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With hype around 'Random Access Memories' reaching fever pitch, we thought we’d revisit this 1997 feature in which Mixmag met two Frenchmen who would go on to become legends. And robots.
Words: Alexis Petridis
Published: Mixmag 1997
For most people too young to have played any part in acid house and its early 90s ripples, Daft Punk represent a year zero for dance music. They took the tough, rocky, techno sound of bands like The Chemical Brothers and gave it a four-four beat and a melodic, disco-influenced approach. The result was impossibly catchy house music that sounded great on Top Of The Pops and inspired a generation. Alexis Petridis’ March 1997 interview for Mixmag catches them at the very start of their wildfire success.
Thomas Bangalter stares disconsolately at the floor. Even for a man blessed with a face that looks permanently bewildered – the sort of face you suspect girls want to mother – he looks particularly troubled at the scene before him.
The other half of Daft Punk, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, is on his knees, scrabbling through a massive black holdall, chucking its contents over his shoulders. Masks of every conceivable shape and size are scattered around the room. Suddenly he stands up, waving what looks like a grotesque, deflated head at Thomas with a cheery flourish.
“Beavis and Butt’ead! he enthuses. “We ’ave already been Beavis and Butt’ead zis week,” mutters Thomas, darkly. “Twice.”
Guy-Man tuts petulantly, chucks the mask on the floor and goes back to his holdall. More masks go flying, more suggestions are flatly rejected. Dance music’s latest sensation, two Parisian kids whose debut album has turned house music on its head and wedged ferocious jacking grooves into the Top 5, are squabbling over masks. But no one else in the room so much as bats an eyelid.
Daft Punk have a reputation for being difficult that would shame Dave Clarke. They won’t have their photograph taken unless their faces are obscured. They ooze a bored hauteur onstage, barely moving, never smiling. They stormed out of a press conference at the prestigious Transmusicalles festival when someone asked them a “stupid” question. They sat in attitude-laden silence on the Heavenly Social tour bus, while the Chemicals and co got wasted and auctioned off pills. Another magazine described them as “surly”. Their press officer tells me their last interviewer gave up and went home after 20 minutes of blank stares and monosyllabic answers.
Eventually, they settle on clown masks with protuberant red noses. They look at each other... and burst out laughing.
“Sometimes,” sighs Thomas, “I think dance music is too cold, y’know? We don’t really take it very seriously.”
People will tell you there’s nothing daft or punk about Daft Punk, that the name came from the NME’s scathing description of an indie band they were once in. They’re wrong. It’s exactly what they are: daft, and punk.
Thomas and Guy-Man found themselves in the same classroom 10 years ago. They were 12, and, according to Thomas, “quite lazy”. They started skiving off, hanging around record shops and cinemas, devouring old Beach Boys albums and “all kinds of movies: teen movies, horror movies, cult movies, Andy Warhol movies”. Watching them together it’s clear how their friendship lasted out the decade. Thomas is lanky and chatty, ambling about with that expression – “Huh?” – and a hopeless stoner’s stroll. Guy-Man is shorter, truculent, given to silly voices and kid’s pranks. Thomas fusses over Guy-Man’s clothes before the shoot like an older brother. Guy-Man pushes him over and laughs. They’re knackered, but having fun: like you would if you’d just made an incredible record and were zooming round the world with your best mate.
By the time they were 17 they’d formed Darlin’, a ramshackle indie band that lasted six months and released one single: a pidgin English Beach Boys pastiche called ‘Cindy So Loud’. Guy-Man, the singer, treats us to a mercifully brief screech of wobbly falsetto, then says he saw a copy in a collector’s shop for £15. Thomas looks absolutely horrified.
Correctly guessing the world wasn’t ready for a Gallic surf-pop combo, the pair started listening to The Orb and Andy Weatherall and checking out the Parisian rave scene.
“The rock scene was slowing down in Paris,” recalls Thomas. He was already exposed to the dancefloor via his songwriter dad, who inflicted Ottowan’s ‘D.I.S.C.O.’ on the world. “This was more energetic; people were smiling. Then we discovered Detroit and Chicago stuff.”
Taken as they were by the tunes rumbling from Laurent Garnier’s turntables, Thomas and Guy-Man couldn’t entirely forsake their love of rock. The two of them hatched a plan. What if they could combine everything they loved into one fierce, crazy, fucked-up noise? What if they made tracks as influenced by 60s pop and 70s rock as they were by disco and DJ Sneak – what Guy-Man called “melting music”? What would that sound like?
Drop the needle in the groove of ‘Homework’, twist your ears round the slow burn of ‘Da Funk’ or the glitterstomp blitz of ‘Rock And Roll’ and you’ll find out. Goodbye Darlin’. Hello Daft Punk.
