Drama, disco & Divas : Tom Moulton Talks


Island are readying themselves to re-issue the first three Grace Jones albums, all produced by the disco pioneer Tom Moulton. Created at the peak of Moulton's career, the album's pulsate with the camp, drama, melody and rhythm that defined the early days of disco, and, as an artistic statement, they put Jones firmly on the map. Moulton himself has a million stories to tell – this is, after all, the man who pretty much invented the remix and the 12" single – but we thought we'd pin him down to the two year period when he was travelling between New York and Philly, creating a trilogy of records that remain classics to this day..

What stands out for you when you listen to the Grace Jones trilogy today?

Well, all the time and effort that it took to make them really. That’s what I think back to. Working in the studio with her, and how her managers really talked me into producing it for her, as I really did not want to be a producer. I just liked the idea of being a mixer and not having to deal with all the troubles and tribulations of producing. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but you know when you get a tape and put it on the machine and then you work on it and then you give it back. It’s wonderful; you don’t have to deal with the situations that can happen during recording. It was just around the time that I’d actually said, ‘knock on wood, I won’t have to deal with any of that.’ But then yeah, I got talked into doing Grace Jones and it was an experience for me too as I’d never met anyone who had such determination to make it as she did. When she said to me, ‘Whatever it takes.’ – believe me, she meant it. 

So how did you find working with her? I’m assuming you didn’t know each other before you started doing the album. 

No, I didn’t. I give her a lot of credit, but when I got her, it was like getting an adolescent, I mean that in the terms of singing, as she was still taking lessons and trying to get there. But as we worked together more I could see her constantly improving and that’s because she was determined to make it. 

The three albums were produced over two years, it’s quite a body of work to do in such a short space of time. Do you feel that they progressed a lot over the course of them? 

Oh yeah, absolutely. She was taking singing lessons twice a week and it was exciting working with her. I’m a pusher any way- I tell everyone that I work with that I’m not trying to build a friendship, I’m trying to make a great record. That’s all I care about, making the record as good as I can possibly make it, and I had those conversations with Grace many times. I really pushed her and she did it for me. 

Did you both fall out at all? 

Well, I’m not sure if I can tell that story… I guess I can. When we were doing the second album it got to the point where she got the star struck thing and her managers were babysitting her all the time. I always used to tell Grace that we didn’t rehearse in the studio; we record, as I’m prepared when I come into the studio so I expect you to be too. Anyway, something happened and she didn’t want to do this or that and I got mad and yelled something like, ‘Dammit Grace, with so little you can please so many.’ You know, I was just angry. I live in New York and I was going down to Philly to do this, so expected her to be up to do stuff too. 

Her management said to me ‘Tom, Grace isn’t going to sing unless you apologise to her.’ So I just said ‘okay’, picked up my bag and went back to New York. 

You refused to apologise? 

Well no, I can just be a very difficult person sometimes when it comes to doing something. There’s only one way, and that’s either my way or the wrong way. Haha! But I’m a perfectionist, so I expect the best out of somebody. Maybe it’s downfall of mine… Anyway, I got back to New York and the phone started ringing, so I answered and got ‘Hi Tom, how’s it going? We’re in the studio!’ 

So I said, ‘I hope you’re getting something.’ 

Then they said, ‘Well what happened?’ 

So I replied with, ‘Well you said she wasn’t going to sing unless I apologised and there was no way in hell that was going to happen. So I left.’ 

Did you end up going back? Or was that it? 

No, that wasn’t it. We rescheduled it for a following week and made sure that Grace was going to be prepared so that it wouldn’t happen again. Then after that it was okay. 

And then you made another album after that. 

Yep, we did a third album. 

Have you got a favourite out of the three of them? 

It’s hard to pin it down. I like the first one because of La Vie En Rose and then, of course I love the one that has Do Or Die or it. I love that. I asked the guy who wrote it whether he intentionally wrote things that related to her; as if they did she really grasped it. The bit where she sings, “Taurean's are determined. Nothing is going to stand in their way.” – I said, “Boy, you got that right.” 

