It is a peculiar experience meeting the most famous faceless musicians in the world. Daft Punk are certainly well known. Eight years after their last album, their influence can be felt throughout dance music and beyond. Their fourth release, Random Access Memories, is the most hysterically anticipated record in years: every tidbit disseminated online over the past two months has been scrutinised like a fragment of the true cross. At a point in their career when most bands are on a downward slope, Daft Punk have just celebrated their first number one single, "Get Lucky", and are somehow bigger than ever.
"They're two of the greatest innovators in popular music and we're as excited to hear what they are doing as we are about David Bowie," says Chris Price, music editor of industry trade magazine Record of the Day. "I think they're as enigmatic and pioneering as Kraftwerk," says Dave Clarke, whose Soma label discovered Daft Punk 20 years ago. "They drop out and disappear and their fanbase grows."
So, yes, Daft Punk are very famous indeed, but the two Frenchmen sitting side by side on a sofa in a luxurious Paris hotel suite – Thomas Bangalter, 38, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, 39 – are very much not. Their last unmasked photo shoot was in 1995 and, for the past decade or so, they have hidden inside the helmets of their robot alter egos. But helmets would look, well, daft in an interview so here they are in the reluctant flesh. With his receding hairline, grey jacket and lean, thoughtful face, Thomas has a professorial air, delivering smoothly erudite monologues in a voice rather like Vincent Cassel's. Slumped beside him, in black jeans and a T-shirt advertising Italian prog-rock band Goblin, Guy-Man looks and acts at least a decade younger, long-haired and taciturn, like a problematic exchange student. It feels as if a hip TV academic has, for his own quiet amusement, decided to bring his surly nephew to work for the day.
Of course, Daft Punk would argue that any impression of them as people is irrelevant. "The robots are part of the fiction and it's not really interesting to see what's behind it," argues Thomas. "When you look at C-3PO and Darth Vader and then look at the actors behind them you can't really make the connection. It kills the magic. I feel the robots are the same." Guy-Man grunts in agreement. "They're more interesting than us for sure."
Five years in the making, Random Access Memories is a fabulously, heroically, sometimes ridiculously ambitious enterprise. First there's the cast of guests, which includes disco pioneers (Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers), indie-rock stars (the Strokes's Julian Casablancas, Animal Collective's Panda Bear), house producers (Todd Edwards, DJ Falcon) R&B royalty (Pharrell Williams) and a singer-songwriter who wrote songs for Bugsy Malone and the Muppets (Paul Williams). Then there's the sheer sonic opulence, attained by snubbing computers in favour of veteran session musicians, legendary studios and a 70-piece orchestra. Finally there's the promotional campaign, which involves costumes designed by Hedi Slimane, billboards on Sunset Boulevard and a series of playfully ingenious teasers starting in March with an enigmatic commercial during Saturday Night Live. Set against most of the year's "big" releases, Random Access Memories resembles Gulliver in Lilliput.
"The first thing I said when I heard it was: 'Can I see it again?'" Paul Williams says in awestruck tones. "That's an interesting slip of the tongue. The best way I can describe it is Kubrick's 2001. They take you back in time and then they take you into the future."
Five years ago, Daft Punk surveyed the music industry's diminished landscape of slashed budgets, shuttered studios, MP3s and Garage Band loops and decided to do the exact opposite, inspired by the musical Everests that dominated their childhood, from Dark Side of the Moon to Thriller. It's significant that the final track on Random Access Memories, "Contact", samples the voice of Captain Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, because the album betrays a fervent longing for the days of giant leaps.
"The music that's being done today has lost its magic and its poetry because it's rooted in everyday life and is highly technological," Thomas says with a sorrowful expression. "Then you have this classic repertoire of great music that feels like it's coming from this other, timeless place. We wanted to say that these classic albums that were ambitious in scope don't just belong to the past."
It is a grand throw of the dice for a pair of shy, stubborn Frenchmen who started out making noisy techno in their bedrooms. They could have saved themselves a great deal of time and money (they funded it themselves, only later partnering with Columbia Records) by making an album of catchy dance-pop, but they chose the hard way. If their 1997 debut, Homework, reshaped dance music and the impact of 2001's Discovery, a love letter to disco and soft-rock, is still echoing through pop now, then their hope for Random Access Memories is to inspire other artists to dream big. "It's only a state of mind to globally change," says Thomas.
