Though his name may not fire off many sparks of recognition outside of some seriously informed heads, Daniel Lacksman has been a central figure in European pop and electronic music for the past five decades. Much of his work has happened behind the scenes, serving as a producer or engineer for recordings by Sparks, Shirley Bassey, Camouflage, and the French world pop duo Deep Forest, whose 1992 single “Sweet Lullaby” cracked the Top 100 in the U.S.
Through it all, Lacksman has made music of his own with some surprising successes along the way. Recording under the name Electronic System, he scored a sizable hit with “Coconut,” a jaunty modular synth tune released in 1972 in response to the hit recording of Gershon Kinglsey’s “Popcorn.” And as a member of Telex, a trio inspired by the robotic strains of Kraftwerk, he found himself both on the pop charts and in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, representing his home nation of Belgium.
Lacksman’s work as a recording artist is finally getting some attention as we close out 2020 and look ahead to next year. Reissue imprint Real Gone Music recently re-released three LPs that Lacksman released in the ’70s: a self-titled album of psych pop, and two Electronic System releases (1973’s Vol. II and 1974’s Tchip Tchip). All fall into that pool of sound where kitschy pop swims alongside more serious concerns—where an impassioned ballad like “Sunshine Is Gone Again” sits on the same album as the cornball “Happiness is a Cold Beer,” or the kiddie melody of “In The Woods” isn’t far away from a 14-minute proto-prog burner (“Skylab”).
Talking over Skype from his well-appointed studio in Brussels as he took a break from remixing and remastering his work with Telex for re-release next year, Lacksman looked back at his long and varied career, early synthesizers, and getting to Eurovision by making fun of Eurovision. | r ham
Aquarium Drunkard: I want to get a sense of your background before you started making albums of your own. Were you mainly working in the studio or were you making music and performing around Belgium?
Daniel Lacksman: I started as a recording engineer. That was my first job. When I finished high school, what I wanted to do was be a recording engineer instead of going to university. I started learning in one of the two best schools in Belgium but it was too slow for me. I really wanted to be directly in the studio. So I asked this producer to give me the addresses of the recording studios in Belgium, and the second place I went, this small, independent studio called Madeleine, gave me a job immediately. I was the assistant at a studio with stairs and no elevators, so my job was to pick up the heavy instruments like Hammond organs and Rhodes pianos and drum kits and get them in the studio.
Then I heard about the first synthesizers. One of the guys who sold equipment to the studios gave me the manual for one of the first ones: the EMS VCS 3. I borrowed some money from my godfather and went to London to be sure that that was really the one I wanted. I was lucky because that year there was the big hit, “Popcorn,” the first big pop hit done with a synthesizer. So my boss at the studio said, “You have a synthesizer. Let’s make a showcase so you can show the possibilities of your instrument.” Instantly I had some work to go to studios with my VCS 3 and to make electronic sounds for people. I’m a bit of a keyboard player but not good enough to be a regular studio musician. With the synthesizer, my specialty was to program the sounds. And if it was not too complicated, I played them myself.
AD: Eventually, though, you started making your own music around this time, which became pretty successful in Europe. How did that get started?
Daniel Lacksman: My producer at the studio said that, “‘Popcorn’ is the big hit of the moment but it’s only a single. What about doing an album of this kind of music?” So with my VCS 3, I did a complete album. I knew I had to write a track of my own because all of the others were covers. I did something very quickly called “Coconut,” and it was a hit! I could see that I would have quite an amount of royalty money so I said to myself, “This is the time to invest in a bigger system.” Then I bought the Moog 3P. Then I started really doing a lot of synthesizer programming in sessions. And I continued to buy equipment and I continued to improve my own recording studio.
AD: It sounds as though a lot of musicians and producers were very open to what synthesizers could do and what they could bring to their albums.
Daniel Lacksman: In one of my first sessions with the VCS 3, I went to the studio, and they were recording some strings. When one of the takes was done, they asked the musicians to come into the control room and listen. And one of the musicians, passing by me, said, very loud so everybody could hear, “You see this instrument here? This is the instrument that’s going to replace us.” And that we should banish this instrument. That was never my intention. The good thing is that it was new so you could make new sounds. Not imitating, of course.
AD: The electronic albums that you released in the ’70s had a lot of your original work, but you were also covering songs that were pop hits in Europe. How did you choose the songs to record? Were you just looking for songs that would connect with people or were the easiest to translate to synthesizer?
Daniel Lacksman: No, not because they were easier to play. My producer was also a music publisher and had a lot of contacts in foreign countries. I chose from the ones he proposed. I would try things out. It was a bit like the Beatles at the beginning. They didn’t have enough songs of their own to fill the albums so they did some cover versions. It was a mixture of everything I could find to fill an album.
AD: Were your albums fairly successful at the time in Belgium and Europe?
