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At 26 years old, Carlo "Illangelo" Montagnese has accomplished a lot for a producer that is just a few years removed from not achieving, "What I wanted to do with my life," as he puts it. But right now, it looks like everything has fallen into place for the Toronto producer by way of Calgary, Alberta.
His life turned around when he linked up with The Weeknd and fellow producer Doc McKinney in 2010 and they created an undeniably distinct sound through three acclaimed mixtapes that redefined the boundaries of R&B, House of Ballons, Thursday, and Echos of Slience. Mixtapes so good they eventually landed Weeknd on the cover of Complex. Illangelo's integral role alongside The Weeknd continued in 2012 with the compilation album Trilogy, which Illangelo engineered, mixed, and executive produced. His hard work paid off earlier this year, where he won a Grammy for contributing to Drake's sophomore album Take Care on "Crew Love."
While those are all moments others would happily settle for, Illangelo continues his pursuit for greatness with his new role as a solo artist. His first venture into the spotlight is his debut album History of Man. Released through Bromance Records, the 10-track project is a layered audio expedition that takes inspiration from John Milton's 17th century poem Paradise Lost. In 44 minutes the listener encounters angst, euphoria, and misery, told through his intense compositions and Giuseppe A. Rosi's accompanying story. Like Paradise Lost, Illangelo's History of Man doesn't have a happy ending, but you'll come away feeling enlightened from the experience.
Complex spoke with Illangelo about the vision he had for his debut album, as well as what else he has planned going forward as a solo artist. He also went in-depth about his relationship and past work with The Weeknd, including the creation of "Crew Love," the challenges of putting together Trilogy, and why he's not on Kiss Land. Plus he talked about working with Elijah Blake and his future plans.
Interview by Edwin Ortiz (@iTunesEra)
If Illangelo were to produce the theme song for captain James T. Kirk, what would that sound like?
[Laughs.] That’s an amazing question, I love Star Trek. I still put on Star Trek to this day and I’m fucking blown away. But if I had to score the music for it, that would be an interesting one. I don’t know if I would change it for what it is to honest with you.
The reason why I started with that question is because on this new project you have, History of Man, you’re boldly going where no man has gone before.
[Laughs.] Edwin, you’re hilarious.
[Laughs.] When you initially came across John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, what was it that made you say, “I want to create an audible version of this journey.”
I was putting together some songs, and I wasn’t really thinking of anything because I was so focused on The Weeknd projects for so long that I was sort of in a nice little space where I just wanted to create really openly. The first three or four songs on the album, I wasn’t thinking of Paradise Lost, I wasn’t thinking of anything. But then as I was composing these songs, I started realizing, holy shit, this is extremely cinematic.
To be honest with you, there’s also not much interesting things for me happening in music. Pretty much after 2003 I started really not liking music whatsoever.
I’m really close to my cousin [and writer] Giuseppe A. Rosi, so I hit him up and said, “Hey, check out these songs.” I had written some ideas of what visually I saw happening, sent it over to him, and he told me, “This is exactly Paradise Lost.” Once he told me that, we essentially just started going back and forth thinking, “Okay, maybe this project should be based on Paradise Lost.”
In the end, we decided Paradise Lost was going to be an incredible move to base this project around. As I started composing more songs on the album, he started composing more chapters of the literature. Jonathan Zawada did the artwork and started composing these pieces that were all based off of everything. In the end we came up with this project which I’m extremely proud of.
What are your musical influences?
Radiohead is a massive influence to me. I read an interview that Thom Yorke did where he was saying they decided to create an album and then they decided to treat the whole album as if it were to be DJed. So they started taking different elements of it and started tweaking things more like from a DJ perspective. When I read that interview, it was extremely inspiring.
When I was working on this album, I composed each song individually. Then at the very end of the project, I took all 10 songs and I exported all the files, and put them into one project. Once all the songs were within this one project, I was then able to really start making this a cohesive album. For example, there’s elements of the end of song one that lead into song two, and there’s elements of song two that go into three, and so on. That was based off inspiration from an interview I read from Thom Yorke.
You've said before that when you create music, you’re never looking to create something similar. How do you juxtapose what you created here with History of Man with what you’ve worked on with The Weeknd in the past?
