Interview and translation by Vincent Plasschaert. Thanks to Frédéric Gerchambeau for his help with the interview and for transcribing the French version. [Between capital brackets] = author’s notes.
Interview and translation by Vincent Plasschaert. Thanks to Frédéric Gerchambeau for his help with the interview and for transcribing the French version. [Between capital brackets] = author’s notes.
1. Please tell us a little about the background of the individual members before the formation of “Moderne”.
Thierry: It’s the end of the 70’s and Moderne was formed in 1979. In France there were few rock bands and the musicians, to survive, performed at what we call “Le bal” (“bal” can be compared to a dancehall or ballroom performance playing popular songs or covers). This is important to understand. During that period this makes musicians survive. It allows them to buy their instruments and to more or less “live their passion”. And so, these groups, had a very average musical level compared to the Anglo Saxons, the Belgians, the Germans, even the Italians. In short the level in France is very average (he says “assez bas”). It didn’t sound. We didn’t have that “sound-culture”. So we had a group called “Rouge Baiser”, and we played Rock. We had a fairly progressive view on Rock and were signed by RCA. We made a single but it was never released. We noticed, me [Thierry Teyssou] and Gérard [Gérard Lévy], that after Rouge Baiser we needed to get rid of the musicians and bring in the machines. It was also the time where we discovered Kraftwerk and we were very impressed. Culturally and mentally it got us, it stuck to us.
2. Who were the band members of Rouge Baiser?
Thierry: There was Gérard and I, Bernard Guimond who was a drummer, and there was also a bassist and keyboard player.
3. So there were already 3 future members of Moderne playing in Rouge Baiser?
Thierry: Yes, but it didn’t work. We had enough of it. We wanted to do something else so we bought our first synths. And above all we opened a music store in order to help us [financially] produce our first album.
4. What was the store called?
Thierry: Music Hall on “rue du Commerce” in Tours. It provided a living and at the same time allowed us to buy the gear we needed, tape recorder, mixing console and everything else. We decided that if we had to wait until a major label would sign us we could as well wait forever. So through this plot we decided to be our own producers.
5. Can you explain how you met and tell us about the background of the band members?
Thierry: We all got to know one another through common friends. Gérard had done Classical, Jazz, Free Jazz, Rock, “Le Bal”. He was quite an interesting character. When he was about to graduate his fifth year of Medicine he decided to quit in order to pick up Musicology and study the “Lute”. He was a true musician. At such a level that he could tell the frequency of a car exhaust pipe when walking down the street. Amazing. Then there is me [Thierry]. I studied sociology. In music I’m an autodidact without a musical background. I would arrange things, experiment and mainly work with my head. Meaning that I was able to compose/make the music in my head. So Gérard and me were very complementary.
6. How did the song writing work? Can you explain the process?
Thierry: In general it would kick off with Gérard making the music, or more precisely the musical basis and I would add the lyrics. But afterwards we had to create the sound together, to create a musical universe. So it was very much teamwork.
7. All this happened in Tours?
8. Can you tell us about Tours. Is it a big city ?
Thierry: No, it’s an average town. Within city limits there must be like 60.000 inhabitants. It’s a very cool town with lots of faculties (universities). Very nice to live in, pretty and not “speed” at all.
It’s almost like the south [of France]. There was a small circle of friends who liked music and wanted to make their own. That’s how it all started.
9. So initially there was Rouge Baiser and then you decided to start with electronic music.
Thierry: Yes we were fed up with the musicians [in Rouge Baiser] and there was Kraftwerk (KW) that had hit a nerve. But we could not allow ourselves to play like KW. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider who are the two brains behind KW had a vision that I would call sociological and even geographic about music. When you listen to KW you are immediately transported to the Ruhr [heavy industry area along the Ruhr river basin in Germany]. I know the Ruhr. We have been to Cologne, Dortmund and Düsseldorf. There you really understand KW’s music.
And so we were going to see what we could do with synthesizers from a French perspective, without having the Anglo Saxon culture.
We loved Anglo Saxon stuff but we couldn’t do better than them.
