An interview with Vangelis - 1982 - Greece

What restrains the composer
or sets him free is his
head and no other instrument

Interview by
Christos Hatzis

Vangelis is believed to be one of the pioneers of electronic music. By creating his own sound, he developed a new genre of music. For years now he has been working, almost isolated, in his studio in London, writing music, and only a fraction of his compositions exist on records. His work was first recognised in France, where he started his career, and then later in London, where he moved to in 1975. His recognition then spread throughout Europe. He won an Oscar for his ‘Chariots of Fire’ soundtrack, which brought him international fame. He was not very famous in Greece, even though his albums where renowned for their Greek flavour, they could have been recorded and made in Greece. The Greek rock scene first met him through his collaboration with Greek band Socrates, on their album ‘Phos’, and then though his album ‘Odes’, with actress Irene Papas, which contained an electronic reinterpretation of traditional Greek folk songs, and this established him for good in Greece. It was typical that Vangelis was left on his own, in the top of the synthesisers during the last years in England. When he started out, in 1975, there were a lot of famous keyboard players (Patrick Moraz, Rick Wakeman, Isao Tomita and Keith Emerson), but they slowly vanished, and it appeared that as each solo keyboard players’ epoch was over, Vangelis’ power was growing stronger and stronger.

While working with Jon Anderson (ex singer of the band Yes), he moved into a new kind of ‘specific music’, by writing songs.

With ‘Chariots of Fire’, his popularity moved to the other side of the Atlantic. For the first time, America ‘totally’ accepted the notion of a solo keyboard player and his music.

The recent visit of the most famous Greek musician to Athens was totally unpredictable, and our meeting was arranged suddenly.

Let’s start with the concerts. The world is asking why you aren’t doing any more concerts?

For me, after all those years in bands, concerts have lost their meaning. Using concerts as a way of making contact with the public seems too egocentric, and its only purpose is to make money. Concerts are a money making machine. If you are famous, the promoters expect too much from you. You definitely need to make the concert a huge success. When I play, I want to be free, secure and respect the public. I don’t aim for success. Most of all, I detest preparing and setting things up, I want to be in the mood to play. For all these reasons, I am not doing any more concerts. I like them, but the inconvenience and arrangements, especially when you need an orchestra, makes it really difficult. When I have to play something by myself, I don’t care. I do whatever I want, how I want it, and what I play depends on the public and on my mood.

How many keyboard players does it take to produce the sound of your albums in a concert?

It depends on the concerts. I might be alone on stage, or there may be two players, three at the most, and all this without the assistance of audio tapes. When I go on stage, I don’t like playing my own records. I prefer playing something new, something reworked.

Is the public’s contact different through your concerts than through your albums?

They are definitely different. With an album, you can retain the contact whenever you listen to it, that’s always the case. For me, it is the same thing, but with a different expression.

With a concert, there is always the visual part though, isn’t there?

I am not interested in this part. The light show, scenery and costumes. I am not doing a show, I play music.

Do you like your pieces to be choreographed?

Sure, why not, if the choreography has an important reason to be there and it is not just random. The moment you create a piece of music, everybody can do whatever they want with it.

Do you always keep a ‘Greek tone’ in your music?

Yes, sure. Biologically, I belong here in Greece. It is normal that my culture has had an influence on me. At the same time, I am a civilian on Earth, a human being. My background is Greek, my childhood is Greek… the rest of my ‘build’ depends on the social influences that I accept. My music is one element, just as communication is one element. Now we are speaking English, but even if we were speaking in Greek, or any other language, we would communicate in the same way. It is simple, the same thing happens with music as well. In music there are no boundaries. People say that this act is making rock music, punk, jazz etc, but all of this is nonsense.

Doesn’t the same thing happen in painting as well?

They are two completely different things, but they also have similarities. With painting you are working with material, but with music it is not the same thing. You cannot touch music, you can only conceptualise it. I cannot say too much about my painting, I cannot explain it. I cannot talk about my paintings because there are limits in language, in the words.

The titles and the topics that you use in your albums are really international?

Yes, but if you look closer you will see there is the Greek feeling. Even in ‘Pulstar’, or in ‘Albedo 0.39’ there could have been a Greek topic. You see Greece gives me the strength to continue. This place is full of strength, magnetism. This place gives out a strength that makes people crazy, it what makes the Greek people.

