Pierre Moerlen is among the most loved, most creative members of Gong’s family tree. His flawless percussion technique and colorful compositional style led the way during Gong’s mid to late-70s period. I managed to catch him (by phone) in his Washington, DC suite. Pierre has been pursuing interesting new directions lately, and he was eager to tell me about them. Of course, he also had a fair share of old war stories to tell, from the Gong days of yore...
by Steve Robey, Published 1996-08-01
First of all, Pierre, what brings you to Washington DC right now?
Right now I'm playing in Les Misérables, the play based on the Victor Hugo novel. I've been in the show quite a while, actually, for 14 months now.
I'm playing until the 20th of April, playing the drum set.
I saw a production of that show in Atlanta a few years back.
Yeah, it was probably the same company. Let's see... they've been on tour seven years.
And you've been with them fourteen months?
That's very interesting. Have you had any involvement with the recent Gong Reunion shows? I know Pip Pyle has been playing the drums with these shows lately.
I have not. No, I was supposed to play on the London Gong reunion which happened last year (or was it the year before?)... and I couldn't make it — I had a problem, an involvement... I was doing a show in Scandinavia, in Finland... and I had planned to be playing but it didn't work out, so I couldn't make that. And that was the last attempt (laughs)... but I know they are touring now with Pip — he was the first drummer with the band.
Why is Pip playing instead of you?
Well, first of all, I wasn't asked to play on this tour. But I suppose they knew I was involved in musical theater, and didn't think that I was available. That's probably the reason. I haven't spoken to anyone in recent years, since that London reunion.
What other theatrical productions have you been involved with lately?
Before that I was playing on Evita, the national tour, between '92 and '94. And I was in Jesus Christ Superstar in Europe for a while, and Evita in Europe.
That's very interesting. I had no idea.
Yes, it's been a new challenge, something which contains both aspects of my classical training and my attraction to drumming, the drum set. It contains all the ingredients of different things I've done in my life.. So yes, I enjoy it a lot.. traveling new places, pretty interesting for me.
Do you strictly play the drum kit, or other forms of percussion as well?
In Les Misérables I play some percussion, some triangle, some wood blocks, and gongs and stuff included in the drum set. But I do not play any mallets right now. I keep that for later, for writing purposes.
That brings me to another question, how you approach composition. I was curious how you write pieces; some people write on a piano.. in your case I would figure a lot would be written on percussion, or is it written straight out of your head onto paper?
I used to write on percussion mostly, on mallets, vibes, marimba, bells, glockenspiel, and drums parts usually. But writing on paper, no, I don't write on paper, I've not the ability. Sometimes I wish I did. I would have to study, I suppose, to be able to do that. Some people have the ability to write what they hear. For me, it was getting on an instrument and starting to play anything, sometimes just different scales or arpeggios... or often I used to practice things, and suddenly something comes up, like a rhythmic idea, which leads me to melodic ideas. In later years, I have been writing on piano and synthesizer, because I didn't have the facility, I didn't have any vibes at hand, or a room in which to make that kind of sound without getting in trouble with the neighbors (laughs). So I wrote on the synthesizer, but it doesn't work as well as writing on vibes. Next time I write, I will do it again on mallet instruments. I have more skill, more abilities. Although I do play the piano — it was my first instrument. My dad taught me the piano, I have an average level of playing, but not quite as good as my vibe playing.
How early in life did you begin playing and studying music?
Very early, hard to tell when exactly, but very early on. My dad was a teacher at a conservatory in France, and I started studying piano and theory. And I also studied the organ, I don't know how old I was, maybe seven or eight...
How did you end up joining Gong?
That happened when I finished my studies at Strasbourg Conservatory, that was in '71 I believe, I went to Paris... but first I did some musical theater work in France, and various classical playing. At some point I decided to go to Paris for work there, because in France everything there is pretty much centered in Paris, and I had to contact addresses to get involved in the business there, which my percussion teacher had given me. It was mainly a classically oriented action to start with. A friend of mine, Patrice Lemoine, who is one of the Lemoine brothers, told me about Gong looking for a drummer. So I finally got their phone number and gave them a ring. I spoke with Didier [Malherbe] who told me to come down and try it out, see what happens. And I did, that was in January of '73. And at the time the band was [redefining] itself, it was a transition period. Laurie Allen was leaving, Steve Hillage was arriving, the bass player Francis Moze was gone, he left, so Didier was there, we jammed a little bit, and I ended up staying in that house in the south of Paris, to my teacher's despair (laughs).
How do you mean, despair?
Well, he wanted me to go to Paris and get involved with classical musicians, and find work as a classical percussionist. But actually, some months later, we played (as Paragong) a concert in my old town, and my teacher came to see the show, and he thought it was great! He was really astonished and amazed by the band. It really was around the time that you joined that Gong's musical direction took a much more musical approach, incorporated a lot of jazz elements.
How much of that was your influence?
