"The playing with masks is just to make it funnier. Pictures can be boring."
"Personally I don't like ecstasy. It makes me lose any sense of critical judgement."
DO YOU THINK YOU CAN HIDE FROM STARDOM?
In a word, yes. Because we are Daft Punk and we don't need to show our faces to get on a magazine cover or sell shitloads of records. Because we're young. Because we're sexy. Because we remember Juan Atkins and Frankie Knuckles and all the greats who went before us and didn't get the respect, the money or the magazine covers. Because, like them, we're ordinary boys who happen to make thrilling tunes; characters thrown up by a culture where it's the track's impact on the dancefloor that counts, not the artist's image. Can we hide from stardom? We already have. Writer: Matthew Collin Photographer: Antonio Petronzio
THERE is a grainy black-and-white photograph of Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo and Thomas Bangalter, taken perhaps three or four years ago, when they were teenagers. They're propped up against a white wall like two street punks on the corner, radiating a carefully cultivated post-adolescent blankness. Guy-Man's long, 1970s footballer-style haircut flops over his ears; a cigarette is poised insouciantly between his long skinny fingers. Thomas is slack-jawed; his head tilted back in casual repose. Despite the couldn't-care-less slacker stance, they both look unfeasibly young and innocent, more like a pair of cheeky truants than a band.
That picture - probably shot around the time of their first single, 'The New Wave' - is one of the few images of their faces that exists in the public domain. Since then, they have preferred to disguise their personalities under a range of exotic or ridiculous masks - pigs and frogs and tacky Freddy Krueger get-ups - taking the idea of the 'faceless techno producer' to its logical conclusion. In those few short years, they have also become one of the few groups to carry techno out of the specialists' secret society and into the global pop arena. Right now, today, those two bright-eyed rascals are rolling on the crest of their own incredible momentum.
"IT'S simple, when you're a teenager, it's natural," observes Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo dryly. "Any teenager goes
for a living form of music, the most energetic form of music, and rock n' roll is not that any more. Dance music is much more young and
Guy-Man and Thomas met at school in Paris in 1987. They shared a love of records and movies from the 60s and 70s - "very basic cult teenager things, from Easy Rider to the Velvet Underground" - and subsequently worked together on a short-lived indie project, Darlin', although Thomas is now keen to underplay its significance. "It was still maybe more a teenage thing at that time," he says. "It's like, you know, everybody wants to be in a band. The rock n' roll thing we did was pretty average, I think. It was so brief, maybe six months, four songs and two gigs and that was it." However, Darlin's only release did have one enduring legacy. It was reviewed by rock weekly Melody Maker, which damned it as "a bunch of daft punk", giving their next incarnation its name - a name that's humorous, ironic, and just about perfect for a couple of smart young operators.
When the pair were old enough to get into clubs - just before they turned 18 - they became infatuated with electronic music. Destiny
hurtled closer when they attended Nicky Holloway's rain-soaked rave at Euro Disney in 1993. Thomas went up to Stuart Macmillan of Slam
and pressed a demo tape of their new music into his hands. Shortly afterwards, 'Alive', one of the tracks from that cassette would
become Daft Punk's first single on Slam's independent Soma label.
"We went back to their studio at Thomas's house - his father is quite well-off and has this beautiful place in Montmartre, Paris,"
recalls Soma's Richard Brown, taking up the story. "It was immediately obvious they were an exciting proposition, especially when
we saw their live set, which was incredible."
Even at this stage in their development, Guy-Man and Thomas knew exactly what they wanted, says Brown - and how to get it. "They were brilliant guys - very, very sussed. Thomas's dad [who was responsible for many 70s disco tracks, including the Gibson Brothers' 'Cuba'] is a really intelligent man, and I think he definitely advised them along the way." The next single, 'Da Funk', an irrepressibly catchy riff hitched to a low-slung, sleazy groove which climaxes in dirty gurgles of acid bass, became a cult classic and eventually led to their signing by Virgin. Richard Brown believes that their ascendance to major status was inevitable: "We were obviously sad to lose them to Virgin but they had the chance to go big, which they wanted, and it's not very often that a band has that chance after two singles. We're happy for them. We're all friends, and always will be." This year, Virgin released their debut album, 'Homework' - so called because it was recorded in Thomas's bedroom ("I had to move the bed into another room to make space for the gear," he once remarked), and as a skit on their received image as 'French teen techno sensation'. 'Homework' is pure, primary-coloured pop, as bright and shiny as a cartoon and as cute as a cuddly toy. The history of dance music resounds through the set, to the extent that you know where it's coming from on the very first listen. Here and there are echoes (intentional or not) of classics like Blondie's 'Rapture' and Tyree's 'Acid Over', Dr Dre's G-funk basslines, Green Velvet's raucous industrial minimalism, Todd Edwards' cut-up disco. 'Around The World', for instance, invokes memories of Hot Butter's 1972 novelty tune 'Popcorn', the first synth-pop hit ever. And even when they are at their most obnoxious and noisy - those teeth-clenching technoid ejaculations that jerk and squirt from tracks like 'Rollin' And Scratchin' and 'Rock N' Roll' - there's still this sunny vibe. Like one of their heroes, Beach Boys' producer Brian Wilson, whose quote about music being the voice of God adorns the 'Homework' sleeve, they're giving out good vibrations. Wilson once said: "It was a childhood dream of mine: to make music that made people feel loved." And yes, Daft Punk's music bathes you in this warm glow, caresses you with its undulating frequencies. "In Brian Wilson's music you could really feel the beauty - it was very spiritual. Like Bob Marley, too. This was God inside of the music," explains Thomas. "Something that we want to do is keep it warm. A lot of electronic music is very cold. Rock has a certain warmth - that is a good thing about it, and soul and funk and disco also. We were not interested in doing really dark music. Our music is not stupid happy house, but it makes people happy."
