Why Daft Punk's New Album Has Given New Life To The Music Business

Dance music pioneers Daft Punk's explosive — and expensive — new album could have blown up in their faces. Instead, it's pumped new life into the music industry.

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Arguably the most important musicians of the last 15 years are sitting in a hotel room on Paris' Rue de Rivoli. It is a little surprising to see Daft Punk in the flesh, so to speak.

Since their debut single was released in 1994, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have sold millions of records and influenced everyone from Madonna to Kanye West — who sampled their 2001 single "Harder Faster Better Stronger" on his 2007 single "Stronger" — to Skrillex.

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They have kick-started the vastly successful EDM (electronic dance music) scene in the US, a country that remained steadfastly immune to the charms of house music and raves for decades until — as one school of thought has it — Daft Punk turned up at the Coachella Festival in 2006 with a stage show more futuristic and spectacular than any rock band's.

They have made two full-length feature films, provided the soundtrack for Disney's Tron: Legacy and have just released Random Access Memories, a sprawling, wildly ambitious, hugely expensive new album that sounds almost nothing like their previous work.

It arrives shrouded in secrecy and faintly barmy security measures. Journalists who hear the album in advance of its release are required to sign a five-page legal document, which, if I understand Clauses 10 and 13 correctly, theoretically threatens me with jail if I mention to anyone I've heard the Daft Punk album at any point in the next three years.

With the best will in the world, this seems a trifle de trop, but at least it gives you some idea of the kind of importance being attached to both Daft Punk and Random Access Memories in 2013: depending on whether you believe the album is either going to single-handedly save the music industry (literally the words of a music industry figure I spoke to about it used, before hastily asking not to be quoted on the grounds that "it sounds a bit shit") or go down in history as one of the great deranged, profligate artistic follies of all time.

They've achieved all this while obscuring their faces, wearing robot helmets both as a protest against traditional notions of stardom — "We don't want all the rock'n'roll poses and attitudes," Bangalter said in 1997, "they are completely stupid and ridiculous today" — and as a way of zealously guarding their privacy. In the latter, they have been very successful, aided by the fact that questions about anything other than their music are strictly off-limits to the few journalists admitted into their presence.

Incredibly, in an era of social media, cameraphones and 360º connectivity, almost nothing has been revealed about Daft Punk's personal lives, beyond the fact that they're French and Bangalter's father was a songwriter and record producer, most famous for having made Ottowan's late-Seventies holiday disco novelty single "DISCO".

It's known Bangalter is married to the actress Elodie Bouchez, with whom he has two children, and lives in Beverly Hills, but what de Homem-Christo gets up to when he's not got his helmet on remains a complete blank.

"The problem with mystery," Bangalter notes today, "is it's not something you can start halfway. You cannot say, 'OK, tomorrow I'm going to stop Tweeting and I'm going to shut down Facebook, I'm going to become mysterious.' You either start mysterious
or…"

He trails off. "Social media has created insecurity in art and entertainment, the insecurity of being in the public eye or something. But because initially we were not in the public eye, we don't have the insecurity to stay in the public eye."

It's hard not to be impressed by their ability to retain a certain mystique in an age when mystique is probably the rarest commodity in pop, and hard not to be grateful that, this time, they've agreed to be interviewed without sitting with their backs to the journalist, or indeed without putting black bags over their heads, the latter a precondition foisted upon one luckless Polish hack in the mid-Noughties.

Equally, the robot helmets are the things you visually associate with Daft Punk — the handful of extant photos of them au naturel were mostly taken at the start of their career, when the duo were in their teens — which means it's slightly disconcerting to be confronted with the two human faces beneath them.

It's a state of affairs compounded by the fact that, while Bangalter has aged a little since those photos were taken — he's thinning on top and has exchanged the T-shirt and jeans for a rather professorial tweed jacket and V-neck pullover — de Homem-Christo seems eerily unchanged since the mid-Nineties, a veritable advert for the preservative qualities of pretending to be a robot: long-haired, clad in tight T-shirt and cowboy boots, with a lot of rather rock'n'roll jewellery, he looks almost exactly the same at 39 as he did at 19.

It's all a bit odd, but then it's a bit odd that Daft Punk are here at all. In keeping with their desire for privacy, they almost never give interviews.

When their last studio album, 2005's Human After All, came out, they chose to promote it by ignoring the press entirely, instead writing and directing a full-length arthouse feature film called Electroma, which concerned two robots indulging in a suicide pact, featured no dialogue nor a note of Daft Punk's music and received what you might politely describe as a mixed response: "if audiences thought Gus Van Sant's Jerry and Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny were slow and pretentious, they should get a load of this," offered Variety.

