Interview with Manu Delago: musician and environmental activist

Photo: Simon Rainer

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

Manu Delago is a percussionist and composer who was born in Innsbruck (Austria) and who is currently based in London.

He is mostly known for being a handpan virtuoso. In his career, he has collaborated with many artists, such as Anoushka Shankar, Joss Stone and Björk, and, as a soloist, he has played with some of the most incredible orchestras in the world, like The London Symphony Orchestra.

What makes Manu Delago such a special artist? Some might say the instrument he plays or the artists he has collaborated with. And this is absolutely true. However, there’s much more. He is an environmental activist, something which has always played an important component of his music production as well.

In this interview, Manu Delago talks about his music, his career and collaborations, his new album, Environ Me, ready to be released on September 24th, but above all, he tells about the impact of his music, focusing also on what artists can do to build a better and more sustainable world.

Q.: You started getting into music at a very early age and, as a teenager, you played mostly as a drummer in rock bands. Would you tell me more about those days?

M.D.: When I was thirteen/fourteen I just wanted to be in a band playing rock music. I wasn’t even so fast about the instrument. I first started playing guitar but then the band needed a drummer and I just started playing the drums. I just loved to be in the band and play. By the time I was fifteen/sixteen I had played in different bands. Some of them were just “cover bands”, but I also had a band where we played original music. I was very busy, because I had to go to school in the day, but in the evening I played a lot of concerts. That was what I mainly did as a teenager.

Q.: Then, you discovered the handpan. How did that discovery change your approach to music and your vision on it?

M.D.: I was nineteen when I saw the handpan for the first time and, at that time, I already played marimba because I studied classical percussion. I also played a little bit of piano. The handpan just felt very natural to me. In a way it combined those rhythm and melody elements very seamlessly in one instrument. I just really liked it. I think it also opened my ears in a more sensitive way because most of the music I used to play at the time was quite loud and with the handpan I just started writing and playing more quiet music. I also started playing more with jazz and classical musicians. In a way, it just opened a lot of different doors because it was a new instrument and I had to write music for it. I first started improvising but then I started composing more and more. At the beginning it was just solo music or very small duo/trio music but then the whole story continued and I started writing for orchestras and choirs and, obviously, I released many albums with my own music. The handpan was an important part of that journey.

Q.: As you mentioned, you are also a classical percussionist and a jazz drums trained musician as well as a composition graduate. How did you find out you wanted to become a professional musician?

M.D.: That was never really that point because when I was fifteen and I was already making some money playing concerts in the evening while going to school in the morning. It was a natural transition. After school, I decided to started studying music because it just felt really natural. There was never really a serious “plan B”. Until I was seventeen I played a lot of football, but I wasn’t really good enough to make it as a living. I thought it just needed too much discipline. In addition, with football, if you get even one injury your whole career could be over. I just stayed with music and I’m glad I did it.

Q.: Let’s focus a little bit on your instrument. There’s a common misunderstanding between hang and handpan. Can you explain the differences, if any, and their origins?

M.D.: The hang was invented in the year 2000 by PANart which is a small company in Bern (Switzerland) and that’s the instrument I played first. Over the years it became very difficult to buy a hang because there were so many people wanting one but the company had become really selective about who they wanted to give one to. So, more and more people started building their own instruments, but hang is a registered trademark name and therefore they were not allowed to call it that way. Now they are like 300 makers in the world manufacturing similar instruments to the hang but for the reasons I just mentioned they are not allowed to call it this way. They started looking for an overall term and they decided to call it handpan because the word hang comes from a Bernese German word which has a double meaning “hand” and the other is “hillside”, due to convex shape of the instrument. There are also some other terms around but handpan seems to be the most common one. Some people would say that a hang is a type of handpan. Obviously, the inventor would not agree because a hang is a hang and nothing else but handpan seems to be the overall term and I started using it myself just because it implies more instruments.

Q.: In your career as well as with your collaborations, you have showed that the handpan is also extremely versatile. You can switch from percussion-only compositions to DJs and electronic music. Is it easy to adapt to such different music genres?

M.D.: Well, I think the advantage of the handpan is that it’s not culturally bound to one country, one continent. The sitar, for example, reminds you immediately of Indian music but with the handpan is not like: “It has to be this kind of music or that kind of music”. I enjoyed the fact that I could do anything with it. It was also a challenge because the instrument is so young and this meant there wasn’t a scene for it. I had to learn it all by myself and built a following. For example, if you are an amazing drummer you can get hundreds of thousands of fans. This hasn’t been the case with the handpan. The community has just started to grow. It’s just great playing such a young, acoustic instrument, also because not so many new acoustic instruments have been invented in the 21st century.

Q.: As a soloist, you have also recorded with some of the most amazing orchestras in the world, such as The London Symphony Orchestra, and played in some of the most prestigious venues in six continents. How do you adapt to these locations? I mean the way the sound itself travels is different according to the environment where it’s produced.

