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Credit: Dan Reid

MEDUZA: house in their hearts

Unknown just five years ago, MEDUZA’s Luca De Gregorio, Mattia Vitale and Simone Giani have risen to stardom thanks to a string of sublimely produced, pop-tinged chart-toppers. But their true love is house music, and the trio is hard at work to reconcile their hit-making prowess with their love of underground sounds. Here, Bruce Tantum learns their story

It feels like they’ve been around for years. They seem to be so firmly entrenched in the dance-pop arena that you would think that they’ve been working their magic at least as long as the Heldens and Garrixes of the world. They’re a hit-making machine, with their every release, bridging the gap between radio playlists and festival grandeur, gleaming like gold. (Or sometimes platinum.) They’re as established within their rarified realm as anyone you care to name. All of which makes it easy to forget that the Italian trio of Luca De Gregorio, Mattia Vitale, and Simone Giani have only been releasing music as MEDUZA for a half decade, a mere blink of the eye compared with similarly world-conquering artists. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the men behind MEDUZA yearn for something a bit more down to earth.

On the one hand, MEDUZA’s spacious, vocal-heavy productions tend to have the ambience of transmissions raining down from the electronic-pop gods themselves. From their debut single, 2019’s ‘Piece Of Your Heart,’ through to their just-released ‘Friends’, it’s a spacious sound that, despite bristling with hooks, feels absolutely celestial, dripping with near-operatic levels of emotion. It’s an innately appealing style, as witnessed by the music’s chart and streaming success, among other markers of commercial accomplishment. Underground... Maybe not.

On the other hand, a MEDUZA DJ set — it’s generally Vitale handling deck duties, though Giani has also been taking the reins in recent months — springs directly from the get-people-on-the-dancefloor lineage of house music. Listen, for instance, to the mix that Vitale laid down for his recent DJ Mag HQ session — though it’s certainly laced with a few moments of festival-friendly sonic theatrics, the largely vocal-free set would sound as at home in a dark and dirty warehouse as it would in a superclub. (The TB-303 plays a leading role.) It’s a direct descendent of what house’s founding fathers were up to, several DJ generations ago, and MEDUZA see themselves as working in the tradition of artists like Roger Sanchez or Armand Van Helden, producers who attained success without abandoning their clubland fans.

When DJ Mag catches up with De Gregorio, Vitale, and Giani, they’re sitting in their Milan studio, a white, clean, and exceedingly organized space, looking like an Apple store version of a high-end electronic music producer’s workshop. It’s a new setup for the trio, who in the past had rented studios whenever and wherever was convenient.

“We needed a space where we can meet and work together and share ideas,” De Gregorio says. “It’s just the beginning here, but it works really well.” The threesome is aware that the sweet spot that they’re aiming for — the point between a steady stream of hits with something approaching underground credibility — is not easy to hit.

“Some older acts... they’re like, ‘I’m playing house music, you’re not part of house music, you make commercial music, so you are on your side and I’m staying on my side’,” Vitale says. He’s serving today as MEDUZA’s unofficial spokesperson, presumably because his English is best — though in truth, all three can hold their own. 

“They come from the old school, and honestly, I totally get it,” he continues. “But I think with the new generation, with newer acts in the underground scene, it’s all pretty open. I’ve talked with everybody, and we’re all friends. We’re not playing the same style, but the new generation is more open to collaborate, to create something new. We’re all together in the dance music industry, and they understand that the dance music industry is changing, and that we need a kind of balance between the commercial and the underground.”

It’s safe to say that, as recently as early 2019, that balancing act was something that De Gregorio, Vitale, and Giani never imagined they’d be dealing with, at least not on the global scale that they do today. 

Photo of Meduza's Luca De Gregorio, Mattia Vitale and Simone Giani standing against a wall in a blue circular light
Credit: Dan Reid:

De Gregorio, Vitale, and Giani have a shared history that begins well before MEDUZA was in the planning stages. All three are long-time house acolytes. The French Touch sound of the late-’90s and early-’00s is the closest thing to a common denominator; Vitale also cites Solomun, while DeGregorio mentions Benny Benassi (and Italian disco god Giorgio Moroder), and Giani goes for The Chemical Brothers.

“I come again from classical music because I’m a piano teacher,” Giani adds, “so also a lot of Johann Sebastian Bach and things like that. And also ’90s hip-hop, like 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G.”

