“I feel like I’m in a casino where the only thing I could win is Coronavirus,” says Fabrizio Moretti of his quarantine homebase in Brooklyn. “On the other hand, these things people are doing to stay in touch are really heartwarming. People are having birthday parties and singing to each other; we have the ability to make loneliness not such a heavy burden.”
Moretti is used to keeping a level-head in the eye of a hurricane. The multi-disciplinary creative has been in one since the early 2000s, when he helped start The Strokes. Before redefining rock music for a generation and helping to carve out the early 2000s New York indie scene, he was studying sculpture. Moretti kept a foot in visual arts, always careful to not “cross-pollinate too much” between both mediums—there aren’t a lot of drummers that can say they’ve co-curated a collection of Old Masters works for Sotheby’s.
His latest project machinegum—conceived as an experimental art collective rather than a band—is a multi-sensory experience rooted in community. Made up of Moretti, Ian Devaney, Delicate Steve, Chris Egan, Martin Bonventre and Erin Victoria Axtel, the collective has crafted a bubblegum pink universe where the spectator is actively engaged with the art. This ideology echoes through surprise debut Conduit. The neon-pink cover features a gumball machine and three words: the collective’s name, the album’s name, and “liberty” on the quarter the machine is about to turn into gum.
The record flirts with a wide range of sounds and moods, from chugging dream pop track “E.T.C.” to disco groove “City Walls”, rising and falling somewhere between murmured ruminations of heartbreak and synth-driven odes to solitude. The result is a collection of songs that feel like very different organs in the same body. These divergences come as no surprise given the variety of the collective’s members; for one, the evocative sound of Nation of Language, Devaney’s synth rock duo with Aidan Noell, is clearly heard on standout track “Act of Contrition.”
All of these very different tracks channel the equalizing ideal that proved the seedling for what would become machinegum. “I was raised Catholic and this idea of not being able to take Eucharist unless you confessed seems the opposite of going to a gumball machine if you have a quarter: you don’t have to apologize to anyone,” says Moretti. Then things began to get a little twisted: late capitalism’s effects on art and consumption without contemplation in a digital world, what Moretti refers to as “saccharine commercialism.”
This problem birthed another idea: what if there was a way to take in music while being a part of the process? The idea of ingestible art came from Moretti’s impossible desire to create a way that you could listen to music while chewing gum. The concept came to Moretti when he worked on an exhibition for Galerie Perrotin in Paris as a half of FUZLAB, a visual arts duo with satirical cartoonist Luz, formerly of Charlie Hebdo. “We were painting on the walls of the gallery and people would interact with us, and then the horrible thing happened with Charlie Hebdo and Luz was the only one who survived,” he recalls. “We halted that project, but that sense of interaction stuck with me.”
This idea of active interaction was present in machinegum’s album release show at Fig.19, a Lower East Side gallery you could only get into if you presented a pink coin acquired by one of the pink gumball machines Moretti and Co. installed throughout the city. Structured like a silent disco, the experience went further into allowing surreal interactions. To get a cassette, for example, you had to exchange an object in your immediate possession, dip it in pink paint, and put it on a wall installed near the entrance. This is why Moretti now has a pink lock of hair, a crystal, a pair of sunglasses, and other vestiges of saccharine commercialism lying around his house. “I pray to them every night,” he jokes.
That’s the beauty of it: on a record with a force like Moretti helming it, one would imagine his influence would be overwhelming. On the contrary, he’s fully engaged in the creation of a communal musical body—in a lot of ways, he always has. “It was always about knowing how to serve this gang of brothers, which was The Strokes,” Moretti says. “We wanted to do everything in our power to make it successful and make the art we wanted to make and not be told what to do by anyone.” As fans of the rock group are familiar with, success proved taxing as did the group dynamic; as a balm, the band took a pause and its members metook on various side projects. Many thought this was the end of the group, disproved by studio rumors that later materialized as Rick Rubin-produced LP The New Abnormal. “There was a moment where we all needed to exercise our individuality to be more present,” Moretti tells me. “This coincided with me meeting Rodrigo [Amarante, of Los Hermanos].”
The two Brazilian musicians, alongside Binki Shapiro, crafted tender cult project Little Joy, named after their trio who were named after the long-running Echo Park bar. “I moved to Los Angeles in 2007 and we all just lived in this house everyday in honor of this newfound love,” he reminisces. “I don’t know that it’s a perfect testimony of that time, but it was as best as we could interpret that into music.” Moretti, whose immediate family lives in Rio de Janeiro and is a fan of greats João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben Jor, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Ellis Regina isn’t one to touch upon his heritage too much in his work.
“It’s another thing altogether being born to an Italian and Brazilian mother and living in New York; you have connections to your birthplace, but only so deep,” he says. “You really have to immerse yourself when you have the means to be able to understand, not just the music, but what it was being made for, what it was rebelling against, what it was promoting. That’s what my time with Rodrigo awarded me: it gave me that kind of understanding of my history.”
As Moretti trails off, speaking about how Ellis Regina’s version of “’Aguas de Março” didn’t get it’s due, his multiplicity becomes clearer. The man is as expansive as the works where he’s been credited as the sum of several parts. machinegum is the synthesis of all his groups, an attempt to meld several people seamlessly into a group unbridled by time, genre, or medium. The Justin Bartha-directed clip for “Kubes”, made pre-COVID, is a beautiful example.
Before it was our only option, the collective crowdsourced videos from across the internet to collaborate on the video. The result is a sweet collaboration breaching the divide between creator and fan, and a culmination of Moretti’s ultimate aim with the collective: to include as many people as possible in the same group across international borders.
“These things happening online have shown me the potential that we have to be less concerned with our individualism and more concerned to be selves in a communal body,” says Moretti. “If we organized towards a platform to be able to relate to one another through art, we could move in a more efficient way.”
It’s 3:15PM on Zoom. The video for “Kubes” premieres in 45 minutes. Moretti and Duvenay are having a Q&A with fans and video contributors from across the world before watching the video together. An Argentinian woman living in Spain asks a question in Spanish and someone jumps in to translate for her. Siblings and friends converge on camera. A girl thanks Moretti for helping her break out of her shell. A girl, username “bella” precedes her question by saying it’s her birthday. Moretti proceeds to personally sing her “Happy Birthday” over the waves of the World Wide Web.\
Conduit is out via Frenchkiss Records. Listen here: