An interview with Vangelis - 1980 - France

An interview with Vangelis

Interview by
Jean-Michel Reusser

We have all heard his music at least once in our lives. It accompanies the movies of Frédéric Rossif with whom he worked with for many years. His music is broadcast in public places for the benefit of those who pass by. Vangelis' music has been used by advertisers, and chosen to illustrate documentaries of every kind. There has been over time a long list of discs which Vangelis has recorded, either alone or with accomplices who shared his vision of the Universe, and his way of conveying it through music.

The entire world listens to Vangelis because he is a part of the sonorous view of today. Nobody knows the real Vangelis because he is not interested in making his public image shine. It’s not that he tries to hide his true self, but simply that he is not concerned about his public image. Vangelis has said himself that he spends the majority of his time creating music in his laboratory. This is the recording studio that is based in London, which he named ‘Nemo’. He rarely engages in interviews because he believes that his work speaks for him, and he is wary of language since:

Music is much less damaging than words

During a recent visit to Paris he agreed to meet L’Autre Monde. In the following conversation we discussed Greece, Aphrodite’s Child, and his work with Frédéric Rossif, Irène Papas, and Jon Anderson. We also discussed his conception of music, and the creative forces which are latent in every single individual. Towards the end of the interview without any reluctance on his part, we touched on the subject of his new album.

See You Later

This is a surprising album for several reasons. After ‘China’ his last solo album which involved the past and traditions, ‘See You Later’ takes us on a forlorn journey to a bleak future. The album covers many diverse subjects about funerals, multi-track suggestions, masks, ready-to-wear and ready-to-eat things. In fact ‘See You Later’ is a total departure from Vangelis’ usual style of writing. There is a feeling of apocalypse and violent upheaval omnipresent throughout the album on both sides. There is English, French, and even Italian dialogue which seems as if it has come straight from a soundtrack of an Italian neorealist film. ‘Suffocation’ opens the second side and this features the extraordinary voice of Jon Anderson (who wonders where his home is). The albums sleeve paints a desolate and deserted ice covered planet, with the exception of a solitary woman adorned with some very bizarre looking sun glasses to protect her eyes. The inner sleeve is just as disturbing, displaying a character seated in a greenhouse wearing an eerie looking gas mask.

Finally, the album closes with the ironically named title track ‘See You Later’. This expression was chosen by Vangelis as a symbol of over used sayings, which seem ridiculous with the ever present threat of impending apocalypse, should a head of State decide to take this monumental decision.

These lyrics describe the irony of mankind. “See you later then… alive or dead, (I can not answer this question) See you later.”


When did you become a musician?

I started playing the piano at the age of four, but I cannot remember how I learned. I’ve never been convinced by the conservatory, because I did not want a classical formation. That doesn’t mean that I am not familiar with it, or that I don’t play this kind of music.

What prompted you to write and play music?

It was initially a primary need. No, not even a need, but something more natural. I had no ambition to become a professional musician, but I heard a voice coming from inside me, which said that what I had done was good, so I continued. While I was growing up, I was interested in electronic music. If you will, I had an interest in the conventional aspect of the piano, but also the sound fascinated me.

It was a time when the synthesizer did not exist yet?

Yes, but I tampered with my piano, and I was tuning into radio interference. I waited for everyone to go to sleep in the house, so I could play with the radio. I thought it was genius! At the age of fourteen, I started to be interested in other forms of music such as jazz, which I consider to be the most extraordinary expression of the century.

What about traditional Greek music?

It was automatically inside me. I have always been open to every kind of music, which is mixed inside me. So I was able to access a very wide range.

Was it in Greece that you formed your first group?

Yes, like many musicians we formed a group with friends at school. For us, it was just a game which didn’t last long because we became the most popular group of Greece. This was to such an extent that in the 60’s we sold out stadiums. It was a time of complete madness, when people were fighting to get near us, even when we were performing on stage. We were always escorted by the police because people were jumping all over us in the streets.

Then why did you leave Greece?

You know Greece is a marvelous source of inspiration, but the music was not considered a priority, and material was difficult to obtain. Greece is quite a small country which considers modernization and evolution much more important than the music. That’s why I left in 1968.

If you were looking for a country which was a beacon for music, then it’s surprising you chose France?

But I did not choose France! It’s a country which I didn’t know at all. I learned to like France while discovering it. In fact my preference was either England, or the United States, because of all the facilities they offered to make music. They don’t just talk about show business they talk about a whole ensemble of things, which revolves around being an artist, and is necessary to music. Our destination was originally London, where I wanted to form a group to make money, which I needed to become truly independent. We arrived in France in May 1968, and everything was blocked because of the strikes. Then ‘Aphrodite’s Child’ was born, and success came quickly. I was a little bit panicked by this because it was not what I’d planned in my head!

