Discover more from Tone Glow
Tone Glow 094: Valentina Magaletti
An interview with drummer Valentina Magaletti
Valentina Magaletti is a London-based drummer and multi-instrumentalist who has played in countless projects including Vanishing Twin, Tomaga, Moin, Holy Tongue, and CZN. She has performed or collaborated with Jandek, Pat Thomas, Thurston Moore, Nicolas Jaar, Philip Selway, Lafawndah, Marlene Ribeiro, and Thighpaulsandra, among many others. As a solo artist, she has released albums on labels like Takuroku, Longform Editions, Blume, and A Colourful Storm. More recently, she has founded her own label, Permanent Draft, with writer Fanny Chiarello. Matthew Blackwell talked with Magaletti via Zoom on March 14, 2023 to discuss the London music scene, storytelling through music, and creating opportunities for women musicians.
Valentina Magaletti: Hello?
Matthew Blackwell: Oh, hello. How are you?
Not too bad. How are you?
Wonderful. Can you hear me okay?
Yeah, I’m good.
So, what are you doing today? Do you play music every day?
Yes, I do. It’s my job! (laughter). Whenever I’m not touring, I go to my studio or a studio here at home and I make music, for sure.
And how did you start drumming? You’re from Italy, correct?
I’m originally from Italy. I moved to London a long, long, long time ago. So I’ve spent a lot of my life here in England. But I was born in southern Italy, and I started drumming there when a drum school opened near my parents’ house. I was happy to see what it was all about, and then I’ve kept drumming since, basically.
And what drew you to the drums?
With the advent in the middle of the ’80s of [music] videos and MTV, and all that crap that was on TV, I was always obsessed by the drums. I don’t know, it’s just the whole package—how loud it was and just the look of the instrument. I loved that since I was a kid. And then when I had the chance to actually approach one, it was love at first sight I guess.
Were there any drummers in particular that you saw on MTV?
You know, I used to love the Bangles and Bananarama, and trying to work out who was playing drums in Bananarama. And I never solved the puzzle. I don’t think anyone ever did. But definitely with the Bangles there was this beautiful woman playing drums. I remember she was one of the band, and I thought, this is really cool, you know?
Well, that’s one of the few female musicians who was on MTV at that time, probably.
Must’ve been. I mean, there were loads, but maybe not musicians, as you say. Probably just singers, right? Yeah… and it hasn’t changed that much, has it? (laughs).
No, not as much as you would hope. And did your family encourage you to play music? Were your parents musical?
I wouldn’t use that verb. “Encourage” is not the word. But they never stopped me, let’s say that. They really didn’t get it at first. They didn’t even know what a drum kit was, I guess. But they were always open minded enough to let me do whatever I chose, actually, so it was cool.
And who taught you at the school? Was it just local musicians, or…
Yeah, it was a jazz musician at that time. A nice drummer from where I was from. And then a few years after that, I had Agostino Marangolo, who was the drummer from Goblin, the prog rock band. Because when we were kids, we were all really big fans of Dario Argento and all of that. I then had the chance to do loads of workshops, so it was great to do shows with so many styles. But they were all men. I never had a chance to have a female drummer as a teacher, which is a shame.
You teach drums now, correct?
Not really. I’m really, really busy at the moment, so it’s been like two years that I’ve hardly been able to say hello to my cat and my plants. I struggle to find time to teach. Every now and then I have a couple of students with me in the studio. But as I say, I really don’t have time, unfortunately.
Were you able to choose your teachers? Did you see that somebody was in Goblin and you rushed towards them, or was it sort of a coincidence?
I think he was doing a workshop where I was from. So I went to the workshop and then he was very, very impressed by my drumming. So we were friends since then, and we’re still friends now.
So do you think that you’re a natural drummer? Is it a thing where you either have rhythm or you don’t?
When I first moved to London, I started teaching drums to really young kids. At the time I realized that I do believe that rhythm, as conventionally conceived, is something that you do just have or not. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a hundred percent an ingredient for you to be an exceptional drummer, because there’s so many ways to see it. But in the way that we conceive it, especially in Western society, in the way that you can clap your hands to the beat of a song or not, I’ve seen that there are kids who actually don’t hear it.
I’m afraid I’m one of those people. I don’t think that I have rhythm. So you’re saying there’s no hope for me, that I couldn’t be taught?
