Making a masterstroke moment of the spontaneous first take of its central vocal hook, Meduza’s breakthrough single Piece of Your Heart was a jubilant, throbbing deep house/pop best-seller that rightfully received global awe.
Astonishingly, the team that crafted this modern dance behemoth had only begun working together around three years prior. Luca de Gregorio, Mattia Vitale and Simone Giani had all shared an obsession with how music works – and how it can be arranged to get the maximum reaction from listeners.
For Luca, the journey started at the age of 6: “I started studying piano because my father used to do it. With my first computer at home I started to understand how DAWs work – I think it was Cubase at the very beginning – step by step. The first record I made with it was so bad.
“At the age of 16 I sent a demo to a guy that worked in radio, he said ‘Oh that’s cool, do you want to come to the studio and start working together?’ So a few years later, at the age of 19, I started to work in the studio. I just loved it. It was a passion from the beginning so it was pretty easy. I then met Simone and after that, Simone met Mattia.”
While Luca immersed himself in technology and music production in the studio, Mattia’s skills were honed behind the decks, “I was a resident DJ and used to warm up for other main acts coming to the club, and in the meantime I started private piano lessons and used Logic in my home studio. I’d watch tutorials and try to make things and recreate techniques. I started like that.
“Then I met Simone and we started working together. He was an organ teacher at that point so he was more the musician of the group and I was the one thinking more as a DJ. We met Luca probably around 2016. Then we started sharing ideas and working in the studio. From that moment, when we were in the studio together there was no specific role for any one of us.
“Luca is better at working more in a nerdier way on machines and stuff like that, but we all share ideas working on the tracks – testing out all the songs and maybe adjusting as we go. It’s a pretty random process.”
Three years on, and the three young Italians were riding an unexpected tidal wave with that aforementioned debut single, its viral success led to a number two placing in the UK Singles Chart and, over in the US, it sailed to the very top of the Dance Club Songs chart. At time of writing, it has over 940 million streams on Spotify.
This staggering achievement has elevated the duo to becoming Italy’s biggest ever streaming artist (with heartfelt apologies to Andrea Bocelli). Surprising then, that the writing process for Piece of Your Heart was utterly organic, as the trio collaborated in-studio with UK vocal duo Goodboys. “It was the first week of our session in London,” Luca explains.
“Usually back then we did covers and nothing original. So we started to write something new, and we were having fun with some sounds. I remember getting a sound in Serum (Luca’s go-to synth of choice) that sounded far, far away. I think in two or three minutes we started it, tweaking the sound, and as soon as I heard this thing, I started playing the melody. After getting this riff, we said ‘Ok, let’s work on this, it’s actually pretty good’. We had a verse on this demo sound. When we went back in the studio and tried to add more we couldn’t figure out what to do with it. We were actually close to junking it.”
Luca tells us that at this early stage, the track was relying on a vocal chop that wasn’t quite gelling. “We decided that instead of using the chop, we thought we’d try and sing something that’s like a chop but isn’t. Josh [Grimmett] from Goodboys, said in the room, ‘Sorry – just quickly, what if it’s da, da, da…’ and proceeded to vocalise a hypothetical melody. Luckily we were recording that moment. That melody, and the original recording of the spontaneous idea from Josh, became central to the track. It just sounded so good!”
While typically Meduza would work on subsequent takes to tighten up their hooks, Mattia admits that they kept that original take as the bedrock for the repeated vocal melody, and hit upon the genius decision to keep that original hot-mic idea in the final track.
“Usually when you do a session you have a first take, then after that you rearrange everything and re-sing the top-line until you’ve got the best feeling from it. In both Piece of Your Heart [and its Becky Hill-guesting follow-up, Lose Control] I just remember we used the first take because it was the most natural one. When you try to re-sing the same take you try to approach it in a more professional way. The first take had the right feeling so we went with that.”
Following the resulting success across streaming platforms, clubs and venues across the globe, Piece of Your Heart gained inevitable placement on numerous soundtracks, adverts, TV shows and radio stations. The ubiquity of the track catapulted Meduza into a league which they never expected to enter into so quickly. “We obviously always had the dream of wanting to be big DJs like Daft Punk or Calvin Harris,” explains Mattia, “but you never expect something like that to happen in a short time. We were just making what we loved. It’s what we do every day in the studio.
