The most revealing interview ever with the mysterious
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."
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
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.
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.
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?