Interview: My Cat Is An Alien

Given that My Cat Is An Alien’s output instigates the abandon of our conventional space-time, it’s somewhat appropriate that this interview is over a year in the making. In fact, the below discussion manifests as a beautiful chronological zig-zag: starting with the brothers’ collaboration with French guitarist Jean-Marc Montera, digging back to the origins of Roberto Opalio’s wordless vocalisations back in 2005, hurtling forth to their involvement in the opening of the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, peering into the MCIAA projects of the future, and covering the release of their brand new art collection The Other Sound Of Art, which encompasses material from throughout the entire history of the project. 

Yet of course, thanks to the ever-vivid way in which they articulate their relationship with sound and transcendence, Roberto and Maurizio Opalio manage to traverse the line of time as they throttle the present tense all the while. Below, we discuss the instigation of their collaboration with Jean-Marc Montera, forging shamanic links between the earthly and the cosmic, and the losing and the finding of the self.

How did your collaboration with Jean-Marc Montera arise?

Maurizio: It all came about one evening, after dinner at renowned French critic and writer Philippe Robert’s home. He was telling us the incredible story about the first time Jean-Marc Montera and Thurston Moore met in 1996. Maybe not many people know that Philippe Robert – who at that time run the cult fanzine called Numéro Zéro – is the main person responsible for their encounter, and helped to set up the recordings at Sonic Youth’s studio in NYC which led to the album MMMR (by Loren Mazzacane Connors, Jean-Marc Montera, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo).

In the same way, MCIAA’s collaboration with Jean-Marc Montera was highly suggested by the same Philippe Robert that night, who already figured out a great musical encounter: and he was totally right! We had a first telephone conversation with Jean-Marc Montera where we both felt that the trio had to be done soon, and so it was.

Union Of The Supreme Light was recorded at a show in Marseilles back in March 2015. What memories do you have of the performance itself?

M: So Union Of The Supreme Light is the live recording of the first ever show we performed in trio with JMM just two months after that phone call, occurred in Marseille at the legendary GRIM (Groupe de Recherche et d’Improvisation Musicales) which he co-founded in 1978 and directed until January 2017, when GRIM melted with GMEM, creating an even bigger cultural centre.

Roberto: It was definitely one of the most satisfying and nice shows we had the chance to perform. The concert hall at GRIM was wonderful, all made of wood and its floor entirely covered with twine striped moquette, a fantastic acoustic ambience and the sound coming from monitors on stage was simply perfect. The audience was exceptional: silent and focused from beginning to end. We would perceive its presence, yet a strong intimacy reigned all over, almost like when we record in the quietness of our small HQ in the Western Alps. The empathy with JMM was immediate and mind-blowing, something very rare.

In the hours preceding the show, including the soundcheck, we never talked about the music we were going to play, nor even tried to or felt the need to plan anything. I clearly remember the three of us in the backstage, looking at each other with complicity right before jumping onstage: the only thing we cared to agree was to start “in a silent way” instead of a blast. During the entire performance we two, as MCIAA, felt exactly like MCIAA had an additional third and complementary element fully in harmony with us, who was shaping the sound in the most spontaneous and symbiotic way possible, thanks to the so-strong psychic connection between the three of us. A simply magic experience.

How does the recording of the performance differ from your own memories of the experience?

R: What was stunning is that the final recording of the performance does not differ at all from our memories on stage: it’s exactly the same! This actually is not a thing to be taken for granted when listening back to a live recording, because our point of view shifts from stage performers to home listeners. That’s a totally opposite perspective that can confirm or diverge from our memory impressions. Instead, every time we put the stylus on Union Of The Supreme Light our minds get projected immediately on stage in that precise moment. Exchanging our impressions with JMM, he confirmed exactly the same thing, and we all agreed that such musical experience deserved to be fixed on record, in order to be shared with the world.

Do you feel the influence of your environment when you are creating your music? For instance, how is it shaped by the presence of a live audience compared to performing in a studio (if at all)?

