"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."
They released the accessible, song-driven Discovery in the midst of the White Stripes- and Strokes-led rock renaissance of the early '00s. They were the ideal crossover band: hooky enough to appeal to rock listeners, but beat-oriented enough to retain their original house fans. "The first record was about showing, when we were coming from rock, that electronic music and techno was cool. The second album was the opposite; it was showing to the techno kids that actually rock was cool."
Human After All, in 2005, was the band's first album to receive middling reviews, in part because critics conflated the album's minimalism and a reported six-week writing period with laziness. As an act bent on continually changing their approach, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo perhaps wanted to hear what a spontaneous Daft Punk would sound like. Despite its title, it was criticized for a lack of human touch, and for the repetitive nature of its relatively short track-list.
In 2006, they accepted a last minute invitation to headline Coachella, where they mixed and sampled songs spanning their catalog into an epic, near-90-minute mega-mix from atop a giant, illuminated pyramid. Inspired by the show's success, they set out on the Alive 2007 world tour, recording and officially releasing their Paris show as a full-length, Alive, in November. The album cemented Daft Punk's singularity as a festival-headlining electronic act, and built incredible anticipation for a fourth studio full-length.
Work on Random Access Memories began in 2008. "We went in the studio with a sound engineer, and we started to do demos," explains Bangalter. "We were not really happy with the way the production was going and we didn't really know how to solve the limitations of our own performance: the idea of looping, and using the instruments we'd been using for 20 years."
So Bangalter and de Homem-Christo took on a different project: scoring the 2010 sci-fi sequel/remake Tron: Legacy. "We took about a year doing Tron, because we were always really interested in film scoring, and especially the chance to work with an orchestra. We got completely shut out from the music we were making, pop music, and the world, to just be in this film scoring world for 13 or 14 months."
"The best part of our experience," claims Bangalter, "was the teamwork, the ability to work with an entire crew of people, the different talents, and what would come out of those interactions. We decided, 'Okay, let's try and go back to the music that we started, the two of us, and see what we keep and what we can start building. Experiment with musicians, session players, performers, technicians, recording studios, and do it differently.' What we learned with Tron was to open up this creative intimacy with a group of people during the making of it. It was definitely the key to unlocking what this record would become."
Making Random Access Memories, Bangalter maintains, "was like making a film. You could have a perfectionist director, but there's no such thing as a perfectionist film crew. The crew, and the other people that are around, are serving the vision of the team leader, in some sense. That's exactly what happened here, and that's why this record took five years to make."
If Human After All was Daft Punk's minimalist record, Random Access Memories is their experiment in the potential of a traditional big budget studio — made, for the first time, with entirely analog instruments, on entirely analog recording equipment.
The analog approach is matched by a strong disco thread that runs throughout the album, a history lesson that's boosted by guest appearances from synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder and cult songwriter Paul Williams. But even this more open and collaborative approach appears to be another chapter in Daft Punk's history of myth-making.
"They did not let me get involved at all!" laughs disco pioneer Moroder over the phone from California, admitting that his contribution to "Giorgio by Moroder" — which features the synth Godfather orating about his musical life and centres on a charged Moog refrain that evokes his classic "The Chase" — was solely oral. "Thomas asked me if I wanted to tell the story of my life. Then they would know what to do with it. We got down in the studio in Paris, and I was just talking."
The extent to which other guests contributed to their respective "collaborations" is unclear, but given the amount of creative input a master like Moroder was given, there's little doubt that once they recorded their parts, the robots filtered them all through Daft Punk-ian sensibilities. Gonzalez's piano is downright heartstring-tugging on "Within," but it's the deft Daft Punk touch — tinkling chimes and heavily-filtered, woozy vocals that sound as if they're melting — that makes the track one of the most affecting things they've composed, while Panda Bear's straight-time, layered vocal part is made entirely Daft Punk's own by tucking a bed of vocodered voices chanting "everybody will be dancing, we'll be doing it right" under it.
Random Access Memories is more cohesive for having been so meticulously shepherded by Daft Punk rather than by their cadre of peers, no matter how esteemed. "They are so much detailed oriented it's scary," Moroder says. "But if you listen to the vocoder sounds, they are so well done. Whatever they do, it's perfection."
Bangalter and de Homem-Christo formed Daft Punk in 1993, and Random Access Memories is just their fourth studio full-length. "Sometimes," admits Bangalter, "I wish we could have made, in those 20 years, more music, but at the same time, it's not a conscious decision of saying we're just going to make a record every four years. We haven't made a record in eight years, we might not do it before another eight."
That time spent out of the spotlight, he knows, is part of Daft Punk's allure. "It's part of the entertainment, part of the show. I guess because we're slow, taking our time to create things, the moments where we release something are maybe more unique," he posits. "The way we live our life, the anonymity, and the fiction that we build around things is deliberate. It's part of our creation. This idea of being something rare and ambitious and bigger than life definitely has an appeal for an audience to feel like it's something special.
"Maybe that's why they're paying attention," he ponders. "We feel like, at the family dinner, the person in the family who doesn't really speak that much, but when they speak everybody takes a listen."
Beside Bangalter, de Homem-Christo silently nods his approval.