Daft Punk goes outside comfort zone for new album
Published: Monday, May 20, 2013 at 1:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 20, 2013 at 1:09 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — It's tempting to say Daft Punk has gone Hollywood.
The influential French electronic duo crafted its first film score, for "Tron: Legacy," three years ago and are now releasing a well-financed, smartly hyped pop album featuring what they call an ensemble cast of contemporary singers and veteran musicians.
There's long been a show-biz bent to the work of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who for the last 13 years have hidden their faces in public appearances by wearing robot helmets and costumes. Bangalter compares the mystique-building masks — echoed by musicians including Deadmau5 and MF Doom — to an ever-evolving comic book superhero who starts as a side story "then maybe 50 years later it becomes like a big franchise movie in Hollywood."
Yet Daft Punk's new album "Random Access Memories" isn't the special effects-filled summer blockbuster you might expect. The group that helped popularize electronic dance music in the United States has used almost exclusively live instrumentation on the 13 songs, many modeled on the easygoing groove of late 1970s pop and disco. At a time when drum machines and urgent computer-generated chords dominate the charts, Daft Punk went the opposite direction.
"Human voices in pop music are becoming more and more robotic," Bangalter said. "(The album) is a robotic project and a technological one that is trying to get more and more human."
Through arranger Chris Caswell, the group linked up with players who could evoke their favorite music from Chic, early Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac. Chic's Nile Rodgers, drummer JR Robinson and bassist James Genus lay the musical bed for vocalists including Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear from Animal Collective and Pharrell. It's a long way from the two-man home studio productions that defined the first three Daft Punk albums.
"Making music with musicians and bringing back a certain craftsmanship, that was totally unfamiliar for us. It was somehow a certain fantasy," Bangalter said. "It's funny because it was somehow a luxury to be able to do that. But at the same time it was not a comfortable position."
They started with several days of jam sessions in Los Angeles, then spent four years layering sounds, editing, rearranging and re-recording. Bangalter compares the duo to a film director "shooting for months and months, stopping sometimes to do reshoots and then lots of editing ... to create at the end a certain spontaneity that is somehow constructed."
Early response has been mixed to the hotly anticipated album, which streamed on iTunes prior to Tuesday's release. "This album makes me not like LA," DJ-producer Diplo tweeted. "These guys are way smarter then me. I'm definitely missing something." Billboard called the album "messy" but said it was "fantastic to hear these masterminds trying again," while Pitchfork praised its musicianship and "amazing level of detail."
Beginning with "Bring Life Back to Music," the album's lyrics sometimes seem in dialogue with today's electronic dance scene, which the group has been critical of in recent interviews. They say current laptop production software makes the genre's music both too easy to create and too similar.
"And yet, technology is this wonderful thing. We are definitely using it on the record in a much more invisible way," Bangalter noted. "A song like 'Touch' with Paul Williams has 250 tracks on it and it's something we couldn't have done without the most updated computer technology around. But technology today has a really limited shelf life and we wanted to try to go back, or bring back a certain timelessness of the music."
When Daft Punk released its last proper album, "Human After All," in 2005, Facebook was still just for college students and Twitter didn't exist. To return to cinema comparisons, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are electro-pop's Terrence Malick: Taking their time with new projects, mostly staying out of the press and keeping their faces anonymous so they can live relatively normal lives. (Both have homes in Paris. Bangalter also has a house in Los Angeles.)
It's gone according to plan: Their music is known, while their personalities and personal lives are not.
"People seem really to get it," de Homem-Christo said. "We've been doing that for a while and everybody approves apparently. The star system, the idol, the cult of personality is not the only way to be in entertainment."
Sitting at a courtyard picnic table at the Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood, site of their Daft Arts production offices, Bangalter responds thoughtfully to most questions posed to the duo; de Homem-Christo is quieter, less comfortable conversing in English. Both wear basic shirts, ripped jeans and scruffy beards. "We're like regular blokes," de Homem-Christo said.
"I think people are really more excited to see the robots than they would be to see ourselves," he added. "It's like C-3PO or Chewbacca. ... I'm a big 'Star Wars' fan but I never wanted to find out who was behind (the characters). And if I did it right now, I would forget his face. It would not interest me. ... The robots are far more trippy and opening your imagination than my face or Thomas' face, and the way we live, which is not even a crazy celebrity lifestyle."
Could that ever change? A late-career unmasking of some kind? Not likely, says Bangalter.
"We are artists that go by the name Daft Punk," he said. "If we put ourselves in the forefront, obviously we are appearing as robots. The idea is to reinvent these characters. We don't really want to feel like they're at the end of their existence. But at the same time, if we were to make a film or another project or a book or pictures or anything that would not have the robots, (they) could just be behind, hidden in some sense. That doesn't mean we would replace the robots with our real faces."
It's unclear when fans will next be able to see those robots up close again.
"We are not considering touring right now. We'll see when that comes," Bangalter said. And as for a sequel to their "Tron" work, he won't rule that out: "We usually don't want to do the same thing twice, but it doesn't feel like we've explored every aspect of what film scoring can be either."