From the outskirts of Milan: Sempre Peggio

In Italy, like everywhere else, the live music situation is pretty dire at the moment. With regular gigs all being cancelled, sometimes the kids are lucky enough to catch bands playing acoustic gigs in parks and such. But in September, an anti-fascist benefit concert was organised outdoors at the CPA, a legendary centro sociale (occupied social centre) in the south Florence area. One of the three bands was Sempre Peggio, who are among the most cherished groups on the Italian Oi scene right now. Francesca Bologna had a chat with Martin, the singer of the Milanese band.

Hi Martin, let’s introduce the band a little. Sempre Peggio formed in Milan in 2015. Right now, it’s you on vocals, Nico on guitar and Fede on drums – but that’s not how it started?

Sempre Peggio were formed in the autumn of 2015, when I was working in a record and book shop owned by Pietro, a friend of ours from DIY punk circles. The name of the place was ‘SOLO – Vinyl and Books’, which has now moved to the Republic of Malta along with its owner, ‘good Pietrone’. The shop was frequented by a lot of people from the Milanese punk and hardcore scene.

One day when Tadzio was in the shop, Pietro approached me about forming an Oi band. I’d been dreaming of starting this kind of project for years, so I accepted immediately and enthusiastically. He had already approached Marra before, and Tadzio volunteered as a drummer when he overheard the conversation. At that point I opted for the bass and on the paper at least, the band was formed.

But it turned out that Pietrone’s idea of having a band was for us all to get shitfaced in the rehearsal room twice a year and never play live. He left us after a couple of rehearsals because he had too many commitments. The three of us were so enthusiastic, on the other hand, we managed to demo a song the night before our first gig. Everything was happening very fast judging by the standards to which I was used. Within six months, Ste was added to the line-up as vocalist. We continued to write songs and started to compile material for the first LP while playing all over Italy. Next was the addition of Nico on second guitar, then Tadzio left the band and Fede replaced him, and later both Ste and Marra practically stopped playing with us. Five years after we started out as a trio, we’re back as a trio.

You’ve been playing with many other bands before. Have you always played Oi, or did you gravitate to other genres too?

We’ve all cut our teeth in the world of DIY hardcore punk: Tadzio with Skruigners, Komplott, Holy and 35 other bands; Marra with Gradinata Nord and Death Before Work, me with RFT and Logica di Morte; Nico and Faith with Blood Eyed Lady, Mastic with Anesthesia and Ostile. So, in terms of subgenres we’ve done a bit of everything, from thrash and old-school hardcore to stuff that was closer to Oi and streetpunk.

Certainly Oi is a genre we’ve always been listening to, and I’ve got to say it was really nice to try something ‘new’. It allowed us to have a very clear concept right from the start – both in terms of attitude and lyrical content, and also from a purely musical point of view: rough, direct and to-the-point Oi, no beating around the bush. The songwriting process was a pleasant surprise for us too: we often found ourselves deleting rather than adding elements to the songs – less is more. Everything came very naturally, and that made the rehearsals an enjoyable collective experience.

The last time we saw you was at the CPA in Florence, at an anti-fascist benefit concert. Do you consider yourselves politically active?

We’re all leftists and anti-fascists, and we all have active experience in political militancy. Today, because of work, we certainly have much less time for politics than we used to. But two of us are with SHARP Milan, and we’re all involved in politics in one way or another.

Nico writes and is very passionate about the world of popular sport. He has written a book on the history of St Pauli FC, and regularly takes part in talks and debates on these issues all over Italy and beyond. Both of us can look back at a past as militants in occupied and self-managed spaces, me in Milan and him in Novara. Even though I haven’t been tied to any organisation for 15 years now, I’ve continued to organise campaigns relying on different spaces and collectives at different times, whether anti-fascist, internationalist, or to organise benefit gigs for comrades in prison or otherwise affected by state repression.

Also, for 20 years I’ve been running VolksWriters together with other writers – to all intents and purposes, VolksWriters is the first openly militant writer and graffiti artist crew. It’s a collective of people with whom we’ve been working in occupied spaces since 2000, including on campaigns and marches, directly organising campaigns like the one against CasaPound 10 years ago, and honouring the memory of the partisan resistance and internationalist solidarity. Even if for various reasons we’re no longer militants in full-time structures, this is and remains our world.

So this is just to make it clear that of course we’re a political band… it couldn’t be any other way. Being able to tour and communicate through Sempre Peggio has become another opportunity to support the causes close to us and help the anti-fascist skinhead scene to grow at all levels.

How important is political militancy for your music, and what do you think of people who say that Oi must remain apolitical?

I don’t think it’s necessary to be militant or political: we’re militant because we happen to be like that, it isn’t something we decided beforehand. But by the same token, I don’t see what right anyone has to tell me that I should be apolitical… I think that especially in this environment, being anti-fascist and anti-racist should be the minimum requirement for everyone. You can be a communist, an anarchist or whatever else you want. Even if you don’t want to take a stand or deal with political issues in your lyrics at all, that one distinction shouldn’t be negotiable. The history of this subculture has led with great difficulty to the beautiful, strong and ambiguity-free scene that we have today: let’s continue like this.

