Long before the world as we knew it was swallowed into chaos, Jennifer Villa and Alexandros Finizio, aka Technoir, had already decided to venture into new, sonically uncharted territories.
Released on 30 October on their label Kengah Records, Never Trust The Algorithm is their new album and “it’s not the result of the lockdown, but of its times” they confess. Three years after their acclaimed debut album NeMui (New Ecosystem Musically Improved), Technoir step out of their comfort zone and take us into their world with eleven tracks that encapsulate the last two years of their artistic and personal journey; their daily life, their idols, their favourite films, novels and comic books; their feelings and emotions during these dark times, but also the relationship with their identity, their artistic versatility and resilience in today’s music industry.
Crossing a wide spectrum of genres, from electronica and trip hop, to blues and rock with an industrial inflection, and drawing from the influences that have moulded their musical taste, such as Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie and Thom Yorke, Beyoncé, Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard, and Massive Attack, with Never Trust The Algorithm the Genoese duo sends a very strong and direct message, inviting listeners to be curious, to not be fooled by the powerful and invisible gears of a system which artists around the world have started to oppose with radical forms of resistance.
“In a world dominated by social media and technology, where algorithms favour just a few, monopolising art, culture and life, are we really in charge of ourselves?” wonder Technoir whom, fully embracing a DIY approach, have also curated the visual aesthetics and the videos for the album.
By letting themselves be carried away by the sound experimentations that ended up becoming the foundation of the album, the duo also took new directions when writing lyrics and arranging instruments, opting for less technicalities in favour of recreating all the nuances of the soundscapes they had in mind. “We needed to be less technical to recreate darker atmospheres inspired by comics like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Sin City; a more essential sound was needed in order to express this dystopian imagery that — as a fil rouge — brought all the pieces together,” they explain. “Our first record was inspired by the influences that first pushed us to create the duo and take this path, such as Flying Lotus, Hiatus Kaiyote, Thundercat, as well as black music generally speaking, i.e. Prince, Erika Badu. Our core is always the same, but we tried to evolve in a more personal direction, to explore other influences that we had set aside, Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor for example. Lately we have been listening to his soundtracks, like Watchmen’s; or Massive Attack, especially Heligoland that we have recently rediscovered, or even their latest EP which has inspired us a lot for the darker songs.”
Within this new sound exploration and conceptual frame, Technoir no longer want to be seen as a duo made up of a guitarist/producer and a lead singer. “We actually try to mix things a lot. Jennifer played a lot of instrumental parts, especially in the production phase, and she’ll start playing the keyboards and samplers at our live shows. We want to think of Technoir as the union of the two of us as artists, without having specific roles as perhaps it was before.”
Eager to learn more about their creative process and curious to delve even further into their imagery and Never Trust The Algorithm’s sonic universe, we broke down the album track by track with Technoir.
GRIOT: Cause and Effect opens the album, but it’s a statement in itself. The trip hop vibe of this track brought me back to the late 90s, also thanks to Jennifer’s rap. Tell me about it.
Alexandros: This song had a very strange genesis because it was the outro of The Dreamer (the following song), but it turned out to be the intro of the album. While experimenting with various types of beats I thought: ‘Why don’t we make you rap Jennifer?’ I was thinking of something between rap and spoken word, similar to Tricky’s songs with Martina Topley-Bird from Massive Attack. I think with her voice, she could be very good at doing that, and so the track was born. Also, since The Dreamer is the more guitar-based song of the record, in Cause and Effect I got rid of it in the spirit of being essential.
Jennifer: It was the first time I tried to use my voice like this, I felt so vulnerable doing this.
Alexandros: This was also part of getting out of our comfort zone, both for me with the guitar and for Jennifer doing different vocal things from her specialty. Lyrics-wise, the idea came from thinking about how social networks monopolize our lives almost more than the things that happen to us in real life. They are physical, we can no longer say they are a virtual reality, but it seems that you can insult anyone or write racist or homophobic stuff without any kind of repercussion, even though we know that is not true.
After the emotional enigma in which you left us with the intro, The Dreamer’s fantastic guitar riff cheers us up again. Where are you taking us with this track?
Alexandros: In this tune we emphasized the rock and pop aspects. Jennifer had the idea of having a string sample in the pre-chorus that recalls brit pop — in our head it was a reference to Blur or Gorillaz. It is a love song that speaks of our relationship somehow, because lately we’ve been supporting each other a lot, aside from being a couple in real life. It was nice to put a ray of sunshine in a dark album.
