25th Anniv. Moment: Daft Punk – May, 2001 [Interview]
One More Time: Four Years After Its Filter Filled Splashdown, Daft Punk Returns With Discovery – Complete House Beats, Disco Sweeps and, Yes, Plenty of Vocoders
Originally published: May 2001
Taking their name from a review in an English music tabloid that described the indie rock band they both played in as “daft punks,” French DJ/producers Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have stormed the dance music world over the last seven years with their unique mix of disco, techno, house, break- beats and yes, even rock.
Their second single (“Rollin’ & Scratchin’” b/w “Da Funk”) for the U.K. independent label Soma in 1995 caught the attention of the Chemical Brothers, who played both sides incessantly during their DJ residency at London’s legendary Big Beat club The Heavenly Social. Later that year, Chem bros Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons tapped the pair to remix the second single (“Life Is Sweet”) from their debut, Exit Planet Dust, and to open for their U.K. tour. A label bidding war ensued.
Daft Punk’s 1997 debut album, Homework (Virgin), shook dance music at its foundation by exploring deep and disco-y house grooves, jackin’ Chicago-styled trax, pumping techno beats and squelchy acid breakbeats pushed through a sieve of pop hooks and filter envelopes. All the while, the duo refused to pose for press pictures, ensuring their relative anonymity by wearing a variety of masks.
Never before that time had a club act been so successful, yet so completely credible, finding favor with the house crowd, the techno bods, rave kids and modern rocktronica converts. Radio play and a little love from MTV for their quirky, kitschy videos (especially for “Da Funk” and “Around the World”) didn’t hurt either.
Fast-forward four years. Daft Punk have established themselves as post-electronica household names, their unique sound having set off an attention-diverting chain reaction of French electronic signings including Cassius, Air, Bob Sinclar and others. In this interim period, both Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo launched their own side labels – de Homem-Christo’s Crydamoure and Bangalter with Roulé, releasing the worldwide smash “Music Sounds Better With You” under the name Stardust. As further evidence of their influence, Madonna even utilized the French producer Mirwais to revamp the sound of the Material Girl’s new Music album into an even more pop-friendly, filter-heavy flavor.
Sitting in their Manhattan hotel suite on a press tour to advance promote their second Virgin album, Discovery, both Bangalter and de Homem-Christo seem uneasy with the whole idea of stardom and having to do interviews, maintaining that they are on the same level as their audience, preferring to let their music guide people to their own individual thoughts and feelings about it. However, under questioning, the pair, who professionally manage themselves, are quite explicit about their music and ideas of how it is to be presented in all forms.
Where Homework had a high-school theme, touching upon the edgier, more underground influences of their teenage years, Discovery presents a naïve, even more childlike approach to Daft Punk. Taking its inspiration from the late 1970s and early ’80s music they listened to as children, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo don’t allow any song on the album to extend longer than five minutes (except the 10-minute house excursion “Too Long” featuring vocals by Romanthony) and they touch upon new wave, electro, classical, progressive rock and heavy metal, again through that trademark sieve of pop hooks and filter envelopes. Lead single “One More Time,” also featuring the ultra-tasty Vocoded vocals of Romanthony, lit up dancefloors and crossed over on pop stations all winter, but that’s not all that Discovery has to offer. “Digital Love,” a gorgeous Buggles-like, “Video-Killed-The-Radio-Star” turn, and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” a basic, bomping electro-ish bomb track, are instant club winners. Time will tell if American radio, with its stunningly fickle taste, will embrace these standout tracks.
DJ Times sat down with Daft Punk’s talkative Thomas Bangalter and the not-as-talkative Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and discussed the challenges they faced during the making of Discovery and in self-management, the merging of underground sounds into mainstream music, the importance of innovation in the progression of dance music as an art form, and Daft Club, their exciting solution to the record industry’s ongoing concerns about digital distribution and Napster clones.
DJ Times: Homework was released in 1997. It’s now 2001. What’s taken Daft Punk so long to come back?
Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo: Firstly, we have been making the album. It’s taken two and a half years to make the album, collecting ideas and stuff – and before that we were touring and we both have our own independent labels and taking care of them. The making of the album took until last summer.
Thomas Bangalter: But as soon as it was ready we were already making plans and getting the first single (“One More Time”) ready to be released.
DJ Times: Your press kit makes mention that you lost a lot of work on Discovery when some gear crashed. Is this true or fabrication?
Bangalter: It’s true, but the reality is we didn’t lose that much work. What we like about electronic music, house music, is that it destroyed the previous rules [of making music] that subsequently were not really rules at all. That’s what house music should be – constantly destroying the rules and making new ones.
DJ Times: Has Discovery been a hard record to make?
Bangalter: It’s not been hard. It’s been ambitious from the fact that we wanted to demonstrate that we could make music in a way that conveyed emotions, hooks and melodies. The production is what took the most time, as what we were doing would take a few days, rather than a few minutes like before. It’s not difficult, it just takes time, and when it’s ambitious we started to feel that we could manage to understand how to make more than a simple club track. That’s not to say that we don’t like to do it anymore, but we wanted to be able to make music that was produced the right way, less random than the way we used to work. Before, things would just happen in a free way.
DJ Times: The two of you are pretty low-key and prefer to be somewhat anonymous, preferring to let the music do the talking. Did the electronic music explosion in the U.S. in 1997 and all the attention on you and this music have an effect on you?
Bangalter: Everything that happened…life has an effect on you. After the release of the Homework album, we had the ability to do some different things because the album had some success, but not because this music has been accepted and exploding. We would have become part of the establishment to say, “OK, let’s just do ‘our sound’ and stop innovating and do the same thing we’ve done before.” It’s a very personal process, that we make our music. The pressure we felt after we finished making this second album is from our own expectations, our own standards, rather than anything or anyone else. This music here has gone from nothing to an underground [culture] to a subculture to a bigger culture, which is still alternative in some way, as compared to Europe where it’s like what hip hop or R&B means in America – which is a great thing because for music, this is what we have been fighting for. But the thing that still drives you is trying to have people accept new things.
DJ Times: Madonna’s new album, Music, is full of the disco loops and filter “formula” that Daft Punk made popular. How do you feel about your sound going mainstream? Would you have produced her album if she had asked?
Bangalter: We really tried not to lose our identity in the making of this album, but also wanted to open new doors in our head. The challenge was to combine disco and house, filters and techno with things that were not four-on-the-floor, shorter formats, heavy-metal influences, classical music and electro and make it something that produced compact results. That influence from the early days is still there, but we wanted to do something different. We don’t really consider it to be a formula, though, because if it were a formula, then everything would sound the same. We really respect Madonna as a singer and as an artist, who has been reinventing herself for many, many years. Working with Mirwais is a good example of her doing something she believes in that was not the most obvious thing to do. The success of that is another element that merges the underground and the mainstream, which makes no more underground in terms of music. There is no more pop music; everything is now together. And now if people compare what Madonna has done now to us, they’re obviously comparing it to the first album – that was four years ago. That is flattering because we like Madonna and probably have been influenced at some point by her early releases.
DJ Times: Do you consider yourselves musicians, producers, or DJs with musical ability?
Bangalter: We consider ourselves musicians at some point because we write songs and play some instruments, but I guess we prefer to consider ourselves producers. A producer is not about just the music, but instead making something happen, having an idea and making it real. Right now we’ve got so many things that we want to do that we’ve stopped DJing. That doesn’t mean that it’s something we don’t like to do anymore. We’ve done it and we want to do other things as well. We’ve never really considered ourselves DJs. We have some DJ skills [laughs], but still, there are really good DJs out there. We were just playing some records we liked…
DJ Times: Is that why when you spin that you often seem to downplay your sets, preferring to play sets later on in the evening?
Bangalter: No, but it’s true. I think there are many talented DJs that do crazy, crazy things with records and we just happen to be people that make the records.