They’ve all been involved in the music industry for years. De Gregorio and Vitale have all served time as DJs, and all three have served, variously, as producers, engineers, writers, musicians, and more. It was largely behind-the-scenes work, though all three have various credits to their name — De Gregorio as Luke Degree, Vitale as Mattia Mavi, and Giani as one-half of Blue Venice, for instance.

All three lived, and still live, in Milan, and were going to the same clubs, working in the same studios and traveling in the same circle of friends. The process of working together inched forward slowly and organically. 

“You go to the studio with a few people and you try to do some stuff, and you come up with some ideas — maybe some right or some wrong ideas —and then you find the right people to work with,” Vitale says. “Really, the connection between the three of us in the studio was not great at the beginning, but there was something — so we said, ‘Why not keep working on this? Maybe it will keep improving over time.’”

The trio shared a UK-based management team, and in 2018 found themselves together in a London studio, working on various projects, potentially as material for existing dance acts to use. “Some dance-pop stuff, like piano house,” Vitale says. “At the end of the week, we had the A&R in the studio, and we had to play all the demos that we made. It was like, ‘No, next, no, this one is not for us, this one is similar to that one’... and like that for 20 demos.” Finally, there was one track left in the folders that the three had quickly put together with some London friends.  “We didn’t want to play that to the A&R, because we are perfectionists, and the track wasn’t ready,” Vitale says. 

“The kick, the bass, the sound all have to be at the right point,” De Gregorio adds. “But at that point, after all those ‘nos’ it was like, ‘Okay, okay, push play.’”  The track played, and in MEDUZA’s telling, their managers jumped up on the studio’s sofa, shouting “Guys, this track is a monster!”

“But in Italy, if you say something is a monster, it is not a good thing,” Giani says. “So we said, ‘It’s a monster? You don’t like this?’” “Then they were like, ‘Guys, this track is going to change your life!’” Vitale says. “They were completely losing it, and I remember feeling like, ‘what is going on here?’ We didn’t even have a name yet.” That was soon to come, out of necessity.

“You know Italians love fashion, so we were searching for a name that was something like Versace,” Giani says, perhaps disappointing fans who were hoping for some kind of snake-hair tie-in. “Also, M, D and S — S is kind of a Z in reverse — comes from our names. M is Mattia; D is for Luca’s surname, De Gregorio; and S is for Simone.”

Newly christened MEDUZA, the three honed the demo into a finished track, and the result, released in early 2019, was ‘Piece Of Your Heart,’ featuring their London friends, the Goodboys duo, on vocals. The track rapidly became a global megahit, with the kind of radio play, streaming numbers, and chart placements that are generally only available to dance music’s crossover superstars. 

“You always think about the level of artists like Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Tiësto and the big mainstream acts, but it’s only a dream,” Vitale says, still with a bit of surprise in his voice. “If you are doing dance music, without any big features, you might think, ‘okay, this is something I’m gonna play in a club as a DJ, or maybe it will crossover in some way if it’s really strong,’ but you’re not gonna get to that level.” 

Photos of Meduza's Luca De Gregorio, Mattia Vitale and Simone Giani side by side
Credit: Dan Reid

“We are Italian — we argue every day. But when all three of us agree, we know there must be something special in there.” – Mattia Vitale

Yet, suddenly, there they were, on exactly that level, thanks to ‘Piece Of Your Heart’ — not bad for what was once a throwaway demo. “It was like, ‘whoa, what’s happening?’” Vitale says. “‘This is going from zero to one hundred!’ We started travelling the world for shows, and it was great — but we were not really realising what was happening because it was so fast.”

The ingredients that make up ‘Piece Of Your Heart’ were simple. “The record has four hooks,” Vitale told DJ Mag later that year. “The vocal, the sing-along ‘da, da, da, da’, the bassline, and the ‘wait, sorry, just quickly...’ lyric.” (That last bit was an off-the-cuff remark from Goodboys’ Joshua Grimmett.) 

While catchy hooks certainly play a leading role, and have continued to do so in subsequent MEDUZA releases, there’s more to it than that — lush pads, subtly sweeping builds, a dreamy sheen, and an ineffable push-pull between sweetness and melancholy all contributed to the song’s massive success. Those qualities all returned in MEDUZA’s follow-up, ‘Lose Control’ — released in October of 2019, it again featured Goodboys on vocals, along with the British singer (and onetime contestant on the UK version of The Voice) Becky Hill.

