New York Times, May 15th 2013
by Simon Reynolds
Thomas Bangalter, half of the influential French dance music act Daft Punk, has a house high in the Hollywood Hills here. He and his partner, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, divide their time between Los Angeles and Paris, where their families live. But for all the duo’s jet-setting lifestyle, there’s little evidence of rock star flash to be seen (well, apart from the Porsche that Mr. de Homem-Christo has parked in the driveway). Built in the symmetrical mid-century modern style called post-and-beam, the bungalow exudes a subtle retro feel, with white carpeting, a cross-section tree trunk coffee table, and a gravel fireplace in the living room. The swimming pool, a small square of radiant Hockney blue, is visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
The home’s décor mirrors the retro-modern aesthetic that runs through all the stages of Daft Punk’s 20 year career. From its first dancefloor smash, “Da Funk,” in 1996 through the synthetic dazzle of the 2001 album “Discovery” to the 2010 score for the remake of “Tron,” the duo’s defining balancing act has been breaking new ground while simultaneously invoking earlier golden ages of club music, like 1970s disco and ‘80s electro-pop.
Daft Punk expanded the audience for dance music alongside late-‘90s popularizers like the Chemical Brothers, influenced Madonna and Kanye West, and has been in the vanguard of developing the visual side of live dance music performance. Their iconic robot masks and their spectacular Pyramid-shaped stage set at the 2006 Coachella festival inspired the hi-tech showmanship of younger electronic dance music stars like Skrillex. In the eight years since the duo’s last studio album, EDM has become big business, while Daft Punk-like sounds have infiltrated Top 40 radio, popping up in songs by artists as mainstream as Justin Bieber and Ke$ha.
But after years on the cutting edge, Daft Punk has reversed course with the eagerly anticipated “Random Access Memories,” out on Daft Life/Columbia this week. Spurning the digital audio software that empowers the EDM generation, the album is an analogue flashback to the era of live musicianship, involving a crack squad of session players and contributions from the disco legends Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, as well as indie rockers like Julian Casablancas and the hip-hop star Pharrell Williams. Mr. Rodgers and Pharrell both appear on the album’s first single, “Get Lucky”, an uncanny replication of Chic’s sparkling disco-funk.
“In some ways it’s like we’re running on a highway going the opposite direction to everybody else,” said Mr Bangalter, 38, sitting on his white carpet while the taciturn Mr. de Homem-Christo, 39, slumped on a sofa.
It’s a dilemma that confronts many innovators: when the rest of the world catches up with you, where do you go next? In a paradox that informs the entire project, doing something new for Daft Punk involved embracing the methods and mindset of the past. The result is an album that is impressive but backward-looking, drawing on influences from disco to progressive rock to New Wave. Aspiring to the sumptuous production and arrangements of late ‘70s rock and R&B albums, “Random Access Memories” contains many songs that allude to time, transience, memory, and yesterday’s idea of the future. The album title itself is a play on the idea of computer memory (RAM) versus human memory.
The promotional campaign for the album winds the clock back to an era before tweets and album streams. Daft Punk and its team orchestrated a suspense-building trail of hints about a new project in the form of billboard ads and teaser mini-commercials on TV. They haven’t completely bypassed the Internet, but their digital promotion has taken an unusual form: a series of well-made video interviews with their collaborators.
“It’s an infinity of nuance, in the shuffles and the grooves,” raved Mr. Bangalter, knocking over his drink in his excitement. “These things are impossible to create with machines.”
Of course, these intangible but essential qualities of feel and vibe exalted by Daft Punk are necessarily inaccessible to most of today’s young music-makers, whose do-it-yourself dance tracks depend on the same sort of computer technology that launched Daft Punk’s career in the Nineties. A kid in a bedroom with a laptop and software can make records that sound like a million bucks. Making music the way Daft Punk has actually requires a million bucks, or more.
On their two most influential albums, 1997’s “Homework” and 2001’s "Discovery," Daft Punk proved themselves sampling virtuosos. They had a knack for locating the killer riffs secreted within otherwise deservedly obscure songs from the past and, through deft recontextualization and processing, unleashing their incandescent potential. Now with “Random Access Memories,” the goal is to make music that others might one day sample. Mr. Bangalter talks about the thrill of “starting every sound from scratch, creating a sonic world from the ground up.” Indeed there’s just one sample on the album, in the final track “Contact,” a blasting surge of sound that starts with the voice of Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to stand on the Moon’s surface. That, plus the trademark electronic processing on their voices, is the only real continuity with their old methodology.
fan-made video made out of old Soul Train footage (i'd much rather be listening to the music these kids were dancing to originally than DP & Pharrell's retropastiche wouldn't you?)
New York Times 2013
by Simon Reynolds