Eight years on, Daft Punk are dealing with a noticeably different album. The duo started work on Random Access Memories in 2008. It eschews computers and the bedroom studio in which they made all their previous records.

Instead, there is a plethora of starry special guests. The Strokes' Julian Casablancas is singing falsetto through a vocoder. There are two songs featuring Pharrell Williams, who proclaims himself such a fan of the duo that he offered to "turn up and play tambourine" when he heard they were making a new album. "They're the surgeons," he says, "I just wanted to be on the staff."

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There is guitar by Chic's Nile Rodgers, who when I speak to him, variously compares Random Access Memories to David Bowie and Michael Jackson's Thriller and tells me when one of the tracks he performs on was played back to him, he was so moved he burst into tears.

And there is Paul Williams, a 72-year-old composer responsible not merely for songs like David Bowie's "Fill Your Heart" and the Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays", but also the soundtracks to Bugsy Malone and 1979's The Muppet Movie, who wrote two tracks and sang on one of them.

The latter was apparently inspired by a book on afterlife experiences that Bangalter gave him, but in keeping with the general air of secrecy around the album, Williams is suitably vague about what the song is about: "It could be the voice of a robot, it could be the voice of someone from another planet who's been asleep as they traversed the universe, it could be someone that's had a stroke."

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There are live instruments, played by the world's top session musicians and recorded at scarcely believable expense and with such meticulous attention to detail that it even seems to have discombobulated some of those involved.

When Giorgio Moroder, the legendary producer of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" among innumerable other hits, turned up at their Paris studio, he was first startled by the news that the duo's notion of collaborating with him didn't involve him playing music, but instead telling them his life story — "I had no idea," he says, "what they were thinking" — then by the fact that the recording engineer set up three microphones in front of him.

"I said, 'Am I that important that they think if one microphone breaks down, they have the other ones to record?' So he said, 'The one on the left is a microphone from the Sixties, the middle one is of the Seventies, the one on the right is the best microphone of today. Whenever you talk about your childhood and beginnings, we're going to use the microphone on the left, when you talk about the Seventies we're going to use the microphone in the middle and then the one on the right is for when you talk about today.' I said, 'Who is going to know the difference?' He said, 'Nobody'. I said, 'So why are they doing it?' 'Ah,' he said. 'Nobody except the boys. They will know.'"

The purpose of all this, according to Bangalter, is a painstaking attempt to recreate the circumstances that went into making classic albums from an era he refers to as "the pinnacle of audio fidelity": the mid-Seventies to the early Eighties, the age of disco, Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, all of which have audibly influenced the end result.

"The art of recorded music or recording music seems to be a vanishing thing right now," he sighs. "There is now an invisible line between the classics and the present. You have all these recordings from the past that are these little sparkles of magic, but people feel we don't live in a magical world any more. We're trying to demonstrate to ourselves if we can break that line and try to do something classic and timeless today."

To that end, the duo have decided upon what Bangalter calls "a campaign more traditional of a certain golden age of record releases". To explain the kind of thing they were after, they presented Rob Stringer, the chairman of their new label Columbia Records, with Robert Landau's Rock and Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, a collection of photographs taken in Seventies LA, featuring huge hand-painted billboards advertising albums in the grandstanding style of the era: a vast armour-clad Cher staring imperiously down on LA in an attempt to shift copies of her disco album Take Me Home, Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On being promoted with both a painting of the artiste and a quote from legendary priapic soulman TS Eliot.

"We talked about how in the Seventies and Eighties, record labels were associated with high-end art that was still really popular," says Stringer. "The good news for me is that I'm old, so I worked on some of those records. Rather than digital advertising, we've done billboards, which are a real statement and record companies don't do any more. We've done TV advertising, which is old, and not many acts do the same way any more. We've done two 15-second commercials broadcast during Saturday Night Live in the US. Obviously, it's expensive, but if a normal group did a run of television shows, that costs money. If a superstar artist travels around the world doing international television, that costs money. Daft Punk aren't doing that. So it balances out."

At the time of writing, it seems to be working. The Saturday Night Live commercials generated a vast amount of interest and comment: within days, people were posting homemade remixes based on the 15-second clip online.

Later, the first single, "Get Lucky", featuring Rodgers and Pharrell Williams, became the most streamed track ever on Spotify over a 24-hour period, and it went to number one in the UK.

However, the memo that being interviewed is part of the deal doesn't seem to have reached at least one half of the duo. For someone who doesn't much care for talking to journalists, Thomas Bangalter is a fascinating and extremely voluble interviewee.

