Mad Decent announced the release of Crookers’ E.P.Istola today, which is serendipitous because we went to Milan to kick it with Crookers and did a feature on them for FADER 55 which you can read after the jump! FUN FACT: We also got to spend some quality time with Spino, aka Spinaccio, who is Phra’s lovely Jack Russell terrier, and the namesake of the song “Secousse (Crookers Spino Remix)” by Radioclit. Phra’s girlfriend told us “spino” is slang for “a joint.” Sometimes if you listen close, you can hear Spino barking, and if you look close, you can see him in the story’s photos. He is a real power player in the Italian house scene.
Story Julianne Shepherd
Photography Peter Van Agtmael
The highway from Milan to the village of Ivrea is dotted with remnants of military outposts from the Roman Empire, but at midnight, the road is ink black with no sights to see. Ivrea was established in 100 BC as a Cavalry station for the Roman Army and is not what you’d call the most cosmopolitan town in Italy. (When the gas station attendant flashes me the “you’re not from around here” side-eye, it’s somehow comforting to know that the sign is international.) But in four hours, Ivrea—and more specifically, Sugho, a boxy club awkwardly plopped behind the parking lot of a computer firm called “GRUPPORGI”—may just be the buckest place in the country. By 4AM, Central European Summer Time, the Milan-based DJ and production duo Crookers will have just dropped their synthed-out, cranked-up remix of The Chemical Brothers’ “Salmon Dance,” causing a crowd of five hundred extremely attractive freaks in tight white pants to lose their collective shit. Ladies will pound their fists, fellas will scream “O!” (the Italian equivalent of “Hayyyy!”) and a couple of visibly trashed guys in the VIP will inexplicably drop their pants around their ankles: a sign of total surrender to the music.
The frenzy is nothing new to Crookers. As their powerhouse synth scrapes build and flip into dramatic pauses, they create an energy that proves that maybe Italians really do do it better. But the Ivrea crowd is about half the size that Crookers are accustomed to, and even with partial nudity and, one presumes, après-club barfing, it’s much tamer. What will go down when they play, like, the Gatecrasher Summer Sound System power-festival? Fistfights? Heatstroke? Pregnancy
Over the past two years, through travels abroad and internet anthems, the duo of Bot and Phra have gained a worldwide reputation as the biggest names in Italy’s house music scene. With a no surrender schedule of international touring, a disparate collection of remixes and their own music released on a well-curated assortment of labels, Crookers have been pegged to helm the next big European dance movement—successors to Justice for the title of “New Party Smashers the Whole World Loves.” They make artfully colossal house music fit for brave new world raves, their fingers extra-twitchy on the pitchshifter. They pile car horns atop choruses built purely on exclamations (“Yo!” “Wow!” “Shake it!”) to form cartoonish yet beautiful real life manifestations of accelerating video game racecars, erupting volcanoes and a million alarm clocks going off all at the same time. It is the sound of two funny, astute dudes who want to hear everything at once—and who like to watch people go bananas. But Crookers have created their empire largely in a bubble, working against Milan’s played-out party scene, where clubhounds are only concerned with being seen and getting blitzed. “There was a very big, good house scene here in the early ’90s, but it’s stuck there. All the DJs from that period are still around, and now they’re all playing minimal music, which is shit,” says Bot. “Everyone takes drugs. Outside Italy there are many drugs too, but here, in this kind of circle they come less to hear music and more to get fucked up.”
Milan is one of the most fashionable and beautiful cities in the world, a financial hub where perfectly coiffed men don tailored Armanis in the shadow of Il Duomo and women plod down cobblestone streets to the supermercato in three-inch Prada pumps. Amid all the pomp and perfection are Crookers, clad in the style of young American streetwear stunnas: New Eras, big jeans and crispy white Nike Terminators. As you’d expect, they seem a little out of place, a little unpretentious. Both Bot and Phra independently mention they don’t feel like typical Italians, largely because they have zero interest in football. Neither really likes to drink booze to the point of, well, dropping their pants. Having come up on the mega-watt energy of hip-hop, they detest the soul-deadening, never-crescendoing ping-pong beats that overrun Milan’s clubs. But for two men in their late twenties who make such ramped-up house, Crookers are surprisingly low key. Bot is a semi-introverted former graffiti writer who is still living with his mom in Milan until he has enough money to buy a house with his girlfriend of seven years. Phra is gregarious, an ex-rapper who’s shacked up with his lady and their Jack Russell terrier in Lago Magiorre, a village on a lake at the bottom of the Alps.