Well, when I joined, everything was very much open. Daevid and Gilli were going on vacation, and they needed to go to Spain to their house for a while, so I suppose the band was in some kind of crisis. So the musicians got together, and finally Mike Howlett came from England, and we just basically started to jam, so it was pretty... I don't know if I can call myself a jazz musician, I've never really played proper jazz, although I've listened to a lot of stuff, but never played in any jazz bands as such... so [it was] a common effort, a common spontaneous result...
To which your classically trained technique lent a hand?
Well, I first started playing drums before going to classical percussion stuff, this is quite important for you to know I think. When I was 13 years old I started playing drums, and loved it so much that I decided that's what I wanted to be, I decided I wanted to be a professional drummer, I wanted to make a living at playing drums. At which point I lost total interest in school, I was what you call a school dropout. I said to my parents, I don't want to go to school, I want to play music. And after several months of negotiations with them, my dad came up with this idea, sending me to the Strasbourg conservatory, which had been very very strong in percussion music... It's still running, with this younger generation, they play avant-garde kind of stuff — Stockhausen, John Cage, all this kind of music. The teacher taught me the first year on the snare, which greatly helps me in my drumming. I took out French traditional military drumming, which is based on that what they teach you in the conservatory the traditional French school, which is somewhat similar to the American traditional songs, to some extent... But I kept on working on my drumming half the day; working in the morning on my classical studies, and spending the afternoon playing drums. Adapting the technique for creating, I really needed to create. I was creating my own technique, what sounds to make. At the beginning it didn't work out very nice between the teacher and me — he said that I wasn't creating with what he taught me to do. But eventually I started to learn xylophone and vibraphone, and I enjoyed that very much... And I studied for four years, and after four years I got... back then it was called "first prize" — a degree — it allowed me to play percussion as well as to compose.
What music do you enjoy listening to at this point?
At this point, well, I lost my CD player while traveling home! Oh no! But when I do listen to music, it's when I have a car, when I rent cars... Mostly I listen to modern classical music, and sometimes classic rock, sometimes jazz, but it's mostly classical music I enjoy listening to when I drive. But otherwise, my CD collection is a mixture of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Yes, King Crimson... Some of my favorites...
I also have classical music, I like some of the fairly modern composers...
Well, it's not that modern, actually... Brahms I like, Brahms symphonies, I like Debussy, Dvorak... Are you still in contact with the members of the Swedish band Tribute, with whom you did three albums?
Yes, I saw some of them, I was in Sweden, it was at the time of the Gong reunion in 1994... but basically they went different ways. The keyboard player went to Austria, I think, to study... The bass player was the twin brother of the girl singer/percussionist, and brother of [Nina] the sax player. They had been together quite a long time, and they found the need to go their own ways.
There was a rumor late last year of "Pierre Moerlen's Gong" at Progscape, with David Torn in the lineup. Was there ever a plan for this, or was it just someone’s wishful thinking?
I don't remember... I never heard of such a thing...
You had no knowledge of this at all?
Hmm... we had talked about going on the road after they recorded the Gongzilla album... I would guess that this might have just been a big misunderstanding, perhaps some words were distorted...
Because I had been down before they made the Gongzilla project. I would rather first make a new album, then hit the road at some point. So, that's all I can say about that...
Which Gong album are you most proud of?
I like Time Is the Key quite a lot. Although I would take excerpts of all my albums and make one... so I like specific pieces on each album. So rather than tell you I like Time Is the Key better than Downwind or better than Expresso, I like specific compositions on specific albums. Someday I'd love to make a compilation of all of those.
That would be great. My personal favorite is "Percolations" from the Gazeuse! album.
Yes, I'm very happy with that.
One of my favorite drum kit solos, in fact...
I would love to do an entire album of just solo percussion, using the entire range of percussion instruments. At the bottom with tympani as bass, and marimbas, bass drums, African drums, building up to the mid-range with vibes, various shaped gongs, and to the upper range with xylophone, glockenspiel, bells, cymbals, and drums of course... Yes, that piece in particular really demonstrates the wide range of sounds available.
I agree that would be a great idea.
So I'm going to do that eventually, but it takes a lot of preparation. Not only compositionally, but I also have to have a place in which I can do that. So it would take a while to get it all together.
Do you still work with your brother [Benoit Moerlen] on vibraphone?
Well, I'm doing music theater pretty much full time...
Would you think of him if you were putting together an all-percussion project?
What are your plans for the future?
At the moment, I intend to stay with the show, in musical theater, earning a living that way. I wish to move to America, find a house, get some instruments in there, some tuned percussion, drums... and write music. But you know, these days you can't just make a living out of making a solo album. It's quite tough to get a record deal unless you're trying to do top-50 type stuff. But rather than do something like playing in a symphonic orchestra, or some other kind of job, I'd rather do musical theater.
It certainly sounds very rewarding.
Yes it is, it really is.
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