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Bangkok-based Cosmic Tiger was set up in 2019 as a music fanzine to collate and share star-gazing sounds and musical learnings with like-minded beings from across the galaxy. The much-loved psychedelic despatch has now manifested a label arm, and launches with a re-mastered digital release of label founder Rocco Universal’s ‘Fleeting Eternity EP’ – which was previously only available on vinyl.
Artist: Rocco Universal
Label: Cosmic Tiger
Release Date: 2021-06-25
Interview with Rocco Universal
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today about your new release! Please introduce Rocco Universal to our readers. Hey, it’s an absolute pleasure, thanks for inviting me to chat. So, I was born in the deep south of Italy to a beautiful English rose of a mother and a rugged Calabrese father. We moved to England when I was a baby, and I grew up in the picturesque surroundings of Cambridge. I’m currently based in Bangkok.
How is the mood where you are? Are you guys in lockdown? To be honest, it’s bad at the moment. We’ve been in some measure of lockdown all this year after a brief reprieve for the second half of 2020. Currently, many businesses are shut, and even the parks and swimming pools are off-limits. We’re not supposed to travel between provinces now, so I’m really missing the sea and jungle.
What took you to that part of the world? I’ve always enjoyed being in Asia and have been coming to these parts for holidays for many years. I moved to Tokyo for a year to follow love in 2016, and we came to Bangkok together after that to continue the adventure.
Pre- covid, would we have found you on the club scene in Bangkok? Absolutely, yes. Things were going brilliantly before the world got turned upside-down. There is a surprisingly vibrant local scene here, lots of good DJs who play wonderful music, and a few producers and labels too. Pre-covid I had multiple residencies at rooftop bars – which I love because you don’t have to stay out too late and there’s no requirement to shout about the shows on social media, which I always feel a bit awkward about. I’d also do club gigs maybe once or twice per month, and I was lucky enough to travel to places like Bali, Singapore, and the UK multiple times per year for shows. We were in the midst of a pan-Asian Cosmic Tiger tour when Covid struck.
What is happening now where you are? Are there outside gigs like there are in the US and UK? No, this year everything has been stopped. Last year, we went into lockdown early and the government slammed the borders shut right away. This meant a lot of business suffered, because tourism is somewhere in the region of 20% of GDP here, but by mid-2020 the covid situation appeared to be under control. Ostensibly, anyway. For the second half of the year, we were able to hold events and I played at a couple of magical parties that were pretty overwhelming. I mean, to be able to do that while most of the world was locked down felt like such a blessing. The emotion of seeing a crowd of people joyously dancing to beautiful music, that sense of release and togetherness was so powerful. I even welled up at one point while playing, I had to duck down behind the decks to compose myself!
How long have you been involved in music? Man, a long time! The best part of a quarter of a century, I guess.
When did you start to DJ and produce? I’ve been DJing for over 20 years. I got a modest level of traction quite early on, but in my mid to late 20s I stepped back a bit – the nightlife was all getting a bit much for me and at that time there was a tangible shift towards a minimal sound that left me a bit cold. It was around that time that mp3 started to hit vinyl sales and for me, the scene lost a bit of appeal for a while. I started running community music groups and travelled a lot. As for producing, I’ve been doing so as a solo artist for maybe 14 years. I’d made a few tracks before that with a talented producer friend called Tom Neville, but he did all the hard work, so I never felt like I had ownership of those tracks. Since then, I began really diving deep into production and trying to improve and learn about all aspects, from musicality to the technical side. I’ve kind of taken the long way around, I don’t tend to use samples and I never touch producer packs, I try to use hardware as much as possible, and I do my best to play all the parts in live – having never previously learned an instrument that is sometimes a challenge. But for me, a big part of the pleasure comes from the hands-on jamming out of parts and whatnot.
Who were you listening to growing up? So much different music, man! As a child, I was informed by my elder siblings and parents’ collections. It was nothing especially esoteric, but between them, they were into ’80s pop, ’60s and ’70s rock, metal, and later things evolved as we all got older. As a teenager I was really into stoner rock, indie, and the kind of grunge my middle brother put me onto – bands like Butthole Surfers and Fugazi – and then Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, even The Levellers. I also loved hip hop, Tribe Called Quest, Arrested Development, Pharcyde, De La Soul, NWA, Snoop, Dre, Wu-Tang, and all that. Also, the likes of Stevie Wonder, James Mason, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and, of course, The Wailers. I never really understood dance music until I found myself somewhat under the influence in a squat party in London, shirtless and covered in UV paint while freaking out to techno and (what was then called) trance. That was a game-changer for me and was the beginning of a good many years of misadventure. Soon after I fell deeply for underground house music, again after hearing it in context – I’d always found it a bit cheesy up until then, but when I got to learn about legit Chicago, Detroit, and later French disco house, I really went for it. For a long time, I was a straight-up house and techno DJ, but over time I journeyed through US garage, disco, Italo, Cosmic, world music, Balearic, and more. Now I try to incorporate all of it and more into my sets and productions.