Let’s talk about your album Sempre Peggio, which was released on Anfibio Records in 2016. The central theme is your city, Milan, with its “militarised quarters and bars where a pint costs like an hour’s work”, if I remember correctly. What is it like living in Milan these days?

I am now the only Milanese in the band – Nico is from Novara and Fede is from Vares.

Anyway, Milan is a difficult city that has to be understood: it can give you a lot and at the same time bring you to your knees. I grew up in a block of flats in a suburb between Giambellino and Lorenteggio that has changed a lot, as has the whole city. On the one hand we have the Milan that is sparkling with money, fashion and exclusive clubs. On the other hand, we have the Milan of working-class neighbourhoods like Barona in the far south-west where I live today, which seem like another world compared to the centre.

The most drastic aspect is no doubt the cost of living: prices in Milan aren’t people-friendly or set with an average salary in mind, and that makes it a tough city where you learn to carve out your own spaces, and you have to find your own places where you can have a few drinks without spending a fortune every time.

Then there’s the obsession with work, and with it comes the obsession with decorum, which is the reason for all the cops wandering the streets. The truth is: the fact that we don’t have a right-wing mayor anymore has improved a lot of things in Milan in terms of public services and cultural policies. But there’s a lack of an overall vision that might make the city liveable for the less well-off: such as redevelopment of our social housing heritage, free services, low rents, investment in the city’s spaces and public resources of, a real regeneration of the outskirts of Milan [unlike in the UK, the suburbs in Italy are generally working class – Editor].

The current mayor said at the beginning of his term that he was “obsessed with the outskirts”. Where I live, I’ve seen him show up only once. That was during the Covid crisis, when he visited the solidarity brigades that distributed shopping to citizens in need…

In the meantime, the spaces for political action for our movements have gradually diminished, and as evictions continue, this is becoming more difficult to regain. But we’ve seen much worse years than this, and we’ve always held our heads up high – and that’s what we’ll keep doing’ now.
Since the pandemic began, new economic problems linked to income and precariousness have emerged. It would be nice if this crisis made us start again. We have an opportunity to radically change some aspects of life in this city that aren’t working, but I have my doubts that this will happen.

Are there any places in Milan that you are particularly attached to – where do the skins meet?

Our neighbourhood is Ticinese: it’s the neighbourhood of canals, council houses, the Via Gola where the O.R.So. (Officina di Resistenza Sociale) social centre used to be – this is where Dax lived [Dax was an anti-fascist killed by a far-right sympathiser outside the centre in 2003 – Editor]. It’s the neighbourhood of the Cox18 social centre and the Palestra Popolare ‘red gym’, the Brutto Anatroccolo bar, the Circolo dei Malfattori, the Totem and the courtyards of working-class estates where people hang out. The neighbourhood of disgust and arrogance, as they wrote in the Corriere della Sera [the local evening newspaper] in one of many articles meant to denounce the problems of the neighbourhood, which they deemed “in the hands of drug dealers and squatters”.

Someone wrote that in the 70s, Ticinese had the strongest concentration of headquarters of revolutionary organisations in the whole of Europe, just to give you an idea. Today many things have changed, but our links with the neighbourhood are still strong, not least because we’ve spent so many years of militancy in these streets.

We’ve organised we have organised many different events with the skins and SHARPs at the Cuore, which is an occupied building in Via Gola – for example, parties, drinks, book presentations, benefit dinners and so on. The famous bar on the corner, the Bar di Gola, remains a point of reference. We mention it in our only love song, which is dedicated to Campari.

To broaden the spectrum, there are also a few historic pubs such as the Tipota or the Birrificio di Lambrate, plus some old-school trattorias, where we all treat ourselves to a lunch or dinner.

Let’s continue talking about Milan and your daily life. The first track on your album, ‘Miglior Nemico’, clearly refers to boneheads. As someone linked to SHARP Milano, could you tell us what the current situation is?

SHARP was reborn more or less when we started playing, about 5 years ago, and it was definitely a step that the skins of this town needed to take. Milan has always had a strong tradition, from the time of the SHARP rehearsal room at the Leoncavallo social centre to the RAF [Resistenza Antifascista – an anti-fascist collective comprising ex-SHARPS and others – Editor] in the following years, plus the whole history of the O.R.So. social centre and RASH Milan.

The scene and the movement were growing here, so there was a need for more organised structures to set up events and relaunch this culture with its anti-fascist values. Since the year of Dax’s murder and the bonehead attacks against the Cox18 social centre, there has been a gradual change in Milan’s far-right circles. The former 20-year-old boneheads with switchblades who cut their teeth as Hammerskins are now the leaders of Lealtà-Azione, which is no doubt the most dangerous and strongest faction among the different varieties of fascists in Milan.

