Interview: Giorgio Moroder

Disco Pioneer Releases 'Déjà Vu,' His First Album in Decades
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Every career becomes unique in retrospect. However, very few seem to need the sheer amount of retrospection as Giorgio Moroder, who at 75 is enjoying a career comeback after taking a 22-year early retirement. The Italian Moroder spent much of his early career in Germany, where he became a professional guitarist and bassist at a young age and developed what is still a noticeable German accent. In the late ‘60s to mid-’70s he released several albums of Beatles-esque, “bubblegum” pop/rock, landing a few European hits and exploring new sounds with synthesizers and studio techniques.

Then in 1975, he put out the experimental electronic album Einzelgänger on his own Oasis label. The record didn’t penetrate much farther than Germany, but that same year, he took another musical turn when collaborating with Donna Summer on their first disco hit, “Love to Love You Baby.” Over the next couple of years, Moroder would start to merge his electronic experiments with disco, beginning with his Knights in White Satin album and culminating in Summer's 1977 space-disco epic “I Feel Love,” a new landmark on the dance music timeline made entirely with a Moog Modular system.

Moroder left a prolific trail of electro-disco in his wake in the form of both solo albums and further artist collaborations, including most of Summer’s biggest hits. After his first foray into movie scoring with 1978’s Midnight Express, Moroder’s MO through the mid-’80s became movie soundtracks that spawned hit singles, such as Blondie’s “Call Me” (American Gigolo), Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling” (Flashdance), and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” (Top Gun).

Moroder's work during that time ranged from enormously cheesy to legit synth-pop classics. he has admitted that he probably took on too many projects at once in the ’80s, and by the end of the decade, his output waned. One last album, 1992’s Forever Dancing, was largely ignored until years later, and Moroder settled into a more leisurely life.

However, the following year, Daft Punk released their breakthrough Homework album, and the duo became the unlikely torchbearers for electronic dance music, which rode peaks and valleys of popularity over two decades but eventually made Daft Punk and the whole genre a global sensation. Recognizing Moroder’s groundbreaking work, they invited him to appear on a tribute track called “Giorgio by Moroder” on 2013’s Random Access Memories, and things just snowballed for Moroder from there. Pretty soon he was back in the studio, remixing modern songs (which you can find on Soundcloud) and learning to DJ with Ableton Live and the Novation Launchpad. Novation wanted in on the new Giorgio heat as well, calling on him to bless the new limited-edition Moroder-Nova synth.

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His new album, Déjà Vu, dropped on June 16th, and it shows how appropriate Moroder’s style is for the modern age. Many of the tracks have a similar pulsing synth feel bolstered by uplifting strings, funk guitars, and bouncing beats, but the sound palette and singers have been updated. Vocalists like Charlie XCX, Britney Spears, and Foxes grace the album, and the feel-good floor fillers “Right Here, Right Now” featuring Kylie Minogue and “Déjà Vu” featuring Sia have already invaded the US dance charts.

It may not be true that everything old is new again, but Giorgio Moroder is reborn, and it feels like love.

May’s announcement of the Novation Moroder-Nova took a lot of people by surprise. How long were you working on that?

We were talking on and on, but I think we were seriously talking starting about a year ago—last spring.

How much creative input did you have on that?

To be honest, very little. They changed the look of the synthesizer a little bit. They added the black and shiny chrome stuff. Obviously, they added my mustache logo. The sounds were done by them. They sampled them, adjusted them, and made them ready.

Did they sample any of your original recordings or synths to get the sounds?

I don’t know exactly, but they probably took some pieces of some of the Donna Summer songs, probably some from my albums, from Sparks, where I used the synthesizer a lot, and a collection of different sources.

How long did you work on Déjà Vu?

Oh God, probably from late fall 2013, all of 2014, and it was mostly finished by the end of the year, but then there are some mixes, remixes, retweakings—basically a year and a half.

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So you started on it pretty soon after the Daft Punk collaboration. Were you ever expecting anything like that invitation to work with them?

No. I was in Paris at the time, and they just called to ask if I wanted to collaborate on the album. So I went to the studio, and I thought, “great, I’ll go in and we’ll sit down on the piano and start composing,” and they said “no, no.” They only wanted me to talk about my life. So I just spoke for like two hours, and didn’t have a clue what they wanted to do with it. They finally played it to me, and I was quite pleasantly surprised at how they used it. They did a great bassline; the whole nine minutes are nicely done.

You worked with so many of the great vocalists of the ’70s and ’80s. How did you choose the vocalists for Déjà Vu?

It was basically the record company, the management company, and myself. We were thinking what kind of artists could fit with my style, and what artists were available? They are all busy, busy. Some I guess did not want to work with me; a lot of people did. Most of the singers responded positively.

Did you work with them closely on the songs?

No, actually very little. Some acts I had in the studio and we composed it right there. Some I gave them the tracks. For example, Sia, I gave her the tracks with a certain melody on them, and she sang a top line; she wrote the lyrics and did the harmonies. I got almost a finished song, which I then worked on. But she did a great job.

What studio were you working in, was it your own?

No, I have a studio here at my apartment, but it’s very small. It’s up to date with the technology, and it’s great to do demos. I can do vocals, but I’m not using it as a professional studio. I use a studio in Burbank. I use a studio in Santa Monica. Then some of the singers like Sia, I don’t really know where she did it, if it was in Los Angeles or somewhere else.

It’s a very modern collaboration process not to be in the same room with somebody, isn’t it?

I think a lot of productions are made this way, because I notice—contrary to say 20-30 years ago—all the singers are so busy right now. And most of the singers now have their own engineer who knows which mic the singers use. A lot of them have a vocal producer, so they are quite independent; they can do a lot of stuff by themselves. So like David Guetta and Avicii and those guys, I don’t think they are sitting in the studio with the acts present all the time. It’s a new way of working. I think if I would have to go find the studio, the singer, the arranger and all that stuff with some of those singers who are traveling the world, an album would take quite some time.

