In lieu of the unexpected announcement of Daft Punk’s breakup after 28 years of producing, remixing, DJing and trailblazing, I dug into the vault to share my interview with the group published in the April 2001 issue of Mixer.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Daft Punk twice as well as having them grace the cover of Big Shot during our print days.
Looking back on the interview, it’s heartening to see how they maintained such high standards for their work over subsequent releases and projects. Read on to learn the success of their first album, why it took so long to record their second LP and how they became robots.
Paris, France. September 9, 1999. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are working on tracks in their recording studio trying to offer up another quality contribution for the global house nation. When the clock strikes 9:09 (Was it am or pm? They can’t remember!) an explosion rips through their studio. The room was leveled. It’s an experience they’ll never forget and was the cause of them having to drop from sight.
Two years later, on a bone-chilling January morning in New York, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are relaxing in the living room of their posh suite with a view on a high floor of the trendy Tribeca Grand Hotel. This is the first American interview they’ve done in conjunction with promoting their new album, Discovery, and the first time they’ve revealed the details of this incident since completing a week of European press where many of the journalist’s tape recorders didn’t work.
As the duo pick at a plate of croissants that are directly next to a tray holding three glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice (two for them, one for me?), the Punks sheepishly try to recall the alleged “experience” which changed their so-called life.
“We were making music, the sampler exploded,” says Bangalter, sipping his juice and looking away, “and when we woke up our skin was made of metal. We just became robots.”
Bangalter (who seems to carry the bulk of the conversation, perhaps because of his superior English) goes on to talk about the devilish “999 virus” (a precursor to the same virus which was supposed to strike on the dawn of the Millennium) and how this accident completely altered their lives.
For two seriously talented DJ/producers who are both in their mid-20s, they’re both pulling off this Vaudeville routine with the ease of an elephant doing a ballet routine. Their story is such an unbelievable lark that the more they try to tell it, the more their feet come closer to their mouths.
This story has come completely undone and the pair see that this shtick is going nowhere, so they ‘fess up about the concept for Daft Punk V.2001. “We’re happy about it and we don’t have to wear masks anymore,” admits Bangalter, looking at the floor as his partner readies to light a cigarette. “It’s also not a way to do things twice. That would’ve been boring. like making the same music again.”
Daft Punk: Who are these masked men? Longtime friends Bangalter (taller, thinner) and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (shorter, stockier) met at school in 1987. They bonded through their mutual love of dance music and began making music. In 1993. their indie-rock band Darlin’ was featured along with three other bands on Shimmies on Super 8, a compilation released by Stereolab’s Duophonic label. A review in the notoriously fickle British music weekly Melody Maker described them as a bunch of ‘daft punks.’ The name stuck.
The same year, the guys connected with Scottish techno duo Slam, who pressed up Daft Punk’s “Alive” and released it on their Soma label in 1994.
Three years later came “Da Funk,” a gritty as-nasty-as-every-house-track-should-be slab of heavenly French house. And then came the seemingly endless onslaught of singles from Homework: “Around the World,” “Revolution 909”…it was almost too much for a househead to handle. Signed to Virgin via a licensing deal which allowed them the control of their music that most artists dream of (“But it came with a price,” says Bangalter, careful not to divulge too much information), Daft Punk’s assault on dance floors was as quick and fierce as an attack of ninjas raised on Chicago house.
Homework accomplished feats that most of the DJ/producers who inspired the album in the first place never attained in their careers. Daft Punk delivered 16 amazing tracks with no filler in their hearty mix. Then there was their album’s excellent packaging (including beautiful double-gatefold vinyl on the U.K. version of Homework) and high-quality big-budget videos that put a masked face to dance music’s brightest stars. MTV dropped to their knees and allowed them access by granting them airplay on their powerful, tightly controlled network. And let’s not forget how well “Around the World” sounded on the radio, who were all over the song. It was the song of the year, the one for 1997’s dance culture time capsule.