Me, Abel [Tesfaye], and Doc [McKinney] as well, it will be a collaboration process. I would be doing something and Abel will give input, and then Abel will be recording and we all will just be giving each other input and direction.
With History of Man, it was entirely just me in my head creating musically, so that was a huge difference. And how I get it sonically to be different is I really don’t listen to music in general. I have my influences that I listened to growing up. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Wu-Tang Clan, Radiohead, Timbaland, The Neptunes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, of course Kanye West. But as of the past couple of years I just slowly stopped listening.
To be honest with you, there’s also not much interesting things for me happening in music. Pretty much after 2003 I started really not liking music whatsoever. I guess that was around the same time I started making music as well. I just feel like the last couple years of music have just been rubbish. Pop in general these days is fucking terrible, it’s essentially the epitome of what pop music is, almost sort of like glam rock in the '80s. I just never liked it.
You've been an integral part of The Weeknd’s career. What do you remember about those first experiences working together?
The funny thing with me, I have a pretty terrible memory. I'll meet people and I’ll have no idea where I met them before. That’s also because I'm so fucking focused on my work, it would be hard for me to remember my work and other stuff. But when it comes to The Weeknd, to that moment in time, that’s something I could never forget.
While we were working on Thursday, there were a lot of distractions. The whole world wanted to know what was happening with The Weeknd. Thursday probably took a little bit longer than it needed to come out. We had presidents from every record label fly out to see us in Toronto.
We never hesitated with anything we did. The first time we met we did “Crew Love,” and we did it within like 30 to 45 minutes. There were the keys, there was him singing, and once he finished singing, we chopped up his vocals and laid it out. Then us playing with the kick drums, nobody fucking does that. I just did it because that shit sounded cool. We just did it, no hesitation.
Later on that week we ended up doing a few other songs. We did a very early version of “Glass Table Girls,” which is not at all what “Glass Table Girls” is now. We did “Gone,” which is pretty similar to what “Gone” turned out to be. We did a few different songs within that week, and there was no hesitation, which is exactly why those songs sound the way they do.
With you guys putting out three projects in one year, did you create one project, stop, and then start with a new one? Or we’re those all songs you had been continuously working on and then it worked out that they fit these three specific mixtapes?
No, not at all. House of Balloons was an extremely focused project. Once that ended we dived right into Thursday. All three of these projects, we essentially locked ourselves in the studio.
While we were working on Thursday, there were a lot of distractions. The whole world wanted to know what was happening with The Weeknd. Thursday probably took a little bit longer than it needed to come out. We had presidents from every record label fly out to see us in Toronto. It was just a really intense moment in time.
Echoes Of Silence, that was a project me and Abel essentially did in one month, from the end of November to just before Christmas. That was a combination of us starting out in Montreal for a week, and we just worked everyday until Christmas when we put it out. We definitely worked towards each project specifically.
The Weeknd revealed to Complex earlier this year that “Crew Love” was originally meant for House of Balloons. What was that like for you to see that progression where “Crew Love” went from being a track for a mixtape to being on one of the biggest albums of the year?
I suppose for me to explain this right, I have to tell you something more. I’m not originally from Toronto; I’m from a city called Calgary, Alberta, it’s on the West Coast of Canada. I was doing music out there for eight years and it came to a point where I realized I was not going to reach my goal of what I wanted to do with my life. I realized I have to go to Toronto. I moved to Toronto at the start of 2010 and I had saved up some money. It wasn’t much, but my goal was, I’m going to move to Toronto and I have one year to make this happen, so go.
It was December of 2010, me and Abel connected and we did “Crew Love.” That was killer for me, that was amazing. I finally got to collaborate and do something with an artist that I genuinely love. Now, I was still going to move back home because “Crew Love” wasn’t “Crew Love” at that point. “Crew Love” was a song me and Abel had done, that’s it. I went back home for Christmas and I was telling my family, “I’m working with this guy, he’s incredible.” I’m like Abel’s number one fan. I’ve had lot of love for the projects, so that’s why I really dedicated myself for as long as I have, right?
When I came back in January, because my lease was up in February of 2011, I still thought I was going back home. I remember Abel told me a couples times, “Dude, you’re not going back,” and I was, “I think I might have to go back.” I was flat broke and there was still no House of Balloons out at that point.
