Toronto-based DJ and record collector Diana McNally moonlights as Automaticamore, a name plucked from Patrizia Pellegrino’s 1981 Italo 7″, aptly pictured above.
This is no coincidence of course; Diana’s passion for, and devotion to, collecting Italo Disco sounds has been central to her digging pursuits since she first started, it’s only right that it would determine her choice of moniker too.
A vinyl enthusiast, Diana uses her wonderfully curated YouTube channel as a medium to share her record discoveries with the world, most notably she was the one to unearth the beautiful sounds of Blue Gas’ 1983 12″ ‘Shadows From Nowhere’ whilst on a digging trip in Europe.
Alongside an interview about a life spent indebted to collecting, her vinyl-only mix weaves together Italo Disco from across the board, including some rarities that simply need to be heard…
DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey?
My dad was certainly a key influence on my interest in music, and records specifically. That said, I didn’t begin with an affinity for vinyl; rather, it was initially a chore. My dad was primarily a jazz collector, and he would take me to conventions to make use of my tiny hands to dig through boxes of 7”s for him – not exactly the kind of activity a child would be inclined toward. Moreover, spending time at the conventions was (to be kind) awkward and tedious, as it was filled with large men who smelled of stale cigarettes holding esoteric conversations three feet above my head. In fact, if you’re familiar with Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff would be at some of these conventions, and the scene where Enid and Rebecca attend Seymour’s house party is based on the personalities of my dad and his colleagues. Enid clearly isn’t based on me, but her experience is not dissimilar to my own.
That said, I’ll give my dad credit for not being beholden to Dixieland, and for embracing all forms of music up to today (although I sincerely hope he’s over Grimes at this point). He used to hold ‘dance parties’ for me in our wood-panelled rec room, and he would play me Madonna, Tears for Fears, Prince and … Icehouse’s ‘Electric Blue’. I’m not too proud to admit that I have a nostalgic attachment to that song. My dad and I agree that the best pop music came out of the 80s, and while I am extremely averse to jazz (save for electric-era Miles Davis), my love of Italo traces its nascence to those ‘dance parties’ with DJ Keith McNally.
People buy records for a multiple of reasons. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years?
I recognize that records are, as a medium, incredibly rarefied and high-barrier, as they are both cost-prohibitive as well as inaccessible by virtue of being tangible and limited-run. Because of this, vinyl is far from egalitarian, and in fact is incredibly elitist, so I want to own that I am highly invested in an elitist medium. With that in mind, I try to approach vinyl in a non-elitist way by sharing the content of my records two-fold: one, through my YouTube channel, where I upload rips from my record collection, and two, by only playing vinyl when I DJ in clubs. I know the latter is actually incredibly upsetting to many collectors, since this is effectively ‘ruining’ my collection, but I choose to embrace the ephemerality of records (and of all objects). Moreover, I feel that it’s essential to honour their function, which is to be played out loud, instead of removing them from this intended purpose. At a broader level, I don’t agree with furrowing cultural artefacts away in private collections, never to be enjoyed by the public. I saw this frequently among jazz collectors, and my opinion is that it’s incredibly selfish to covet music, even if the format is fragile. Records can and should be shared, so part of the appeal for me is doing exactly that, and injecting a small amount of democracy into a medium which is too often prey to speculative capitalism (as are all rarefied commodities).
Politics aside, I actually just like physical media, and I have hundreds of books and 80s b-movies on VHS tapes in addition to records. To pay deference to fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message, or rather the medium and the message are inextricably linked. In this context, this means that owning an original pressing of a 12” means more than just possessing the song itself. For me, it’s also a ‘lieu de mémoire’ that reveals cultural memory (and specific cultural moments) through its medium (vinyl), when and where it was pressed, and what the artwork signifies or reflects.
I realize I can be really lofty, but I’ll be basic for a moment and just admit that it is also a lot more fun to play vinyl than it is to play digital files. It’s tactile and visceral, and I like that.
