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Samizdat: the men making merch for a fictional noise band

Ahead of their two-day noise fest at London’s Selfridges, Yang Li and Federico Capalbo dissect their obsessive music merch

Yang Li and Federico Capalbo are massive, massive fanboys. But despite both working on Li’s eponymous label, it isn’t fashion that they obsess over – it’s noise music. With its roots in Dadaist musical experiments, its adolescence coming courtesy of the industrial sounds of Throbbing Gristle and its most extreme form the result of Japanoise pioneers in the 80s and 90s, noise is known for its ear-bleeding atonality, its harshness, and its violently loud live shows.

The two – who, at the time of this interview, had managed to fit three gigs into their week – met in London a decade ago. Today, they’ve channeled their musical infatuation into creating Samizdat. Described by Li “an exercise in devotion”, it’s best described as a merch label for a band that is entirely fictional.

“That’s the t-shirt from the Japanese tour of Samizdat,” declares Capalbo happily as he pulls out one piece from a rail. “These are actual cities and it’s organised in a 1986 calendar.” With the clothes (and lighters, mugs, flags, patches, condoms and even an eight-inch dildo) designed around what Li calls the ‘semiotics of merch’, Samizdat’s items contain extremely obscure easter-eggs for noise’s most hardcore fans.

But both agree, hitting play simply ain’t enough – this is one genre you need to experience it IRL. As Li says: “You can’t make merch without a gig –Samizdat is that it needs to be attached to physical concerts or live things.” After hosting shows in China, this weekend, Samizdat is teaming up with London’s Selfridges for two-nights of noise – featuring bands Ramleh, JK Flesh, Keiji Haino and KK Null. “It completes the circle in a way.” Capalbo chimes in. “Now we actually have the gig and the merchandise.”

They tell us more.

What is it that drives Samizdat?

Yang Li: It’s really a project which is a way for me and those involved to work with other people and collaborate with artists. Noise music isn’t for everybody. But for the ones who really like it, it’s a lifelong love and dedication, and that’s the beauty of this underground – I mean, nothing is really underground anymore – but the less that something known, the more you have to search for it. To go back to the DNA of Samzidat, it’s noise, power, electronics. It’s industrial, with all the kind of delineated imagery that goes along with that genre of music. The first collection or the first batch of things were heavily influenced by S&M and the fetish iconography and imagery...

Federico Capalbo: ...Which was very close to the Italian power of electronics in the 80s. On the second collection, we worked a lot on the ‘Japanoise’ music – so noise music from Japan basically – and we collaborated with the artist Keiichi Ohta to make album art.

And how has the visual identity of noise music evolved since the 80s?

Yang Li: It hasn’t really.

Thats interesting in itself, though.

Yang Li: Yeah, it’s very DIY. These people do it not for any commercial aspiration or pat on the back, except for one from the scene itself. That’s also the beautiful thing – you have to go to a gig to see them perform.

“Noise music isn’t for everybody. But for the ones who really like it, it’s a lifelong love and dedication” – Yang Li

Federico Capalbo: We have literally been to gigs where there were five of us in the audience and one was performing and realised the other three in the audience were the other artists. So it’s really small, really tiny.

Its interesting that noise still gives you this experience of searching for something underground. Because of the internet, it seems like people dont even have to look anymore.

Yang Li: Yeah, but with this kind of music, not only do you have to look, you have to go to the concert. You can’t listen to it on the stereo.

Federico Capalbo: Well you can, but it doesn’t really work.

Yang Li: Gigs can be very small with like ten or 20 people. But I think the music originates from trying to do something different. You know, can we make music that’s not melodic, that’s not made with instruments, and can we present imagery or communicated attitude which has never been done before? Sometimes presenting controversial things – it’s all done for the sake of showing something which is not out there. I guess our aim is to shed light on it but in a respectful way to the scene.

Federico Capalbo: We don’t want to exploit something.

Yang Li: Yeah, it’s more about: this is what we love, have a look if you want. I can’t make music, so this is my contribution. The most authentic way to do that is to actually work with the artist and say, hey, I just wanna make a stage for you. And then the clothes and stuff, it’s coincidental, basically.

Yeah, but you dont really have any of that protectiveness over it?

Yang Li: I mean, other people have to be a part of it otherwise it’s gonna die. The most important thing that we communicate is that it’s a pleasure to show someone this new, amazing music. You know, you have so much music, media, magazine, films out there. It’s a paradox of choice at the moment. Samizdat is about how to generate a new audience but done with grace and respect for the integrity that this scene has.

How does it stand apart from Yang Li?

Yang Li: Samizdat has a much more direct, faster, more immediate and accessible approach, whereas Yang Li works more on a conceptual and artistic label with artists.

Federico Capalbo: Yang Li is a clothing label, whereas we’re not working on a clothing level here.

Yang Li: It’s the music first. But for Yang Li, it’s about having longer dialogues for artists like OK, we create something together. Samizdat is a platform.

And do you feel tired of the fashion system way of doing things? Youve been part of it for a while.

Yang Li: I mean, you have to be inside – as Jenny Holzer always said, you have to use what’s dominant in a culture to change it. You can’t change the system if you’re completely outside of it. I guess Samizdat is a much more nimble ship because it’s smaller and more immediate. Yang Li itself means to belong to the system, Samizdat is never really in the system. I’d like to get to a point where we just do gigs every two months and then see what comes, you know, the idea that you can’t even buy from stores.

Federico Capalbo: Or the buyers are to come to gigs.

And you dont mind that someones gonna wear one of these t-shirts without realising what its about?

Yang Li: No, not at all. That’s fine. To be like that would be completely arrogant, I think. The beauty of a t-shirt and merchandise is very democratic. Whereas with high fashion, it’s less democratic because of the accessibility issue. I have so many people who would like to wear Yang Li but maybe they’re not in the position to, or can’t get access. Not just Yang Li – it’s fashion in general, only certain people get to go to the shows, only certain people get to handle the clothes, that kind of thing.

Federico Capalbo: With Samizdat we’re trying to get there little by little. In China we didn’t charge for the ticket, they just needed to sign up. It’s kind of the same thing in London.

Well, thanks for letting me have a window into your nerdiness.

Yang Li: Yeah, but seriously – this is nothing. You have to come to the gig.