How Curses and Berlin fell for each other
In a city steeped in techno and awash with black, it takes something unique to make an impact and stand out as an electronic artist and musician. For Curses, this came through being true to himself and not skewing his style and sound to fit a trend.
Curses is the moniker of producer and performer Luca Venezia. Luca strikes a cutting figure with a strong sense of style. The two-piece suit he is wearing for our photo shoot gives him an air of confidence; someone who is comfortable in their own skin. Luca’s slicked back hair displays his rockabilly leanings, one lock falling in front of his face. The metal rings and pendants add a slightly gothic touch and complete an idiosyncratic yet cohesive look.
Luca’s outward appearance could lead you think he is cool and aloof, but he is the opposite. He’s warm, friendly and open. During the shoot, the plan was to have some small talk and get loosened up, but his passion and enthusiasm for music and what he does meant that right from the get-go we were in the heart of things and firing up the recorder to capture all of our conversation.
Born in New York City, Luca grew up surrounded by music. His mother introduced him to classics artists such as Iggy Pop and the Talking Heads. By the time Luca was nine years old, he had already decided he wanted to play the guitar and his instincts drove him to seek out more hardcore sounds. He became a regular at punk institution CBGBs before discovering the warehouse rave scene. The crossover vibe of the parties appealed to Luca’s punk roots. Gabba, trance and drum’n’bass were all represented, and punk-rock kids were moshing at the shows and getting involved. Luca was drawn to the drum’n’bass scene, and it was here that the seeds were sown that led him to his first real foray in the music world.
In the early 2000s, under the name Drop the Lime, Luca started producing and DJing breakcore, channelling his hardcore leanings in a more contemporary direction. He continued to evolve as an artist, and when bass music took off he found another sound that seemed to provide a meeting point for his love of heaviness and electronic music. Despite achieving a level of commercial success and recognition, something just didn’t feel right. In 2015, he left both NYC and Drop the Lime behind, headed for Europe, and never looked back.
Now living in Berlin, Luca has revived his relationship with the guitar, returned to the music that drives him, and reinvented himself as Curses. His debut album, Romantic Fiction, is a potent mix of Italo disco and atmospheric post-punk. There is a certain darkness coating the record – a sense of the macabre but without the gloom. It has a foot on the dancefloor, steady beats and thick bass moving it along. Luca’s vocals are deep and haunting, but there is an energy and positivity that shines through. Berlin gave him the space and freedom to be himself, and Romantic Fiction is the result. But it’s not the first time he has lived in Berlin, and this time things have worked out quite differently. “When I first moved here in 2005 there were a lot of squat parties playing breakcore,” he says. “I remember maybe the first week I was here I went and saw Alec Empire play and he was like snapping vinyl and slicing himself and I thought ‘Oh, woah, this is so punk! This is crazy, I want to move here!’”
But the love affair didn’t last. Luca was still young, and, as is the way with many youthful infatuations, reality bites. The other person isn’t quite as perfect as you thought they were. Or at the very least you’re not ready to deal with the imperfections or you don’t have the maturity to deal with the problems. Luca is happy to acknowledge this now. “I lived here for less than a year. It kind of left a bad taste in my mouth and I hated it after my stay. I think because I was so young, I didn’t really understand that I couldn’t make a living making very, very underground music at the time. I didn’t know how to break into the DJ world and I didn’t know enough people. Even though my rent was 200 euros a month for a massive place in Prenzlauerberg. I wish I still kept that lease, I fucked up. I gave it to my friend, Silvan, who then gave it to someone else, but, you know…”
Failing to keep a hold of one of the fabled old Berlin rental contracts might seem like a tragedy in highsight, but the apartment wasn’t ideal. “I do remember it had a coal oven and I have bad asthma,” Luca explains. He also didn’t really know how to help himself at the time and cope with the challenges of living in the German capital. “The winter was hard and I didn’t even try to take German lessons. It didn’t even register. ‘Oh, want to know how to integrate better? German!’ I was frustrated and fighting the bureaucracy. I didn’t have a visa either. So I hated it. I said ‘Fuck, I hate Berlin, I want to leave.’ Then I left and I never thought I’d come back.”
Moving here allowed me to embrace a part of me that I never felt comfortable embracing.
For a partnership to succeed, it takes a bit of work from both sides plus a dose of good timing. It was a full decade before Luca would make his way back to Berlin, and even then he didn’t come directly or intentionally. “I actually left New York City for London. I was too comfortable in New York. The music scene was getting a little too monotonous for me and I wasn’t excited. I had a lot of friends in London who all said I should move there. I was offered a soundtracking job and so I went to London. The soundtracking job got cancelled and I was spending more money than in New York. Also, the scene at the time wasn’t really what I was into.”
It’s not an unfamiliar story. A lot of artists struggle with monotony and comfort. Seeking new pastures is one way to shake things up and deal with it. Berlin is a city that appeals to people because of the varied and vibrant culture and all of the new experiences on offer. It can be an incredibly stimulating and exciting place. This could be why Luca’s return trip here lasted a lot longer than expected. “I came to Berlin from London to visit some friends for a week in the summer and met all these people making similar music to me. Everybody was so friendly and so helpful. My friend was going to New York for a few months and said I could take their flat, so I thought I’d test it out. Then that was that.”