Before I met Daft Punk I spoke to Giorgio Moroder, the 73-year-old producer behind such electronic milestones as Donna Summer's "I Feel Love". "I don't know very much about Guy-Man because we barely spoke, but Thomas is an incredibly intellectual guy," he told me. "He explains things in a metaphysical way. Sometimes it's a little difficult to know exactly what he means."
According to Thomas, Random Access Memories is like a movie, a painting, a fashion collection or "going on a journey in a small boat but you don't know if you're going to reach the other shore". Guy-Man, meanwhile, says precisely nothing for the first half-hour, preferring to sip his espresso, text, stare at the ceiling and generally pretend that I'm not there, his face naturally arranging itself into a weary scowl.
Thomas says that, when they were composing the score for 2010's Tron: Legacy, he wrote the "good guy" themes while Guy-Man handled the "bad guy" music. This makes a lot of sense.
Eventually, in desperation, I ask Guy-Man if he agrees with Thomas last answer. "Yes," he says witheringly. "If I disagree I will tell you." I ask him why he's stayed silent. "Silence is better," he shrugs, and Thomas laughs.
Daft Punk have never relished talking about themselves. In early interviews they came across as suspicious and aloof. "It's because you're 18 and you feel maybe guilty: why are we chosen to do these things?" says Thomas. "There's definitely reasons to feel less uncomfortable now. It's one thing to say you're going to do it and another to have done it for 20 years."
The duo met in 1987 at Paris's Lycée Carnot, prestigious alma mater of Jacques Chirac and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. "We were still children so we formed each other," says Guy-Man, finally surrendering to the interview. "There's so much that is unspoken. It's like an odd couple. Some couples will argue until they die, but some don't speak and enjoy looking at the sunset, you know?"
Thomas's father, Daniel Vangarde, produced French disco hits in the 70s – "DISCO" for Ottawan and "Cuba" for the Gibson Brothers – and Guy-Man's worked in advertising; they shared a privileged upbringing. Their first loves were Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground and Phantom of the Paradise, the bizarre 1974 musical horror movie that Brian De Palma made with Paul Williams. "It covered everything we liked when we were teenagers: horror, rock, musicals, glam," says Thomas, glowing with fandom. "Listening to Led Zeppelin songs backwards, watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre on VHS and getting KISS and David Bowie albums. It synthesised all of these elements."
In 1992, they formed a lo-fi rock band called Darlin' (after a Beach Boys song) with their friend Laurent Brancowitz, who now plays guitar in the successful French group Phoenix. Darlin' released just a handful of songs, which were dismissed as "daft punky thrash" by the music paper Melody Maker. Tweaking this insult into their new name, Thomas and Guy-Man switched to basic electronic equipment purchased with Thomas's 18th birthday present of £1,000, and released three singles on the Scottish dance label Soma, including the groundbreaking "Da Funk".
"Thomas did all the talking," remembers Soma founder Dave Clarke. "For the first six months I knew him Guy-Man kind of pretended he couldn't speak English. They liked being out but they weren't big drinkers. They were quite frugal. They didn't have a desire for wealth and glamour. They had a relaxed confidence that their music was going to get out there."
This was a period when the likes of the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were proving that dance music could transcend clubland to deliver big-selling crossover albums. When major labels came running, they were made to feel that they needed Daft Punk more than Daft Punk needed them. "Our career is defined more by the things we didn't do than by the things we did," says Thomas. "A lot of young kids come to us and say, 'What can we do to be where you guys are? We'll do anything.'
"And the answer is just the opposite. We haven't done anything that we didn't want. The only secret to being in control is to have it in the beginning. Retaining control is still hard, but obtaining control is virtually impossible."
Daft Punk's outsider mentality owed something to coming from France, whose pop music was then the butt of condescending jokes in the UK press and whose rave scene was hounded by the authorities. "Initially electronic music was anti-establishment, as punk rock and rock'n'roll were," says Thomas. "The music was shut down, the police were against the parties." He sounds like a soixante-huitard fondly remembering the barricades. "Now it's the opposite. It been totally accepted so there's nothing to fight for."