Both: MCIAA’s music is MCIAA’s music wherever and in whatever context we are, in our own Alien Zone studio as well as on a big festival stage. That said, what makes a huge difference when we create at the presence of a live audience is the strong performative side that belongs to the innermost essence of MCIAA which inevitably shows up. Like shamans, we become a bridge between the audience and the arcane, primordial forces we deal with when creating our music. Music is the link between earthly dimension and cosmic dimension. Music is pure transcending power.

As with so much of your music, I sense that this record is an elevation to an elsewhere. I’m drawn to thoughts of deep space, but also to stranger, more abstract terrains even further afield. As creators, where does this music take you? Do any other activities/practices provide you with the same sensations and experiences that you derive from music?

Both: Glad to see you perceive a sense of “elevation to an elsewhere” in our music and in this album, ‘cause we feel a sensation of transcendence which – though typical of MCIAA’s outputs – here in this record reaches a highlight.
Creating music gives us a unique sensation that makes us feel like everything around us becomes perfect harmony: everything follows its own path, we’re dealing with mighty and arcane forces which – in that specific moment only – reveal themselves and shout out their reason to exist, “hic et nunc” (here and now). These forces are under and out of control at the same time, suspended between order and chaos, and for this reason they tend towards the magic uniqueness and non-repeatability of the creative experience that enlightens the instant: the process of poetic creation.

As you say, MCIAA also act through many other visual and intermedia activities like painting and drawing, photography, films and videos – what we call “cinematic poetry” – as well as installation art, art design, phonographic art editions and artists’ books. It’s a need. It all makes part of MCIAA’s universe. In this universe, music is the fil rouge, the invisible line that keeps every artistic discipline together, making all part of a sole creative process and project. Music is the more ethereal of all arts, and it makes us feel totally suspended in another dimension, where concepts of time and space have no meaning. MCIAA’s art always deals with transcendence, but nothing we create will ever be able to connect us so directly and immediately with transcendence as music does.

To what extent does the self hold a presence within your music? Does your music instigate a departure from the self, or a thorough reconnection with it?

Both: When MCIAA start performing music, both live and in studio since the process it’s exactly the same, it’s like turning on a special light switch: our own intellectual consciousness remains fully aware, yet at the same time we become part of a non-definite plan of creation in constant development, something similar to a state of altered mind in which we lose ourselves at some point, to eventually find ourselves again. Magic comes from the awareness of being we two somehow “instruments” ourselves of our own instantaneous music creation, a work of art which has a sole way to be done, again “here and now”. So doing our music it’s a two-way channel: it means a departure from the self and at the same time a thorough reconnection with it.

Roberto; I’m always compelled by your wordless vocalisations. They seem to navigate the music like smoke – hovering in the air, floating upon the inclinations of the unconscious. Can you recall how you were initially drawn to the wordless voice? Has your relationship with it changed or evolved over the course of using it?

R: I do really appreciate your considerations and I thank you for your question, the same way I feel grateful when people approach me at the end of a show saying “thanks for your voice!”. I consider my wordless vocalisations the most “personal” of all my instruments, the deepest expression of my soul, since they come directly from my inner body. I recall the first time I used them in one of our instantaneous compositions occurred in Black Shadows From Jupiter (2005), maybe not by chance MCIAA’s first session recorded in our Alien Zone HQs in Western Alps, after we quitted the Space Room studio in Torino. I was initially drawn to the wordless vocals by the idea, concept and necessity to express what through words and verses seemed too restrictive to me. Concretely and conceptually this allowed my voice to get free of any constraint on meaning.

At the beginning of this new vocal approach, I was still playing lots of space toys, thus it came spontaneous to filter my voice too through various toy mics and toy megaphones, then gradually I felt the growing need to delete any kind of possible filter, until I ended up using just a standard voice microphone, aiming to reveal the true nature of my voice.

During the years I developed my wordless vocalisations in the same way I’ve always been developing my way of creating music, I mean to create more and more transcendental and vertical sounds; thus now my voice can gently float through the sounds or powerfully emerge like a primordial howl, digging into the subconscious of the listener.

