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What do Britney, Charlie XCX, and Sia have in common? The beats of Giorgio Moroder

“When it comes to new technology, I was always right there.”

Chances are if you’ve ever stepped onto a dance floor, you’ve bobbed your head and shuffled your feet to grooves pioneered by dance-music icon Giorgio Moroder. The veteran Italian synth wizard is the king of the four on the floor rhythm pattern, where the bass drum is consistently hit on every beat in the bar (i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4).

Between 1974 and 1984, Moroder produced some of the most seminal tracks of the initial dance and disco era. The synth-dripping grooves he laid down for Donna Summer’s super-sensual Love to Love You Baby (1975) and I Feel Love (1977) got more feet moving than the starter pistol at the New York City and Boston Marathons combined (among other things). From there, Moroder manufactured indelible beats for classic tracks by Blondie (Call Me), Irene Cara (Flashdance… What a Feeling), David Bowie (Cat People [Putting Out Fire]), and Berlin (Take My Breath Away), not to mention his soundtrack work for movies like Scarface and Top Gun.

After Daft Punk enlisted him to walk through his storied life on Giorgio by Moroder, the 7-minute tour de dance on their 2013 multi-Grammy-winning Random Access Memories, Moroder found himself back in the game after almost a decade on the sidelines. “Yeah, that was my easiest work!” he says with a laugh. “All I had to do was talk about the story of my life and, to be honest, they did all of the rest. They did a great job with bringing the I Feel Love kind of sound into today. I was happy with what they did.”

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That re-exposure led Moroder to high-profile DJing gigs and a new album, Déjà Vu, out today from RCA on various format. Moroder may be a spry septuagenarian — the original title for Déjà Vu was going to be 74 Is the New 24 — but his collaborations with the likes of Charlie XCX, Britney Spears, Sia, Kylie Minogue, and Mikky Ekko shows he’s just as in touch with the current scene as ever. “The people who come to see me now, they don’t know them all, but they know a lot of my songs,” he observes. “There are 20-year-old guys who know all the songs and even sing the lyrics. It’s quite incredible.”

Moroder checked in with Digital Trends from his home base in Los Angeles to discuss his compositional style, his admiration for high-resolution audio, and his possible upcoming collaboration with Lady Gaga. Love to love what you do, Giorgio.

Digital Trends: First of all, welcome back! I believe “déjà vu all over again” would be the correct phrase for it, right?

Giorgio Moroder: Yes! (chuckles) Maybe not “all,” but some! Actually, that’s a good take on it — I’m all over it again.

I’m curious about how you compose your beats and what equipment you use during recording.

“I’m not into analog so much anymore. I like digital.”

Well, let’s just say I do really good demos. I have a state-of-the-art little studio at home, and a great computer that’s homemade by a Russian guy, which is absolutely incredible. I have Pro Tools, and I just do really good demos with all the basics — keyboards, bass, drums, and maybe some ideas of the mix and melodies. I always have great musicians working with me. I have three guys in Germany who work on Logic, and Smidi [executive co-producer Michal Smidi Smith] uses Pro Tools. I also have Logic too.

Do you give directions in the demos as to what else you want to hear on any given track?

Yes, hopefully they find some incredible new sounds. The reason I don’t want to do it all is it takes too long! I prefer to get the creativity of a musician. I used to work with live musicians — drums, keyboards, bass, all of that. That was really good, because really good musicians help you a lot with ideas — and have them correctly played as well, of course.

I think it’s fair to say the electronic-music movement that thrives today owes a lot to what you did with your grooves in the ’70s and ’80s. What do you feel the state of electronic music is in today?

When it comes to new technology, I was always right there. I loved the Vocoder, I loved using the Minimoog. But you can’t follow what other people are doing right now. For example, the things Skrillex does, I could never do. And you know what — I don’t really want to do it, because if I wanted to do something that sells like that, I’d hire somebody to do it.

Are you concerned with the way people will listen to the new album — whether they decided to stream it, or seek out a high-resolution audio version?

Let’s say I’m not into analog so much anymore. I like digital. I like those pure sounds — the cleaner the data. I just had a meeting with some people at Sony electronics, and I listened to some music in 192/24 on their newest headphones. They did some tests, using some of my music directly from the analog tape, and it sounded so incredible. Absolutely stunning.

Now that you’ve heard the capabilities of 192/24, do you feel that’s the best way to listen to music?

For now, it’s definitely the best. I heard some of my songs that way, and they definitely have the quality superior to CD. But my feeling is that it’s going to take a long time for the public [to embrace it]. Maybe I’ll record the next album at 192 so then it’s done. Then they can downgrade it to the MP3. (chuckles)

It’s hard to listen to MP3, isn’t it?

Yeah, though with my ears, it would be nice if I could slow it all down — maybe to 72 is the Next 22. (both laugh)

Getting further into Déjà Vu, I think we have to start with the remake of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner you did with one Ms. Britney Spears.

Britney had the idea of remaking some of her favorite songs, and that was the one she wanted to do with me. She called me and asked if I wanted to come down to the studio with her, but I couldn’t because I was in Europe then.

“Now I can say I have a song created with Britney Spears.”

So she gave me the vocal, and I put it in with the basic tracks I made for it. I upgraded the tracks with my revisions. At the end of the song, I added a little Vocoder, which I’ve always loved, just to see how it worked out. She liked it, and said she wanted it all throughout the song.

I thought the original song was too short. I’m used to verse chorus, verse chorus, whatever, and then a bridge. So I thought, “OK, I’m going to compose a bridge.” Again, I got permission to play it with the Vocoder, and now I can say I have a song created with Britney Spears.

The “everybody welcome, come on in / love is the drug” lyrics you added certainly fills out the track a lot more beyond just doing a straight cover, that’s for sure.