Daft Punk's 1997 debut album, Homework, recorded entirely in Thomas's bedroom, filtered house and techno through a love of classic rock. The cover displayed a logo patch sewn on to a black satin jacket, while the inner sleeve depicted a desk cluttered with adolescent artefacts, including a 1976 KISS poster and a Chic single sleeve. It was like a superhero's origin story: Peter Parker's bedroom before he became Spider-Man. Guy-Man, who designed the artwork, says that Thomas is the "hands-on technician" while he is the "filter": the man who stands back and says oui or non.
The hit single "Around the World" displayed a then-unfashionable love of disco which attracted the attention of Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. "The genius is never in the writing, it's in the rewriting," says Rodgers. "Whenever they put out records I can hear the amount of work that's gone into them – those microscopically small decisions that other people won't even think about. It's cool, but they massage it so it's not just cool – it's amazing."
For the next few years, Daft Punk could do no wrong. They commissioned striking videos from Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Roman Coppola. "Music Sounds Better With You", the Chaka Khan-sampling 1998 single by Thomas's side project Stardust, brought disco fever to house music. Madonna and Kylie had number-one hits that sounded uncannily like Daft Punk. In 2001 the retro-futurist Discovery revived appreciation for the kind of glossy soft-rock and sentimental 80s pop that most bands deemed too cheesy. "Homework was really to show the rock kids that techno is cool and Discovery was to show the techno kids that rock and soft-rock can be cool," says Thomas. It worked. They were sampled by Kanye West (whose forthcoming album they've worked on), celebrated as the gold standard of hipster cred in LCD Soundsystem's "Daft Punk is Playing at My House" and energetically homaged by younger artists, such as Justice.
The robot helmets, which are redesigned for each new project and are famous enough to have been spoofed on The Simpsons, enhanced their mystique. "People initially thought it was just marketing," says Thomas. "It was never that. The robots in some sense were as important as the music itself." Of course, it was also great marketing and an excellent way of preserving their privacy. At last month's Coachella festival, while the crowd went wild to a short video clip of "Get Lucky", Daft Punk watched from the sidelines, blissfully unrecognised.
There was a downside to the unbroken acclaim though. The more that other people sounded like Daft Punk, the harder it become for Daft Punk to do something new. Their third album, 2005's rough, ornery Human After All, was poorly received and left Daft Punk unsure what to do next. "Usually a band 20 years into its existence doesn't put out its best records," says Thomas. "That was something we had in mind – to try to break that rule. It's not intimidating, but it takes time."
So Daft Punk stopped thinking about albums. Instead they mounted a groundbreaking world tour, their first since 1997, that did for live dance music what Pink Floyd did for stadium rock. They made an inscrutable, wordless art movie called Daft Punk's Electroma. They scored Tron: Legacy for Disney. They both started families: Thomas has a second home in LA with his actor wife Élodie Bouchez. They reluctantly agreed to be made Chevaliers of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, having controversially turned down the prestigious honour several years earlier, just because they didn't want to cause another fuss. "You feel like you're going to get even more attention," Thomas says with an embarrassed sigh.
In the absence of any new Daft Punk music, their back catalogue nourished America's EDM (Electronic Dance Music) explosion. Key producers, such as Skrillex, trace their love of dance music to that 2006-7 tour. "Everyone I've talked to who's seen that show counts it as one of their all-time favourites," says Ryan Dombal, senior editor of influential US music website Pitchfork. "And its uniqueness and relative scarcity makes it easy to mythologise. When a lot of artists are trying to get an audience's attention by any means necessary – Twitter, sponsorship deals, commercials, playing festivals – it's automatically appealing when an artist seems above all that."
Daft Punk, who prefer the likes of James Blake and Bon Iver to most club music, pull faces when I mention their influence on EDM. "Pthrrrrt," says Thomas. "On one hand we're flattered. On the other hand we wish people could be influenced by our approach as much as our output. It's about breaking the rules and doing something different rather than taking some arrangements we did 10 years ago that have now become a formula."
Thomas blames the machines. For a man who has spent 12 years pretending to be a robot, he takes a remarkably dim view of digital music. "Computers aren't really music instruments," he sniffs. "And the only way to listen to it is on a computer as well. Human creativity is the ultimate interface. It's much more powerful than the mouse or the touch screen."
