MAN MOST UNLIKELY
How 74-year-old disco legend Giorgio Moroder revived his career to become the most wanted musical identity on the planet
‘IHAVE had so many firsts,” says Giorgio Moroder during what is, in fact, his first Australian interview. Such a statement from anyone else may sound hubristic: not so from Moroder. The legendary Italian-born songwriter and producer, known colloquially as the godfather of disco, comes across as egoless and casual — most likely because his statement is true by any yardstick.
Leaning back into an elegant, tallbacked chair in his Los Angeles dining room, the window behind him revealing an expansive (and expensive) view of Beverly Hills, the 74-year-old has spent the past hour of an April afternoon recalling a career as one of the most innovative and successful music makers of the past century.
As the man behind some of the world’s biggest hits of the 1970s and 80s, and with three Grammys and three Oscars to his name, Moroder is enjoying an incredible career renaissance, one that has taken even him by surprise. After all but retiring more than a decade ago, Moroder in recent years has collaborated with the likes of Daft Punk and Coldplay, and is back touring the world.
One shore he has never managed to reach during his 40-year career, however, is Australia’s. All that will change on May 31, when the septuagenarian makes his anticipated Australian debut at the Sydney Opera House as a headliner for the sixth annual Vivid Live festival.
He’s at the core of a trio of Vivid events that mark not just Moroder’s first appearances in Australia as a musician but “as a human”.
“I’ve never been to Australia before, ever, in any capacity, so this is quite an honour,” he says.
Moroder is used to exploring uncharted waters, and he arrives in Australia with a newly resurrected popularity and relevance, capping off what has been one of the most distinctive, diverse, and influential runs in music history. As a producer and songwriter, he has worked with the superstar likes of David Bowie, Cher and Freddie Mercury, creating numerous worldwide hits. Moroder is also famed as a soundtrack composer: he won his first Oscar for his revolutionary score to the 1978 film Midnight Express. He also has a place in the hearts of thugs everywhere for his music driving the gangsta classic Scarface, and secured international No 1 smashes for film tracks such as Blondie’s Call Me (from the 70s neo-noir American Gigolo), Irene Cara’s Flashdance … What a Feeling (from 80s blockbuster Flashdance) and Berlin’s Take My Breath Away (from the Tom Cruise-powered Top Gun).
Moroder also has been a technological pacesetter: his 1997 solo effort E=MC² was the first fully digitally recorded album, while his 1984 visual and sonic reimagining of the science fiction cinema classic Metropolis boasted the first four-track digital projection sound.
Moroder remains an electronic-music pioneer. He claims to have played the first synthesiser on a pop song — the 1970 solo track Son of My Father — despite the fact the Beatles and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had used them on recordings previously. “Those were rock — mine was the first pop song to use a synth,” Moroder clarifies.
Most of all, however, Moroder is renowned as disco’s godfather and the patriarch of contemporary electronic music. The breakthrough songs he wrote and produced for Donna Summer — 1975’s Love to Love You Baby and 1977’s I Feel Love — not only made Summer a global star and epitomised the disco era, they also redefined club music in Moroder’s ultra-modern image. His combination of Summer’s diva vocals and stark sequenced synthesiser arpeggios on I Feel Love provided the DNA for techno, house and EDM in one fell swoop.
Dance musicians Daft Punk paid decisive tribute to Moroder’s influence on last year’s pop-cultural juggernaut album Random Access Memories (which received its world premiere in rural NSW, at the 79th Annual Wee Waa Show no less, 550km northwest of Sydney). On the track Giorgio by Moroder, Daft Punk recorded Moroder memorably recounting his various triumphs — and, in the process, introducing his genius to a new generation of dance-music fans.
“I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the 50s, the sounds of the 60s, of the 70s, and then have a sound of the future,” Moroder recounts over Daft Punk’s thumping synth-disco grooves. “And I said, ‘Wait a second, I know the synthesiser. Why don’t I use the synthesiser?’ … I knew that it could be a sound of the future, but I didn’t realise how much impact it would be.”
Songwriter and fellow electronica musician Moby says Moroder’s influence on contemporary music is farreaching. “Before Giorgio Moroder, electronic music was just sounds,” he says. “He was one of the first people to bring electronic music to song-based pop. And it can’t be overstated how he mixed white European culture with black culture: the history of dance music can be summed up in a nutshell as German and Japanese electronics combined with African American singers — and Giorgio Moroder was the first person to bridge those worlds.
“What he did with the score for Midnight Express, though, was in a way even more seminal for a lot of electronic musicians because it was instrumental and minimal.
“It had a purity and a darkness to it: it drew you in, yet was scary at the same time — like a nightclub you shouldn’t go into and probably won’t come out of.
