Meet the godfather of electronic dance music: Giorgio Moroder’s spectacular return to the spotlight
By Mike Doherty
July 21, 2014
Moroder on starting his DJ career at age 74, working with Daft Punk, and the evolution of club culture
In the ’70s and ’80s, Giorgio Moroder — the Italian-born, L.A.-based godfather of electronic dance music — reeled in three Oscars (for scoring “Midnight Express” and for songs from “Flashdance” and “Top Gun”) and three Grammys. He produced the likes of Blondie and David Bowie, and pushed dance music into the synthesizer era alongside Donna Summer on “I Feel Love.” Now, at 74, he’s first starting a career as a DJ, spinning his tracks for fans who weren’t born when he originally recorded them.
Moroder credits Daft Punk for rebooting his music in the popular consciousness with last year’s track “Giorgio by Moroder,” but today’s Electronic Dance Music scene owes a huge amount to his work.
The day after playing a set at London’s Wireless Festival this month, a dapper, youthful Moroder – his moustache downsized and whiter than in its handlebar heyday, but still presiding over a mischievous smile – sat down with a fizzy water in a hotel bar to discuss the evolution of dance music, the trials involved in working with stars in 2014 and why he has only now started to visit nightclubs.
Considering that Daft Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder” sets an interview about your life to new music, is it weird to have been thrust back into the spotlight by your own history?
Yeah, well I was quite emotional when I heard it. The guys told me a year before in Paris to tell my story, and I was just blabbering and blabbering for two hours, and I didn’t have any idea what they’d do with it. I thought maybe they’d cut up some words and make some effects. When they played it to me, I loved it. It was emotional because the music too is like the transition from disco into all the different styles [I’ve done].
As I understand, before this, you had been playing a lot of golf –
Was it that no one had approached you to do music?
First of all, six or seven years ago, DJ-ing was not a great job to do, so I thought to myself, “No no, I’m a composer; I’m a producer. I’m not the guy who puts the records on.” But then, Kim Jones, the designer, wanted me to write 12 minutes [to soundtrack a Louis Vuitton fashion show]. I said, “This is quite easy, actually. I just play my songs!” And then I did a little bit of a DJ [set], which was a bit of a mess, in Cannes for Elton John. Then the Red Bull Academy asked if I could talk to the students about music and said, “How about if we do a disco evening?” And I said, “Great!” That was the same day when Daft Punk came out – the 21st of May last year, and from there I went to Japan, Sweden, Mexico, around the world.
People know me a little bit, and the young kids go on the Internet, listen to the songs. They want to hear “What is the guy doing?” Sometimes I have three generations: young guys, 18-20, then the 40-year-olds, then the older ones who grew up with my music. Yesterday we had only young kids, and some knew every word of the hits like “Hot Stuff,” “Take My Breath Away.”
Are you playing updated versions of your hits?
Yeah, I have a good remix of a song which I kind of forgot, Japan’s “Life in Tokyo.” I have a remix of “I Feel Love,” ’cause the original is by far too slow today. The remix I did is not 128 [beats per minute], but it’s still faster.
Do you have a sense of why dance music is faster now?
Well, I could ask, why are the movies now so fast-paced? And the videos are incredible – they got faster and faster, so I guess attention spans are getting shorter. Steven Spielberg has a formula which says, every seven minutes, something big has to happen. And Adrian Lyne came in with “Flashdance,” and he cut it almost like a video. The songs I write are always the same: You cannot really cut a song too much, but now for the DJ-ing, I just do two and a half minutes of songs, because I think, “People want to hear the next one.” That’s one of the reasons why EDM works so well. Dr. Luke, I think, said that he wants a change of sound or tracks every eight bars, while the traditional way is to have an intro, like, eight bars, and then a verse, 16, and then the chorus, and that’s 32 — but with EDM, you have all that very staccato stuff.
You’ve mentioned before that you find some EDM disjointed. Is that what you’re referring to?
If you talk musically in the bigger sense, [EDM songs] are not that great. I can tell you a very good example: I recorded a song about a month ago with a relatively famous act, so I gave her the tracks, and so she said, “OK, give me the first eight bars,” which was kind of the verse, so she sang it, then she said, “OK, now give me the 16 bars or whatever of the chorus,” so she learned it and sang it. She did it piece by piece – in her mind, I don’t know if she really heard the verse going into the chorus. She would end the verse up there [Moroder sings a note], and then start the chorus at the same level. I know I can – I don’t say the word “repair,” but that one’s relatively easy because I just add a harmony on top, so instead of continuing flat, the background goes up.
The way the guys in EDM compose is totally different from the traditional way. Now they have three studios ready – three producers, three composers, and it’s almost a selection: You give me three mixes, and I say, “OK, I want this part, which is great, and this, and this.” That’s why some EDM songs are so catchy, because there are no rules. Every section is a little bit of a hit, although it’s not really joined that well, but it sounds good. I think that the tendency now is going more to the analog way, where you have songs with verse, chorus, bridge …
Nowadays when you work with artists, do they say, “I want this to sound like such-and-such a song you’ve already done?”
