Robocall: A Conversation with Daft Punk

 



Speaking from their secret LA lair, the electronic-music duo talk about their new album, the artists that influenced them, and their relationship with technology

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Sebastian Kim for TIME

French dance duo and public robot impersonators Daft Punk have recently made a series of documentaries, created a few brief advertisements that far overshadowed the episodes of Saturday Night Live they interrupted, staged an album launch party at a farm show in the Australian outback…oh, and finally finished a new album. Random Access Memories is seven years in the making and features a cast of thousands, starring, in order of appearance: disco innovator Nile Rogers, noted electro-perv turned serious pianist Chilly Gonzales, living legend Giorgio Moroder, the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, hip-hop impresario Pharrell, songwriter extraordinaire Paul Williams, house music god Todd Edwards, and smooth operator DJ Falcon.

The double-album trades in Daft Punk’s beloved techno fervor for an altogether more nostalgic, adult-contemporary approach. It’s gorgeous, often ridiculous, and divisive. (And arrives in the wake of a major loss to the Daft Punk family: rest in peace, Romanthony, whose vocal turns on tracks like “One More Time” and “Too Long” are for the ages.)

TIME reached the robots—a/k/a Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter—at their Daft Arts compound, a secretive, multimedia empire located at an undisclosed location somewhere in Los Angeles.

TIME: The new album focuses on music of the past. What’s the first music you remember hearing?
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo: I suppose the music on the seven-inch you could play along with the story of Snow White, as you move the pages of the book, you know? But the first impactful memory was Thriller. I was seven or eight at the time and I really embraced it all, the performance and package and music and horror film…

You can definitely see that all-encompassing vision influencing the music you later made. What about as teenagers?
de Homem-Christo: When we met, we had a real love for Chic. It was the best funky kind of band, the elegance and tightness of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers.

How were proper disco bands like Chic viewed in France? Was there the sort of “Disco Sucks!” backlash that happened here?
de Homem-Christo: I don’t think as much. In France, disco was an artistic progression that might not have had the same social stakes. Also, the language barriers—like with hip-hop, in France, the focus is more on the personality, of the flow of the music, rather than the lyrics themselves. Thriller reshaped sound. It reshaped everything. It was The Clash, Blondie, Duran Duran—these were technological progressions. Well, not progressions, but just advances, in digital recordings and MIDI and different kind of synthesizers and techniques.

On the rock side, we were big fans of the Velvet Underground—that was the band that really linked Thomas and me. At then, at, like 16, 17, it was the whole Manchester scene. Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was one of the pivotal records.

It’s a life-changing record, isn’t it?
de Homem-Christo: It was our youth. The most crazy years.

How were those first Daft Punk records made?
Thomas Bangalter: The first almost eight years of our work was done in my bedroom, in my parents’ flat. A very simple kit: a few drum machines, a few analog synthesizers, a small mixer, a small reverb unit, a compressor. We made a small experimental lab, with wires everywhere and a few pieces of electronic hardware. No multitrack system, no computer system initially, just a sequencer. We weren’t working with digital audio, just reel-to-reel. That’s how we created our own sound. Discovery relied on samples. On one sample would be a vocal part, on one sample would be a guitar part, on one sample would be the drums. So we’ve never actually made music with computers! [laughs] Neither Homework nor Discovery nor even Human After All were made with computers. They were made with hardware electronics and analog equipment that behave in weird ways, subjected to tuning changes with a change in room temperature.

How did you conceptualize the shift from Discovery to Human After All?
Bangalter: We made Discovery in 2.5 years, with a lot of different drum machines and synthesizers and this idea of an unlimited amount of time to experiment. After that, we really liked the idea of setting a new kind of parameter for us, which was a limited time with a limited kit. Two drum machines and two guitars and one vocoder and one eight-track machine. We were interested in the roughness somehow, and the contrast it provided, even though it was not a feel-good experience. Human is a record that has some kind of mechanical quality, but still spoke about the same thing: the dance between humanity and technology.

Your film Daft Punk’s Electroma was a different kind of dance, wasn’t it? It was surprising you didn’t use your own music in it.
Bangalter: The experiment was to do something not with a home studio and a drum machine, but instead, to do it with a camera. I personally did the cinematography for this movie, and we directed it together. The technology was very close to us.
Five years before, we had done Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, and we did the music and produced the story, but the Japanese studio made it. We always like the idea of collaboration, one way or the other, not doing everything ourselves.

So the idea was to expand the universe of the robots. It was an interesting counterpoint between the live tour we were developing and something more introspective, projecting more personality onto the robots. At the time, we were thinking, as curators, to be able to use other people’s music to project certain feelings. And also we hadn’t yet really imagined we could create the music with this idea of timelessness, like we have done with Random.

What do you mean by timelessness?
Bangalter: For a big fraction of the 20th century, technology had a constant value. It would not date. But now we’ve entered into this race of technological improvements in processing power and memory. There’s a big risk now for work to age and become dated as quickly as the technology it’s glorifying as a subject. That might not have been the case 40 or 50 years ago—from the ’40s to the ’70s, when the idea of the future was pretty much a consistent one. But we have entered into that future ourselves. We can see how technology improves and updates every six months. Even in the ’90s, there was an appeal in making music in bedrooms and moving toward a future that’s now been reached. And so technology has become more invisible with this record, but there’s still that science-fiction theme. There’s a section that goes into the idea of a portrait of space travel and time travel. “Touch,” with Paul Williams, for example, sounds really organic and acoustic, but it couldn’t have been done 30 or 40 years ago because it has 250 tracks! (laughs) It totally relies on the most up-to-date processing power of computers to be able to handle and record and mix all these things together. We would have had to sync up ten 24-track tape machines to do this before, and that really wouldn’t have been possible.

de Homem-Christo: We’re always looking for ground where we can experiment, where we can do something that’s relevant but that hasn’t been done before. Can it be in recorded music? Can it be in the field of a tour? These can take any kind of forms. We’re just looking for the right canvas to express certain kinds of ideas, to spontaneously get that spirit of reinvention.

And so what’s the future for Daft Punk?
Bangalter: We have a few weeks or years ahead planned, but there’s no real master plan or anything. It’s about being able to implement spontaneity and surprise ourselves. Not projecting into the future, but working on the present. Not completely forgetting the past but shaping the present in an interesting way.

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