I think there is! As I say, it’s just a convention that rhythm is conceived as we do. I think for a dancer it would be a little harder to have to coordinate with others. But if you just want to be a drummer on your own or not follow the rules, you know, it’s totally cool.
It would have to be a solo project because I don’t think anybody could play along with me (laughs).
Or maybe with Derek Bailey (laughs).
When you left Italy to come to London, why did you choose London?
Because of the music! (laughs).
Of course! But there’s a lot of cities that have great music.
Probably they just marketed well from the part of the world that I was from, because I’ve always thought that between London and Manchester, England really has all the… When I was a teenager, from Joy Division and the Smiths and all sorts, I thought, “Wow, there’s really something special here.” I don’t think I ever took any other cities into consideration, to be honest. And probably even now I would struggle. I would argue that London is still the hub.
Probably, especially for the type of music that you play. New York, maybe?
Yeah, exactly. From the legacy of British dub, and now the free jazz scene at Cafe Oto to The Wire magazine for experimental music, and industrial music… I can’t really fault it. I travel extensively, as I say. I’ve been three times to New York this year and it’s definitely better than L.A. (laughs). But I would struggle to move to any other city just because of the music. In my position, anyway.
When you arrived in London, how did you start? Did you answer ads for drummers, or…
Exactly. That’s how I started. For sure.
And then it must be very easy to collaborate with people from there, to meet people at concerts and things like that.
As I say, you don’t need to travel to travel here, in a way. Whenever I want to collaborate, or I think that someone is resonating with my style, or I want to do a residency or a recording, it’s very easy to get in touch. Even if they live in Europe or even overseas it’s somehow easy from London. I don’t know why that is, really. I’m not gonna reinforce the Sinatra concept that “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” or whatever that bullshit was, but I reckon that it is easier if you start working in London and start having a name in London, to then get booked everywhere else. I really doubt that the old me, being stuck in southern Italy, would have had this level of exposure had I not moved to London.
Your resumé is very long, you’ve played in so many bands. Is it uncommon to play in as many projects as you do, or do you know people who have similar output?
I know a lot of people that love to be like a one-trick pony or stick to their one aesthetic, you know? They’re just who they are, and they just move slowly from solo project to solo project, and it’s just them. To me, music and creative practice have always been very promiscuous. I’ve always been really, really easily bored. What creation entails is being able to be polyhedric in a way, and just move. I just love all dimensions, like duos, trios, ensemble, massive orchestras, solo, and that keeps my brain going. It’s like diversifying the risk of boredom (laughter).
That’s a good way to put it. Is it sort of a liability career-wise to play in so many different types of bands? Because the people that you were mentioning, who have their one thing, it’s very easy to market oneself like that. Is it harder to be a chameleon and adapt yourself to all these different situations?
Whenever you become a product, then there is this thing of having to market you. It’s more of a question for my booking agent (laughs). But so far we’ve never had this problem. It’s always the opposite. For now, I live comfortably with my music. But it might be a problem for some, I understand, even to just put your records in “File Under,” right? It’s just the kind of scenario that you have to consider when, as I say, you need to sell yourself as opposed to express. They’re very different processes, aren’t they?
But somehow you have to make them compatible.
You want to be with the right people in terms of booking agents. It’s really, really important that whoever is on the roster with you is close to your aesthetic, or at least that your booking agent has a vision for you, so you don’t just keep playing in contexts that will dishearten you somehow.
In London there are a lot of places that make sense to play at, like you mentioned Cafe Oto.
Yeah, it’s my second home (laughs).
You’ve been in London for longer than Cafe Oto, though. So where were you playing when you first started out before that scene developed?
It’s a good question because it’s really changed a lot since that little venue came here. Earlier there were really cute venues like The Spitz, and The Garage, and you had Astoria... but they’re all gone now, and there was a transition when there wasn’t really much going on. Now it’s really picking up with Iklectik and Cafe Oto and MOT, and there’s also south London venues, really cool places. There was the New Cross jazz scene where there was a jam session on a Sunday or whatever. Not much, really, when I first moved. But you had John Peel (laughs). Of course you had the other good bits.
I think it’s hard to keep a venue like that going and I think that Cafe Oto is very smart in how they...
Yeah, they have a charity and they really rely on supporters. It’s very mutual. They are very supportive to musicians as well. And this is a really beautiful community. It’s a wonderful environment. Everyone is so nice.
