Mike Tramp is a Danish born musician, famous among rock fans all over the world for his bands White Lion and Freak of Nature. Many will also remember him as the (very young) lead singer of the 1970’s band Mabel, who represented Denmark at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978. Mabel were the only Danish group to record an album at the legendary Europasound Studios, during the heydays of European disco. A week ago I did an interview with Mike about those very days – how Mabel ended up there, what role disco played for their music, and how he views it all in retrospect. The following is a condensed version of that conversation.
Vomatron: Hello Mike, how are you doing?
Mike Tramp: Hey bro, I’m doin’ good! I’m currently on tour in Denmark, and in between shows I stay at my brother’s farm and help him out with things.
V: You left the country at a very early age, and eventually made a career for yourself in the US. Now you are back and living more steadily in Denmark…do you feel like you have somehow found your roots again?
MT: Well, the thing about me “back in the days”, was really that I was just a kid who wasn’t at all prepared for the music business. It was very much a learning curve for me, and I learned it the hard way.
V: Yes, I realize that the subject of this interview concerns a time in your career, that you may not have the fondest memories of…so thanks a lot for agreeing to it.
MT: Hey, it’s cool, I’m all up for it. It’ll be something different to talk about than I’m used to.
V: Great. Ok, so I first heard your song Wonderful Copenhagen about 5 years ago, in a mix by a Dutch DJ named Loud-E. It surprised me because of its heavy production, which is quite different from most of the other Danish disco “attempts” at the time. When I finally got the album, Mabel 4 Ever, it became clear why: It was recorded at Europasound Studios, and produced by Bernt Möhrle. How did this partnership come about?
MT: In retrospect I think there were a few things that led up to it. First there was the place we were coming from as musicians, and then there was the discovery of that whole production style itself. Mabel used to be a much harder band, inspired by groups like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, and known for rockin’ it out and getting drunk at shows. When i came into the group in ’76-77, the band was already starting to move towards a “lighter” image…not directly pop, but more inspired by Queen and Boston and bands like that. At some point our label boss Johnny Reimar (owner of Starbox Records) came to us and said, “hey, maybe you should also try and move more in that direction…”. And as soon as we stepped into that world, it was like a machine just turned on. Soon came the Eurovision song contest of 1978, which we entered into with the song “Boom Boom”. The exposure that followed that took us even further, and suddenly we found ourselves doing concerts all over Europe, as well as promotion events, TV shows…getting more and more into the world of showbusiness…and playback. We experienced places in Germany where there weren’t really any proper intruments put up, not even a drumset…your music just played out across a sound system, while you were expected to jump around on stage and mimic the songs. It was around this time that we were introduced to a German band, who weren’t really a band, named Chilly.
V: Chilly were quite big at the time, even in Denmark…
MT: I think they became so a bit later. We first heard them performing For Your Love – which is of course a cover version of an old rock song – at an event in Germany. And I distinctly remember that we were all very impressed by the powerful sound coming from the speakers. The guitar sound, the way it was produced, sounded a lot harder than it actually was, and that was when we as a band started realizing: “Damn…our sound is really thin compared to this stuff”. This led us to contact Chilly’s producer Bernt Möhrle, and began discussing the possibility of him producing our next album.
V: And that is how you ended up recording at the infamous Europasound Studio, at a time when disco was at its creative peak…
MT: Yeah, this led us to Europasound, which was located in Offenbach, on the outskirts of Frankfurt…where of course people like Frank Farian had his Boney M project, and other things, going on. But our first step was writing all of the songs for the album. We did this in Denmark, and sent them off to Bernt Möhrle so he knew what he had to work with beforehand. Now, none of these songs were actually based on that disco beat that Chilly were so famous for. That wasn’t our intention. We just wanted thatsame production sound. Anyways, we eventually packed our things and left for Germany. And this is where things just went…WTF. Because when we arrived, we learned that Bernt Möhrle had employed 5 of Germanys top studio musicians for the album, who at the time were completely enmeshed in very specific production details…how to make exactly that snare drum sound or that electronic sounding hi-hat sequence….and so on. And suddenly we just entered the studio, which was actually very oldschool for its time – really old speakers and equipment…really strange. But these studio musicians had by now become totally specialized in producing via this equipment, and it became clear that in many ways it was really just a machine running along, and that everything had been planned in advance before we came. As a result, we ended up having no real influence on the recordings.
V: Yes, I read in your official biography, Vagabonden, that you don’t even appear on the album?
