Interview in &qoutMusic Maker" magazine, September 1982
Article by René van Broekhoven, translated by Ivar de Vries
"No photographs please, didnít I tell you on the phone?!" She looks at us with piercing eyes from behind a thick pair of glasses. Along with a wild brush through her purple-dyed hair. I explain to her that weíve only just got here from another interview, where the photographer was in fact welcome so thatís why he came along. She hesitates a little, looks somewhat helplessly around to the huge bearded man in the background, whoís busy behind an enormous mixing-console. A few rapid exchanges in Greek, the man absent-mindedly waves his hand and concentrates again on his work. Miss Purple is indicating to walk along and leads us to a space behind the control-room. At the doorway I stare around flabbergasted, I hadnít expected this.
A large room with the dimensions of a gymnastics hall, of which the walls, floor and ceiling have been painted black. Along its side (black) velvet curtains. At the back some kind of stage stacked with a variety of drums and percussion instruments. The rest of the hall to me resembles nothing of the sound-studio that Iíd expected to find myself in. To the contrary, itís a sort of cross between the storage-room of an antiques-dealer, the workshop of an arts-academy and an auction-hall. Meanwhile having been seated in an ample-sized spotless white-leathered sofa I take a look around: ivory statues, an antique desk, antique lamps, golden chandeliers, a genuine Persian carpet on the floor, an Appel (1) painting on the wall, a tropical wooden globe on a stick, a golden blade, an antique clock and finally a large ship-model of the Mayflower, the ship which got New Englandís history off to a start. In short, black with gold, in tasteful measures. I must...."You like it?" A large figure in the doorway. "Mm...yeah, not bad!" Photographers sometimes say stupid things and while I peek apprehensively towards him I realise this is such a moment. The answer arrives quickly, a boisterous laugh, followed by the sound of boots marching across the black floor. He offers a friendly bear-claw and descends onto the sofa opposite us.
Raspoetin! Suddenly I find myself thinking of the way the wicked Russian monk was portrayed in those Classics-books we used to read as kids. This is him, no doubt about it, the only anachronism is the Cleopatra-like pose on the sofa. "So where do you want to talk about, huh? What is it that you know about me already...?" Funny dialect, like the Greek restaurant at the corner of the Nieuwe Binnenweg in Rotterdam. Small world. "Rain and Tears" I utter, because thatís the first time I heard about him, even though his name was just Papathanassiou then. The band in which he played keyboards at the time was called Aphroditeís Child. Every single they made reminded you of their previous one but still you liked them. It becomes apparent heís not very positive about those days anymore, calls it a period of music which he somehow had to make it through. Necessary to outgrow the Greek music-world. Because that was the goal from the beginning: worldwide acceptance of his music. When I put to him the hit-successes of his former bandmate Demis Roussos, he sneers disdainfully. "Thatís not the music Iím talking about, thatís just singing!" What follows is a passionate plea for "musical freedom", in which he takes a stand against the craving of record-companies to think of profit-making first and only then about the music. Especially this last point appears to anger him.
"Look, the way I see it is this: when youíre involved with music purely from a commercial point of view, you become a slave in the end, a prisoner of the hit-parade. You have too small a basis to work from, which is not good. I now work in a relatively large area, but my music remains the primary focus. So I can work with my good friend Jon Anderson with whom IĎve done a couple of LPs now, but at the same time I can work on film-music, which has generated a great deal of interest lately. Of course this is due to the success of Chariots Of Fire. True, a commercial success, but still developed out of musical freedom. I simply cannot do without it...." I ask him how the contact with Jon Anderson was formed and he tells me of the plan originally to join Yes. That this didnít happen was due to the fact he thought the music of Yes was too artificial, that theyíd pinned themselves down too much to a certain style. Andersonís characteristic vocal interpretation attracted him and from that the first joint LP originated: "Short Stories", that was in 1979. Its out-take "I Hear You Now" proved to be a bullís-eye winner. In fact, before the collaboration with Anderson a few albums had already been released, synthesizer-compilations which in record-shops however appeared quietly next to giants like Jarre and Tomita and because of that only noticed by a small but fanatic group of fans. Just like his colleague synth-freaks he acquired the habit to do as much as possible by himself on his LP-projects. One of the first things you really need in that situation is direct access to recording-facilities. Which duly came. Throughout the seventies every cent coming in off royalties was invested directly into his Nemo studio, located to this day in London. In a little backstreet, in an old school building, also the location of a movie-company. Which came in handy for the production of promotional clips for TV as we would find out later.
