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The Search for the Legendary Italian Musician Who Vanished into Thin Air

He was supposed to be the Bon Iver of Italy, but in 2013 he and his music disappeared without a trace. I tracked him down in Berlin five years later to find out why.

by Enrico Pitzianti; translated by Cristina Politano
13 March 2018, 9:42am

A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.

Ten years ago, indie folk reigned supreme. It was the final push of the Myspace era: Records like Fleet Foxes or Youth Novels by Lykke Li were released, legends like Bon Iver were born, and Sigur Rós became a phenomenon in Europe. Then this wave passed, and we all came to terms with it. But something remained unresolved for me, and it kept me from getting closure.

Back then, in the years between 2008 and 2013, I also listened to music inspired by Nordic folk. Like many of my fellow Italians, I was particularly fascinated with one really talented artist named Giampiero Riggio who played neofolk songs. His guitar, distorted, was played over carefully crafted layers of sound with a slightly industrial samples. Sometimes he’d add a violin, in a similar fashion to what you’d hear on an Antony and the Johnsons album. The lyrics were in English, well-written, deeply personal, and his voice often sung with a telephone effect – was frequently accompanied by a female one, especially in the choruses. But aside from his first name, last name, and his presumably Sicilian origins, there wasn’t a whole lot of information about him. I assumed that he was probably living in some cold country, based solely off his Myspace profile picture in which he was standing on a frozen lake. I knew that, at least for a period time, he must have lived in Kassel, a city in central Germany, because the dedication on his second album noted that the songs had been written there.

I was 18 years old when I discovered Giampiero. I was struck by that lo-fi acoustic sound, with its dark distortions and feathered samples. It was folk noir but without the pagan streak, and also indie folk, but not the banal, mainstream kind. Overall, I liked it. His first album, Separations, came out in 2008. I listened to it on the Discogs player and immediately fell in love. Finally, there was an Italian musician who was making music in the style of Death in June or Current 93; a type of folk music that was different from the kind outgoing, red wine-drinking, barefoot people listened to at unity festivals. It was introspective without the ethnic posturing that comes with an ostentatious southern Italian dialect. And I obviously wasn't the only person who liked it – "Separation IX," a track on Separations, was selected by popular music video director Giacomo Triglia for one of his short films.

Only one year later, Giampiero came out with a new album, Summary of Symbiosis. It featured eight tracks, all of them written between March and July 2009, and marked by the album’s dedication: "To all the joy and pain I had with Andrea, in Kassel." A few months after, he came out with a DVD that was produced by a gallery in Palermo. In 2010 – not even one year later – he released another album: Watschenbaum/Hold, a double record with a whopping 22 tracks. At that point, I became a devout fan.

Around the same time, I saw another one of Giampiero’s live performances appear in its entirety on YouTube, with immaculate audio and video production. There were thousands of other viewers in addition to myself. It had become clear that Giampiero Riggio had “made it.” The musician who I loved was going places – there would be more live performances, more albums; in short, he would become even more well-known (and I hoped that it wouldn't ruin him, seeing that there was still a fear of "becoming mainstream" at the time). But it didn't go that way. In fact, the opposite happened: Giampiero Riggio disappeared into thin air. On January 1, 2013, any and all information about him disappeared from the internet. All of his videos, albums, accounts, and his website – all of it was suddenly gone.

Even if you went to his record label’s website, there wasn’t much there. All the online players were blocked and didn't allow you to listen to anything. On YouTube only two songs, "Liste" and "Moths Invasion," remained, but they were two remixes that other people had made instead of original songs and both of them were eventually removed. All of the live performances disappeared, as did the short film by Giacomo Triglia. Only one song, Moths Invasion," remained up on Vimeo. Of course I could still listen to the albums I’d bought, but what had happened to this musician who had gained so many fans? It was a complete mystery.

Every time I listen to that album again, I think about how it was possible that a talented (and young, given that back in the heyday of Myspace, he was about the same age as me) artist, with three great records under his belt, could vanish into thin air. The doubt grows even stronger when I consider the feedback he received: Nothing but praise from directors, fellow musicians, and reviews in popular magazines. So why did Giampiero decide to disappear? There must have been an important reason. Some artists do this sort of thing to create suspense before releasing a new album down the line, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. By 2014 no new record had come out, and there were none in the years that followed. A talented musician had withdrawn for good.

It’s rather common for musicians to walk away from artistic projects, of course. But normally it happens at the end of an artist’s cycle, not right when they’re beginning to gain peak recognition. In 2008, the same year that Separations came out, another Italian artist called Populous, who was also a talented musician and very attentive to European trends, released Drawn in Basic on Morr Music, a German label. When I listened to that album, I was sure that he would continue to make music and I was right. Music might be a question of tastes, but there’s a degree of objectivity that makes you realise that some people have too much promise to let go.

