Daft Punk gets human

Daft Punk gets human

Daft Punk gets human

The French dance-music duo, which was once known for its synthetic dazzle, has come out with a new album, ‘Random Access Memoires’, as a flashback to the era of live musicianship. Simon Reynolds writes

Thomas Bangalter, half of the influential French dance-music act Daft Punk, has a house high in the Hollywood Hills. He and his musical partner, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, divide their time between Los Angeles and Paris, where their families live. But for all their jet-setting, there’s little evidence of rock star flash to be seen (well, apart from the Porsche that de Homem-Christo has parked in the driveway). From its first dance-floor smash, Da Funk, in 1996 through the synthetic dazzle of the 2001 album Discovery to the 2010 score for the movie Tron: Legacy, the duo’s defining balancing act has been breaking new ground while simultaneously invoking earlier golden ages of club music, like disco and 1980s electro-pop.

Daft Punk expanded the audience for dance music alongside late-‘90s peers like the Chemical Brothers, influenced Madonna and Kanye West and helped shape the visual side of live dance music performance. Its famous robot masks and spectacular pyramid-shaped stage set inspired the high-tech showmanship of younger electronic dance music stars like Skrillex. In the eight years since the duo’s last studio album, Human After All, dance music has become big business, while Daft Punk-like sounds have infiltrated Top 40 radio, popping up in songs by artistes like Justin Bieber.

Going back in time

But after years on the cutting edge, Daft Punk has reversed course with its new album, Random Access Memories, out on Daft Life/Columbia this week. Spurning the digital audio software that empowers the electronic dance music generation, the album is an analog flashback to the era of live musicianship, involving a crack squad of session players, the disco legends Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, Indie rockers like Julian Casablancas and the hip-hop star Pharrell Williams. Rodgers and Williams both appear on the album’s first single, Get Lucky, an uncanny replication of the sparkling disco-funk of Rodgers’ band Chic.

“In some ways, it’s like we’re running on a highway going the opposite direction to everybody else,” said Bangalter, 38, sitting on the floor while the taciturn de Homem-Christo, 39, slumped on a sofa.

It’s a problem that confronts many innovators: When the rest of the world catches up with you, where do you go next? In a paradox that informs the entire project, doing something new for Daft Punk involved embracing the methods and mindset of the past. The result is an album that is impressive but backward-looking, drawing on influences like soft rock, progressive rock and New Wave. Aspiring to the sumptuous production and arrangements of late ’70s rock and R&B albums, Random Access Memories is full of songs that allude to time, transience and yesterday’s idea of the future. The title is a play on the idea of computer memory — RAM — versus human memory.

In part, the promotional campaign for the album also looked back to an era before Twitter and free downloads. Daft Punk and its team orchestrated a suspense-building trail of hints about a new project with billboard ads and teaser minicommercials on TV.

Deliberately frustrating fans who have become used to instant gratification, Daft Punk stoked anticipation and created an aura of mystery around Random Access Memories.
“Pulling back the curtain a little bit more and more, they’re showing the human aspect of making a record,” said Clark Warner, the executive creative director of the online music store Beatport, where Get Lucky has been the top-selling track for several weeks.

The notion of restoring a human touch to dance music seems central to the new album, whose opening track is titled Give Life Back to Music. But the band mates, who met at school in Paris in 1987, are adamant that nostalgia is not their primary motivation. Nor is there anything “judgmental,” said Bangalter, about the anti-digital stance that he and de Homem-Christo took with the making of the album.

Still, he referred to technology like Pro Tools and Auto-Tune as having “created a musical landscape that is very uniform” and enthused about the flexibility of the flesh-and-blood musicians they recruited, like the drummer John Robinson, who played on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.

Albums by megabands like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, with their no-expense-spared attention to detail, served as the model for the album’s intricately layered production. “The late ’70s and early ’80s is the zenith of a certain craftsmanship in sound recording,” Bangalter said.

For Daft Punk, there is a subtle but crucial distinction between perfection pursued through human effort and the perfection easily achieved through digital means. Of course, the intangible qualities of feel and vibe exalted by Daft Punk are out of reach for most of today’s young music makers, whose do-it-yourself dance tracks rely on the technology that propelled Daft Punk’s career in the ’90s. A kid in a bedroom with a laptop and software can make records that sound like a million bucks. Making music the way Daft Punk has for Random Access Memories actually requires a million bucks, or more.

