Interview in &qout;Oor" magazine, May 3 1978
Article by Bert van de Kamp
Vangelis Papathanassiou speaks! Comfortably seated on the stage-cum-lounge room part of his own studio, near Londonís Marble Arch, the former Greek child prodigy eagerly grants yours truly an interview. Now and then interrupted by unwanted interventions from the outside.
The girl of the record-company, delivering photographs. "What is this? I asked for these damned pictures to be destroyed three years ago! They are a century old, thatís not me anymore." With a firm gesture the beloved composer tears the photos to pieces and turns towards his discussion partner: "You see what those damned record-companies do with you? Youíre nothing more than a can of beer to them!"
Followed by the young man who telephoned to inform heíd be quite willing to co-operate with Vangelis on a record. The call is taken by the charming wife of the composer, who follows the conversation through an earpiece. Afterwards he advises his wife to: "never ask them to send a tape, because that makes them think you want to steal their ideas." Vangelis has experienced this sort of characters before. "Almost every day I get a few of these people on the phone. They all want to collaborate with me or receive lessons from me. I wouldnít know how to teach them, after all Iíve never had any lessons myself."
Vangelis is completely self-taught. At the age of four he teaches himself to play the piano. "Nobody encouraged me and maybe thatís why Iím still doing music now." Our man happens to be fiercely against influencing the natural and spontaneous creativity of the child. He believes this spoils the joy of playing and frustrates any creative development. Accordingly the child Vangelis doesnít start by practising the little pieces of Czerny and teachers like that. Rather, he immediately starts making compositions of his own. A music-school would appear to be the next logical step, but there Vangelis only lasts two days.
"Iíve never consciously taken the decision to become composer or musician or painter. Now Iím all three and itís impossible to imagine doing anything else. Everything progressed very naturally though." The inevitable fame comes his way when in 1967 he forms with brother Leo(1) and a certain Demis Roussos a little band: Aphroditeís Child. Sentimental cliché music, which nevertheless meets with great success not only in the motherland, but in the whole of western Europe. "Of course that was purely commercial music," Vangelis admits, "but it was a conscious tactic of mine. I wanted to attract the attention of the record-industry to later be able to make my own music and release that. At some point the band became too big a cliché, a Ďproductí and I began to feel like a prostitute, forced to sell himself. Thatís when I broke up the band. Demis more or less continued in a similar vein. Thatís up to him. If heís happy with itÖ No, we donít have any argument whatsoever. He recently asked me whether I would produce his new album and I have done so.(2) Itís not my music, but Demis and I remain good friends."
Vangelis continues his career as a solo-artist with a trio of mostly instrumental albums for RCA written and performed on his own, which have great success. He relocates permanently to London, where he stacks his varied collection of music-instruments in an old theatre bought by him and turned into a recording-studio. There he more or less continuously works on new compositions. Apart from the solo-albums there are the film-soundtracks and Vangelis has closets full of unreleased material. He has a close working relation with a Parisian maker of animation films(3). LíApocalypse Des Animaux, La Fête Sauvage, LíOpéra Sauvage are all works where animals play the parts of people.(4)
Vangelis finds animals more interesting. "You can learn so much from them. Theyíre so much closer to their origin. We people try to build our own world with our intellect but in reality we only cause a lot of confusion with that. I donít like people. I donít trust them. Itís different with children, they havenít been corrupted yet by intellectual concoctions, theyíre still Ďpureí. Many think children are stupid, that one has to send them to schools to teach them all kinds of things. The only things children should be taught are the practical rules of the game, traffic-rules for example. So they donít walk under a car."
Vangelis resists my notion that he is some sort of ĎBack-to-Natureí-freak. He gets along fine with modern city life, as long as he personally keeps cherishing the connection to the roots of his past. He is a stout anti-intellectual however. He doesnít read books so I can forget about my plans to ask about the connection between Vangelisí "Heaven and Hell" and the work of Blake and Huxley and the possible influence of Nietzsche on the idea of the "spiral universe" on Vangelisí latest record.(5)
I nevertheless ask the "Heaven and Hell" question. You never know. Vangelis: "No, Iím not familiar with those books.(6) The title I made up myself. Itís about the contradiction between the positive and the negative in the human being. My thoughts about that have changed over the years though. Many negative things of the past I now see as positive and the other way around. Iíd like to make another Heaven and Hell album. Part II, and then Part III and Part IV, but thatís not possible. The record-company would surely object to that. They have their own ideas about marketing and issues like that. That clashes regularly, yes, I can admit to that here and now. I refuse to let myself be used as a commercial product."
Since he put on a live performance of "Heaven and Hell" with a 100-strong cast in the spring of 1976, he hasnít appeared publicly.(7) "I donít like the idea of giving concerts to promote a record. To me thatís very plastic, very much a cliché. That disgusts me. I do a concert to get into contact with my audience. Why it so rarely happens is due to the fact that it takes up too much of my time for preparation. Iím so busy with other things, the films, my paintingÖ"
The music of "Heaven and Hell" was recently put to use by filmmaker Adriaan Ditvoorst for his "de Mantel der Liefde"(8). When I want to discuss that with Vangelis, he remembers neither the creator nor the name or its content. "Iím really awful at remembering names", he excuses himself, "I did talk to that film-maker about the project, it seemed quite interesting. No, I havenít watched it."
At that point I put to him the commercial success of Jean-Michel Jarre with "Oxygene" and ask Vangelis whether maybe some pressure was put on him to conquer the single-market with a similar type of product. This turns out to be true, but Vangelis refused. Well done, V.! A man with principles. "Oxygene was so commercial. I heard that immediately. So simpleÖ or rather: so domestic in its whole approach, no risks to be taken. I like a more daring approach, not so much more complicated, butÖ" Here the composer gets stuck. He cannot recall the word.
"In the past Iíve scored many number one hits, Iíve sold millions of singles. That I donít want anymore, at least not on purpose. I want to keep intact the mutual respect between my public and myself. I donít like cheap successes. Iíve got the ability to do it, but in the end that doesnít satisfy me." That sounds very noble. I donít share the manís opinions, his records are not on my turntable all the time, but at the end of our get-together I must admit to myself he has a certain charm. The way heís sitting there, a broad, bearded man, like a god on his throne, in the midst of all musical instruments one can imagine to exist.
"You know what itís about in life?", he asks. I listen attentively. "Like the old Greek said: itís about the balance, the harmony between heart and mind. They who lose that balance, are lost."
Food for thought.
Interview by Bert van de Kamp
Transcribed and translated from Dutch by Ivar de Vries