After much reflection as to what could’ve caused Giampiero’s disappearance, I made a decision: I was going to look for him, find him, and I would ask him why in person. So I looked around on the internet and I found him. It was a Facebook profile – the first and last name corresponded, but there was no reference to music at all. He lived in Germany. I figured it had to be him, so I reached out. And it actually was him.

Giampiero responded to my query suspiciously, as if he were thinking: What on earth could this journalist possibly want? Not entirely sure how to counter this, I said, "I’m interested in your story, and why you stopped playing."

He answered me, baffled, as if I were somehow disturbing him (or he took me for an asshole. It could’ve been both). But I insisted, saying that I used to listen to his music and that I wanted to piece together his story, and he was finally convinced. He said we could talk, and so I went to Germany.

***

I arrived in Berlin on a mid-February afternoon. I had thought to prepare an interview, but the only questions I came up with were rather sad. Why did you stop playing after three albums? or, Was it an economic choice? So I decided to ditch the idea of an interview altogether, and instead play it by ear. We met at a bar in downtown Berlin called the Tier. I got there before him, took a seat at a little table, and waited. When Giampiero arrived, he looked at me to make sure I was the right person. After a hasty greeting, he said, "First of all, why?"

He didn’t seem to have the least desire to talk about himself, so I did most of the talking, telling him why my fascination with his work persisted. And with each track I cited, each album whose release date I knew by heart, he looked at me like it was absurd that someone would still remember such things.

"But no one ever came to ask you why you disappeared suddenly?" I asked.

"No," he answered, and then fell silent.

We ordered something to drink and started to chat. Soon I began to realise that this slow, intimate type of folk music mirrored the person sitting in front of me: introverted, cerebral, shy by nature.

However, Giampiero eventually warmed up. We talked about the people with whom he’d collaborated: Claudio Cataldi, a singer-songwriter from Palermo; Federico Lupo, a painter who directs the Zelle Contemporary Art centre; and labels like Centre of Wood, Wool Shop, and Seashell Records. He told me that he was originally from Trapani but that he studied in Palermo, which was where the artistic scene was during the years that attracted some of the country’s biggest names to the South: People like 108 and Massimo Gurnari, for example, who came to Sicily in order to participate in shows, live painting, or performances. Back then, northern European influences seemed to have found a home in the Sicilian capital, spawning active collaborations between DIY productions, musicians, and galleries.

There was a lot of noise in the bar and I couldn’t use a recorder, but I also didn’t want to take notes for fear of ruining the trusting atmosphere of our conversation. And I felt that I’d already won, in a way: I listened to his music for five years and then he’d disappeared for another five, but I had found him and he hadn’t stood me up, actually allowing me to interview him. We agreed to meet at his house the following afternoon so we could retrace what had happened. If everything went as planned, I would finally understand why Giampiero vanished out of the blue, removed all his work from the internet, and no longer performed. I thought it was interesting – not only because he was talented, but also because people who make music don’t do it because it’s a job like any other. It’s not a thing "you just do" – if anything, you do it because you're in a certain mood or headspace. And what’s it like when, from one moment to the next, you stop being in that mood?

***

I arrived at a silent block in Berlin, with new sidewalks and buildings that alternated between red brick and white plaster. It was a residential spot, clean, with mid-century modern interiors that you could see through the thick window frames. There was no one around, maybe because the neighbourhood is just like that, or perhaps because of the cold weather.

Giampiero and I started from the beginning. He told me how he began play music (piano lessons and playing the guitar without knowing much), how he began recording albums with a microphone and a Mac, and then how Paolo Tedesco, a pop musician, convinced him to play live. We discussed the distortions, our shared love for neofolk, and the fascination with Nordic indie, from Múm to Emiliana Torrini, Mugison, David Tiber, and so on. We talked about his collaborations, the attention from other musicians, the short film for Giacomo Triglia, the videos that started to circulate, the contacts with a Roman label called Cold Current, the parent label of Centre of Wood, with whom he recorded Separations. We talked about his reviews in Blow Up and Rockit, two alternative music publications in Italy, all while he was still studying architecture in Palermo.

But this is a list of all the things I’d already known and what I’d wanted to ask about in the interview, when in reality the most important part of Giampiero’s story was something else that I’d known nothing about: The person who made these albums that I loved so much made them as part of a psychological journey to confront chronic anxiety and depression. I couldn’t have known it when I first attempted to arrange this interview, but I quickly started to realise that there as something else behind the disappearance of Giampiero Riggio, something in addition to the musical part of it all, when I noticed that he had little desire to speak about the past.