It also takes time. Begun in 2008, then interrupted when Daft Punk worked on the Tron: Legacy score, the album took two and a half years to finish. But the challenge of learning how to get results from live musicians rather than compliant machines was an important step for the partners.

On their two most influential albums, 1997’s Homework and 2001’s Discovery, the duo were sampling virtuosos. They had a knack for finding the killer riffs secreted within obscure songs from the past and, through deft recontextualisation and processing, unleashing their incandescent potential.

Now with Random Access Memories, the goal is to make music that others might one day sample. Bangalter talks about the thrill of “starting every sound from scratch, creating a sonic world from the ground up.” Indeed there are just two samples on the album, in the final track Contact, a blasting surge of sound that starts with the voice of Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to stand on the Moon’s surface. That, and the trademark electronic processing on Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s voices, represent the only real continuity with Daft Punk’s old methodology.

All about identity

Onstage and in photo shoots, the two men wear slick suits and robot headgear that hides their faces. In person, those faces turn out to be lightly bearded, and their everyday clothing is casual and nondescript. Bangalter talks earnestly and often loftily in fluent English, sometimes breaking off to consult with his partner in French. “Computers were never designed in the first place to become musical instruments,” Bangalter said. “Within a computer, everything is sterile — there’s no sound, there’s no air. It’s totally code. Like with computer-generated effects in movies, you can create wonders. But it’s really hard to create emotion.”

Random Access Memories is, in part, a celebration of the rarely acknowledged musicality of disco, whose greatest exponents were nothing if not great players. “They wanted the classic Nile, almost like we were doing a record back in the day,” said Rodgers, the guitarist of Chic and one of the most sought-after producers of the ’80s.

Daft Punk has always had a strong sense of history. Reverence for the duo’s musical ancestors inspired the Homework track Teachers, a roll-call of house music and techno pioneers. Its equivalent on Random Access Memories is Giorgio by Moroder.

But the collaboration with Moroder, the principal pioneer of the electronic style Eurodisco, was not musical. Instead Daft Punk took snippets from two long interviews with the producer and layered them over an epic track incorporating a pastiche of the Moroder sound. The song jumps from his earliest days as a struggling musician to the recording of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, the futuristic 1977 single whose metronomic rhythm track and pulsating synths helped spawn genres like ’80s synth-pop and ’90s trance. “One day, I’ll type out the whole interview and that’ll be my biography,” Moroder said.

Although Daft Punk’s collaborators include musicians their own age or younger, like Panda Bear from Animal Collective, it’s the partnerships forged with elder statesmen like Moroder and Rodgers that are most revealing of the project’s intent. This applies to the seemingly unlikely collaboration with the actor-singer-songwriter Paul Williams, who helped write songs for the Carpenters and the Muppets.

On the new album, Williams wrote lyrics for Beyond and Touch. He also sang on Touch, a grandiose song-suite that merges prog-rock and pop schlock. Upon hearing the finished Touch, Williams recalled asking, “Can I see it again?”' and described the album as “an intensely visual experience.”

For Daft Punk, Williams seems to represent some kind of pure spirit of entertainment. It’s this belief in the magic of showbiz that attracted the band to Los Angeles in the first place. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had a presence in the city as far back as 1996, when they met with Spike Jonze to direct the video for Da Funk. In the mid-2000s they established the company Daft Arts Inc. here to develop the visual aspects of their work, including their 2006 feature-length film Daft Punk’s Electroma.

But the attraction to Los Angeles is as much mythic as it is practical. Gesturing toward Hollywood in the valley below his house, Bangalter talked about the “classic dream factory.” Whether it’s the pulp fictions manufactured by the studio system or the glitter-ball wonderworld of disco, for Daft Punk pop culture is all about fantasy, escape and self-transformation. The idea for the robot masks they wear as a shield from fame came from superhero comics and movies. A delicate poise between kitsch and the sublime is the hallmark of their greatest songs, like 2001’s Digital Love and the new album’s Fragments of Time. De Homem-Christo stirred on the couch and broke his silence to talk about the near-mystical power of music. “You get that extraordinary feeling, that otherworldly feeling, of being transported somewhere,” he said. “I think we have a little bit of that edge, me and Thomas, these past 20 years.”

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