Another issue of interest when you want to do everything yourself is of course the "producer". The man who can take a look at the product with a little more distance and makes sure it moves into the right direction. A second disdainful puff comes my way when I confront him with this thought. "I donít need a producer. Not when Iím busy composing a song nor in the way I develop it further in the studio. That has to do with the way in which I work. All recordings I make are kept, all of them! I donít believe in overdubbing, the first thought is usually the best one. Thereís no point in doing it again later. That way you only lose the intention, the power, the conviction of the idea." When I venture the remark that even so something might go wrong during a recording, he veers up from his Cleopatra pose and looks me right in the eye. Then passes down in unmistakable tones that a good musician hardly makes any mistakes, and that in his opinion something like "good" or "bad" doesnít exist. It exists only in the thoughts of people who judge a product, according to Vangelis. Of much more importance to him is the musical whole you can only reach when you do everything yourself, and literally everything. "Many people see me as a synthesizer-man, a keyboard-player. Thatís wrong. Iím a musician in the universal sense of the word. In fact I use anything that will make a sound. This here (ticks on an ivory ashtray) or this (stamps his boots on the floor), yes even this (unzips and rezips the fly of his black riding-pants, only to erupt in laughter),...everything sound, yes? Sound for me is the universal medium to convey a feeling to a listener. For that there cannot be boundaries. Everything must be possible!" Now heís gotten up and walks with big steps across the hall. Bangs on a big Chinese drum, turns on the wide-screen TV which immediately transmits at full volume the latest news on the world-championship football, going on at that very moment. (2) Then quickly jumps on the podium to extract a cacophony of noise from the assembled array of percussion instruments. Jumps down from the podium and walks towards the multi-track recorder in the corner of the control-room, turns it on and the enormous Tannoys blast his latest composition through the hall. Rob the photographer cannot constrain himself any longer and reaches for his Hasselblad camera. But before heís been able to take aim our musical "Flip the wizard's apprentice"(3) is on to him and quick as a flash silences all the uproar. "Donít want any pictures! Did you take any pictures yet. Did you...?" When Rob regretfully shakes his head he nods, satisfied. Then thinks a little and continues his story as if nothing has happened. "Look, modern technology allows us to change the sounds of nature into something completely different. Synthesizers in general are a good example of that. When I compose it means nothing more than to work out an idea in my head. That must happen immediately, even if itís in the middle of the night. That way you make plans by using your feelings. Intellectual planning I do not accept, thatís nice for when you want to catch a plane, yes? The moment I say: Iíll be doing this or that, the plan for me is dead, you see? Between the first idea and the most immediate realisation of it thereís a moment of magic. The magic we sometimes identify as "art", but itís not always that. For example it can also be genius. However the one wanting to deal with art (which we also do in music) at that moment takes an intellectual decision which reduces art to nothing more than decadence. You know, Iím extremely fascinated by the human capacity to work with abstract, not logical entities. I believe in that lies its greatest potential. Anyway, weíre getting very deep now! All I want to say with all this is that within this process thereís no place for a producer, however good or bad the guy may be." I point out the fact that naturally this way heís working on music every moment of the day. He agrees to this and explains that the "visible" part of his output, in this case the records, is nothing more than a small part of what keeps him occupied in general. So at least a slight feel for business? This too is smilingly admitted. To emphasise once more, he has nothing against business but does want to avoid it taking up a major portion of his life. Business heíd rather see as a "job" - something you do to stay alive, yes?