You wrote the music for the group?

Yes. I had in spirit the idea of earning in this domain, because it was the only means to get the money to finance my dreams, and to have my own proper studio.

Was this adventure or dream premeditated?

Yes except that making it a success with this genre of music, and in France was not absolutely calculated. That’s why many years after the group broke up, it was not possible anymore.

Was it a coincidence that ‘Aphrodite’s Child’ separated after recording the double album ‘666’?

Exactly that, a coincidence. I was really attached to that record because it contained a musical range much broader than a simple song. The inspiration came from Apocalypse of Saint-Jean.

Why Apocalypse?

Because it seemed to me very important and in some way apocalypse is exactly what is going on today, even though it’s already been ten years since ‘666’ was released. Ten years it’s nothing, it’s barely a second. So when the group separated the recording company didn’t understand the album, because it was a double album, and didn’t contain a hit song for the summer.

Then you left to work alone?

I started making music resolutely anti-commercial, I mean anti-business. The ‘Aphrodite’s Child’ adventure made me completely disgusted by this environment, and in all aspects of being number one in the hit parade.

But there were advantages, if only financial?

Yes of course, and making money was my concern at that time. I did not deny anything that I did, because it is always good to be connected with people, but I was not interested in the music that we were doing. You see, since the first hit with Aphrodite’s Child, it had been necessary to calculate everything, and continue to make other hits. I am not against the hits at all, but not when it’s completely calculated. I no longer wanted to work in that spirit.

You stayed a bit longer in France before moving to London?

Yes, a few years during which time I made film music, so I could build my studio in London. I continued to be in that business because money is important. It enables me to fund my creativity.

Did you really need a recording studio of your own?

Yes, because it’s the only way to concentrate, and to buy a little bit of liberty, thus not to be dependent on a recording company at all.


Why is your music above all instrumental now and is no longer using words?

it’s because I find music much stronger than words. The melody must speak, in fact, it does speak, and besides that, I am not endowed with a gift for writing words.

Often your music is used in a sonorous illustration. Do you have a similar approach to Brian Eno who tries to create a music designated to daily environment, and music with specific functions?

I find it rather difficult to say that I make music for one thing or another. It should be left to people to decide.

What are your musical influences?

Everything, all of nature. Nature is not only trees and birds, but everything pertaining to nature.

Are you connected to oriental music, the cyclical music?

Yes from the start, it’s like a language. How do you say? In a certain way it is part of me, but I don’t know how to explain. It is not research. I am attracted to this music even if I don’t learn it. I’ve never found anywhere in the world where music seems strange to me. The only type of music which seems strange to me is the music that is plastically constructed.

What do you mean constructed plastically?

What I mean is to fix in advance on a target of commercial success, and to repeat that formula to the point where it becomes completely absurd. This approach does not satisfy anybody except financially, and it creates an addiction. Apart from this, if you play me music from anywhere, I understand it as if it was inside me. This is the case for all kinds of music which exists on this Earth... on this globe.

And beyond that?

Beyond? (Long silence).Years ago whenever someone asked me, where my music comes from I reply that I hear it, and that it is up there (from the Heavens). It was often said to me that I was crazy, now they say that there are sounds up there.

So you capture the music, it is not a question of openness to other parts of the consciousness?

Not really, because everything that happens up there equally happens internally as well, it’s the same.

Anything that takes place above is similar to everything that happens below?

In fact there are no ups or downs!!!

So you’re saying that we should be passionate about the frequencies and the effects they can have on human beings. Should you then time it to a precise moment, so that effect takes place?

Ever since I had my first electrical/ electronic instruments, I did a lot of experiments with frequencies. At that time I did not talk about them much, because they would have mistaken me for being crazy. That said, there are not only frequencies, there is the form of the things as well.

In other words?

So in other words a frequency by itself has an effect, but according to another frequency, another effect is created. This depends on the way that they are organized.

In fact it’s music?

More and more the term “Music” makes me rigidly bored because it is not only that.

Well, by what term would you replace it?

I don’t know. I still can’t define the term, but I can replace it with the word “Code”, the code of nature.

This “Code” is a means of communication?

Yes of course, from the beginning you know this instinctively, but this fact is not known simply because people refuse to believe, but not to see it. People in general believe that they only know what they learn, and that’s what prevents them from achieving what they have inside them. We don’t learn music, it is for this reason I did not want to go to conservatory. You learn a technique there and become a machine to interpret certain things. I am not saying you should not learn to play Mozart for example, because it is something fantastic, but to me, this is not learning music.

