Italian producer and composer Giorgio Moroder is largely responsible for disco, house and techno's popularity to this day, his innovative work with synthesizers and boundary-pushing sounds and lyrics typifying the audacious and dramatic mood inside both dance clubs and movie theaters in the 1970s and ’80s.
Best known for his work with Donna Summer, Moroder's record label Oasis, which later became a subdivision of Casablanca Records, was pivotal in defining the sexy vibe of the era. He's won three Academy Awards: Best Original Score for Midnight Express in 1978, Best Song for “Flashdance … What a Feeling” from the film Flashdance in 1983, and Best Song “Take My Breath Away” from the film Top Gun in 1986.
But his impact in the clubs may be even more culturally significant, and his current guise as a DJ provides a history lesson of sorts for those who appreciate dance music's visceral power and evolution. He offers a rare DJ set for his birthday tonight at the Globe Theatre downtown, at a special bash thrown by his namesake club Giorgio's- the popular dance party from formidable nightlife figures Bryan Rabin and Adam Bravin (Adam 12), usually held Saturdays at the Standard in West Hollywood. We spoke with the man himself (by phone from Italy) last week about his career and his milestone club appearance.
L.A. Weekly: First of all, happy birthday Giorgio! This big L.A. event is a birthday party for you, correct?
Giorgio Moroder: Yeah.
So you live in Italy right now. Have you always lived there?
No, actually I lived in Los Angeles for 30, 40 years. We came back to Italy last year. But I come back to Los Angeles a lot.. For now I come to the city to work and to do some gigs and to perform.
What part of Los Angeles were you in when you lived here?
It was in Beverly Hills, I think, until 2008.
So you have a lot of ties to Los Angeles. That’s wonderful. Let's talk a little bit about your iconic music. You are a true pioneer. With your birthday coming around, are you reflective about your music? Did you ever have any idea that you would be so beloved, or that the music you created would be so influential?
I used to play guitar. I had toured as a musician in Europe, then I went to Berlin. I stayed there for about three years, four years, then moved to Munich. When I decided to become a composer I must say I was lucky. I had my first small but nice hit a few months after. And then I had the big hit with Donna Summer. I followed her to America.
What song was that?
The first song I did with her was "Love to Love You, Baby. "
Of course. Such a classic.
That was probably the most iconic because it kind of opened a lot of creativity with electronic and the electronic dance music sound.
Absolutely. So, did you expect the kind of response you got with that track?
Well, not that quickly. I had smaller hits in Germany, Italy and France starting in the ’70s, but then I composed “Love to Love You" in ’75 and it became No. 1 in ’76, it was my first big hit. It made my career and made Donna Summer’s career. It was kind of, not a joke, but we didn't take it too seriously, because at the time it was so outrageous and I was really surprised that we kept everything we did in it — all the feedback … and then suddenly it became a No. 1 here, No. 1 there. That was quite a moment in my life.
As a musician then, were you doing other genres or were you always focused on dance music?
We were like three or four guys and we played The Beatles’ songs and whatever you hear on the radio. Then finally, one day I decided that's it. I went to Berlin and I became a composer.
In that period, in the early ’70s, there was no word like disco or dance music. I was always doing songs with rhythm but never in the sense of dance. Actually, my first disco song was “Love to Love You," you know, with the four on the floor and all the ingredients of disco.
The stuff with Donna Summer was and is so influential to this day. You kept all these sound effects, and the moaning and everything. It was quite risqué.
Yes [laughs]. In fact, BBC in England didn't play it for quite some time. I think they finally did because they had so many requests, but it was really risqué. But when I heard the record company saying ‘We love it,’ I said OK, it’s not too crazy. I went from having little hits and smaller stuff to becoming No. 1 with that song, and especially having No. 1 in the States, which is by far the most difficult market, was big.
It was such a big hit. But at the time, did you feel like you were taking chances with it, especially by incorporating all the sex sounds?
