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Didier Marouani: “Stay Honest”

Submitted by on 01/07/2006 – 05:20

In April 2006 Didier Marouani, a French musician and composer, visited Russia as part of his world tour dedicated to the 30th anniversary of his renowned band, Space. Didier’s concerts in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities were sellouts. A correspondent of In/Out Magazine had a unique chance to discuss vintage synthesizers, computers and various aspects of music creativity with the French pioneer of electronic music.

Everyone in Russia knows who Didier Marouani is: he is the founder member of the band Space, which was the first band from the West that toured the USSR in 1983 and played gigs at the olympic stadiums in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. Everyone was familiar with those electronic melodies long before that tour began: Space was very popular in this country, and even in those times of the Iron Curtain, when Western music was not encouraged in the USSR, Space’s albums were released on the Russian Melodya label.

Didier was born in Monaco and was educated as a classic musician. He debuted as a vocalist in 1975 on his first LP. Before founding Space, he worked with Joe Dassin and Johnny Hallyday.

The Space story started when Didier was commissioned to write music for an astrological TV show. The first composition he wrote was to become “Magic Fly”. Six compositions were written afterwards and made up the “Magic Fly” LP. The album became a world-wide hit and sold 5 million copies.

At that time Didier had a record contract with another label so he could not use his real name for the Space project. Music written for Space was credited as Ecama (Didier’s pseudonym). Musicians played their first gigs dressed in scaphandres — not only because it suited best the band’s image, but also for the sake of anonymity (as it helped to protect musicians from being recognized by the record label’s boss).

The Russian leg of the 2006 world tour gave our correspondent, Elena Stepanova, a chance to ask Didier some questions about the way he used to work on music back in the 70s, the way he works now, what he thinks about today’s electronic music, and what advice he can give to young musicians who are starting their careers.

In/Out: What was your first synth which you used to write the music for that astrology TV show, the one that triggered your electronic music career?

Didier Marouani: It was an ARP Odyssey. I still remember the day I got home with that synthesizer, plugged it in and started to play. I was so happy to hear the sounds. In fact, one year before I bought it I had heard an album by Tangerine Dream, and those sounds fascinated me. I was trying to understand how they could get those kinds of sounds in the studio during the mix and what kind of effects the sound engineer had used to get that. I bought the album and I realized that all of those strange sounds came from a synthesizer! So I went to buy such a synth immediately, and for me this was really the beginning of the whole Space adventure.

In/Out: How did you work on your music in the 70s, before MIDI sequencers became available? 

Didier Marouani: We worked with our fingers. Sometimes it was very hard to play some particularly fast sequences, so we would slow the tape down a little bit to make it easier to play. The goal was to create an ambience in the track rather than to play a sequence. Fast tracks were very difficult, especially for the drummer: he had to play to the click track, and the first thing he had to record was a bass drum — and the tempo was 140 BMP! Can you imagine this? We spent around two days on each song to get the bass drum exactly on the beat. Then we spent one day trying to do the same with the snare drum. It was very hard work because we wanted to play as precise rhythmically as possible. The spacey sounds were easier to work on but we worked a lot on the manual sequences.

In/Out: How many tracks were recorded for “Fasten Seat Belts” or any other song on “Magic Fly”?

Didier Marouani: For the first album, “Magic Fly”, we recorded seven songs — only seven because we were in a hurry! The single “Magic Fly” was released in almost every country and became a Number One hit, so our record company put a lot of pressure on me to compose the album, record and mix it. So we had to work a lot, and to work very quickly for our first album. But I remember very well how excited I was composing and recording that album. Every day we received great news, and the future was very bright for me, my producer, the record company… It is during such periods that you should be calm and try to analyze (as much as you can) the reasons for your success and how you will be able to administrate it without getting “the Big Head” (expression translated from French).

In/Out: Do you still have that Moog Liberation synth? Do you still use it?

Didier Marouani: Yes I still have it. I prefer not to use it on stage now as I miss the opportunity to add MIDI to it. But I still use it at home. The tuning is very difficult on this instrument and it changes very often. But it looks great and now it is a collector’s item. I got it fixed and painted some years ago. It is really beautiful…

In/Out: What are you favourite synths, and why? What, in your opinion, makes them so special for your music?

Didier Marouani: These days I still love the great trademark synths like Oberheim, ARP, Sequential Circuits, Moog, as well as some less well known ones, like RSF. The feeling and the manner of playing will be different depending on which synth you play. On the other hand, the tremendous progress of technology during last five years has made the use of “virtual synths” possible.

Two or three years ago it seemed to be more like a gadget for people who wanted to play synths on a computer, and you could not compare those things to a real hardware synth.

Today, the approach is different: the integration of the audio + MIDI sequencers and software synthesizers combined with the power of modern computers gives you real pleasure to work with these software. A lot of power and the ease of working with all that software anywhere using your computer — and without having to plug a “truck” of cable!