Over the course of our time together, he references the nouvelle vague director François Truffaut's 1967 book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, explains in mind-blowingly thorough detail the difference between playing a C major chord on a Steinway grand piano and the same chord on a keyboard linked to a computer.

He rails against the pernicious influence of technology on music with more virulence than you might expect from a man who, on the last Daft Punk tour, spent his time onstage playing a synthesizer on the top of a giant futuristic pyramid bedecked with a dazzling array of lights and lasers while wearing a robot helmet covered in LEDs.

Technology, he says, is to blame for the weirdly homogenous state of music at the moment, where everything, from dance music to hip-hop to manufactured pop "sounds the same", a statement it's fairly hard to disagree with if you listen to the Top 40.

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"You can do amazing things with a laptop, but the nature of human behaviour is lazy in itself. A laptop and a certain toolkit and a suite of software allows you to make music very easily. It's as if writing books had become easy because you have this software that will almost write books for you. You're just laying down some of the easy concepts and then it writes all the pages for you. It's very hard when technology is allowing for such ease to put yourself outside of the comfort zone and say 'OK, I'm going to use that and I'm going to create something different'," says Bangalter.

"The possibilities are amazing, but as the features become more and more evolved, and as they add up, the amount of personality you could put into your work is really starting to be limited, because there is a formatted aspect of the toolkit that everybody then uses.

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"We love technology, we are totally addicted, but the problem is that you feel all the features that assist you will make your brain more available for higher tasks of efficiency and that's not what happens. You basically use technology to relieve your brain from the thinking process.

"It's almost as if you are asking an assistant to do all these things for you. You're just, like, playing Angry Birds instead."

While Bangalter's talking like this, however, de Homem-Christo will remain almost completely silent — he says a grand total of 10 words in two hours — concentrating instead on exuding an almost heroic degree of bored indifference.

He stares at the ceiling. He sighs. He gazes into middle distance. At one juncture, I look up while asking a question and he's got his phone out and appears to be checking his messages, then texting a few responses, none of which, I fear, concern themselves with how engaging he's finding my company.

It would be easy to become hugely offended by this, were it not for the fact that de Homem-Christo seems to be like that with everybody: "It was," offered a fellow journalist also subjected to the peculiar cocktail of Bangalter's thoughtful enthusiasm and de Homem-Christo's silently staring at the ceiling routine, "like interviewing a French intellectual who'd been saddled with looking after his surly nephew for the day."

Still, Bangalter talks enough for both of them. He is blessed with the ability to make the most outlandish ideas sound like perfect common sense, which must come in handy when he's dealing with record companies.

When I mention the sheer expense that appears to have been lavished on the most minute details of Random Access Memories — "One of the first things I said when I heard it," Stringer notes, "was 'How much did it cost to get the hi-hat cymbals sounding like that?'" — he frowns.

But The Beatles' albums were expensive, he says. So were Pink Floyd's and Led Zeppelin's and all the Quincy Jones records. And besides, however much it cost, they paid for the album out of their own pockets.

"It's true, it was expensive," says Bangalter, "but it was totally financed by the people that have come to our shows, that have bought our records, maybe from some companies that have paid to use our music. The thing is, it feels like the audience has supported us, artistically and financially. So, we would just, like, take the money that the audience has contributed to us and put it into this recording and give them back some music. At the same time, we are not the best-selling artists in music at all. It's true that we were in a position to do an expensive, ambitious artistic project, but we are not the only ones in that position."

Indeed, the only time Bangalter seems to clam up is when the subject of Daft Punk's sway over other musicians is raised. It seems strange because their vast influence is as much a fact of their career as their camera-shyness.

No sooner had they started making records than other people started ripping them off. The cool European take on Chicago's tough jacking house music found on their debut album Homework inspired a slew of imitators: Madonna even hired one of them, Mirwais Ahmadzaï, to produce a facsimile of its sound for her 2000 album Music.

Their Eighties-inspired second album Discovery was greeted with a degree of bafflement in some quarters: in lieu of any music videos to accompany its tracks, Daft Punk commissioned Interstella 5555, a feature-length cartoon film scripted by the duo that looked not unlike the old kids' TV show Battle of the Planets, about an alien pop group being abducted.

But if anything, the music on Discovery turned out to be even more pervasive: it's hard to explain its influence without getting into a lot of technical discussion about auto-tuned vocals and sidechain-compressed kick drums, but suffice to say that you can hear echoes of virtually every sound on it in the identikit pop-dance Bangalter seems so disheartened by, a decade after its release.