You have released previously on Leng. Tell us a little about that release? Yes, in 2016 they released my ‘Tiny Islands’ track along with a remix from Ray Mang. I feel blessed to have been included on their label because it’s a lovely project and the label owner, Paul Murphy, is a lovely guy. I’ve also long admired Ray Mang’s work, so it was especially nice to have him rework the music. ‘Tiny Islands’ came together very quickly, which is unusual for me as I usually ponder things for ages, eternally tweaking EQ settings and such (hence my slow-release schedule). I’d been making a lot of vaguely Detroit-inspired house and techno under my real name (Patrizio Cavaliere) until then, but I made a conscious decision to try something more Italo-cosmic in tone. I guess it was a bit of a turning point for me, albeit a non-dramatic one.
Also, on Midnight Riot. Quite a different style of label to Leng. What was the release and what took you to the label? Sure, yeah, I guess it is quite different. Midnight Riot certainly embrace the more feel-good, and at times cross-over end of the nu-disco spectrum, but their output is hugely varied, and they’ve welcomed artists like Amp Fiddler, Ron Basejam, In Flagranti and Ilija Rudman to the fold, too, and I have big respect for those guys. The label owner, Yam Who, is super friendly and enthusiastic as well. The release was called ‘Insieme’ and was my attempt at an ode to Italo house. Pete Herbert remixed that one, too, and he’s a legend and a lovely guy, so I was happy about that.
Tell us a little about the label – Cosmic Tiger? So, it was born out of the Cosmic Tiger fanzine I set up a couple of years ago. Initially, it was a space to reflect on interesting musical happening in and around Asia, but since everything has gone down the crapper on that front, it’s now morphed into more of a platform to host reviews, interviews, and mixes. I always planned to bring in a label element, but the ‘rona kind of got in the way.
Do you intend to release for other artists? Absolutely. I’m currently compiling an album of work from artists around Asia, and it’s shaping up quite well. A few of the guys who live in the more tropical parts are taking a while to submit their music, but I put that down mostly to the humidity. Max Essa was one of the first to deliver his pre-master for the comp, and he’s another cosmic hero, so that represents a wonderful start, I’d say. I’ll also reach out to my favourite artists from the rest of the planet along the way.
Would you say that Cosmic Tiger has a music policy or a sound? It will probably end up being roughly as difficult to pin down stylistically as my personal tastes. But, in a nutshell, I’d like to present music from across the kaleidoscopic spectrum of cosmic, Italo, Balearic, Detroit house, electro and maybe more. Let’s see how it evolves!
You’ve been collecting records for twenty years. How big is your collection? Do you have them all with you in Bangkok? My physical vinyl collection is not that big. Over the years I’ve halved my collection multiple times – giving the unwanted records to up and coming artists – some of whom have gone on to easily eclipse my achievements (Andy Ash, big ups). I have always hated clutter, and I’d rather have a compact collection where each record is pure gold than to have shelf space taken up with fillers. Also, travelling with big boxes of vinyl can be such a drag. Digital music has allowed more freedom on both of those fronts. I have four or five boxes of records here in Bangkok, the rest are in storage at my wonderfully accommodating brother’s house for now.
Have you still been buying records during lock down? Honestly not as many as I would have liked. The coffers don’t run too deep at the moment since gigs are off the table, so I just haven’t been able to budget for it. (Virtual) tonnes of digital music though.
Tell us an album you bought during last year? For the above reasons I haven’t bought many entire albums lately, rather I’ve cherry-picked the tracks I liked best. In terms of albums though, I think Sault’s magnificent output recently has been exceptional, Moodymann has had a couple in the last couple of years, Mildlife’s albums have been great, Khruangbin’s latest. Man, so much good music. It’s nuts.
The Fleeting Eternity EP has seen the light of day before, right? What made you want to revisit the release? Yes, it came out without much fanfare as a vinyl-only release in 2018 and garnered a little bit of a cult following among some artists that I really dig. I just wanted to introduce it to the digital domain as it feels like you bypass a lot of music lovers if you only press to wax, and, of course, sales of vinyl are not what they used to be. So, it represents a tiny portion of the market, as it were. It will be nice to have it available to all.