Thank you. I hope that one day we’ll release it as a single.

Maybe you and Britney could perform it together on the Grammys next year.

(laughs heartily) No, I don’t think she’d want me on the stage. Maybe I could be there in a video.

I wasn’t saying you had to be one of her dancers, or anything like that…

Good. I would have to lose a lot of weight to stand next to her! (both laugh) 

I also like how you and Sia worked together on the title track.

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What a great singer. I gave her the tracks with part of the melody, and she showed up with the topline. She wrote the lyrics, she sang it, and did all the overdubs. She’s so professional. In the last 10 years, she’s really come on with her singing. I love Titanium [her collaboration with David Guetta]. And Chandelier — what an incredible song. And she just did that incredible version of California Dreamin’ [for the San Andreas soundtrack] — the way she sang it, I think I may even prefer that version to The Mamas and The Papas original. I love that song.

And isn’t that what you really want when you’re doing a cover — you want something that’s been reimagined.

I always remember how I did it with a very “different” song. I was driving on the Hollywood Freeway and I hear this song, MacArthur Park [by Richard Harris, originally released in 1968], and I immediately thought of doing it with Donna Summer. In fact, I immediately called Neil Bogart, [founder] of Casablanca Records, to see if he could find the tapes, because there was no record in the record shops. He had an old 8-track, so I took it off of that. And it really became her first big No. 1 song [in 1978]. 

The original is so dramatic. You wouldn’t have expected it to be the thing that tipped off another great collaboration between you two.

Yeah. In fact, even before I recorded it, I knew it would be perfect for her. It’s obviously great to work with a great artist like Donna.

Twenty years later, I did a song with her called Carry On [in 1997]. Now, I’ve lived out here in L.A. for quite some time. I lived in a high rise on Wilshire, and Donna rented the apartment below me. In the last two years of her life, I saw her more than in the last 20. [Donna Summer died in 2012.] Some days I would play piano, and she would come by, or she would call me: “What did you play? That was so great!” And I’d say, “I don’t know what I played, I didn’t record it!” She’d hear it in that apartment below mine.

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If you had recorded any of it, you could have called it the Upstairs, Downstairs collection.

Or Songs from Above.

How do you like DJing? You opened for one of your Déjà Vu collaborators, Kylie Minogue, on some of her Australian dates back in March, and you also do a lot of headlining dates on your own. That’s another new chapter in your long career.

I love it. I love it. First of all, it’s an hour and a half. You start, and by the time you’re done, you’re surprised that it is over. If the audience goes with you, then it is absolutely incredible.

Do you play off of what the audience gives you? Is your set fairly fluid?

I can change whenever I want, but I have my set — about 70 percent older songs, which I remixed more for DJing. And now I have several new ones from the new album.

Do you feel 128 BPM is the best rate for your DJ sets?

Yeah, I like 128. I used to have some of my songs like Love to Love You Baby a little bit slower, but I like 128. Now, 131 or 132 — that’s a little fast, but I know a lot of DJs who like it that way.

Are you working on new material with Lady Gaga?

Well, management called me a few months ago and asked if I wanted to work on some of the songs on her next album, but it didn’t work out yet because she was busy and I was busy, so, timewise, it was difficult. But it’s still open. I’m still interested.

“If the audience goes with you, then it is absolutely incredible.”

Well, the remix you did [of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, from Gaga’s 2014 duets album with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek] turned out quite nice. How much did you interact with her on that?

I knew Gaga from way before. In that case, I had totally different versions. I had one that followed the original, and I had one that, instead of having many chords, had only two or three or four. She picked the one with the original chords, which made me happy, because I thought, “Maybe the other one is a little more commercial.” But if you change chords in a song like that, you risk a lot. The original chords are much more fluid, and the songs flows much better.

Speaking of flashbacks, I have to say I like the Flashdance melody callback that shows up in Wildstar, the track you did with Foxes.

You know what? I didn’t even notice that. I have to hear it again. My wife said, “Oh, this reminds me of [sings], ‘Flashdance… oh what a feeling.’” I didn’t know this, so I’ll have to hear it again.

You started out as a guitar player back in the ’60s, before you turned to bass and then keyboards. Would you say having that background and an understanding of melodies helped you create “the sound of the future,” as it has been called?

In my 7 or 8 years playing as a musician, we had a lot of experience. We would play all of the hits of the day, like The Beatles. When I started to be a composer, I did a lot of recordings on a Studer home tape machine. When I decided to become a composer, I had the methodology down, and a way to compose.

Is there one piece from your early days as a composer you’d consider to be the breakthrough?

I think I was one of the first to use the Moog in pop — that was a defining moment. I have a song called Son of My Father, from 1971. That was the time where I said, “ Now I have found my instrument.” At that time, I didn’t have the money to buy it, because it was really expensive, so I found a classical composer in Munich, a big guy who had two or three modules, and an engineer who was a great musician too. That’s how I worked until the Minimoog came out in the early ’80s.

What do you feel your personal musical legacy is?

I think my legacy is the song I Feel Love, because it’s a combination of mechanical instruments and Donna’s beautiful, romantic voice. She humanized the machines, actually.

That’s a really good point — the character of her voice added the human element into the mechanics of it all. Final question: What was the first record that you bought or got as a kid that had impact on you as a listener?

The very, very first song was by Paul Anka, a song called Diana [a single that reached No. 2 in 1957]. It was an easy song that made me think I could become a musician. That was one of the songs I performed with my group in Italy when I was 15 or 16. That was definitely the song that triggered my interest in music.

Well, maybe you and Paul can do it together as a bonus track for the deluxe edition of Déjà Vu.

(laughs) It’s so funny — the same building I lived in with Donna, Paul was there for a year. I saw him one time running out, and that was it. So it’s a very small world, yes.