And is it punk? Take every golden rule that house music’s defined by. Then bend them, break them, turn them inside out. Do the opposite of what you’re expected to. People think you deal in sharp, harsh, jack trax? Release a crawling, smouldering drag of a single like ‘Da Funk’ that sounds like G-funk fed through creaking machines. People want pristine techno and beat-perfect sets? Drop Prince records and old handbag tunes, plunge clubs into silence and play fake radio ads. People are obsessed with technology? Record your album on synths older than you are. In your bedroom. That’s punk.
“We’re very keen on recording at home, not going into studios,” says Thomas. ‘‘It was very seductive to do that with a major label, all the more if you’re in the charts. But you can do some really lo-fi stuff with two drum machines and an old synth and put it out on a major label! That’s seductive as well: playing with the rules. When we started, it was more economic, we didn’t have the money, but now it’s a reason in itself. We do it because we want to.”
‘We do it because we want to’ could be Daft Punk’s catchphrase. It’s the fuck-you confidence of two kids, barely out of their teens, who’ve suddenly realised the mad musical plan they hatched while bunking off school not only works, but sounds – and sells – like the freshest noise on the block. When Thomas talks about their incredible DJ sets, which smash every shade and shape of music against a wall of 909 drum noise, he acts like it’s the most obvious idea in the world.
“I’m surprised,” he deadpans. “The live show we do is quite normal. I don’t know why anyone hasn’t done it like this before.”
And, as you listen to Thomas, you remember any great artist after their debut album’s exploded. You remember the effortless swagger of prime-time Stone Roses or Goldie, after ‘Timeless’, whispering “It’s just breakbeat”. A perfect pop star pose, then, but one that’s already been mistaken for stroppy petulance or snot-nosed arrogance. What about their full-on live performances, where a motionless, emotionless Daft Punk stare blankly at banks of knackered equipment in sharp contrast to the awesome, fizzing racket they produce?
“We enjoy it inside:’ says Thomas. “We might not smile, but we’re enjoying it. Maybe we’re not enjoying it like dancing or singing, but... we like the concept of doing it.”
Daft Punk stood up for their rights on ‘Homework’s ‘Revolution 909’, which flips an unrepentantly funky finger at the French government’s brutal anti-rave clampdown. Thomas describes it as “mad and angry”.
“In France they think techno and house is devil music with drugs,” he explains. “Hopefully, if the music stands, it’ll show the music isn’t linked to drugs. It’s becoming very big and we have the power to change things a little bit.”
But despite the show of unity in their grooves, there’s a sense that Daft Punk want little to do with the burgeoning French dance scene. They’re full of praise for the likes of Air and Motorbass, who have been granted the first ever remix of a Daft Punk track, tackling ‘Around The World, but Thomas complains that “people try to put us in a French sound and we don’t want that.” Both Punks complain bitterly about the insular nature of the Paris scene, savaging the “purists” who’ve attacked their success. “In Paris, there’ are people who complain about the shit that’s in the charts, that there’s no house music, that it’s not big enough,” snaps Thomas. “Then when it gets big, they spit on it. Purists think people don’t deserve to listen to good music, they think you have to be clever or something. DJs in Paris will buy three or four copies of a record just because they don’t want other DJs to get it. They think it will make a small difference between them and the next DJ. If people want to do that...” his voice trails off in disgust.
“We don’t want to compromise ourselves,” he sighs. “We just want to reach people. The ideas we have are totally against the keep-it-underground thing. People think once it’s gone overground you lose control, it gets spoilt. We want to show that you don’t lose anything.”
And he leans back, looking quietly confident, like a man who’s just recorded a Top 5 album in his bedroom, a man who knows that a multi-national record company can’t commission remixes, can’t change the artwork, can’t make him have his photo taken, can’t do anything without his and Guy-Man’s say-so.
“We didn’t want a ’97 remix of ‘Da Funk’,” he grins. “We’re not The Nightcrawlers.”
They’re locking them out of Leeds’ Back To Basics and it’s not even midnight. Squeeze your way in and you’ll find the crowd are screaming their praise of Ralph Lawson’s dark, deep, liquid grooves. But when Daft Punk take to the decks – looking, as usual, like they’d rather be anywhere else – everything becomes a blur. ‘Homework’s highlights get hacked into oblivion as the drum machine pounds and they grab and snatch at other people’s tunes. The bassline from ‘Disco’s Revenge’ lurches into life, the vocal from Lil’ Louis’ ‘Freedom’ gets strung out and scratched into infinity; everything’s tweaked and trashed and fucked up beyond all recognition. They drop ‘Revolution 909’ and when that megaphone voice drones “Stop the music... stop the music and go home”, they kill the sound for what seems like an age, only to kick back in twice as loud when the crowd reach squealing point.
Then, towards the end of their set, something weird happens. As Daft Punk shift seamlessly from a lone, sparse kickdrum into Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’, a collective gasp of recognition comes from the floor. And one solitary bloke, dancing at the side, actually starts bashing his head against the wall in time to the music.
Now that’s punk.