Do you see your drumming as being coherent across all of your different projects? Is there a signature that you can identify even if the projects are very different, like the difference between Vanishing Twin and something like Holy Tongue?
It’s like when you are in a relationship with two different people, obviously you’re just part of it. So of course the balance is going to change. If someone is very attentive to my drumming style maybe it can be recognizable, but [the music] is very much a collective effort. Even when I’m in the studio as a producer, it’s very important who you’re working with. It’s completely different—completely different. It’s more up to the ear of the listener to say, “Oh, I can recognize someone.” Actually, my friend, a really amazing drummer, said, “Oh, I can totally recognize you in Vanishing Twin as well. I can tell that it’s you.”
If I know that it’s you, I tend to go, “Oh, of course.” But it took me years until I found out, for example, that you were in the band UUUU.
Oh, yeah. That’s very different, because that’s the most macho project, probably, that I’ve played in (laughter). It’s true.
It was years later and I was reading the credits and I had this moment where I was like, “Oh!” You know, I never would have known.
That’s probably the one that is the most unrecognizable, in a way. True.
I’ve seen in a few interviews that you use the word “narrative” to describe your drumming. You build narratives with your percussion. Can you explain what that means?
It means that I’m not a massive fan of technique and academic approaches. I think that each instrument, and obviously drums too, should just serve the purpose of telling stories. That’s why I like narrative. I think that you build an act and then you make the listeners follow you, as opposed to showing off. I can’t be like, “Yes, I can play the drums, here I am!” That’s something that I find very boring as a listener, so I wouldn’t bore my audience like that. I did study a lot, so I could fall into the virtuoso category. But I hope that technique is just used as a tool in the story that you tell with what you do.
When you say you tell a story, do you mean that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and there’s a climax and all those elements?
Or it could be like a story told by David Lynch (laughter). But what I’m saying is that you actually follow it. You find yourself lost in what you’re listening to. As opposed to just focusing on how good the performer is, when there’s no space for yourself to get immersed and to resonate with what you’re listening to.
Right, so there’s a line that the listener is following and it makes sense moment to moment.
I think the thing that I’m interested in the most is to leave whoever comes to my show with their kind of vibe, you know? Like “I was listening to this and I went into an abandoned factory,” or, I don’t know, “I felt like I was at a 23 Skidoo gig in the middle of the ocean” or “I felt like I was cooking and then what I cooked was really bad...” Just something from them, as opposed to (in a sarcastic voice) “Oh yeah, a woman that is actually really good at drumming.” That doesn’t really interest me much.
So the narrative is built by the audience, through the interaction between you and them.
Exactly. An interaction, an exchange of energies between the performer and the audience. That’s what I mean by that.
When you’re drumming, do you have a story in your head, too?
I think so, definitely. And it’s very moody too. Obviously that doesn’t occur as much in projects because the mood has to be shared (laughs). But if I have carte blanche, as I do when I do the solo shows, they’re kind of different every time because it depends on what I have to say.
Do you have influences outside of music that feed into this idea, like literature or film or something like that?
More than literature or film—I mean I’m obviously an avid collector of records and tapes and books and so on—but I think what really inspires me is the people that I hang out with in personal life and in professional life. They are very much influential to what I listen to and what I pick up. We live in a world where everything is kind of imposed by the media and the little phone screen. I think people—my people, people that I choose—are my safety net. I like to rely on their brain as opposed to an algorithm, you know?
One of my favorite things is to be surprised by something, and I don’t think you’re surprised by the algorithm very much because it just picks up on what you already like.
I don’t know, they were saying that artificial intelligence is just built to surprise you with how good it is and how much you can feed the algorithm. But that’s scary. I don’t want to see that. I think it’s really the end of civilization. I guess the last art will be playing live instruments because, for example, DJ will be an extinct category, or graphic designer, because you can feed anything you want [to the algorithm] and they will make it perfectly to surprise you, which is what they are working on.
I guess that’s true, that the person in the room playing the actual instrument is the one thing that they can’t take.
Good for us!
(laughs) Yeah! I’ve also seen you use the word “collage,” particularly with regard to recording.
Yeah. It’s an aesthetic that I also like in visual art. I always loved Fluxus, Dada, collage art. It’s very much like what I love to do with music, just putting loads of pieces together. Of course I like working like that, it’s fun.
With something like Moin, that’s basically the aesthetic. Everything is prerecorded and then chopped up and rearranged later.
