This interview with Pierre Moerlen was conducted by mail in May/June 1995 for an article on his career published in Big Bang Magazine.
First, can you tell us more about yourself and
how you began in music?
I was born in Colmar on the 23rd of October, 1952. My parents were both musicians, my father taught organ, piano and harmony at the Conservatoire in Mulhouse, and was also the pipe organ player at the Strasbourg Cathedral. He's now retired. My mother was a piano teacher, and also taught music in schools. She's retired too, although she still gives private piano lessons. I began by learning the piano with my father, but I took up drums and percussion at about 13-14, first with a teacher from the Conservatoire, then in Strasbourg, at the Conservatoire Regional in Strasbourg from 1967 to 1971. My teacher was Jean Batigne, founder of the Percussions de Strasbourg, and tympani player in the Strasbourg Orchestra.
Apart from Benoît, do you have other
brothers and sisters, and do they also play music?
Yes, I have three sisters. The elder, Michèle, used to play violin, and teaches music in a school. Then there's Geneviève, she's a flautist. I come third, Benoît fourth, and then there's Dominique, who plays piano. She used to play drums, too. She too teaches music.
What were you first experiences as a performer
in the 'rock' field?
Well, these took place in two 'Maisons de la Culture' (youth centres) in Colmar, with two different bands, one rather rock-orientend, another closer to fusion or jazz-rock.
Did these involve either Mireille or your
younger brother, Benoit?
No, but one of them had Gabriel Federow on guitar, who later became the guitar player in Magma.
How did you become involved with Gong from
Well, basically I knew the Lemoine brothers, who are also from the Alsace region. I first met them in the early 70's, we played some gigs with their band. So in January 1973, they told me that Gong were looking for a replacement for Laurie Allan. I was in Paris, looking for work in the classical field, but I didn't really want to do it, so I said yes, and found myself in the middle of a forest in Voisine, near Sens.
Had Daevid and Gilli already left at that point
No. Daevid was still there, but wanted to take a rest for some time. There was Tim Blake, Didier Malherbe, and Didier Thibault, who used to be in Moving Gelatine Plates, he was there for a few weeks before Mike Howlett joined. And of course Steve Hillage was there, and Gilli as well, but she also wanted to leave for a while. So we took the name Paragong, and toured France, mostly youth centres, for a few months.
Did you like the music? Did you feel close to
Daevid Allen's concepts?
Well, I quite liked 'Flying Teapot' the first time i heard it. There were indeed some problems between me and Daevid, but not so many. It was actually him who had problems with the evolution we were taking, we the musicians. He felt marginalised, but in my opinion he was not. Our styles were definitely compatible... cosmic and complex go very well together, don't you think?
Shortly after Daevid and Gilli's return, you
played with Mike Oldfield for the first time, at the premiere of
'Tubular Bells', at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. How did that happen
Well, just after we got signed to Virgin, we played a concert in London, and Richard Branson came to see us. Mike Oldfield was also there, he was looking for a percussion player for the QEH concert. Apparently, he liked my playing, so I did the gig. There I met Mick Taylor, Mike Ratledge and the guys in Henry Cow... But not until 1977-78 did I really work with Mike on a serious basis.
Between 1973 and 1975, you left Gong several
I worked extensively with the Percussions de Strasbourg in 1974-75. I left after the recording of 'You' because the atmosphere in the band wasn't very good. Eventually, Virgin called me back and convinced me to leave the 'Percus', to the great despair of Jean Batigne... But I really wanted to play my own music, and more generally to play a more rocky sort of music. Sometimes, I wonder where I would be now if I had stayed with the 'Percus'... Maybe life would have been a bit easier for me!
Apart from that, I also spent time working on some compositions of my own, percussion music mainly. I wrote things like "Mandrake" or "Expresso" during that period. I sent demo tapes to Virgin, and they offered me a contract for a solo album. These plans were changed, of course, when I rejoined the band.
When you say the atmosphere 'wasn't very good'
in Gong after the recording of 'You', what exactly do you mean
Well... First of all, Daevid wanted to leave. He found the music too complex and virtuosic. Then there were differences on other subjects. I must admit that, at the time, the band indulged in some substances which in part led to its self-destruction... Then, when Daevid and Gilli finally left, not everybody agreed on which musical direction to pursue. Steve wanted to take Daevid's part, and his girlfriend Miquette Giraudy became Gilli's replacement. But it didn't really work.
Lots of things have been said on the subject of
Daevid's departure from Gong. What made him leave? Virgin? The
Not Virgin, not as far as I know. As I said before, he didn't feel at ease with the music we wanted to play. So when he left, the music became more instrumental, as no-one in the band was really a singer. By the time we recorded 'Shamal', Steve had already decided to leave. As I said before, Steve's attempts at replacing Daevid didn't really work, and he wanted to do things on his own, so he left too.
So how did you eventually take control of the
I never actually did that. When Virgin asked me back to England, I was offered a joint leadership with Didier, instead of the solo contract they had signed with me. Later, that line-up split up, and at that moment, I asked my brother Benoit and Allan Holdsworth to join. At that point, you could said I was the leader, but not before.
This was not a very long lasting line-up,
The problem was, I didn't get on very well with the bass player, Francis Moze. We had differences regarding our way of playing. He found our playing too 'classical', not 'swinging' enough, and he thought I played too much ahead of the tempo, whereas he did the contrary. I didn't agree, it depended on the kind of music that was played. But he didn't like it. So he brought in a friend of his, Mino Cinelu, a percussionnist. Anyway... I like 'Gazeuse!' very much with hindsight.
