Robert Rifo, the founder of Italy's Bloody Beetroots, on his work with Crass, Paul McCartney + The Sex Pistols
Dom Gourlay
16:42 30th July 2018

Robert Rifo, or Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo as he’s known by his stage persona, is probably the most innovative musician in electronic music right now. As the founder, songwriter, producer and DJ with The Bloody Beetroots, he’s spent the last decade reconstructing the concept of house music. Instead, infusing it with a smidgen of punk’s attitude and layers of sonic noise not normally associated with any of house’s many sub genres, The Bloody Beetroots have emerged from the underground club scene to the arena filling, festival headlining beast standing before us today.

Now three albums into what’s become an illustrious body of work, Rifo has changed the face of dance music in a similar way to Liam Howlett and The Prodigy some 25 years ago. While eternally grateful for the loyal support he’s amassed from a worldwide fanbase that’s grown considerably since the Beetroots’ inception, his real roots lie in the UK punk scene from the late 1970s and early 1980s, as Gigwise discovers.

Collaborations with Killing Joke’s Youth, Paul McCartney, former Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Penny Rimbaud from Crass among a host of others tell their own story. As does Rifo’s continual quest to change as the band’s most recent long player, last year’s ‘The Great Electronic Swindle’ ably demonstrates.

In a couple of hours he’ll wow 60,000 revellers at Romania’s Electric Castle. Beforehand, he holds court with Gigwise, talking us through the social and political landscapes, which have influenced and taken him to where he is today.

Gigwise: It’s the first time you’ve played this festival. What are your expectations for tonight?

Robert Rifo: I have no expectations, but I hope people like it.

GW: The visual element of The Bloody Beetroots live show is a vital component of your performance. How does that match with the message you’re aiming to convey in your music, particularly when fusing so many different styles and genres?

RR: When you listen to our albums you’re listening to the full picture. So when we play them live we try to squeeze that full picture into a show. Which is a very different experience because we try to include the past, the present and the future of The Bloody Beetroots. So it ends up being this crazy sonic experience that’s linked solely to the Bloody Beetroots’ work. It’s a good catalyst to bring people in and get them to the real deal, which is the music, only as an extended version with the live visuals.

GW: With such an extensive catalogue of work that’s growing rapidly, how do you choose what to include in an hour-long live set?

RR: As soon as I start to go crazy, I expect that other people are going crazy as well. So that’s my choice of which songs I have to play. The only choice!

GW: You’ve collaborated with numerous artists over the years but the one which really intrigues me is Penny Rimbaud from Crass for ‘The Furious’ off 2013’s second Bloody Beetroots album ‘Hide’. How did that come about?

RR: I’m a good friend of Youth from Killing Joke, and he’s really good friends with Paul McCartney and Penny Rimbaud. So we’re working in London making singles. We made ‘Church Of Noise’ with Dennis Lyxzen from Refused around that time. Youth asked me if I wanted to collaborate with anyone in particular, so I said yeah, I have two people I want to collaborate with and they’re both your friends. One is Paul McCartney, and the other is Penny Rimbaud. I’m a good anarchist. Anarchy to me is like a way of life. So I wanted to get in touch with Penny because he was a pioneer of the anarchist movement. Not just in music, but also cultural revolt. Him and Gee (Vaucher) created a world that was more than just about making music. And the new kids don’t know anything about Crass. They don’t know anything about Gee Vaucher. They don’t know anything about Penny Rimbaud. So my point was to create a bridge between different generations then give it a voice. That’s why I wanted to have Penny Rimbaud on my records and now we’re best friends. When I get chance I spend a lot of time round at his house. We spend a lot of that time just talking about his work, and we also put together an installation for the school of art in Gloucester last year about different sonic experiences. It was fucking crazy. No one could understand anything, not even me or Penny! But then that was the point. We needed to expand people’s knowledge, and music is always a good excuse. The whole point of this collaboration was to build bridges between the past and now in order to expand people’s knowledge.

GW: Do you see any parallels between what you’re doing with The Bloody Beetroots to what Crass did towards the end of the 1970s? Certainly in terms of fusing different sounds together with socially and politically aware messages alongside them.

RR: I use dance music – that four on the floor thing – as a catalyst. I have many catalysts. I’ve got a mask, and I’ve got dance music. If you think about it, that’s the oldest form of communication we have. People used dance music when the world was first created. Different people that don’t necessarily form part of this society, they dance to stay together in their communities. So dance to me represents that form of catalyst. It’s an excuse to bring people on board. The mask is another excuse to bring people together, only this time we’re aiming to give them culture, knowledge, substance and contents. That’s what I do.

GW: You’ve always worn a mask onstage to conceal your identity. Is that an important aspect of what The Bloody Beetroots are about, almost creating a sense of mystique in itself?