Where do you store your records and how do you file them?
Like 90% of all diggers, my records are housed in a number of IKEA Kallax shelves.
Perhaps slightly more surprising to people who don’t know me is that my first Masters degree is in Museum Studies, and I live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Interestingly, these aren’t unrelated: meticulously cataloguing artefacts satisfies my OCD, and my academic training facilitates it. Collecting records is an extension of my brain’s cataloguing prerogative and, as I alluded to above, I am equally interested in the music as I am in the record-as-artefact.
As for how I file my records, I would say that it’s an obscure logic. That said, all record collections follow the logic of their owners, and it’s always particular to them. That statement in-itself isn’t ground-breaking, but I’ll put forward that all of our collections are both experiments in, and examples of, archival theory praxis.
Archival theory is centred on understanding the conceptual principles of how decisions are made in relation to subjective value. This includes what decisions, and how they are implemented. That is to say, how you file your record collection – or how you order folders on your computer, for example – is particular to you, and you develop hierarchies and arrangements based on your own subjective evaluations, which can be largely opaque to everyone else. Anyway – just a theoretical backgrounder on the question itself – but if I were to describe my logic, it would be in terms of loose aesthetic categories. It’s not about genres, per se, but rather vague similarities in sound that are particular to how I listen. To be specific, I have a Kallax cube of what I would call “Cybernetic Broadcasting System Space Sounds” (not explicitly labelled). You would probably have to listen to things to understand why they’re placed where they are in my collection, and even then you might hear something entirely different than what I do.
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
Every time I visit the Netherlands, I insist on going to Didi Records in Heerlen. It is sometimes a crapshoot, but if you’re willing to go through the 7”s, there is always new stock and some incredible finds to be had. Blue Gas’ ‘Shadows From Nowhere’, which I ostensibly ‘broke’ as the first person to make it broadly available via YouTube, was in the 7” bin at Didi for just 4 Euros. Enough said.
Beyond Didi, I would love to go back to Music Mania in Ghent. STROOM’s DJ Nosedrip is involved in the in-store selections, and STROOM’s sound is very much aesthetically aligned with, or at least adjacent to, what I collect.
For Canadian disco, I quite like AUX 33 TOURS in Montréal. They have a good selection with a constant flow of new records, and they’re well-priced. I like to blind purchase sealed Canadian 12”s based on the producers involved, or the label it’s on, or because I can’t find any information on it and it’s completely mysterious to me. I get lucky with some frequency, although admittedly I’ve dug up some stinkers. Either way, I feel like it’s a valuable process – again, the music is merely part of each record’s significance.
Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?
Italo is very much about the people you meet! We are a dispersed community of oddballs who are fairly close-knit despite huge swathes of geographical distance (especially me out here in Canada). For that reason, record sharing has happened a lot more online than in-person in record stores, so there are very few individuals I can pick out who have had an impact (maybe Linus Booth at Séance Centre, but that’s mostly because he’s my second dad/friend). That said, I owe a lot to Michael King, who moved to Toronto from Switzerland last year, but has since relocated to the U.S. I used to buy records off of him when he was based in Switzerland, and when he moved to Canada he became my ‘dealer’. Not in a nefarious way, of course, but I would buy stacks of records off of him at his house when I had a ‘craving’.
To be honest, I have had a fair share of negative experiences digging in record stores, and that owes much to my gender presentation. I don’t think this is going to be particularly surprising to a lot of other women and non-binary people who also like to dig. That said, I have found this to be less of an issue during the past couple of years. Of course, whether that’s because people increasingly recognize me (at least in Toronto), or because there’s been a tangible shift in how women and non-binary people are perceived within the space of the record store is another matter. Micro-aggressions, paternalism, and flat-out ignorance are still commonplace, so I might suggest that it isn’t the latter (sadly). Unfortunately, I’ve internalized over-compensation as my default response to interpersonal discrimination as a woman, which is to say that I’ve spent years honing my knowledge and skills to be ‘exceptional’ just to have the chance at being perceived as on-par (or acknowledged at all). This is true as a collector, but in all facets of my life. I’m in the process of unlearning this response, understanding that it actually upholds inequality, but it’s an on-going project (as is all self-betterment).
