Like so many successful pairings, Hard Ton traces its origins back to a gay chat room.
The Italian dance duo of Bologna-based producer Mauro (aka DJ Wawashi) and Venice-based singer Max first connected in 2008 on Bearwww, an online community for gay bears.
On the surface, a musical collaboration may have seemed unlikely at first. A heavy-metal singer for the past 15 years, Max is the current front man for progressive metal bands Great Master and Helreidh. Mauro, meanwhile, is a teenaged electronic-music obsessive turned DJ who has spent the past eight years promoting a monthly gay night called PopUP at Bologna’s Cassero LGBT Center, the headquarters of Italy’s biggest queer association.
“Apart from our passion for music, we immediately realized that we were coming from two different planets,” Max writes in an email to Xtra.
As they began trading musical references, the pair discovered a shared love of pop music and glammed-up camp, as well as a deep appreciation for seminal disco and Hi-NRG figures Giorgio Moroder, Patrick Cowley and Sylvester. A year after their initial online encounter, they connected offline at a party and decided to start making music.
Hard Ton is billed as the “biggest disco queen of the 21st century.” Mauro and Max use an array of analog and vintage gear to make dance music that hearkens back to the rubbery synths, dirty basslines and spacey grooves of mid-1980s house music. Over the past four years they have released a steady stream of 12-inch singles and EPs on various European dance imprints.
The slick minimalism of Hard Ton’s studio sound combined with Max’s fanciful falsetto and maximalist stage persona take that disco queen to the nth degree. If he isn’t rinsing his body hair in glitter, he’s covering it up in a graphic Leigh Bowery–inspired body suit or spray tanning to recreate Grace Jones’s pre-Photoshop arabesque from the Island Life LP sleeve — as he did for the cover of Hard Ton’s 2010 single “Earthquake.”
In the music video for the recent single “Food of Love,” he cavorts semi-nude in a giant cupcake, wrapped in a pink boa, with a marshmallow Mohawk and a pair of eyebrows so big they look like they could start flapping and fly off his face.
“Our dear friend Gaia, a performer and talented makeup artist, always tries something different on my face,” he says. “Her work is very unconventional and surrealist. We always joke that she doesn’t really apply makeup on my face but just glues things on it.”
Body image is clearly not a hang-up. Whereas Max’s heavy metal image is stoically macho, Hard Ton is a chance to not only femme out, but let it all hang out. Asked why it was important to put his weight at the forefront of the duo’s name and image, his response is practical: “Can you see an alternative?”
“It fits with the concept we’ve tried to develop,” Mauro elaborates. “A mix between pop culture, exhibitionism, art, self-confidence, unconventional beauty and a pretty big love for camp.”
Although Mauro is the behind-the-scenes man, he is just as instrumental in developing Hard Ton’s live performance element. He clearly knows his stuff: at PopUP, he has booked a mix of underground DJs and live acts, including Luomo, Ellen Allien & Apparat, Ascii Disko, Chicks on Speed and Cicciolina, a Hungarian-born Italian pornstar-turned-politician who cut a bunch of disco tracks in the 1980s.
There, as with Hard Ton, the goal is to nudge the dance world away from David Guetta button-pushing toward a palpable live experience.
“What we do is a show, a performance in a way, which is not something so usual in the club scene nowadays,” Mauro says. “We wanted to bring back that rock ’n’ roll mood, because that’s the way we like it.”