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DAFT PUNK: RETURN OF THE CYBERMEN

06 August 2012
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DAFT PUNK: RETURN OF THE CYBERMEN

They used to call the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip the ʻRiot Hyattʼ. Led Zeppelin once rode motorcycles down the hotelʼs hallways, and before he disappeared to a beach house in Mali, Al Rose famously tossed barbecued steaks off the balcony of his room for a laugh. lt’s calmed down a lot lately, but itʼs still a fair bet that the hotel has never seen anything quite like the scene around the rooftop pool on this unseasonably chilly late afternoon in May.

Two tall, slender French gentlemen, dressed head to toe in black leather and wearing futuristic robot helmets, are relaxing on chaises longs by the edge of the pool, both holding colorful, for for frozen drinks with mini umbrellas. Daft Punk on holiday, but never off duty. The robots decide to take a stroll down Sunset Strip. Trailed by a dozen or so people, including their ever-present manager Pedro Winter, they jam into an elevator which pauses on the way down to pick up serious-looking businessman. He does a double take. shakes his head and smiles at the leather-clad duo. After all, we are in LA.

Out in the street and still in their helmets, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homen Christo take in a little of the local area. Passing cars honk their horns; customers at a nearby patio restaurant crane their necks to see whatʼs going on; A long-legged bottle-blonde with a fake tan and an impossibly short skirt giggles and flirts with the robots. In this town nearly everyone tries to stand out, but two grown men posing in Hedi Slimane- designed robot outfits makes even the hordes on the strip pause. No one, of course, has the slightest clue who these two automatons are —which is what they've always wanted.

A few minutes later back inside the hotel, Daft Punk change out of their robot clothes. ManagerPedro bounds into the conference room with a serious expression on his face, What can the matter be? He holds up the robot outhunts. "Ooh eez goo-eng to get zese to zee cleanairs?" 

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They've been feted for reinventing dance music, bringing the funk to electronica and overturning France’s 30—year reputation for making terrible pop music, but in 2006 Daft Punk find themselves faced with something new. For the first time, theory on the back foot.

It seems like a million years since ‘Homework’ gave acid house a glam Euro spin and ʻDiscoveryʼ built a dazzling dance epic out of 70s and 80s kitsch. Turning every song on 'Discovery into alien anime pulp music videos, courtesy of Manga master Liege Matsumoto, just cemented the idea that Daft Punk were thinking one galaxy ahead of everyone else. But that was in 2001 and apart from the tracks 'Technologic' and ‘Robot Rock', their last original album, ‘Human After All’ - out last year sounded as if Bangalter took a holiday and let his four year—old son Tara—lay loose in the studio with a toy sound machine.

More surprisingly, this years best-of compilation ‘Musique Vol. I: ‘1993-2005’ sold only modestly, making you wonder if maybe they are human after all. But listen closer — whether it’s the Louis Vuitton-wrapped electro glitz of acts like Felix Da Housecoat, Tiger and Ladytron, the discoid camp of LCD Soundsystem and DFA or even the electrified rock of bands like The Killers and The Bravery, dance music's heartbeat is still the robot one that Daft Punk put in there.

In one sense it doesn’t really matter how their records sell. This year Daft Punk are playing their first live shows in nine years, and interest in them couldn't be greater. For Global Gathering in Stratford on July 28th they have moved into the must see slot previously occupied by their robot forefathers Kraftwerk. And they've already got off to a flying start.

The first show of this summers (very short) tour was the end—of—the-day slot at the Coachella Festival in India, California, two hours outside LA and near the desert resort town of Palm Springs. The crowd teetered between nostalgia and wondering what they could really do for us now. Though Daft Punk were headlining, alongside Madonna, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack and Tool, the genuine excitement was reserved for those making their way up the mountain (Gnarls Barclay, Wolf-mother and Editors), not those perceived to be rolling down the other side. But the restless, overheated and sunburned masses who began lining up in the Sahara tent hours prior to Daft Punk's show-time knew otherwise.

Witnesses describe Daft Punkʼs Coachella set as though it was a religious experience: the second coming, at least. For me it was jaw—on-the—floor, mindblowingly awesome and innovative and somehow better than we ever remembered. Thomas and Guy-Man tweaked and twiddled behind a massive lectern with 70s game show graphics popping in the background, framed by a rainbow flashing diamond. The Daft show offers old school and fresh at the same time, and when it ground to a screeching halt many people simply refused to leave. They simply sat down on the grass, waiting for more that wouldn’t come and watching the sweaty and dazed hordes he toward the exit, most stunned to silence by what they'd just witnessed. "We got a sense that it went well,"
Bangalter mutters later understated as ever.