And it would lead nowhere trying to imitate them. The original is always better. So we decided to create our own background, our own universe, our own environment, the Loire, Tours, and Renaissance. We tried to create a new Renaissance starting from the example of Kraftwerk and using synthesizers.
10. Was there a hierarchy in the group?
Thierry: No, Gérard and me were complementary. There was never really an “ego” conflict or issue.
11. Moderne was Thierry Teyssou and Gérard Levy?
Thiery: Yes. The others came as needed. Bernard Guimond sang on the first album. Patrick Millérioux did the video. We wanted to explore the video side more but didn’t have the time. [They recorded one video. Stills were used on the cover of the first album. Sadly the video material has been lost. Thierry nor we could trace any of the video recordings made].
12. Since you wrote the lyrics, who are your big influences?
Thierry: The biggest for me is Céline. I also read the classics of course like Hugo, Stendhal, Balzac and many others. But in writing my lyrics it wasn’t these writers that influenced me. It was the newspapers that inspired me. I read loads of newspapers, La Libération, Le Monde, La Tribune, Les Echos even economic press fascinates me.
13. Who were your main Anglo Saxon influences?
Thierry: OMD or Depeche Mode. Of which one immediately felt that they would become a phenomena. The proof is that after 20 years they are still around.
14. The Human League as well? At least their first two albums?
Thierry: I don’t like the Human League as much. I like their spirit but I don’t like the sound. I prefer the Germanic sound of Kraftwerk. Very precise, proportioned and perfectionist. And this corresponds perfectly to Gerard’s spirit being someone who is very precise musically. So mentally we were much closer to Kraftwerk. In other words not too “Pop”.
15. Let’s go back to the gear you were using. It all came from your store?
Thierry: That’s right. As synthesizer we first bought an EMS-VCS3, you know with the pins and oscillators you could turn in all directions. Immediately after that we bought a Polymoog, a Minimoog and a 4 voice Oberheim. We had our own sequencer custom made as we could not find what we wanted. A friend of ours who lived in Tours and who was an electronics engineer made us the sequencer.
16. What was his name?
Thierry: His name is on the second album. It was Christian Ferré.
17. And he did the programming ?
Thierry: Yes. At least in the beginning he programmed the sequences and then he explained us how to use it. We learned a lot those days. Gérard is a good musician but the synths can be overwhelming. You are looking for a certain sound and you end up with something completely different. It’s somehow annoying because you digress and at the same time it’s fascinating as you discover stuff you would otherwise never think of. For instance the intro for to “Vers L’Est” was a coincidence. We had connected the Polymoog to the VCS3. It gave us a great sound, we switched on the reel-to-reel recorder and we had our intro.
18. “Vers L’Est” is a very good track.
Thierry: Yes, and Dominique Blanc-Francard [he worked for France-Inter a national radio station at the time] said this was our best piece. So we started recording and made a few tracks. For the first album we only wrote 8 pieces.
19. 8? But there are only 7 on the first album?
Thierry: Exactly. One of the 8 tracks “La Romance” was issued on the second album.
Thierry: There was something that didn’t work out in the arrangement. The bottom line is that for the first album we didn’t write enough songs. Not 10 not even nine, only 8. And that was quite penalizing.
Anyway we produced our first album and we needed video to go along with that. We had a friend in Bourges [100 km east of Tours] who had a large video studio in the Cultural Centre of Bourges. He had gear you couldn’t even find in the TV studios. Very sophisticated video cameras. So we went there and made a clip with very electronic effects [like the photo’s on the back cover of the first album].
Then with the clip in our hand we toured several Labels and in not even two months time a label signed us. These folks were stupefied. First of all we had a sound they had never heard and secondly because we brought them the stuff already cooked all mixed and with a video clip.
21. That’s when you signed with Arabella?
22. Wasn’t Arabella too small a label?
Thierry: No, because Arabella was a sub label of Bertelsmann BMG. And we were signed by Christian Hergott he had a lot of experience and a lot of contacts with radio stations.
In regards to this topic you must understand that in those days there were only three TV stations in France. TF1, A2 and FR3 all state run. And there were really only three radio stations. France Inter, RTL and Europe 1, no free radios, no FM. And so Europe 1 flashed (he says “flashé)”on “Indicatif” and they played it for like six months.