I remark that still it must be pretty nice to sell records in large quantities, pointing towards the big wall in the control-room which is literally peppered with gold-records. Again this gentle smile. Again a patient explanation that of course itís enjoyable to have success, but even more enjoyable when youíre not actually after any success. Apparently my glazed look doesnít convince him and after heís pointed out that there are more people who donít quite believe him on this issue, he cleverly changes the subject by asking whether Iíd like to hear the Chariots Of Fire mastertapes? Apparently he considers this film music to be a (commercial) turning-point in his career. In any case heís pretty proud of it, as he later tells us and heís certainly planning on continuing in this direction. Relates thereís also a lot of demand for synthesizer-music for movies which he attributes first and foremost to the illusionary effect it can have. He then tells us about the way he set about producing the music for Chariots Of Fire. About the low budget it really had. About the way in which he endlessly exchanged thoughts with the author about the story. Only when the movie was completely finished did he actually start working on the music for it. Saw it only three times for that purpose and then started work. To make a rough framework of melody and the progression of the music. At this point he pauses his story and we listen for a full fifteen minutes to the masters, without anyone saying so much as one word. I listen to the music, well-known to me, but now with the full dynamics as recorded in the studio. It is an impressive experience and still I cannot escape from the thought that this isnít the sort of musical product delivered in one go. In what way does his "music/crucial moment-theory" correspond to reality and in what way is it an oft-told PR-story? This keeps bugging me and I decide to try it once more. Via a detour of course, as soon as the tape stops. When the moment is there, I venture that during the making of film music one doesnít get very far with the "anything goes" theory regarding the arrangement and musical idea, because naturally youíre stuck with something fixed (namely the movie-images and the story). The answer arrives without hesitation. "Of course, this requires a different approach. Therefore itís also more like "team-work", the reason why I rely on other people, like Jon for example. In this case that provides more possibilities. The first idea usually arrives when first watching the film. Here too that first time is very important to me, because that first impression never returns. Thatís why ideally Iíd like to start working on the music there and then, but thatís a practical impossibility. Still time and again it turns out that the very first musical idea that emerges from me when playing the film again, if things really get to the crunch (i.e. in the studio), thatís what ends up best. So thatís being kept safely locked up and forms the absolute basis. Only rarely anything gets changed after that..."
Asked about the method he uses for filling up the tracks no clear answer emerges straight away. Again the story about the idea etceteras. Only when I state that a human being only has two hands and on his productions I hear at least more than four synthesizers (not to mention the other instruments) he explains his customary method of approach. As soon as the musical idea is there, as many keyboards as possible are connected to the control-desk, which in turn are directly connected to the applicable tracks of the multi-trackmachine. The idea now is to play as many keyboards as possible at the same time. That way as broad a basis as possible develops which only needs fine-tuning. After that itís a question of adding things or leaving out things. At some point I ask him, with the help of the master-tape weíve just heard, to indicate which of the audible instruments have been played simultaneously. For a moment he seems so startled and watches us so ominously that Iím afraid weíll be thrown out of the door. But then he smiles again, plays the tape and identifies a number of instruments. When I nod politely, he suddenly takes a decision. Again the same piece of music gets played and he asks us to listen carefully. Which we do, for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile heís been busy with the battery of keyboards set up on the other side of the control-table. Miss Purple too has reappeared. She routinely carries out a few tasks and a little while later the first part of Chariots Of Fire blasts through the room. For more than five minutes we watch in utter amazement as the Master manages to keep more than six synthesizers going in blinding-fast fashion and with that deliver an exact replica of what weíve just heard from tape. I am convinced and consider a suitable reaction. I donít find it. The photographer does: "Do you ever play this music live?". An eruption of laughter is our due and with that the atmosphere lightens up once more.
