Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) appeared live on the Cruise to the Edge concert voyage April 7-12. The shows reinforced why they have been one of the premier international progressive rock bands over the years, and their playing is undiminished by time. PFM’s music, while sometimes touching on dark themes, is overwhelmingly positive and joyful, particularly when the music incorporates snippets of traditional Italian folk within the progressive, jazz and pop music formats. Many fans consider their best work in live performance, of which there are many official recordings available. Unlike some contemporaries, they still play complete works in their original form to make up their set list – lots of early work, such as “La Carrozza di Hans” from their first Italian release Storia Di Un Minuto (1972), to “Romeo E Giulietta” off the beautiful new Pfm in Classic-Da Mozart a Celebration (2013). There is a high degree of precision in their live performances, but also room left for jamming and improvisation. These days drummer/vocalist Franz Di Cioccio has a backup percussionist leaving him several chances during the show to come out front with lead vocals and enthusiastically rally the crowd. It’s a rewarding experience to capture PFM playing live.
I caught up with the three primary members of the band, Franz Di Cioccio (drums, vocals), Franco Mussida (guitars, vocals), and Patrick Djivas (bass) for the following interview during the cruise:
PFM is the best-known and most famous band of this kind in Italy. At the start, we came to the USA and UK and stayed there for 6, 8, 9 months at a time – you have to build up the following in country. We thought with a worldwide mentality – we did not think only in the Italian way. But we are Italian, we know the mother language –and there are a lot of things that anybody who goes into art must consider. We did the best with our potential – for example leaving home touring the USA for a long time in a lot of places – big towns but also places like Grand Rapid, Fort Wayne – you have to be out there and the people love it and know you are really an international musician.
Our big opportunity was when Pete Sinfield from King Crimson liked our music. He found in PFM– a new renaissance of a theatrical mentality and creativity. He wrote incredible lyrics for our music because our lyrics are not as good in Italian – the image you get from music and lyrics together in English is fantastic. “River of Life” for instance – the combination is fantastic. In Italian it’s not quite the same – it’s got to be the right music combined with the right lyrics.
D: Having said that, if I could pick one of your Italian language songs on albums Per Un Amico or L’isola di niente and translate a lyric to English – what would be a favorite?
PFM: In English words are very short and it’s fantastic for rock because it will get you moving. In Italian everything is more about drawing out the syllables (sings a bit of “Dove Quando”) and it’s more melodramatic. We didn’t translate that one – even Pete said you don’t need to translate this lyric because it’s perfect in Italian. The same is for “Il Banchetto.” English is more clipped and there is better possibility to carry the idea. When you want to communicate something from the heart use the vocal melody – you can use the round vowels to carry emotion. Another example is from our first album – our song “Generale” which has no Italian lyrics – they would be difficult in Italian – Pete made it easy – “shiny shoes he runs to catch the train…rockets launched if he is late again…” (sings and taps this out to the beat of “Mr. Nine Till Five”) and it makes the melody different – we made a melody to support the Pete Sinfield words that we didn’t have in the Italian version. By contrast, when opera is in Italian or German – you can’t do it in English.
D: Cook – the first live recording released by PFM, was recently re-released with the entire concert included and it’s a stunning document that displays the bands full range – was there a discussion at the time of putting out a 3 album set?
PFM: No we did not try to get it out – did not have the time. We were not even supposed to do a live album at that moment – we had access to a recording studio which was paid for but unused. We decided to use it and we were playing in New York – so we used the time to make the record and taped a few more shows. We decided to do one album – to make something very accessible to the people – to represent PFM with one album – and cost was a factor – double albums are expensive – three even more. Now you can do these box sets and legacy collections more easily. So we did the best in one, and made it more successful. I even decided to cut my drum solo!
D: Franz, back in those times, did you have drumming support – it’s entertaining when you come out front during shows today.
PFM: Not at that time – I stayed back on the drums with a mic. When we used to play as a 5 piece, everybody sang something because there was not really a singer with that one role in PFM – our voices mixed together. I did sing “Dove Quando” and “Just Look Away” up front because the drums only came in at the end.