M.D.: I would say I enjoy the variety because it inspires me. You play one note and then it stays in the room because there’s lot of reverb. And then if you play outdoors and it’s raining, you do not feel the notes traveling and so you have to play more notes. This means you have to constantly adapt. On the other hand, it doesn’t really make a difference how many people there are. I try to play as musical as possible and to be in the moment as much as possible. It doesn’t make a difference how big it’s the place or how many people there are but I like to adapt the sound to the space.

Q.: The way I look at an artist is not only related to his/her music but also to the meaning behind it. You really embody my view on what music is about. In fact, you are also an environmental activist, you really care about the Planet. You recently embargoed in a quite unconventional tour, the ReCycling Tour. Tell me more about it.

M.D.: As you say, it was very “unconventional” because my band and I cycled for five weeks. We played 18 concerts on the way. The tour was mainly in Austria. There was a bit of Germany, a bit of Italy like Alto Adige. I’ve always tried to do things differently in music and sometimes I kind of carry it over to other elements in the music industry, like touring or recording. For example, a few years ago I recorded the album Parasol Peak in the mountains. There’s a sort of adventurous spirit in me that pushes me to do things differently. With the ReCycling Tour there was a lot about climate issue. Cycling is also a great way of free transport, but then we extended the concept and decided to also have completely vegetarian diet and got food provided from locals, from fans and audiences who made us homemade food which ideally was regional and waste-free. We had solar panels on our bikes and our equipment was all stored in our trailers. Through our solar panels, we generated our own electricity for the live shows. We also tried to reduce waste as much as possible. We also chose venues which did not provide any plastic bottles and also asked fans and audiences to travel by bicycle, walk or use public transport to come to the concerts. We just tried to make the whole tour as sustainable as possible. I’m really proud because we actually did the whole thing. The fact is that I hear so many people talking about climate crisis, but with the RyCycling Tour we became an example, we could do something and show what can be done. It’s been hard and challenging in many ways. You had to think about things twice or three times. It’s not like thinking about a “normal” tour. This time the route had to be really perfect. But yeah…we did it!

Q.: Did you get a specific training for the Recycling Tour?

M.D.: I only asked musicians, technicians and crew I knew would be up for cycling and up for adventures because it’s not only cycling in the sun for two hours but it’s also cycling in the rain for eight hours! They were all up for it. I just tried to build it up consistently. I planned this tour for like a year and a half and then it was postponed due to Covid. There was a lot of time to train and, especially in the last four months, I trained more and more on the bicycle.

Photo: Simon Rainer

Q.: What did you learn from this tour? Is there a real commitment to do something for the planet we’re living in?

M.D.: We were a group of six people with trailers and people thought we were like part of a “bachelor’s party” or something like that. But then, people learned about this tour in the media. There was lot of media attention. They were cheering us on and supporting us. Sometimes people showed up with extra food. We had an online form where they could let us know if they wanted to provide us with food or drinks. Sometimes people just did it anyway. It was really great. There was an element I hadn’t really planned, meaning that we would have become such an attraction on the road. Sometimes we had angry car drivers because we needed quite a bit of space being cyclists with trailers. They got really angry, especially in Italy, but we didn’t understand what they were saying to us.

I think we really have to do something about the climate crisis. We have to get out of our habits and out of our comfort zone. It’s very easy to talk about it but then, most of people don’t do anything except from recycling some trash at home. That’s only for the conscience but it doesn’t change much to be honest. For example, cycling for us was really a big change compared to being on a tour bus. We did a lot of experiments along the way. For example, one day we just ordered “take away” food and compared it to having homemade food. There was twice as much litter on one day of take away food compared to two/three weeks of homemade food. We also released a daily video blog where you could see what we did. We learned a lot from it and I hope we also inspired many other people to be active and to change their habits.

Photo: Simon Rainer

Q.: Music is an extremely powerful tool to communicate. Do you think artists are doing enough to address severe issues affecting our Planet and, as a consequence, our whole lives?

M.D.: I think there’s definitely more that can be done. Even in the ReCycling Tour I assumed we were pretty clear with the concept but then we often found venues or concert halls where they had so much plastic. I’m talking about a country where there’s a lot of tap water you can drink or even if you can’t get tap water you can get filtered water from big water dispensers. There’s still so much unnecessary plastic use. I know that in many other countries the situation is even worse compared to Austria. There’s definitely a lot to do. More people have to talk about it but also do something as well. It’s not just the artists, it’s the whole music industry. Let’s think about big festivals where they have big numbers. For example, it’s tricky to be an international artist and not flying at all. This is another thing I’m struggling with as well. The ReCycling Tour was also a sign that I’ve flown too much in my life. Now, when I’m not on tour I basically use my bicycle or walk as much as I can. The ReCycling Tour was amazing because we cycled up to 120 km/day and now if I have to cycle 10 km, it’s like nothing. I had one Grammy nomination in my life but I didn’t go to the ceremony. I found it ridiculous going to California for an event that takes two hours even without performing. I got invited but it just felt wrong. If I fly, I want it at least to make it worth it. In August I had a concert in Georgia and I had never been there before. It was a country I really wanted to visit, a country with great mountains, full of culture and history. It was only one concert, therefore I decided to spend my holidays there, go hiking and stay longer. For me it was still a flight but it felt better because I made it more efficient.