It’s a question that’s been asked since the dawn of music journalism to bands whose debut attained phenomenal success, but I must ask it: How did you both approach producing the songs on your second album? After attaining so much success with your first album, did you feel any pressure to write another album of hits?
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo: There are two kinds of pressure: The expectation from people and what we expect from ourselves.
Thomas Bangalter: We’ve always been interested in doing different things in the past, but always different to what people are doing. The only interaction with the outside we have when we make music is not do what has already been done. We didn’t want in any way to do what we did on the first album. The fact that what we did influenced the music was a funny thing. What we did — to be novel — became the norm, and that encouraged us to explore and experiment even more and to innovate new music. The freedom of making music is really the most important part of making electronic music.
Did you both tap into a specific source of inspiration to make this album?
Bangalter: “It’s not a question of staying inspired. It’s a question of what you want to do on 14 tracks. What we are interested in is, on a personal level, more about playing with sounds or a production technique or an emotion or format. Club culture has an open mind and what we loved about house music is that it destroyed the old rules of what the establishment — rock music — created. But what we didn’t like or approve of was that house music created new rules. We don’t like rules! We’re against any type of rules.”
Bangalter thinks for a minute.
“The source of inspiration maybe was to destroy the new rules of house music and have house music destroy itself, more in the way of keeping an open mind and invent new things in addition to recycling the past.”
In the same way that Homework defied many of the self-imposed limitations (sounds, structures and fear of writing proper songs) house pioneers have subjected themselves to since Jack Was born, one of the more interesting sounds on Discovery is their use of guitars. Not just lilting flamenco strains in the background as heard in Basement Jaxx’s awesome “Rendez-vu” — we’re talking about metallic, shredding two-hand tapping solos that would make Eddie van Halen raise his eyebrow. Rediscovering the instrument of their — and many of our — youths, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have further expanded on Daft Punk’s musical agenda. Mention to them how brilliant the guitar comes across on “Aerodynamic” and they don’t seem to think that they deserve too much credit for using an obvious instrument. The way that they see making music, every day a producer walks into the studio they should be focused on bringing on the new.
“If we speak freely about house tracks,” says Bangalter, trying to get his point across in English, “we started to understand how they work. We didn’t want to do 15 house tracks in one album. Using what house is about — cut and paste — and combining them with the other side of what we do.”
Where Homework was dance floor and radio perfect, Discovery was partially created to be remixed. There’s a momentary silence and the Punks look at each Other. “There should be no rules to forbid us,” affirms de Homem-Christo
“When we were making the album, we hadn’t put thought into singles or anything,” adds Bangalter. “With electronic music, you can listen to it in clubs which has DJs. On the other side is listening to electronic music at home. We felt that the music we did on this album was more for the home and to fill a gap which can be short tracks with energy.”
Daft Punk are cautious to talk about who is going to remix their forthcoming singles (they did say that “Aerodynamic” will be a future single with an encompassing video), but their party-perfect disco hit “One More Time” featuring New Jersey’s Romanthony probably won’t be. Released last fall, the feel-good single has continued to explode out of the underground and onto new radio stations in America almost every week.
Perhaps the biggest irony of “One More Time” is that the song is fronted by Romanthony, an artist who has gotten absolutely no love in his native America. The song’s success accentuates the irony about how the American corporate music system has turned its back for years on house music, specifically songs produced by African-Americans along the likes of DJ Pierre, Li’l Louis and Green Velvet. It took a group from France to prove the validity of a genre that was invented right in this country.
Like Radiohead, an iconoclastic band who operate wholly on their own terms, Daft Punk don’t seem too enthused about their success or motivated to top it. If they are, then I wouldn’t want to play poker with them. However, by the time you read this Homework will have attained gold status (sales of over 500,000 copies) in America, but will they even break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the milestone?
“Chart success or sales isn’t why we make music,” says Bangalter. “We make music just the way that we want [to] and push Ourselves to do new things.”
With that, the phone rings and the rail-thin Bangalter excuses himself to pick up the call on the other side of the room. It turns out to be a wrong number.