D: Chocolate Kings was the first of several albums with Bernardo Lanzetti out front on vocals (from 1975–1977). It’s an album that gets talked about more than Jet Lag – yet I find Jet Lag is just brilliant – did it not do as well?
PFM: The music did get more difficult and this is the way PFM has always been – we play what we feel like playing in the moment. At that particular time we were living a lot in the states and had a lot of contact with jazz musicians and we had more jazz influence – some of us more than others and it went in that direction. We did not really think about “why or why not” – we did it because we liked that music at the time. Maybe people did not expect anything like that from PFM. It was more improvisational – its a different way – we used to improvise a lot. PFM always changes album by album – we didn’t want to stay the same for each one – for instance our latest, Pfm in Classic-Da Mozart a Celebration, is different from all the others. It’s not planned – not decisions we make but it just comes – its why we keep playing with the same interest because we always do different things. If you play the same thing all your life – whoever you are and how good you are – you get bored and you don’t get better. You are just doing the same thing all the time. For us its nice to have the influence of all kinds of music – for instance the 2006 record Stati di immaginazione – this is the record where you really understand the way PFM is – where we put a little bit from all the experiences from all the years – so every musician comes to the project with all of their background, and this is what’s important to us.
(ed: Patrick mentions Stati from 2006 – for those not keeping up with PFM’s more recent releases, this one is highly recommended)
This is why we can do the Mozart work. It was very difficult to do the Mozart album – it’s easy to score or play with an orchestra doing what everybody else does – which is either playing the classical themes with your instruments, or else using the orchestra to back your music – we did not want to do that – everybody has done it. We wanted to do something totally different – we thought, what if Mozart had guitar, bass, and drum – what would he have added to his compositions – so we had to invent and make music to fit this inside of his music. And let the people get comfortable without shock – to have a different experience about a another period of music but still be contemporary – have it be contemporary now.
D: PFM has released a lot of CDs of live shows, so there is audio covering your entire career. There is a wonderful DVD of PFM live in Japan in 2003. Have you thought about releasing a video history of the band?
We played straight live, no lip-syncing, no overdubs – the music spoke for us. Most of our live performances sound better as there is more energy and adrenaline. We did Old Grey Whistle Test, Midnight Special, Don Kirshner in concert, the reason we got on the charts was because we played live. But we have no video tapes of that – they ask a lot of money for those. The DVD from Tokyo in 2003 took advantage of better technology. There is also video of the show in Siena Italy – released on audio as Piazza Del Campo Live in Siena (2008) – but it has not been released. Lucia Fabri was back on violin for that event and we played the solo together at the end of the show just as in 1974.
(ed: I’ve since located the video Franz mentions above – it’s all online now, and there is enough to give one an idea of what the band was like in the beginning, and middle of the ’70’s. The 2003 Live in Tokyo is the best footage available commercially at the time of this writing, and is an amazing document from the band)
D: In live performance it almost seems like you increased the tempo of many tracks and it could be at times simultaneously loose and tight like a train that could go off the tracks – was there almost a competitive spirit to play faster at the time?
PFM: No – the reason it sounds that way is because we were playing more than 300 concerts a year and we would play very fast, almost too fast – not competing, just natural – tight and fast. For example last night when we played “Four Holes in the Ground” the count in was [taps out a slower tempo] but in those days it was more like [plays out a rapid fire tempo].
(ed: listen to this track on Cook and you will see what Franz means!)
PFM: We have done some shows – our manager is figuring out where else we can play. The challenge is you have to go to a place and hire the orchestra instead of trying to take them with you. Everyone who plays with an orchestra has to do this. But we could take PFM plus say 5 additional musicians – a chamber orchestra but not a full one. For instance, last night we played “Romeo E Giulietta” and it came out well.
(ed: the band’s rendition of “Romeo E Giulietta” was played wonderfully even without the full orchestra)
Here’s hoping for more chances to catch the amazing PFM live soon – with or without orchestra!