Then we were contacted by TF1 to make a clip at Captain Video and this clipped was later aired on TF1 television.
23. Let’s talk about the mixing a little.
Thierry: Well we had recorded our first album and we were more or less satisfied with the result. We had made the decision to do the mix down in Düsseldorf but we still had to check if that was possible.
24. So then you called Joschko Rudas?
Thierry: Yes, and also his assistant Hennig Schmitz [now a member of KW]. We agreed to a price. About 7500 euros not very expensive. So this was in 1980. We went to Düsseldorf a first time, they listen, call Karl Bartos and tell him there are some interesting “types” here and that he needs to come over and meet them. Karl Bartos replied he prefers to hear a recording. So we sent him a copy. Bartos then answered he was interested in producing us as Rudas thought there was more work to the first version. But working with Bartos never happened. Maybe for internal reasons at KW. Maybe KW didn’t want one if his members to produce another band.
So anyway we added some elements to our recordings and we went to Düsseldorf this time to start the mixing with Rudas. He was very disciplined. Hyper precise. Let’s not forget in those days everything was analog. And there we are behind a 24 track recorder and a console with I don’t know how many channels.
And so when Rudas was happy with the equalizing of one track he didn’t need to go back through it. Once it was set he didn’t touch it anymore. This gave breath to the work. We were not there to nail split, which kills a mix. And so we did one song per day. We started daily around 10h00 [10 am] and finished around 20h00 [08pm] in order not to force us. And then the final assembly but all in 8 days time.
Germanic style: efficient.
25. And so Rudas did the mix without adding stuff?
Thierry: There is reverb of course, echo, and some effects but not too many really. Because Rudas found that we already had a fairly straight sound. There are hardly any mid tones. This is not a coincidence, it’s deliberate. We didn’t like very “big” sounds. Rudas had explained if we wanted to keep this sound we shouldn’t use effects all over. Which made our mix fairly clean. I mean you can easily hear all the sounds.
26. The vocorder was added in Tours or Düsseldorf?
Thierry: We only brought our tapes to Düsseldorf not our synths. The vocorder was done in Tours. The mixing was done at the Kling Klang studios in Düsseldorf.
27. But wasn’t Kling Klang the studio where Kraftwerk did their recordings?
Thierry: No, they did the mixing at Kling Klang not the recording. Kling Klang was Joschko Rudas’ studio . Later on Kraftwerk used the name Kling Klang for their own studio and Joschko’s studio became “Joschko Rudas Ton Studio”.
28. Now using vocorders didn’t you have the intention to copy the Giorgo Moroder style somewhat ?
Thierry: We were very influenced by Moroder. We are big fans. His sound was very “Moog” with very nice rounded wave forms. So we loved that sound. What he did to Donna Summer, how he produced The Sparks…
But Moderne did not really fit into that universe. For instance, I also like a German producer called Frank Farian who produced Boney M. If you can look behind the folklore of Boney M. these are hyper productions, very well produced. So me and Gérard recognize good producers but we never tried to go in that direction for the simple fact that we were not able to.
29. Tell us a bit more about the recording process in Tours.
Thierry: We rented a 16 track reel to reel recorder for about a month and the synths we already owned. The speakers where our own. This is an important detail because when you use rented monitors your reference points change.
30. All this was installed in the shop ?
Thierry: Yes at the back of the store we had a room set up as our studio.
31. Were the recordings done live or track by track?
Thierry: Track by track. For every song we made a synchro-track to guide the sequencer. And then we recorded the song track by track with Gérard being the main influence. For instance the Vers L’Est melody was Gérard. For drums I think we used a Simmons triggered by the sequencer.
32. On the first album there are two distinctive styles. There is the romantic side with Vers L’Est, Histoire Ordinaire, Rock’n Roll Stars and then there is the other style which I call the “Jacno” style
[Jacno was/is an artist/producer real name is Denis Quilliard].
