It’s Friday night in the Californian desert and the sun has just set on the opening day of the Coachella festival. In between bands, 80,000 bronzed American hipsters are milling around waiting for something to happen. Then it does. There’s a deafening crackle of interference as the screens beside each stage erupt into static. The words ‘Transmission Intercepted’ flash up. Then that irresistible ‘Get Lucky’ groove starts. The Daft Punk logo appears in lights before the video cuts to Pharrell Williams singing and Chic’s Nile Rodgers playing guitar and – wait – is that the robots themselves as the rhythm section? “Oh shit!” People are sprinting across the fields towards the screens. “No fucking way!” They’re trying to point and dance and fumble for their camera-phones all at the same time. Every one of them has a sloppy grin splashed across their face, including, right down at the front of the VIP section, unmasked and anonymous, the two French mavericks who’ve just stolen an entire festival without even putting on their helmets.
Why all the excitement? With 1997’s ‘Homework’, 2001’s ‘Discovery’ and 2005’s ‘Human After All’, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo established themselves as the most innovative dance music producers of their generation. Then in 2006 they built themselves a huge pyramid which debuted at Coachella before touring the world, coming to Hyde Park in 2007 and revolutionising the way electronic music would be performed live. They made making dance music look easy. Too easy. In their wake came legions of laptop producers capable of following their heroes’ formula and nothing more. So the band changed tack. They spent two years writing the score for Tron: Legacy with an 85-piece orchestra, and then they disappeared.
Now they’re back, with ‘Random Access Memories’, a record that almost nobody has heard. The band have refused to give a copy to their label. They claim not to have one themselves. They sent one copy off to the factory to get pressed, and the only others exist in unmarked, locked briefcases that their assistants carry around the globe. I’m the only NME writer who was allowed to hear it when it was in London. It sounded like the score for an 80s sci-fi blockbuster set in a 70s disco. It sounded like everything at once, and nothing I’d ever heard before.
Two days after that first sighting at Coachella I arrive at Bing Crosby’s $3.5 million estate in the nearby hills where the pair are staying for the festival. The front door is open. I let myself in and walk through an opulent living room which opens onto the outdoor pool, where the longhaired Guy-Man is doing lengths in a pair of tiny black shorts. Thomas spots me from the kitchen. He’s pouring a bottle of champagne into glasses of Pimm’s and wearing an equally small pair of bright blue shorts, a lightweight white shirt and a pair of tinted brown sunglasses that, along with his curly black hair and beard, give him the air of someone running a drug lab on Miami Vice. He welcomes me and hands me one of the cocktails he’s just made, then starts to tell me about their temporary home. “This is the room where JFK and Marilyn Monroe had their affair,” he says, pointing to a bedroom. “There’s a lot of history in this house.” They might still speak with French accents, but Daft Punk have taken up residence right at the heart of the American dream.
The sun is high in the sky and unbearably hot, so we find a shaded spot by the pool and Guy-Man comes straight out of the water to join us, still wearing just those short shorts. Not only are Daft Punk human after all, I’m now uniquely placed to confirm they’re human all over.
Giving humanity to digital music is what ‘Random Access Memories’ is all about. Before coming to California I’d spoken to the legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder, who contributes his life story to one of the album’s strangest and most ground-breaking tracks, and he’d given me a clue to the pair’s intentions: “Thomas told me something very interesting. He said that this record is about going back to the roots of dance. He said that with technology today you don’t have to be a musician or an engineer. You just have to know a little bit about the computer and you can make great songs, but unfortunately they all sound the same.”
Thomas and Guy-Man can’t help but agree that they wanted to react against the EDM monster they unwittingly helped to create. “It’s great to see how influential our records have been on electronic music,” says Thomas. “We’re flattered by the respect we get, but we’ve been waiting for the last 10 years for some kid to come along and say: ‘Daft Punk have got it all wrong!’ That’s what it needs. When we started out it was in opposition to our environment. We were probably partly responsible for creating today’s vicious cycle. We want to break it. Technology has made making music, in a really cool way, more accessible to everybody. At the same time it kind of diminishes some of the power of the music. It’s like a magic trick when everybody knows how it’s done. Can there still be a magician when everyone is a magician?”
Do they ever listen to the likes of Skrillex or Deadmaus for pleasure?
“Deadmaus? No. I wouldn’t listen to Deadmaus for pleasure,” says Thomas. “Skrillex we have a lot of respect for because in some sense he might be the kid. He’s said that he saw our live show with the pyramid in 2007 and it made him want to make music, but it feels like he’s not copying our formula. He might be the kid that breaks the cycle, but we don’t listen to a lot of electronic music. We never did…”
Guy-Man leans back in his chair and gives a Gallic shrug: “I don’t know the EDM artists or the albums. At first I thought it was all just one guy, some DJ called EDM.”
