By Stephen Carlick"We feel like scientists, sometimes, doing research in a lab," muses Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter. "The first time you do your research, it comes to the first record, and you share your experimentations, your findings, with the world. The second time is your second album, but the third time... There's not more pressure, but the probability of another finding becomes lesser and lesser.
"We never say 'let's do another album.' We always go into this environment where it's just going to be experimentation and not really knowing where it's going to lead."
On May 21, the French duo released Random Access Memories, their disco-fuelled fourth album. It took Daft Punk eight long years, but they finally found the missing ingredient in their formula: humans.
The near-decade wait for Random Access Memories has slowly brought fans' anticipation to a boil, one that spilled over in the final weeks leading up to the album. A Daft Punk advertisement — featuring just a snippet of first single "Get Lucky" — that aired during Saturday Night Live on March 2 sparked a frenzy that, by the next day, found the 15-second clip stretched by hungry fans into a ten-minute disco groove. The band's online interview series, Random Access Memories: The Collaborators, made headline music news for each iteration, whether with heavy-hitters like Giorgio Moroder, Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, or lesser-known luminaries like Chilly Gonzales, Panda Bear and the enigmatic Paul Williams. It even sparked a Funny or Die parody with "the pizza guy," whose contribution to the album was making a pizza that "captured everything that made pizza great in the '70s, and then made it their own."
Hype driven and maintained by fans is a rarity that no amount of record label promotion can buy, especially for a band 20 years into their career. During the Coachella Music Festival, they aired a two-minute album trailer showing Bangalter, de Homem-Christo, Rodgers and Williams performing the already-ubiquitous "Get Lucky" in new, Hedi Slimane-designed sequined suits; days after the festival ended, Daft Punk were the most talked-about moment of the weekend without even playing. Standing in the middle of the VIP area, hidden in plain sight, were Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, the two men who know better than anyone that the audience weren't exactly clapping for them. They were clapping for two mysterious, helmeted figures about whom they know almost nothing outside their music.
Just a few days later, Daft Punk are sitting on a plush love seat in L.A.'s hip boutique hotel Chateau Marmont. Bangalter, who wears the silver, visored helmet, is direct and convivial. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who wears the gold helmet, extends a hand to shake, but otherwise goes the entire interview without saying a word.
It's the only notably "mysterious" detail about the French duo, who, despite the (largely self-perpetuated) myths surrounding them — that they're robots, that they're perfectionists, that their faces have never been seen — are quite laid-back and, yes, normal. Neither are wearing helmets, but they do so for any and all public appearances because "the mystery," explains Bangalter, "is part of the magic."
The duo are not secretive, necessarily, but they draw a thick line between themselves and their art: for legal reasons, Daft Punk's liner notes credit their music to T. Bangalter and G-M. de Homem-Christo, but officially, it's "the robots" who make all the music. A simple "Daft Punk no helmets" web search reveals several photos of their faces, yet the duo retain their mystique. Daft Punk control their own spotlight, and they've chosen to focus it on their creations, helmets included, and not themselves.
Bangalter and de Homem-Christo met in high school and formed Darlin', a short-lived rock band that included Phoenix's Laurent Brancowitz, which dissolved in less than a year. When Bangalter and de Homem-Christo started playing with loops, synthesizers and drum machines, they named the project after words a Melody Maker writer used, describing Darlin's music as a "daft, punky thrash."
The duo released single "Da Funk" as a twelve-inch on Scottish techno label Soma Records in 1995 and were signed to Virgin on its merits; their debut full-length, electro/acid house classic Homework, followed in 1997. A video for "Da Funk," directed by Spike Jonze, provided Daft Punk's first significant exposure in North America; it was also the first indication that they were not pursuing typical rock fame. The video features a man with the head of a dog walking through New York City, shopping and running into an old acquaintance while "Da Funk" plays, not always clearly, from his boom box. The video posed more questions than it answered, and announced the duo as a mysterious music force in a mid-'90s landscape dominated by grunge. Homework and concept videos like "Da Funk" helped create a late '90s dance music dominance that saw the rise of similar big beat electronic acts like the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim. By the time 2001 rolled around, Daft Punk were ready to evolve. As Bangalter posits: "We always are interested in trying to do something that's not around."