In your own words do you consider that music, or as you refer to it “The Code” is much more than simple entertainment?

Since the beginning of classical music, and the music of Western civilization it has always been considered as an entertainment. There are a few hundred years where this was not the case.

When it was used to cure?

To cure and for many other things. The West is thought to be the navel of the world, but in fact all the sacred functions of music are just lost in the depths of people. They believe that it’s lost, but it’s still inside there. Today more than ever music is an entertainment. There is always a show set around the music, you pay, you return, and from the moment you pay, you have chosen. it’s about this kind of drink and not that one, you are required to have it for your money, or you are reimbursed. It is rarely something else, or then it becomes a research, which is completely intellectual to meet the damned ego.

There is still a fair environment?

Today, with the introduction of a wealth of electronic sounds which are available, one could conceive music differently. This would be really great because you can really do well if you decode this thing I call “Code”, you can discover all the extraordinary mysteries. One can go even further in music, I may seem Partisan or like a dreamer, but I do not speak as a musician. I never thought of myself as a musician.

You use a lot of technology. Do you work on computer?

The synthesizers that are in existence today are often real computers, but I do not want to let myself be used by a computer.

So in addition to being a musician, you must also be a technician of electronics?

Yes, but in the common sense, you have to know the machine, and its character and potential. It‘s not worth knowing everything, just what it takes to be able to truly interact with the machine. You should be wary of being paranoid because it’s the spirits that change, not the machines. Fortunately things have changed, and there is no longer conflict with our neighbours. We still fight, but with machines!


How do the themes come to you, and inspire your albums?

They come to me just like that (long pause), but you know that every word that you say, or every gesture that you do, is never just like that. This is the result of all the previous years gone by, and the centuries, or even the millennia. These are the sequences, or the cycles of things.

You mean Karma?

Beware! Human beings also have the possibility to break its cycle.

Yes, but the act of breaking its cycle is part of another cycle, isn’t it?

It is always the struggle with destiny that leads us to the destiny that we create ourselves. This could lead us into an endless discussion.

When you recorded ‘China’, were you interested in Chinese philosophy, for instance Tao Te Ching’ or ‘Yi King’?

I have not spent all my life in China, but I have found some common points between this very ancient country and Greece. Even in music “Yi King” is an extraordinary book, but very Chinese and it has pretty particular smell. I did not plunge in with my eyes closed as a fanatic, because I think that it’s by looking at things a little that I never close myself to anything that can exist, fanaticism is complete blindness.

I agree, but many people need to go through fanaticism to understand?

Sure, but what I wanted to say is that all people who dress in Indian clothes, and who leave to go to India are often beside the plate.

Have you ever met the Spiritual Masters, the realized beings?

Not today, I have never really tried to encounter them, nor did an opportunity present itself. You know, an animal or a child may even be your Master. You see in this restaurant with all these people, we are in a full spiritual centre. You stay here half an hour and you suddenly realize that it is very spiritual and it just depends on the way you look at things.

Frédéric Rossif

Once the ‘Aphrodite’s Child’ adventure finished, you have mainly been known as a composer of music for the films of Frédéric Rossi, and also ‘La Vie des Animaux’, ‘Opera Sauvage’ or ‘l’Apocalypse des Animaux’.

When I started working with Frédéric it was very interesting, because it was completely different from all that I was doing before. It was an escape from the world of show business, and also featured the animals that I love. Once again our collaboration has taken on proportions that I was not expecting, because we are still working together.

Was it you who put the music to the images or vice versa?

Generally it’s me who composes the music to compliment the images that are projected to me. As for my records, I do everything in one go. I do not restart the same thing twenty times. Sometimes it’s Frédéric who chooses the songs, usually the ones he likes amongst the ones that I have asked him to listen to.

Irene Papas

Last year you participated closely in recording ‘Odes’ with Irene Papas. What was that like?

Irene is a fantastic person not only in the Greek tragedian sense, or as the actress that we know. She is a singer, but she has never sung. She’s done a few little things like that for fun, but she is not a professional singer. She just opens her mouth and it comes out, and it’s her soul that comes out. She’s someone really exceptional.

How did you get the idea for making this album?

Just because it was impossible not to collaborate at one time or another, and when the moment arose for us it was obvious we should work together. It was to do something for the music which had died in Greece.

Is the music of ‘Odes’ traditional Greek music?

Yes, very old.

Did you have to rearrange all the arrangements for synthesizers?