I wouldn’t say that that’s the main example of collage art because in Moin you have two very capable producers like Joe [Andrews] and Tom [Halstead]. And as you say, they spend ages making it. They work in songs pretty much, and they subscribe to the clubbing scene. I won’t say it’s collage art because it’s very much like a one-trick pony: post-punk, a Steve Albini sort of guitar sound, then making it very contemporary using samples. But it’s not like cut and chop and take one field recording and one trumpet and one phone call and then mega-dub beats. That’s what I call collage art, [taking] completely different sketches and then placing them together.
So something like your recent piece for Longform Editions or something like that.
I would say yeah, definitely that. But also Due Matte, for example, the album with Marlene Ribero. Also the Queer Anthology, because it was loads of different pieces that I had on my phone that I just assembled on the album during the pandemic.
Will you talk a little bit more about the Queer Anthology and how you built it and what the impetus was for it?
During the pandemic, Keiko [Yamamoto] from Cafe Oto sent me an email that was sort of lifesaving in a way, because everyone had a horrible time of course, and as a musician I think I got something like 58 shows canceled. It was a particularly horrible time for me because also my partner in crime from Tomaga [Tom Relleen] was diagnosed with cancer and he died shortly after. So it was a very horrible, dark time where it seemed that everything was just finished. I had a morbid sense of completion, a really horrible end of it all.
Then I got this email and they wanted to start this record label, Takuroku, to support musicians during the pandemic. I think I was one of the first people that they asked if I had some music lying around. So I started opening all this, because I always record a lot on my phone wherever I am, and I started recording some drums at home. And then I had this idea—I was reading at the time little booklets like the Queer Anthology of Joy. There were three or four, all the feelings basically, from a beautiful independent bookshop. And I thought, “Wow, I’m going to do one related to drums.” What I was referring to wasn’t necessarily the fact that I am a gay woman or queer in a strictly sexual connotation or gender connotation. It was more about the weirdness, to conceive of drums in a kind of inclusive and weird way, but more about the “drumming” as opposed to the “queer.” Obviously, I could use that because I’m queer myself, so I did not appropriate or use the queer culture as a commodity as everyone else is doing at the moment. That worked out well because it’s a beautiful statement and it was a very successful release.
Unfortunately, I lost sight of it because I stupidly signed it off to China. It’s kind of bothering me at the moment, but basically I signed the LP version of it to a Chinese label. I’m very disappointed because obviously to get the album, it got really expensive. I really regret it because I thought I would favor the queer culture there in China, and it just hasn’t worked out. So I’m too busy now, but I think there will be scope for maybe rereleasing it in Europe at some point.
You’re starting your own label. Is this partly to keep control of your masters?
No, I’m starting my own label to give a chance to other female or queer or trans musicians to put their music out. Not to be arrogant, but I think that I’m in a little position now where people are asking me more and more “What should I listen to? What should I do?” Rather than just doing like 100 mixes for all these radio stations, which I enjoy a lot, I would rather put all my effort and resources toward being a vessel for other artists that are just starting or who I think need more visibility. I’m trying as much as I can to just focus on minorities, not because it’s trendy, but because I know it myself—there’s no balance at all and this is ridiculous. Even as a curator, because I’m curating Variations Festival—the program of Le Lieu Unique in Nantes—and I’m going to make sure it’s mainly women.
Like we talked about at the beginning, there were one or two women on MTV and not much progress since then. So this is a good way, I think, to highlight women’s music. I should mention it’s called Permanent Draft. Is there a reason for the name Permanent Draft?
I started this label with a French writer [Fanny Chiarello], and she’s incredible. She’s like an encyclopedia of experimental and avant-garde music, especially women. She wrote a census and she basically reviewed almost 1800 women just in avant-garde and experimental [music]. So Permanent Draft, I love the dichotomy between something that is there and something not quite there (laughs). I think it sums up perfectly the approach that needs to be struck between the academic and the street. The first release will be a cassette that is actually ready, led by Dali [de Saint Paul]. She did 64 different gigs, based in Bristol...
Oh yeah, EP/64.
