On the day we catch Marcin (Öz, of The Whitest Boy Alive), it’s a scorching 45 degrees in his adopted home of Ortigia, Sicily – or as he refers to it, his ‘permanent vacation.’ He’s just got back from working at the vineyard since sunrise. An afternoon swim off the rocks, moments from his front door, is calling. This is the pace of life since he chose the proverbial carte blanche, swapping a musician’s life in Berlin to try his hand at winemaking.
The new chapter began with a friend’s dormant vineyard. At this point, Marcin had been visiting the isle regularly to see his best friend and former bandmate Erlend Øye, who’d settled down in Syracuse. Three years later, with the language barrier overcome and manual labour mastered, Marcin’s ‘office’ is the fields of Vini Campisi, founded with his Sicilian friend Sergio, a third-generation lemon farmer. When Marcin took the helm in 2014, there was little to assure their success beyond the omen of the region’s name–Buonivini–meaning ‘good wines,’ whose soil is steeped in 2,500 years of winemaking. “Some of the things that I managed to realise in this first year, without speaking the language, without knowing anything about wine, it was close to a miracle really,” Marcin muses. And yet it, he’s pulled it off with accolades. Today, instead of records, he releases satisfyingly musical wines, with names like ‘The Cure’ and ‘Red Red Wine’. It’s this freewheeling attitude that continues to lay his winding path: His latest act is pursuing a decades’ long desire to enter gastronomy, opening up a ‘tiny, fish bistro place’, Öz e Cappuccio, that will vest his home recipes on Syracuse’s fresh catch. Lounging in the shadowy indoors of his place in Ortigia, Marcin explains his approach to life and work under the sun.
Right, we’re going to start large: Why did you decide to give up music and make wine instead?
Well, I’d arrived at a certain point of satisfaction with all my projects. I thought, ‘Basically either you could just continue what you’re doing, but at 37, if you still have a lot of energy, which I did, you could also just drop yourself into the deep water and do something else.’ It wasn’t at the point where I was looking for something to do, it just happened and when this option came up it seemed too good not to try at this point in my life.
"You could just continue what you’re doing, but at 37, if you still have a lot of energy, you could also just drop yourself into the deep water and do something else."
So how did the idea to make wine come about?
It was because of one guy in particular, Sergio, who was already a good friend of Erlend. He had a huge impact on me just by being himself and working in agriculture in a very cool way by using new technology on his family farm to turn it into something really sustainable and organic. For years I was coming here and knew I just badly wanted to do something with them…but I didn’t know what. And so it turned out his family also had a vineyard, but it was too much–8 hectares, or around 30,000 plants–to take care alongside the lemon farm. So, when one day a neighbour came around and made an offer to buy the vineyard they were considering it. But, also, being a family of famers they never sold a piece of land and thought ‘Hm, we don’t really want to sell but actually maybe we should.’ And at this point I thought, ‘Wait, isn’t this the thing we could do together?’ And then they looked at me and said, ‘Sure’.
Just like that! So you started off as a complete beginner?
Well, I said to them ‘I’m just gonna try. Will you be okay to not sell for another year and give me chance?’ It was kind of like a plane that doesn’t have a pilot, and then along came a pilot, a young one that can’t really fly yet. But since without the pilot the plane can’t take off, even a bad pilot is better than none. So they said, come si dice, ‘Go for it!’. It was kind of mad, crazy, to do it. But I the first year gave me so much drive just because I understood it’s enough to want something to do it, basically.
“It was kind of mad, crazy, to do it. But the first year gave me so much drive just because I understood it’s enough to want something to do it.“
Marcin lunching on our PillowPillow
What had your expectations been before going in?
I had the feeling that maybe agriculture is the ultimate thing to do. It’s something that you have an idealistic idea of and the city kid that I was I had no clue. Of course, I knew it would involve hard work and that it’s unpredictable, but at the same time, there was the challenge to cultivate things from the ground up and experience the symbiosis of the human being and the plant. Maybe the fact that I didn’t know too much about it helped a lot, because if I had known the dimension of what I was going for I might have got scared off! The more you know, the bigger it gets. It’s a little bit like the universe, the more you understand, the more you realise how exponential it is. The life of a human being is not enough to get to that point, But, at least I will understand something…
"I had the feeling that maybe agriculture is the ultimate thing to do...the challenge to cultivate things from the ground up and experience the symbiosis of the human being and the plant. "
And where are you at now with the winemaking?
Well, I physically moved in October 2014 just after the harvest. So 2015 was my first vintage and until now the only vintage that is in commerce, the new one will come out this winter. The 2016 will be different because the winter was different and the summer was like this and like that and certain things happened, you know? It’s like everything that happens to me during the year of wine, in the vintage, has some tiny influence on how the wine turns out. It will always be this grape from that place of earth, in that position on the island of Sicily, with that sun and sea and that wind from that direction…but of course all those little factors will change around a little bit, and the wine will be different every year. This is my idea of how wine should be made. Not a brand that you tweak and squeeze to become the same as last year just because it’s to your clients’ taste, no, if your vintage is different, then that’s the most beautiful thing.