Just after the release of ‘Lose Control,’ Vitale was spinning a MEDUZA set at Australia’s FOMO festival — itself an impressive accomplishment, considering MEDUZA had hit the scene just a few months earlier. Even with the success of ‘Piece Of Your Heart,’ he was taken aback by the crowd’s response.

“We are just three Italian guys,” he says, “and we released a track just one month before, and now we’re playing a festival in front of 10,000 people on the completely other side of the world, and then those 10,000 people are singing that song. I was turning off the music and they were still singing! That was kind of a heart-attack moment for us.”

Toiling on your art in obscurity can be tough — but doing so after a couple of major hits to your name can pose its own difficulties. “Honestly, the pressure is really high when your first single is big like that,” Vitale says of a problem that many artists wish they had. “You want to show people that this was not just a one-shot, and that there was something behind that track. It was spending years working in the background within the industry to get to that level. So every time we were in the studio, there was a kind of discussion between us; ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ We don’t want to do the same exact thing as before. We need to improve that sound. It’s not easy.”

Photo of Meduza playing together in front of a big crowd under red lights

Still, it’s hard to feel too sorry for MEDUZA. In the fall of 2019, ‘Piece Of Your Heart’ was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Dance Recording category by the Recording Academy, an honour practically unheard of for a debut single. The following January, De Gregorio, Vitale, and Giani found themselves outside the Staples Center in LA, on the red carpet, for the awards ceremony.

“When you stand in front of all the photographers, there’s a girl with a card with your name on it so they realise who you are,” Vitale says. “Obviously for us, they needed that card because nobody knew who we were — we’re not John Legend or anything.” 

They may have still been unknowns at the time, despite their right-out-of-the-gate ascendancy to electronic pop’s upper echelons — but even though they didn’t take home that Grammy (that honour went to The Chemical Brothers), life was good. With a pair of smash hits, a slate of worldwide DJ gigs, and industry recognition, the trio seemed unstoppable. Until they weren’t. The brakes were applied to the MEDUZA steamroller, as they were to the rest of the world, just after the Grammys — thanks, of course, to Covid.

Italy was one of the first places to feel the deadly force of the pandemic — and it was hit hard. On January 22nd, 2020, De Gregorio and Giani were home in Milan, living under the second day of their homeland’s lockdown. Vitale, meanwhile, was in Brazil — where the pandemic had yet to fully start to wreak its havoc — to play a MEDUZA set at the Ame Laroc festival.

“Simone texted me, saying ‘Matt, you need to buy a lot of FFP2 masks there in Brazil and bring them back to Italy,’” he recalls. “I was just like, ‘Why are you asking me that?’ ‘Well, we need this kind of mask because there’s a pandemic here, and the prices of the masks here in Italy are like 10 times normal’. They were running out of masks in pharmacies, supermarkets, everywhere. In Brazil, life was still normal and you could get them, so I bought hundreds of masks to bring back to Italy.” 

The gigs came grinding to a halt, needless to say. But in some ways, it was almost a blessing — it was the first chance in a whirlwind year to take stock of what had transpired, of just how ‘Piece Of Your Heart’ and ‘Lose Control’ had changed their lives. Production work continued, but deciding on what the next single should be was proving problematic: Like many dance music producers, MEDUZA relied on gigs to road-test their tunes, playing a major role in deciding just what music should actually make it onto the digital shelves.

“At one point,” Vitale says, “we were sure about what it was going to be, and we told the label, ‘Yeah, guys, we have everything ready. We’re going to send it to you in a few days when we have the final mix.’”

Black and white photo of Luca De Gregorio, Mattia Vitale and Simone Giani
Credit: Dan Reid

“And that's the key, to go a little bit out of the standard thing, and then try to not copy what is already existing. If you look at the past, at all the big acts from this world, they were experimenting and doing something new.”  – Mattia Vitale

Later that summer, lockdown was put on pause throughout much of Europe (albeit not for long), and the song was finally played for a crowd at Budapest’s Heaven Club. “And there was no reaction at all,” Vitale says, laughing. “So we started thinking, ‘okay, this is not going to be the one!’ Right after that, we came back to the studio and started working on a new idea.”

