Robots, Rebooted

5 minute read
Jesse Dorris

Martha Graham once said, “no artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the time.”

Daft Punk, whose new Random Access Memories is one of the most anticipated albums of 2013, have been their time for almost 20 years. Theirs is the sound of a world in which the bounties of the past, present and future have been Tumblr’d together into a stunning data blur. The French electro-dance-pop duo’s first album (1997’s Homework) defined house music for a generation. Their second album (2001’s Discovery) sparked an ’80s revival that haunts hip-hop and indie-rock records alike to this day. Their disappointing third album (2005’s aptly titled Human After All) is largely responsible for the lousy electro-rock jock jams of the ubiquitous Skrillex. They rebounded with a magnificent world tour and Grammy-winning live album. Who can they be now?

“We never actually made music with computers,” says one-half of Daft Punk, Thomas Bangalter, on the phone from their Daft Arts compound in L.A. This is surprising given the digital sheen that glistens over so much of their music. But he and his partner Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo made Homework in an “experimental lab, with wires everywhere,” also known as Bangalter’s childhood bedroom in Paris. “We used hardware and analog equipment that behaved in weird ways”–i.e., temperamental, largely Japanese machines attempting to mimic drums and bass guitars and failing into the future. Homework attracted attention from budding-genius directors like Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The resulting videos embodied Daft Punk’s synthesis of rigid structure and loose-limbed whimsy, featuring skeletons dancing on Q*bert platforms, tomato-sauce tutorials and lovelorn bloodhounds.

They didn’t, however, feature Daft Punk themselves. The pair mostly stayed out of the limelight, doing very few interviews and disguising themselves for photos. “We had these masks and hoods, hiding our faces in all these ways, from tinfoil to shrink-wrap,” Bangalter says. But why? “Ideas about shifting the paradigm of the star system and the cult of personality were pretty common in the rave scene.” Got it.

In 2001 they upgraded their brilliant disguises. “We wanted to create a persona that could fit into the idea of a spectacle,” Bangalter says. The pair traded in the tinfoil and climbed into tight leather uniforms with instantly iconic space helmets. In short, they became sexy robots.

Their sound went spectacular too, producing the Technicolor dream-funk of Discovery, led by the smash single “One More Time”–which to this day is rivaled only by Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” in both documenting and producing joy.

Off the dance floor, their influence was rampant. Kanye West chopped up Discovery’s lodestar “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” to make “Stronger” and went platinum with it, bringing all of hip-hop along for the ride. (“Daft Punk are our fathers, simply put,” says West’s tour DJ, A-Trak.) Indie hero James Murphy built up his beloved, much-missed LCD Soundsystem largely on the back of a tribute single, “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House.”

Human After All played at fewer people’s houses. “We wanted a rupture–something really raw and unrefined. It was not a feel-good experience,” Bangalter says. It almost seemed as if Daft Punk had run out of time. But in 2006, as if transmitted from the great beyond, a buzz appeared across the Web. Shoddy cell-phone footage of a Coachella performance–Daft Punk’s first live show in a decade–began to circulate on the Internet; this was before the iPhone and barely into the age of YouTube. Blanketed underneath the pixels, the shaky camera work and the bad sound, you could see outlandish things. A neon honeycomb rig, like some parallel-universe Solid Gold set. A giant Illuminati-style LED pyramid with two robots under the hood. Flabbergasted people screaming at the tops of their lungs to 10 years of hits.

Daft Punk toured the world in 2006–07. “There was this celebratory aspect or re-putting-into-perspective the three albums we had done,” says de Homem-Christo. The audio document, Alive 2007, won two Grammys and made the robots legends.

Their soundtrack to Tron: Legacy (2010) was too John Williams for comfort, but working with an 85-piece orchestra taught Daft Punk how to scale up their technique. It also exposed them to the power of acoustic instruments–a power fully harnessed on Random Access Memories. The 13 tracks contain only a sample or two, instead relying on actual humans like godhead Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, disco wizard Giorgio Moroder and “Rainbow Connection” songwriter Paul Williams.

The new work “upholds the historical legacy of classic ’70s musicianship,” says Roots bandleader Questlove, “but it’s contextualized and filtered in a way that’s absolutely brand-new and fresh.”

Random Access Memories combines sophisticated disco, anxious electro, classical bombast and melancholy minimalism, creating a sound for which the word epic seems to have been invented. From the louche shimmy of the first single, “Get Lucky,” to the wonderfully silly spoken-word showpiece “Giorgio by Moroder” or the très-Chic anthem “Give Life Back to Music,” it’s as if the duo had decided to go back to the future–a time long ago and far away. For Daft Punk, that time is always now.

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