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If Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco, then it's fair to say her king was Giorgio Moroder. The Italian-born producer presided over some of her biggest hits, including "I Feel Love" and "Love to Love You Baby" – and pioneered electronic dance music in the process.
Four decades into a career that also includes award-winning work in cinema, with scores for Midnight Express and American Gigolo, Moroder is still going as strong as the beat in his songs. Among other projects this year, he collaborated with one of the biggest names in dance music, Daft Punk. The Grammy-nominated French duo invited Moroder into the studio — not to push buttons and twist knobs, but to narrate his own life.
"I was talking for three hours in a studio in Paris. I said, 'What are you going to do with it?' But they didn't give me any clue," Moroder says. "I went back to the same studio last summer, where Florian Laggata, the engineer, was working. And I said, 'Okay, you know the song — you've heard it, because you recorded it. What did they do with my voice?' He said, 'I cannot tell you.' And I said, 'But you can at least tell me: Is it a good song?'"
The song became "Giorgio By Moroder," an audio mini-memoir set to a pulsing disco groove on Daft Punk's 2013 smash Random Access Memories. Moroder recently spoke with NPR's Jennifer Ludden about what else he's been up to recently, and where he sees the dance music he helped create going in the future. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
So, decades later, here we are, and something you pioneered is still being recognized by people in the industry today. Can you go back and tell us — I believe you put it this way one time — how did you meet the synthesizer?
I was in love with an album by Wendy Carlos called Switched-on Bach, which was all done by synthesizers. And I found a German classical composer who had a big Moog modular synthesizer. I asked him if I could listen to what the synthesizer would do, and he played me a low note for about five minutes. It was a great sound, but not exactly what I wanted to hear. So when he left, I asked an engineer to give me some of the sounds, and he played me some of the basses and the string sounds and the oboe sounds. It was absolutely amazing, and I thought, "This is my instrument. That's what I want."
Wasn't it around the same time, in Germany as well, you met Donna Summer?
I met Donna in '74. I loved the Serge Gainsbourg song "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus." I wanted to do a sex song — but a little more, almost, controversial. So I told Donna, "If you ever have a sexy line, just tell me and we may do something." One day she came back, and she said, "How about something like, Oooohhh, love to love you baby..."
I went to my studio in Munich and we did a little demo, and my publisher presented it to the Midem, which is a music trade fair in Cannes every year where musicians and composers talk business and creative stuff. And a lot of people loved it; a lot of people wanted the recording. I met [record executive] Neil Bogart in Los Angeles, and he asked me to do a long version of the song. So I did a version of about 17, 18 minutes, and I think that was the beginning of her and my career.
Your music was so synonymous with the disco era. Did you ever have a chance yourself to go to Studio 54 and take part in that?
Not too much. I was in Studio 54 one time; it was great. But I'm not a discotheque guy. Sometimes, if I had a new demo I went to some discotheques to check it out — see how the reactions of the people were. But just to dance, I rarely did that.
Although you've done something new this year — you've actually DJed. What do you make of the dance scene today?
Right now, at least at the gigs I did, people were not really dancing that much. They are all looking up to the DJ, moving with the DJ, jumping. It's totally different from the discotheques I remember: At that time, the DJ would just do one song and then the next song, so people were more interested in dancing. Now, the DJ becomes a star in itself, because of the way he programs the songs with lows and then highs and then slowing it down. The big DJs, like Tiesto and Deadmau5 and all those guys, they are very, very creative.
I understand, not having been to Studio 54 myself lately, that the disco sound is back?
It's a little bit — actually, a lot — with the help of Daft Punk. That big hit "Get Lucky" is a disco song — not only the melody and the whole concept, but we had one of the great disco guys and one of the best guitarists ever, Nile Rodgers, to play on it. So that's great disco, but a modern disco, because it has great vocoders and synthesizers.
Do you wonder how music will sound in another 30 or 40 years? Maybe the revivals will just keep coming back — but do you hear a new trend emerging with the use of computers?
The trend now, I think, is to go back to more traditional composing, where you have an intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus. Avicii, with the song "Wake Me Up," that's more like a traditional dance song — in fact, it could be a country-and-western song. I think the music in the EDM world is going to go back to recording and composing the traditional way.
How do you feel about that?
I love it! Because that's what I do best.