A year after his death, a new boxed set celebrates
the unusual career of Marc Moulin
DJ and journalist Bernard Dobbeleer looks at the life and work of jazz/electronic pioneer Marc Moulin.
Brussels, 1986. Miles Davis, an absolute genius but as capricious as a diva, had resigned himself to the idea of giving some interviews to promote his first album for Warner, “Tutu”. From behind impenetrable dark sunglasses, he took visible pleasure in destabilising the interviewers. However, it was at this time that Davis granted a long and passionate interview for Belgian TV. They had never met, but Davis knows that Marc Moulin is also a musician. They clicked. Usually unbearable, Davis relaxed. He sketched during the interview. As he left, he offered the drawing to Moulin and even invited him to send him a track. Marc never wanted to take this offer seriously. Or more likely, never dared to imagine working with the musician that, in his own words, “guided his life” and the only musician whose records he collected.
Outside Belgium, most people discovered Marc Moulin through his later Blue Note albums. In three episodes, he redefined in his terms the principles of Chill Out/Lounge and electro jazz, very popular in the early part of the decade. The success was saluted from Sydney and Porto to London and New York, and could not be defined as opportunism despite a very favourable atmosphere. At the time, House yearned to be luxurious and jazzy. Along with Down Tempo, it was the official soundtrack of trendy hangouts. Particularly since Moby had conquered the world two years earlier with the album “Play”, a basic but effective combination of blues and electronica. And just a few months before the release of “Top Secret”, another Blue note artist St Germain converted millions of electronic fans to jazzy sounds with “Tourist”.
Pioneer in jazz and electro
Far from being a follower, Marc Moulin could legitimately claim to be a pioneer in the genre, as can be seen by his career in the early 70s. Thirty years after his first release, this man of all genres that was as comfortable in jazz and electro as he was in pop, produced the synthesis of a life devoted to his eclectic passions in his three last albums. Chopin, comic strips, Brian Eno, Tex Avery, Marvin Gaye, Ktaftwerk, Ben Sidran and Miles Davis are the common threads. As in all Moulin’s work, these three albums are steeped in quite a lot of soul, a little Slavic melancholy, rarefied aesthetics and a purity of conception that is close to architecture. Nor forgetting the modest but mischievous stance so typical of Brussels. With a keen sense of second degree humour, he maliciously pointed out the obvious when he stated, “There will always be people that ask Stevie Wonder why he sings like Jamiroquai”.
“There will always be people that ask Stevie Wonder why he sings like Jamiroquai
Moulin founded Placebo in the early seventies, mining a jazz fusion vein laid down by Weather Report and Soft Machine. In 1999, Kirk Degiorgio, when signing the liner notes of the “Placebo Session” compilation for the British label Counterpoint, insisted on the relevance and visionary side of the group: pre-Hip Hop rhythms; hypnotic synths; and sound experiments. Everything was destined to make these cult albums. When “digger” such as DJ Shadow and others were hunting down rare pearls later in the nineties, the 75 album “Sam Suffy” released just after the end of Placebo, was being bought and sold for huge sums in London, Tokyo and San Francisco. DJ Vadim, Jill Scott, Jurassic 5, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Aim and others drew inspiration and sometimes re-built new tracks using this raw material.