Would you say you’re more satisfied with your lifestyle now than you were back in the music scene?
It’s more that I just love to do stuff. I love when shit happens, you know? For me the way there is the goal, not arriving. Because once I’m there I already want to go back or somewhere else. Satisfaction is really hard to achieve because I have goals that are so far away, that’s why basically I’m always on my way there. But maybe I did it on purpose, I chose goals that are really hard to reach so I have more fun for a longer time getting there.
And the latest goal is the restaurant?
Yes, early this year I had the idea to start a restaurant project, which had been a dream of mine for many, many years. For 20 maybe, I’ve been cooking at home for friends, family, business partner, my beloveds, whoever! I had the courage to do it because it seemed very simple and very easy. But, in the end the amount of work and preparation and equipment is on the exact same level of a restaurant with 150 tables. It’s just that I wanted to do a quick fast food joint, that’s the only difference. And now it came out…well, it came out fantastic. I can’t wait to open.
"It’s more that I just love to do stuff. I love when shit happens, you know? For me the way there is the goal, not arriving."
It’s interesting, when you’re performing as a musician you’re bringing pleasure to people and now you’re doing that in a different way with wine and soon food…
Yeah, there are a lot of parallels. Basically, we also ran the record label for The Whitest Boy Alive. Which means we were always involved in the process of how the song would evolve from the beginning through recording, through producing the CD, making the cover, creating the final product, all those processes were done in house by us. We thought, we can do it ourselves and we did. But that was kind of a miracle too that it worked out. And with this following of processes from A to Z, there are a lot of similarities with winemaking. You’re also making maybe one of the most complete products that there is in a sense: from the cultivation of the plant, to harvesting the fruit, the transformation of the fruit into something else, and then the process of ageing in the barrels, to marketing and commerce.
And with all this going on, are you still making music?
I’m not making music any more, I’m playing music. There’s a little group of us playing acoustic music just to have fun. There are some really good singers around and plus Erlend lives here as well, so we’re always playing in some way.
Seems like the way to live. What it is it about Sicily that made you think, I have to move here?
It was a combination both of both the people and the place, which is really magic. I live on this tiny little island, Ortigia, surrounded by the sea next to Sicily. I mean it is connected by a very short bridge, but it’s a world of its own, a labyrinth of tiny little roads. It’s very cozy and extremely beautiful and a little run down. There’s an incredible charm to it because you feel the energy of thousands of generations of humans who have passed through here and left a little fingerprint. And I’m always one minute away from jumping off a rock into the sea. It’s an incredible luxury.
"I’m always one minute away from jumping off a rock into the sea. It’s an incredible luxury."
Does it feel home now?
Well, even though I speak quite good Italian, even some Sicilian, I will always be an outsider. And because I’m forever an outsider, I always feel a like I’m on holiday even if though I live here. It’s like a permanent vacation. But not because I’m not doing anything. More because I’m constantly somewhere else in the sense of not where I belong, but this is totally fine. It’s not a negative feeling. It’s positive. I like it. It’s like a vacation.
"I always feel a like I’m on holiday even if though I live here. It’s like a permanent vacation."
I guess it’s also the fact that it’s you yourself that’s chosen to be there?
Yes, exactly. Nobody’s sent me here to work, nobody told me to do this. That’s what I mean, I don’t feel home, but I’m not homesick. I’m just feeling like I’m somewhere else all the time which is cool.
Is there a particular, local approach to leading a comfortable life? Has it rubbed off on you?
Here, the climate basically dictates how to behave. After lunch, it’s impossible to do anything. If you try, you’re stupid. Then of course the food, the most important thing in the world. Food here is the first, second and third topic of conversation. That’s also the most beautiful thing I learnt here. Before, I had problems with communication. Basically I was shy and I didn’t know how to start talking to somebody I didn’t know. And since being here, I know just enough to ask, ‘So what did you have for lunch?’ And nobody will ever think it’s a strange question. Everyone here will explain to you exactly what they had, how it was made, who made it. And then of course there’s going to the sea, that’s the 4th and 5th topic of conversation in the summer.
"Food here is the first, second and third topic of conversation. That’s also the most beautiful thing I learnt here."
How was it to change the pace of your life completely from being in Berlin. Was it strange or did you really need that?
I was always pragmatic, but I’ve become mega pragmatic in the sense that I have a goal and whatever it takes to get to the goal, I will do whatever it takes. So I don’t have a problem with changing my lifestyle. I don’t have a problem with setting my alarm for 4.30am. You just get used to it. It’s very different from working in the city with music, but you adapt. If this is what you want to do then there is no problem. You just do it.
"It’s very different from working in the city with music, but you adapt. If this is what you want to do then there is no problem. You just do it."
It’s kind of like what you mentioned before about you being a person who believes in the journey, not the arrival…
Yeah. I believe that everything you do will bring you somewhere, you know? Nothing is for nothing. So even if next year or in five years I should arrive at the conclusion that you know, a Polish boy from Berlin has nothing to do in Sicily, then I’ll go back. I still had an incredible experience, and I learned, became I hope a better person then also.