Exactly. So that will be out in April and we’ll do a little launch. After that we’re actually preparing a book because Permanent Draft will also start an editorial. It will be a book about experimental musicians, just female, but in a very unconventional way, not in an academic way. Fanny Chiarello is the writer and she’s actually working on the book now. It will be focusing on field recording or other forms of instruments. But I think the way she is going to propose is more like an informal conversation with musicians or people that are not really into experimental music, from people that are really in-depth to people who are listening to stuff for the first time, to try to see what “experimental music” actually means. It’s for everyone and not for just academic heads (laughs), because it’s impenetrable sometimes to read all these books.
I was talking just the other day about how I wish that there were more books, particularly about field recordings, that are not academic, that are not from sound theory or other disciplines.
(laughs) I’m excited, then.
I’m excited too. It’s going to be really great. So that will be next, and then I did finish my next solo album. We’ll see which label, if it comes on Permanent Draft or... but it is nice to control your own music sometimes just because you never know what’s going on. It’s hard not to feel exploited at any point.
It’s very easy to lose control of the masters, or to not receive some money owed or...
Last year I was finishing my solo album and I was thinking about possible collaborators to have featuring. I went to see Princess Diana of Wales, which is Laila Sakini’s [stage] name, at Cafe Oto, and I was really, really impressed. I really loved her universe. So I just promptly asked if she wanted to do a session for me and send me one track that would end up on my solo album. She sent me a few ideas for one track and I thought it was just too good to just make her a feature, basically. I asked if she would be up to actually make an album. We had a couple of recording sessions and then we mixed the album together, and that was CUPO, which I really love.
Yeah, I like it a lot. It’s two tracks, but each track is split into sections, right?
We actually named all the sections, but I don’t know, maybe Boomkat just put “Side A” and “Side B” or whatever?
I think on Bandcamp, they’re listed in the track titles.
Yeah, I did on my Bandcamp, yes. See, again, they’re also selling digitals there on Bandcamp, which was something that wasn’t agreed on, but something slipped through the net. It’s fine, it’s not a big problem. But this lack of information, that is kind of sad because the sections were named. But it’s kind of like an orchestral effort, isn’t it? It’s kind of different from other stuff that I’ve been working on.
It reminds me of what you said about building a narrative through music, because each bit of it, each section, tells its own story, but they’re also interconnected.
I have one question that I’ve always wondered, and I don’t know if you’ve answered this or not before. When you were playing the Batterie Fragile, did you ever break any of the drums?
I did break one of the pieces the first time. I did two albums with the Batterie Fragile, with two different kits. The first kit was sold to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Tours. When I performed for the first time I was just studying the kit and I just had half an hour to find out what the porcelain was like, what its response to friction was for different sticks and stuff. And I did break one of the little cymbals, and it is in the recording. It’s surprisingly amazing because when I break it, it starts sounding almost like an electronic piece (laughs). After that, Yves Chaudouët, who is the artist that came up with the idea of the porcelain kit, built another one that was used for the second album and for a few performances. But as you can probably imagine, it is a very delicate piece to bring to gigs and stuff. It’s difficult because it has to be art-handled everywhere it ships. Yeah, it’s not the easiest.
So when you broke it for that first recording, you then kept playing with that piece.
I had a few spares, but that very one, because it was on the live recording, I kept playing (laughs).
I never knew that, I’ll have to listen for that moment. Was there anything else coming up that you’d like to mention?
Well, yes, there is. I have a very, very exciting year ahead. I have an album that I’m very, very excited about with AD 93, which is the label for Moin as well, with Nic Tasker. And it’s something very, very, very, very different from everything that I’ve done so far. It’s an album that I did with Zongamin.
Oh, the bassist.
The bassist and producer, an incredible producer. We both worked on our own songs this time. And it’s like, industrial, no wave, ESG, dub, PiL, if we may. But we have beautiful collaborations with Coby Sey, and Venus Ex Machina and Cathy Lucas from Vanishing Twin singing on a track. So I’m very, very excited about this.
And other than that, we finally have the debut album of Holy Tongue, which is going to be big, too. We are previewing some stuff in Paris this week because we are opening for Lifetones, their premier in Paris. We have loads of festivals coming up to promote the album, too.
You’re always very busy (laughs).
Yes, I know. Too much, sometimes.
Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me and for fitting me into your schedule.
No problem at all.
And so you’re off to play music, I suppose.
This morning, I have another couple of Zooms, and then I’m off to Paris very early tomorrow, so I’ll probably take care of the flat (laughs). But I don’t know. We’ll see.
Thank you for reading the ninety-fourth issue of Tone Glow. Stay busy.
If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi or becoming a Patreon patron. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.