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Daft Punk: All hail our robot overlords
The most revealing interview ever with the mysterious French duo

By Jonah Weiner
Rolling Stone

Daft Punk's Paris studio sits on an ugly, bustling thoroughfare on the south side of town, near a train station and a hospital, behind a green garage door. To enter, you press a buzzer and present your face to a security camera, at which point the door lurches upward to reveal a lovely cobblestone courtyard and a cluster of beige buildings covered in whorls of ivy. On an early spring afternoon, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter – lifelong Parisians, longtime friends and the compulsively secretive musicians behind the Daft Punk robot masks – are standing on the cobblestones, blinking in the sunshine like they've emerged from a deep cave. Which they sort of have. "It's the first beautiful day we've had in weeks," de Homem-Christo says. Nodding toward a windowless room where he and Bang¬alter have spent untold hours hunched over synthesizers, chasing new sounds, he musters a resigned Gallic shrug: "We're always in the darkness, anyway."

MSN Music: Listen to Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories"

Bangalter plucks a key from his pocket and unlocks the room – it was here, in April 2008, on the heels of a world tour, that Daft Punk withdrew to write songs for their fourth album, "Random Access Memories." On the road, they'd transformed packed amphitheaters, baseball fields and soccer stadiums into euphoric raves, manning an arsenal of custom-built supercomputers from within a 24-foot-tall aluminum pyramid covered with screens and centered within an Atari honeycomb of glowing LED beams. Daft Punk had first broken big during the nineties electronica boom, but the tour – a hallucinatory spectacle of pop stagecraft without precedent – made them several orders of magnitude more popular, transforming them from survivors of a bygone fad into unwitting pioneers of a dance-music craze that has since swallowed the pop world whole. Another act in a similar position might have coasted – selling out bigger and bigger venues, pumping out the same throbbing beats – but Daft Punk quit the road after 48 shows, and when they started on their new material, it was with a fidgety desire to reinvent themselves. "Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone, and it's not moving one inch," Bangalter says. "That's not what artists are supposed to do."

Tall and bony, Bangalter, 38, is wearing a gray sweater and skinny jeans with a hole in the knee big enough to toss a tennis ball through. He has a long, bearded face and curly brown hair grown into a modest Jewfro. (Bangalter's father, a seventies-era disco artist and producer who recorded as Daniel Vangarde, is Jewish, but the Bangalter household was not religious.) When Bangalter is feeling relaxed, his eyes twinkle and his body language grows demonstratively warm: He'll lean in close, nudge you heartily to emphasize a point. At other times, though, while someone else is speaking, he'll scrunch up his nose in apparent disdain, like he's noticed a bad smell. The director Michel Gondry, who's known Daft Punk since they hired him to make the video for their percolating 1997 hit "Around the World," says that Bangalter has a blunt criticality that can be off-putting. "We were in a coffee shop in Paris one time, and he told me he hated my first movie," Gondry recalls with a laugh. "He said it was lacking in life, it was contrived! Really harsh, right? Some people, they just say what they think."

De Homem-Christo, 39, has a wide face, delicate features, stubbled cheeks and long brown hair. As a teenager he wore his mane greasy and stringy, and he was often spotted wearing a fur coat and carrying his possessions in a plastic shopping bag. Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, who first met the duo in 1992, says that de Homem-Christo used to resemble "a girl" and "a crackhead," but today his look is more hygienically scruffy: brown leather jacket, scuffed motorcycle boots, a tiny wishbone pendant hanging over a black velour sweatshirt. He's not overly fond of eye contact, and he's taciturn where Bangalter is expansive. "Guy-Man doesn't talk too much," says Daniel Dauxerre, who used to work at a Paris record store, New Rose, where the Daft Punk guys crate-dug as teens for Augustus Pablo and Beach Boys vinyl. "When he does talk, he's got a very dry sense of humor – he might be making fun of you, you never really know."

Daft Punk are the most enigmatic superstars in pop. In addition to hiding their faces at performances, in videos and in photographs, they operate largely in secrecy and keep a tight grip on biographical details in those rare instances when they grant interviews. So it's with widened eyes that an outsider enters their work space, where even mundane objects thrum with seeming Talmudic significance. In the synthesizer room, there's a weathered vinyl copy of Rod Stewart's "Blondes Have More Fun" in one corner and a dinky JVC boombox for listening to rough mixes nearby, with a black plastic pyramid perched on top. Blu-ray copies of Tron: L'Heritage (Tron: Legacy, for which Daft Punk composed the music) and Star Wars: L'Integrale de la Saga occupy a shelf near a book of Saul Bass designs, a Walker's Rhyming Dictionary, and an old Life Science Library volume called The Mind. Tacked to the wall is a snapshot of the Daft Punk robots standing with R2-D2 and C-3PO at an Adidas advertising shoot. "This was the moment I felt we truly entered pop culture," says Bangalter.

