Before the release of their first record in years, a rare sit-down with the legendary techno band, from their roots in France to surprising new inspirations from Hotel California.
The year is 1993. An English journalist uses the words "Daft Punk" to qualify the music of a small French band of three teen rock fans that was calling itself Darlin’.
No offense was taken to that two-word description, and two of the band mates, in fact, decided to use this insult as their new project in electronic music. This was the beginning of an unmatched success for a French outfit, which has lasted to this very day: 20 years later, Daft Punk is among the most popular bands on earth, no one would dare to call them daft, now.
Their dance anthems belong to the collective unconscious. The singles Da Funk (1996), Around The World (1997), One More Time (2000), Harder Better Faster Stronger (2001) all contributed to the millions of albums the band sold, all over the world. All this success, despite their scarce public appearances, concerts and albums. There's been just four albums (and a soundtrack) since 1993: these boys like to take their time before releasing anything.
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Daft Punk live in Los Angeles in 2007 - Photo: Travis Hornung
They reinvented techno music with Homework (1997), the first true point of reference in the genre, they brought back and updated 1970s synthetic Disco music with Discovery (2001) before coming back to hard-hitting rock ‘n roll with Human After All (2005) – which was ill received by the critics but still influential for many.
“Our leitmotiv,” declares Thomas Bangalter, “is never to repeat ourselves. We need to reinvent everything, every time we’re working on a project. It was clear to us right from the beginning when it was still easy to just duplicate our hits to infinity. From that point, every orientation became possible.”
There’s the paradox: they enjoy worldwide fame, but Daft Punk remains the most anonymous band ever, with those robot helmets -- an emblem as well as protection against overwhelming stardom. Once the suits are off, with their stonewashed denim, black T-shirts, grey sweaters, Bangalter and his longtime bandmate Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo can blend into any crowd.
On the other hand, their uniforms cover every inch of their skin and their figure gets straightened. The black suits are designed by Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent and their chrome helmets make every gesture look more mechanical.
Disco, surrealism, psychedelics
Their new album, Random Access Memories, is due out in late May. It’s a familiar mix but it remains completely futuristic as it’s composed of fragments from Funk and disco music cast somewhere between house and electro sonorities. They told us that they expect this album to have captured the magic of the 1970s and 1980s. That would be Michael Jackson, Chic or Fleetwood Mac, revolutionary sounds at the time, classic tunes today.
In order to make sure they were in complete control, the two musicians financed every step of the album’s production process. “We had the luxury to be able to say that if we weren’t satisfied with something, we could just put it in the trash," says Bangalter. "Having a record producer breathing down our necks would have been stressful.”
It was a long, reflective process: “We started working on it in 2008 after an 18-month tour. We started by getting in the studio to put down some ideas. Then we took a year off to work on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. In the end, we got back to work with musicians, although the record wasn’t completely conceptualized. A year and a half ago, something tied everything together: we came up with the name of the album.”
Random Access Memories is a reference to RAM, or the main memory in computers. “There is a connection between the brain and hard drives, the computer and the human.” The idea of fragmentation –- another one from computer terminology -- is inherent to the album too. “We felt like we were disorganized during the recording sessions, as if we followed some sort of psychoanalytic process where nothing is in its place and nothing is linear. The whole thing is a cluster of random associated ideas.”
The recording of the album happened between Paris, New York and Los Angeles and Random Access Memories does sound like something produced under the Californian sun. For a few years now, thanks in part to their work on Disney’s blockbuster Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk has spent a lot of time in LA. “Every record from the 1970s and 1980s has this West Coast feeling: they reek of easy life, sunset and brightness. Los Angeles is the theater of many stories but it’s also a sad town where dreams have been shattered in the past. You can feel the nostalgia: its architecture still holds the remnants of a past America. Living there is a little bit like being cut off from people inside a dream factory.”
