[WATCH] Why do we make music? For women, of course | Mario Vella

‘Rub Al Khali’, Brikkuni’s third studio album, has been described as a stark departure from earlier releases in tone and style. Main songwriter MARIO VELLA on how much of his own (very public) persona went into the finished product

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
19 February 2017, 10:01am
Last updated on 20 February 2017, 8:04am
Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella interviewed by Raphael Vassallo (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)
Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella interviewed by Raphael Vassallo (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)
Meeting Mario Vella at the Brikkuni rehearsal garage really is a little like entering an ‘inner sanctum’. If music leaves an aura, it can almost be felt echoing around the soundproofed walls. This is, presumably where all three of Brikkuni’s studio album first came into being. If so, how? Do songs materially arise from jamming sessions... or are they brought here complete, only to be rehearsed by the band?

Mario Vella: Generally, here is where we practise and put what we write together. But we tend to write songs at home or at each other’s places... at song-writing stage, I don’t like having all the band together. I think it’s more focused if you keep it to two, maximum three people. [Note: the main song-writing partnership is Mario Vella and keyboardist Alan Vella, with the others all chipping in.] On this particular release, I stuck to a very rigid musical vision. Perhaps it’s the closest, in the way it turned out to be, in terms of being faithful to the original idea. 

At a first hearing, the original idea for ‘Rub Al Khali’ seems to have been considerably different from the other two releases (Kuntrabandu and Trabokk). There is a noticeably more contemplative mood. And the lyrics strike me as more personal than the socially and politically charged predecessors...

Being honest has always been at the forefront of our music: whether we engage in social/political themes, or more personal stuff. There’s no two ways about it: ‘Rub al Khali’ is definitely the token breakup album. Aside from that, it delves into other existential matters that we previously perhaps only hinted at. So although many of our fans or listeners are stating that it’s a major departure for us, I don’t think it’s such a major departure. Perhaps aesthetically I would say it is quite different from previous releases. But as far as content is concerned there were always hints. This is perhaps the fulfilment of what we tried to achieve, on a less broad scale, in previous tracks on Kuntrabandu and Trabokk...

Musically, however, it does seem to be slower and more... orchestral, perhaps. Is it a case of mellowing out? 

I don’t know whether mellowing out would be the ideal way to express it. There are songs like ‘Ghaxar Snin’ which I consider to be extremely raw on an emotional level. I wouldn’t consider that mellowing out: far from it. [...] The other releases were more ‘in your face’. That’s how we wanted them. On this particular release I tried to go for a more contemplative mood...

Nostalgic, would you say?

There is a dash of nostalgia. A track like ‘Cpar’ does evoke that sensation. But more than nostalgia, I would say the album is concerned with the mythical nature of love... loss... and death. There’s sort of a – how can I put it? – an attempt to come to terms with the inevitable  aftermath of a breakup. But if you read in between the lines, there is a profound faith in romanticism...

One area where all three are comparable concerns the arrangements, which involve more than just your standard three-piece rock band. Brikkuni is in fact a large operation: its live concerts, for instance, feature an impressive array and musicians and instruments. How much of the organisational side of things is also down to Mario Vella? 

It’s quite a headache and I swear to you, I always try to keep things simple: I start with a simple idea, but then I keep complicating stuff. I hope I’ll manage to downscale things in future, because it can be quite a handful managing all those elements...

Traditionally it is also a source of tension within musical groups. I recently watched a documentary about James Brown, who turned out to be quite a military style disciplinarian as both manager and frontman...

I think he also used to fine his musicians for every mistake they made...

Yes, and he had a system of signals to inform them on stage. Is there anything comparable in Brikkuni? Does Mario Vella crack the whip like James Brown?

[Laughing] If I had to do that I would probably end up paying most of the fines myself...

At the same time the musical scene in general tends to come across as something of an ego arena. It’s not a coincidence that the term ‘primadonna’ comes from music. Does a band like Brikkuni ever reach the stage where tensions arise over who’s calling the shots?

I’ve experienced it on a very subtle scale in the past. But not with the current line-up. They seem very happy to sit back and let me hog the limelight. It’s not a case that... I don’t know, maybe I’m a primadonna in denial, but I don’t think I am... But I think the best situation for a band is to have no more than two outgoing personalities, balanced by three or four musicians willing to be more discreet. If you have five strong, outgoing personalities it’s a recipe for disaster. This is why not too many ‘supergroups’ have come up with brilliant material, I guess...

Applying the same question to the entire Maltese scene: local bands sometimes give the impression that they have a larger-than-life impression of themselves. You hear of ego-clashes all the time. Do Malta’s musical cultures and subcultures take themselves too seriously?

I think there is a slight obsession with celebrity culture in certain areas of local music. Mainly in the pop scene, I would say... which I just cannot identify with.  I’ve never understood this urge of recreating celebrity culture in a local context. Even logistically, it’s laughable... it doesn’t make sense.

One difference is that there’s a lot more money to be made out of being a celebrity in other countries...

Some celebrities can afford to pull it off. But it’s idiotic in Malta: what are you going to do? Play God on stage, and what? I’ll meet you at the supermarket the next day carrying a trolley?  

But doesn’t that also make for a vibrant musical scene? There are acts which make parodying that culture part of their identity. The one that springs to mind is Xtruppaw: I was present for one concert where they parodied Freddie Mercury by running on stage with a huge Maltese flag...