In the period that followed, the band often
went under the name of Gong-Expresso. Can you tell us more about this
Well, here's how it happened. Soon after the 'Gazeuse!' line-up split up, late in 1976, I went to New York to meet a friend. She told me about this band with a super bass player. That was Hanny, Hansford Rowe. Their drummer had just joined the US Navy, and I was offered to replace him, which I did for a few weeks. We played some nice 'soft rock' stuff, and between the rehearsals, Hanny and I jammed. That's how it started. We decided to form a new line-up of Gong. But Virgin weren't interested. Eventually, a friend of mine in the New York office of Virgin gave us money to take the plane back to France. We started rehearsing in Strasbourg, with Mireille, Benoit, Francois Causse on percussion, and Jorge Pinchevsky on violin. After a few months of hard work, we played at the big Gong reformation concert at the Porte de Pantin in Paris. The Virgin people were there, and signed us after the concert, for one album.
Then you recorded the 'Expresso II'
Yes. Darryl Way replaced Jorge for a few gigs, and played on the album. Graham Lawson, our manager, had introduced him to us. Then he left and was replaced by Bon Lozaga, towards the end of the sessions. After the recordings, I began to work with Mike Oldfield quite extensively. I recorded the track "Downwind" in Mike's studio, while we were recording 'Incantations', and Mike produced it. Later, I went on tour with him, a very large thing with fifty musicians and singers.
On the album 'Downwind', you had a new guitar
player, Ross Record. He apparently left very quickly... Yet his
playing on the album is excellent...
Oh yeah... Again, he was an acquaintance of Graham Lawson, and he played on the album cause I found his playing very warm and emotional. But in concert, it didn't work, because he had stagefright, and lost his abilities... Too bad!
At that point, the band's name had become
Pierre Moerlen's Gong, and Mireille Bauer had left. Why
I think you'd better ask her. All I can say is that I liked her compositions very much.
The next album, 'Time Is The Key' was,
according to the sleeve notes, composed in Ireland during the spring
and early summer of 1979. Any memories of that period
Sure! It was a wonderful time! I went on holiday there, in a small village name Skull, overlooking a magnificent bay, a few hundred yards away from the Rick Laird's father's house - Rick was the bass player with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I could live in such a place, lost in nature, away from cities, noises, stress... I spent eight unforgettable weeks there, with my wife Géraldine and my son Adrien. And the album, 'Time Is The Key', is still the album of mine that I like most.
There was then one last album with PMG, 'Leave
It Open'. What happened after that, why did the band split
For a simple reason : we were dropped by our label, Arista. I in turn dropped my manager, and left England to settle in Paris. I was quite a bit depressed to see everything crumble down around me. Those were the early 80's, a very difficult time for me. I auditioned for (variety singer) Maxime Le Forestier, and failed, probably because I wasn't feeling good. So I ended up playing with Magma for three months. I'd always liked Christian Vander's music, except for the 'Carl Orff' aspects... Then I rejoined the Mike Oldfield band, and toured with him, until 1984, by which time his music had become very commercial, and I was replaced by Simon Phillips.
In a quite surprising move, you then joined the
Swedish symphonic/progressive band, Tribute, an excellent band. How
did you get in contact with them?
Well, they just came to meet me backstage at a Mike Oldfield concert, at the Roskilde Festival in Sweden. That was in 1982, and three years later, they called me and asked me if I was okay to join the band. I said yes. I did several tours with them. I have good memories of that period, cause they offered me what I needed at the time... though this wasn't a really well-paid job...! Eventually, Tribute broke up, because of disgreements between Chris Rhedin, the keyboard player, and Gideon Andersson, the bass player. I had recorded a solo album with backing from members of Tribute and Hansford Rowe, so I assembled a new Pierre Moerlen's Gong line-up to promote it.
Was it already the line-up that recorded
'Second Wind' the following year?
Yes. I had Ake Zieden, the guitar player from Tribute. Hanny and Benoit were back, and we were joined by Frank Fischer on keyboards and Stefan Traub on vibes. This wasn't a very good time for me, as I'd spent so much on producing 'Breakthrough' that I litterally went bankrupt. Fortunately, we were offered to record 'Second Wind' without paying any money! We did a couple of tours in Germany, about fifty gigs in total, but that wasn't enough, so we split, in 1989.
So now you're doing a different job : playing
Well, playing drums, actually! This isn't entirely new to me, the musicals. I remember being involved in a musical in 1969-70, in Grenoble, a play by Claude Confortes entitled 'Le Marathon'. But then... nothing until 1991! I was offered to play in 'Evita', the musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. I toured with that for four months in Europe, then America. I spent 20 months on the road, in the US and Canada... I also played in 'Jesus Christ Superstar' for some time, in Switzerland, Germany and Austria! Then I went home to rest for six months!
More recently, you've been involved with 'Les
Misérables', based on the Victor Hugo novel...
That's right. I started that in January, 1995. It's a musical written by Alain Boublil, it's eight 3 1/2 hour shows every week... Quite exhausting! Sometimes I find it hard to be on the road all the time, but on the other hand I am relieved not having any financial problems anymore.
Do you have more personal projects in the works
Absolutely. I'm planning to finally record that album of solo percussion Virgin wanted me to do twenty years ago. I'm composing a lot these days. Maybe I'll form an all-percussion band, I'm not sure.
What are your best musical memories in your
Oh! Surely too many to mention! I had such great times, you know. My musical studies were very enlightening. The community life with Gong, when everything went alright, was great. Les Percussions de Strasbourg, in 1975, were also a very strong band. And most of all, the live gigs, all of them, these are very intense moments. Some with Gong, all the line-ups of Gong, some with Mike Oldfield, some with Les Percussions de Strasbourg... Those were incredible times!
(c) 1995 Calyx - The Canterbury Website