Jennifer: I like the idea that we didn’t think about what we wanted to write, but simply about which words fit well in a chord or melody. Even in Alexandros’ parts the lyrics came up like this. I appreciate that certain artists – for instance Beyoncé in Lemonade – don’t think about the lyrics that much, but they focus more on the musicality of the words which, nonetheless, make perfect sense. One of the best examples is Thom Yorke, whom I’ve been listening to a lot more lately: if you read the lyrics, musicality is everything.
Speaking of icons like Thom Yorke and Beyoncé, we get to the third track, Icons. The electronic soundscape you created has got very interesting rock and blues references that somehow make the listener feel in a desolate moorland or desert.
Alexandros: This song was inspired by Wood in My Blood by Massive Attack. We got the idea of doing a track on a percussive, mechanical rhythm and I emphasised the industrial inflections focusing more on dissonant, acid sounds, rather than on soft electronic soul.
Jennifer: In the verse there is always a word which repeats, we wanted to have a kind of response, a symbol. Even if it makes no sense, with the repetition you always enter a new world that everyone sees in their own way; like being in a circle and repeating chants together.
Alexandros: We imagined a Texan swamp, like in Lansdale’s novels that are set in this very rural and gloomy Texas. We thought about blues and gospel songs, actually there’s a hint in the verses which builds up in the choruses.
With Haters Hate you go back to your signature sound. The track is accompanied by a colourful animated video that anticipated the release of the album. You went out of your way both musically and visually. Tell me about the creative process during these two different phases of the project.
Jennifer: Yes, as you said, it is the most Technoir track. We wanted to make an animated video since the previous album, but for several reasons it didn’t happen. During lockdown we thought: ‘Why don’t we try to make an animated video ourselves?’ So we bought a graphic tablet, watched some tutorials and started animating. As we always do, we divided the tasks between the two of us: I took care of the rotoscoping – we took some videos which I then traced in Photoshop to make certain scenes feel more natural – while Alessandro did the colouring and the freehand drawing. It was nice because in a situation where you have too much time to think, it was very relaxing to do something else, even just sit there with the tablet and listen to music while focusing on a frame. Many things we have done over the years have arisen out of necessity, and we always try to be as sustainable as possible.
Alexandros: Also, we tried to go back to the graphic concept of the album cover which I drew as well. The idea was to recall the comic books imagery: Alan Moore, Sin City, or Andrea Pazienza. The cover is the representation of the title: a human being drowning in a digital sea. It would be nice for everyone to see whatever they want in it. That was my interpretation but, according to Jennifer, the human being is rising from the sea. Generally, we have always been interested in exploring the multimedia aspect of everything that gravitates around a music record, which is our main means of expression. This was a new challenge for us, now that we know we enjoy doing it, I think we will do more. We would also like to create the visuals for our live show — of course for when it will be possible again. The song itself is clearly inspired by neo soul, in our opinion it served as a bridge with previous works.
Jennifer: As the title implies, it talks about the situations we have faced during the years. We have encountered a lot of excellent people, but there’s also people who are not there to help you, actually they try and bury you if they can. It was fun to do a more ironic, soulful track with our collaborator Lucio Massimi on the sax, who was also featured in the other record.
Hayami / Bitter Awakening is another tribute to the comic books and anime cultures. You collaborated with Veezo on this track, right?
Alexandros: This is the last face to face collaboration we did before the lockdown. The idea was to recall the comics imagery in a manga key and even lyrically it’s a completely different style compared to the other songs. We thought of it as if it was a theme song from an imaginary anime which maybe we could think of producing sooner or later. It talk about this super heroine, a warrior from the Japanese Middle Age.
Jennifer: Yes, there were some female samurai at the time. In the first part, where the beat is faster, this warrior is fighting, she’s the best and she’s the strongest. While towards the end of the song, there is a reflective moment in which she stops to think, however, it’s open to interpretation. We wanted to have Veezo, Fabio Visocchi, because we respect him a lot as an artist and you can always feel his presence in a song.
Alexandros: With Fabio we were able to realise another idea that we’ve had for some time which was to use modular synths. He has a more analogue approach compared to ours which is more digital and we wanted that influence to be felt in the song.
Let’s talk about Il Male [Evil]. This is the first time I’ve heard Jennifer sing in Italian, tell me why. Also, “has anything ever been born from evil” in your opinion?
Alexandros: This song has more trap, electro influences and it wasn’t born as a Technoir song. We have started making music under another name for syncs, but also film scores, which recently we have been listening to a lot. For this reason the song was entirely written in Italian, but then we made it more Technoir and we decided to include it in the record.
Jennifer: This song is about rebirth. I imagined this dying tree and I’m like a little girl looking at this tree and wondering: ‘was anything ever born from evil?’ This can also be interpreted in different ways because in my opinion, yes, something good can arise from a bad thing, it can make you grow, become a better person.