As an antidote to those wretched machines, they recorded Random Access Memories entirely live, with dozens of musicians, in studios in Paris, New York and Los Angeles. That sounds expensive, I say. "Yes, it got expensive," Thomas nods with some pride. "But we started with just £1,000 and everything since then has been financed by the audience. It was expensive in the same way that movies are expensive, because hundreds of people work on them. We feel fortunate to be able to experiment on a large scale. There's a lot of experimentation now in alternative music, but it feels like there's no money. The people with the means to be ambitious are usually the ones who are experimenting less."
Enjoying the Hollywood analogy, Thomas says Daft Punk were the album's screenwriters and directors while the guest performers were the actors, but actors who were given licence to write their own lines. "I didn't feel like I was being brought in to add wallpaper to a house that already existed," says Paul Williams. "I felt part of the process from the very beginning."
The way individual collaborators describe their understanding of the record recalls the fable of the blind men and the elephant: each one grasped only a fraction of the whole. "They didn't tell me anything," says Moroder, who spent four hours talking about his life for the extraordinary disco history lesson "Giorgio By Moroder". "Zero. I had several dinners with the boys and I didn't even ask because I knew they wouldn't tell me."
"What I worked on was quite bare bones and everything else grew up around me," says Nile Rodgers. "They just wanted me to be free to play. That's the way we used to make records back in the day. It almost felt like we'd moved back in time."
Perhaps that's the key to Daft Punk's current mission: using their privileged position to reinvent old methods pour encourager les autres. "We're not in a golden age of audiophile excellence and craftsmanship," complains Thomas. "But there's maybe a way to put back a certain optimism. There's things that can be done with music. It's an invitation to variety."
As for where Daft Punk go from here – will they make another album? Will they ever tour again? They'd really rather not say. "The projection of the future is kind of useless," shrugs Thomas. He thinks a tour, however lucrative, would be a distraction at this point. "We want to put the spotlight on the record. That's what we are sharing with you. There's nothing else." He holds out his empty palms. "That's it."
Guy-Man points out that, after all, they have not got this far by blabbing about their plans. "We don't actively try to feed people and annoy them with what we're doing," he says, leaning back. "We are not craving to be known. If we don't have this or that we are fine. You have to be self-content. The art is the first and only priority." He reclines like a cat in the sun. "We don't have to rush things."
Random Access Memories is out on Columbia on 20 May
Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history.
Homework will be playing as my soul glides into the ether.
These days, Daft Punk announce their superhuman abilities almost immediately — some might argue they’re more ubiquitous for their robotic guise over their actual music — but 20 years ago, when they released their sublime debut album, Homework, they were merely two French tricksters named Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. At the time, they had begun wearing masks to produce an ego-less, universal presence for dance music — a language that could exist without signifiers, if you will — though decidedly not the chromed helmets of today. Rather than mechanic flourishes on the album art, they opted for simple satin.
Though the packaging has ramped up to surreal new heights of whimsy and wonder, it’s now remarkable to see just how much of Daft Punk’s sound has crystallized over the past two decades. Of course, it helps that they chose some valuable inspirational signposts in house, techno, G-funk, and hip-hop. Even so, the two producers were only 22 years old, an incredibly early age given the clarity and grace they had exuded in this complete and timeless masterpiece. In fact, it’s become more or less an instruction manual for current would-be producers, namely how it runs through genres as though they were hyperactive cartoon characters.
For that reason, the album’s connections to the past and influence on the future can be viewed much more clearly. Granted, the genres they twirled into Homework were previously indebted to sampling and remixing, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg to this album. What’s far more intriguing is the matter bubbling underneath, which is why we’ve gone ahead and dismantled each of the album’s 16 tracks piece by piece, searching for particular influences that they might have had and uncovering which artists might have been influenced. It’s an around-the-world study of Daft Punk, and one that requires zero airfare and zero SkyMiles. Dancing shoes are optional.