Four years later, Luca is not only fully settled in his new city, but he’s feeling more at home and more himself, all of which has had a profound impact on the music he makes. “Moving here allowed me to embrace a part of me that I never felt comfortable embracing – the ‘80s Italo new-beat and new-wave vibe. Stuff I always loved but I never thought I could embrace in America. I don’t know why, but here in Berlin I felt comfortable enough to do it.”
Embracing a style that was different to any project he had been involved in before led to Curses really coming to life. The fruits of the new approach are seen in the post-punk-tinged disco noire of Romantic Fiction. In places it is brooding and atmospheric, the album is also uplifting and ethereal. The bass is slung low and the guitar cuts through sharply. The tracks with Luca’s vocals are deep and resonant, and guest vocalists Perel and Jennifer Cardini complement his style perfectly. It strikes a sweet spot between making you want to dance and being just a damn good record to listen to. It’s electronica, but a little twisted. Whereas Luca’s previous projects were pretty focused on crowd-pleasing, he took a totally different approach for this record: “It’s the first time I’m not thinking about the dance floor. When I make the track I’m not thinking, ‘What’s the crowd going to be like?’ I’m just making music for me. Fuck it, at this point I’ve had ten years of doing that – trying to fit in with the trends, management breathing down your neck saying ‘Make us money, make us money, do this’. I changed management and did what I wanted to do stylistically, in Berlin you can afford to do whatever you want and be honest to your craft. Sure, you’ll be making less money, but I’m happier.
It’s clear to see that with Curses, Luca is really being true to himself. The word ‘authentic’ is bandied about with such frequency these days that it has almost lost its meaning but on this occasion it holds water. When you look back to Luca’s incarnation as Drop the Lime, you can tell that he was trying to exert his own influence onto an existing sound. Whereas Steve Aoki was happy to bury his punk-rock roots under thick layers of cheese and eventually turn it into arena-sized EDM, Luca kept trying to stamp his own style onto the early bass trend. He brought his rockabilly aesthetic into the mix, using his guitar skills and even a harmonica. Even then his hair was greased back, setting him apart from a scene that was becoming more and more homogenous. In his videos from the time you can see the invisible hand of management – Luca was playing a part and wasn’t fully comfortable with what was going on. “I was trying to shoehorn, trying to work with the trends of the time and still put a little bit of my own personal touch into it,” he says. “But it was like I either had to trick people or force it. It was a struggle because I couldn’t make money doing fully what I wanted to do. My management and everyone would say ‘No that’s too weird, don’t do anything too weird now, no one’s going to understand it.’”
As well as management pushing him in a certain direction to make them more money, the high cost of living in New York forced Luca to create music with a market in mind. When that pressure was lifted by life in Berlin, his whole approach changed. “Here in Berlin you don’t have that financial struggle. You can just be honest with yourself and do what you love because you are financially able to. I think that allows you to let your guard down and say ‘Fuck it. If it’s not popular, who cares?’ If you’re lucky and people like it, then cool.”
And it turns out that people really do like the new Curses sound, not only in Berlin but throughout Europe. The sound that Luca gravitated towards is one that has struck a chord, finding a scene of like-minded souls. The goal was always to get the music out of the studio and take it on the road, and Luca made sure to do it properly. Live, Luca takes care of the guitar and vocals, and Ben from Dame Bonnet is on the SPD-SX for drums and samples as well as bass. It’s a fairly classic set up, “I wanted to go for a Suicide Allan Vega Martin Rev duo thing,” he explains, “but it’s also about being able to perform with less restrictions. It’s great to tour this way. It was really important for me to get rid of any laptops or computers. I wanted the freedom to jam, to play the songs, but also to do things on the fly – play a chorus again, that type of thing. No backing tracks.”
When a live act goes on at three in the morning it has a kind of edgier feel to it.
But making it so that Romantic Fiction could be played live in this way was no mean feat. “I rebuilt the entire album into the Akai MPC Live [a standalone sampler]. In the middle of the process I wanted to kill myself, thinking ‘Why am I doing this?’ But now, I’m so happy because when we play live we have more freedom. We played at Opium Club in Vilnius and the crowd there is always knowledgeable and die hard. At the end they started shouting to play ‘Surrender’. We had already played it and they were shouting to play it again! I was like, damn I’ve never had that, it was awesome. So we did it again, but different. We had the freedom to do that with all this gear and not just press play again on a backing track.”
We went to see Curses perform live at the last ever Voyage Voyage club night at Zur Wilden Renate in Berlin. Live music isn’t the norm in clubs, and when it does take place it’s usually people huddled behind a console, tweaking knobs. It’s rare to see a guitar and bass on stage in a club, but it didn’t feel incongruous or weird. In the dark, cloaked world of a Berlin nightclub the sight and sound of Curses works perfectly. Luca agrees. “When a live act goes on at three in the morning it has a kind of edgier feel to it. The energy really lifts up.” This was certainly the case on the night and the crowd was dancing and into it.
Luca’s journey to Berlin is much more than a physical one. It feels as though he has not only found a city that lets him be the person he wants to be, but he has also found people that share his ideas and way of thinking. “It’s interesting because I spoke about it with so many artists, all of us wanting to combine our love for rock’n’roll and electronic music. No one was really doing it, and now within the last few years everybody that was talking about it is actually doing it. I can see my peers doing it and it means we can play together, it means people see that there’s sort of a scene forming. You’re not alone. It’s good to know you’re not crazy, you’re not alone.”