If you make music in order to vent something, or process a negative spiritual state (and historically speaking, 80 percent of music is born from that) those sounds will always be tied to that feeling. And if you’re able to liberate yourself from that feeling later on (which is for the best, given that we’re talking about depression) then returning to it is difficult. But I was there, halfway through the interview and recording him, and I could get out of it by mumbling, "Ah, don't go there then, sorry." As we were discussing it, everything started to make sense to me. For those who live through difficult periods, memories are like a bundle that include everything, from sounds to places to people’s faces. For Giampiero, that meant the memories of his depression were tied up with Palermo, the music scene, people from the record label, all the videos on YouTube, the live performances, his time at the university – all of it was an emotional skein from which he could only liberate himself by setting all of it aside. And on the other hand, if he’d tried to convince himself to try and separate his depression from his musical career, there was a chance he might devote too much time and energy to being depressed altogether.

Which is why, he told me, he deleted everything on 1 January, 2013. In order to be free, he needed to create a break and start fresh.

Today, he experiences this period as if it were a distant dream; another place, another time, another person. But there’s another reason. When a music scene is born in the provinces, some sort of fabric – be it cultural or economic – is missing from it, even when it could’ve added value to the scene. In other words: No one really gives a shit about you.

The references to Nordic folk were too foreign, too outlandish for the Sicilian capital. It’s not easy to make a living off of music In a place like that because you occupy a niche, and you get the feeling that you’ll never be able to leave that niche. Sure, you might’ve gotten good feedback from the internet, but back in the Myspace era, social networks weren’t taken as seriously as they are today. So perhaps you get tired of the music you’re making, you lose interest, or you convince yourself that, at the end of the day, it was just a hobby and not necessarily something you were doing for work. It's easy to think that you were deluded and idealistic. You end up cultivating a private backlash in your head, rejecting your own work and minimising your art as a childish indulgence. That’s what I expected Giampiero to say before I arrived here for our interview: Was it that you were doing experimental things in Palermo? Its not fertile soil for it, so you became disillusioned and abandoned everything. In reality, this was only a small piece of his story. Some of those albums were written between Kassel and Stuttgart, another city in southwestern Germany, and perhaps he could’ve found a different fertile soil there. But instead, in Stuttgart, Giampiero just decided to erase everything.

Once he made it through this difficult psychological period, the prerequisites for sitting down and writing this type of music were missing, his ability to improvise seemingly gone. Think of it this way: If you were playing music to express your inner pain, then once you’ve overcome that pain, playing inevitably becomes difficult and loses its meaning – even if certain negative emotions resurface in your day-to-day life and it was those very emotions that originally acted as catalysts for a certain type of artistic production.

Over course of our interview, it became apparent that a little background noise always remains. If you’ve written three albums and spent years using music as an outlet for expression, you might be able to delete 99 percent of that past – but 100 of it. There will be a part of it that always lingers.

Shortly before I left his house after talking to him for two hours, Giampiero showed me a record, with a pink cover and a mythological title, Lorelei. The album is by Feminine, a band that I don't know. Finally I understood that it was his new project. Or rather, half of it is his – the album is a long-distance collaboration with Francesco Cipriano, who plays in a band called Oldpolaroid. Giampiero has never met him; the two have never seen each other and never done a live performance. But it’s been his way of remaining in contact with music.

I listened to the album and indeed, it was him. There was that slight patina of shoegaze, the same feathery sounds, the same lo-fi folk. "We made it long-distance," he explained, and then revealed that he’s recorded other songs under other names, elsewhere, in projects that were organised by other labels. Essentially, Giampiero – after having deleted all of his past work – changed his name and spent three years recording an album that doesn’t even have his name on it, and which hasn’t been pushed to the market. It’s like he quit music but didn’t actually stop making it. He disappeared, but not entirely.

I traveled to Berlin trying to fathom how, in the earliest days of the internet, when it was the norm for everyone to put themselves, their beliefs, or their presumed talent on display for the rest of the world to see, someone would decide against participating in any of it though they were really talented. I returned to Italy with a very different story in my head. In a world ruled by the internet and by social media, identity is a difficult thing to trace. Those who I thought had stopped making music have succeeded in making it without ever having truly stopped. This may be the story of a disappearance, but first and foremost it is the story of an identity change. There are people like myself who associate the name Giampiero Riggio with neofolk and the albums he produced during the time that he was depressed. But in Germany, where he lives among the people he sees every day, nobody even knows that he’s a musician.

This article originally appeared on Noisey IT.