UNREAL CITY is a young RPI band from Parma, in northern Italy, that came into existence in 2008, released a first album in 2013, and a second one in 2015, both to great appraisal from critics and fans alike. Today, UNREAL CITY are Ema Tarasconi (keyboards, lead vocals), Francesca Zanetta (guitars, mellotron), Dario Pessina (bass, bass pedals, backing vocals), Marco Garbin (drums) and Matteo Bertani (violin, additional keyboards, acoustic guitar and backing vocals).
Jean Roby – First things first. Do you remember the first prog album you listened to ?
Ema Tarasconi – I remember it very well. At the time, I was 13 years old and listening mostly to classical music, Italian songwriters or rock artists such as The Beatles, Dylan, or Simon & Garfunkel. My first prog rock album was Alan Parsons Project’s The Turn of a Friendly Card. It was the 27th August 2003, and the first time I heard the first song intro, Maybe a Price to Pay, played with synth brass, I was really stunned. It was amazing. Then came Pink Floyd…
Francesca Zanetta – I don’t really remember. I’ve been into prog music since I was a kid – therefore there are hundreds of albums that could have been the first. I remember quite clearly that I ran into Pink Floyd (still my favourite band) via The Final Cut, which may sound quite unusual since it’s not often considered one of their masterpieces, but I still love that album very much !
Dario Pessina – The first prog album I listened to was Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso’s Darwin… when I joined Unreal City in 2013. Since my family wasn't really into prog music, I started to listen to it really late and not as a kid like some of my other bandmates.
Marco Garbin – When I was 6 or 7, my brother, who's 9 years older than me, was listening to Pink Floyd’s Meddle, and I joined him in the room. I immediately fell in love with the song One Of These Days ; that was the first time that I played drums, too.
Matteo Bertani –The first prog album I listened to was King Crimson’s Red. I was a child, but I still remember the awesomeness and the emotions these songs gave me. Listening to David Cross play an electric violin, I realized I wanted to became a violinist too.
JR – After that, what led you to focus enough on that musical genre that you wanted to play and create such music ?
ET – I don’t know… I think it was because it allowed for the perfect integration of pop-rock culture with my classical background.
FZ – As I said, I’ve been into prog music for almost all my life, therefore when I decided to start playing an instrument – guitar – when I was a kid, focusing on prog rock was most natural. I’ve always played prog rock, since the very beginning of my musical experiences.
DP – I loved how you could put so many types of music together and create new sounds every time you try to write a new song.
MG – I think a kind of willingness to explore music.
MB – I studied violin at the music conservatory for more than 12 years, starting at a very tender age. During those years, I played a lot of musical genres, from classical music in orchestras to pop, folk and rock music. All those experiences left me with a lot of curiosity and the will to experiment within music – progressive rock is a genre in which you can actually play almost everything and it still works no matter how many changes in mood, tempo, and rythms there are.
JR – Are you self-thaught or did you have a formal education in music ?
ET – Yes, I have a formal education, but not institutional. Italian institutions don’t encourage rock experimentation among their students, and I left them as soon as I could receive a private education from my piano teacher.
FZ – I’ve started playing guitar when I was in middle school. At first, I was just messing around with strings and chords, exploring the instrument without really knowing what to do, but soon after I decided to attend a music school in Milan, my hometown. And I attended a lot of different schools through the years!
DP – I'm self-thaught and I’ve started playing bass very late in my life, in 2011 – but I feel like I really began to grow when I started to play with the band in 2013.
MG – I started playing drums when I was 12 but, for many years I've been self-thaught – and lazy ! At school, I studied classical guitar for five years, and then I came back to drums, starting to take lessons. Recently I took piano lessons, too.
MB – I studied violin at the music conservatory for 12 years. Also, I've learned guitar and piano all by myself.
JR – How did the band start and where did its name come from ?
FZ – I first met Emanuele in 2007 in Milan, where we had a prog band called The Syllogism. We were just 15-16 years old at the time and we played during weekends in some rehearsal room, but soon we realized that Emanuele played so many keyboards that it would’ve been too great a task to bring them for rehearsals each time. Moreover, he was living in Parma back then – more than 120 km away from Milan –, and he had a very nice private rehearsal room there, so we simply decided to move our band headquarters there. We had a very unstable line-up at the time and, after some months, following the arrival of a new drummer, we just decided to change the band’s name. Emanuele and I are both fans of T. S. Eliot and the name of the band (together with our debut album’s title) was an homage to his poem, The Waste Land.
ET – The first song we ever played, in an anonymous rehearsal room in Milan, was Pink Floyd’sIn the Flesh… For sure, it’s been one of the best days of my life.
JR – Did you perform live a lot before you felt you were ready to record your first album ?
