A psychedelic tumble through time and taste, with Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O and the Brooklyn art-punks Parquet Courts as your spiritual guides, MILANO is an album that no one but Luppi could have invented. It's a song cycle about fashion and furniture, money and power, sex and drugs, set in a lurid dream-world version of Milan in the high 1980s (with occasional incursions by downtown New York circa '77). It's an utterly demented, ridiculously fun work of mixed-up cultural history.
We spoke with Karen O and Parquet Courts singer-guitarist Andrew Savage about MILANO, which is out on Danger Mouse's 30th Century Records today. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
The story begins in late 2014, when Parquet Courts received an unexpected communiqué from Daniele Luppi.
"He said, "I'm working on this record with Mark Mothersbaugh about Milan in the '80s, and we need a band to play." I'm a massive Devo fan — they're one of my top favorite bands of all time. That's the carrot that brought us in.
I did not know who Daniele Luppi was. I mean, no idea. Had it just been Daniele Luppi saying "Hey, I'm Daniele Luppi," honestly, we probably would have passed. But I'm glad we didn't."
At an initial meeting with Parquet Courts and Mothersbaugh, Luppi set out his vision for the album.
Andrew Savage: "Maybe because I'm American, I thought it was an unusual place and time to be writing a record about. But I was really charmed by Daniele. He was evidently a big fan of the band, and he wanted to record with us right away. So we trusted him.
In April 2015, we played Coachella. In June 2015, we went to Los Angeles and started recording at Sunset Sound. Daniele would hum something quickly, and we would just get in there and write a song. It was all very fast. He wanted it to sound fresh, and even rough sometimes.
Mark was there, too. He played on stuff. There's actually a long ten-minute jam that we all played on together that I hope gets some kind of release some day."
In between songs, Luppi and the band talked music and art.
Andrew Savage: We listened to a lot of Suicide and James Chance. Lots of New York no wave. I brought up the idea of some Italian punk from the '80s, but he was like, "No." It wasn't meant to sound like Milan in the '80s. His reference points were much more American 1970s.
He invited Peter Shire to the studio to talk to us about Memphis Group furniture while we were recording. Very sweet guy. I was familiar with Memphis, but I wouldn't have said I was a fan. Like a lot of people, I probably would have cast it off as kitsch. But it's a lot deeper than that.
After a week in the studio, the band returned to New York and waited. In late 2015, after hearing finished versions of the instrumentals they'd worked on that summer, Savage began writing lyrics, based loosely on a narrative arc that Luppi had sketched out for him.
Andrew Savage: "It was almost like an opera. One of the characters he outlined for me was a young woman called Lola who's discovering the city for the first time. That's all he told me. So I wrote a song about how she robs a guy at gunpoint when he tries to take her home — that's "Pretty Prizes." I had been reading about the radical leftist politics that were going on in Milan in the '80s. In my mind, she's either Marxist or anarchist, and she expresses her disapproval in a Robin Hood way, by robbing these wealthy men and threatening them with blackmail. She needed to be interesting besides being a cute girl, you know?
"Soul and Cigarette" is written from the point of view of Alda Merini, was a famous Milanese poet. She had a pretty tumultuous life; she was institutionalized multiple times. The idea of that song is her at the end of her life, reflecting on her childhood and on her life in Milan. That wasn't something Daniele and I talked about, I just wanted a different voice."
For the garage-rock romp "Memphis Blues Again," Savage riffed on Bob Dylan's surrealist 1966 classic "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," which inspired the Memphis Group's name at a 1980 meeting of designers in Milan.
Andrew Savage: "That's my favorite song on the record. That one's sung through the mouth of Ettore Sottsass — it's the Memphis manifesto, writ large as a punk song. Mobile is the Italian word for "furniture," so that was irresistible. The song came out great because I let myself be dumb and silly. A lot of the time when you do that, you end up with something clever."
Savage recorded his vocals in early 2016 under the impression that some of them were reference tracks for Mothersbaugh to sing later. In subsequent months, Mothersbaugh would exit the project due to scheduling conflicts, and his work didn't make it to the finished album. This the stage for Karen O to join MILANO last fall.
"Brian Burton [a.k.a. Danger Mouse] hit me up and said he wanted to play me some music. He was totally vague about what it was, but I went over to his apartment and he played me a few songs off of this record he was helping Daniele with.
I was shocked. I hadn't heard that kind of music since the dawn of my career in the really early 2000s — that post-punk, underground New York, late-'70s, early-'80s stuff. It felt like a lifetime ago that I'd heard music like that sounding so fresh. I thought it was dead and gone for a while! To hear it re-envisioned with a new energy was so cool. I was hooked.
Everything about it was appealing, except for the prospect of doing more than one song. Even one song I wasn't sure about. I hadn't done anything in that style in a really long time, not since the early days of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And I had basically been on another planet, raising a child for a year.
After all that time, it was kind of the opposite of what I thought I'd do as a first thing coming out of that baby haze. I was like, "Man, maybe I should recommend this gal or that gal instead of me." Then I thought about it some more, and I was like, "Ah, fuck that, I can do this."
After listening to the songs that Parquet Courts and Luppi had completed thus far, Karen O joined Luppi in L.A. to record her parts at Sunset Sound.
Karen O: "It was the first time I'd been in a studio performing since 2012 or something. I didn't really know Daniele. I felt rusty and self-conscious. I had to just go for it. It took me a second to feel like myself, and then I was good.
I wrote the lyrics and did the vocals for "Flush," which was really fun. I felt like I was going back to an older part of my brain that I hadn’t tapped into for a little while — like I was playing the part of myself in my twenties. My life is so different now, but I can still channel those feelings of angst and irreverence and sexuality and tongue-in-cheek humor. It was really liberating for me.
It got easier as it went along. It felt more like acting, in a way. My references were the Slits and Lizzy Mercier Descloux — I love how playful that stuff is."
Earlier this year, the artists heard final versions of the songs they'd worked on.
"Daniele was like, "I got Karen O to sing on this." I was not someone who knew a lot about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It would have been totally age-appropriate to be into them, but I was pretty devoutly into hardcore and punk back then. But once I heard her voice on the songs, I knew it was a good move. She really elevates it."
There are no current plans to perform MILANO live, although both artists say they'd be interested. Savage recently released his solo debut, and Karen O is working on multiple other projects, including an album with Danger Mouse and a new musical. For now, then, MILANO stands alone.
"The album is pure passion and creativity. It's wacky and wonderful that way. I admire that Daniele went so far-out, instead of hemming in his vision. As someone who's been in this industry for a long time now, it's always a breath of fresh air when you hear that. It's really rad."