Looking to the next project
A sharp observer of the inevitable “hype/backlash” cycle, Moulin was greatly amused by the new interest in a period of his career that was all but forgotten. A period whose keyword was freedom and when the possibilities of sound seemed almost limitless, but for which he felt no nostalgia. He always preferred to look to the next project rather than dwelling on his past. Since 1978, and unlike Placebo, he had explored the possibilities offered by synthesizers with Telex. Apart from socio-economic factors, the history of popular music is also a history of technology. The sound possibilities often determine the form and texture of the music. More than the demonstrative virtuosity that was the in thing in the jazz rock years, Moulin put considerable stress on the “sound”. So much so that when he was a radio producer and programmer, he would rate records between 1 and 5 for their sound quality…
I first met Marc Moulin in the early 80s. At the time, jazz and Placebo were distant memories. He was the big shot of a revolutionary FM radio station in Belgium, Radio Cité. He was also an active member of the electronic trio Telex, whose “Moskow Discow” had made the whole planet dance, and was having considerable success producing French-speaking singers. Like everyone else, I was impressed by his imposing height, fascinated by his calmness and his Isaac Hayes-like deep voice. And by the words of this sharp aesthete through whom I discovered The Slits, Fela Kuti, Steve Reich, Thomas Dolby and the Residents. A model in my youth and an inspired programmer, he was also the mythical voice of Radio Cité, a research lab for FM radio FM in Europe. Despite his status as a radio boss, Marc Moulin cultivated the detached air of a dilettante but showed determination in his work. Despite the scale of his activities and progressive retreat from the world of music from the 90s onwards, he never stopped working secretly on little compositions in his studio.
We had floods a few years back. That’s why my [jazz] collection stops at the letter S. It’s a little heartbreaking, I must say
During the birth of the first Blue Note album, I was lucky enough to hear what were only working versions. But the core was already there. Moulin welcomed me to his home, in his studio where he kept his collection of jazz records. It boasted an impressive rack of shelves loaded with vinyl from the ground to the ceiling. In his laconic tone, he pointed out: “We had floods a few years back. That’s why my collection stops at the letter S. It’s a little heartbreaking, I must say.” Marc could demonstrate cutting irony when faced with the vexations that life can bring. This sense of derision was most likely inherited from his Uncle Oleg. Moulin enjoyed his aphorisms such as, “You only live once, but that’s enough to give you an idea of what it’s about.” And in this world of absurdity, maybe there were also people that asked Oleg why he imitated Woody Allen…
Marc Moulin’s “second career”
Marc Moulin’s second musical career at the beginning of the 21st century – or more precisely his third after Placebo and Telex – owes a lot to two men in the background. First, Alain Debaisieux, sound engineer, musician and an inspired handyman. Since the 80s, he had helped Marc feel totally at home in a world that was already invaded by computers. Marc maintained that Alain initiated him into computing, a domain in which he quickly saw the potential. Debaisieux does not entirely confirm this version… They met while Marc was producing the album “Tendres Fièvres” for the French singer Alain Chamfort in Brussels. He needed a sampling synthesizer and the young man owned an Emulator II. They clicked immediately, and quickly became friends. Debaisieux also produced his ambient album “Maessage” in 1991. He accompanied him for all the radio and TV shows as a sound designer and was the first person to re-master the Placebo albums. In concert, he handled the visuals. It was also Alain who co-mixed “Top Secret”. Marc had an obsession for sound, but also an obsession for friendship. He liked to surround himself with friends. This is how he saw the recording sessions and rehearsals.
But the architect of his return to solo work is definitely Gilbert Lederman. As Artistic Director with EMI Belgium, he signed Marc to the prestigious Blue Note label. Gilbert is a sound engineer by training, passionate about music and an unconditional fan of Marc Moulin, whom he knew since the 70s through his radio shows and concerts. He also met Fela Kuti in Nigeria, worked as a sound engineer at Studio Katy near Brussels (where Marvin Gaye had recorded the album “Sexual Healing” a few years earlier). Marc and Gilbert had met in the 80s when Marc was producing Kid Montana, the group of his brother Jean-Marc – a future Weathermen and sideman for singer Alain Bashung.
Gilbert dreamt about seeing Marc on Blue Note. But he had to use some cunning to get him to decide to launch into the adventure. After an afternoon of talking about other things, it was with his hand on the doorknob – rather like Inspector Colombo and his famous “Just one more thing…” – that he suggested the deal. This fake exit quickly became a new departure. With this new project, paradoxically, Marc started producing dance music, despite the fact that he never danced. In fact, Marc practically never left home. His son Denis, a talented musician and producer, handled a lot of the remixes, as well as mixes for “Top Secret” and “Entertainment”. This instinctive and naïve approach to the music gave the fresh tone to the Blue Note albums.