He sits back down on his chair and looks puzzled.
“Where was I?”
You were talking about what success means to Daft Punk.
“We reinvent ourselves and once the track is done, press it to vinyl or CD. We’re always curious to see how our music is received and sales are a secondary source of satisfaction after being free to do the music that we wanted to do in the first place. It’s definitely a huge cherry on the cake to see our songs do well.”
Will Daft Punk do it one more time in America? Time will tell if the public still has a place in their hearts for Daft Punk. Judging by the way that they’ve controlled their image (remember, they’re robots now) their attack on the media will be limited and controlled.
At 21, they made Homework. Now at 26, they’re visually and artistically at the peak of their game. Where The Who sang in the ’60s about how they hoped they died before they got old, Daft Punk have a more conventional sense of time and space.
“It’s true that we didn’t want to do the same record twice,” says Bangalter.
He shakes his head and smiles. “Life is just too short.”
Images by Jerome Albertini
Album of the Month: Daft Punk, Discovery (Virgin)
Mixer Magazine, April 2001
HOUSE music might be as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, but in 1996 two Frenchmen — Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — showed the world just how global house music is when they unveiled their incredible 16-track debut, Homework. They openly drew inspiration from dance music’s A-list of DJs/producers (they even shouted out all of their heroes on “Revolution 909”) while unveiling their own sonic signature, a groundswell of excitement snowballed around the globe when the duo dropped their now-classic single, “Around the World.” After landing such a massive hit, some groups’ profiles slowly fade into the background, but Daft Punk’s presence became stronger all on their own terms. The combination of Homework‘s slick album packaging, expensive concept videos and their tightly-controlled anti-image unexpectedly conquered MTV and pop radio at a point when major labels didn’t believe in dance music. Respected in the underground and praised in the mainstream, even though Homework crossed over to pop circles, its musical and creative genius remained well intact.
Five years later, Homework seems, in retrospect, more like Daft Punk’s polite bow of respect to the sanctuary their house idols built in the ’80s. It was the social obligation they paid before they lit the fuse that blew up the library containing everything we knew about house music into a million pieces and limitless opportunities. The dust has hardly settled, but Discovery arrives as a daring second album, unwilling to rehash the group’s past glory. The ubiquitous, Romanthony vocoder-fueled “One More Time” starts the album off, setting a party-perfect disco mood that never fails to please. Then it’s off into more surreal territory on “Aerodynamic,” where the Punks use church bells and blazing Eddie Van Halen-style guitar riffs amid their rotund bottom-heavy beats and end up with a track sounding more like an outtake from AC/DC’s Back In Black lost remix album. While it’s still yet to be determined if Daft Punk’s fans want to hear shredding guitar solos, the duo’s ingenuity and willingness to push the envelope shines as brave and completely commendable.
On the last few tracks, Daft Punk cajole the ’80s spirits of everything from Michael Jackson to Herbie Hancock and infuse funky, fat-ass basslines and whooping percussion into the bedrock of their tracks. Todd Edwards’ guest vocal on “Face to Face” sounds like Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait” mixed with any Sign of the Times-era Prince song (without the urgent sex quotient of course) and it’s undoubtedly fresh and singleworthy. Romanthony resurfaces on the closing track, “Too Long,” but one has to wonder the exact point of this excessive exercise. Like his classic (in some people’s minds) “The Wanderer,” his collaboration sounds like it was culled from stream-of-consciousness and is poorly structured. As the track builds its tempo and Romanthony keeps talking, five or so minutes later you realize that he hasn’t even put the car into drive. It’s a definite letdown, the strikeout you’d never think Daft Punk would miss on a slow curveball, but it’s hardly the end of the world.
In the end, however, what Daft Punk gives clubland are 14 tracks that may not be as ahead of their time as Homework but how could they reinvent the wheel twice? We’re living in a different time and place — just think how your life has changed in so many ways. Maybe the world has caught up a little with Daft Punk. If you really think about it, that’s not such a bad thing.