Can Daft Punk really get by on a live revue of their greatest hits? They're in no hurry to record new material, they say, and seem more interested in pursuing a career in film — Thomas in particular, hence his move to Los Angeles 18 months ago. The duoʼs movie-directing debut Electroma debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and true to form, it’s an experimental endeavor (for which read: no dialogue) with Thomas and Guy-Man starring as their robot selves on an existential quest to transform into humans. This is where Daft Punk are at the moment caught somewhere between past glories and an unknown future. About the only thing you can be sure of is that they'll stay robots. Good job too: Medicom of Japan last year released a pair of limited edition Daft Punk action figures. The helmets do not come off.

"If you can stay protected and you can get noticed then itʼs all good," says Thomas Bangalter with a self-satisfied shrug of his shoulders, while fiddling with the ring on a can of Coke. Heʼs soft—spoken and stutters a little as he gathers his thoughts; when he speaks he looks sideways, only turning to make eye contact when he’s wrapping up a thought. "The robot outfits work both ways. They bring us down to earth, to a really normal level. Having met celebrities and seeing how their everyday lives are affected, we have something that we share much more in common with the audience than with other famous artists," he says — namely, anonymity. "I think we are closer to our fans when we are being robots than we would be if we were just far—away stars," he continues. "We've always thought that as individuals, you can hide." And he’s right: they walked round Coachella the day after playing in front of thousands of people, and not one person came to talk to them. 

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Daft Punk didn't start out this way. Thomas and Guy-Man met at a Paris school in 1987, first bonding over a shared fascination with films and music from the 1970s. But what really fired their imagination was the music of the Manchester and rave scenes filtering over the Channel in the early ’90s, where the straight-ahead classicism of rock’n’ roll mixed with the looser elements of-dance and particularly acid house. If there was one record that really inspired them, it was Primal Scream's ‘Screamadellca’. "It put everything together," says Guy-Man, tersely.

They started an indie band called Darlin’, but in 1994, when a British writer dismissed them as "daft punk music", they contrarily rebranded themselves as Daft Punk. By this time France was emerging as a breeding-ground for a new wave of backward leaning, forward-thinking artists that some called French Touch: people like Cassius, Air, Etienne De Crecy, Laurent Garnier and Dimitri From Paris. "Nothing was happening, and then some good music started coming out of France," says Guy—Man. "Before that there were great artists like Gainsbourg, but there were so few of them. And then five or six good albums came out of nowhere and people began gathering around that music. It goes in cycles." "Yeah," Thomas adds, "itʼs normal that things move and evolve. It doesn't last forever."

The same could justly be said of Daft Punk’s late 90s reign — the run of classic singles from 'Da Funk’ through 'Around The World’ that crowned them kings of the first really international (i.e. not just American or British) dance movement. The only problem was that the boyhood friends preferred anonymity. Thomas recalls being on the verge of signing a deal with Virgin Records in early 1996 after a tight bidding war. "We said, 'look, we don't want to do pictures and if you don’t like that we won’t sign the deal."’ The ploy worked, and when their first album, 'Homework', was released in February 1997 it became, in Thomas's own estimation, "this emblematic, classic first album" The fact that Thomas and Guy-Man hid behind masks whenever a camera appeared only heightened their unique appeal. "ltʼs all a big blur" Thomas says with a slightly conspiratorial laugh, trying to recall Daft Punk’s post ʻHomework' heyday. "Looking back, it was about an energy," he says. "You can look back on 1996, 1997 and 1998 and see that so many possibilities were flourishing in electronic music."

It took Daft Punk a maddening four years to produce the follow—up, ‘Discovery’, a glammier, poppier outing that kicked off with the euphoric blast of 'One More Time'. “One thing we see," admits Thomas unapologetically, "is that we have been here now for quite some time and we’re not very productive. It just takes time for us to come up with new stuff. Sometimes we've waited and looked and taken our time. Like a surfer, you wait for the wave, for some kind of excitement or for an idea." Besides various side bits — Thomas’s collaboration with Benjamin Diamond as Stardust for the massive 1999 hit 'Music Sounds Better With You', or running their respective record labels — the duo’s interest was gradually shifting more and more from the aural to the visual. 

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In 1999 they released a DVD compilation of videos (including one they directed themselves) called D.A.E T -A Store)/About Dogs, Androids, Firemen and Tomatoes. Teaming up with Matsumoto in 2003, Daft Punk turned Discovery into the soundtrack for an animated him called 'Interstella 5555: The Story of 5ecret 5tar 5ystem'. Not surprisingly Daft Punk, the fully realized mythical media production, was also coming into sharper focus. The robots were coming. Or as the band put it, ”There was an accident in our studio, We were working on our sampler at exactly 9.09 a.m. on September 9, 1991, it exploded. When we regained consciousness, we discovered that we had become robots."