While there have partially ‘cleaned up’ their image for the outside world by creating a whole series of associations – from mountain climbing to animal rights, various football tournaments against paedophiles and so on – the characters in question are always the same. Casa Pound and Forza Nuova are marginal compared to them. Over the years, thanks also to connections to politicians in high places, they’ve been able to recruit new militants. Recently they have linked up with Lega [a mainstream hard-right party in Italy – Editor] to promote their candidates and give themselves an institutional profile. So, to put it bluntly, today there may be less trouble in the streets, but there’s constant, worrying neighbourhood activism and agitation.

Over the years, as anti-fascists we’ve always tried to stop them organising initiatives, such as the marches for Ramelli [Sergio Ramelli was a neo-Fascist who died of injuries suffered in a confrontation with far-left activists in 1975 – Editor] and various so-called ‘black weeks’ – with varying success. I think we are underestimating the problem somewhat, but as we have always said: we will be on our posts and ready when the time comes.

The song ‘Giorni’ is an Italian-language cover of a song originally by Hell Beer Boys from Basque Country. Why did you choose this song?

At the end of the day, it was a quite casual and natural choice… A friend played the song to us, and I fell in love with it straight away – so much so that I thought we could do a fairly faithful cover, including with respect to the lyrics. Everybody liked the idea, and it felt right to us to play it as a midtempo number, unlike Hell Beer Boys, whose version features two different tempos. Today it’s still one of our favourite songs in our set – it’s emotional for us because the lyrics talk about people we have lost. Not to mention that we really love Basque Country…

In 2020, you released the seven-inch ‘Anni buttati’ with the current line-up. What can you tell us about it?

A Gruppi di Azione Patriottica partisan in Florence, 1944

After the release of our self-titled LP we spent some time touring to promote it, and we neglected songwriting a bit. In fact, the only track we published was in fact ‘Quei nomi’, a song dedicated to GAP (Gruppi di Azione Patriottica), the first Italian partisans during World War II. The seven-inch single comes with a beautiful photobook about the Italian skinhead scene published by Hellnation on 7″ of a beautiful book on the skinhead scene published by Hellnation (Come Rondini in gabbia, 2017).

After all the line-up changes, we had finally found some stability and thought it wasn’t necessary to wait until we had all the material for an LP, but publish an EP straight away. We’d already been playing the 4 songs live for some time – apart from ‘Risveglio’, which we finished writing just before our beloved and trusted Ale from Mobsound Studio in Milan recorded it. So, thanks to the support of Damiano from Timebomb Records, Fire & Flame and the guys from RadioPunk, we were able to get it out by mid-February 2020, just in time to promote it with two live dates before the lockdown…

The songs are testimony to our musical evolution, although the general style hasn’t changed massively. We tried out some Kortatu-like sounds for fun, and we tried our hand at a cover that brutalises a Blondie song. One of the other two songs is about all those malicious scandalmongers who talk behind your back, and the other one is about the long-standing issue of male pattern baldness and skinhead culture…

As you see, the topics were a little sillier than usual this time, but we like not taking ourselves too seriously.

Considering the current downtime for live shows, how have you been surviving these months?

During the quarantine we took part in some events such an acoustic festival in support of the 360° music venue in Rome, which was a lot of fun. We also recorded acoustic versions of some of our songs for the comrades of XM24 [a centro sociale in Bologna – Editor] for the radio version of their Olè Festival. Actually, we also managed to play two gigs, an acoustic one in Rome and the one outside the CPA… Oh, how we missed playing live!

True enough, having a new seven-inch released only two weeks before the lockdown was a bit of a bummer. But we’re taking advantage of this period to do some new stuff, both on the music front and regarding new t-shirts and sweatshirts new sweatshirts with Damiano from Nutty Print and Timebomb Records.

Do you have projects in the works, a new album maybe?

We have two songs ready to be recorded and a number of ideas we need to finish. We’re thinking of another seven-inch rather than an LP, or maybe a split… At the very least, we want to record these tracks this year. Then there was the idea of making a video, but the whole situation with the virus has put it on ice.

Finally: name the Italian Oi groups that have influenced you or that you’d recommend.

Well, I’d say Nabat, Klasse Kriminale, Banda Bassotti, Klaxon, Fun, Erode, Colonna Infame, Duap, Attaccabrighe, Rough, Youngang, the first Fastidios, the glorious Brigata Cani da Birra from whom we took the torch of Milan Oi, which we now represent. And I’d advise you to listen to everything that you come across, because today’s scene has a lot of ass-kicking bands. I’m not going to give you a list, because I’ll take too long…

And that’s all. Thanks Martin, we hope to see you play again soon!

Thank you so much for the interview. We hope to see you as soon as possible on stage and in front of it, and we hope we’ll be able to live our lives the way did before this fucking virus.

Cheer up and always hold your head high!

the first line-up

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