We Talk Past, Present, and Pop with the Original Architect of Disco: Giorgio Moroder
The mustachioed synth maestro is set to release his first album in 30 years and everyone from Britney to Charli XCX to Sia to Kelis has jumped on board.
We sent London-based musician Gabriel Stebbing—a Steely Dan nerd, who makes music as Night Works, and plays bass/guitar/keys with Christine and the Queens—to meet Mr. Moroder and this is what happened.
The other day a dream of mine came true: I met Giorgio Moroder, the most influential producer electronic music has ever known. His 1977 masterstroke with Donna Summer, "I Feel Love," set club music on the tack it's still sailing today and on either side of that he wrote and produced more great records by more great artists than you can shake a really big disco stick at: Bowie, Blondie, Sparks, and Freddie Mercury are all on there. He then went on to create some of your favorite karaoke classics of the 80s—the Top Gun soundtrack, anyone?—before relaxing into more-or-less retirement from 1985 onward.
Although his music has been sampled and referenced thousands of times over in the interim, he wasn't lured back to the studio until Daft Punk approached him a couple years ago to contribute to the Grammy-magnet that is Random Access Memories. The result was "Giorgio by Moroder," a nine-minute synth groove that begins with Moroder waxing autobiographical about his early days in life and music. Since then it's been wall-to-wall DJ sets and studio time with all the one name wonders of the pop world: Kylie, Britney, Kelis, Sia, etc. and so forth, all of whom appear on his new record, Déjà Vu, out on June 16 via RCA. It's a collection which veers from EDM-leaning bangers, like the Charli XCX-featuring "Diamonds," and LP closer "74 Is the New 24," which marries a more modern electro aesthetic with Italo disco. Then there's the 70s string-assisted, Nile Rodgers-esque jangle of "Wildstar" with Foxes—listen to those high notes getting hit!—which comes off as straight up self-referential and gloriously so.
I met up with him in London one recent week day and found him to be disarmingly modest, chatty, with an impish twinkle in his eye, he's clearly completely at ease with himself and his legacy, and pleasantly baffled by the newfound attention. The 75-year-old begins with a fist bump, a favorable word about my socks (and his), and we're off.
Noisey: I have this lame joke that I tell myself whenever anything either weird, fantastic, or even completely mundane happens in my life. It's a running joke with a friend of mine where I say to myself, "If only I could go back in time 15 years and tell the naive 19-year-old me, this is what life had in store. He'd never believe it!" So let me run this by you. If you could go back in time 15 years…
Giorgio Moroder: [Laughs.] I could go back 40 years!
I know! Well let's say you go back 15 years and you tell 60-year-old Giorgio that in 2015 you're going to be gearing up for a huge album release with some of the biggest artists of the day singing on it, that you'd be a hugely in-demand DJ—would you have believed it?
It is absolutely incredible, I mean, I was basically retired, I had my hobbies …
You'd have been like, "Don't disturb me—I'm playing golf!"
I was always thinking, "Maybe one day," but I never really tried to go back into music. Plus you know the music business has changed, music is not selling what it was. So the incentive to go back to writing music wasn't that big anyway. And I got some offers to DJ, but you know, I was a composer, a producer, not a DJ. Fifteen years ago the DJs weren't like the DJs you have now. It's strange because it started really small—I did a little show for Louis Vuitton: 12 minutes for their show in Paris. And then the same day they offered me a gig in Cannes opening for Elton John, which was OK. You know, a bit for the snobby Hollywood set.
Hmm, thinking about it my first and second ever DJ gigs [Monday nights upstairs at a place called the Freebutt in Brighton] weren't quite at that level.
I was lucky because although those gigs were not great, I then had a big one in New York for Red Bull. There I had my assistant who was handling all the technical stuff and I could use the vocoder [which he used to personally address the crowd].
Right, and it meant you immediately had this very direct communication with the audience, which a lot of EDM DJs now don't bother with so much, it's more of the pyrotechnics and spraying champagne kind of thing.
But you know what, then I noticed with the vocoder—it's a little difficult—if I have an assistant it's relatively easy, but by yourself, you have to get the volumes, you have to have it all ready, if the mic isn't connected properly you have feedback, so, I basically gave it up. Plus, people don't care! If they don't see you play, then the audience are thinking, hmm, what is he doing? I mean, one of the guys has a violinist! That's a bit more of a spectacle.