Initially I could not imagine that my voice would have soon become a further distinctive element of MCIAA’s music.

I understand that Roberto’s beautiful artwork was a gift to your late mother, and that it also spawned the name of the record. What can you tell me about this artwork, and what led you to pair it with the sounds made alongside Jean-Marc Montera? 

R: What this reply means to me is a sort of exorcism against the pain. Sometimes the serious, tragic nature of MCIAA’s music and art coincides with our lives. We recently lost our Mom, our guiding light; together with our Granny she was the only person to whom, humanly speaking, we owe the strong values we believe in and which define ourselves, and who, artistically speaking, always supported us, followed every project with great critical sense, and encouraged us to never give up our mission and choice of life even during the most tough moments. I created the painting you see on the cover as gift to my Mom, under her eyes, one afternoon at the beginning of her disease. I did it “instantaneously”, the same way as music, without further interventions. I tried to imagine my Alien-icon as a source from which all primordial energies that hold the secret of the cosmos spread, as well as a catalyst for drawing the most positive forces of the Universe. Once finished, I remember I asked her “What do you think? Do you like it?” Even before her answer, it was enough for me to see the joyful smile on her face, etched in my mind ever since. Then I placed the painting, measuring 89 x 90 cm, on top of a bookcase in the living room, reigning all over the room, and there it stands still.

Since our Mom immediately fell in love with the recordings with JMM and said they definitely deserved to be published, we decided to dedicate this release to her, thus using this painting in particular as cover artwork, which got also printed at best in 12” LP size by our beloved Starlight Furniture Co. label run by Seymour Glass, who instantly and enthusiastically agreed in doing a special tip-on old style jacket.

What other music have you both been listening to recently?

In the last couple of weeks:

Maurizio: John Jacob Niles, Jean Dubuffet, The Revolutionary Ensemble.

Roberto: Robert Ashley  ‎Private Parts, Andrés Lewin-Richter ‎Musica Electroacústica, Brigitte Fontaine & Areski Le Bonheur, Morton Feldman ‎Rothko Chapel / For Frank O’Hara, John and Alice Coltrane, old LPs of Koto music from Japan.

I understand that you opened the 57th Venice Art Biennale in May. How was it?

Both: Yes, MCIAA opened the 57th Venice Art Biennale last May. We were invited by visual artist Xavier Veilhan to activate his Studio Venezia project at French Pavilion. We send infinite thanks to Christian Marclay – who co-curated the project with Lionel Bovier – for giving us the opportunity to be involved in this fantastic experience. For Studio Venezia, Veilhan rebuilt the entire inner architecture of the French Pavilion, turning it into a gorgeous sculptural installation, a huge space entirely made of wood, inspired by Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, that housed a working recording studio, full of instruments at musicians’ disposal. After MCIAA’s opening, over 100 musicians would alternate during the six months of the Biennale. Between those instruments were two rare 1950’s sound structures by the famous Baschet brothers, giant guitar sculptures designed by Veilhan himself, a grand piano, electronics of any kind, a vibraphone etc. The project aimed to give visitors the unique chance to witness the music creation process as in a real recording studio, a moment of artistic creation which is usually inaccessible to people.

MCIAA had the privilege of acting during the first three days – the so-called “pro-days”, open exclusively to international media, press, museum and gallery directors, curators, etc., not to the public yet, and we had full freedom to do whatever we wanted. Following our concepts of radical instantaneous composition and live performance we created a work of “total music”. Thus, in this situation of massive turnout, we decided visitors to be part of MCIAA’s audio recordings too, by placing ambience mics everywhere: our idea was to make the entire space to become a totally immersive sound-performing installation, a proper 360° music experience. So, inside our ever-evolving sound sculpture, MCIAA’s live performances melted with people’s voices and their footsteps on the wooden floor, with our guitar amplifiers resonating from one side to the other of the Pavilion, loops and self-modulating feedbacks constantly permeating the space and the bodies, starting at 10am until 6pm for the whole three days. MCIAA’s live performative acts would often interact with visitors and with the actual wooden walls and floor too by playing instruments and Veilhan’s sculpture elements in unorthodox ways.