Up until now, Daft Punk could be summed up to this: a machine-torturing duo producing emotion, groove and sweat. But have two decades spent with machines started to bore them? The answer is often more subtle with them. “The internet has rendered the human relations even more virtual. With this album,” adds Bangalter, “we remain elusive and secret while having a blast with the team. Synthetic music is making sounds and tessituras bound to remain simulations of reality. The idea here is to capture magic, moments of grace. How come the first notes of Hotel California make you feel like you’re in the sun with crickets all around? What’s the trick?”
In order to find the recipe of the sound that spread across the US from the early 1970s until Thriller (1982), the duo called upon the greatest musicians at the time such as Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder. “This record,” says Banglater, “goes far beyond the homage to all these people who shaped our creativity: interacting with them was a very powerful experience.” You won’t find beat boxes in this album, as they preferred actual drummers, striking with perfect accuracy but with those tiny variations no machine can produce.
Still robot, but human after all.
Order and chaos
We can imagine the two musicians being control freaks –- not entirely false -- but this time, they let go of everything to start over from the top. Risky business. “We ended up in a surrealistic dimension, almost psychedelic. Going deep into complex musical branches and bringing order to this vast chaos, that was what we were really passionate about.”
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Daft Punk's trademark triangle hand sign - Photo: Travis Hornung
The recording sessions were like a series of cadavre exquis, sentences and sequences taken here and there, and “once brought back together, would become interesting for us.” And quoting Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, “it reads every way imaginable and you may enter it from the top or the bottom…”
Twenty years ago, Daft Punk only used samplers with just a few seconds of memory. It’s now gigantic, unlimited. “The machines are now more powerful but the content has been extremely poor these last few years…For Random Access Memories, we used this infinite technology to record meaningful stuff, to channel everything we had put down throughout the sessions, and those used to take monstrous and overwhelming proportions.”
The Dafts and the movies
The two boys are true sci-fi enthusiasts. They have many references in this specific genre: they often diverge from what they were saying to talk about a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey or another excerpt from their favorite movie Phantom of the Paradise (which they discovered together at 15, with the soundtrack by Paul Williams, another guest on their album).
Daft Punk make music thinking about George Lucas’ or Steven Spielberg’s universes. In 2007, they directed a film together called Electroma, filled with characters mimicking their own robotic figure, a particular esthetic taken from Gus Van Sant movies.
“We are fascinated by cinema because it’s the art of many. A movie is a group of people producing a work as a team.” They had tasted this way of working while directing Electroma and they have wanted to taste it again ever since. “When we had recorded our first three albums, we didn’t want to go back in the studio and start another project just the two of us. It would have been less enriching than opening to others. It might sound a bit clichéd, but we wanted to try a human adventure like the ones that may have happened in the making of those records that inspired us so much…”
After 20 years together, the robots need other beings.
Twist the past, shape the present
The album is the result of months of production and post-production, recordings and re-recordings. They wrote, erased, rewrote but always with spontaneity and musicality. “The process is comparable to Le Mystère Picasso of Henri-Georges Clouzot, with the filmmaker showing the painter working on five different canvases at the same time.”
The final cut owes, without a doubt, its coherence to their way of working as a duo. They see themselves as complementary too. Thomas is staring at the screen (cinema or computer) while Guy-Manuel is aloof, keeping an ear out. They remain so, even when doing the interview: “Guy-Manuel has always been on the sofa behind me as I was ahead with the machines, talking to the musicians or the journalists.”
Some kind of perfection
During the interview, one of them analyses, the other listens. Thomas takes his time to develop his arguments, self-assured, bright light in his eyes. Guy-Manuel just throws an enigmatic sentence here and there between two long silences.
Both agree on something: the search for some kind of perfection. During the photo shoot for Obsession, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo got involved in the editing of the pictures, the brightness levels, some reflection is not sharp enough, an angle. Whether they are in the studio, in front of a keyboard or behind a camera, they have the same fondness for accuracy.
Random Access Memories, 20 years after their debut, sounds feels like a return of freshness and youth for Daft Punk, composed by teenagers with the will to realize their ideas and desires no matter how crazy. Above all, it is the best token of their unaltered capacity to cultivate and broadcast youth. Robots have no wrinkles.