The Times Interview
How to be an Enigma
Michael Cretu has sold 30 million albums but next to no one knows who he is. Which is just as it should be, he tells.
As jobs go, it is not a bad one. You work in your recording studio in your spectacular home atop a hill in Ibiza creating music. You don’t promote your work by touring; you barely give interviews; the public doesn’t know your face. And yet your music sells, it sells relentlessly, not just in Europe and America, but you have smash hits in Thailand and Malaysia. Within a decade you have racked up almost 30 million sales. Occasionally you leave home in your jet, perhaps to make a video, but mostly you are happy to stay in the sun with your pop-star wife and twin sons.
Welcome to the agreeable world of Michael Cretu, the Romanian-born creator of Enigma, whose four albums of trippy, ambient pop and dance music have conquered the clubs and coffee tables of most of the known world. He is the man who has artfully glued together Gregorian chant, ethnic voices, synthesized flutes, hip hop beats and the sort of breathy female voices usually heard on premium-rate phone lines. The critics have sometimes been appalled (and a choir vent to court) but his mood music, often larded with New Agey aphorisms, has been a soundtrack to the 1990s. Think you’ve never heard a track by this “alchemist in sound”? Believe me, you have.
Cretu, 44, who has agreed to meet the press in Hamburg because of the release of a Greatest Hits album, says the success never surprised him. “Not at all. When I made the first Enigma song, Sadness, I said to my wife [Sandra, a singing star on the Continent], ‘This will be a huge hit or nothing at all.’ It was just so new. No one had heard anything like it. And it became the fastest No 1 in German history.”
Sadness (or Sadeness as it was spelt in most markets) introduced Cretu’s signature sound - Gregorian chant. The song was about the Marquis de Sade and the monks were meant to represent the pull of religion on the old pervert’s character. Cretu, speaking only slightly halting English (one of his four languages), acknowledges that the voices quickly became a cliché.
“It was annoying. I could have done much more with that Gregorian stuff but there was such an avalanche of bad copies that everyone became sick of it. Everybody was doing it.
“But basically it’s a compliment. If you don’t invent anything, nobody will copy it. On all the fashion shows - Paris, Milan, London - after Enigma 1, it was all Enigma music. After Enigma 2, it was only Enigma music.
“The music of commercials used my flute sound. When I started using ethnic chant three years later, so did they - to sell condoms and the new Vauxhall. So I influenced a lot - even the dance scene - ambient house, that came from Enigma.”
Cretu chuckles. He is a wiry, tanned figure, sporting one of those frizzed haircuts unpopularised
here by Harry Enfield’s Three Scousers. He denies he is arrogant, simply self-confident (“a very big difference”). He smokes hard, laughs a lot and exudes energy. “The doctors told me last year I make 30 per cent more adrenalin than normal.”
Cretu’s skill at welding samples into hits (Carmina Burana was recently plundered for the Gravity Of Love) stems from his years as a producer and his classical training. Growing up in Ceaucescu’s Romania, Cretu was one of the communist regime’s young hopes as a pianist. His uncle was a noted violinist and Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin passed through the house.
It was the Beatles who lured him from his designated path. Cretu draws on his cigarette: “I was listening to Golden Slumbers, off Abbey Road - beautiful, beautiful. My mother came in the room and I was crying like a dog. She says, ‘Why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Now I know what I want to do with my life - pop music.’ And she goes, ‘Aaargh! Disaster! Do you want to end up starving?’
Cretu, though, was resolved. He did session work in Germany, playing keyboards on Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon. He had hits with a band, Moti Special, and, as a producer, met his wife.
When Cretu started to release his own hits, the record company asked him to tour. But the music’s heavy reliance on samples - and indeed monks - made a live show impractical. And anyway Cretu wasn’t interested. “I didn’t want to be the face. More and more the package gets priority and the content is secondary. I wanted the music to speak for itself, to see if it alone could sell.”
This anonymity has had its drawbacks. “Virgin Records in Germany told everyone Enigma is not going to tour.Then there is a call from Virgin in Belgium saying, ‘Hey, Enigma is playing Brussels tonight and we know nothing about it.’ Well there were some women, some robes, high heels, doing something to my music. It was terrible. But there have been so many fake Enigmas on tour, it’s been hard to stop them.”
The albums, because of the way they are created, have also been energetically faked. By the time the third album was out, bogus Enigmas 4, 5 and 6 had already appeared from murky eastern European sources. “Awful, awful messes,” laughs Cretu.
One solution to the live problem is a planetarium show - and that is why we are in Hamburg. A show stitching together Enigma’s numerous videos has begun at the city’s planetarium. Another 60 planetariums, including London, have reportedly expressed interest.
The show unfolds amid billowing dry ice and scudding lasers. The ceiling is illuminated into the arching roof of a monastery as the music pulses. The images dancing around our heads are often ad-land clichés - floating babies, smiling peasants and lots of dusky lovelies. But most punters will be suitably awed by it all.
Cretu is not one to worry what the doubters might think about his exotic cook-ups. “You know people are scared of what I try to do,” he says. “They say ‘Oh my God, you’ve taken something 12th century, it’s sung in Sanskrit! You’ve mixed up Gregorian chant and beats, you can’t do that.” But I can make it work because I have a wide understanding of music. I know what I am doing.” And, yes, he has the royalty cheques to prove it.
By John Bungey, THE TIMES