RR: I guess it is really important because everyone can be Robert Rifo and The Bloody Beetroots on stage, except they’re not. And I like my private life as well. I like being around people, which I think is different to a lot of other artists and musicians who seem to alienate themselves because it’s difficult to separate their personal lives from what they do on stage without no longer being the real deal. In some cases it affects their creativity, so I don’t want that to be me. I love being with people and I love hanging out with our fans. The mask is a privilege.

GW: Do you become an entirely different person behind the mask? Does it represent a new identity whilst you’re performing?

RR: I don’t think it changes my persona but in a way, it emphasises and adds to my character.

GW: Electronic music has progressed and developed in so many different forms over the past four decades. Where do you see it going next? Where do you see The Bloody Beetroots going next?

RR: Right now? To the future!

GW: What does that future look like for you?

RR: The future is brighter than ever. I don’t know where we’re going to be honest. I know we became a festival band where we’ve had to get used to playing in front of big crowds. Which has become a statement for us. We’ll continue to make music my way, to hopefully shape the world and encourage people to also see things my way. I want to express myself differently and as long as my life evolves then I will be able to create new stuff.

GW: You said The Bloody Beetroots have become a festival band in recent years. Do you prefer playing bigger stages such as this one or would you rather play more intimate venues and clubs?

RR: I like both. I like the intimacy of playing in a club, but I also like big crowds too. I don’t mind playing either situation, but the music I make as The Bloody Beetroots became something that was aimed at big crowds.

GW: Do you tailor your sets differently dependent on where you’re playing and how many people you’re playing to?

RR: I think the Bloody Beetroots’ fanbase are a pretty eclectic bunch. You can find the hipster guy, the rock and roller, the metal guy, the dance boy, the girls, it’s very wide open. They respond differently for different songs, but the most important thing is they respond back.

GW: The Bloody Beetroots live experience is very different to a Bloody Beetroots DJ set. How do you make that transition without being caught between the two worlds, as they both seem very separate?

RR: The Bloody Beetroots live show is my thing that expresses exactly what I do in the studio and it relates to my music 100%. Whereas The Bloody Beetroots DJ set includes some of our songs, but it’s also a form of exploration focusing on new contemporary electronic music. It’s more of a fusion between our stuff and what’s happening with everybody else around us. That’s the main difference. Still, the energy is there but it is different. My physical approach to people is different. I can’t have the same amount of energy I have for a live set because I’m standing behind a deck mixing for an hour. And I mix a lot of songs in that time, sometimes 50 tracks in that hour. I study the crowd and aim to make them move the whole time I’m Djing, so when I introduce a new song it might not always get the immediate reaction I’d like, but you have to try. That’s what a real DJ should do and that’s what I like to do. I’m not saying one is a better experience than the other, it’s just different.

GW: The concept of Djing has evolved considerably with the introduction of new technology so laptops and sequencers have taken over from vinyl where a lot of DJs are concerned. What’s your take on it? Do you think DJs have become less authentic when preferring laptops and MP3s over vinyl?

RR: I’m not sceptical about the use of technology. As long as it’s true. If you’re playing something true and you make people move and there’s a good energy to it, people don’t really care. That’s the deal. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re using vinyl, CDJs or a laptop as long as the audience like it.

GW: Your most recent album ‘The Great Electronic Swindle’ came out last year. What influenced its concept and title?

RR: It was influenced by the Sex Pistols and ‘The Great Rock And Roll Swindle’. I became good friends with Steve Jones last year, and it’s a tribute because I think we’re experiencing the same situation right now as they were back in the seventies. The same cultural depression, so this it. I wanted to make my contribution – not to save the world, but at least say something – so I picked up the phone and asked all these people to collaborate on this record. Again, to expand people’s knowledge because there are kids out there that don’t know who Perry Farrell is. They don’t know about Steve Jones or the Sex Pistols, they don’t know about any of it. The Bloody Beetroots are here to translate the past, the history, into something that is contemporary.

GW: Having collaborated with so many different people over the past decade, is there anyone else you’re hoping to work with in the future?

RR: It’s hard to say; because I make the music then I pick the artists I’d like to work with. The music speaks, so if I don’t have the music I cannot answer. At the moment I don’t have any new music for The Bloody Beetroots, but I’m going to start working on writing some new stuff in September. Once that gets underway and the songs start taking shape, then I’ll have an idea who I want to collaborate with.

GW: Are there any other artists you’re particularly inspired by at this moment in time?

RR: I’m very close to and inspired by Rival Sons at the moment. I became good friends with Jay Buchanan and he taught me a lot of things about music and life itself. What they do is something that I feel, a lot. It’s very true, and the way Jay sings is very unique. I’d probably call Jay the new Jeff Buckley. He’s so into what he does, very passionate about his music, so I’d recommend people listen to Rival Sons. Songs like ‘Where I’ve Been’ or ‘Jordan’. I’ve got chills just talking about them.

GW: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the music industry?

RR: We’re living in a crazy time, and I know it’s all about selling ourselves performing music. We should consider the time to make things, because time speaks for quality. The time that is spent on something makes the difference, and that’s what people should do.

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Photo: Richard Gray