We have inherited a language and the music. You can make ‘local’ music that exists in a community. However there is also ‘natural’ music, if it is truthful it can work and it can speak to everybody, to all societies. Everybody belongs to the law of nature. It is the law that contains all living creatures. Everybody is acting in the same way.

What do you think about the labels that are put on artists?

It is just a trick so that people buy the records. In a record shop in America, the ‘Chariots of Fire’ disc was placed in all of the sections (jazz, rock, pop, etc) and all the copies were sold.

How do you start to record an album?

In the studio, almost everything is prepared. If I have got an idea in my mind I can start the recording right away, because I am a mechanic as well. If I don’t have anything in mind I just sit around doing nothing important. An idea might come suddenly. When I sense that I have something important, I record it and I keep the tape running. That’s all. I never plan anything. Sometimes, the best ideas come when I am doing irrelevant stuff. Music should come naturally; you should never look for it, because otherwise, when it comes, you will panic. I never stress myself, and I always let the music come to me naturally, without thinking of anything else.

Do you have any new material this time?

I have a lot of compositions. This is because I am using my studio not to record albums, but to create music. Almost every day I write without thinking about making albums. However, things change when I am working towards something specific, like music for a movie.

I think that the albums ‘Earth’ and ‘Heaven and Hell’ are among your best.

‘Earth’ is really old, from 1973. It was recorded in France and it has a really Greek timbre. At that time, I was not using lots of keyboards, it was a different period, there were more percussion instruments. No one understood that album, especially in France. Music does not have such an importance there, unlike literature and food. ‘Heaven and Hell’ was my first album in the UK. It was very difficult, in the beginning, for my music to be accepted in places other than where British artists had found success. This album was the first time I had worked with Anderson. We met each other a year earlier, in 1974, so the collaboration started really spontaneously.

In the album ‘Friends of Mr Cairo’, the songs are more specific.

With Anderson, we went into the studio and we started recording without specific targets. The only thing in our minds was the cinema. Cinema is part of our life, it affects us either we want it to or not. It is something really strong, with strong influences all over the world. Hollywood is America’s ambassador.

In America, a way of recognising an artist is when their songs are covered. Being awarded an Oscar gave you publicity and also some attention you did not want?

At the moment there is a lot of demand for my music. Americans said ‘ATTACK’, and they are asking for my songs. I am not giving into them, because, otherwise, in six months’ time, there would be ‘Vangelis’ records everywhere. The Oscar did not change me. It changed the behaviour of some people towards me, but not my behaviour towards them. An Oscar has to do with values, is an award based on opinion and on distinction. Gold and platinum albums are awards which mark an event, they are the proof of the five- or 10-million albums you have sold. An Oscar is an opinion, and opinions are always subjective. No one can say that, because I won an Oscar I am the best musician, or I am the worst because I did not win one. I was very pleased that ‘Chariots of Fire’ went platinum before the Oscar. For me, this was a bigger recognition. An Oscar holds a great power, a small statue which can break mountains because this is how it is supposed to.

Did the Oscar make you think of any plans to go to America?

Of course not. Instead of sitting here, I could have gone to Beverly Hills and had four people to massage me, all kinds of comforts, wrote scores for 10 movies a year and made lots of money. So what?

In America, it is not that easy for foreign artists to break into the music industry, and you sound completely different to anybody else. Isn’t that interesting?

Indeed, it is unique. When I am feeling good about a situation, what we say in Greece is: ‘I found it!’ I am offering an invitation and when they accept it, ‘we find it together’. This is actually what makes me happy, that there might be millions of ways to share your happiness.

Let’s go back to your old days. I would like to discuss the album ‘May of 68’.

It was my first album, and I had to pay for it myself. I produced it without any company in the middle. There wasn’t a company who was paying for it. To conclude, ‘May of 68’ was my first album. ‘May of 68’ was my first experience being in Paris. I was completely blocked, artistically, by the events, without knowing what to do in a nicer, more humane atmosphere and a not so much political burst. I took the slogans, the signals and created songs by putting them to music. The students sang them and I used real footage, recording the fights in the streets. It was too impulsive and not at all professional. The response was amazing, but the album was buried and it did not sell at all. Its concept annoyed a lot of people. It’s the only album that I have done in my whole career and nothing was ever written about it. I guess people were afraid of it.