The trio had already remixed a song by the Irish vocalist Dermot Kennedy called ‘Power Over Me’, and they realised his voice would be perfect for a track they had brewing. That’s the song that became their third single, ‘Paradise’, and it was yet another step in MEDUZA’s rise to commercial nirvana, quickly garnering more than a billion streams and earning gold or platinum status in two dozen countries. Vitale gives thanks to that failed road test in Budapest — if their original choice for a single had been released, and had failed, it could have potentially sent MEDUZA’s quick ascendance into an equally speedy tailspin.

“Yeah, ‘Paradise’ was like a new beginning,” Vitale says. Bit by bit, lockdowns slowly melted away, gigs returned, and MEDUZA kept churning out winners. ‘Headrush’, ‘Under Pressure’ (a collaboration with Vintage Culture), ‘Pegasus’ (with Eli & Fur), ‘Bad Memories’ with British producer James Carter — all of them, and pretty much everything else they’ve put out as well, have found an audience. When asked how many streams in aggregate MEDUZA’s rung up in the past four years, the three give a collective shrug.

“Maybe 15 billion?” Gianni offers. It’s enough to have made MEDUZA the top streaming entity in Italian music history, ever — ahead of Andrea Bocelli, aka “The World’s Most Beloved Tenor”.

Yet their modus operandi isn’t exactly the production-assembly-line style that characterises a large segment of the pop-hit infrastructure.  “There are no rules,” De Gregorio says. “We start every time from something different. Sometimes ideas come from a riff, sometimes a groove, sometimes an old song, sometimes a movie. We are free in that way, and that is cool. If one of us has an idea, that can open our minds. That way, working together is better than working alone.”

“I mean, we are Italian — we argue every day,” Vitale adds. “But when all three of us agree, we know there must be something special in there.”

Photo of MEDUZA playing live in front of a big screen

To hear them tell it, experimentation is the key to keeping things fresh — hence the work with artists that one might not expect, like the folk-friendly indie-soul artist Hozier, who collaborated with MEDUZA on last year’s ‘Tell It To My Heart’.

“And that's the key, to go a little bit out of the standard thing, and then try to not copy what is already existing,” Vitale says. “If you look at the past, at all the big acts from this world, they were experimenting and doing something new. For example, Daft Punk, they were looping, like rap music used to do before them. Or Avicii, who brought in country music. We like to mix stuff from two different worlds.”

Hit-making prowess aside, live gigs are where it’s at nowadays — and for De Gregorio, Vitale, and Giani, none of whom had experienced this level of success before MEDUZA, playing live in front of huge crowds required a bit of a learning curve.

“I’ve been a resident DJ before, but nothing like this,” Vitale admits. “I was not used to doing this kind of show. The team helped me a lot by putting me in headlining gigs, but in small clubs, like 500 or 600 people to kind of get into it. They would help me out — like, ‘Okay, now you’re the headliner. You need to let these 500 people dance to your music. You need to be aware of what’s happening during the show. You obviously need to keep the crowd until the end, so you need to play maybe one of your hits at the beginning and one at the end’, all of that. I was learning the classic headline DJ show, but in a very small amount of time.”

Vitale also learned to play longer headlining sets — at clubs like Space in Miami, he’d play seven or eight hours long — than he was accustomed to in his pre-MEDUZA resident-DJ days. Just a few years ago, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to keep a crowd for that long. 

“Obviously, when you play a one hour set in a festival, you need to give them your best and just let them dance and sing for an hour straight without any breaks,” he explains, “but when you play in clubs, you can have moments where you play melodic house, you can have moments when you bring it down with the melody and create a kind of break, then you go up and then you go down, and you keep control of the crowd for a lot of hours. I studied people like Tale Of Us and Solomun and all the underground acts to see how they play for hours, and how they control the crowd.”

Giani, a former resident club DJ himself, seems a bit more laidback regarding his own forays in spinning MEDUZA sets. “In Italy, we say it’s like when you learn how to ride a bike,” he says, matter-of-factly.  

In April of last year, MEDUZA made the next logical step from DJ gigs, unveiling a complete live show at New York’s massive Avant Gardner clubbing complex. Christened ODIZZEA, those gigs are full-on affairs, a quintessential festival experience boasting custom visuals and, for the first time, all three members together onstage. 

“With just one of us DJing, it was sharing only 40% of the power that we can give to the people,” Vitale says of the reasoning behind developing ODIZZEA. “So why not present them with something with all three of us, playing music for real onstage, for something like a journey?”