“Everything happened quickly. I remember we released a track on the 1st of February 2019 and then in April we were viral in the US and the UK – we were number one in the viral chart on Spotify. From that moment we said ‘OK guys, there’s probably something in this song that is different from the rest’. But when we were there in the studio we weren’t thinking about making it go viral or anything. When you start thinking like that then you don’t ever do it. I will say it was destiny.”
Go with the flow
For Meduza’s DJ sets, Mattia explains that every show can be different, and often the best approach is to react accordingly: “Sometimes [clubs] can be more underground or more mainstream. I like to get there a little bit earlier and go backstage. I try to understand what the DJs before me are playing so I can understand how to start my set. I’m also seeing what types of people there are in the crowd. Obviously you can not understand that in the moment.
“Sometimes you might play the wrong track – it might be too ‘house’ or it might be too ‘hard’, but you adjust from there based on the reaction of people. It depends where you are in the venues. You adjust the BPM. I don’t have a pre-planned set. I have big folders divided into sub genres – tech house, progressive house, deep house, etc. I try to understand the mood.
“I don’t play the same set every time. I love to do different stuff. Also, I’ll play our songs too, of course. If it’s a techno night I’ll play the more techno-leaning stuff that we have. My goal is to create a journey into the night.”
All the cards
For the production-minded Luca, the Meduza toolkit is fashioned from an ever-growing weapon rack of plugins and software tools. “I love to try new tools and new plugins,” he says. “But I do have my special tools; everybody uses FabFilter Pro Q3 and UAD Compressors, Waves plugins etc. I try to stay away from sticking to a usual chain and go down a more creative road. Obviously you have to stay within certain parameters, but I go free usually – until the mix and mastering stages come.
“There’s nothing massively special, I think it’s just the way you use the tools. I use iZotope software, I use a plethora of Native Instruments’ plugins. It’s like having all the cards in your hands and you need to pick the right one at the right moment, that’s my approach. But today, you have a lot of cards!”
Luca confirms that the workflow is largely in-the-box: “We’ve adapted to travelling a lot, so today luckily laptop-based production is pretty normal. We can do everything in the box. It’s good to work with your stuff in the studio, but you have to finish your stuff sometimes far away from your studio. It can be hard. You have to think about it in a different way.”
On DAW preferences, the band are dyed-in-the-wool Logic aficionados. Luca recalls: “I started with Cubase a long time ago, but switched to Logic around 2006. I remember back then it was on Windows as well. Sometimes it’s cool to jump from one DAW to another to try to do in a different way what you do every day. If you know Logic too well, sometimes it’s like having a path to follow. But as soon as you jump on another DAW, everything is different.”
While studio-based production is where Meduza’s magic is built, beyond gear, Mattia is keen to point out that the most important thing to do is listen. “I think the most important thing on a mix or a master is [points to his ears] these. If it sounds great but not what you want for the track then it’s completely different.” Luca agrees, “We’d always test out our tracks in a club live to see if it sounds the way we want, then we adjust from there.
“The creative approach to the master and mix that we have is sometimes hard to explain – it’s not the classic route. Every song sounds different. I think that back in the big room/EDM-era, there was a general feeling that all things should sound the same with the big kick and lead sound. The cool thing of every artist is that everything is different. Otherwise we’re all the same.”
“If you have two rock bands doing the same kind of stuff there’s always going to be slight differences,” justifies Mattia. “People play guitar or drums differently. The sounds need to be different and everybody should have their own style when it comes to mixing and mastering too. You need to know how you want the track to sound. Maybe someone else wouldn’t have certain frequencies colliding, but you might want to have that.”
In your room
With their new, self-titled release, Meduza are referring to the two halves of the album as ‘Room 1’ and ‘Room 2’, which present a clear distinction between their artfully-honed deep house/pop smashes and their more free-flowing live energy. Asked how long it’s been in development, Luca answers: “Since that first song really, ‘Room 1’ refers to a collection of all our radio songs since Piece of Your Heart. So Lose Control will be on there, and everything until [2023’s] Phone [featuring Sam Tompkins and Em Beihold]. ‘Room 2’ is going to be a collection of the club side of Meduza.
“Obviously I can understand this feeling, but when we got into clubs and festivals we don’t just play radio stuff. We are not like that – we are DJs and producers, too, so it is the right moment to let the people understand that we can do both. We have a background in underground and house music that we usually play on every show and every festival, but we have huge radio stuff [too].
