An audience with the robots

The record label PR looked both ways over her shoulders and handed me a scrap of paper under the table. It was April 2013, my first time in Hollywood, and things were already getting weird. Further down the Sunset Strip I could see the front of Whisky a Go Go plastered with images of Daft Punk’s helmets, halved then spliced together. I had flown to California to talk to the duo about their new record, ‘Random Access Memories’, for the cover of NME. The album was due in a month but was still being treated so secretively nobody could even say what tracks would be on it. I opened the scrap of paper in my hand and saw a list of 13 song titles, written in pencil. “We’re not allowed to send it electronically,” said the PR. “I’m sure you understand.”

Frankly, I didn’t understand at all. Surely they knew I could just type their precious tracklist into a computer? The whole situation seemed absurd until I realised that what I was dealing with was a case of Van Halen’s M&Ms. David Lee Roth once explained that the band’s rider request to be provided a bowl full of M&Ms with all the brown ones taken out was actually an eminently sensible way to make sure venues were reading the small print and that their complex technical and logistical requirements were therefore more likely to be met. This was something like that: a deliberately over-the-top instruction from Daft Punk to remind their label that loose lips sink spaceships.

I went back to the friend’s place where I was staying and called Pharrell Williams, who had clearly gotten the message about not letting too much light in on Daft Punk’s mysterious new project. I cross-examined him for a while, but it was as much use as interrogating Johnny Tightlips. After 15 minutes not only would he not tell me any details about the makings of ‘Get Lucky’, already by then the most talked-about song on the planet, but he wouldn’t even accept the proposition that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are actually human. “I’m very excited for the robots, man,” he said, the only way he would ever refer to the pair. “This is all a part of their masterful calculation. I’m thankful to just be a digit in their equation.”

Given the fog of mystery Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had cultivated around themselves, I had little idea what to expect from the interview itself: I half-expected them to insist on keeping their helmets on throughout. I got my answer a few days later in Palm Springs. The pair were there to attend Coachella incognito, and were staying at Bing Crosby’s $3.5 million estate – notable for being the location where JFK and Marilyn Monroe are rumoured to have consummated their affair. When I arrived the front door was open so I let myself in and walked through an opulent living room which opened onto an outdoor pool, where the longhaired de Homem-Christo was doing lengths in a pair of tiny black shorts. Bangalter was in the kitchen, pouring a bottle of champagne into glasses of Pimm’s while wearing an equally skimpy pair of bright blue shorts. At least I didn’t have to spend any longer worrying about their helmets.

The three of us ducked out of the desert heat and found somewhere shady near the pool to talk – or at least two of us did. It might be an exaggeration to say that Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s relationship is akin to Penn and Teller’s, or Jay and Silent Bob’s, but not by much. The loquacious Bangalter spoke expressively about the the record while de Homem-Christo sat mostly silently, the picture of Gallic cool, waiting for the opportune moment to drop a bon mot. This personal interrelationship mirrors the way they worked in the studio: Bangalter the ideas man, constantly creating new sounds and demos. De Homem-Christo the editor: This works. This doesn’t. Let’s try it like this. It was easy to see how their brains worked in tandem, whether they were making songs or cracking jokes. A one point, de Homem-Christo offhandedly suggested that he’d spent a long time assuming all EDM music had been made by the same DJ. Bangalter provided the punchline without missing a beat: “Maybe it’s just one guy called Eric David Morris.”

The news that Bangalter and  de Homem-Christo are officially calling time on Daft Punk after 28 years is sad, but not a surprise. They haven’t released a record since ‘Random Access Memories’, and even back in 2013 they were already feeling their age. “We’re music lovers, and we realised that bands who’ve been together for 20 years usually don’t put out their best records,” Bangalter told me.

Their solution at the time was to reinvent themselves by moving away from their electronic roots to record ‘Random Access Memories’ entirely with live musicians. Back then the question on everyone’s lips was whether they’d tour as a live band. Bangalter told me they “hadn’t thought about it”, and yesterday’s announcement would appear to confirm they never will. Perhaps that’s for the best: they’d already set an impossibly high bar for their live shows. Purists will say a pair of DJs with no instruments can’t claim to have pulled off the greatest tour in history; anyone lucky enough to have borne witness to the neon pyramid from their 2007 ‘Alive’ tour, in all its glory, will know differently.

Their split marks the end of an era. For a time Daft Punk were harder, better, faster and stronger than anyone else putting out records. For now, at least, their work is over.

Originally published by NME.