Photo: Simon Reithofer

Q.: You have collaborated with artists who are activists/philantropists as you are: Anoushka Shankar, Joss Stone and, of course, Björk (in this case for her album ‘Biophilia’ which means ‘Love of Nature’). Is this something you consider important when you choose who you want to collaborate with?

M.D.: I would say it is more a coincidence but maybe there’s something that is also connecting. I think there is something that’s connecting but I don’t think it’s the first reason why we collaborated. I think music is always the first reason. A lot of collaborations happen online these days and if it goes well you maybe do more stuff together. Anoushka and Björk are the artists I collaborated with the most. I have collaborated with Björk for more than 10 years and 9 years or something with Anoushka.

Q.: How was collaborating with Björk?

M.D.: I’ve always been a big fan, so it was a dream come true for me. She is super-inspiring. I think she was the first one who make me think about other things than music only. She doesn’t think about vocals only. She cares about the beats, the strings, the sound design, the lights, the visuals and the whole message. I found this really inspiring. I certainly learned a lot from her but I also learned a lot from the people she works with. She’s really good at finding great collaborators.

Q.: You have a brand new album, Environ Me, which is going to be published on September 24th. How did you choose this title?

M.D.: I’ve been waiting to do a solo album for quite a long time but I’ve always thought that it might be somewhat boring. I was actually thinking: “How can I make it not boring?” At the end I decided that it would have been me plus our environment. Every track on the album is connected with a different aspect of our environment. One track is about water, one about fire, one about animals, one about plants. But then, there’s also one about machines or the wind. Every track has a different sound and every track comes with a video that shows that element or that aspect and you also hear that specific sound. At the beginning of the pandemic, people got isolated and I just felt even more connected with the environment and with nature. I have tried to add a strong visual component to it and also, when possible, I also tried to add a whole story to it. There’s also a song called ReCycling where I incorporated the cycling sounds. In that case, that was not only a song but there was a whole project behind it considering the ReCycling Tour. The next single was Trees for the Wood and it’s a track where I had twenty double bass players playing in a cut-down forest. I basically replaced the trees with the double bass players and then we also replanted a new forest as part of the project. Basically, all the players abstained from a fee and we all decided to use that fee to replant the forest. I tried to give each track an environmental story and create an awareness for the sound and beauty of our environment.

Q.: For the first two singles extracted from it you have again broken some boundaries. For Interference you and other six percussionists gathered on one of those metal constructions which have become part of modern nature, while for Curveball you have created a ‘2.0’ version of the catch ball game. Do we have to expect something more electric or urban sounds from this new album?

M.D.: People played curveball at the beach. One day during the lockdown I was just walking in London through the park and I saw some people playing. I just thought it had a great sound and it looked cool. Obviously I had to make it a little bit more advanced. I created a beat out of it. I had to research the space between players because the time had to be perfect. I only met twice or three times with the players. They all got the parts from me to memorize because we had to perform in the dark. I have to say it was a very challenging performance. We needed a lot of takes to get the video right. It was hard but we got it in the end.

Q.: And for your latest single, Liquid Hands, which came out on Friday August 27th, you recorded drum ‘n’ bass beats and underwater sounds in a frozen lake in Winter. That video was another challenge in terms in terms of recording because the sound is also choreographed through your hands.

M.D.: For that one I worked with a professional choreographer because when I started with the idea of playing in water I also wanted to give it a special look as well. Playing in water with hands wasn’t enough for me. We were four drummers. At first I thought about taking dancers to do what could have been better in terms of look, but drummers are usually very good in timing and perfect timing was what I needed. We trained but the problem was that we started in Autumn and everything was quite uncertain with the lockdown. In Winter we had nothing to do because all concerts were cancelled and I just thought I could move on with my videos. I knew the lake would be frozen because it stays that way until April, but I couldn’t wait because in May I had plans to start the ReCycling Tour. I decided to do that in Winter and I started searching for good outfits. At the beginning we tried with neoprene suits but they were not warm enough. Then, we had these amazing dry suits. So we could stay in the frozen lake for a few hours, but our hands were still exposed to the cold. That was painful. The surface of the lake was frozen and we had to break it just to be able to play in it.

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