From Rolling Stone: Pharrell Williams on Daft Punk: 'The robots are leading'

He moves toward the room's centerpiece: a massive modular synthesizer roughly four feet tall and six feet wide. "This is a custom system, new and handmade for us by a guy in Canada," he says. Bolted into four dishwasher-size wooden cases are dozens of oscillators, noise generators and envelope followers; above these are Borg filters, Boogie filters, step sequencers and a vintage oscilloscope. Blinking lights, silver switches and 933 different knobs sprout from the facade within an overgrowth of red, gray and yellow cables. "With a synthesizer like this, there are so many elements affecting the sound, from room temperature to capacitors – thousands of chaotic little parameters," Bangalter says proudly. "It's the opposite of the sterile environment of a computer." He heard that the Canadian producer Deadmau5 caught wind of the setup, contacted the manufacturer and "ordered the exact same one."

Over the past decade, Daft Punk's influence has grown gargantuan – it's hard to name another act with its fingerprints on as many bands, sounds and trends. You can hear them in the reference-dizzy dance punk of LCD Soundsystem, who made their admiration explicit on "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House"; in the auto-tuned bleat pop of T-Pain and his imitators (Daft Punk got to the effect before anyone but Cher thought it was cool); in the hazy loops of chillwave acts like Toro y Moi and Washed Out; in the rehabilitated easy-listening cheese of Phoenix and Chromeo; in the brash new meld of hip-hop and electronic music that Kanye West staged when he turned de Homem-Christo's vocoder-bent voice into a chart-topping hook on "Stronger." In 2011, backstage at Madison Square Garden after a Watch the Throne show, Jay-Z told de Homem-Christo that Daft Punk's pyramid had been "a huge influence" on the tour. Even Disco Stu wore Bangalter's chrome robot helmet on The Simpsons. But when Bangalter invokes the sterility of computer music with a scowl, he has in mind Daft Punk's most direct musical descendants: the heroes of the mainstream dance takeover, all of whom are bananas for Daft Punk. David Guetta spins their tracks in Ibiza and called their debut, 1997's Homework, "a revolution." Avicii has described his earliest entree to electronic music as "listening to a lot of Daft Punk, way before I knew what house music was." Deadmau5 owes them his helmets. Skrillex has commented that seeing Daft Punk's pyramid "changed my life." Swedish House Mafia proclaim that "Daft Punk are our heroes in all ways possible."

All that love notwithstanding, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are deeply ambivalent about these heirs, with their pummeling buildups and clockwork kiloton bass drops. "Today, electronic music is like an audio energy drink," Bangalter says. "Artists are overcompensating with this aggressive, energetic, hyperstimulating music – it's like someone shaking you. But it can't move people on an emotional level. It's a way to feel alive, but?.?.?."

"It's not deep, it's surface," de Homem-Christo offers.

"Maybe it's the difference between love and sex, or eroticism and pornography," Bangalter says.

MSN Music: Human after all: Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' collaborators

As Daft Punk got deeper into making the new album, they were eager to junk old habits and proceed "from scratch," Bangalter says. Their longtime technique of sampling funk, disco and soft-rock vinyl suddenly struck them as canned, over-familiar. The drum machines they'd once used to propel tracks sounded rote – "autopilot," Bangalter says. They struck upon a new plan of attack that would lead Daft Punk further away from electronic music than they'd ever gone: "We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers," Bangalter says, "but with people."

The idea was to overhaul their sound while keeping its DNA intact, and to outpace their successors in the process. "In electronic music today, there's an identity crisis," Bangalter says. "You hear a song: Whose track is it? There's no signature. Everyone making electronic music has the same tool kits and templates. You listen, and you feel like it can be done on an iPad." He frowns. "If everybody knows all the tricks, it's no more magic."

Bangalter shows me a little magic on the fly. He tweaks an oscillator on the massive synthesizer, and a piercing drone rings out. He drops to a knee, runs a cable from an output into an input, turns a knob a millimeter. Scratchy distortion musses the edges of the signal. He fiddles some more, and the drone flips into a hypnotic hiccup, then down into a mighty house-music thud. Bangalter beams like a kid with a chemistry set. The synthesizer is "a little bit everywhere" on the new album, he says, played by hand each time: "With this, you'll never get what you're getting again – there's no Save As. It's a playground for building a sound from the ground up."

De Homem-Christo checks the time on his phone. The plan is to go for a drink and then get dinner across town, but we've got some time to kill.

"What do you want to do?" Bangalter asks de Homem-Christo. "Un café? Un thé? Chocolat?"

"Strip club," de Homem-Christo deadpans.

(page 1 of 3)

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This story is from the June 6, 213 issue of Rolling Stone 

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