It’s been an amazing and unique experience. Overwhelmingly good feedback came from all kind of visitors, even the most accustomed to the “aseptic” sounds generally used in visual art contexts. Because of the attitude we had in playing the Crystal and Percussion Baschet sound structures, we have been enthusiastically invited by the director of Association Baschet to visit their studio-archive near Paris in order to record and film MCIAA experimenting with their vast array of original sound structures built by the Baschet brothers–whose genius can be compared only to Harry Bertoia.

Now we also own the entire music material we created during the Studio Venezia days: hours of unique recordings realised thanks to a very skilled technical crew lead by the great sound engineer Tibo Javoy. We’ve already started the mixing process, which of course will take a long time, ‘cause we want MCIAA’s Studio Venezia sessions to become a stunning, gigantic release.

Where else are you pointing your time and energy at the moment?

Both: On the second day of our Venetian stay, advance copies of our first official art monograph My Cat Is An Alien. The other sound of art (Edizioni Kappabit, 2017) landed directly at our hotel. It’s a retrospective on all MCIAA’s activities in visual and multimedia art since we formed, thus featuring paintings, drawings, installations, polaroids, color and b&w photographs and slides, film stills, sculptures, shots of live and private performances, rare images of paper notebooks and space toys collection from the private MCIAA Archives, alongside lots of record covers and limited art editions. As you can imagine it’s an oblique, “outsider” art catalog that totally mirrors MCIAA’s nature and aesthetics, and which challenges a little bit some “formal rules” and trends of this kind of publications: we worked in strict contact with the gallerist and curator Marco Contini who gave us total freedom about the entire project.

Starting from the Venice Biennale, MCIAA experienced a curious and unexpected “comeback” to Italy: we have never been so active in Italy like in the past months! In fact, Contini again set up a MCIAA art exhibition at his Contact gallery in Rome last June, while in November another art exhibition occurred at legendary Freddi gallery & antiquarian bookstore in our hometown Torino, focused on MCIAA’s artist books–linguist and Joyce expert Carla Vaglio entitled it ‘My Cat Is An Alien. Oltre il libro d’artista’ (‘Beyond artist’s book’). Indeed we worked a lot on this kind of artefacts lately, especially since we set up our Divinités Irritées private press (https://divinitesirritees.bandcamp.com/), publishing an ongoing series of multimedia artist’s books, each one accompanied by peculiar musical pieces created mixing our instantaneous compositions with field recordings of the actual books while being cut, torn, stapled and hand-assembled by ourselves. It takes lots of time and energies, but we feel it very exciting.

And what else is on the horizon for My Cat Is An Alien?

2018 is MCIAA 20th Anniversary, and we are planning many releases, projects and special live events: two brand new studio albums on Canadian Elliptical Noise Records, MCIAA The Sky With Broken Arms and Roberto’s soloist Once you’ll touch the sky you will never return to dust; a mini-CD accompanying a book by German avant-garde writer and poet Oskar Panizza published by French Lenka lente editions; Acremantra collaborative LP by Roberto with Fabio Orsi on Backwards; a collaboration between MCIAA and Sachiko Fukuoka on her Musik Atlach; MCIAA’s first release in South America published by Peruvian label Buh Records; the already-mentioned monster release of the Studio Venezia recordings, as well as vinyl re-issues of early and ultra-rare MCIAA material, and some previously unreleased stuff from the same period.

Byron Coley is currently working on the LP release of ‘MCIAA live at ATP Nightmare Before Christmas 2006 curated by Thurston Moore’ through Feeding Tube. One of the special live events will be the brand new collaborative project with Hungarian avant-garde poet and performer Endre Szkarosi that will be world-premiered at 24th International Poetry Festival “Parole Spalancate” in Genoa, Italy, alongside a MCIAA art exhibition at Palazzo Ducale. We’re also very excited for the first documentary-film on MCIAA is in production, and will feature special contributors… There are many more things, big events and surprises to come, so what you can do is to stay tuned… Alien Power!