In some ways though, you get to live out your youthful fantasies of being a frontman. You've said that when you first started out in music, it was your dream to be a singer.
And it ended up so much bigger than I could have imagined! You know, you always hope to have some kind of an audience and sell some records. [Back in the day] I did this tour in Italy with about 15 acts every day in a different city, which was OK, but I'm not a great musician, and my voice is not great. And you really need the complete package to be a successful musician. But now, if I perform in front of 30,000 people, everybody goes crazy, it's amazing. I mean, I know all my music so well, I have these moments in the set [hums refrain to one of his tracks] and everyone sings along, and I do the count-ins [does air pump], 1-2-3-4 GO! [Laughs.] It's great.
You couldn't be a rock star first time around, and now DJs are the new rock stars and you're one of them. The circle is complete. Let's talk about Déjà Vu. I'm a sucker for crafted pop music, so even though there are EDM elements on the album—it sounds very modern and produced, very now—there are songwriting elements that are drawing on a lifetime's experience writing pop and disco. So the craft is very important to you, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And I'm always using great musicians.
There are some great guitars on the album.
Who did the guitars again? A very young guy in LA and the guitar on one of the instrumentals, I think on La Disco, that's a German guy. We never met.
You did it remotely?
Remotely! By email—I don't even remember his name! I have two, three guys in Germany who do a lot of stuff for me, so I said give me a little bit of Nile Rodgers style, and two days later, there you have it.
Now we're on the subject, let's talk a bit about what it's like making an album now, compared to say the mid to late 70s…
When an album took three weeks!
It seems like a simple question but what are the main differences between now and then? In your work process, your relationships with the artists—your singers, for instance?
First of all, right now, there's not really a relationship. I'm not saying with everybody—I worked with Kylie, with Kelis—but the rest was all done by phone, Dropbox, back and forth. I have a feeling that the artists, the bigger ones, they're all so busy right now. Everybody's working with somebody else, and to get them in a studio at the same time, in the same city, or even in the same country, is not easy. And I noticed, for example in the case of Sia, they love to work by themselves, with their own engineer. They all have their own people, their microphone is always the same, the EQ, they mostly have their own vocal producer.
Who works exclusively with them. They have their own plug-in chain, they know what sounds good for them.
Right. So with Kelis, the vocal producer was great because he knew how to get the best out of her. I'm good too, but I don't know the details. I mean, maybe some artists get offended if you say, "That note isn't good"—you have to know how to approach it.
So it's a different kind of "bedside manner" to what you would have been used to? Going back to the 70s or early 80s, you're the producer, let's say you're producing Debbie Harry's vocal on Call Me, where it's a Blondie track and there's a band situation but you're kind of the boss, right? I heard that was an interesting one…
Actually that song was done in one afternoon in New York. No problems whatsoever, the one thing was I had to tell the drummer, don't do fills every four bars. I give you permission to do fills every eight bars! [Laughs.] But other than that it went well.
I guess what I'm getting that is that it sounds like you had the power back then. It wasn't a committee thing. You had the final say in the studio whether it was working on that track or with Donna Summer…
I mean, that was a song for a movie, the tempo was established, it's not like they could say, we want it slower or faster. Deborah did a very good job with the lyrics; I loved them. But then to work later on, on an album—two things were difficult. One, I lived in LA, but I'd have to work in New York …
Not so much your scene?
Not so much! And secondly, I did work with a few groups, but every group has problems. Between the guitarist and the drummer, the drummer's always too loud, the bass is never loud enough. Plus I'm not the guy who starts at 3 PM and goes on until six in the morning. I prefer to come in around noon, finish around nine or ten. With groups it doesn't work like that.
They roll in at eight in the evening because they've been out the night before.
If they come in at all! I once had a group who were supposed to come at 2 PM and the whole crew were waiting until 6 PM. It's difficult. I had a studio at my house in Beverly Hills, and Keith Forsey [GM's go-to drummer turned producer, played on everything before co-writing on tons of huge soundtracks] was producing a group, and they went on and on and on, and then the drugs came out—I never took any, ever—and then by 12 midnight it's a little difficult to relate to what's going on.
Let's talk a little more about your new album. My favorite tracks on it are the ones with Britney and Kylie. You were actually in the studio with Kylie?
