interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
I met Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk at the Chateau Marmont the day before the worldwide release of “Random Access Memories.” They say it’s their most ambitious and complex project, and their first time recording everything live and using prominent musicians like Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams.
As much as these talented and prolific musicians like to hide behind their masks, they’re honest and direct about what it takes to create an album that is both highly experimental and internationally mainstream. How is that possible in a world of calculated industrial conformism?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s already been 20 years of Daft Punk! I guess this is an important record for you.
THOMAS BANGALTER — We’ve been at this for 20 years and worked on this one for five years, so yes it is important, because it’s a bit obsessive and a bit mad to work on the same artistic project for five years. That isn’t exactly the normal state of things. The most important thing was that we did what we wanted to do.
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — Maybe. What was important was to tell ourselves that after 20 years it seemed important to do something pertinent. We could not have made a different album. We knew we weren’t guaranteed anything either.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you guys realize how successful you are? How do you stay creative after having such success? Does it throw you off, or change your perspective?
THOMAS BANGALTER — It feels more like we created something accidentally that hit the big time. So in theory we could have swelled heads, but we just made a CD and it’s the most ambitious, far-reaching, and complex project we’ve ever done. Like some filmmaker who after 10 or 20 years starts doing crazier projects — not that it happens much in pop music. We’ve noticed a certain bourgeois trend in rock: the best records are often the first ones. Then after 20 years, the artist runs out of things to say. A lot get stuck in their success, living in a giant house and without the burning rage of the very beginning. In the same vein, if you look at writers, choreographers, painters, jazz musicians, classical musicians or filmmakers who’ve achieved a lot of success, they don’t seem to follow the same pattern. In our case, we create music in a visual, hyper-cinematographic way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was your success a springboard for such an ambitious project? Were you telling yourseves to step it up?
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — At the very beginning, when we were 17, we were motivated by the idea of having a rock group, called Darlin’, which was our way to meet girls. That worked better if you were in a group.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So were you successful with girls?
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — Not really. So we decided to keep going for art’s sake. Our motivation has always been for art in general, not just for music but also for films like Andy Warhol’s. We met as film geeks, then as mutual music fans, so we kept going. We had a passion for art, which still drives us.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Historically there have been successful artists who were able to transform their success into nonstop experimentation, to try crazier and crazier projects…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Christophe France? He started a process of experimentation, which no one expected, working with musical material that was pretty far from the typical Christophe sound.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes. It’s about experimenting without being inaccessible to mainstream work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel a need to respond to a massive audience?
THOMAS BANGALTER — No. The demand is ours. We’re our own guinea pigs. Working is like shooting images for a film. We sit in a screening room with a blank screen, the lights dim, and then we imagine what it is we want to see. That’s how we create. It’s very introverted, maybe even egotistical, but we don’t think about our audience. There’s a kind of schizophrenia in asking ourselves what kind of music we want to hear, how to please ourselves. When we were teenagers we loved Warhol, the Factory, the Velvet Underground, the films of Paul Morrissey. They may have been a bit dilettantish but they did create a global universe, cult stuff, pop art, pop culture. Up to now we’ve been able to share that experience, using music as a vector. Our artistic project has transformed gradually — first it was purely musical, then it became visual. Finally, we went with the out-of-fashion multi-media approach. So we tell ourselves we’ve made the music we wanted to make, to hear. Fortunately it connects with people.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I read somewhere that in the beginning of the 2000s, after your first big hit, you refused to do high-profile remixes and instead concentrated on the visual aspect of your music, deliberately choosing to stay outside the star system.
THOMAS BANGALTER — We turned down a lot of stuff. From the beginning we said we would not do just anything in order to succeed. Normally there are two ways to make it artistically or otherwise: either you’re willing to do anything, or the exact opposite, you only do what you want. Both approaches can work, although we don’t follow those objectives.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you decide on the masks?
THOMAS BANGALTER — When we signed with our first record label, Virgin, 17 years ago, we told them we wouldn’t be doing photos, we were going to stay in the shadows. The PR people flipped out, telling us we couldn’t do that, insisting we play the game. We even said if there was a problem, we wouldn’t do the record with them, that we’d do it ourselves. We were bluffing, saying, “This is how we need this to work, otherwise we’re not interested.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you maintain integrity and global success?
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — We were lucky. We were also arrogant and determined enough to get away with it. When we were 18 we didn’t care. So when they offered us money, if we weren’t interested in the project we didn’t do it. We always put art ahead of money. Ninety percent of our projects never happened because the circumstances weren’t right, and the remaining five to 10 percent that did happen — those projects in which we did define the terms — the entire process — had a purity, a radicality, and an integrity that pleased us then and now, 20 years later. It validates our artistic rigor. I think we haven’t compromised so far, and we haven’t been misled or coerced into doing something we didn’t want to do, as certain politicians do to make it to the top.