I started working with Doc and Abel on House of Balloons, we finished up that project, and I still didn’t know. You don’t know. House of Balloons came out and it was just like, “Wow.” The reception that we got from House of Balloons is something that I’ve dreamed about. That album got the exact kind of reception you always want to get.
It was maybe in the middle of January I was told, “Drake might take ['Crew Love'] for his album.” When I heard that I was so excited, because earlier in 2010 I was putting together songs for Drake, like instrumentals, and none of them really stuck. I guess it was just really sort of that magic with “Crew Love” that did it. The only thing I was upset about was that no one was going to hear it for a year.
That’s true, you guys basically sat on it for a year.
I really wanted people to hear it, but 40 ended up taking “Crew Love,” working out the second verse, and ended up doing a lot of great things to the record. What Drake did was incredible, so for me the wait was totally worth it.
And in the end, a Grammy in 2013.
Yeah, my first Grammy.
It must have been crazy to have that at 25-years-old.
It’s so funny because my whole life I’ve always been like, “I have to be the greatest producer in the world.” I was talking with my manager the other day and he was saying, "Carlo, you need to watch the things you say, it can get pretty ridiculous sometimes.” But I was explaining to him, “No, it’s not ridiculous, it’s the truth.” These are goals I have for myself. So to receive a Grammy at 25 is incredible, but I essentially strive to do much more than have one Grammy.
There were some moments working on Trilogy where it was actually miserable for myself, because going back to these records was just a bigger undertaking than I expected it to be. Some of the feedback I’ve seen has been, “Oh, they changed so much.” I laugh when I see that because we really didn’t. The album is just not distorted anymore.
The next year is when you guys put out Trilogy, which was essentially all the tracks you guys worked on in 2011. For you, was that a big thing that you were undertaking?
To me, that was a big moment in 2012. We were just going to put out the mixtapes but in a packaged state, and I just felt we couldn’t do that. Because House of Balloons and everything was done in such a way of, “This is what it is, now take it,” I wanted a moment to go back and tweak some things I felt were never really right with the original release.
Practically all of 2012 involved either me being on the road with Abel or being in the studio going through each song and tweaking things out. That took so much time and focus out of me. There were some moments where it was actually miserable for myself, because going back to these records was just a bigger undertaking than I expected it to be. Some of the feedback I’ve seen has been, “Oh, they changed so much.” I laugh when I see that because we really didn’t. The album is just not distorted anymore. One of the big factors was to clean up a lot of the vocals to make things a little bit more present. Sorry, I lost my thought. What was the original question?
Did you find this to be a very enduring task?
It was a huge task. At the time, 27 songs to go back one by one to tweak things out to get them right. If we were going to commercially release Trilogy, I would never want to do it in a cheap way for the fans. Like, “Oh, the mixtapes were all free but you can buy them and we’re going to charge you and it’s going to be the exact same.” At the very end of it, all of a sudden we get thrown, “You guys need to do bonus songs.” There was a fight put up to not do the bonus songs. At the end of the day Abel came back and said, “You know what, we’ve got to do these bonus songs.”
I did those bonus songs in record time. I think that week in August was probably one of the most stressful moments in my life from delivering and handing it in. That’s not even mentioning we got the entire Trilogy mastered once, and it wasn’t right. I went back a second time to New York to get the album mastered and flew back to Toronto to put together three bonus songs all within a certain deadline. It was absolutely fucking ridiculous. So yeah, it was huge.
You were talking earlier from an outsider’s perspective of, “Why are they doing these changes, they’re ruining what they had before.” Like you said, it was something that was necessary.
It was something that was artistically necessary. Business wise, it made absolutely no sense to do that. But I know for me personally, it has had nothing to do with business ever at any point of my entire career. I’ve never seen a dollar. I’ve never done a project that would allow me to see a dollar because I don’t fucking care. I want to do what I want to do, and like I was saying to you earlier, I just thought pop music was such fucking trash before and I don't ever want to give myself to do that.