She was a Taurus and it was so funny. But Jack did a great job on that song. I’d call and tell him that I need some kind of song, and he’d come up with it. Grace really was unique in a lot of ways. Her style, how she always took care of herself, she was always going to Pilates and keeping her body in great shape, then on top of that singing all the time. I don’t know how she ever had time to perform, she was always either taking singing lessons or working on her body! 

Did you ever go into the albums with a grand plan, or did they just fall together? 

With the first album, she said she wanted to be a singer, which is why I picked those three songs. I picked really Broadway songs, songs that were meant for a singer. Because she said that, I also thought I’d give her some challenges then. I was actually really scared after Tomorrow. I got a letter from the guy that wrote it that, saying that he’d heard the song and he’d not really thought it would be sung in that way but, nevertheless, he liked how it had come out. I got a lot of that. But it was nice. At least he liked it. 

Were you taking it out and hearing it the clubs to get feedback on how the tracks worked in the disco? 

After the first one, oh yes. I’d get feedback all the time. In fact, she got so popular… The whole idea was, in the beginning, she wanted to do whatever it took to become famous. I mean whatever. With I Need A Man, I had an idea and was friends with a DJ called Jimmy Stuart, who played at a place called 12 West. It was primarily a gay club, and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got this song can you listen to it and tell me what you honestly think.’ He said that he really loved it and asked what the words were like. I just said that it didn’t matter yet as I’m working on it with a singer. So he played it out, but that meant everyone only knew it as an instrumental. I was going to have her sing it live over that track, so I took her down to 12 West, and Grace was looking good. She hopped up onto this ledge that was halfway up the wall and grabbed the mic and started singing "I need a man" and everyone was screaming and yelling. After the song and the applause it calmed down and she goes, ‘I don’t know about you honey…. But I need a fucking man!’ The place went crazy. She really knew how to work a room. That’s when the whole thing took off. 

Because I always feel that you were such a product of New York, were you trying to bring that down to Philly with you? Was there ever a bit of friction there? 

From whom? From her? 

Maybe friction was the wrong word. Was it strange bringing this whole scene to a record where maybe it wouldn’t have much sense outside of the context of New York? Did you ever feel you had to explain yourself a bit? 

Well, I actually had a lot of success out of Philadelphia. New York is a big city, but then so is Philly. But then Philadelphia works at a slower pace than New York. The tempo in Philly is slower and less frantic, and I actually like working at that pace. When I made records in New York, I always felt that I was under pressure because the musicians knew they only had me for an hour before they went to another studio. But in Philly, musicians would be in one studio for the whole day and you didn’t have to worry about them going off somewhere. I just don’t really like that pressure, and I always say that hassle makes waste, so… 

Did having musicians for a longer period of time lend itself to making a more layered sound on the record? 

Well, when I’d be using the guys on the rhythm section we’d be able to cut two or three songs, rather than just one. The musicians were always professionals so it always worked out and they had an idea of what I would want. It went pretty smoothly most of the time. 

Listening back, is there anything that you wish you hadn’t done? 

I’m not big on regrets. I don’t think like that. Sometimes when were doing something I’d run it down and get people to redo it or something. Remember, there was no such thing as loops or anything back then. It was prehistoric times when I think back to it really. When you think of all the things you can do now, nothing is impossible. Back then, everything had to be done by hand and manually so the thought process of doing something that seemed impossible was out of the question. Now though, you can do everything so creatively and you can change the pitch of a note or whatever. There are so many things you can do, but we didn’t have that sort of thing so the things you’d think of were more reality than impossible. When we’d finish the song, I’d always get the drummer to keep on playing so that I could get the song to link into another as there wouldn’t be any leakage of the bass or anything like that. Thinking ahead was key really. 

When you were doing things like seguing album tracks it must have been alien for many listeners, it was so new. Did people in the industry get what you were doing? 