“I guarantee that if you went through the early record collections of (Detroit techno originators) Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, or Depeche Mode, they’d all have Midnight Express in there.” One can detect Moroder’s influence on Australian music: from Kylie Minogue’s electro-pop anthems to groups such as the Presets, Cut Copy, and Empire of the Sun, such examples reflect Moroder’s penchant for blending indelible pop hooks with forward synthetic grooves and state-of-the-art contemporary production — a linkage not lost on the man himself.
“Cut Copy I met at a festival in Mexico six months ago, and we talked about maybe doing something together,” Moroder says. “And I love the visual style of Empire of the Sun. And Kylie wants to do something; she’s waiting for me to send her a new song.”
Says Cut Copy’s Dan Whitford: “When you look at the artists that have come out of Australia in the last five to 10 years, they’ve all combined elements of pop and electronic songwriting, which stems from the work of people like Giorgio 30 years earlier. I would put Giorgio’s work in my top five of all time, so meeting him was pretty magical.
“He was very friendly and down to earth, which is amazing for someone who is so legendary. When I first started writing music, I was in love with his solo record From Here to Eternity — everything from the futuristic cover to the vocoded vocals and completely synthetic instrumentation were a revelation to me as a young electronic musician.
“Now that he’s made a return to music, I suppose anything is possible.”
Up close and personal, the legend of Moroder doesn’t disappoint. With his groomed moustache and grey, elegant rumpled hair, he resembles no one so much as Albert Einstein. As he speaks, he reveals the warm, curious continental accent of a true global citizen — the
cumulative product of having grown up in his native Italy, then having worked for many years in Germany, and finally having become an expatriate to the Hollywood myth factory. The apartment he shares with his wife Francisca in an elegant Beverly Hills high-rise is testament to Moroder’s pop-art persona: it’s filled with looming, lipstick-coloured Italian art deco sculptures and beautiful, if severe, mid-century modern furniture.
“Even if it’s beautiful, it’s the most uncomfortable couch ever,” he groans about the ivory divan filling the living room.
A large, Warhol-esque painting of Donna Summer rendered from a photograph Moroder took stares down from one corner with glowing, customised emerald eyes. “I just love green eyes,” he says by way of explanation. (For the last 10 years of her life until she died in 2010, Summer was also Moroder’s neighbour, living one apartment below).
The living area is dominated, however, by totems representing Moroder’s accomplishments. A mantelpiece displays all — well, most — of Moroder’s various award statuettes.
“I keep one each of my Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys back in Italy,” he says. “When I got my first Oscar, I lived there, so I took it home.”
Then there are the gold and platinum plaques filling much of the available wall space, most bearing marquee names such as Elton John and the like. Moroder points to a framed disc he received for his work on Flashdance: “It says they sold 14 million, I wish they would have paid me for 14 million!”
Fergus Linehan, director of Vivid LIVE, nods to the renewed interest in Moroder’s career.
“It’s interesting how certain people capture the imagination, and Giorgio is extraordinary: he’s worked on everything from big, bombastic stadium hits to quite eclectic electronic moments,” he says.
“You literally could do three completely different Giorgio Moroder shows: to make that legacy coherent is really interesting. Part of making that happen is that it’s taking place at the Opera House: its profile allows for an interesting conversation. How do you weave current popular culture into the fabric of that building?
“But we’ve created a tradition of going after people who are having a big effect on how music sounds right now. There’s enormous renewed interest in Giorgio after he did the Daft Punk stuff, but really his sound is just so big at the moment everywhere. And when we asked him if we could interfere and expand on his canon, Giorgio was really open. Usually people have to be dead before they allow you to do that, but he was very flattered by the idea.”
To present the scope of Moroder’s past, present and future, Vivid is presenting three events: a keynote address, Giorgio Moroder in Conversation, free and open to the public; The Giorgio Moroder Studio Party — a dance-floor-driven DJ set by Moroder, spanning and expanding on his past hits and current projects; and The Music of Moroder, a symphonic reimagining of a wide range of Moroder’s work in the Opera House’s main performance space.
The last undertaking makes its exclusive world premiere at Vivid Live 2014 under the aegis of the London-based Heritage Orchestra, which has performed similar feats at Vivid in the past with the music of Joy Division and Vangelis’s score for the sci-fi film classic Blade
runner. Other than a concert in Italy where a mere 11 minutes of the Scarface soundtrack was performed by an orchestra, Moroder’s music has never before been given the full symphonic treatment.
“I’ve never had a full retrospective of my work orchestrated, so I’m excited,” he says. “It will be interesting to see how they do it.”
Considering the Heritage Orchestra’s iconoclastic modus operandi — its biographical manifesto proclaims it as “the orchestra that rocks out arenas, messes with other people’s music, and keeps orchestral tradition in the cellar” — one should expect liberties to be taken.