And then there's what's happening in the US, where dance music has suddenly become huge business: Las Vegas's dance music festival Electric Daisy Carnival is reputed to gross around $40m a year, while the DJ and producer Skrillex can be described by a promoter as "the biggest thing since Nirvana" without anyone laughing.

It's a state of affairs that some people think is all down to Bangalter and de Homem-Christo. "Who's responsible for EDM?" asks Pharrell Williams, rhetorically. "Daft Punk are."

It's a little more complicated than that, but there's no doubt the duo's performance at 2006's Coachella festival, complete with giant pyramid, was a turning point in dance music's fortunes in the US, a show so spectacular and powerful that it made everything else on offer that weekend look a little wan by comparison.

"No one had ever seen anything like it before," says Ben Turner, the co-founder of global dance music conference, the International Music Summit. "They absolutely set the precedent for EDM."

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Turner calls them "complete visionaries, who managed to unwittingly read the future" and points out that Canadian DJ Deadmau5, the first EDM star to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, not only makes music audibly influenced by Daft Punk, but also performs spectacular son-et-lumière gigs with his face hidden beneath a giant LED-covered helmet.

"Everything about Deadmau5 visually and performance-wise looks like it was inspired by Daft Punk," says Turner. "The weird thing is that most of the kids at EDM raves in the US right now weren't even born when Daft Punk started. But their music's continually played, so this new generation of EDM kids have a strange kind of affinity with them."

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But mention of all this causes Bangalter to turn oddly coy. He talks about other people saying Daft Punk's music is "influential or important" without ever suggesting he thinks it's influential or important himself.

He admits to being flattered when he hears sounds in other people's productions that he recognises from Daft Punk's old records — "gimmicks that at the time were not really gimmicks," as he wryly notes — but baulks at the suggestion they've made Random Access Memories sound so different from their previous work because the world is currently filled with music that sounds almost identical to their previous work.

"It didn't really encourage us to do exactly the same thing again," he frowns. "But from the start we've always tried to create something different with every record."

Meanwhile, the mention of EDM brings on a series of faltering unfinished sentences — "I don't… I mean… You know… It's like…" — before he eventually gives up and offers a very Gallic shrug of such proportions I fear he's going to dislocate his shoulder. I can't work out whether he's being circumspect out of modesty, or whether he just doesn't like most of the music made under the EDM banner and is too polite to say so.

"If Daft Punk would play live again, certain promoters will say they'll really sell tickets to a crowd that have never seen them perform," says Ben Turner. "The kind of offers they've had from people to play a world tour, we're talking millions and millions of dollars."

But Daft Punk aren't going to play live again, at least for the foreseeable future. Instead, they've spent millions of their own and their record company's money recording and promoting an album that variously sounds like disco, Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac and absolutely nothing like EDM and furthermore features a 72-year-old man singing about someone coming out of a coma.

A dissenting voice might suggest that's not so much brave as suicidal, at least commercially, but Rob Stringer is bullish about its potential to sell: he hasn't paid for all those billboards and TV adverts for "some sort of abstract concept record. It's a commercial record, so we expect to have hit singles, radio hits, we expect it to reach a widespread audience."

Some of the people on the album go even further: it's not just going to be a huge hit, it's going to exert an even bigger influence on subsequent music than all the other hugely influential Daft Punk records.

Giorgio Moroder thinks Random Access Memories is going to represent "a historical change in dance music… I think once the album is out, the hit producers of today, they're going to think about using real instruments again."

"In 20, 25, 30 years," Nile Rodgers offers, "People will say: 'Jesus, did you hear that Daft Punk track? Did you hear what they did to that vocal? Do you understand how that thing was speaking to your soul? They did this, they did that and now I've heard 50 other records that are doing that'."

For his part, Thomas Bangalter seems unconcerned about the album's lasting effect. "We usually want to be the first one to do something, but after it's actually OK if people get inspired by it and do the same thing. If people want to go back into the recording studios and work with musicians and do things in an ambitious way, that's fine, you know?"

Of course, if Random Access Memories isn't a hit, I say, no one's ever going to be allowed to make an album like this again.
Bangalter's face lights up.

"You've said it! That's exactly where we're coming from! When we made Interstella 5555, it was the same thing. An animated film that cost $4m. We were like, 'Do you know what? Either it's going to work and we're going to be the first ones to do it, or it doesn't, and we'll be the last ones to do it.'"

Next to him on the sofa, even Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo temporarily ceases staring at the ceiling to vigorously nod his assent.

Random Access Memories is out now

Shot for Esquire by Dan Burn-Forti

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