Prior to 1997, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had been using the minimalist but entrancing “Daftendirekt” as the intro to their live performances, making it a fitting and wise choice to their debut album. It puts on display their embrace of house, a minimal yet disorienting groove that relies on a slow boil to get feet moving as the album crystallizes. With robotic vocoder and staccato 909, these beats combine the techno tapestry of Armand Van Helden’s “Witch Doktor”, a beguiling and funk-ified take on Sound on Sound’s “69”, and a bone-cracking “Le Patron Est Devenu Fou” by Etienne de Crecy — it’s moving when taken as a whole. That simple yet powerful formula made waves immediately, bringing the French house scene to the public attention — to the point that even Janet Jackson sampled it in “So Much Betta”, borrowing a bit of their robotic cool to add some unexpected oddness to her sultry compositions. In a sense, Daft Punk work as a link between the mechanic music of Kraftwerk and the electronic-indebted pop of the 2000s and ‘10s, and “Daftendirekt” shows how much and how quickly their influence spread.
Though the 28 seconds of “WDPK 83.7 FM” may not be the most influential or important track in their catalog, it works as a succinct transition between “Daftendirekt” and “Revolution 909”, using the sample of Vaughan Mason and Crew’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” as a bridge. The voice announcing the titular radio station, some have claimed, belongs to Bangalter; whether that’s true or not, the playful idolatry of dance radio fits in with Daft Punk’s self-aware adaptation of Western dance tropes. The sampled, slick “musique” (from their own track of the same name) plays a perfect rhythmic counterpoint to the tinny hi-hat echoey clap and heavy bass on the downbeats, a quick but effective track.
After the radio intro of “WDPK”, “Revolution 909” opens with its own narrative swatch: a rave getting broken up by the cops who insist that they “stop the music and go home.” But of course, police intervention couldn’t stop a beat as pulsing and insist as this one, the Doppler effect of the sirens transmuting into a mesmeric synth spin. The beat ripples and pops with an urgency, akin to the late ‘80s Chicago acid house of Phuture, though the track works off a clean bass line to smooth out that potential venom. The layers phase in and out of prominence, Daft Punk toying with the loops just enough to keep the heart rates racing, but not so much that it’s distracting. They manage the drama of the piece into a tidy arc, pushing and pulling at marionette strings to keep everyone dancing. Though only comprising the first 45 seconds of the five-and-a-half-minute track, the police story shows the band’s keen attention to narrative, something that’s proven incredibly influential both in the storytelling electronic music of acts like Nicolas Jaar and the more literal storytelling of Gorillaz — who actually sampled the crowd being broken up by the police in their 2005 track “Dare”.
Homework made an immediate impact with fans, but it’s remarkable how quickly their contemporaries and even those that predated them found inspiration in their subversion of house, hip-hop, and more. “Da Funk” is their G-Funk-leaning jam (specifically Warren G’s “Regulate”), a Moroder-esque synth hook that latches on at its 110 BPM lope and never lets go. The song was making such big waves that, as it’s told, The Chemical Brothers started incorporating it into their sets. Even years later, another massive dance-leaning act would crib from “Da Funk”: LCD Soundsystem would grab snippets of it during extended jams. Daft Punk’s imprint was massive and immediate, and the bump and grind gangsta lean of “Da Funk” makes that obvious from minute one. Their fountain of ideas was already seemingly limitless, and this gleeful melody — resembling a wordless verse-chorus-verse structure, produced on a TB-303 bass synthesizer — and tight four-four drum pattern show their pop takeover potential. The one thing I cherish about them is their absolute inability to refuse a good gambit.
“Phoenix” opens with a simple, straight-ahead percussive loop, a bass drum hitting the downbeat hard. Layers of cymbals and drums snap into polyrhythmic place, building outwards like layers of mechanic shell around a thudding heart. The two-note synth hook takes lead not long after, eventually subsumed by an enigmatic, fascinating bass line — something like the humming of a lumbering giant skipping his way home. It makes sense that the track was eventually remixed by Basement Jaxx, an English duo locking down their own corner of the underground house world; Jaxx opened for Daft Punk on their first UK tour, the two groups sharing a lot of the same playful layering and subversive flips, something that followers like Justice and SBTRKT have latched onto expertly. Though not a stereotypical dance pattern, the track clearly gets the body moving; this same phenomenon was arising in drill and bass offshoots in the same year like Aphex Twin’s “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” and Squarepusher (as well as late-era Daniel Bell, eventually), making even the most complicated rhythms irresistible.
