Music: Vorsprung durch Technik

What links Pulp, German encrytion machines and Sixties' sci-fi soundtracks? It can only be Peter Thomas

With its anonymous symmetry, the hotel corridor seems like the perfect front for a clandestine assignation. A door opens and someone emerges with an astronaut's helmet and a smoke machine. A small elderly man waves goodbye. It's an X-File moment. Because this 71-year-old German is the secret link in pop history which connects military encoding devices to drunken Soviet troops in post-war Berlin to Donna Summer, to Pulp, to Air. This man is Peter Thomas.

Thomas's "Bolero on the Moon Rocks" last appeared in the charts as a sample on Pulp's "This is Hardcore". His imaginative orchestral arrangements, innovative use of primitive musical technology and avant-garde loopiness have attracted contemporary innovators in electronica, from Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers to the cult American loungecore band The Combustible Edisons. The latter places Thomas in the pantheon of popular composers: "While America may have the smooth jazz of Henry Mancini, Italy the lush atmospherics of Ennio Morricone, England the bold brass of John Barry, and France the Moog experimentation of Jean-Jacques Perry, Germany had all of these, rolled into one: Peter Thomas."

Thomas is promoting a new double CD, Warp Back to Earth, containing one CD of his own work and the other a reinvention of his music by musicians such as Saint Etienne, Stereolab and Coldcut. Which explains the smoke machine and the astronaut's helmet on the arm of the music-mag photographer.

He is a diminutive, casually dressed figure. His shirt conceals what look like a cravat and gold chain, which don't quite match the rest of his clothes. But they fit someone with houses and villas in Lugano, Kitzbuhel and Saint Tropez, bought from the proceeds of a vast back catalogue of film and TV sound-tracks. Thomas's wife, Cordy, who wanders in later, runs a photo agency; she is a Saint Tropez socialite who exchanges air kisses with George Michael and Elton John.

This is the 60th interview that Thomas has conducted all over Europe in the last few weeks - a punishing schedule even for a younger pop musician. As we talk, the thought occurs that mental exhaustion is the cause of Thomas's frequent conversational free-association. Such as when I ask about his life, which began in Berlin in the Twenties and now involves his work being reworked by modern electronic musicians such as Air. Not for the last time, Thomas visibly flutters like a butterfly. "Yes... It's a long way from there to today... to... Pulp. It's a long way to Tipperary... it's a long way to Pulp." But Thomas is simply an eccentric, and it is a signature of his music.

He grew up in Twenties and Thirties Berlin and began learning music at the age of five. He came from a musical family who specialised in the musical disciplines favoured in Thirties Germany. One grandfather wrote marching music for a brass band, while another was a master of a military band. He learnt the piano, which became extremely useful in the chaos of post-war Berlin, as he remembers with the insouciance of those from a generation who grew up in harder times. "It was easy to get work. After the war there were four sectors. I was playing piano in a group. For the British officers I played British music. In the American Officers' Club, American music, and Russian music in the Russian Club." Though Thomas passes this off as anecdote, it would be unsurprising if his eccentricity emerged as a response to the jarring mix of the brutal and outlandish world of a Berlin in ruins. While he was playing to Russian officers, a soldier put a gun to his head and told him to play the "Minute Waltz" in a minute, or be shot. Displaying a facility for improvisation which stayed with him through his music career, he completed the piece; the soldier was so impressed that he offered him a job.

But the major influence on Thomas was the American music that had been banned by the Nazis. Until musicians got hold of sheet music from the GIs in post-war Berlin, his knowledge of the American idiom was limited. He recalls with wonder: "Before the end of the war, the only thing I had heard was `Jeepers Creepers' and maybe a couple of others. I came to know Gershwin and Cole Porter's `Night And Day'. With American music I learnt that you had to play from the heart as well as the head. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could do."

Perhaps the accelerated introduction to this variety of musical styles left its mark on Thomas. His work ranges from writing brooding sound-tracks for thrillers such as The Edgar Wallace Mysteries to the futuristic brass of Space Patrol, a cult German Sixties sci-fi series whose "Bolero on the Moon Rocks" provided the horn samples for "This is Hardcore".

If this sample displays Thomas' skill in orchestral arrangements, Warp Back to Earth exhibits his experimental character, evident in Space Patrol. Written in 1966, the album is credited with the first recorded use of the vocoder, which was made fashionable again last year by Air (and promptly made unfashionable again by Cher on "I Believe"). Thomas used a vocoder he had discovered in the basement of a Siemens factory in Munich. In the inverse evolutionary logic of technology, this baby vocoder was so big that you could walk inside it.

The origin of the vocoder is in military encrypting machines. "In the Second World War," says Thomas, "you could speak into a vocoder device in Berlin, and then hear it decoded in Paris. In Space Patrol, I thought about how I could make a marriage between two instruments, a voice and a cello. The marriage was in the vocoder. I asked the cello player to play a long note. He asked: `How long a note?' I said: `Until Christmas.' Then I spoke the countdown." And the rest is disco.

It is uncanny the extent to which genealogies of popular music can be traced back to Peter Thomas. If German disco queens were the fathers, so to speak, of American hi-energy and, eventually, house music, Thomas was in at the very beginning. He worked with Donna Summer before Giorgio Moroder, putting out her first single, "Black Power". "Donna's name was originally Donna Gaines," he says. "She was singing in Germany. My bass player told me I should come and see her. So my wife wrote a song called `Black Power'. Our band was playing in a black bar in Munich and the audience loved Donna's song. I sent the tape to the directors of five American record companies and they said `"Black Power"... budda-be, budda-ba, she can't sing.' A year later Giorgio Moroder came... It took years before a DJ played an eight-minute song called `Love to Love you Baby' and a star was born."

Thomas is of the same generation as the artist Joseph Beuys. I ask whether he sees any comparison between his artistic journey from Germanic brass- band music to international avant-garde, and Beuys's own search for a new artistic vocabulary. He thinks for a moment. "Beuys made art with soap and wax. He was my age. He was experimental and no one understood him. Now he's dead, and young people think he's a great man. He made young people think in an open way, and I'm also a bit open in my music."

So what does he make of the open way in which his own music was re-fashioned on Warp Back to Earth? Thomas again becomes animated, and his metaphors, like his music, surf the orbit of sense. "I hate the word `remix'. The best remix is when the original disappears. Peter Thomas meets Stereolab, ColdCut, The High Llamas, and you turn it, grill it, steam it, kiss it and make a new sound. Unfortunately, Air aren't on the CD. Their version will be out a little bit later, alligator."

The `Warp Back to Earth' single is released on Mon. The album is released on 15 March

Fans' Notes

Bob Stanley,

Saint Etienne

"I first came across Space Patrol when it came out, but I really liked his compilation album Moonflowers and Mini-Skirts. I liked the idea of people like Moroder and Thomas conducting these sound experiments."

Tim Gane, Stereolab

"He is a brilliant arranger but he also writes his own music which isn't always the case. The arrangements are somewhat strange but very interesting, a bit like Morricone."

Jonathan Moore, Coldcut

"Peter Thomas is a man of pictorial music. What's attractive about his music is both the cinematic quality and the idiotically naive psychedelia. I call it psych-rock. It's difficult to quantify `the funk', but Thomas has it."

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