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Few people have the right to say their music is a planetary phenomenon, but the Italian-Anglo collective centred on producer players Sergio Della Monica, Alex Neri, Domenico GG Canu, and Marco Baroni can make that claim with confidence. They are the masters of open frontier funk, in the broadest and most shimmering sense of the f-word
With a history of worldwide monster hits behind them, the team that two years ago stormed the charts with ‘Chase The Sun’ have taken their eclectic groove evangelism to the next level. The introductory Planet Funk album ‘Non Zero Sumness’ vividly demonstrates that you really can knock down the studio walls and create an open vision of dance music, emotionally connected right across the horizon, from Miami high life to Ibezan beach bar hedonism, from the social reality of Napoli and London backstreets to the spiritual vibe of Celtic folk
When Sergio, Marco, GG and Alex decided to take their time with a first album, there might have been some justification for scepticism. Traditionally, a dancefloor hit leads to a rushed album cash in. Who knew whether it was worth spending two years in the studio, perfecting the marriage of the digital and human, working with different singers, expanding genres and gradually evolving into a fully functioning live band complete with guitars
But if it was a risk to aim high and hold tight to ideals, then it more than paid off. Last year they emerged into the Italian sunlight and found themselves with five singles in the charts. They also won the Italian music industry award for best dance act, best newcomer and best band. Clearly someone out there appreciated their ambition. “The main reason we started, and went on to spend two years in the studio was that we felt that music needed to move forward, because we felt that everything was changing around us,” says Sergio. “The world was changing and you feel the change. People who make music are privileged because you spend your life talking with people and in clubs and on the street, its part of what you do. We feel the change day by day, minute by minute. So at that time we were a little bit tired of our music and we needed to mix up the cards again.”
There is indeed a breathtaking span of influences and a daring range of hybrid song types in ‘Non Zero Sumness’. Planet Funk’s mastery appears to recognise few limits. They can do gorgeous, gliding ethereal house, chic international mega-funk, devastatingly poppy Euro-dance, strange cyber-punk beats, storming juggernaut grooves, ambient abstraction and soulful, melancholic organic house. Part of the album’s range is down to their collaborations with different vocalists. UK singer Dan Black brings an edge to the tunes with lyrics rooted in clubland truths and social honesty. The sometime frontman for his own experimental band The Servant and former member of Leigh Bowery’s risqué art pop band Minty adds punky venom to the slamming groove of ‘Who Said’, and helps convert ‘The Switch’ into a scarily addictive, pleasingly surreal slice of pop. Again they’re within kissing distance of radio melodies on ‘Inside All The People’, but there’s a vital infusion of reality in the form of Dan’s vocal evocation of alienation in clubland. By contrast Sheffield based singer Sally Doherty lifts the mood away from nightlife madness and takes it up onto a spiritual plane. Bringing her experience within classical and Gaelic music to the Planet Funk tapestry, she picks up where the vocalist on ‘Chase The Sun’ (Lapland born Auli Cocco) left off, taking the bands studioscapes into the great outdoors and up above the clouds. If Dan is the Planet Funk imp, then on ‘All Man’s Land’, ‘Under The Rain’ and ‘The Waltz’, Sally is their angel. “I think of Planet Funk as a musical collective with different personalities, including the singers,” says Sergio. " The singers don’t simply perform songs for this project, it really is a collaboration that will continue on the next album. There’s a psychedelic influence of the band which sometimes meets the happy, hard influence and then there’s the energy of rock, so to describe our concept, our vision we wanted two different angles. So Dan is very eclectic. On stage he’s a force of nature, he’s unbelievable, he jumps around, and Sally is more ethereal, because ambient is part of our influence as well. And we found in Sally the right voice, the right soul to express that."
“I like to imagine the album like a journey through the night, starting with a nice Ballearic sunset outside the Cafe Del Mar and then having a mad night, and going through tracks like ‘The Switch’, and ‘Inside All The People’ and then approaching the sunrise, like a Martin Scorcese movie, a kind of kaleidoscopic, telescopic night so you can go from left to right and touch everything in that night.”
Its not just the two years labouring away in a Naples studio that lie behind their debut album’s breadth. ‘Non Zero Sumness’ is also the culmination of over a decade spent in clubs, studios and on the street, and the sum of the group’s inspirational experiences in Italy, the UK, Europe and the U.S. In the 90s Sergio divided his time between London and Naples. Reacting against the glut of Italian piano anthems, he joined with fellow producers Domenico GG Can and Alessandro Sommella (now the ‘ghost’ extra member of Planet Funk) to form the highly successful Souled Out! As well as their own hits like ‘Shine On’ the trio were remixers and producers behind many hits including a host of big club tunes released on their own Bustin Loose label. Sergio’s path crossed with that of Florence based DJ Alex Neri when the Bustin Loose label licensed a track by Kamasutra (‘Where Is The Love’) which happened to be the hit machine pairing of Alex and keyboard maestro Marco Baroni. By the end of the 90s Alex was looking for the next musical step to take. As resident DJ at Florence’s Tenax club he had put in the years of dancefloor studies. What he wanted was something more Leftfield, and more free, but with the same energy
In 1999 he met Sergio’s partner GG at the Miami Winter Music Conference and found that the aspirations down in Naples were along similar lines to the ones bubbling up in Florence. Within a year the newly formed two-city, four-man Planet Funk collective had succeeded in gluing its first hype free hit to the decks of everyone from Pete Tong , DJ Harvey, Adam Freeland to Deep Dish and Hybrid. It takes some kind of genius to be as open to ideas as Planet Funk, and yet still pull together an album that has a unity of sound and purpose. The partners in musical discovery are as happy to talk about the Florence indie rock scene and late 60s psychedelia as they are about the good days of the rave scene in Naples and the contents of cutting edge DJ boxes. They are not afraid of pulling social concepts into the remit either. The song ‘Under The Rain’ has an ecological tint and was inspired by listening to Native American chants; the album title is from a book by American author Richard Bright which puts forward a global theory on human relationships. In hands as skilled as those of Planet Funk, the big ideas work with the irresistible grooves to make for a key record, brave enough to challenge the stereotypes. “Of course a lot of dance music, just goes ‘Baby baby baby, shake your ass’,” says Sergio. “But there’s a lot of great dance music as well, like New Order, Massive Attack, Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers and these are the things I like. Sure, people say to you, ‘What is Planet Funk?’ But I think our music is original, thats the main issue. Its not dance, its not rock. I think that sonically the album is very well linked. The writing is a bit eclectic but I can mention at least five acts who are too, from Beck to Talking Heads.”
Carving out their own space but continuing to be deadly effective in the charts, Planet Funk are just trying to tilt the earth enough to allow them to have the best of both worlds. And its working brilliantly. They’ve already done best dance act and best live act. They’ve already done hits with brains. The producers who invaded the festival circuit even took their guitar wielding, real drummer plus DJ, big band incarnation on stage after one of the Gods of old school musicianship – Carlos Santana – and lived to tell the tale. With their live show continually mutating and developing, the live Planet Funk experience looks set to challenge the arena club act greats. There couldn’t be a better time for a killer hybrid dance crew to go up against the global forces of small minds and musical xenophobia. “I want to try and do our music for as long as possible, so if you imagine it as a journey in development its easier,” says Sergio. “I don’t want to be stuck in one form for the rest of my life, and obviously that involves a risk but I’m happy to take those risks and pay my price. We just feel that this is our music, and whatever happens we want a challenge.”
Planet Funk? The earth definitely deserves them.