Yes, without using traditional instruments, or betraying traditions. I believe that people who play folk songs are often the disciples of an idea, or of a way of life that no longer exists, and a routine that repeats itself continuously. When these tunes were written there was a certain way to live daily life. I have heard many folk groups who try to create a "Mused" manner, but they tend to create a form that no longer exists, and they also forget the background and substance.

In ‘Odes’ did you therefore seek the substance rather than the form?

I am confident with it because the Greek farmers love this disc, which has become a number one out there. Whereas, I would usually pose the question on how it would be received. That said I was still confident because I knew deep inside myself that I did not betray anything. The spirit of the music was passed on, and I even saw people who cried whilst listening to the album. This is just the beginning because there is so much music.

Last year there was also ‘Short Stories’ the fruit of your collaboration with Jon Anderson. This is an album of songs with many words, which is quite unusual in your work?

it’s a story of complicity which brought us together. Jon is interested in the same things as me and he has this absolutely incredible voice. it’s so difficult to find people like that to work with. When it happens, it really happens. Again, it was not a change in so far, as I’ve told you before, I am not stubborn. I am interested in all things.

So, from your point of view, anything can happen?

Yes. Exactly.

Jon Anderson

The record ‘Short Stories’ has rare characteristics, which is the perfect osmosis between the words and the music. If you read the lyrics inside the sleeve, you can only really understand them by listening to music. The music illuminates the words and visa versa. How did this come about?

You know, we did not try to make songs, we arrived at the studio practically with hands in the pockets, and yet in four days it was finished, everything including the conception and creation. Then we made it better by adding a few voices.

Four days! Some groups spend months and months in the studio, it seems incredible?

Each song was a single recording. Jon wrote more than half of the words in the studio, and then he left to complete them, but neither the music nor the melodies have changed compared to what we had done initially. Then Jon registered the completed words.

Will you continue to work together?

We are starting a new album tomorrow, but we do not know what we will do yet. We do not work according to the business. You know, when Jon was with ‘YES’ they needed six months to record a disc, there it’s quite another thing. With ‘Short Stories’ the beginning was not done in the spirit of album. We work in a very spontaneous way, without programming.

But if you have four days in the studio, there must be still programming?

don’t exaggerate! You know, when we set to work this does not count. If we do nothing good, there will be no disc. We throw the tapes out and restart. This is not important there is no anguish on our part.

When you work in your studio do you take a long time to realize your albums?

I don’t take a long or a short time. I take the time that is necessary.

You do not have rules?

Yes, to be in harmony with the machines, and with the people who are on my side that day. Also I like to feel good myself.

Music again

The surprising thing about you is unlike many artists you’ve recorded a lot, and you seem to be creating all the time?

You know, I’m not working to make records. I make records because there is music, and I make music to enrich the laboratory.

You say that your studio is a laboratory. Does this mean you do a lot of research there?

Yes and no, because if we do only research, we do nothing else other than that. I love this phrase by Picasso who said: “I do not seek, I find.”

Why do you only perform at a few concerts?

Because the concerts have become a Western cliché of vulgar music and in addition to that, it is very expensive. All the money you have to spend to organize a tour forces you to return, in a very involved business context. Often you lose money because you didn’t anticipate the costs, or take into account the equipment and the people that you take with you. It is required that someone spends the money, but money does not fall from the sky, and it doesn’t interest me anymore. I prefer to play in the street or in small clubs with friends, because frankly that is where I can relate to the public.

I was just going to ask you the question of your relationship with the public. don’t you miss it?

I believe that a large part of the public is determined. it’s like when you smoke many cigarettes, eventually you lose the taste. I believe that many people do not know why they go to a concert. The majority of worldwide tours are like slot machines, where you perform the greatest possible concerts, to cushion and to absorb.

Do you see an alternative between stadiums and clubs?

I think that concert halls are often anything but concert halls. In addition to this, if tomorrow I was doing a tour, it would above all be to promote the image of ‘Vangelis’ and I do not care about public image or the applause.

So what are you looking for?

I seek the dialogue. it’s like when you make love you don’t applaud every time you enjoy it! This is not to say that we should not express our joy and pleasure. I think that applauding an artist when he’s finished playing is the wrong attitude.

How do you sense your role as a musician?

It is very difficult, there is always a struggle between the socially accepted musician, and the show-business person, and that part of me is completely out of it all. The show business person really does not know why it is necessary, and doesn’t know if what he is doing is important or not anymore.

Are you still motivated?

Yes, for me it is mainly a question of impulses. The music goes much further than the language.

The instrumental music always contains a message?

Yes, there is always a very profound message. However, on the whole a message is nothing if we can not receive it. There are thousands of messages that we do not know, because we do not conceive them, each moment, each fact is a message.