Though primarily involved in classical composition these days, Craig Leon was there at the start of the Max’s/CBGB’s scene as an A&R man and producer for the Ramones, Blondie and Suicide.
Leon went on to compose several visionary albums of electronic music – a couple have recently been re-recorded/re-released on the RVNG label. His best known is 1981’s Nommos, and he’ll be performing it at this year’s totalising CTM Festival, on Thu, Jan 29 at HAU1.
Are you still writing electronic music?
I have two new electronic projects that are coming out next year. I stopped doing pop music after the last Blondie hit that we had.
That comeback record in 1999.
They never went away, they were just too lazy to make another album. They were probably, you know, too bored to break up or something. [Laughs] After that I went into what I guess you would call the classical side of things, and a number of the things I did on that were electronic and orchestra together. I’m in the process of doing an album right now with Moog, actually. They’ve created a system for me where I can easily run the orchestra through Moogs.
To your specifications?
We worked on a system that’s an actual polyphonic Moog system, that’s in a little bit greater depth that what was previously available but you can gang a bunch of them together – we’ve got 16 voices in polyphonic Moog at the moment, and I can take audio in and I can run pre-recorded orchestra and live orchestra straight through it.
Your career is reminiscent of the great krautrock producer Conny Plank, who was also a technical innovator, and was ahead of the game with elec- tronic music.
I knew him during that time. When I worked in a record company in New York years-and-years-and-years ago, virtually before I set Sire Records on the road to signing local New York bands, I wanted to sign all the German bands: Can, Ash Ra Temple and everything on the Cosmic Couriers label, except that they weren’t quite above-board people. We were close to signing Kraftwerk. Uh, but we didn’t sign any of them. Because my boss, Seymour Stein, didn’t have a lot of money.
You saw the roots of art-punk in krautrock when most lumped it in with Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Lumped in with all of that and anything that had synthesisers. I wasn’t a fan of any of those bands from England. The German synthesiser music was radically different, actually far more techno and far more musical than the English prog rock that used synthesisers. It was more or less the way that I like to use synthesisers still – as a alternative musical instrument rather than as kind of an effect-y noise-making thing. It’s almost like another analogue instrument that adds other depth to an orchestral landscape.
One band that had a similar electronic approach was Suicide, whose first album you produced.
They weren’t really electronic! “Frankie Teardrop” and all those things that are on that, that was all done with the studio effects with basically analogic equipment that was run though radio amplifiers and Farfisa organ and all kinds of stuff that was treated. They didn’t own a synthesiser at the time we made the first album – they couldn’t afford one. It was no secret: everybody in the scene was a performance artist and I think everybody would have been aghast if you had called them a punk band. With the exception of Suicide who, I think, coined the phrase “Punk Rock Music”.
Craig Leon w/ Piotr Kurek, Thu, Jan 29, 19:30 | HAU1, Stresemannstr. 29, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor
Originally published in issue #134, January 2015.