De Homem-Christo: To compare our way of DJing to people like Sneak or Armand or whoever, it’s their job and we respect that. And we are not as good as that. Even if [the crowd] danced and they liked it, when we used to DJ it was more of giving people a selection of what we like rather than being real DJs that require a lot more technique and involvement than we have.
Bangalter: It’s also a question of priority. We could be DJs, but that would take us away from other things we want to do musically and conceptually.
DJ Times: Who are some of your favorite DJs?
Bangalter: I think my favorite DJ is Jeff Mills. It’s cool the way he combines innovation, energy and minimalism, taking something that could appear to be really repetitive and dumb and make it very intelligent and radical, and also very entertaining – and especially more entertaining than the records themselves, than if they were taken separately. It’s a situation where the difference between the original material and the outcome is higher, which is sometimes easier with techno because there’s no harmony. I’ve seen him play house music sets and he plays garage songs really, really fast and he’s really skilled, but at the same time not being the perfect technician, an imperfect way to playing records and very alive.
De Homem-Christo: There’s many really good DJs, so it’s hard to say just one, but every time I’ve seen Jeff Mills play, he’s taken me to a new dimension where he’s throwing records away. This is not just DJing. There’s lots of great DJs, but every time you see him, he’s doing something special every time.
Bangalter: The interesting thing is the fact that he has become one of the most important musicians in electronic music, maybe one of the most important producers of techno music ever. People tend to often confuse the difference between DJs and live shows and maybe he is part of that confusion because when he spins it’s almost like he is making music live with three turntables. He represents an important statement that we were trying to do with tracks like “Rolling and Scratching” that were harder edged, that these noises are music and it’s not just noise and can be accessible and experimental.
DJ Times: You manage yourselves and control all of your material – from the logo and artwork to the music and publishing. What advice would you give up-and-coming producers trying to kick-start their careers?
Bangalter: It’s really hard. We were lucky to be able to know what we wanted and know what we wanted to do. Another thing is to do only what we wanted to do. There’s no plan to be able to do that; you just have to do it each time. You don’t reach a status; you don’t reach a goal. The only way to get there is by doing only what you want to do. This is how we did it. It’s hard to explain. We are in control of the music we make and we are free to do it exactly the way we want to. But to do it exactly the way we want to we must produce and finance everything we do. It’s not that we fancy financing ourselves; it’s just something that will give us control. And it’s not that we fancy controlling things just for the sake of it, it just gives us that freedom. But that doesn’t mean that the way we do it is the way everyone should do it. It’s a lot of work having a production company [Daft Trax] and licensing it to a record label to have the control. [Note: Daft Punk is licensed to their record company, Virgin, via their production company.] We know some people that are artists who are signed to record companies in regular artist deals. Now record companies understand this flexibility and they can have very good relationships. These artists have less things to do, less to finance and maybe [those artists] want to be famous, be recognized on the street, whatever. Everyone has a different idea and we’re cool with that. But our main approach is to demonstrate that there are no rules, any way it is possible to do something. We don’t advise everyone to wear masks or become robots. What we realize is that music is something that makes you happy. That is the most important thing.
DJ Times: You’ve already mentioned that you wanted to explore some new ideas, new musical territory, as well as processes of making your music on Discovery. Homework was recorded “in the bedroom,” so to speak, so has this album changed the environment in which you make music?
Bangalter: Everything is pretty much the same. We did some recording in New Jersey and other places and used some additional instruments, but everything is pretty much the same.
DJ Times: Where Homework’s influences were more subtle, Discovery overtly incorporates specific reference points into your music. Was this a conscious decision?