Because it all sounds the same anyway?
They both crack up. “A little bit, yeah!” says Guy-Man. “Maybe it’s just one guy called Eric David Morris,” suggests Thomas.
Guy-Man continues: “It’s high energy music that’s really efficient on the body. It’s like an energy drink or something. It really works, and I totally admit that’s what we did at the start. We were playing raves and we wanted that energy when we played. More and more I’m into the emotions that you can get from music. EDM is energy only. It lacks depth. You can have energy in music and dance to it but still have soul.”
The irony in all this is that it’s taken a pair of robots to point out that contemporary pop music is lacking heart. There’s an idea in robotics called the ‘uncanny valley’. It says that while we generally like humanoid robots, say Daft Punk or C-3PO, when a robot looks more like an actual human, while still being slightly off, it freaks us the fuck out.
Thomas argues this is happening to music: “Pop music is into the uncanny valley. For example, take autotune. Autotune as an effect is very fun. We put it in the same category as the Wah Wah pedal. It’s pleasing to the ear and creates those funky artefacts, a bit like the clavinet in Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’. The other use of autotune is the invisible one, where you put the voices of the performers in and you set the thresholds so you can’t hear the autotune is there. It makes the voice ‘perfect’. If you’re using it to solve small imperfections you’re creating something that isn’t human. Would you autotune Roger Daltrey on ‘Tommy’? Or Simon and Garfunkel? It stops being a fun robotic effect and becomes like a clone from some paranoid and terrifying sci-fi movie.”
Having figured out exactly what sort of music they didn’t want to make, Daft Punk were also acutely aware of the stage of their careers they found themselves at. “We’re music lovers, and we realised that bands who’ve been together for 20 years usually don’t put out their best records,” Thomas explains. “We had to find a way to break that curse.” Their answer was to set about recording ‘Random Access Memories’ entirely with live musicians. Once they’d decided that, the album became one big game of ‘Ultimate Band’. They could pick anyone in the world, so who did they want?
They started with Paul Williams, a composer and songwriter who’s also the star of their favourite film: Phantom of the Paradise, a kitschy musical horror film from 1974 that mashes up The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust. Thomas describes one of the tracks he worked on, the epic, multi-faceted ‘Touch’, as “the pivotal track on the record.”
“‘Touch’ was the first track we started working on and almost the last to finish because it was the most complex,” he explains. The track switches from a crooner’s love song to a disco tune to a robot-sung ballad and back again seemingly at random. “We recorded 250 tracks to make that one song. Conceptually, it’s an interesting metaphor for the concept of the album: the similarities between the hard drive and the brain. It’s about the random way that memories are ‘downloaded’ into your train of thought. It also fits into the tradition of psychedelia. The most important records in music, whether it’s Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, or ‘The White Album’ or ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’, or ‘Quadrophenia’ or ‘Tommy’, are the ones that are totally crazy and take you on a journey for miles and miles.”
As well as Williams, they also brought in Julian Casablancas because they – like everyone else on the planet – always secretly wanted to be in The Strokes. “They’re probably our favourite contemporary rock band,” says Thomas. “Julian as a songwriter, a singer, a guitar player, a melodist and also as a rocker – in terms of the attitude – he’s got it totally right. We had a rock band when we were 17 and when we heard The Strokes’ first record we went: ‘Wow, that’s the band we dreamed of being.’”
Guy-Man agrees with a sigh: “If our first band Darlin’ had stayed together longer, we would have wanted to be The Strokes.”
The band they’ve chosen to put together for their first singles, however, goes straight back to their love of disco. They’ve brought together Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers with his spiritual heir, Pharrell Williams. For Daft Punk, recording with Nile at New York’s legendary Electic Lady studios was an android’s dream come true. “When we met each other 26 years ago, the first tape we listened to was Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’,” explains Thomas. “Then we were so inspired by Chic records, so 20 years later when you find yourself recording guitar parts with Nile Rodgers in Jimi Hendrix’s former studio… it’s crazy!”
When I speak to Pharrell, he’s equally excited to have the chance to work with his hero: “I was pleasantly surprised that they got Nile to work on the album because I’d been working on music previously that was imitating him. It was the coolest thing. His playing is exquisite. He’s just a genius.”
As for Daft Punk, Pharrell sweetly refuses to believe they’re anything but the robotic pioneers they appear to be: “I’m very excited for the robots, man. They deserve it. Those guys are super-rare. This is all a part of their masterful calculation. I’m thankful to just be a digit in their equation.”