Yeah, I said to Donna, "If you have an idea about lyrics of the song, let’s do something sexy." At the beginning it was a simple sexy voice saying, "Love to love you baby." No big deal. Then after a few days we said, "OK, let's do a little moaning." And then when we did the long version, 17 minutes, and we didn't have any limitation, Donna just did it.
You guys went for it.
Yeah. And it was a such huge hit. Then later, we did “I Feel Love,” which is also an iconic song.
Those songs made a name for you, and for Donna, for sure. Did you find that when you worked with other artists, they just wanted the same thing? Did you ever feel trapped, like you had to re-create a certain sound or formula? You're known for synthesizer sounds and certain types of tempos and effects…
Not really. At the very beginning of the early ’70s, maybe it seemed like a little bit of a gimmick, but then later on, there was so much to work with — synthesizers, samples — you have literally millions of different sounds to play with. I liked to use natural sounds like the piano as well as synthesizer. I did like to use [synthesizer] as the main instrument, like when I did "Flashdance" or "Take My Breath Away."
You also worked on “Call Me” from the American Gigolo soundtrack right?
Yeah. That was a great song with Deborah Harry and Blondie. She did a great job and she wrote the lyrics and they were fabulous. Perfectly fit the song and the movie. With Richard Gere as a gigolo, and the lyrics, “call me,” I’m ready. It’s great. As a DJ, I finish my sets with it and the response is absolutely incredible.
How did you collaborate to create the song?
I had a demo. If I remember, I called it something like “Man Machines” or “Sex Machines.” She wrote the lyrics and came up with “Call Me.” We recorded it in New York.
It just works so well with the film. Your music has been used in so many movies. It has a dramatic quality that works so well in film. Can you say something about that?
After "Love to Love You," I did my first movie, Midnight Express, and the song called “The Chase.” Composing for film is a little different but not too different than composing songs. You have to look into the movie, get a feel for the movie and the actors. In the very beginning I would watch the movies and put and play the music over the video, then let it rest for a day or two. Then listen and again and decide if it works. If it works, then you continue. So that’s kind of the process. At the time I was one of the few who was able to record and compose at the same time and check it out, and that helped me a lot.
What do you think about dance music currently and in the whole EDM craze?
I love it. It's basically the same electronic music.
When you DJ, do you play mainly old stuff or new or your own stuff? What are your sets like?
I have about 60 to 70 percent of my own songs, and then they may incorporate with some really good disco songs like Bee Gees and Chic. Then I have some of the EDM songs, standards. And then some of the songs I did on my last album, with like Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears.
That's right. You did that record where you collaborated with all the biggest pop stars.
Who did you really enjoy working with on that last record?
I know I cannot tell you which I liked better, but the easy one is probably Sia. First of all, she’s a great composer herself. We worked really well together.
Let's talk about Giorgio’s, the club. So you went there for your birthday a couple of years ago?
I did a small performance about two years ago with Adam 12. And from time to time I go. My wife, who loves dancing to disco, used to go there like twice a month. I’m really not a club goer, but I do like it there.
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How do you feel about having this very popular club in Los Angeles named after you?
It’s great. People say, "You have a club," and it’s not my club but it’s great that they used my name. Of course people always want tickets.
It's obviously done as a tribute and out of respect for all that you've accomplished with music. So Giorgio, are you working on anything now? Are you still making music?
I'm working on the third season of a [USA Network] TV series called Queen of the South. Then I do my DJing and I may do some live performance of my music soon. We’ll see, I don't know yet.
It’s obvious you still enjoy getting out there and playing this stuff. What is it about the energy of a crowd and the environment you create as a DJ? Why do you love it still so much?
When I like, when I started I wanted to be a singer but I always felt nervous to perform. As a composer or producer you will always be in the back, behind the scenes, but now I'm out there. I get to conduct and direct the music and I get to play it like I like it, so now I’m more than a composer, I’m an artist and it’s great.
Giorgio Moroder DJ set with openers Roy Ayers (live), Aeroplane, YACHT (live), DJ Adam 12 and special guests at the Globe Theatre, 740 S. Broadway, downtown; Thu., April 26, 7 p.m. Tickets here.