FZ – Yes. Unreal City started in 2008 and we spent more than 5 years playing live, at the beginning mostly as a cover band (Pink Floyd, ELP, Yes, King Crimson, PFM…). After a while, we started playing some original compositions, at first sung in English, and you can still find traces of them in our debut album La Crudeltà Di Aprile.
ET – Yeah. Sometimes, in the beginning, we played in unworkable conditions…
JR – Your first album, La Crudeltà Di Aprile, was produced by the well-know multi-instrumentalist and composer Fabio Zuffanti (Finisterre, La Maschera Di Cera, Höstsonaten, etc.). How did that happen and what did Unreal City learn from him ?
FZ & ET – In the middle of 2012, we contacted Fabio because we really wanted his opinion about some of our compositions ; his answer was that he offered to be the artistical director of our debut album, since he was then collaborationg with Mirror Records, an imprint of AMS Records. Fabio is a great contemporary prog musician and he has lots of great ideas, plus 20+ years of recording album experience. And we were just a bunch of kids in their early twenties with almost no recording experience. It was very useful to have Fabio aboard. He wasn’t involved in the creative process of composing songs for La Crudeltà Di Aprile, but he gave us some very precious hints about how to make it sound better. We’re very grateful for his presence during recording sessions and we think our debut album would’ve been a lot different (we don’t know for better or for worse !...) without him. Of course, since we really care about our own identity, we decided to be our own artistic directors for the second album, Il Paese Del Tramonto, but many of the tricks we learned from Fabio were absolutely useful !
JR – Where you surprised when La Crudeltà Di Aprile received raving reviews from all over the place ? And did such appraisal open new doors to perform live ?
FZ – Yes, of course. Deep in my mind, I knew it was a good album, but knowing it yourself and having people you don’t even know appreciate it is very different ! At first, I was really amazed by the warmth of the prog rock community in welcoming this new album from an unknown young (maybe too young) Italian band, and even now everytime someone tells me they like our music it’s a great feeling ! Of course, after the release of La Crudeltà Di Aprile, we had the chance to play a lot more and in many different places than before – especially to play with Il Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso during the MetaRock Festival in Pisa, in 2013. It was the first time we played on a big stage and it was also kind of intimidating just to think we’d be playing on the same stage as Banco…
DP – Yes, I was really surprised! The first time I listened to the album I thought it was really good, but when this huge amount of really amazing reviews arrived, I started to realize how good it was and how much people liked it. I'm amazed every time I think about it.
JR – You were invited to give a concert at the Terra Incognita Convention in Québec city in May 2014. Was it your first time in North America and what have been the main benefits Unreal City gained from the experience ?
ET – Yes, it was the first time, and it was really brilliant. The Québécois audience was amazing. I remember with much emotion the applause at the start of the piano theme from our first song Dell’Innocenza Perduta. What a fantastic evening !
FZ – Well, the first thing to say is that the Québec city audience was very different from an Italian one. In Italy, we have many great prog rock bands, but the average audience listens to prog and thinks it’s old music – it really hasn’t much appeal over here. Of course, there’s an aficionados niche even in Italy, but it’s not the same as the one in Québec. We were really amazed in 2014 – when we left for Québec city we thought we’d be playing in front of an audience who didn’t even know who we were. But we were really wrong, everyone there was really friendly and people were telling me they’d listen to our album dozens of times and there I was just wondering about how it was possible that people from the other side of the world had listened to the debut album from some Italian band…We loved playing there and I think the audience liked our performance too. After the gig, we were almost overwhelmed by the crowd reaction, we really didn’t expect such a thing.
DP – Yes, it was my first time in North America and it was awesome. Everybody was really kind, the place was beautiful. We really enjoyed staying there.
JR – At one point, Francesca said : « In Italy, we have many great prog rock bands, but the average audience listens to prog and thinks it’s old music – it really hasn’t much appeal over here. Of course, there’s an aficionados niche even in Italy, but it’s not the same as the one in Québec. » On the other hand, as perceived from abroad, Italy remains one of the most fertile hot-bed of prog rock, with an unending stream of young bands popping up, along with well-seasoned musicians getting into new projects after new projects. Would you care to comment on this apparent contradiction ?
FZ – I think that it's because of the great number of prog bands we had during the 70s. I think people nowadays associate that kind of music with their parents’ music and therefore with something old. Maybe in other countries where there weren’t so many prog bands at the time it still remains something with a bit of appeal. I don't know why we still have a lot of prog bands – of course, the metal scene has lot more bands than prog, but still there are a lot of new prog bands popping out. I can't explain why. Maybe as my fellow mates have said, prog is a musical genre mostly liked by musicians and this could be why it keeps on going, even if it isn’t really liked by Italian audiences. That said, there are a lot of people who like prog music outside of Italy, so it isn’t dead and that's great in my opinion !