Sub a live vocal hook into “Fresh” for its delightfully disorienting chopped and looped voice, and you might wind up with something akin to the swirling, sweet party jams of Hot Chip or VHS or Beta. Opening and closing on the wash of waves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo quickly establish the primacy of a guitar that ripples just as sweetly as the surf. Concentric circles of synth and phased percussion dominate most of the track, but the psychedelia of the guitar and that incessant vocal make for a compelling brew. That same interplay of traditional dance patterns, melting instrumentation, and a simple, yet expressive vocal performance (and whatever the voice on “Fresh” is saying, it seems seriously felt) laid groundwork for bands that would further fuse electronic music with pop-friendly structures. In fact, it may have been laying groundwork for themselves as well; while others built on the intense drama of Radiohead’s OK Computer or the glitchy breakbeats of Autechre’s Chiastic Slide, Daft Punk continued down the rainbow path of “Fresh” and eventually led to “One More Time”.
“Around the World”
I had never seen a mummy dance before! Sampled, remixed, or covered by everyone from Jojo to Snoop Dogg, “Around the World” clearly has as much appeal with other artists as it does with the millions of adoring fans who still fill the dance floor whenever it gets played, even 20 years later. The deceptively simple beat builds an entire party globe out of five different layers, each cut up and pasted back together in equally simple chunks — though when all glued up, they produce a collage of grand dance repercussions. Before they got the opportunity to reassert the power of Nile Rodgers by actually playing with him, “Around the World” rode a super-Chic bass line into hearts around the world, but the Heil talkbox used here to produce some of their earliest robo-voices may just be the most memorable aspect of the track. Infusing disco and R&B into house music wasn’t unique at the time, but neither was it entirely common; the thing that really sells “Around the World” as a vision of the Daft Punk future is the way in which they turn the repeated house vocal line into something otherworldly and dystopically cool.
“Rollin’ & Scratchin’”
In a world where waiting for the drop has become the national pastime and industrial-adjacent synth scrapes are just a part of everyday parlance, “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” shows you exactly how far ahead of their time Daft Punk were. The seven-and-a-half-minute track opens for nearly two minutes on a single repeating drum beat and a slowly building synth drone. Eventually some roboticized handclaps mix in, followed by some sine wave bass rumble. The high end wins out, though, the sound of teeth getting drilled paired with nearly buried and scrambled radio signals. The road from here to Skrillex and dubstep may not be a straight line, but it shares a lot of the same infrastructure. And when Daft Punk reach their peak on “Rollin’ & Scratchin’”, they truly pop off the soundwave, all rough edges and swaggering confidence. But as with most Daft Punk productions, this one straddles house and European techno as well, combining the drawn-out builds of Lil Louis (think “French Kiss”) and German producer Losoul (whose “Sawce” was surely influenced by Daft Punk’s squared synth tones).
Interestingly enough, “Teachers” is essentially Daft Punk listing and paying tribute to their influences, a wonky funk bass line, chopped and reverbed vocal sample, and straightforward rhythm slinking along while Bangalter lists musicians who taught the Robots what they know — in an entrancing double-layered vocal delivery, combining a pitched-up and a pitched-down version into a beguiling superhuman fusion. That shifted style wound up being a key element of similarly disorienting beat disruptors The Knife. More simply, Soulwax did their own version of “Teachers”. In the sped up take, Soulwax’s list differs pretty greatly from Daft Punk’s (The Sonics and Nirvana for the former, DJ Funk and George Clinton for the latter). But that truly gets to the transformative power that Daft Punk had on music as a whole: They can stand as essential influence to musicians who rely on noise rock as much as hip-hop.
Though certainly not the first to be chopping up samples, there’s a unique depth and surreal familiarity to Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s use of other tracks. On “High Fidelity”, they dissect Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”, rearranging it into a creature at once completely new and hinting at some innate connection that can’t be denied, no matter how much Joel’s syllables get split apart. While acts like The Hood Internet and Girl Talk looked at the act of sampling and made bold new leaps into reinterpretation, Daft Punk had turned Joel’s words into their own unique language all the way back in the mid-’90s. Knowing the origin of the sample makes the curls of Joel’s syllables a little cheekier, but the track grooves with a continental cool even without that knowledge, the key attribute of a truly successful sample. Beat-wise, the electronic burbles recall another Chicago mainstay, Cajmere and his “Coffee Pot (It’s Time For the Percolator)”.