Bangalter: Some are conscious; some are not. Sometimes it’s just a sound, you recognize what you’re hearing without worrying whether it’s cool or not cool, hype or not hype, mainstream or underground, bad taste or good. At that age you have a true, honest love for what can touch you, and that’s the state that we wanted to go back to in trying to make this album. We had all these ideas and modern references that people may find these references from old things, but that’s in some ways what house music is when you sample a loop. House is a loop, whether it’s a disco record or a funk record, so we said what the hell? With this it could be disco or new wave, heavy metal or progressive rock, soul or electro, or write a melody, play an instrument and make something ourselves. When you think about it, it’s not that far away from what the basics of house music are. It’s just done in a different format but the spirit is the same.
DJ Times: New Jersey producer and vocalist Romanthony appears on the two tracks that open (“One More Time”) and close (“Too Long”) Discovery. What made you want to work with him?
Bangalter: We’ve wanted to work with Romanthony for a long time, back when we were working on the first album. We finally met him three or four years ago in Miami (at Winter Music Conference) and we got along and we were really happy that he appreciated what we were doing. We became friends and decided that the three of us were going to try to make some music together. It came in a really cool way like that from the friendship and mutual respect.
DJ Times: When “One More Time” was released last year, a lot of U.K. press panned the record, criticizing the Vocoder effect being used on Romanthony’s voice, considered to be one of the best male voices in house music. How did you feel about the critics’ opinion of that and critics in general?
Bangalter: We care less now than we used to about what critics say about our music. We liked the track, Romanthony liked it, we can be disappointed about what they said about the song, but still we liked it. It’s just music, it’s just entertainment, and as long as we believe in it that’s what is important. It’s (the Vocoder) what we wanted to do – we love to be able to use instruments the way we want to. Criticizing the Vocoder is like asking bands in the ’60s, ‘Why do you use the electric guitar?’ It’s just a tool…no big deal. Creation is interaction. The healthy thing is that people either loved it or hated it. At least people were not neutral. The worst thing when you make art is for people to not even be moved by it.” Love and hate are interesting because it’s deep and intense. It’s one side of our music that people might be sensitive to and others might not.
DJ Times: It seems like a win-win situation. You’re happy, the label is happy, your fans are happy.
Bangalter: It can create a community but most of the point is that we make music, we’re signed to a record label, our music is out on CDs 99-percent of the time. We’re supported by record shops and the system works like that. At the same time our music is available on Napster for free, so it’s how can you make a difference and how can you make things more profitable for our fans. It’s not an easy project, but it shows that there’s an effort being built. We like to always move forward, but the record company is trying to break the rules and still make something profitable for everyone.
DJ Times: What’s the plan for Daft Punk going forward? Are you planning on presenting this album in a live context?
Bangalter: The plan is Daft Club. What we plan to do to promote this release is work on remixes of the tracks from this album for DJs and develop and host the Daft Club site, producing it and making it worthwhile. We’d like to tour in 2002. This is not some easy marketing thing; [Daft Club] is very deep and very serious for us.
DJ Times: It’s impressive to see that you’re taking such an active role in this initiative.
De Homem-Christo: We’re the artists, but at the same time, we’re the audience for other people that we like. As a listener and as a consumer we buy music from people that we like and [Daft Club] gives us a way to be the audience as well.
DJ Times: You each have your own labels that have been somewhat prolific in the past few years, Guy-Manuel with Crydamoure and Thomas with Roulé. Are these going on the back burner now that you’re focusing your attention on Daft Punk?
Bangalter: Roulé’s never really been a “label.” It’s been more of an outlet where there’s a record every year or so. I’ve never made plans for it and I never will. It’s just something that is there. I know for Guy-Manuel, Crydamoure is more of a label.
De Homem-Christo: We are putting out a compilation of nearly all of the tracks that we’ve released since the beginning of the label. It’s called Waves. It’s the first CD adventure; everything has been on vinyl so far. Putting out a CD is very different.
Bangalter: House music and dance music is definitely something that we love and although that we’ve done shorter, less club tracks on this album doesn’t mean that we don’t care about house music. As musicians, we want to continue to innovate and while making music for the dancefloor is definitely part of it, it’s not the whole thing now. We used to spend all of our time going to clubs and now that we are getting older [laughs] we want to do other things, too.