 An element of irony, you mean? 

Yes, Self-deprecating irony. And it’s not just in pop or rock, either. If you look at traditional folk music – Ghana – much of it is intensely ironic. Spirtu pront is mischievously humorous. Wouldn’t you say self-deprecation is part of the motif of traditional Maltese music?

[Pause] I’d really have to think long and hard about this question. There are a lot of artists, even in that particular area, that maybe deliver self-deprecating music... but try to criticise them, and another element comes out. And it won’t be self-deprecating, that’s for sure.   There are a lot of paradoxes in Malta. Even Ghana: it primarily owes its roots to the working class. It’s bona fide blue-collar music. Yet there are a number of Ghana singers who are quite flamboyant: turning up to their gig in a BMW or Mercedes. But these are great paradoxes which personally I love...

Sticking to your views about the rest of the scene: I met you at a recent concert and we talked about the band playing on stage. You commented that they were all very good musicians... but complained about the quality of the songs they were producing.  Does that reflect a general view about local music?

I think it’s a prevalent problem – if I’m allowed to say so – with Maltese artists, or individuals who nurture the ambition of becoming artists. We have good technicians that are perhaps not well-versed in the history of the art they are attempting to master. From an educational point of view, I find a lot of local artists lacking in that department. They’re all over the place. They’re great technicians, but they lack vision and scope in their approach. And there is a tendency to stick to what they love, too. I don’t want to generalise, but even if you read biographies of foremost pop artists, most of them are all-rounders.  People who are interested in literature, the visual arts... Everything that goes on in the artistic world. Sometimes I find that potentially great Maltese artists are divorced from other aspects that should be informing their work.

What are your own formative influences? What were you brought up listening to?

I’m a late-comer at practically everything in life. But the first time I really paid attention, serious attention, to music was when I got hold of the first Bruce Springsteen albums that an old friend of mine had lent me. It was the first time I really paid attention to what was sung as well as what was being played. Obviously I was curious enough to inform myself more, read... and to this day I still try, as much as possible to keep in touch with new musical trends. 

At the time we’re talking about, were you singing? 

No.

Were you thinking of singing?

I always had this urge to perform. At the time I didn’t have perhaps enough confidence. I was too scared of failing. And I think it’s important to fail, multiple times if need be, before achieving something substantial. If you’ll ever achieve anything substantial; because at the end of the day it’s the listener that has to determine that.

If you had to fill in the blank: ‘I make music because...’

I make music because... I’m going to tell you this, and people may laugh at me. But ask any songwriter, and if he had to be 100% honest with you, [he’ll say]: we make music because we want women to love us. Then there’s all the other stuff about insecurity that is thrown into the mix. But mainly we make music for women. Let’s be honest about it. I was having this conversation last Saturday with Mark ‘Iz-Zizza’ of Brodu – a magnificent songwriter – and we both agreed. [Laughing] We make music for girls, basically...

Perhaps, but with ‘Rub Al Khali’ you seem to have put a lot more of yourself into the writing than just that.  Doesn’t the more sombre, contemplative mood of the new album also negate the ‘rock star’ image of writing songs to get the chicks?

But it’s a boring image to carry all your life. And I think there are different hues to different people. People are idiosyncratic in nature. Hell, I am idiosyncratic in nature. So I’ll try as much as possible to tackle both aspects of such a personality. 

Is it ever a problem to put so much of yourself out there? Not just through music, but also in your outspoken public persona as a social commentator. Does it have an impact on your private life?

It would probably have an impact if I were a private person. But I’m not a private person at all. I don’t value my privacy very much... 

Does your outspokenness outside the band have any impact on Brikkuni itself, though? 

It probably overshadows the work most of the time. But I’m a firm believer that in due course, and in time, that will be forgotten and only the music will be the lasting legacy. At least I certainly hope so... 

One example would be the controversy over the Michelle Muscat comment, which cost Brikkuni a live slot in the Farsons beer festival. Has any of that had any lasting effects?

It could have, but to be perfectly honest with you I don’t know. I don’t think it was counterproductive at the end of the day. And anyway, I think we’re living in an age when local artists hold back way too much. I think they’re putting themselves in a corner and spelling their own death... 

Yet it didn’t use to be that way. Maltese rock used to be quite outspoken... there was a trend to be very vocal on social issues (Norm Rejection springs to mind, but there are others...)

I have my reservations about this, because I feel bands which are regarded as more ‘in your face’ locally, display that particular trait ONLY through their music. When it comes to being outspoken, or when the need arises to actually own up to what you deliver in your music, I think most of them are found lacking. That’s my humble opinion. I try as much as I can – and I’m not saying I succeed, I fail miserably on occasion – but I try to be as truthful as I can be to what I try to convey through my music. Obviously, if you’re outspoken you tend to make more mistakes than most....

Coming back to Rub Al Khali: whether or not it can be described as a departure, it suggests a development over previous records. Is there an overall direction you’re steering the band in? How do you see future Brikkuni music shaping up?

I can tell you where I’d like to go, but I don’t know where we’ll end up. I’ve always nurtured this ambition to produce a great 80s-inspired pop album. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage... getting it done at 50 might be a bit awkward, but I’m not all about ageing gracefully so I might do it. 

‘Rub Al Khali’ is available for download through Bandcamp on Brikkuni’s facebook page: https:/bandcamp/com.releases