The layers of clap-stomp percussion and analog synth squirm at the onset of “Rock‘n Roll” phase in and out of synchronicity, a heady pulse that feels like a retro space age computer blinking in and out of control. The extra layers of synth pulsing up and down in octaves around that initial core continue that conflict, the song threatening to pull apart from its motherboard at any moment. The tones get louder and fuzzier, burying the needle in the red, the stomp of the percussion eventually growing more insistent. Daft Punk were digging through house crates from the very start, but this song proves emblematic of that vital energy without too closely aping the textures; “Rock’n Roll” glitches up the deep house and acid like Glenn Underground circa 1995 and DJ Pierre, though keeping closer to source material than Aphex Twin’s experiments (say, “Flaphead” from 1992).
When early Daft Punk records used vocals, they had a propensity to latch onto a single word or line, and then repeat it ad nauseam, just another layer of percussive sound to match with the synths and drum machines. On “Oh Yeah”, it’s a seemingly disaffected group of youths (though with all their pitch-shifting, who knows) repeating the title, interlocking with the gritty bounce of the sub-bass. That minimalist lyrical approach was influential for Dan Snaith, and his Caribou records carry traces of the droning repetition and mantric lyrics of this era of Daft Punk. The two acts boil down to their simplest and most necessary pieces, and then explode them out to their largest scope. There’s some of “Oh Yeah” buried into Snaith’s “If Assholes Could Fly, This Place Would Be An Airport” — or at least an homage, considering their shared skronking blue-toned synth and chopping beat. The heavy, thumping bass and syncopated percussion near the song’s middle set up their connection to hip-hop as well, “Oh Yeah” immediately lending itself to chopping up for a potentially powerful rap production.
Chicago’s house music scene is an essential piece of the Daft Punk puzzle, so much so that they traveled to the Windy City to record a video for “Burnin’”, bringing a few of the city’s house DJs in for cameos. The song itself is ablaze with the funky minimalism of house, though with its unique robotic squeak. The limber bass flexes and struts while a rubber-band synth stretches and snaps back into place, all while a skittering hi-hat keeps things driving forward. The track may not be the melodic, hook-driven Daft Punk that would come later, but it displays their ease with tension and dramatic build, the super-minimalist layers iterating for nearly seven minutes without a moment of fading interest. Though they were producing in France and emulating Chicago, it was clear even this early that there was something entirely otherworldly about the Daft Punk experience.
“Indo Silver Club”
Disco never really died, it just slipped into a dark corner where only dance producers could find its sequins and sparkles, and get it ready to push out onto the dance floor. And nobody knows how to gussy up some slippery disco and set it back under the spotlight quite like Daft Punk. On “Indo Silver Club”, they sample middle-tier disco star Karen Young’s “Hot Shot” and modernize it into an absolute banger. The track clearly sets a precedent for the likes of Jamie xx and Chromeo, where the mirrorball shines brightly but eccentric choices are rewarded. The 909 drum machine keeps things from drifting too far away from the house sound, drilling its kick into the back of the beat and never letting go.
Released as “The New Wave” in 1994, Daft Punk’s first single with Soma Recordings eventually evolved into penultimate Homework track, “Alive”. Legend has it that the duo handed a demo of the song to label cofounder Stuart Macmillan at a rave at EuroDisney. Considering the duo’s blend of European techno and American house, that exchange happening at Mickey Mouse’s French home seems particularly fitting. The Homework edit of the track cuts two minutes off the original seven-minute track, and yet feels as overarchingly cool and mystically deep. Artists like Avicii and Zedd have taken from this strain of Daft Punk’s DNA to varying degrees of success, turning the simple moments into grand statements. The gritty, incessant bounce builds and builds, only to fade out into the urban dusk.
After the high drama of “Alive” — a track that would be a superb album closer — Daft Punk return to their sly playfulness with “Funk Ad”. The track is nothing more than a sub-minute snippet of “Da Funk” flipped in reverse. It shouldn’t work (the concept is so cheeky), but then somehow it just … does. The bones of “Da Funk” are just so strong that it can withstand getting pushed through a time-warping black hole and coming out the other end. It brings everything to a sweet fade, the album collapsing in on its own funk. That playful approach to dance music has spawned a thousand 808-toting jesters, though very few can pull off goofy and serious with powerful, intelligent depth behind both.