Of course, as I embark on this work, it’s also imperative that all aspects of society, including the niche space of record stores, do the work to both practice awareness of and address discriminatory practices, however minute. None of it is inconsequential.
Is there a record (or records), that has continued to be illusive over the years?
Thank goodness that I don’t have children, so that I can throw unacceptable amounts of my meagre public sector wages at records. I’ve bought most of my Discogs wantlist over the past few years, but I still really want Louise Freeman’s ‘Mirage’ on 12” (I only have the 7”), Richard Benson’s ‘Animal Zoo’, and Govindo’s ‘Ou Ka Vini Com Moin’. I also really want Avenida 29’s ‘It’s Pizza Time’ because it’s ridiculous. I actually recently bought Strada’s ‘It’s the Money!!!’ on 12”, which I have wanted for many years, and I think I’ll be satisfied at least for a while cradling it like a little wax baby. I put it on this mix, and yes – it is one of two monkey-themed songs I’ve included.
Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search or strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?
I always dig by myself these days. Again, living with OCD makes me able to spend relentless hours engaged in one task, including digging for records. I’ve gone through entire stores (and not small ones) before, including bins in storage awaiting merchandising. I think the longest I have ever spent digging in one store was the full 8 hours they were open. I realize that kind of stamina is driven by own neurological particularities, so I try to spare people the tedium of digging with me by only digging alone.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting experience. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after?
Go through absolutely everything? But I’ll tend to start in electronic categories, and the specific genre will depend on where I am. That is, I’ll begin with Italo and New Beat when I’m in Europe, disco and synthpop when I’m in Canada, and electro and freestyle when I’m in the U.S. No one in Canada has much of an Italo section, and when they do it’s usually the same five Dark Entries reissues, so I’ll usually only dig for Canadian music when I’m at home (maybe some UK synthpop, too).
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?
I have bought a fair number of records based on the artwork alone, as Italo tends to have some pretty bananas imagery, whether that be a puffy-haired chanteur or a bizarre illustration of who-knows-what (see the cover designs of Antonella Battilani as an example). I bought a New Beat 7” that just says ‘Chicken Tandori’ alongside a picture of a chicken because … why wouldn’t you buy something that looks like that? Fortunately, I also like the record! I’m drawn to artwork and sounds that amuse me, and Italo offers both in spades. Of course, I want to be clear that I am never being mocking, and I have a completely genuine love of the genre; that said, Italo is admittedly a bit ridiculous. For Italo collectors that hail from outside of Europe, I think the aspect of humour is perhaps a bit more apparent to us. In Italy, Italo‘s perceived ridiculousness is based more on the class divide between the wealthy Milanese and northern Italians, and those in the south who conflate Italo with excess. I can see that, but I can also see a naïve interest in globalism and different cultures reflected in Italo, which can sometimes manifest as over-the-top and oblivious lyrics about say, China (which, as a half-Chinese person, I find infinitely hilarious).
Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us?
I tried to portray a wide diversity of Italo sounds, including some of the more well-known tracks and singers, including Topo and Roby’s ‘Under the Ice’ and Jimmy Mc Foy. That said, many of these records are pretty rare and have not yet been reissued, so I wanted to share hard-to-hear tracks with a broader audience for them to enjoy. It is 100% Italo, which is my primary genre, but I usually like to throw in a mix of New Wave, New Beat, synthpop, electronic disco, and electro as well.
Any standouts in the mix you’d like to mention?