The conception of this EP was in Tokyo. What was the inspiration for the release? What’s the story? Yeah, so I packed up all my shit in the attic (and in my accommodating brother’s house), rented out my apartment and moved to Tokyo in 2016 with my then-new love. It was a wonderful and challenging experience. I was fortunate because my Leng release had come out the same year, and both Leng and its sister label Claremont 56 are hugely popular among the Japanese digging community. As a result, I was able to get gigs quite easily in an environment that can feel quite impenetrable to potential suitors, I think. I had shown most weekends, and the most memorable was at legendary Harajuku venue, Bonobo, with Max Essa and the Lonestar Productions guys. I had been missing producing, and the show inspired me to get back on it. All my studio kit was in the UK, so I went out a bought a Korg Minilogue and started jamming out an idea over a guitar part I’d recorded with my then neighbour, Cliff Ward, back in the UK. Again, the music came together quite quickly and before I knew it, ‘Fleeting Eternity was born. It was inspired by the proto-house end of Italo disco, and in my mind, I was trying to meditate on the concept of time, more specifically how a single moment can feel so consuming and eternal before quickly disappearing, and in turn, living on in the ether. The B side, ‘October’, was recorded in the UK at home a year or so before.
We’d love to know about your studio. Can you highlight a couple of pieces of kit that you used in the making of this collection? ‘Fleeting Eternity’ was almost all composed on a Korg Minilogue analogue synth alongside a guitar part and some drum machine grooves I wrote. It was all set up on our kitchen table in our miniature flat in the Tokyo suburbs. Over time I’ve smuggled over most of my kit from the UK, and I currently have a Moog Little Phatty which I use for most of my basslines and leads, a Dave Smith Mopho X4 poly synth that I use for chords and textures, and a Korg Electrybe Drum Machine that my friend Scott Hess gifted me. I’ve also got an Ensoniq DP4+ effects unit that I love, but it’s currently on the blink due to the humidity here. Maybe it’s dead, I hope not.
There’s a huge amount of new music around this last year. How do you go about sourcing new music as a DJ? It’s crazy, isn’t it? I get sent loads of promos from various sources, and I do my best to listen to them all. I also check new releases often as, even though I’m not gigging right now, I write a lot of reviews.
Are you into Spotify? How do you use it? What effects do you think it has had on the underground music scene positive and negative? I don’t use it. I think I have an account but I’ve no idea what my password is. I have no moral objection to it though, it took me ages to accept the demise of vinyl sales back in the early 2000s, but since digital music arrived, I’ve made peace with the new ways in which people consume music and other forms. It sucks that artists don’t get paid for their work anymore, but that’s been the case for a while now. I think the underground community will always exist with or without these platforms and whether you dig it or not, it’s just down to preference.
What other labels have you got your eyes on now? Well, there aren’t many labels that I’d say are ‘buy on sight’ for me, but there are many I look out for. Some of the re-issue labels like Omaggio, Disco Segretta, Soundway, Best Italy etc are always interesting. Sound Signature, Cosmic Rhythm, Hell Yeah, oh, this new one called Space Grapes is only two releases deep but they’ve both been exceptionally good and flew off the shelves. Too many to mention.
Who do you think is hot right now as a producer? Whoever is behind the aforementioned Space Grapes, it’s a mystery to me, but they’re great. I always look out for Kyle Hall, Waajeed, Omar S and all the Detroit guys, and UK artist Dego just had a marvellous EP out on his 2000black label. I’ll always check Justin Vandervolgen, Mytron has got a nice sound, Mori Ra does some cool edits. Again, there are so many that my mind has gone a bit blank.
What’s the best piece of musical advice you’ve been given? Given to me personally was from a producer called Joshua, just before I’d started producing on my own. He said, ‘it’ll never be perfect’, which is good advice, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to adhere to it as I still obsess over ironing out the many imperfections in my music for too long. Also, I watched a documentary about the making of Songs in The Key Of Life, where Quincy Jones said something about Stevie Wonder always leaving room for God to enter the music when composing, and how important that is. Doesn’t matter what, if any, belief system you abide by, that is some seriously inspirational advice. Again, I need to remind myself of it more often. Any of the music I’ve finished and released, I always feel that I’ve channelled it rather than invented it.
If you weren’t working with music, what do you think you would be doing? Well, since the pandemic, writing has taken over all my time, which is of course a blessing because otherwise, I’d be derelict. I’m doing music or travel writing for various publications including Juno Daily, Mixmag Asia and Expedia, so I guess there would be more of that. I also love gardening and growing vegetables more than most things in the world, so if money were no object, I suppose I’d do more of that. Whenever remuneration is involved, I get a bit scratchy. I’m not sure I was cut out for capitalism.
What else does Rocco Universal have in the pipeline? I have another EP on the way via Cosmic Tiger, but it might take a while as vinyl lead times are rather lengthy right now. I have a track coming out via Soul Clap sometime this year and am excited about that, also one on a charity compilation for German label Movida Records. Can’t wait to play music to dancers again at some point, going a bit stir crazy as we speak!