I don’t really know exactly what they want because most of the time it’s their manager who talks to my manager. Right now, to have direct contact with an act is almost impossible. Every act is so protected . … Maybe they want a little disco influence. The great thing was that Daft Punk really revived disco with “Get Lucky,” where they have electric drums with bass and real drums – that’s what people want, and that’s what I do.
Trent Reznor asked you to remix a Nine Inch Nails song …
He asked me about six months [ago] if I wanted to do a remix, but then I was listening to the song, and I said, “It’s so well done – what would I add?” Trent is a genius; he doesn’t need me to improve his stuff, and to be honest, I was a little scared. If the original is so good, the guy who does the remix has to be a genius to make it better.
A lot of people would say that you’re a genius.
Oh yeah, that’s true! [laughs]. But I would really have to work hard even to change [the song] – and then with him you would never know how much can you change or how much he wants the original. With Coldplay [on a remix of “Midnight”], I had one version which was good but they said, “No, we need a little more Moroder,” whatever that is, so I went back in the studio and they loved it. For the first time, they said, all four guys even listened to a remix. Because those big groups, they couldn’t care less about remixes.
And adding the strings and all those layers – it’s almost a trademark. Your productions sound really expensive. You also helped design a sports car and a cognac bottle – is that the Moroder brand, to make something luxurious?
With computers today [laughs] … This would be absolutely expensive if I had used real strings! I noticed lately the luxury sound doesn’t work in the discotheques as a DJ, because you have to have great drums, great bass, and the voice, of course, and the rest is not that important. For example the “Midnight” remix doesn’t sound really good [in a club] because everything is so loud, and when the strings come in, you lose the bass and you lose the drums – you lose a little bit of that tempo feel. If I’m thinking to play that song more often, I would do a remix of my remix.
As far as your own work goes, it’s been reported that you’re going to be working with Lana Del Rey.
I don’t know. She is such a lovely girl, and first of all, I think she works like crazy. She’s on tour now in Europe somewhere. If there’s a chance to meet in the same city one day, we’ll do something. I love what she’s doing. She has her style, which is so unique. I think she’s darker than me in terms of lyrics – I don’t understand them, but I’ve read that her lyrics are really down, right? Whatever lyrics are good, I like, but the sounds – I don’t think they are that dark. Obviously she has a lot of strings, and a lot of delay and echoes … I don’t have a clue what I would do, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen; if it is, I’m going to be happy.
I understand you’ve been recording with Kelis?
Am I? There are so many rumors out – oh God! I’m supposed to do Madonna. I don’t have a clue who came up with that! And unfortunately nobody has [put out] a rumor of Rihanna, which I really would like, but it’s still all the names you hear or read – some may have a little bit of truth; some have nothing at all, so it’s all in the air. But from what I sense [my new album] is going to be good. Ideally it would have one or two big names, then maybe three or four good but not “top,” then some young, new guys – even groups of people who don’t sell a record but who are really into the new music, new – not experimental but unusual new stuff.
In the meantime, you’re out on the road. There was so much hedonism in the disco lifestyle back in the ’70s; do you find a big difference in atmosphere between dance clubs then and now?
I think the main thing is the DJ. I was at Studio 54 only once or twice, and the DJ would just play his songs. Now if you go to a club, the DJ is up there building up the audience, and especially at festivals, the DJ is an act. I saw Mixmaster Mike – that guy was mixing from one track to the other in a matter of seconds, and I thought, “a genius!” Then after, I said, “How on Earth do you remember the probably 2000 pieces you did in an hour and a half?” He said, “I have a memory like a computer. You play me two bars of a song and I tell you.” That’s an art. I think the difference is now that the DJ is the animator of the evening instead of just putting records on.
It sounds like the disco era was fun in a different way.
Yeah, although don’t ask me because I never went to discos anyway.
No, in Munich [where Moroder lived for most of the 1970s] I went from time to time – whenever I had a new song, I would give it to a friend of mine who was a DJ, and he would play it and I would see the reaction. If everybody would leave the dance floor, that was a sign that I should throw it away. There’s a club now called Giorgio’s in Los Angeles; we go because it’s [run by] a friend of ours; I stay 10 minutes and [my wife] dances all through the night.
So basically you manage to make records that thousands of people would dance to without going to dance clubs at all.
Yeah, because I cannot dance. That’s why I don’t go to discos, because I’m embarrassed! The so-called disco king comes in and doesn’t know – [laughs] So I cannot tell you what happened – I know from reading what’s going on. But it’s quite different from what I remember. Now you have the DJ who is really in charge.