They couldn’t really understand, no. Because, remember, I’m from the old school. I was a salesman in a record store and then I was a salesman for a record label and then I was a promotion man. All you kept hearing was the shorter the better, because that’s good for radio play. If you make a record that’s two and half minutes the radio loved it. If it was 3 and half minutes it might not get as much play because when you get to the end of an hour and you’ve got just over 2 minutes left, you can throw that short song on. I do see the advantages of a good record, but remember the whole idea behind making long records originally was so that once a DJ had put the record on, they could have a lunch break or go to the bathroom! That was the whole concept, I was doing it for the DJ, I wasn’t thinking of the people dancing. Why should they have to urinate in a bottle? 

Were you surprised when it caught on beyond the DJ? 

Yes, in a way I was. Like with anything, I try to think of doing those albums as classical pieces where you have those different movements in the music. I tried to think a bit like that. Maybe I gave the music a lot more credit than I should have, but I tried to really think of it that way, that the whole side was a story. I always felt that music, no matter what it was, you need to be able to enjoy listening to it. That to me is very important with music. 

I’m interested in the fact that over in England, and Europe actually, these albums and lot of your earlier stuff are considered seminal works. They’re very highly regarded, even in the mainstream. How is the legacy viewed in America?  Do you think it gets attention, as dance music is getting more understood now isn’t it? 

I think it’s more over there than here. I don’t want to bad mouth what they do here, but any type of soulful music is considered great over there, but here it’s just seen as a bit meh. I have a hard time understanding that.  We all have the same kind of emotions, we all feel, we’re all human, so why can’t you accept something for what it is? If it makes you act emotionally – act emotionally. But here, they just don’t seem to care, where as over there they seem to value soul and music that has feeling to it. 

It’s interesting, because I’ll be talking to people who are huge names over here in England but in America they’re maybe not even recognised. It’s often quite hard for us to get our heads round that. 

I don’t understand that at all. If someone is great in England, why aren’t they great here? Nothing has changed! I gave up trying to figure it out. 

The last thing that I know that you did was in 2006. Have you done anything else since then? 

Well, I did the Philadelphia Classics. That’s still doing very well. The Philly Re-groove as well. I’m also working on a Spring Event box, Spring and Events both being labels. I’m doing that for the UK. What else am I doing? Oh! I’m got a soul singer album coming out which is where I took 4 soul singers and put them together and I’m making a whole album out of it. I’m just getting tired of what they call soul in this country, so I just wanted to do what I call soul music. 

What do you think of as soul music? 

Well, I like soul music that is all done with real musicians rather than it all coming out of a box. I’m very funny about the word soul though, and when it’s used, and I just can’t really believe that soul comes out of a machine. It just doesn’t relate to me. It doesn’t work. 

I take it that you weren’t a big fan of the house music explosion? 

Um, it just sounds a bit generic after a while. Some of it I do find interesting, but some of it I just think that after a while it just stays too constant. It doesn’t go up or down, so it doesn’t have a pulse, it’s just like a machine. 

So with the stuff that you’re working on now, would you still in the back of your mind be thinking about whether a DJ is going to be playing it, or is that part over for you now? 

I don’t think of it like that because when I started getting involved with music in the early 70’s, you took away a DJ’s creativity by making things too easy for them. In those days, if you loved a record then you’d just figure out a way to play it. Believe me, a lot of these DJ’s were so incredible, because that song Look Me Up by Blue Magic, it was difficult to mix and people would find ingenious ways of playing that record because it made everyone flock to the dance floor. When you started having these DJ friendly intro’s and outro’s, DJ’s started saying that they didn’t want to play stuff because it didn’t have an intro. In a way, you take away some of the creativity of the DJ by making everything too easy for them. I said that in the beginning, if you make everything too easy for them, then anybody could be a DJ. The guys that take things that you couldn’t normally play, you then lose those guys. There’s no interest in them anymore because everyone and their mother wants to be a DJ it seems. 

The Grace Jones Disco Years box set, collecting all three Tom Moulton albums, and all sorts of extras, is released on May 4th. Order it over here on vinyl or CD