DP – Personally, I think that prog rock’s the type of music that’s mostly liked by "musicians". Usually the songs are difficult to listen to because of the odd time signatures and technical playing, and they’re somewhat long, so people listening to it might get bored after a while. That's because they aren't used to this type of musical complexity. For example, when my friends and relatives listen to our songs, they usually tell me : "Yeah, you guys are good, but the songs are a little too complex and long for me." That’s why I think prog in Italy usually doesn't draw that much attention – it's more a genre for musicians who want to challenge themselves and want to create something that’s free of "stereotypes".
MG – In Italy, we have a strong tradition, both of prog and pop music. I think that prog music has been overtaken over the years by the pop music tradition, maybe because it hasn’t been able to renew itself for a while, and so most of the people lost their taste for prog. Now, we still have a strong core of prog lovers (who are mostly musicians) and a bunch of very good prog bands, and many of them look back to the "glorious" past for their inspiration, but progressive has lost its popular appeal.
MB – In my opinion, the audience in Italy thinks that Prog rock is an old musical genre. They consider it a not-easy-to-listen-to music genre because of its complexity. On the other hand, lots of Italian musicians are fascinated by Prog, because it gives them more freedom when composing.
JR – In January 2015, you released your second album, Il Paese Del Tramonto, again to raving reviews from critics and fans. How would you describe the main differences between this album and the first one ?
ET – I’m very fond of our first album, for its sound and atmosphere, so I cannot denigrate it in order to exalt our second one. But surely Il Paese Del Tramonto is more sophisticated and refined in its structure and concept. And it’s also more orchestrated with the other guys in the band. When I composed the songs for La Crudeltà Di Aprile, I was alone with Francesca, and so they became sort of keyboard-centered pieces with long guitar solos in their instrumental sections. The other instruments were more in the background.
FZ – Il Paese Del Tramonto is undoubtely a more mature album. Many songs from La Crudeltà Di Aprile were written when we were just teenagers. Il Paese Del Tramonto is more complex and we tried to give its own space to each instrument. Also the concept behind the album is more articulate and I find it very interesting indeed.
DP – In Il Paese Del Tramonto, we gave more space to each instrument and, because it’s a concept album, we composed the songs trying to stir some specific feelings within the listener, according to the story. Of course being an Italian-spoken album, foreign listeners are missing a lot of content, but we hope the music can speak for itself. And we really love when people ask us for English translations of the lyrics (which we didn’t put online on purpose), because we understand that people really want to know what’s behind the ancient goddess portrayed in the artwork !
JR – On both your albums, you’ve had Fabio Biale as a guest violonist. Then, about a year ago, Matteo joined the band. Of all the instruments you might have chosen, what’s so special about the violin and what does it add to Unreal City’s overall musical identity ?
ET – Sometimes, in Italy, critics say we’re too symphonic – with some irony, we decided to face this disapproval by becoming… even more symphonic ! I’m joking… Since the beginning of our adventure, I had dreamed of having a violin in the line-up. I really love its sound and its ability to transform the mood in every song. We were waiting to find a violin player able to go from a classical interpretation to a more rock and jazz improvising way of execution. In this role, I think that Matteo’s playing is perfect.
FZ – Violin is a very versatile instrument. We decided to add it on one hand because of the parts already written in our two albums which we were really tired of playing on keyboards, and on the other hand because we felt that having a new musician could open more possibilities for the musical texture of the band. Moreover, Matteo also plays additional keyboards (which are very helpful in live situations) and backing vocals together with Dario.
DP – We opted for the violin because of our symphonic nature. We just felt like it was the right thing to do at this point of our musical carreer.
MB – In my opinion, violin is essential to give this group a totally Italian feature because violin is linked closely to Italian music culture and tradition. As I see it, it’s one of the main reasons why the band was glad to have a permanent violinist instead of a special guest for recording sessions.
JR – In your albums, you’ve explored dark themes, bordering on the sinister or the morbid. Were these themes simply a fancy of yours ? or were they connected to your studies ? or could they be (also ?) a metaphor of the world as you see it ?
ET – Well, maybe they’re uncounsciously connected to our studies, but this was a pre-condition for this project. We wanted to avoid the classical « Tolkien-wannabe » progressive themes : in Italy, every single prog rock band seems to follow that pattern. In my musical formation, there’s also much dark and goth ’80s British New Wave. I really love bands like Bauhaus, Sisters Of Mercy, Joy Division. Especially in La Crudeltà di Aprile, I wanted to put something of that background in it.