In an ODIZZEA show, De Gregorio and Giani stand behind racks of gear to take care of the musical side of things — “the main riffs, the pads, every kind of sound, everything melodic,” De Gregorio says — while Vitale has a mixer, a pair of CDJs and a drum pad at his disposal. He can control the visuals, which in his words “tell the story of the MEDUZA going from being a robot to becoming a human,” from those CDJs.

“I can create moments,” he continues. “For instance, I can loop some drums, and that loop is connected to the visuals, while Simone and Luca can do whatever they want. I can give space for them to freestyle.”

Photo from behind of MEDUZA playing live in front of a large audience with confetti falling from the ceiling

ODIZZEA is on semi-hiatus at the moment while the team works on version 2.0, set to debut in their Milan hometown this October. But in the meantime, De Gregorio, Vitale, and Giani have another project to keep the MEDUZA train chugging along. Called ALL 4 HOUSE, it’s a collaborative effort with Vintage Culture, Claptone, and James Hype to bring house music to the main stage of EDM-friendly festivals. At the same time, the aim is to dissolve their reputation as a pure pop combo in favor of something a bit more underground (“underground” being a relative term in MEDUZA’s chart-topping world) and a bit more oriented toward the dancefloor. They want to be thought of as house artists.

“We are living in a time when the people who make the line-ups try to mix EDM acts with house acts and all the acts in between,” Vitale says, “and it is difficult for the crowd when one act is 135 BPM big-room EDM for one hour, and then there will be house for an hour. The idea is to try and create a kind of balance in the line-up.” MEDUZA, along with their collaborators, just hosted an ALL 4 HOUSE party at Wet Republic, while a big one is next on the agenda: MEDUZA, Hype, Vintage Culture and Claptone will be commandeering the Crystal Garden stage at the Belgium megafest Tomorrowland, with Korolova, Neon, and Tita Lau joining in on the four- to-the-floor fun. 

“We’re just trying to have a full day of house for people to enjoy,” Vitale says, boiling down the purpose of the ALL 4 HOUSE concept to its essence. Through it all, once you get past the billions of streams, the Grammy nominations, the festival takeovers, and the rest, De Gregorio, Vitale, and Giani come off as three down-to-earth friends, as surprised by their success as anyone. They’re still fanboys at heart, and still get a kick out of the fact that they’re living in the same universe as their heroes, people like Eric Prydz.

“We were on before him at the ARC festival,” Vitale recalls, referencing last year’s Chicago gathering where they were joined by the likes of The Blessed Madonna, Honey Dijon, Moodymann, and Carl Craig. “Simone and I are big fans of Eric and his music, so we asked his tour manager if we were able to stay on the side of the stage while he was playing. just to enjoy his music. And then he said, ‘No problem at all — right guys, you’re free to do whatever you want.’ And we sat down on the side of the stage, just looking and enjoying Eric for two hours. That was an amazing experience.” We suspect they're getting used to that kind of experience by now — but still, his thrill in the retelling is palpable.

It’s going to be a busy summer for the MEDUZA trio. Besides perfecting the updated ODIZZEA show, they’ve recently launched AETERNA Records, an outlet for the threesome’s club-oriented house excursions. “When we are in the studio working on club stuff, we are free to experiment with new sounds,” Vitale says, “and if those experiments work, we can bring them to the label. The label will also be a space for young talents. In Italy, we see a lot of DJs that are really talented, but they don't have space to emerge. They don't have the right place to express their music and themselves.”

There are, of course, gigs to be played — Long Beach, California’s Day Trip festival and Chicago’s Lollapalooza are on the horizon, along with a slew of club dates — and music to be worked on. They claim to have a thousand or more demos on the MEDUZA hard drive, awaiting their magic touch.

“Maybe they are hits or maybe not,” Vitale says. “We will see. But really, we’re just doing what we love. We love music, we love DJing, and for this all to happen... We feel blessed. We’ve just had that luck that all artists in this world need to have. You have to be there at the right place at the right time, with the right team. Right now, really, we’re still just living day to day — and we’re still happy to live that way.” With the results that MEDUZA has gotten through that approach, who can argue?

Bruce Tantum is DJ Mag’s North America editor. Follow them on Twitter @BruceTantum

Photographer: Dan Reid
Styled by: Nick Ceroni @Sugarkane Studio
Assisted by: Ilaria Taccini, Noemi Manago, Simone Morelli, Paolo Sbaraglia