Few artists have the intestinal fortitude to follow the path of trailblazing visionary, Leslie Mandoki.
From humble beginnings in Hungary, at an early age, Mandoki developed an affinity for both Jazz, and Prog Rock, and sought to bring to fruition, an ambitious vision of combining the two while coupling the music with Mandoki’s socio-political leanings.
After escaping a communist-ruled homeland, Mandoki found himself a refugee, with no money, no instruments, and no place to call home. Through a twist of fate, Mandoki was invited to sing on a few Disco tracks in the late 70s, and soon, Mandoki found himself an unwilling member of the Pop/Disco act, Dschinghis Khan.
For two years, Mandoki toiled away in a world of Pop-laden hell, and while money, fame, and fortune were raining down upon his shoulders, Mandoki’s artistic vision and integrity were just as quickly being buried, and so, in the face of even more fame, and riches, Mandoki chose to leave the burgeoning scene and started a new once again as a Progressive Rock musician, with his first release coming in the form of 1982’s Back To Myself.
In the years since Mandoki has forged a long and successful career as a solo artist, and as a member of the Mandoki Soulmates, whose newest record, Utopia For Realists, continues Mandoki’s trend of working with the genre’s latest, and greatest, while attempting to plug holes in an ever divided socio-political climate.
Leslie Mandoki has manifested his vision, but ever perceptive, Mandoki knows his worth is not done.
In this career-spanning interview, Leslie and I dig into his early roots, escaping his communist homeland, his entry into the fervent world of late 70s Disco, escaping Pop hell to begin a new, and a whole lot more. If you would like to learn more about Leslie Mandoki, and the MonDoki Soulmates, you can head over to his webpage, and dig in. Don’t forget to tune in for his live stream via YouTube on January 15th as well, which you can find a link to here.
Leslie, I appreciate you taking the time today. How have you been holding up over the last year or so What have you been up to?
The COVID pandemic has, of course, affected us and changed our lives, but two aspects of the life of a
musician you cannot put into quarantine — responsibility and creativity. Consequently, in times of closed concert halls, we have decided to give something back to our audience, who have carried us on their hands over the past decades, in the form of our online concert.
Before we dive into your professional career, let’s go back a bit. What first got you hooked on music?
It was probably a mixture of my father playing the violin every night instead of reading me fairy tales, and later the feeling that music is the universal language of freedom against communism, a kind of natural rebellion. Originally, I wanted to be a poet, but my father wanted me to have a profession that could earn
money and support a family, so I started playing the drums, and eventually fell incredibly in love with this
Who were some of your early influences?
I was influenced very early on by the American music culture of the time, such as embodied by John
Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or the rebellion and music of a Jimi Hendrix, British Invasion music, The Doors, and Prog Rock legends like Jethro Tull; I had a fourth-generation mono tape copy of their
Aqualung album that probably changed my life. Even at that time, the desire grew in me to combine the
meaningful,l and socio-political Prog Rock with the virtuosity of Jazz Rock into a new work of art.
Let’s go back a bit. Take me through the formation of Dschinghis Khan.
Well, I was a refugee and became a session player in the second half of the 70s, in the greatest time
of the Munich studios (which was called the Munich sound era). So, they asked me to sing a song, which
was definitely not my understanding of music, but I was offered in return almost priceless studio time at that time, where I would have been allowed to produce my own music. Then, I sang it, and it became a big number one hit…. and I found myself on the covers of magazines. The beautifully brutal story of being a Pop Star even though I had a completely different musical, artistic vision. It certainly opened some doors for me, but in retrospect, it also closed some.
The late 70s Disco era was such an interesting, and chaotic time in music. Paint a picture of what that singular era in time was like.
That was a bit bizarre for me, who came from an idealistic, anti-communist student movement and longed for freedom, a kind of Prog Rock voice of the student movement, who lived a mature musical life as part of an intellectual movement, to gain a foothold in a purely commercial scene dominated by money and drugs. It was less about real creativity, and more about the artistry of producing smash hits based on a simple model. But this scene made so much money, partly because of the total irrelevance of the performers who called themselves “artists,” that it developed the biggest studio landscape.
So, again Elton John, Queen, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, and so on were attracted to Munich. Freddy Mercury and Donna Summer lived in the city at that time. So, I found my niche through the legendary Klaus Doldinger, and Udo Lindenberg, the technical situation in the studios was fantastic, and I started to develop a holistic understanding of making music. But yeah, sure, it was chaotic. And after the sessions, I often played through the night in Jazz clubs.
While Dschinghis Khan was a classic Disco group, it’s been said that you were unsure regarding your involvement with the group being that you’re more Rock-centric. Is that true? If so, can you expand on your overall sentiment and general feelings toward Disco at the time?