Another suggestion that Daft Punk might really be from another world comes from the album’s final track ‘Contact’, which samples NASA recordings from Apollo 17 and sounds not unlike a huge pyramid blasting off into space. Over piña coladas by the pool, collaborator DJ Falcon tells the story of the moment they finished it: “When we came to finally listen to the finished track in the studio we could feel the intensity the noise was causing. Right at the end of the track, the speakers in the studio blew out! I’m talking like one second left. That’s the end of the album! It was such a rock’n’roll vibe, like smashing your guitar at the end of the show. The studio was fucked up, but we just smiled at each other and said: ‘Fuck that!’ We closed the door on the studio and went home.”
With the record finished, the band’s attention turned to the slow process of unveiling it to world. They’ve managed to keep the record shrouded in the sort of secrecy that makes David Bowie seem chatty. “We’re throwing a surprise party,” explains Thomas, “so we don’t want it to be spoiled. The record company doesn’t have the record. We don’t have the record. Our friends don’t have the record. It just sits in a factory somewhere and in a few briefcases that are travelling round to play to journalists. The scenario is a little James Bond, but it’s fun.”
The same goes for their robot alter-egos and the anonymity they have no desire to lose. Anyone can be famous, but it takes a special sort of person to be a superhero. “We don’t have an ego about wanting everyone to know who we are,” says Thomas. “This way it’s like we have superpowers but nobody knows who we are. We’ve created something world famous, and at the same time we’re anonymous. Even seven years ago when we played Coachella and did that tour it really felt like the robots and Daft Punk became so much bigger than ourselves. We try to direct them, but they belong to everybody.”
With the subject of touring in the air, it seems like the time to press them on whether they have any plans to climb back inside that pyramid. They both shrug. “Not any time soon,” says Thomas. “We want to focus attention on the record itself, but also the nature of this record makes it not really possible to tour it. Maybe in the future we’ll have the ability to add some of these songs into our repertoire, whether in the way we have been touring in the past or in different ways – but that’s something we’ll experiment with in the future.”
Could they tour with a live band? “We haven’t thought about it.”
Guy-Man steps in, a little exasperated: “Even our friends are asking us when we are going to be touring! They haven’t even heard the album yet! The record is full of so much stuff. There’s a lot to digest. You can live with it for a longer period of time than you would with another album. Touring will come later.”
For now, the only people who’ve heard this music live are some video extras who got very lucky. When I speak to Nile Rodgers, he says it’s that moment he can’t forget: “It moved me in a way I’ve only been moved a couple of times before. I can count those times on my hand. When we first played ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Good Times’ for a room full of strangers, and I saw their reaction. When I first heard Diana Ross outside of a recording studio, in a nightclub. People responded in a visceral, primal, spiritual way. Doing the music video for the next Daft Punk single, after days of shooting, when we finally did the first full playback from beginning to end it was the first time the extras heard it. They were weeping. They were hugging each other. They weren’t crying because of exhaustion. I’ve seen this before and it’s people going: ‘Something important just happened, and we’re a part of that thing.’ I was crying too! I kept thinking to myself: ‘Thank God I have my own trailer so they don’t see me like this. I’m supposed to be in control.’ I’d been up onstage jamming my butt off, and they were all into it, but then I went from Mr Riff Machine to welling up and saying: ‘I understand just how you feel, guys…’ It was funny and it was sweet and it was wonderful.”
“It was special,” agrees Thomas. “It’s funny, because it was in that context where no-one’s heard anything and then you have 150 people together hearing it for the first time.”
Right now, the whole planet seems desperate for that moment. Having been teased for so long, ‘Get Lucky’ broke Spotify’s streaming records and jumped to the top of worldwide charts the moment it was released in full. In an age where almost all music is just a click away, everyone wants what they can’t find.
Thomas smiles: “It’s the same for a musician. When music is easy to make it’s not as exciting. Some of these pop tracks right now aren’t just a click away to hear, they’re a click away to create. In the end, whether people like this record or not, the way we’ve made it has been unique.”
We’ve been talking for a couple of hours, and it’s time for lunch. The band’s friends and collaborators have slowly been arriving and diving into the pool, while a barman has taken up his station mixing more piña coladas. Most importantly, a publicist has produced an unmarked, locked briefcase. After we eat, Thomas and Guy-Man go back to plotting how they’ll reveal their remaining secrets. Their work is never over. Then someone asks me the question I’ve been hoping to hear all day. The question we’re all waiting for: “So, do you wanna listen to the record?”
Cover story for NME, 18 May 2013.