OLIVIER ZAHM — According to Thomas it’s an ambitious album, wide-ranging, and more complex. Was that the ambition?
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — There isn’t really an ambition…
THOMAS BANGALTER — But there was artistic ambition…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is your latest project a concept album? Each instrument, each time period, creates its own ambiance, back into the past, spinning forward. It’s so open, and it all layers together.
THOMAS BANGALTER — That’s a good way to describe our new album. We were thinking about something panoramic, at a moment where pop music has dipped a bit and become a smaller window. The music we hear on the radio is much more anchored in reality. It has to fit into a clip, onto a channel, like a ringtone. In this CD we wanted to break down formats and experiment with the history of pop music. We worked with people from different generations and different times to create something that didn’t return to the past. We integrated elements of that past into today’s music. So we worked with Moroder, with Nile Rodgers, the guitarist and producer of Chic…
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — and from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” and Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”…
THOMAS BANGALTER — and “Upside Down” by Diana Ross…
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — and Duran Duran…
THOMAS BANGALTER — These are the founding fathers of modern music. Because we no longer recognized ourselves in the music we heard on the radio, we decided to set up a sort of team, working with Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, with Noah Lennox, the singer from Animal Collective and Panda Bear, and with Pharrell Williams…
OLIVIER ZAHM — On different tracks?
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes, different collaborations on different tracks, and with bridges. For example, on the track where Pharrell is singing, it’s Nile Rodgers on guitar. We had a lot of the studio musicians who worked with Quincy Jones on Thriller, on The Wall, and George Benson’s drummer. The idea was to write dance music, but with human people, now that computers have taken over the process. It’s about giving an emotion, sensitivity, and elegance to something that is more global.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As with photography, the digitilization of music gives everyone access to creating whatever they want.
THOMAS BANGALTER — It’s a magic trick where everyone knows the solution. Everyone is a magician, so there are no magicians left that stand out. That’s why we did this album under different conditions. We asked ourselves what we could do musically that people would not be able to do at home. This was to show something that they can’t create themselves. What allows an artist to present something different? Your question on what constitutes an artistic project — that was what we kept asking ourselves and that’s why it has taken five or six years to finish each of our albums. We looked at this project’s pertinence, the legitimacy — there had to be something in addition to a pretty melody and verse. In a global project like this one, would it work, the symbolism of getting all these artists together and replacing a digital beatbox with a real drummer? Then there’s the visual universe, and the reinvention of robots… You mentioned Christophe. Historically, there have been many moments when musicians did have a point of view. Currently the preponderance of computer processors render the human point of view somewhat weak. The problem is that you aren’t as aware of it as you are in other art forms.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Except in rap, no? Rock hasn’t lost all of its creativity. But lately there’s a lot of posing and not much music. Listening to rap on an LA radio station, there’s a vitality, a creativity in the vocabulary, the rhythm of the words, the way they’re recited. As you said, it’s human, there is direct expression.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Well, it’s words and music.
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — These days there’s more rock n’ roll in certain hip hop tracks than in rock ones. My impression is that most rock groups turn toward the past, with a smaller group, maybe with a more acoustic, artisanal, and impromptu recording, which is great. Interesting things happen in all styles. But in hip-hop, the violence leaps out at you and is more direct. At the same time the big radio stations, which only two years ago played hip-hop, have picked up on the trance and electronic stuff, the EDM [Electronic Dance Music]. That’s really taken off here in the last two or three years…
THOMAS BANGALTER — Journalists used to call it electronica, and before that the “French touch,” and before that techno. That’s what exploded in the US over the last three years, in the stadium rock concerts and the giant raves that all the kids go to. It’s really EDM. Now they’re less subversive and way more organized. Whether it’s hip-hop or electronic music, wherever the kids go, that’s where you find the most energy. So it’s true, in speaking of the masses, that where there’s more action, there’s more music. It’s the clearest in electronic music, where the extreme violence of the sounds just hits you in the gut. The style has become the norm: you turn on the radio, in the US or in Paris, and you get the same style of electronic music, the same rhythms and sounds, which are now played on a laptop, not even on synthesizers. When we started we didn’t work with zirkons — and never in a studio until now. We worked with certain kinds of hardware, a synthesizer, maybe a sampler, a mixing board. Now everyone has all of that on a laptop. We tried not to work with predetermined sounds or musical palettes. Music created with computers generally begins with very accessible, predetermined patches and palettes, presets and filters. They’re already very precise and efficient. When you take a photo with your phone, it’s great: all you do is click — there’s nothing else to do. But how do you differentiate yourself as an artist? It’s the legitimacy or the pertinence of an artistic point of view. Today these points of view are widely dispersed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does technology push you?