I did the tracks with Patrick [Jordan-Patrikios, 28 year old Welsh wiz kid pop producer] in LA. Then he came to London to do the vocal with Karen Poole [top pop topliner, ex-Alisha's Attic], then we took the whole thing back to LA, changed a few things, and then I went in the studio with Kylie. I didn't have to tell her too much what to do. I did a second song with her in fact, maybe it'll be used in future. Then we did the video together. She's so professional.
Like the template for the modern pop star in a way.
She didn't want to leave the set of the video before it was done. If the guy had asked her to do it ten more times she would have said yes. Quite unusual I think. Then I went on tour with her in Australia. I opened for her for five evenings.
How did you find playing to her audience?
It was difficult at the beginning. I was playing in Perth and it was there I noticed that people couldn't care less about the openers. There was another girl on before me. It got better in Melbourne, Sydney—that was great.
It's a pretty tough gig being the opening act sometimes. When was the last time you opened for anyone?
[Laughs.] I can tell you when, I was supposed to be the opening act for the Hollies, in Frankfurt, early 70s, and the day before, they threw me out. I got the call, Giorgio—they don't want you.
They fired you from the gig! You don't seem to have great luck being an opening act.
The Hollies at that time were huge. So that was a big negative thing in my life. [Smiles.]
A mere bump in the road in context. I want to go back to the start—you were born in South Tyrol in Italy.
And I became a musician, and I left. My band played all over Europe: Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, when I was aged between 19-27. I ended up in Berlin and I wanted to start out as a composer in Berlin or London, and I had an aunt in Berlin, so I could stay with her. So I stayed for almost four years. Not with my aunt the whole time, I might add! Then to Munich. Berlin I didn't much like, with the Wall, it was quite an intense atmosphere.
I have this theory that musicians who grow up on geographically on the edge of things have to work a bit harder and also have to kind of imagine their way out of places and into other experiences.
I mean, I came out of a small city. There was Italian music, maybe some German [but] I was always listening to English music, Radio Luxembourg, and dreaming that one day I'd be in a city like London. It seemed almost impossible. I was dreaming of composing. I composed my first song when I was 15, I can still remember it: I had one recorder, the drum was just my fist on the table [slaps thigh in time], but being a musician there you played the songs of other people, cover versions. We didn't play our own stuff. And slowly that need to get out of there, to be successful, just became so strong. If I had been born in a city like London or New York, I would been in a studio aged 15.
I wonder if you had been brought up in the London or New York studio world though, this well established hit factory world, whether a unique record like "I Feel Love" could have been created at all. I mean, you made it in Munich, still not exactly the center of things. Apologies for a bit of an esoteric question, a what if…
Well, I'd used a synthesizer for the first time in 1971. I wasn't able to play or manage it as it was so complicated. I had a guy who managed it for me, who got me the sounds, and one day I just thought, how would a "future song" sound? I just didn't have a clue. Usually I composed, you play chords and you sing. There, I was in front of this module, and I told the guy, give me a note, I got a click going with the tempo, a little slower, a little faster [sings bassline of "I Feel Love"], and that was it.
Sounds like you kind of intuited it in a way. I mean, you had the technical background, but…
Musically it was totally new. I mean usually, you start with the chords. But with this, I started with the bassline, and without having the melody, I thought, OK, let's do eight bars like this, four bars [sings the baseline up several steps, 16 here. It was all built up mathematically. Then when we started to compose, it was, God, why do we have 16 bars here instead of eight? And if you listen, the song is very difficult to sing. You really have to count through the chord changes, I mean Donna Summer initially had problems singing it.
I guess when it's something completely new you need an incredible singer, musicians, people who can intuit their way through it with you. We've almost run out of time. I have one question to finish up, from a producer I know, a who makes music under the name Kindness. He wants to know if you ever sing your own songs at karaoke.
[Laughs.] First of all, I don't have a voice, second, I don't know the melodies, and third, the lyrics—forget it! The only lyric I know is [sings] "Take My Breath Away, da-da-daah!"
Not too bad if you ask me. I'd be tempted! Thanks very much, Giorgio.
That was fun. It was nice to talk about music for a change. Usually people just want to ask me what Britney's like in the studio.
Portrait of Gabriel and Giorgio taken by Giorgio's wife.
Follow Gabriel Stebbing on Twitter.