“We always try to give existing material a different cast, and this has been fun to analyse and deconstruct,” says Chris Wheeler, Heritage’s musical director and orchestral producer. “Some things — like, say, the bassline of I Feel
Love — are so iconic you really can’t go off piste with them too much, but half the set will be unexpected versions of classic Moroder.”
Moroder’s appearance at Vivid Live caps one of the most unexpected resurrections in the history of popular music. Other than the occasional visit to the studio — he and Summer won a Grammy in 1997 for best dance recording for their collaboration Carry On — during the past 25 years Moroder had largely retired from the profession that had brought him wealth and acclaim.
He stayed somewhat busy with an eclectic slate of projects: creating a high-end cognac; dabbling in a series of digital-based visual artworks; designing a failed housing development in the shape of a pyramid in Dubai; collaborating on a “supercar”, the Cizeta-Moroder V16T, with engineers and designers from Lamborghini and Maserati. Mostly, however, he kept a low profile. Then Daft Punk came calling.
“Until two years ago, I didn’t follow music at all,” he says. “I was happy just playing golf and relaxing. Then Daft Punk came to town and said, ‘Why don’t we have lunch?’ I wasn’t much interested — I was like, ‘Why would I go back to work?’ But then I told my son, who’s 24, and loves Daft Punk: he’d seen them. He said, ‘Giorgio, if you don’t at least go see them, you’re crazy.’ We talked about doing something together, and then one day while I was living in Paris, they asked me to come to the studio and tell my story, and that’s it.”
The 74-year-old has since taken off as an international superstar DJ: in the past six months he has played large-scale festival and club dates in Tokyo, Belgium, Austria, Chicago, Mexico and throughout England. Before last year, Moroder had never spent a minute behind the decks. That changed when he was asked to spin for 12 minutes at a Louis Vuitton event, and then at a fundraiser in Cannes — neither of which revealed him as an expert mixmaster. “It didn’t go well,” he says, laughing.
“Partially I wasn’t good — I didn’t have a clue what I was doing — and partially because the crowd were just snobby Hollywood people having drinks and not paying attention.” Moroder got his act together, however, by the time he was asked to DJ at the seri- ous New York music venue Output last May: in front of The New York Times and several of the world’s top DJs, Moroder played a rousing, galvanising set that drew raves (and a sweaty dance floor).
“I have so many advantages compared to other DJs,” Moroder says. “They have to take songs from others and cut them up. but I have my own songs, and a lot of them tend to be audience pleasers. When I play Hot Stuff, everybody’s singing along: not everyone can do that.”
Of course, with the renewed interest, Moroder has returned with gusto to his first love: creating popular hits. The levels of his ambition are clear from the dry-erase board in his studio, which features names such as Lana Del Rey and Adam Lambert.
Today’s pop world has taken notice of his return: Coldplay commissioned a Moroder remix of the Midnight single previewing that group’s highly anticipated new album, Ghost Stories. As well, Moroder has welcomed the latest generation of electronic-music producers into his world, and vice versa: he has discussed collaborations with star du jour Avicii and Moby, and he is confirmed to be working in the future with young French dance-music star Madeon.
“A lot of people hate EDM, but I love it,” Moroder says. “The sounds they have, especially progressive ones like Skrillex — oh, yes! And Madeon, his idols are Daft Punk, but then I’m one of Daft Punk’s idols, so now it’s across two generations.”
A new Moroder record, meanwhile, is in the works, with sessions under way with hit British songwriter Gary Go.
“I’m doing my album now,” Moroder says. “I’ll probably sign the deal next week. I have two big offers. Basically, I’m waiting to see what kind of artists they can give me. I love Lady Gaga; I think she’s great, and a real musician and songwriter — I’m sure one day I will work with her. Kelis is beautiful and incredible — we’re definitely working together; Rihanna, I love her voice and presented her with a song, but I don’t know if she’s heard it.
“I’m back in business: in six months, I’ll have a hit; I know that. You have a hit, and suddenly everything is great.”
Giorgio Moroder performs at Vivid Live, Sydney Opera House, on May 31.
I WAS HAPPY JUST PLAYING GOLF AND RELAXING. THEN DAFT PUNK CAME TO TOWN AND SAID, ‘WHY DON’T WE HAVE LUNCH?’
Giorgio Moroder today, left, and working the desks at a Los Angeles gig last year, below
Electronic band Daft Punk paid tribute to Moroder on its 2013 album Random Access Memories
From Here to Eternity
From left, Giorgio Moroder with Donna Summer at the time his songs made her a global star; with pals in 1979; the cover of his classic album