How about ‘666’?

This was the most important learning curve for Aphrodite’s Child. For me, this kind of album should have been recorded at the beginning of the band’s career, and not at the end. In the beginning, the only way to break the barrier for European and commercial consumption , for reasons that later on helped, meant that I had to go over the way of security, which is success and trend and can be bought really easily. Something that did not interest me but I had to go through so the road would be easier. It was the only way to continue the three Greeks whose country never gave them these kinds of traces. Everybody was familiar with opa, sirtaki and bouzouki , and these were the instruments they were expecting us to use. In this way I gained artistic freedom for my later work, and I don’t regret it.

After a lot of success and millions of albums with the band there was a moment where I said: ‘That’s enough, it can’t go anywhere else.’ I did not leave my country to become a pop star, nor did I do what I wanted to do. The decision was to make ‘666’ a completely different work, which was the ‘swan song’. Of course, Aphrodite’s Child could have existed today and had continued success, as well as solo hits for each member. With ‘666’, there was a crisis in the band, Demis, especially, was scared that it would not become a success. We were in the wrong place again. In France, no one could understand what we were doing, the whole music scene was narrow-minded and undeveloped. If ‘666’ had been recorded in America, it would have been completely different. Just imagine if the album was held back for a year, and the group did not exist anymore when it was finally released, what did you think would happen then? The world is still looking for the album that keeps republishing .

How did you start the album?

At that time ­ at the end of 1960s ­ there was a big movement around ‘666’, ‘the number of the beast’. The ‘Apocalypse’ was being read a lot, like a pocket book ­ a compelling, completely crazy book. It was natural to record an album like this at that time. Although, even today, this album is still really social, ‘666’ is still a really charming subject.

In this album we collaborated with Irene Papas. We met her in Italy, in 1969, during a TV show. Without scheduling it, we thought that one day we might be able to do something together, something that actually happened. The memories of what each of us holds inside for this land has given birth to this new traditional song, which is the same but it is for today. For me, ‘Odes’ is traditional Greek music.

How much do you think technology bounds or liberates an artist?

What bounds or liberates an artist is their head, and no other instrument. Electronic instruments, without a doubt, open new ways. It is like you are working with three colours in painting and then you are being offered another 20 to make combinations. The first synthesiser will never become the first symphonic orchestra. Instead of electronic instruments, there are conservatories that give some kind of talent to inexperienced and talented musicians, and they are programmed to play a specific kind of music. I love working with an orchestra and I love working with synthesisers. I have worked with both, and they are completely different things.

The technique and skills on synthesisers exist and can be formed separately from each one of us, since it’s the first time in history that they have been able to coexist. I simply have a different technique to somebody else. People who compose for a symphonic orchestra have to take classes, so the same applies to people who play synthesisers today.

Is there any work from any other artist that looks as if they were influenced by you?

This happens especially in musical soundtracks. Before I leave United Kingdom I heard an album that contained songs same as mine. The difference was that they were played the other way around. On TV is unbelievable how much "stealing" there is with "Chariots of Fire".

The Musicians Union, in London, is trying to stop the use of synthesisers, what do you know about that OR what do you think about that?

Every week there is an article and I seem to be in the middle of the discussion. The Musicians Union say that synthesisers are blocking their work, so they try to stop them being used. This, of course, will never happen. And I am the ‘stormy petrel’, because of the Oscar and the success of my albums.

This technological fear is completely irrational. Technology means progress, and this is a good thing. What is destructive is when the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ the synthesizers are being used and this is when it is over the limit.

For me all the instruments that were made by humans are machines. Why all the fuss about the electronics? The human itself is electronic after all. What is this power called nature? We are not working with clockworks. We are trying to make a human copy. Our brain works much faster than our hands, that’s why there are machines that can identify with our brain ­ they work with the mind and with feeling .

You might have an idea about a sculpture, and, in order to make it, you need to take time, months, over it. In music, electronic equipment and synthesisers are reducing the time it takes to create. Delays to inspiration are critical, dangerous. Inspiration might turn sour and might disappear because of time.