MT: Well, I ended up singing on a few songs. But in Bernt Möhrle’s opinion, I just wasn’t a good enough lead vocalist for the type of sound they were aiming for. So they ended up using our bass player Otto (Kulmbak), who had had also written many of the songs, and who sang backup vocals on the demos we had sent. That was when we realized that things were pretty much out of our hands, and we spent a lot of time just hangin’ around in the Europasound kitchen in between vocal sessions. It just seems so weird looking back at it now…we travel all the way there to make an album, are booked into a fine hotel…everything…only to be confined to the kitchen most of the time (laughing). When Johnny Reimar came down to check on us, and found out that I wasn’t even singing lead vocals, he was bewildered…and frankly not very happy about it. In his world, I should of course be singing…I was after all the frontman. He was thinking about TV performances and videos that I was gonna appear in…how would that all work out? We never made any of those things, but that was what went through his head.
V: Understandable. So how long were you there? Was it just for a day…a few hours?
MT: No no, I think we were there about 10 days in total.
V: Ah, OK. And how was the general atmosphere there? Did you meet Boney M or any other of the recording artists connected with the studio?
MT: No, it wasn’t really like that. Bernt had given our tracks to three different arrangers. One of them was Christian Kolonovits, the other two I dont exactly remember…but we met them, and of course some of the other musicians.
V: So what about Wonderful Copenhagen…did it have anything to do with the PR company of the same name, dedicated to promoting danish tourism?
MT: No, not at all. I mean, we wrote the track, but the instrumentation was completely Europasound’s. I have to check the early demo of it some day, but I personally think that Christian Kolonovits, who was one of the most bigshot studio musicians at the time…
V: Oh yes.
MT: …created the string arrangment, and based it on “Tango Jalousie” by Jacob Gade. Especially in the beginning of the song, you can hear that this is where the inspiration came from. But even though I wasn’t involved in the song, I could still appreciate the qualities of it. It’s a powerful song that would still work today under the right circumstances, with the right artist and musicians. It wasn’t just some soft song in my opinion. Well, except for the lyrics, cause they are what they are, but the production has a lot of depth and creativity to it.
V: I agree. Many of those studio musicians might have been working like hit-machines, but they had been involved in for example progressive rock projects throughout the 70’s…some heavy stuff. So they had an interesting background.
MT: Yes, exactly.
V: Now we are at it, would you care to explain the cover art of the Wonderful Copenhagen 7″ single, where you are standing together with the whole band, and….a horse. Who came up with that idea?
MT: (laughing) Oh that one, yes. Actually, I think it was just a picture lying around in the photo archives over at Starbox. It was taken at an equestrian facility, where we had visited some girls earlier in the year…and suddenly they had pressed the singles using one of those images. Unfortunately we didn’t have much control over that part of the process either, and if there is one thing I could go back and change now, it would be the damn cover art of some of our records. It was very far from being the Danish version of Sex Pistols, lookin’ back on it now, as an old rock n’ roller!
V: Ok, now I’m digging a little bit in the dirt here…I read in your biography that you had an affair with one of the girls from Chilly. Can you provide us with some juicy details regarding those exploits?
MT: (Laughing a lot) Unfortunately it was a very short affair…it happened on the last date of a tour we were on with Chilly, shortly after the release of Mabel 4 Ever. I was just a really young guy, only 17 years old, completely inexperienced…so there isn’t much to tell I’m afraid.
V: She must have been a bit older, right?
MT: Yes she was, but nothing much really happened, sorry to disappoint (laughing).
V: Was it the blond girl?
MT: No, it was the dark skinned one. Her name was Andrea.
V: How was the tour with Chilly, was it regular concerts or…?
MT: We kind of did our own thing and they did theirs. We played as a band with instruments and equipment from Denmark, and they made a show based on playback. They were the support band for us.
V: What did you do regarding the songs from Mabel 4 Ever? Much of the power must have been lost when playing the songs live? And what about the synths?
MT: Oh, but we didn’t actually play any of those songs. The album was out at the time of the tour, but we didn’t play any of them.
MT: (laughing) I know, it was a bit of a mess.
V: Alright, so as you know, I originally contacted you because I had a specific question about a somewhat obscure Mabel song, Space ABC. I discovered this one last year on a Starbox compilation. Can you talk a bit about it?
MT: Sure thing. Ok, so after recording Mabel 4 Ever, and returning to Denmark, we ourselves actually tried to experiment with the production techniques that we witnessed at Europasound. And over a few studio sessions we tried to specifically make songs that were built around a disco beat. A number of tracks were recorded from this session. One was the song Baggy Pants, and another was Space ABC.
