Mothball Records: A Labour of Love

Described as the ‘Italo Connection Down Under’, for the past five years Mothball Records has been steadily unearthing and releasing obscure Italo-Disco gems and providing lovers of the genre the world over a chance to get their hands on some seriously rare wax. I met the mysterious label’s brainchild George, aka Hysteric, to discuss its origins, the intricacies of the record industry and what’s in store for the man behind the scenes.

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As we sit down at Stellini’s, a fittingly intimate Italian restaurant in the CBD, I’m keen to discover how George became immersed in such a niche European sound. “It wasn’t really a part of my childhood”, he explains. “It was obviously around at a time when I was alive but it wasn’t around in my existence. I guess it just came from digging more and more into electronic music of the past. I just stumbled on Italo…I kind of got obsessed.”

‘The label started as a joke…a one-release joke’

In recent years the sounds of Italo have quietly made their way back into record bags across the globe. Born in Italy in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the genre drew heavy influence from the wave of disco infused pop music sweeping Europe and the US in the same period. Italo tracks were produced in their droves, becoming synonymous with heavily synthesized melodic phrases, arpeggiated baselines and often excessively cheesy vocals. As with most genres, the sound gradually disappeared into obscurity. Interestingly, it is this obscurity that now seems to underpin Mothball’s sound. George explains, “there were a lot of one shot productions, but there were several producers who did hundreds and hundreds of records and after Italo, moved into house and trance…Italo just happened to be what they were doing at the time, it’s where the money was. Then there was the other side of things, that was inspired by the new wave stuff, people just did one record, disappeared and that was it…but I guess that’s some of the stuff that’s on the label, stuff that was obscure and makes you question, did the artist disappear or move on to other stuff afterwards?”

With a taste for obscure records, George began re-editing tracks and it was this path that lead to the creation of Mothball. “The label started as a joke…a one-release joke,” he chuckles. “The idea was to do a (single release) CD to giveaway with my first record they had out on a Dutch label Bordello A Parigi…the CD went ok, a lot of people were into it, so it just naturally bowled from there.”

Hysteric – Brother Martin from Bordello A Parigi on Vimeo.

It was George’s edit of Flowbert’s ‘Brother Martin’ that caught the attention of Bordello A Parigi, a label and distributor operating out of Delpht. George sent the track to Italo Deviance, a small blog dedicated to obscure disco, which led to a message from the guys at Bordello. “It’s funny”, he says, “I only ever sent Italo Deviance two things, a mix and an edit…one of those two things is where every thing came from, its crazy.” From here the team worked together on nine releases, each time demonstrating the diversity and taste George has in both his editing skills and record selection. “I try to handle the more obscure side of stuff,” he explains, “they’re just tracks I happen to like that I have already collected.”

That said, finding a consistent source for records that have fallen by the wayside can be extremely challenging. The at times inflated price of vinyl these days has meant that on occasion George has to seek audio from friends. “There’s people who spend a lot more money on records than I could ever justify paying, so luckily I know some people who can help…but wherever possible I like to have the record in my hands,” he says. “There’s a bit of a debate at the moment, about re-mastering, about the audio source. A lot of people would rather have the audio source from the original master tapes but in a lot of cases the artist doesn’t even have a copy of their own releases and the master tapes are long gone. You’ve got to work with the audio source that’s available now, which is just the best copy of the record you can find.”

‘There have been copies sold for 250 euro because there’s just not that many flying around’

This was a challenge he faced on the labels latest release, Plustwo’s ‘Melody/Fantasy’. A cosmic fusion of disco and melodic synthesis, the record has for years been somewhat of a holy grail amongst diggers, with the current release having just sold out across every distributor in Europe. “It was always a great record, because it was sought after by people collecting Italo and it was sought after by people collecting boogie records,” George tells me. “There have been copies sold for 250 euro because there’s just not that many flying around.” Seeing PlusTwo become active on Facebook, George immediately got in touch to try and get the record re-pressed. To make matters interesting, another label, ‘Light Sound Dark’, added a bootlegged version of ‘Fantasy’ to a release that dropped in July of 2015. George recalls, “when I saw that LSD record, that’s when I started harassing the person who was running the pages. I said ‘you don’t have to do anything! I’ll make the release happen, can we do it?’” With much back and forth, most of which relied heavily on Google translate, the pair came to an agreement. The results so far have been hugely beneficial for everyone involved.

