Disco godfather Giorgio Moroder finds new career as world-touring DJ

Electronic dance music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, now a DJ, says the term is only for older people

Two years ago, some clubbers in New York saw a grey-haired man in his 70s helming the DJ decks, pumping pulsating tunes. What they probably did not realise was that they were witnessing history in the making: The septuagenarian was none other than electronic dance music (EDM) and disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder making his debut as a DJ.

Yes, until two years ago, the godfather of the massively popular EDM scene that has spawned numerous star DJs had never helmed a live DJ set.

In a telephone interview with Life from London, where he was due to perform at Hyde Park, Moroder recalls how he stepped out of the studio to pick up DJ-ing: "I was asked by everyone, at least once a year in the last 15 years, and I always said, 'I'm not a DJ, I'm a producer, I'm a composer.' Then somebody asked me to do a short DJ set in Paris for Louis Vuitton. And I liked it, so I did my first official one in New York in 2013 and I have been doing it since."

Those who were there at the club, Output, were treated to a playlist that comprised some of the multiGrammy winner's most influential works as a producer and songwriter dating back to the 1970s, from chart-topping songs by disco queen Donna Summer to tunes released under his own name.

 

It was not a steep learning curve for Moroder - his decades of experience mixing and remixing songs in the studio made the transition to live gigs easy. A few days were all he needed to learn Ableton Live, the software used by many DJs.

The biggest challenge, he says, was trying to concentrate on the equipment while doing his sets: "You have to be careful in what you do because when you touch the wrong key, the sound is gone and that's quite embarrassing. "

Today, the 75-year-old Italian, who has also won three Oscars for his music (Midnight Express, 1978; Flashdance, 1983; Top Gun, 1986), is riding high on a comeback trail. In June, he released Deja Vu, his first new album in three decades.

That first DJ set in New York also sparked a second career - he is now touring the world playing DJ sets, often among the much younger EDM stars he influenced.

Moroder credits his comeback to EDM titans Daft Punk, the futuristic helmet-wearing French duo that he endearingly refers to as "the two men from Mars".

The two members of Daft Punk, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, had invited Moroder to their studio, recorded him narrating his life story and crafted a song around it. The pair included the track, titled Giorgio By Moroder, on their commercially and critically successful 2013 album, Random Access Memories.

The collaboration led to a renewed interest in Moroder and the birth of Deja Vu. While the songs in it are primarily grounded in the disco and pop sounds he made popular in the 1970s and 1980s, the veteran also kept it current with contemporary EDM embellishments.

More significantly, he roped in a new generation of pop stars such as Britney Spears, Sia, Charli XCX and Mikky Ekko, most of whom were not even born during his disco heyday in the 1970s.

"I listen to all the Top 40s in the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France and Australia, so I'm relatively well informed about what's happening," he says.

Working with the younger artists was "great", he says, although he had to make a little adjustment to how they work.

"The way to record today is totally different. Now a lot of stuff is done by the artists themselves. With Sia, I gave her the track, which had a certain melody, and she went into the studio, I don't know how, when or even where. A week later, she gave me the final tracks, she sang the song, she wrote the lyrics, she did all the harmonies," he says.

The album has received mixed reviews. While Billboard raved about how the album "reminds us why he's one of dance music's foremost innovators", music website Pitchfork dismissed the tunes as "rickety and wholly unnecessary".

Still, it did fairly well among the dance music community, with two of the singles, Right Here, Right Now, featuring Kylie Minogue, and the title track, featuring Sia, hitting No. 1 on American dance charts.

Moroder is happy to see EDM rise from the clubs to become a major mainstream force today.

"The records don't sell, but the live performances are doing so well because people want to see the artists, and not only for the DJs, but also all the performers. And the fact that some of the DJs get $200,000 to $250,000 a night, wow, that shows they are worth the money, otherwise people wouldn't pay."

Up till his Daft Punk-led revival, Moroder's most recent high-profile works were mainly singles tied to movies released in the mid-1980s, including Together In Electric Dreams, a collaboration with Philip Oakey, the frontman of synth-pop stalwarts The Human League, from the soundtrack for 1984 sci-fi romantic comedy Electric Dreams.

Some of his other soundtrack works that are considered 1980s pop classics include The NeverEnding Story, from the 1984 sci-fi movie of the same name, and two hit singles from the soundtrack to 1986 Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun, Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone and Berlin's Take My Breath Away.

And while he stayed out of the limelight for the next 30 years, save for a remix for a Donna Summer song, Carry On, that won a Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording in 1998, Moroder did not stay idle.

He became busy with non-music projects, including a collaboration with Italian car company Cizeta to produce a sports car, the CizetaMoroder V16T, in 1988. He also played a lot of golf.

Born in Urtijei, a small town in northern Italy, Moroder started his music career as a singer after he moved to Germany. From 1965, he released singles under various monikers, including Giorgio And The Morodians and George, and sang in English, German, Italian and Spanish. His first hits came towards the end of the 1960s, when songs such as Moody Trudy and Luky, Luky made the charts in Belgium and Germany.

The hits led to studio work as a producer and songwriter, and his penchant for using electronic music equipment soon led to him writing and producing disco hits for artists such as Summer in the 1970s.

Although he handles his DJ gigs with ease these days, he was not always so confident facing the audience at the start of his music career.

"I was always terribly nervous and couldn't sleep the night before," he says. Now, he is a lot more relaxed before his DJ sets.

"I sleep well because I know the program, I can change the songs the way I want."

His wife of 25 years, Francisca, is his tour manager and Moroder says she makes sure his global touring schedule does not get too hectic. The couple have a son, 23, who is a painter and photographer.

Moroder says: "She organises the whole thing, so I just concentrate on my work. One of the problems is jet lag, but we make it in such a way that we stay a day or two or longer, so we can visit the city where we go.

"Recently, we were in Turkey and checked out Istanbul. So it's not only work, but also quite a pleasure."

Retirement will not come anytime soon, even if the DJ gigs dry up - Moroder says he will still be writing music for projects such as television shows and musicals.

Whatever you want to call him now, just do not call him a legend.

"'Legend' is only for older people," he says.

"I would like to be remembered, maybe, as the co-creator of great dance music, disco or EDM, or whatever the future brings and maybe for the movies that I did the soundtracks for. Certainly not as a legend."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'Don't call him a legend'. Print Edition | Subscribe