The conversation turns to the studio and we discover an aspect of mister Vangelis which until that moment had been hidden away from us. Heís fond of electronics in general, but especially crazy about electronic "gadgets". He gives a careful overview of the studio-apparatus he uses, which I will pass on here for those interested. Thereís a 32-channel Quad Eight table, and American product which we donít often encounter in Europe. Monitoring happens through two enormous Tannoy Dreadnought loudspeakers fed by three (high/middle/low actively separated) BGW 750 final amps. Separation filters also from Tannoy. The multi-track machine was constructed by Lyrec, with two Ampex master-machines present. Additional apparatus is hardly present, which makes sense due to the nature of the recorded material. After all, when some synthesizer-sound has been assembled, in practice nothing much will be changed. Nevertheless thereís an Orban equalizer, an Audio & Design Compex compressor, a couple of Urei limiters, a Vocalstresser and finally a rack with DBX hiss-reduction. In connection with the latter he gives a funny line of argument as to why he uses DBX instead of Dolby for example. He happens to be after the sometimes "audible" effects of DBX, much less so with Dolby. Apparently this helps out with percussion especially. Well, itís an opinion of course. On the mixer a large number of channels are indeed taken up by fixed instruments. These have been neatly written down on a PVC-bar just above the channel-faders, probably to assist the work of Miss Purple (who we hear later is his technical assistant). During this technical exposition suddenly a boy enters with under his arm an old Philips (!) radio. Vangelis has all of a sudden forgotten about us and rushes off towards him. Together they closely inspect the radio, which the boy has dusted off and repaired for him, as it turns out. With a cherished look in his eyes our star caresses the round forms of the brown Bakelite. Once turned on Radio One still comes out quite decently. In ebullient mood, Vangelis shows us the "tone-control" of the machine: "Itís all there, you see?? More than forty years old and itís all there! Man, I love those things...I really do!"
We encounter great reluctance when we enquire about the keyboards he uses. Naming names is out of the question. That would be wrong, according to Vangelis, because people then associate the wrong judgment with a particular instrument and thatís not the idea. Good music is made by good musicians, he reveals, machines are a side-issue. To back up his position on this, he has consistently taped over any brand- and/or type-indications with Gaffe-Tape. Which of course doesnít prevent me from recognising some of those which are well-known to me from my own studio-experiences and to be of maximum service Iíll list some of them here: Blüthner piano, Yamaha CP70 electric piano, Fender Rhodes 88 likewise, the Emulator, the Linn drum-computer and of course the synthesizers: Prophet 6, the Korg Polysix, the big Moog modular synthesizer plus the Yamaha CS80. With that Iíve left out some because I didnít want to spoil the goodwill by elaborately tinkering with the taped wrappers. For those that really know this sort of thing maybe the photographs tell the rest of the story.
When at some point I look at my watch I noticed weíve been inside for altogether more than three hours and with some amusement I think back to the strained reception of Miss Purple over the telephone: "No pictures and definitely no more than one hour!" At that point Vangelis is nestling in his control-chair watching the football, while the multi-track machine duly keeps on playing the recorded material. Suddenly he veers up however and indicates everybody to be quiet, a somewhat hilarious proposal in this cacophony of noise. We certainly donít hear anything apart from that and therefore look quiz-faced towards our host. Who says nothing and jumps up to walk in big steps towards the stage at the back of the recording-room. There he fishes out a digital quartz-watch from the desk and gleefully walks back with it. When he gets closer it becomes apparent the thing is beeping horribly, to indicate itís five oíclock. "Isnít that wonderful? I could hear it, in spite of all the noise!" Then he straightaway starts telling us it was intentional not to put glass between the control-room and the studio. Because he almost never works with microphones it is not only possible, he argues, but also works faster. And did I notice that all instruments I see have been plugged-in and connected at fixed locations, ready for immediate use.... Iíve both heard and seen it and already turned off my recorder. Itís time we moved on, I insist. At that moment the door opens again and somebody enters with photos, containing poses of mister Papathanassiou, made more alive with technical colour-tricks. He closely inspects them and a satisfied grin appears. Vanity? I doubted it the moment he made irritated gestures towards Miss Purple when she intoned him in an endless stream of praises how good she thought his latest album was. Just like I donít know what to think of the large double-sized bed, tucked away high up in the corner of the studio (above the drum-stage). This man Vangelis, heís human after all.
Interview by René van Broekhoven
Transcribed and translated from Dutch by Ivar de Vries