So business wise, maybe it was a terrible decision, but I really don’t care. At the end of the day Trilogy came out and it sonically sounds exactly the way it’s supposed to sound. It’s something that can be commercially accessible. We didn’t push it, we didn’t distort it or try to make it as loud as every other album on the market. That is really hard to come by these days. Every album these days is squished, it’s completely compressed and completely maxed out. What we did with Trilogy, I think it’s very respectable.
At the very end of it, all of a sudden we get thrown, “You guys need to do bonus songs.” There was a fight put up to not do the bonus songs. At the end of the day Abel came back and said, “You know what, we’ve got to do these bonus songs.”
With you being so focused on History of Man this past year, does that mean we will be hearing Illangelo on Kiss Land?
You won’t be hearing me on Kiss Land, no.
What was the decision behind that?
It’s something I’d rather not talk about.
That’s fine, it’s just that you had such a deep collaborative body of work with The Weeknd. You probably thought that question was coming, didn’t you?
Yeah, it’s just a very difficult one for me to talk about. I suppose...Yeah, it’s a hard one for me to talk about.
From the outside looking in, he’s working with different producers on this project so I figure you guys are going in two different directions. Could you say at least that’s true?
That’s not the case?
No, not the case. It’s not the case because there were several situations, like when Abel had the songs that he did with Jeremy Rose, those are all songs that still passed by me that I still worked on. When we got the song from Clams Casino, that was still a song that I took and worked on as well. So other producers in the mix, absolutely not. In fact, I actually really encourage that, so no, that’s not the reason why.
Do you feel this is something that’s never going to be discussed, or you just don’t feel it’s the right time?
I don’t think it’s something that will be discussed.
Switching gears, a picture of you and Def Jam artist Elijah Blake has surfaced on the Internet. What can you tell me about that collaboration?
This year I started to look at different things happening in music and I came across Elijah Blake. I came across the [Bijoux 22 project] that he put out and I felt really strongly about it, so we connected while we were in Los Angeles. Aside from him being an incredible writer and singer, he’s turned out to be a really great friend of mine. We’ve been having a lot of fun doing a bunch of sessions together, some of them focused towards him, some of them just to write and create. That’s my dynamic with Elijah.
You had so much success with Drake on “Crew Love.” Have you guys still had a working relationship or was that a one-off event?
No, it’s not a one-off. I put together some more material for him, none of it ended up making the new album which is unfortunate. But him and 40 have such a close dynamic relationship together, and I just think timing-wise theres a lot of things happening with me throughout the year.
It has had nothing to do with business ever at any point of my entire career. I’ve never seen a dollar. I’ve never done a project that would allow me to see a dollar because I don’t care. I want to do what I want to do.
In May you said on Twitter, “This year I’m creating another three bodies of work.” With the first one being History of Man, what else do you have up your sleeve for 2013?
You know what, I’m going to have to eat my words with that tweet. In some respects History of Man was finished as early as that time, but I say in some respects because I went back and worked on it more. I mixed it a second time, I went and got it mastered two times, I got it put onto tape, onto vinyl, didn't like the way it sounded mastered and just went straight to vinyl. I will probably never do a project like History of Man ever again.
I was actually going to put out History of Man earlier in the year but then the more people that we started bringing onto the project, the more it started becoming much bigger than I originally intended it to be. I was going to put out the second and third album to the series, similar to how we did House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. I wanted to do a similar thing but more focused on me as the artist. But that’s not going to be a reality anymore because it’s pretty much September almost?
Yeah, we’re closing in on September.
Closing in, and plus I just decided it doesn’t make the most sense because artistically speaking History of Man was such a moment. I’m already putting together ideas for the second album. After Trilogy, I had a sonic template of how I wanted to go about the next Weeknd project. So what I think I will be doing for the second and third album is I’m going to be taking some of those ideas and bringing them to life. Essentially the second and third album is going to be more song-based and it’s probably going to be closer to what the majority of fans wanted to hear.
Okay last question, honest opinion: How do you feel about the records that The Weeknd has released thus far from Kiss Land?
You know what’s hilarious, I actually have not listened to it.
It’s not that I've chosen not to listen to it, I just haven’t gotten around to listen to it. And to be more honest with you, I would rather wait to hear the full body of work before I listen to one or two songs that he’s put out. I’d rather wait to take in the whole album.