Of course I love to explore all the possibilities that are offered by these synths, especially if they are exact copies of the original synths — Arturia, Moog, Yamaha CS80, ARP 2600 and Prophet V, or others much more bizarre like Native Instruments’ Reaktor 5. I also use plug-ins to process the real synths during the mix — for example, a French company OhmForce offers surprising effects, and Nomad Factory gave us a special effect for warming up the virtual synths’ sounds which are a little bit too “cold” sometimes. All the “surgery” work is done by the URS equalizers.

In/Out: Talking of sound, do you program your own sounds, or do you mainly use the ones that are offered by the synths?

Didier Marouani: Yes, I program my sounds together with Jeff Parent who has played keyboards with Space since 1991 and who is the best programmer in France (and maybe even in Europe). The wonderful thing with synthesizers is the ability to create sounds the way a painter creates his own colours, mixing different colours together to obtain the one that he envisions. Since the Synclavier arrived in 1987, musicians have been able to mix different sounds more easily, and now all sophisticated keyboards give you this option.

In/Out: When did you start to use samplers? What sampler was used for that vocal line in “Deliverance” on stage (Concert in Moscow)?

Didier Marouani: For the concert tour in 1983, we chose to play back the choirs of “Deliverance” from a multitrack recorder. We were recording our concerts to make a “Live” album and we had two 24-track machines playing back choir tracks. The sampler at that time was not reliable enough to be used live on stage. Also, at that time we didn’t have the budget to have real choirs on stage, so we decided to ‘broadcast’ the choirs from tape. Later we used live choirs.

In/Out: In the 70s, how long did it take for you to mix an average song? Has it become faster and/or easier now, compared to the old days?

Didier Marouani: We usually stayed in the studio for two or three days mixing one song. “Magic Fly” was recorded on a 16-track recorder, so there was four of us working at the mixing desk together — the sound engineer, the co-producer, the sound assistant and me. Each of us would take care of something during the mix of the track and everybody had to do it right at the same time to get a good mix. The album “Magic Fly” was recorded two months later than the single, and it was done on a 24-track recorder — it was great to have 8 more tracks to record on!

These days it is not faster at all. For the last album, “Symphonic Space Dream”, it took me four or five days to mix one track, because equipment is becoming more and more sophisticated and also because when we are mixing we try to achieve perfection as much as we can… I recorded and mixed “Symphonic Space Dream” at Quad Studios, one of the best studios in New York. When I entered the studio, Whitney Houston had just finished mixing her latest album. By the way, in the case of the St. Petersburg Symphonic Orchestra, we went to St. Petersburg with my engineers to record it.

These days it also depends on the budget you have available to mix your album. For sure you can have an excellent mix after 8 hours. It is a little bit like you have built a house, it is done, and now you have to decorate it. What budget do you have? Do you want paintings? By a classic or a new artist? You have to “decorate” your music according to your taste, to what you want to hear in the end — and to consider your budget, too! A very difficult exercise!!!

In/Out: Do you have a home studio? Do you yourself work with the software audio + MIDI sequencer on the computer, or do you employ a studio assistant to deal with the technical side of the recording? What sequencer do you use? 

Didier Marouani: Yes, I have a home studio and I am using Performer on a Macintosh. Once the song is composed, I start to build it. I look for the global ambience of the track, building some sounds to get this ambience. The next step involves working with my programmer: together we are looking for sounds and the particular ambience I want to get for the track.

Very often I work with Jeff Parent. Sometimes, as was the case with the last album, “Symphonic Space Dream”, I worked in New York with two young Russian musicians — very talented ones, their names are Dima Sobolev and Vladimir Logozinsky.

Jeff Parent lives in the south of France, so we start a project through the Internet using a very fast line. I send him the track built with very specific demands. Four or five days later he returns the work, with changes, and I work on it. Then I send it back to Jeff, again with very specific demands on sounds and rhythmic parts or gimmicks. It is the way of working that I like now… It is very pleasant, I can immediately hear what I like or what I don’t like in the things that he had worked on during the last five or six days.

Sometimes I go to the south of France to work with Jeff personally, or he comes to Paris. I ask him to create a particular sound and I play a part. After that he gets a sound and goes to the keyboard and plays a gimmick or a sequence. If I don’t like it, we make changes until we both like it. This kind of work is very exiting, our brains and feelings should be in sync… Sometimes it is not working because we don’t have inspiration or we cannot find the exact sounds or ambience, so we stop, talk, have a drink, and the next morning we listen to the work we’ve done. I really like to work with Jeff because he is a very good musician and the best computer programmer. He’s got a very rare taste in music, and also after a few hours he knows exactly in which direction I want to go and which kind of sounds I want to get.

In/Out: Some musicians are happy working with software synths, others just cannot cope with the unfriendliness of the computer music workstation, compared to the good old vintage synths they are used to. To which group of musicians do you belong?