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Modular synthesizers have made a bit of a comeback since you were known for using them decades ago. Did you use modulars on Déjà Vu?

No. I have Smitty, my guy here in Los Angeles. He doesn’t have the Moog [Modular], but a ton of synthesizers. In my studio, I only have sounds in the computer, because I just do good demos. I have my loops, my bass, my chords, and all that stuff. Sometimes I try to find some new sounds, but I leave it to the musicians who do the tracks to find the great new sounds.

Is there anything you like better or worse about making music now than 30 years ago?

Actually, it’s interesting both ways. I’m not saying it’s better. Now, you probably have a little less control over what’s happening. With Donna Summer, David Bowie, or Blondie, I was more in control. You were in the studio, you record, you finish the recording and you start to work on the tracks and mix. It was more in my hands. Now, if a singer gives you a great vocal, it’s there and it’s great, but the control is a little less. So it’s probably less work and less intensive, but I like both ways.

A lot of your best-loved productions stand out for their use of arpeggiators. What is it about arpeggiators that you love so much?

I started with an arpeggiator with “I Feel Love,” and it worked so well. If you play one note or a chord, you have so many beautiful ways to make it sound great. It gives a feel of warmth and rhythm. It’s kind of a driving force, especially if you have one note, like a bass or cello kind of sound. Then if you use it with chords, it’s [sings “duh-duh-di-di-duh-duh-di-di, duh-duh-di-di-duh-duh-di-di”]. It works quite well in a lot of stuff.

To me, “I Feel Love” was the first house music song, and it certainly inspired a lot of people. Do you get a sense of how important that and your other music has been to people?

Well, right now I read much more than I was reading when it came out, and a lot of people liked it, loved it. But since the EDM of let’s say four to five years ago, people noticed more and more. And since house became so big now, they say, okay, Giorgio was one of the first ones to actually do house. Although I can tell you, real house guys would not acknowledge me at all! But that’s okay.

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How are you enjoying DJing?

DJing, I love. It’s great. First of all, I love the music. I love dance music. And I love loud music; I’m almost a little deaf in one ear, but it’s okay. And it’s great to perform in front of sometimes 20,000 people, 30,000 people. It’s quite something. I opened the Kylie Mielm0815 nogue tour in Australia for five gigs, and it was quite fun. We had eight, nine, ten thousand people in the venues, and it’s nice to be in the middle of that. You know, the crowd surrounds you. And I’m not nervous or anything. I feel very safe, and I just do my job.

What did you do to get so comfortable using modern DJ equipment?

I started to DJ with a friend of mine, Chris Cox, and we decided to use Ableton Live. So with Ableton Live, I have a lot of possibilities, probably more than if I would use [Pioneer] CDJs, because I have four tracks. I basically use one track for the music, and tracks 2 to 4 for effects, loops, and little things, so it’s a great way to be more creative DJing.

Was it a challenge to get up to speed with Ableton Live?

I started with it, and then Chris and I had a problem because he couldn’t come with me to Mexico—he had already a previous gig somewhere. So I had about two weeks’ time to learn to use Ableton, and it’s very intuitive. I have Pro Tools here in the studio, so it’s not a big jump from this program to the other one.

To promote the album, will you get a band and do any live shows?

No, right now I’m leaving tomorrow for Europe. I do probably three weeks promoting the album with interviews, some radio stuff and some TV stuff. I just came back from Paris from a big TV show. Then I start to DJ again at the end of June. So it’s a combination of DJing and promoting.

They’re keeping you really busy, just like all those young singers.

Yeah, well, you know you have to do it. Everybody’s promoting, so they want me to promote too. I’m more than happy. It’s a little tough, because it’s one day in a city and then travel the next day somewhere else, but you know, I’m so used to travel.

You said in the Daft Punk “Giorgio by Moroder” song that that synthesizer was the sound of the future. Is there anything new today that you think is the sound of the future?

Well it’s not the sound of the future anymore, because it’s now more than 30 years, but at that time, it certainly was. And by the way, that was Brian Eno, who heard a song and he went to David Bowie—I think they were in Berlin producing an album—and said, “listen David, I think this is the sound of the future.” So actually it was Brian who got the word out. I never really thought about that, at least at the beginning.

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Hot Stuff: The Most Influential Moroder Productions

Donna Summer “I Feel Love,” 1977
By creating a rhythmically hypnotic disco song with a bouncing arpeggiated bass line using nothing but a Moog Modular and Summer’s dreamy, soulful vocals, Moroder accidentally created house music, although a genre called house wasn’t actually born until the early-’80s in Chicago.

Giorgio Moroder From Here to Eternity, 1977
More synthesizer disco with click track beats. This time, the heavy use of vocoded vocals and an expanded sound palette made it sound more like the techno pop of Kraftwerk or something 808 State would do a decade later than anything from Studio 54.

Giorgio Moroder “Chase,” 1978
One of Moroder’s most remixed tracks, this instrumental from the movie Midnight Express stands as one his most sophisticated synth compositions, evolving through various melodic motifs, flanged pads, and layered and filtered arpeggios.

Blondie “Call Me,” 1980
At a time when bands felt compelled to take sides in the disco/punk standoff, Blondie played fast and loose with genres. This Number One hit set the tone for a mutated type of post-punk danceable rock.

Sigue-Sigue Sputnik Flaunt It, 1986
This album launched so-called “cyber punk” music, which threw bursts of frenetic guitar, samples, and highly effected vocals over a bed of driving synths and drum machine backbeats. The genre itself didn’t go far but it influenced industrial and other alternative styles for years to come.