THOMAS BANGALTER — The ease of the process pushes us to be more ambitious, and more challenging. We need to find solutions. The human brain likes having problems to solve and finding solutions. In fact when we don’t have any, we make them! And they get bigger and bigger, because the brain needs them. This also applies to the creative process.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And in the studio?
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes, this is our first studio album. We recorded everything. Nothing came from a prerecorded sound. Our deal was to create everything. We began working on the album in 2008. We both worked on maquettes, then we stopped for a year to write the music for the film TRON for Disney. Then, after our experience with TRON, we began again with a symphony orchestra. We were very interested in working with other musicians on our music, so we went back to our maquettes, but decided to use them only as points of departure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you had a base for other musicians to listen to?
THOMAS BANGALTER — No, what we had, for the most part, were scores which had been transcribed, with a click track for the drummer on certain sections, and a mix of some pre-existing layers and tracks that we had created, and the musicians played over them. Then we removed the first layers which were sort of like crutches.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like sliding out the foundations?
THOMAS BANGALTER — Exactly, and rebuilding from there. It was a little like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s documentary film The Mystery Of Picasso. In it Picasso would paint on glass plates, you’d watch him creating a painting, and from this painting he’d decide to keep maybe the sky. Then he’d paint a second painting over the first one, then repaint over that. In the end there were something like five paintings painted over each other, and the final painting had nothing to do with the first. We worked like that, in layers. It’s like a Tower of Babel or an exquisite corpse, the famous Surrealist word collage and drawing game. In our Tower you would climb the stairs, while gradually taking away the floors below which are basically scaffolding. It was really a wonderful process, because for us, as musicians, it was a total fantasy to be able to tell ourselves that now, when you can make a whole record on a laptop in your bedroom, we chose to do what record producers did 30 years ago, with the spirit of adventure that infused that music. So what we recreated, fairly artificially at the beginning, created the circumstances for reliving a different musical experience.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So that explains the title of the album: Random Access Memories.
THOMAS BANGALTER — RAM in a computer is Random Access Memory, in the singular. Memory rules the world in which we live, and RAM is the memory used by a computer processor to accomplish certain tasks. What was interesting was the idea of memory, and what has happened in the last 20 years is digital memory. It’s a sort of pun on the parallel between the human brain and computer memory, making the point that there’s now a part of the brain we no longer use because we have all these hard drives to store everything we do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which explains our loss of short-term memory because we are always delegating.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes. It’s just like this [pointing to the digital voice recorder]. Without the recorder, this interview would be a completely different process. You’d have to write it down, so you wouldn’t write everything, and the result would be a mix of what you wrote and what remembered. With this little machine, your brain is not required to process anything or remember anything we’re saying. It’s a metaphor for the way we live now as individuals, thanks to technology, staying connected with a sort of pod that’s permanently in our pockets, with links between the hard drive, the computer’s memory and our brains, all of it more and more interconnected.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You started with 13 tracks. When you got to the end, did you regret having removed some of the floors?
THOMAS BANGALTER — No, the most satisfying thing was taking away the scaffolding. When you see a cathedral covered in scaffolding it is so ugly — so much better when the scaffolding is taken off and everything is revealed.
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — Like a cake mold.
THOMAS BANGALTER — It’s a bit like magic. You asked how it was done. All the scaffolding and the layering were the way we arrived at our final result.
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — Which was unknown at the beginning.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Which we would not have been able to preconceive at all.
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — Or plan for.
THOMAS BANGALTER — It was like a game of exquisite corpse in which you erase your footsteps as you go along, and you start over every day, going further and further, without knowing exactly where.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Doesn’t that mean some of it is unconscious?
THOMAS BANGALTER — Totally uncontrolled. This is where the word random comes in: not being able to control everything. At the start of the process, we didn’t know it would be a new album. We just began playing music. It was pure research that ended up being on the disk, with a finished product, something tangible — like a filmmaker who starts with nothing and writes something every day and makes a film while still writing the screenplay.
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — Like Godard. A year and a half ago we had so much material, with so many people who had nothing to do with each other, so many places we had recorded, so many ideas … it started off sort of like Pink Floyd. It could have been a single track lasting for an hour. We didn’t know where to end it.
THOMAS BANGALTER — It was kind of like plastic surgery — it’s hard to stop doing it. You never know…
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — I’ve never had any!
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mentioned Pink Floyd. Are you the Pink Floyd of today?
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — I don’t think we have the perspective to see what we are.
THOMAS BANGALTER — But it’s sure that the idea of a global moment, both mainstream and experimental, is a good example of what we hoped to do. That’s what we wanted to do with the album.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did music journalists say something about that?
THOMAS BANGALTER — No. We combined many things so as not to get stuck in a single category. What we always felt was the weight of the past, the weight of all the albums, all the artists who wrote those classical tunes, and the difficulty for the artists of our generation to get away from this authority, this sort of paternity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You can only get out from under by creating new classics.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes, otherwise there’s still a certain generational authority — the ones who created the most ambitious work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — If the recording started as an album concept, did you have an idea for the structure, the length of each song, the number of tracks, and so on?