V: Who was the producer on this?
MT: Well, that was just us actually. We did it at Werner Studios on Frederikssundsvej in Copenhagen. I had completely forgotten about the song until you contacted me! But Space ABC was really just an early version of…what would you call it…a sort of bonus track. A kind of theme song just built on a beat, with a synthesizer, and someone reciting the whole alphabet over the beat throughout the song…playing around with the sound and putting the guitar more in the background, and the beat more up front.
V: Funny that it was just like an “extra” song, cause it’s the song I like the most – and I’m not the only one!
MT: (laughing) Yes, well..i guess you can say, that it was an early attempt of what happened later with techno producers, working more “backwards”…that is, starting with the beat instead of the melody. This was new for Mabel at the time, because we were more oriented towards classic songwriting, in the tradition of Dylan, Lennon/McCartney etc.
V: What equipment did you use for it? There is something on the vocals that sounds like an old vocoder or voice box or something…
MT: Oh, that wasn’t a vocoder…I don’t think the vocoder was even around at the time. No, I believe it was a harmonizer of some kind. Maybe an Eventide Harmonizer.
V: Was Johnny Reimar still around at this time and had any influence?
MT: Yeah, but Johnny was always completely supportive about what we were doing. He didn’t interject at any point during the Mabel days, he just took care of the business side of things. But some of the songs from the Space ABC session resulted in a 4 track single cassette release called 4 Hits, and this was an idea that Johnny came up with. In that way he was really ahead of time, compared to most people in the Danish music industry. One song called “Saturday Show”, which became our entry song for the Danish Melodi Grand Prix in 1979, was another one of the songs on the 4 Hits release. But that one was actually a leftover from the Europasound session. It was supposed to have been included on Mabel 4 Ever. I just remembered that now, while we were talking about it.
V: Do you know anything about Johnny Reimar’s other German disco projects? I know he had a producer working for him, named Horst Lubitz or “John Lou”. Did you ever meet him, or hear about him?
MT: Hmm…I’m not too sure about that. We didn’t have anything to do with him, that much I know.
V: Do you remember a Danish production from the late 70’s called “Typewriter Disco”, then? It was made under the moniker of one of your Starbox labelmates, Tore, but released on Mercury Records.
MT: No, that doesn’t ring a bell either, sorry.
V: What about Danish music scene at the time in general, was there anything that caught your interest…any artists that you could relate to?
MT: Well…these days, when I am visiting the far corners of Denmark and playing, I feel really at home. But in the Mabel, days, I mean…we were completely different from everything else going on in the country. We were really outcasts, which is strange since we were so popular at the same time. We sometimes felt that we stood completely alone against the rest of the music industry. This is what made us finally leave the country for Spain. You can say a lot of negative things about the music business today, with everyone wanting to become famous and whatnot…but in contrast, Denmark of the 1970’s was really limited. There was one tv station, one radio channel…very much a streamlined thing, where what we represented was looked down upon, and attacked again and again.
V: Interesting…I myself have tried to figure that part out. I mean, Mabel may just have had a short disco adventure – you were mainly a rock band – but this thing about the music industry in Denmark…it seems like it was so much in opposition to new things, while still trying to cash in on the trends.
MT: Yes, that’s how it was, and you still see shades of it today. But it’s a lot less like that now than back then. Regarding the disco, we didn’t completely leave it behind. Even later, when making the album We Are The 80’s, we were inspired by disco. I remember we were trying to imitate the snaredrum from Donna Summer’s Bad Girls. It is present all over that whole album.
V: What do you feel about songs like Wonderful Copenhagen and Space ABC being discovered so many year later, by a new generation of record collectors and DJ’s, going to fleamarkets etc.?
MT: I think it shows what music stands the test of time and what doesn’t. When I heard Space ABC again after you had contacted me, it was a strange sort of recognition, and a rediscovery of some qualities that we werent concious about at the time.
V: Well, in my opinion the sound holds up so much better than that of the 1990s, which today sounds really bland and cardboard-like by comparison.
MT: I completely agree. I’ve also been seeking that 70’s sound again recently, because it’s so much warmer and more pleasant to listen to. I’ve been setting up older equipment, and I’m listening much more to vinyl these days than ever before.
V: Excellent. Well Mike, thanks a lot for your time. It has been very informative and entertaining.
MT: My pleasure! It’s been fun to do. If you need anything else, you know where to reach me.