Lago Magiorre is a half-hour drive from Milan, and where I meet Crookers for the first time, the day before the Ivrea show. The village is a common spot for Swiss and Dutch vacationers to park their RVs on holiday, with surrounding snowcapped mountains dwarfing clusters of brick red alpine-roofed apartments. It’s ridiculously picturesque, the kind of place that gets written about in a fiction piece for the New Yorker that is later adapted into a sly romantic film starring Juliette Binoche reading her lines in an Italian accent. It’s hard to imagine anyone working here at all, much less blowing out their eyeballs making house music on the computer for hours on end. But, as Bot says, “We don’t have to exactly reflect the way we live. I am the music that I make, but the music is not me.” According to their manager Enrico Mutti, who also works with Italian electro duo Bloody Beetroots and house DJ Congorock, Crookers are perhaps his most prolific clients. “I get like three loops a day from them,” he says. Bot calls it neurosis. “We are freaks, like twelve hours in front of the monitor. I have to take an hour before I can speak to humans again.”
Crookers came together five years ago in the most universal of music nerd scenarios: bonding over obscure records no one else cared about. “I was going to university, and after class I would go to the record shop and drink Campari,” Phra explains. “To listen to five records, I’d take all afternoon. I would listen to one record, maybe have beer, bullshit with all the people, have a piece of pizza. I’d stay for hours doing nothing, just talking about music.” Bot was renting a corner of the shop, where he sold leftfield electro and house records from the UK and US. Phra was one of his only customers. “I liked more the experimental things, not the proper house, so we started to speak about music and smoke weed,” he says. “We couldn’t smoke in the record shop so we’d go out in the car, where we started playing each other our beats.”
After one night of solid brodeo time that included getting really wasted and listening to Dizzee Rascal’s first album, they started making tracks together, splicing hip-hop with house. Phra says it took a lot of work to get to know Bot, who was much more shy before they started touring, but after weeks of record-nerding and tree-smoking, he found not only a music partner, but a BFF. “I met a lot of other DJs before I met Bot, and I tried to do music with them, but I couldn’t,” says Phra. “It’s like when you go to buy a dog, and you see that dog you want, but some people think that the dog will define you, not that you will define the dog. It’s the same thing. You don’t choose it.” When Phra left Milan for his idyllic village home two years ago, they switched their operations to iChat and a server, a set-up they find more effective than actually being in the same studio at the same time. “Now we don’t have beef about the hi-hat,” says Phra.
Internerd shut-ins have deemed Crookers’ sound “fidget house” for its quick-edit attention span, a term Bot considers meaningless. “I don’t understand. It’s just house music,” he says with an eye roll. Also common is the “blog house” tag, which, strangely, is often used as a dis by people who don’t leave their computers. But the term is somewhat useful in that Crookers are part of a very specific cluster of DJs that have turned themselves into an actual community. In lieu of scraping to gain acceptance at home, Crookers have simply made internet friends with other DJs the world over. With a global community that includes Brodinski, Justice, MSTRKRFT, Soulwax and Busy P, it’s a network that traverses Milan, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and Toronto. Switch, whose records Bot used to hawk to Phra at the shop, eventually became a mentor. Not only has the global exchange opened up touring possibilities, it’s created a kind of old world marketplace carried out over MySpace, a place where ideas, sounds and concepts are bartered, shared and flipped. “Now, we are influenced by a lot of Bmore club, but also the Beatles.” says Phra, “Everything we listen to and like we try to put into it.”
You can hear everything they listen to at Sugho, where Crookers spin electrified remixes of the Ramones, AC/DC and Daft Punk in quick succession, inspiring one of the pants-droppers to actually whip out his package. I try to run the other way the second I see pubes, but there’s nowhere to go—all corners of the club are anchovy-packed with sweaty Crookers megafans who have apparently memorized every meticulously produced bridge, every vocal sample, every beat mutation. The duo pull out parts of their melodic Knobbers EP and the dancefloor starts to resemble a pre-school playground during recess. Crookers themselves stay focused on their computers, barring a few moments when Phra stops DJing to Arsenio-pump his fist. When they throw on their Bmore-juiced remix of Kid Cudi’s “Day ’N’ Night,” people fling their arms around each other’s shoulders as if it were the anthem for the Inter Milan football club. Just as the Cudi track’s descending-hammer bassline builds in tandem with a triple-time breakbeat, the lights black out and the music stops dead. The heat in the club has overloaded the system. Everyone groans with the shock and displeasure of danceus interruptus, but it’s almost too poetic. Even with their native Italy just catching on to their talent, Crookers are way more major than this machine can handle. A minute later, club management flips the breaker. The turntables and disco lights flicker back on to relieved cheers. The party keeps banging ’til long after dawn. At that point, the vodka and Red Bulls catch up with me and I pass out in the backseat of Bot’s Volkswagen.