Alexandros: I, on the other hand, interpret it the opposite way: was anything ever born from evil? No. So let’s stop spreading hatred everywhere because nothing comes from evil, we should plant a positive seed.
The Beauty We’re Losing. It seems that beauty is being lost in everything, from nature to life. Which beauty are you talking about?
Alexandros: This track’s feelings are very related to the sound. The words don’t make sense and musically it’s perhaps one of the most distant songs from what we have done so far. The idea of using Jennifer’s voice like a rap returns, there are several vocal effects but it’s a very essential piece. Here we particularly curated the sound design and we also decided to sing together, which is something that divides our followers a lot, but I believe that we evoke such different worlds vocally, that my voice is an extra colour, they are almost complementary.
And then we get to Nomad which gives me the same feeling of loss and disorientation and it brings in a psychedelic, grunge reminiscence.
Alexandros: Yes, so far the record was deliberately erratic mood-wise, but now it stabilises on this gloomy atmosphere. Compared to The Beauty We’re Losing, we abandoned the usual neo soul beat making for a percussive beat topped with guitar layers that give a grunge vibe. Even though we went in a new direction, the voice brings everything back into our world. As for the lyrics, in this song we bring back a theme we had already explored in Nemui, as the title suggests, i.e. the relationship with one’s roots, a discourse that has always been pivotal for us. I have always been in touch with my Greek and Italian roots, but Jennifer hasn’t since she was adopted as a child.
Jennifer: I used a much deeper register, than I usually do to emphasise the feeling of not being at home. Here the imagery was also fundamental: as he simplified the guitar playing and the production, in the vocal part I wanted to minimise it too, which is why this track has such a hypnotic rhythm. My roots are something that I’m always exploring, so this song feels particularly personal and dear to me, without taking anything away from the other songs.
Insomnia is almost an interlude and Alexandros sings solo, how come? Which feelings do you want to express with Insomnia?
Alexandros: The song was born as an interlude with vocal experiments, because I am working on using my voice more and more. This was the final result which we may expand in the live version, and of which Jennifer oversaw the vocal production.
Jennifer: Yes, it was very nice!
Alexandros: I find the whole album very nocturnal, we thought a lot about this and about how much I actually struggle at the moment. I have trouble sleeping lately, so this inevitably affects my way of being and of making art. Then I came up with the idea of using this more personal fragment in the album, which is otherwise kind of abstract. This record definitely comes from a “dark place”, but it’s also our way of coping with this negative energy.
Jennifer: Generally, it feels like you’re not allowed to be sad lately. This doesn’t want to be a heavy-hearted record, but it’s a message to say that it is normal to have ups and downs during one’s existence. It’s not healthy to believe that everything must always be beautiful.
Alexandros: If there are no rules, if this is the situation, the only thing we feel like doing as artists is to be authentic, to do the most authentic and honest thing we can. Authenticity is the only rule to apply to all things in our opinion, from composing to communicating on social networks.
There Was a Time. As the title implies, it’s a melancholic track and it’s interesting to notice that the word ‘time’ appears in both the titles of the last two songs. We go back to electronica in a way, but rock is always there. The lyrics only surprise us at the end and the harmonies create a fantastic soundscape.
Alexandros: Yes, they are two complementary tracks, even if that was not the idea. There Was a Time introduces an influence that has not been felt yet which is film soundtracks. Unintentionally, it has become a sort of tribute to Morricone and that style of film scores long before he passed away. We wanted to recall that 1960s Spaghetti Western imagery, so much so that in the lyrics Jenny almost quoted a dialogue from one of Sergio Leone’ films. We were fascinated by the idea of a gunslinger, a decaying warrior of some sort, speaking of a past time, phrases that evoke a remote world that this character remembers with nostalgia. So we created a soundtrack for this imagery, in fact we created a theme.
Space and Time is the outro. Jennifer sings: “Do you feel what I feel? Do you see what I see?” What are you trying to tell the listener with this last track?
Alexandros: This is the most futuristic and deconstructed song. There is a dichotomy between these last two tracks: 1960s cinema vs modern cinema. This can be seen as a tribute to the soundtracks of modern cinema suggestions such as Interstellar. That kind of science fiction has always fascinated us and this is our way of putting those feelings into music.
Jennifer: Interstellar was fundamental because I had never seen it before. There is this almost supernatural moment that is a joy for the eyes to see and it has inspired us a lot. This was also a way to come to a close.
Alexandros: It’s us, but seen through a filter, all our components are there, but a little alienated: the beat is not a real beat, but a deconstructed rhythm, and the instrument fading out towards the end that feels like a synth is actually a guitar. It’s like the sound of these aliens that we are trying to communicate with, as if that sound was their voice.
Main image | Photo by Giacomo Carlini – Courtesy of Technoir
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