What really happened was a bit more mundane. There was no Daft Punk master plan. "The robots began as a reaction to being shy," Thomas admits. "But then it became exciting from the audiences' point of-view. It’s the idea of being an average guy with some kind of superpower; So do they become different people inside thosesuits? "No, we don’t need to," says Thomas. l get the feeling he doesn’t particularly like having to explain himself, "It's not about having inhibitions. It’s more like an advanced version of glam, where it's definitely not you. We couldn’t be like Ziggy Stardust putting make-up on," he says, smiling at the thought.

By 'Discovery' Daft Punk had ceased playing live, either because they were frightened of repeating themselves or because they were sick of being told they were the saviors of dance music. Thomas talks about the "weight" of following up their first two records, but claims they donʼt reflect too much on decisions theyʼve made. "We don't theorise," he says, but it's true, weʼve hidden and weʼve been reclusive and not responded to 90 per cent of the responsibilities we’ve had.’

Daft Punk played their firrst gig in Marseilles in early 1995 and their last – until April's Coachella show – in New York and Los Angeles in 1997. It seems that two albums in, Thomas and Guy—Man were at best, restless for new inspiration — or, at worst, out of original ideas. lf anything, the superhero facade looked like it was cracking. Even though Thomas is the son of Daniel Vangarde, who famously wrote a cheeseload of 1970s disco hits from ‘Cuba' to ‘D.I.S.C.O.’, he never aspired to be a musician. "l never had any intention to do what my father was doing. Not the opposite, but..." Thomas trails off he and Guy-Man confer together in French, before Guy-Man admits that he fiddled around with painting and design when he was younger, and that he too fell into music almost by accident. 

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Maybe that’s why Daft Punk didn’t try to keep their fame at the fever pitch of ‘Homework’ or 'Discoveryʼ; and it makes you wonder whether their shift from music into film-making was as much an escape as a new avenue to work in. Both Thomas and Guy–Man spent much of 2005 and part of 2006 working on and directing Electroma, of-which little is known besides the fact that itʼs 80 minutes long, there’s no dialogue and it features Daft Punk but no Daft Punk music. Neither have any illusions about the film returning Daft Punk to the glory days of universal appeal. They’re just ploughing ahead, concentrating, as Thomas says, on "an intuition rather than a strategy.'

By the time Guy–Man and Thomas got back together in late 2004 to make ʻHuman After Allʼ, they both agreed that, partly as an experiment, they would record their third album in just six weeks. They wanted to make something less pop-oriented and more thoughtful. "We were dehnitely seduced at the time by the idea of doing the opposite of ‘Discovery," Thomas explains. But the resulting album went a long way toward alienating the very fans who got off on their ail—inclusive smorgasbord of electro. With just three drum machines, two guitars and no synthesizers, the Daft Punk scheme floundered. ʻHuman After Allʼ came out in March 2005, and by commercial and critical qualifications, it was a failure — all the more so in the light of the first two albums.

Thomas and Guy-Man are visibly defensive when the word comeback is brought up, and downright decant when it comes to 'Human After All’s public reception. It's their favorite of the three albums because it was, as Guy–Man says proudly, "pure improvisation". Guy-Man says he has no clue how many copies ʻHuman After Allʼ sold; Thomas is flippant about the negative reception. "Sometimes we feel appreciated and sometimes we don’t," he says with a shrug of the shoulders. I canʼt help but wonder if these guys get off on confounding people. Sometimes Thomas wonders what would have happened if they’d done the straightforward thing – taken of masks, become recognized, had famous faces. What would be more important, the music or the people behind it? "Maybe we would have been more famous, but maybe we wouldn't have had the longevity. We didn't play for nearly ten years, and then we had this reception at Coachella", he points out.

Today, they say, they don’t really want to try to stay connected to how an 18-year-old thinks – what would be the point? They have vague plans to return to the studio after this year's festival tour, but the summer of 06 could well be Daft Punk’s swan song — your last chance to see the band that changed everything, in a show dramatic enough to match their achievements. Then there's the movie. "With this film," Thomas says excitedly, "we had the same approach as when we started making music. Create without any rules or standards. Take a free approach to something new that you don’t really know, and that you learn from scratch."

Daft Punk may leave music behind but whatever they do next you may be sure of one thing: they’ll take the same ideals of robot rock with them.

TAGS: DAFT PUNK / GLOBAL GATHERING / PYRAMID

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