THOMAS BANGALTER — When we began, the work and recording sessions were just about making music, but without knowing if we were making a single, a series of tracks, or a track that would run an hour. Accidentally we made a concept album. We said the definition of the work is that we made an album with 13 tracks, and each of them is a facet of the disc, with its place and its role well defined as to what we wanted to say. It’s not just a collection of 13 songs: each track relates to each other like scenes in a film.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you work on the segues between tracks?
THOMAS BANGALTER — First we worked in the same keys, then we changed them, but when we say each item had its place, it was also about these collaborations, since what interests us in music is its contrasts. When we made our second single with “Da Funk” and “Rollin’ and scratchin’,” we were playing with the idea of softness, something funky on one side with something very violent and aggressive on the other. And it was the association between songs that defined a point of view and a contrast. That was the most interesting thing. So even if the tracks don’t link completely together, their association and their difference define their personality, which is kind of like a recipe that associates chicken and mint.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So there are single tracks as well as an ensemble.
THOMAS BANGALTER — You got it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Will you let these things appear on their own?
THOMAS BANGALTER — We realize it’s very accessible, with tracks that appear to be historically in the pop music format, which can be issued as a single, played on the radio, and work with clips — and at the same time there are tracks that are not right for clips but are nonetheless essential to the album. And it is true that with records, the best tracks are the ones that flow right into the channels. The others are the ones that don’t. The one with Giorgio Moroder runs for nine minutes, which is outside any format, and wrong for the radio. At the same time, it’s one of the most important tracks on the disc — and a bit closer to Pink Floyd albums like The Dark Side of the Moon — that’s not formatted for radio either.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you see a possible ending?
THOMAS BANGALTER — I don’t know about an ending, but there is always that possibility. When we made our third album, we had no idea there would be another one. A bad album can destroy everything.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like a bad rocket launch, if it explodes in midair, you don’t really feel like doing it again.
THOMAS BANGALTER — When you build up an aesthetic micromythology, when each stage is a supplementary facet, if one of them is rotten, is demystifies everything.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re too demanding. Sometimes in a musician’s career there is an album which is less good, and then the next one is great.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes but maybe they’re less tortured and not perfectionists and don’t take five or six years to make a record. When you work like that, the record had better not be worse than the one you made six years ago, because that would be such a waste of time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s come back to the mask — a non-identity that has became your identity. Is your lack of visiblity your legacy to the star system?
THOMAS BANGALTER — We began using masks to hide ourselves in the ’90s. For the first album we wore plastic masks with tinfoil on our heads.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that a vestige of a ’90s attitude?
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes, being anonymous. But it’s more than that. In 2001 when we made ourselves into robots, it was both to keep the idea of being anonymous and to make a white label. We wanted to do something much more glam, like from the ’70s, when there were real characters and a show. There was the fiction, something like a superhero or alter ego which has superpowers. So it wasn’t the antithesis of the white label; it was the next stage. It’s as if we had put hoods on our heads, and then over that hood and the erasing of ourselves we created a personality. In fact there is still a hood on under our masks, and it stays there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The second step in this attitude is to create fiction, like manga characters or science fiction…
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — It’s universal and timeless.
THOMAS BANGALTER — It doesn’t age. It’s science fiction and also a mystery. Because the mystery of the alter ego, the secret of the super hero is the mystery, a question mark with another question mark. What interests us is the idea of interacting without supplying answers, and perhaps adding other questions. As Guy-Manuel said, it’s sensorial, a sensual artistic experience.
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM CHRISTO — And very abstract visual projection.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Which can be read on many different levels, from the quite simple to the very theoretical and the universal. It’s glamorous and at the same time it’s a show, like a musical or a circus, in the tradition of pure entertainment and show business. And we’re even talking sequined jackets — something disconnected, an absence of spectacle — because real performance implies sharing, and everyone is on the stage now. But when everyone is onstage, where is the stage? Nowadays all the tools for creation are shared, and everyone is an artist, so how do we define the magical power of the artist in relationship to the global community of artists?
OLIVIER ZAHM — This stage sense... You picked that up spontaneously. How?
THOMAS BANGALTER — It’s because we love music and art so much.
OLIVIER ZAHM — David Bowie and Led Zeppelin were supreme showmen.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Yes, we combine showmanship with artistic ideas, and with our shyness and desire for anonymity, and all the neuroses and paradoxes that crystallize around all of that. It’s a part of us that people actually appreciate, because it reconciles two things, pure entertainment and a strong character, without falling into the trap of celebrity worship.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Without vulgarity.
THOMAS BANGALTER — Voilà, fighting ambient vulgarity with elegance.