“Top Secret” and the single “Into the Dark”, brought Marc his biggest success and international recognition. But the album’s release in 2001 was a surprise for many people. His compatriots knew that he had switched to a domain that suited him perfectly, as an editorialist in Télé Moustique magazine. He had also written two plays and an essay, “La Surenchère (L’horreur médiatique)”, a visionary and pessimistic criticism of media. Those that followed him thought he had abandoned music as a writer and performer as he had for some time limited himself to being a producer. In this role he had accepted to become a member of the jury for a TV show for young artists, to whom he always gave precious advice. This is where he discovered the singer Christa Jérôme, who appeared on his three albums and at each concert.
Marc took on the role of producer in 1974 for jazz guitarist Philip Catherine, whose dazzling phrasing naturally later found its way onto his albums. Michael Cuscuna, the famous Blue Note Records producer and responsible for the magnificent Miles Davis reissues, remembers the period. “I first met Marc Moulin through Philip Catherine in 1975. Marc was warm, friendly and modest and I immediately liked him very much. In fact, at the time he was doing a daily jazz show and producing Philip’s recordings and it wasn’t until years later that I learned he was a keyboard player of considerable talents. His music, like his personality, was tasteful, wide-ranging, friendly and creative.” In the 80s, when Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top admitted to being inspired by Telex for the album “Eliminator”, Marc was working with The Sparks on an album that more than anything marked the start of a long friendship with the Mael brothers, also present on “Top Secret”. Apart from numerous productions carried out for his amusement, in 1986 he worked on “Picnic”, a record that he preferred to forget as he felt the production was dated. One track worth remembering, however, is the interesting and visionary “Scat”, in which he produced a first synthesis of jazz and electronics.
15 years after “Picnic”, “Top Secret” would open new perspectives. But this late success was the last thing Marc was looking for. To be an artist, you have to expose yourself. And he never liked the idea of showing himself. As he preferred to raise a smile rather than a laugh, he preferred funk to gangsta rap and discretion to a spotlight. Nothing was more distasteful to him than to become famous. And to be sure this dark possibility never occurred, he always ensured that he never appeared on the sleeves of his solo albums. The solution had the benefit of reconciling his legendary dry humour with a safely-guarded cult of discretion. The idea had already been used in the 70s with Telex when they always appeared in masks. The concept was perfected by Daft Punk years later. “This attraction/repulsion for fame is the story of my life,” he confessed to me upon the release of “I Am You”.
In any case, his meeting with Christa had brought him the desire to compose again. Christa: “We worked on various songs, but he wanted to give me the time to find my way, to mature.” Some themes, some ideas, were re-used on Marc’s albums. The first album’s success – he was hoping to sell maybe 5000 copies – surprised and encouraged him to go further. This meant that Christa’s album would have to wait. He thought he would have time to finish the project. One of the most beautiful examples of what the album could have been is the ballad “Promised Land”, often played in concert but never included on an album.
After “Entertainment” in 2004, the logical musical follow-up to “Top Secret”, Marc hooked up with his old writing partner Jacques Duvall for the lyrics to “I Am You”. On his earlier albums, the songs were often just extracts of phrases that he worked with on samplers. With “I Am You”, the evolution was clear, more soulful, more like songs. He had found the magic formula, finally bringing together everything he loved with – as ever – the loyal Bert Joris on trumpet. This is the balance that he was ready to develop on the fourth album that will never be released, unfortunately. We can get an idea of the direction that he was considering with the cover of “Comme à la radio”, a dark and hypnotic track created in 1969 by the French chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Marc used his own voice, like on the radio. As if to remind us why we loved Marc Moulin and how he became an example of finesse and uprightness for two generations of listeners, readers and music lovers.
Bernard Dobbeleer DJ, journalist