Daniel Lacksman: Everywhere because, as it was instrumental music, it was easy for my record company to release in a lot of countries. Not a lot in the States, by the way. My first hit “Coconut” was number one in Spain for a few months. That’s when I decided to buy the modular Moog. I remember I asked for a loan at the bank because it was expensive. Almost as much as a car. The bank said they were not sure because I was very young. I took all my records along with me, and I said, “Listen, I did this with a small synthesizer and it’s successful and now I would like to invest in a big machine.” The guy at the bank went to the manager and came back five minutes later and he said, “You know, you’re lucky because the manager just went on holiday in Spain and heard ‘Coconut’ everywhere.”
AD: I want to step back a little and talk about your self-titled record, which was more of a singer-songwriter type album. It’s this interesting mix of really psychedelic songs and then tunes like “When We’re Looking at the Barmaid,” which is this kind upbeat drinking song. Was that important to balance those introspective songs with stuff people could just sing along to in a bar?
Daniel Lacksman: It was because I met some friends, a German couple. They lived for a long time in America. The woman Kirsten Klein would write me lyrics. I tried to write some stuff in English but my English was not so good. So I asked her to make the lyrics for everything. And she came with some crazy ideas like “Barmaid,” so I thought, “Why not?” Maybe we went a little bit too far. [Laughs]
AD: I also wanted to ask about the group you were in called Telex. How did that begin? To me, it sounds like your early work was very indebted to Kraftwerk. Was that what you were going for when you first got this group together?
Daniel Lacksman: The idea of Telex was to do something not serious like to distort a very well known French song and make it as slow as possible. I was working with Marc Moulin who was in a group called Placebo. Instrumental fusion music. I worked on one album by this project in a studio in Brussels, and one day he said to me, “What about making an electronic group together? Very minimalistic in the style of Kraftwerk.”
I stopped my project Electronic System so I could put everything into Telex. But the last album I recorded for Electronic System was called Disco Machine, and the idea was to do drum sounds with a modular, which I had never done before. So everything was ready for Telex because I had experience of doing everything from scratch with a sequencer. The first song we recorded was “Twist A Saint Tropez,” and we made a rough mix on a cassette. Marc said he was going to a party and someone from a record company was going to be there. “I will make him listen to it.” He did that and the guy liked it. The next day, we had a recording contract. It was so fast.
AD: The other big part of the Telex story was that you guys represented Belgium at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1980 with a song about Eurovision. What was that experience like?
Daniel Lacksman: We were surprised that we were chosen. We were quite successful in Belgium but we were a bit avant garde. And the rest of the people who were trying to go to Eurovision were very, very traditional. Nothing interesting, really. The record company said, “What about doing Eurovision?” and we said, “That’s not for us.” But then we said, “Maybe it would be funny if we did a song called ‘Euro-Vision’ and we do something about Eurovision with all the cliches, but electronically.” We did it quite quickly and did the competition with Belgian TV and we won.
It was quite strange because the other artists had their lives depending on this. We said to ourselves, “Maybe we win or we lose, but I think in between, it will be nothing.” Maybe it would be good for us. We were not in last place. There were two other countries below us. Because we got 10 points from Portugal. I don’t know why. I think we had one point from England. Three points from Greece. Incredible. So we weren’t last.
AD: Another big moment in your career, in the ’90s, was when you produced the first album by Deep Forest. How did you come to work with that group?
Daniel Lacksman: They were in my studio to work with a French singer, a very variete Francaise singer. One of the musicians, a very good keyboard player, was really intrigued by pygmy music, especially the polyphonic style of singing, which is very special. At home, he was doing songs with samples of that music. They made some demos in my studio for a French label, but when the label heard them, they said they didn’t want to release it. I thought it was stupid because it was really good. So they asked me to help record some things when there was some downtime in the studio. With the final product, I went to Europe with them to play it for labels, but nobody liked it. We came back with nobody interested. Then suddenly, Sony Music Francais decided they wanted to release it. So we went to Paris, and I thought I was on a hidden camera show because I went through the building at Sony and, in every office, everybody was listening to Deep Forest.
AD: How much did your work with Deep Forest and working with sounds from Africa feed into the music you made with your own project Pangea?
Daniel Lacksman: I still had some ideas that were meant for Deep Forest but I stopped working with the French guys because they became out of their heads. They really wanted to show themselves but there was no way to play the music live because it was all samples. So I decided to do another project and call it Pangea. It was not very successful. You never know, of course. It was maybe too different.
AD: How does it feel to have these album reissued and to have the chance to see your work get rediscovered?
Daniel Lacksman: I was amazed. It’s like I’ve been waiting for Gordon [Anderson, co-president of Real Gone Music] to call this whole time. I’ve not listened to this stuff in a long time. I had to really listen for the mastering, and because it’s my very early work, it’s full of mistakes. But I’m excited.