Didier Marouani: I use both opportunities. I am working with a computer workstation, with virtual synths or with good vintage ones — it depends what I am looking for. I love switching from one technology to the other. I think that the new Space album will be oriented (sound speaking) more to the vintage sequences, but I think that I will use both technologies.

In/Out: Sometimes the technical aspects of sequencing and recording just drive away inspiration. What will you recommend to do in order to regain inspiration?

Didier Marouani: It depends if you are talking about composition, arrangement or programming. I always start with the composition. Once I get the melody ready, I start working on sounds, structure and arrangement. When you get the melody, you have a diamond in your hands, and you start to cut it, give it another form, and find the most beautiful box to put the diamond in. Of course sometimes I listen to a sound or a sequence that could inspire me to create a melody or an arrangement gimmick but this doesn’t happen very often.

In/Out: How did you build the visual part of your show in the 70s and 80s? Did you work with a light designer or a visual artist? Has this aspect changed dramatically now, compared to the past?

Didier Marouani: I always worked with the best engineers in each category (light, sound, laser, images), and I haven’t changed the way I work these days. We have meetings and we discuss the next show or tour, I explain my feelings and what I imagine concerning the show. The people start working and come back to me with proposals letting me know what is possible or not, and what fits into the budget. After several meeting we decide what the show will be like — the structure of the stage, decoration, how many lights (how many automatic fixtures, machines, traditional ones etc), how many lasers and where we will put them; images, projections etc. Every detail is written on paper, and once we all agree with the plan, each engineer puts it into his computer and we send it to the producer and the light, laser and sound companies we will work with. Of course now we have the opportunity to work with much more effects than in 1983, and we have to take into consideration all the new technology, effects etc… and try to fit them into the budget.

In/Out: What do you think about today’s electronic music? In your opinion, do remixes and DJs help to develop music, or they are not as important as they seem to be? Why are they so popular?

Didier Marouani: I think that electronic music is going quite well and that the young composers have good inspiration. Now concerning DJ’s, you have good ones and bad ones (like everywhere), the fact that they are successful doesn’t mean that they are necessarily very creative. Some of them bring very good ideas by remixing some songs. I think that they are popular because they are very close to the public and they are constantly in contact with the public, they can talk to them, they can see what beat the people like to dance to.

They became important about 10 years ago because the record companies do not do their main job anymore, which is developing (nurturing) an artist. The artist cannot be born in one album or two — or it is a miracle, or the artist has worked for a long time. The artist needs to become mature to be able to cope with his success. Even if his first album is successful, he must accept his new status and get mature enough to continue to develop in order to have his new album to go further in terms of quality. If he accepts his success it will be also very helpful for him to keep his feet on the ground and not to think that because he has had a lot of success everything will be different for him now… No, he has to stay as close as possible to the person he was before he achieved success.

In/Out: What, in your opinion, is more important for a musician: to try to catch the modern tendencies, or to play what you soul wants you to play? Did you ever have to choose between these matters? Did you have to discard something that was very important to you at that time, because the producer of the album had other ideas than you? Or you were lucky enough to do what you liked and it was popular?

Didier Marouani: I think that the only way to remain a free artist is to do what you want and express yourself in the way you want. But on the other hand there is also an industry behind your talent who can try to increase their power or can ask you to go in a special direction. It depends on the artist and his personality.

I had a great chance when Space’s first single became a worldwide hit. Success gives you the freedom to create and to express your emotions freely without asking anything from anybody.

Now sometimes an artist needs (or wants to have) advice, when you are recording an album with a producer and the fact that you have chosen him means that you have also chosen to collaborate artistically with him. Also you have artists that are building themselves artistically, they are like chrysalides and they need a producer to help them to develop themselves in order to be able to realize their potential. The main thing is to work with people who believe in you and give you the chance to create and express yourself without selling your soul to the devil.

In/Out: All your albums have stood the test of time. They are still popular, and people will listen to them again and again in the future. What can you recommend to the young musicians who are just starting to make their careers in popular music? What would you recommend them to do, and what — not to do?

Didier Marouani: Thank you for your compliments, I appreciate the chance that I have now — a new Space generation listening to my music and coming to the concerts like last April’s concert tour in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Samara and Kazan. It was incredible to see the parents in the audience (45–60 years old) and their children (17–25 years) in front of the stage. I think it is always very difficult for me to give advice to young musicians… The only thing that I can say is to be honest with your creation, to express your sensibility, don’t follow fashions, because fashion is soon out of fashion. Stay the same when success comes… I have seen so many artists have success and start to talk to people so differently — in French we say “to have the big head”.

We have a great chance to be artists and to “work” with passion and our musicality and we have no right to pretend or think that we are superior. Sometimes we bring happiness to people and this is so wonderful.

In/Out: Didier, let me thank you for the interview and wish you all the best in your music and your life!

© Elena Stepanova, 2006
[Russian version published in In/Out Magazine, N 55, 2006]

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