Disco and Electronic music have little craft relationship to what you can hear on the albums that Elton John or Freddy Mercury, for example, produced during their time in Munich. We hear here the sound of two completely different worlds, different in content and different in form, and extremely different in the way they were made. Disco productions were fast, efficient, and focused only on commercial reasons, and thus very successful for a while, but then came the American musical answer, which sounded much better, and the greatest music makers left Munich with their teams for Los Angeles, like Giorgio Moroder or Harold Faltermeyer.
The B-Call gang of Disco musicians stayed, but by that time, I was already in London. If you try to understand my vita, a central point is that I am a refugee. So, when I had to leave Hungary illegally as the leading Rock voice of the student opposition to communism, I was on my own. I couldn’t speak a single word, had no instrument, and theoretically no future. A total fresh start. It was not an easy challenge to start and grow into my new DNA to survive as a musician. I was a formerly relevant artist and freedom fighter, playing at huge illegal open-airs, and then suddenly, I ended up in a refugee camp, without an instrument, and looking at the next steps. And yes, I’ve always been interested in the future, so for example, I created the complete sounds of E-Mobility for a friend, the CEO of the Volkswagen Group. Always with an eye on tomorrow.
What are your thoughts on Disco’s overall impact on Rock music? Being that you’re a Rock guy, do you have any regrets at all? In the early 80s, you left Dschinghis Khan. Take me through the events leading up to your decision.
Leaving Dschingis Khan as soon as possible was an absolutely necessary, and understandable step. We sold millions of records and made a few people really rich, but as a Pop Star, you had no dignity at that
time. My kids didn’t know for a very long time that their father had done that, and it was only two years of my life anyway. I then wrote my first Prog Rock album, Back To Myself, in 1982, to save my soul and deal with the previous two years.
However, I wanted to get back to the music I was born and ran for as soon as possible, a slightly more
mature, sophisticated music because I had a vision of merging British Prog Rock complexity, and social
relevance in poetic lyricism, with the virtuosity of American Jazz Rock. That was my path. As I said in the
refugee camp, I wanted to play with Ian Anderson, Jack Bruce, and Al di Meola, who then also became the
founding members of Mandoki Soulmates almost thirty years ago. I had and have a mission.
You’re also a renowned producer and have worked with the likes of Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, and more. How did you end up entering that space?
If my unintentional “career” as a Pop Star was good for anything, it was certainly the fact that this huge
success and the fame I gained from it naturally opened many doors — in the music industry, show business, and also the world of film, and so, one thing led to another. For my own project, Soulmates, I was able to win over illustrious names from Jazz and Prog Rock, such as Ian Anderson, Jack Bruce, and Al Di Meola, right from the start. For many people, that was certainly an indication that we were doing good work here. The motto in our studio was, “Music is a matter of taste, and recording is a matter of dedication and professionalism. In our language, quality means no compromise!” Of course, word gets around, and artists like Jennifer Rush or Joshua Kadison came to us.
As Musical Director for Disney/BVI, I was able to produce many feature films, and that’s how we first met Phil Collins, with whom we not only recorded the songs for Tarzan but also for Brother Baer. The beginning of the wonderful collaboration with Lionel Richie came from a completely different direction,
namely for the world premiere of the ProductLounge for the Mercedes SL, for which we composed the song, and then produced it with Lionel.
I mentioned a few of the artists you’ve worked with earlier. This said, looking back, who are some of your favorite artists you’ve worked with. Which albums stand out the most?
Well, once again it is a great honor and privilege to be able to work with such a long line of exceptional
talent. Perhaps the closest is Ian Anderson, as the intellectual musical leader of the founding generation. But hey, Nik Kershaw, Chaka Khan, Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Al di Meola, the guys from Toto, and
Supertramp…and let’s talk about recent genius’, Cory Henry, and Richard Bona. And my Julia is one of the absolute greatest musical talents I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.
Of course, I have to mention Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Greg Lake, Jon Lord, Peter Frampton…the
list could go on and on. Being able to realize my musical vision with all these artists for almost thirty years is something I consider an honorable privilege, so it’s hard for me to choose from all the different works I’ve been allowed to create and produce. I recently sat with my friend Gabor Csupo (Simpsons, Rugrats) in LA at the screenings for Don’t Look Up, an epochal stroke of genius that — I’m sure — will have a similar impact on the next generation as Easy Rider did back then. Of course, it’s nice to see that the messages I formulated in my album, Utopia For Realists, such as division, greed, and the lack of humanity, are now being visualized in a Hollywood movie.
As you’ve alluded to, your versatility seems to know no bounds, and you’re also an accomplished director of commercials with clients such as Audi, Daimler, and Disney. What led to you breaking into the directorial space?