“There’s a perception that house and techno guys can’t make radio stuff because they think they’re too cool to be accepted by the mainstream. But we can show them that people who come to our shows, they love the underground stuff, but also they love to sing the toplines of our radio stuff. So we can do both. Everybody can do both, and everybody can be cool!”
With an ever-expanding list of impressive collaborators, we enquire how the three choose who to work with at any one time – and what the dynamic in the room typically is with featured artists: “It’s more like we live in the music business every day so we listen to a lot of artists and new talents,” explains Luca.
“We go to so many festivals because we play around the world. Let me give you an example – it happened with Sam Tompkins. It was last summer at a festival in Germany. My flight was really early so I came to the festival early.
“Instead of staying in the green room I went around and watched all the stages. On one of the stages was Sam Tompkins doing his live set. I sat down just watching him and took a video. I sent the video to the other Meduza guys and said, ‘this guy is amazing. There’s something different in his voice and the way he sings. We should make something with him’. This led to (atmospheric banger!) Phone happening.”
Luca continues: “With Dermot Kennedy (with whom the trio collaborated on the infectious Paradise) I heard his song Power Over Me, and we said this could really work with our sound signature. Luckily we were working with the same label in the UK. It was pretty easy to get in contact with him. Then you need to try to mix.
“I can understand that for pop artists it’s not easy to write to dance music. Obviously the arrangements can be completely different, there’s not necessarily a verse/chorus/verse structure. In dance music we just use maybe one verse if we need it, and then it’s all about the chorus and the singalong part. It can be pretty hard with pop artists who don’t understand how to write in that mode. Sometimes all we need is just four words. But it’s exciting at the same time, working with people like Hozier and Dermot was exciting because we’re also challenging them to write in a different way and be more creative, getting them out of their comfort zones.”
We dig in further on this writing process, and discover that there is no hard and fast route to getting going with any new artist. “We do stuff from scratch every time, we sit down in the studio together with the singer and then we start playing random chords.” Mattia continues, “probably the only thing that we do every time is give to the artist a concept.
“If, for example, we want to talk about the nightlife, we maybe pick a word that can be the title of the song. We then build up the entire lyric around this word. It can be ‘nightlife’, then we ask about their experiences with the nightlife. We just do this kind of stuff, but the rest is completely spontaneous. When it comes it comes.”
Keeping the spark
As Meduza have grown into a truly global musical force over the last few years, so came the need to take all aspects of the band’s release schedule under their sole control. The Aeterna Records label is home to Meduza’s releases, which began with their edit of Genesi’s Everything You Have Done.
“Basically, [Aeterna] came from the idea of showing people that we have a club side, too,” explains Luca. “I think it was the perfect way to keep our live set more exclusive. Playing stuff not from other people but from ourselves. Not having the feeling to wait for someone else to decide for our songs. When you are a young producer and you send a demo to a label, they ask for changes because maybe it doesn’t fit their sound.
“They just wait for six or seven months because they’ve planned for other things in-between. You might lose that creative spark or that moment because they’re changing your songs and we didn’t want that for our music. We decided that if we need to work and play our music then it needs to be decided by us and nobody else. Music is changing really fast and if you wait too long then it can be fatal. It’s not easy but the main idea is to be the owner of our music.”
With success as notable as theirs, we wonder what advice they’d give to anyone coming up, aiming their sights on similar levels of success. Firstly, Mattia shares his take: “You need to be lucky – be there at the right time with the right people in the right place. You can get that only if you keep pushing and believing in what you’re doing. There will be people saying ‘no’, but this doesn’t mean that your stuff is ‘wrong’, it just means that for them, it’s wrong. Keep believing in what you’re doing and keep trying to understand why they’re not getting what you’re doing. Maybe you do need to adjust something but that’s up to you.”
“I remember at first Avicii was trying to copy the Swedish House Mafia,” Luca interjects. “It was just a copy of their music. He became a star when he decided to create something new. It was right at the right moment. You need to test, mix and try new things. Sacrifice and go out and have fun. Learn about what music is working. Look at the people and think about why they enjoy certain songs. It’s a big process, obviously. We do this every day at every show.”
As our time draws to a close, Luca and Mattia tease what the next 12 months hold in store, intimating that their next singles feature even bigger featured artists and that the trio’s upcoming tour will be their most bombastic and dazzling live experience to date. There’s an energetic sense that the trio’s best work lies ahead of them.
“It’s going to be busier!” Luca anticipates. “We’re always driven by new things.”