If you’re familiar with the French pressing, Galvanica’s ‘Nightlights in Japan’ is one of the most regrettable album covers imaginable, but I think it’s also one of the most complex and lovely melodic compositions in Italo, and it’s co-written by Giorgio Costantini of Plustwo. I also really wanted to highlight the final track, Neno’s ‘Fukushima Silk’, which is the little-heard b-side to ‘Messages from Tokyo’. These tracks represent very different Italo sounds, with the former epitomizing the clean production of 1985 – 1986, and the former sounding much more unpolished (as per 1982 Italo) and New Wave-inspired.
Casting the net wider now, who are some of the record collectors you most admire and why?
Lauren Hansom and Bianca Lexis are both women who collect adjacent styles of music to me, and I am quite humbled to share space with both of them. I also want to thank Bianca Lexis for her contributions to supporting people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles through donation drives during the pandemic. I am passionate about music, but my heart lies in advocacy, and in particular in improving conditions for people who are homeless and living with the continued denial of their human rights and dignity. I know her efforts are appreciated. I certainly appreciate it!
I also want to name Edinburgh’s Giles Walker, aka the Nightlark, who is absolutely unsung – he is actually on a whole other level as a collector and in terms of his knowledge and attention to detail in preparing a mix. He deserves far more accolades! Please interview him.
Beyond Giles, and I’ve never actually met either of them, and … er, who knows when I will, since the US-Canada border won’t reopen for a very long time, but I think Tay McNabb, a former DJ partner of JAZ, and Ryan Todd are really amazing nerds. Ryan is also a VHS nerd, and I am incredibly envious of his amazing collection. I wish we were IRL friends.
Jean-François Demers is based in Montréal, and is under-the-radar as an Italo collector. However, we necessarily must know each other, since the existence of Italo fans in Canada is next to none. Beyond that, I appreciate that both Jean-François and I have similar vocations; that is, I’m a community worker and homelessness advocate in my ‘day’ life, and Jean-François is a lawyer invested in social justice.
I also need to acknowledge fellow Canadian David Shaw, who managed to secure the Facebook URL of ‘/italodisco’ before I got a chance, and who is also an impressive collector and human being. Case in point: he actually owns the original speakers from The Loft. WTF!
Are there any young collectors emerging who we should keep a close eye on?
I feel like most of the collectors I know are at least a decade older than me! At least within the genres I tend to collect. That said, Cruce Grammatico in Detroit has impressed this crotchety old woman with some of his selections, so I advise you to keep an eye on him.
Anything on the horizon you’re excited about?
Musically, not really. Actually, my boyfriend Julian showed me a documentary trailer about Vietnamese New Wave culture in southern California, and I’m really excited to watch the film. But, to be honest, my mind is not on music at the moment.
Politically, everything is exciting – and daunting. I’ll leave political ranting to my more formal interviews with local news and my social media accounts, but I think we’re all aware that we’re in a pivotal moment that presents an opportunity for change that we haven’t seen in at least two generations. I’m incredibly heartened to see people rediscover both civic engagement and civil disobedience, and this makes me hopeful, as much as I know that other processes are simultaneously underway that aim to entrench and exacerbate inequality. But we have the moment, and we are seizing it, and I choose to be optimistic.
As I mentioned earlier, I am a community worker as my vocation. And, as someone who engages with people experiencing homelessness, the majority of whom are black and Indigenous, I have committed myself to advocating for and with those who are supported the least in our society, understanding that raising the floor for those who are the most marginalized raises the standards for everyone else. I have also long been against policing, and have seen first-hand how racism plays out in police interactions with the homeless population. Both the pandemic and the increased awareness of policing as a form of state-enacted violence have revealed that Canada – and the U.S., as well as other countries – is grossly unjust in how it denies the dignity and humanity of people experiencing homelessness, as well as people of colour, and especially people at the intersection of these identities. So, we have this sudden awareness by the public of these injustices, as well as this mass mobilisation to make a difference, and I actually think we are well-positioned to reclaim our society to be the way we want it to be: just, inclusive, and humane. That’s exciting to me.