I understood the paradigm shift, and my prediction a long time ago was that the recording industry would undergo an implosion. I was a few years ahead of the mainstream in my mind with this clear, unpleasant judgment. But I had no intention of closing our huge studio complex and laying off my salaried studio staff. So, against the judgment of a stumbling big industry, I explored new areas where our academic knowledge was useful, somehow needed, and respected. So, we became experts in scoring, writing, and producing title and end credit songs, sports anthems, and creating complex entertainment events, multimedia, and live experiences. The last gigantic task was to design and develop the complete sound aesthetic for Volkswagen Group’s E-Mobility.
You touched on this a bit before, but take me through the formation, and progression of the Mandoki Soulmates, which for those that don’t know, is a really great Progressive/Jazz group. Do you have any new music on the horizon we can look forward to?
I fled communist Hungary at the time to join Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Jack Bruce of Cream, and Al Di
Meola in turning the vision of fusing meaningful and socio-political Prog Rock with the virtuosity of Jazz Rock into a new work of art into reality. They actually became the founding members of the Mandoki Soulmates, a musical community of values that unites the who’s who from Jazz and Rock, all of them
bandleaders themselves. All of them know exactly what is important, and over the years, real friendships
From time to time, we get together in my studio at Lake Starnberg, make music, cook, and debate social
politics together. This has resulted in nineteen joint albums with newly recorded music, countless joint concerts, and tours. Together we Old and Young Rebels have made it our goal to bring Progressive Rock back to socio-political relevance and, as long as there are challenges, and problems in our world, and society, to put our finger in the wounds. The global challenges facing humanity in the coming years — the pandemic, economic crises, migration integration, and climate change — we will only overcome these if we transcend the divisions across all borders, the Old Rebels and the Young Rebels together. That’s what it’s all about, generational justice, cooperation, and collaboration.
So our current radio release, “The Torch,” from our new album Utopia For Realists, is about generational justice because we have to ask ourselves — in what condition do we hand over our world to our children, the Young Rebels? Making that point in the lyrics of the song, “The world’s gone mad — the world you’re living in is all we have, you pay the dues; you pay the fine.” So, riding the strength and courage of a younger generation, and with our mutual hunger to strive for the right solutions, we can all fight for the cause while there is still time. Again, from the song, “Be brave, be strong, be hungry – pass on the torch!”
Easy ones now. What are a few of your favorite albums, and why?
This question is easy to answer. These are the albums that shaped me and helped me define my musical path
-Frank Zappa — One Size Fits All
–Genesis — Selling England By The Pound
-Jethro Tull — Aqualung
-King Crimson — In The Court Of The Crimson King
-Yes — Close To The Edge
But as you can imagine, after so many years in the profession, my list naturally includes far more works
than could ever be written down here.
What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?
I look at things holistically; my fundamental socio-political interest is naturally based on my musical vision. I originally wanted to become a poet before my father brought me to music. This is a never-ending source for our music, and we artists have to be loud and put our finger on the wound if anything is to change. We have direct contact with our audience, unlike painters and writers. A bit unconventional, but the best ideas, including for the sound aesthetic of the Volkswagen Group’s E-Mobility, come to me when I’m out canoeing in the early morning. The sounds of nature are an incredible source of inspiration.
What sort of equipment do you use in the studio, and the live setting?
I always try to combine the best of the analog, and digital worlds in my studio, so the centerpiece in my Neil Grant-designed control room is a ninety-six-channel SSL console of the latest design, which, in conjunction with the recording room, the appropriate microphones, and various state-of-the-art outboard (I’m a big Tube-Tech fan), is responsible for our sound. Live, my live engineers often have the pleasure of putting brand new equipment from renowned manufacturers through its paces, thanks to our far-reaching relationships.
Do you collect vinyl? CDs? Cassettes? Or are you all digital now? If you do collect physical media, why is that important to you? Why do you feel keeping physical media alive is important in this day and age?
Sure, I collect vinyl records. It’s a very special feeling, and an emotional, and haptic experience to take a
record out of its sleeve, then put it on and study the record sleeve, and the booklets while listening to the music, not to mention the great sound experience! Basically, I have always been a supporter of physical recordings, which also has to do with the appreciation of the artists and authors and their works.
I see the financially disastrous development for these professions through streaming very critically
because it denies the young up-and-coming musicians the opportunity to build a livelihood with their art. Especially in times when the live sector has almost completely come to a standstill due to the COVID
pandemic, there is a lack of such reliable revenue models that streaming does not offer.
Last one. What’s next on your docket? What are you looking forward to most in the post-COVID world? Do you plan on hitting the road, or playing any festivals in 2022?
We are already waiting to be allowed to return to the big stages in 2022, our concert in Budapest in August this year was allowed to give a small foretaste of this. We have extensive live activities planned for the coming year, we will perform at several festivals, and play a big tour through Germany. We also already have some concerts in America in planning, plus we want to do a small streaming event in January, more about that will follow later — stay tuned!
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