‘We only did 150 copies and someone left some copies in the sun so some of the copies that went out had to be replaced’

The problems faced when attempting to get a record re-released are often diverse and varied from one to the next. Obtaining licensing for little-known artists who were recording in the 80’s alone presents a number of issues. George explains, “there’s two sides to licensing: the song writing permission and the company who owns the records. Having both can be difficult because sometimes the company that owns the sound recording is long since defunct…or has attained it illegitimately. It does happen that artists or companies have their material owned or managed by another rights society or company and they have no idea how it got there.” As well as rights and audio source issues, the current delays at pressing plants means things don’t happen overnight. Even when the slow pressing process is over, errors still occur, as George explains candidly, “the first record we did, the ‘Hot Girls of Italo’ one, was a bit of a disaster…we only did 150 copies and someone left some copies in the sun so some of the copies that went out had to be replaced.”

Beginning to understand how Mothball took shape, I am intrigued to know more about how George found himself tied to dance music in the first place. “It was a weird bunch of coincidences”, he says, “I happened to know three people who were into Melbourne warehouse rave culture, either working or DJing techno around 2000, 2001. It seemed something different to me, some different interactive music…I kind of just caught the tail end of it, but I was more interested in the music, DJing and collecting side of it than the partying side.” This interest in playing out eventually led George to a weekly residency at one of Melbourne’s most iconic music venues, The Toff in Town. As we make a flying visit to the space, we discuss what it means to him, “I love playing there, you can pretty much play anything…there’s a lot of musical freedom, which I’m grateful for.”

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Alongside this George has also been putting out material for Munich based, Public Possession. “I did a record in their ‘under the influences’ series, which is my take on four tracks”, he says, in reference to his latest release ‘Mappamondo’. It’s glitchy computer and classical waltz infused samples makes for an interesting listen. “It’s been a good partnership with them. I did a half record with them last year. On the other side was Tamas Jones and since then I’ve had a lot more requests to do records, so its been positive.” Also in the pipeline for Hysteric is a record for a label from France containing 3 edits, though due to the nature of the release the details remain tightly under wraps for now.

‘I never thought I’d be playing in Italy for one thing…or playing on a beach, and actually having people into the music’

With ‘Mappamondo’ and ‘Melody/Fantasy’ going strong George has recently embarked on another tour of Europe. It’s a tour that sees him play shows Berlin, Vienna, Rotterdam, as well as two in Paris last weekend. We discuss his last visit and the impact this had on him. “When I came back from overseas last year, I quit my job and have just been working on trying to DJ as much as possible. I’ve been working on Mothball and on tracks and re-edits for other labels”, he says. “I was there for 3 months…it kind of stopped being a holiday and more a weird version of normal life.” It was a trip in which he stocked up enough wax for two packages and was nearly barred from flying due to excess weight. “I’m still playing stuff I brought back with me”, he laughs. “The silly thing was seeing records I had in Oz but wanted to play there, so I ended up with doubles of stuff.” He recalls one memory from the trip that clearly stood out, “I was playing on Pascara Beach in Italy”, he says with an air of nostalgia, “I never thought I’d be playing in Italy for one thing, or playing on a beach, and actually having people into the music, the crowd was really into it.”

Having been in the scene for over a decade now, it’s interesting to hear what it was that George had noticed over the years about Melbourne, and where he stood within it. “The Melbourne DJ scene is really strong; people are all very good DJs. Thankfully it has enough places to accommodate a lot of people”, he says. “I think longevity counts for a lot, you sometimes see Melbourne people playing 4-5 times a week, then they just disappear. I always wonder what happens to them. Then there are people who just drift along, doing their thing. I’m pretty much just happy to be plugging away in the background.”

George’s work at Mothball and under his Hysteric alias aren’t typically associated with the leading lights of the Melbourne scene, but his stellar output and increasingly popular releases are making people sit up and take notice. When I first got in touch to interview him he described Mothball as a “one-man operation and a labour of love”, words that – having met him in person – couldn’t be more true.