retirement, he says, is simply not in his vocabulary. The nine lives of Alexander Robotnick stretch to infinity and beyond.

“If you are a musician, an artist or a writer, there is no pension for you – you cannot retire,” shrugs Dami. “But also it’s impossible for me because people keep asking for things. Anyway, I cannot live without music, and I cannot live without composing in the studio – that’s the best time for me.

“If you think about Giuseppe Verdi, he composed his best opera, ‘Otello’, when he was almost 90 years old. It’s kind of an addiction, you know? You cannot stop making music.”

‘Simple Music’ is out on Hot Elephant Music

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