Thierry: Yes, you are making a good point. It is true that Belgian Pop or Pop-Rock has influenced certain tracks. Towards the end of the 70’s the Belgians were really ahead of us. Telex, Lio. I really love Lio’s first album recorded and mixed in Brussels. Belgium is such a crossroads of so many influences, North, East, Anglo-Saxon, French, so the results can be “genial”.
33. Still on the first album there is a track “Sans Signalement”. The intro of that track is almost identical to “Hall of Mirrors” by KW. Was this done intentional?
Thierry: No we didn’t mean to copy anything. If we did it was pure coincidence. That song by the way is 100% Gérard. But I have to tell you something about this track. We should have trashed the lyrics. It’s really no good and the vocals are absolutely zero as well.
34. The second album sounds more romantic than the first one. Is there a reason for that?
Thierry: Well, we didn’t want the second album to sound romantic we wanted it to be more danceable. But we didn’t really succeed. When I say danceable, I mean with a touch of Rhythm and Blues. If you listen to the second album there are sax sounds done with the synths, coppers, trumpets. We really wanted something more R&B. All a question of gear really. We still had the Minimoog. We also had a very good French polyphonic synthesizer called the Polykobol [I think he means the Polykobol II as the first model called Polykobol was a 4 voice prototype that never went into production]. And we also had a PPG Wave 2, an amazing thing (he says “un truc dément”) that makes hallucinating sounds/noises. And we had a new more sophisticated EMS vocorder. And of course the Simmons drum kit.
35. How did Dominique Marchetti get involved on the second album ?
Thierry: She was a friend who lived in Tours. At a given point we were researching if we would add a female voice on the second album. So we did some trials and it worked out. But nothing spectacular because at the end of the day what sank Moderne was problems with the vocals and lyrics. We should have been more radical. We were too traditional, too pop. We should have left off the vocals. Our Achilles heel has always been the writing of the lyrics and the vocals. Bernard could sing Rock’n Roll. I can also sing that way. But we shouldn’t have done like we did with Moderne. We should have found something else. We are convinced (Gérard and I) that we could have made something more durable, more efficient by limiting the lyrics and by changing the way of singing. On of our favorites is “Judo o Dojo”. That was the way to go I believe. And even there we should have dumped some of the vocals.
36. So the second album was also recorded in Tours and mixed in Düsseldorf?
Thierry: Yes same as the first but with one difference. Gérard had to leave on holiday and couldn’t change his reservations. Again we only had 8 songs made. I told him it was not enough. So I decided to write a track on my own. Went to the studio and wrote “Mercenaire Solitaire”. That song is me from A to Z and I had a lot of fun making it. So along with the other tracks I took it to Düsseldorf. J. Rudas listens and says that for a single he likes Mercenaire Solitaire better than Switch On Bach. I was surprised but in any case no decisions would be made before we were back in Paris with Christian Hergott at Arabella.
[Arabella had grown in the mean time and was distributing Depeche Mode]. And so Christian Hergott decided that he would first release Switch on Bach and then as a second single Mercenaire Solitaire.
37. Switch on Bach was this and ode to Walter/Wendy Carlos?
Thierry: Yes but there are more aspects to that song. First of all it is an ode to the album by Walter/Wendy Carlos with the same title which sounds very sumptuous and all made with a monophonic Moog, quite an accomplishment. But there is also the fact that NASA had launched a Satellite traveling towards infinity [Voyager project] in which there is a recording stored with the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach. And so if you listen carefully to Switch On Bach we are trying to imagine that somebody finds and listens to Bach’s music, out there in outer space.
38. How did the release of this single go ?
Thierry: An unexpected event took place and changed everything.
Well, we could have foreseen the event but we didn’t - “the presidential elections in France”. During the elections the media only talks about that. So all the records that came out during that period didn’t get any attention at all [he says “ni vu ni connu”]. Nobody talked about them, not on the radio, not on the TV, not in the press.
And so we made a crash landing. On top of that we overspent our budget and we were going through a rough period. So we closed the store in Tours and started a studio called “Sonic System”. We installed synths, a console, effects and we threw ourselves into the adventure of a third album. We decided we needed to find a voice, a singer. So we ran some advertisements. A fellow called Denis Marion presented himself. We did some trials and there we ran aground. It was no longer Moderne. It sounded too “Pop-Variété” [main stream Pop]. I’m not saying it didn’t sound interesting but is was no longer Moderne.
