This interview with Benoît Moerlen was conducted by mail in August 1995 for an article on Pierre Moerlen published in Big Bang and Facelift.
What were your beginnings in
I was born in Colmar on February 6th, 1956. I started in music by learning the piano with my parents, then I did a bit of guitar, and eventually I settled on percussion at about 16, following several years of hearing Pierre practicing every day at our house. Very soon I was particularly attracted to "keyboard" percussion, such as vibraphone, marimba, etc. Though I was never part of Les Percussions De Strasbourg, I did study with Jean Batigne, their leader at the time, between 1972 and 1975.
Your first recorded performance was on
[Alsacian progressive band] Wapassou's debut album, in 1973. How did
that come about?
I got in contact with them through Guénolé Biger, Ange's drummer at the time now playing with Les Négresses Vertes I think. I only did the session, then that was it!
In 1974, you took part in the sessions of
"You", but you weren't a member of Gong until 1976. Why was that
I was still studying at the Conservatoire in Strasbourg when Pierre asked me to join them in Oxford where they were recording "You". My first encounter of Gong was quite a shock, I must say, and I wasn't really tempted to join them. I didn't feel at all concerned by the music, nor by their cosmico-delirious pseudo-philosophy or the way of living that resulted from it. Yet I immediately felt some sort of common musical spirit with Didier Malherbe and Steve Hillage... I didn't join until "Gazeuse!", which was a fantastic time for me, but ended too quickly unfortunately. I stayed in Gong, later Pierre Moerlen's Gong, until 1979, shortly after Pierre and I did that tour with Mike Oldfield.
I was feeling like we were in some sort of musical dead-end. I felt the need to do something else, something new, which was impossible for me in Gong. So I left London to go to Paris, where my daughter was born in 1980. Oldfield called me again for a second tour, I said yes immediately of course. I really like Mike, both as a man and an artist. He has very clear ideas of what he wants to do, and he has that rare ability to hear both the details and the general feeling of a piece of music. It was only for "legal" reasons, problems with the Musicians' Union, and financial limitations, that I wasn't on the subsequent tours.
So what did you do during the eighties
I worked mostly for theatre, sort of improvised stuff. With the Scarface Ensemble, I did "Antoine et Cleopatre", with which we toured France. I played with them again in 1990-91 for two shows, "Rivage A L'Abandon" and "Un Ennemi Du Peuple". Then "Vaterland" in 1983-84 and "Memoires D'Un Visage Pale" in 1985-86 with Les Federes. "Memoires..." was an adaptation of "Little Big Man" for theatre. Then I did "La Sentence Des Pourceaux", again with Les Federes, in 1987. In 1985, with L'Attroupement II, I was involved in a show named "Le Printemps", which was about the Renaissance period, with music written by Jean-Claude Guignard. And in 1986, I found myself involved in a "rock circus" show at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, "La Fontaine Circus". Apart from that, I followed a course in data processing for music in 1988...
No real bands?
Oh, I played in quite a few as well. I was in Bekummernis, Urban Sax, Abus Dangereux where I met the great Bobby Rangell (sax), ONKRR ("prehistorical music of the future"... very funny, very nice to play on enormous rudimentary percussion instruments! Some very interesting musicians were involved, like Henri Agniel. Apart from that I was always a drummer rather than percussionnist.
In the late 80's, you worked with Pierre again
in a new PMG line-up for an album and a couple of European
Yeah. Hansford specifically asked that I be involved. I wrote a piece for the album, "Second Wind", called "Say No More", and after the album's release we did a short tour, but everyone's motivations had changed... I was feeling like wearing shoes my feet didn't fit in anymore... Too much water under the bridge, I guess. Then I played on Mike Oldfield's "Islands" album. I also took part in another band project by Hansford Rowe and Jon Catler, and extraordinary guitar player. He has this fascinating concept of playing, called the "Just Intonation", which has attracted the interest of composers like LaMonte Young and David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir. The band was called Steel Blue, a rock/blues band which did a memorable performance at the Mulhouse Jazz Festival in 1989, with Francois Causse on drums. I was playing on a totally retuned vibraphone!!! Unfortunately, I couldn't do the American tour or the album which came out some months ago.
That's a four-year gap until
I settled in the Vosges region in the late 80's. I mostly do some teaching, a bit too much, I play a bit, I quietly write a few pieces. I formed a band in 1991, that was a very good experience while it lasted, but it was too heavy to keep going, seven people involved...
It was going to be Gong, but two days before the sessions were due to start, Pierre called and said he couldn't do it. Only he knows why... I'd brought five pieces, two and a half were used, the others were considered too jazz-oriented or whatever. We rehearsed with Lionel Cordew on the drums. For schedule reasons Lionel wasn't able to play on the whole album so we called Perowski and Stevens. Allan Holdsworth was there for three days, we were all happy to see each other again, for the first time since 1977... He has very good memories of his time with Gong... and so do we!!!
(c) 1995 Calyx - The Canterbury Website