One day Gérard threw away the tapes [for the third album] and I think it was the right thing to do. On the other hand we still have the lyrics and partitions.
So that was it for Moderne and I started working in the Video sector which I’m still doing today. Gérard went back to the medical sector and things are going really well for him. I don’t know what happened to Bernard [Guimond]. Patrick [Millérioux] is now a cameraman.
About ten years later we tried to start again. Gérard had written some songs but it didn’t work out. Now Gérard is working on another project.
39. And you Thierry, do you still have musical ambitions?
Thierry: No, I’m not interested right now and the record business is very hard these days. Everything goes via internet [He explained there is too much choice and it’s very hard to surface these days].
40. One thing that puzzles me is since you had a “vidéaste” [Patrick] you should have plenty of clips and footage, no ?
Thierry Actually no. And even worse we lost the first clip. There is no trace of it nowhere, we can’t find the original recording.
41. That was the clip for Indicatif…
Thierry: Yes, but there is also a second clip for Indicatif recorded at Captain Video, but it wasn’t great. It was shown on TF1 [TV]. We also recorded some trials for the second album. We also lost those tapes.
42. You haven’t mentioned cinema yet. There are many cinematographic references in Moderne’s songs.
Thierry: That is true, but hard to define. It certainly wasn’t the intimate cinema or American action movies. Definitely, Star Wars and before that 2001 Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and of course the early David Lynch films. It’s true we did go to see the movies regularly. So you see my answer is yes, but at the same time I honestly never realized the importance of cinema in our work.
43. Another theme that keeps returning in your work is the East, Russia. Tracks like Vers L’est and Mercenaire Solitaire clearly illustrate this.
Thierry: That is correct. My parents are communists. My two brothers, sister and I have never been members of the party. Our parents never forced us to become members but we have been raised in that certain atmosphere. My father always read “L’Humanité” [a French communist newspaper] but when he visited clients he made sure he had a copy of “L’Express” [a general weekly magazine] with him [Thierry mentions this to illustrate how communists where frowned upon at the time]. But there was also the fascination for the Eastern European culture. Despite the cold war in those days there were (and always have been) strong cultural bonds between France and Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia. Historically these links have always been there. Voltaire, Diderot and the French way of life had a big influence on pre-revolution Russia. As a matter of fact I understand the Russians better than the English.
44. What does it do to you to see that after 25 years there are still fans listening to your music, talking about you and who are maybe expecting new material?
Thierry: Once Gérard visited Tiger Sushi [who re-issued Switch On Bach on the compilation “So Young But So Cold”]. “Knock knock”, they open the door and it’s all 25-year-old kids [he says “que des mômes de 25 ans”]. That was quite strange. You know how old I am, 55. And Gérard will be 59 soon. So what can I say? We are baffled.
It’s true we never lost track of the music scène. There’s stuff today we really like, other stuff we don’t. I have a 15-year-old son so I listen to music the kids listen to these days. Gerard also so we are not old cunts (des vieux cons). We have a lot of respect. Simply put for us it was difficult because there was very little going on those days. And now for the kids its really hard because there is too much going on.
45. As a last question: what are your favorite 3 tracks by Moderne?
Thierry: [without hesitation] “Vers L’Est”, “Judo o Dojo” and “Indicatif” because the latter is a very interesting song for me.
46. [teasing] Despite the fact that you wanted to dump all the lyrics?
Thierry: [laughing loud] Yes. And will explain why. It’s because “Indicatif” is a kind of answer to the “Model” by Kraftwerk. And it’s true that perhaps if we had been more precise about the vocals and lyrics it could have been a fabulous hit.
47. Okay Thierry, it’s time to wrap up. Thank you for your time, the interview and helping us re-issue your material.
Thierry: Thanks a lot, I enjoyed it.
Coming in 2009, Minimal Wave will release a Moderne retrospective which includes all their studio recordings as well as some demos. Stay tuned!
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