GUY-MAN and Thomas are sitting outside the Caledonien Hotel in Kristiansand, a small port over 300 kilometres from Oslo on the Southernmost tip of Norway. Tonight, they will headline the dance stage at the four-day Quart Festival. Thomas, the lanky one with the sideburns and goatee, is skinny as a rail. His brown vintage leather jacket hangs over dilapidated grey jeans, partially obscuring a retro-chic Back To The Future T-shirt. Guy-Man is the short, stocky one. His youthful mane has since been slashed back to a suedehead burr. He wears a turquoise ethnic smock over his denims and squints in the sun, fiddling with his mirror shades and scratching at his bum-fluff moustache. They are unfailingly polite, level-headed and serious, and even if Guy-Man doesn't talk much, leaving Thomas to carry the conversation, his shrugs and nods and raised eyebrows leave you in little doubt as to what he is thinking. They both look singularly unremarkable, just a couple of young hipsters, types you might see propping up the counter in a record store, perhaps. Which, of course, is exactly the point. These past few years, the bedroom boffin has risen to star status - an unlikely Triumph Of The Ordinary. Although bands like Underworld, Orbital, the Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Daft Punk conform to the music industry's conception of what it takes to be marketable 'artists' in some respects - they don't change their name from record to record, they make CD albums rather than endless obscure white labels, they do live gigs (and just happen to be predominantly white and European) - in others, they constitute a break from tradition. They are not sold on their personalities; they don't need to be outrageous or eccentric or perpetuate the mythic rock n' roll glamour of the daredevil hero who lives on the edge and walks on the wild side... Which is lucky, because, let's face it, none of these guys are pin-ups, nor would you want to read their confessional autobiographies. They are just ordinary folk who happen to make thrilling tunes; characters thrown up by a culture where it's the track's impact on the dancefloor that counts, not the artist's image. Products of an egalitarian window of opportunity. Daft Punk see themselves like this, as artist-engineers rather than celebrities. They never let much slip about their everyday lives. "We're trying to separate the private side and the public side," Thomas insists. Ideally, they would not grant any interviews at all.
Thomas: "It's just that we're a little bit embarrassed by the whole thing. We don't want to play this star system thing, we don't
want to get recognised in the streets."
Hence the masks.
Thomas: "Yes. Everyone has accepted us using masks in photos so far, which makes us happy. Maybe sometimes people are a little bit disappointed but that's the only way we want to do it. We think the music is the most personal thing we can give. The rest is just about people taking themselves seriously, which is all very boring sometimes." Soma's Richard Brown offers another potential explanation: their hard-headed insistence on anonymity is intended to preserve their links with (and credibility within) the scene that they emerged from and still feel part of - "to combat accusations of selling out when they signed to Virgin." Were Virgin upset when you told them you wouldn't show your faces in public?
Thomas: "No. We said that before signing. We warned everybody." Do you think that you can hide from stardom? Guy-Man: "Yes. I think people understand what we are doing. I know many people who maybe like the way we are handling things. People understand that you don't need to be on the covers of magazines with your face to make good music. Painters or other artists, you don't know them but you know what they are doing." Thomas: "We are very happy that the concept in itself is becoming famous. In France, you speak of Daft Punk and I'm sure millions of people have heard it, but less than a few thousand people know our face - which is the thing we're into. We control it, but it's not us physically, our persons. We don't want to run into people who are the same age as us, shaking our hand and saying, 'Can I have your autograph?' because we think we're exactly like them. Even girls, they can fall in love with your music, but not with you. You don't always have to compromise yourself to be successful."
This has been a Daft Punk mantra: success without compromise, selling it without selling out. Of course, that's what most bands say, but at least these guys attempt to put their own spin on the tired old riff. They almost see themselves as standard-bearers for the do-it-yourself ethic, mapping out possibilities which future artists - and the record companies which will have to market them - could follow up. Thomas: "We never compromised, and so far it's working. Perhaps it's working all the more because we don't compromise. You know, a lot of things we do mean other people are able to say, 'OK, Daft Punk did it so we can do it too.' Because we have control, because we have the ability to do it contractually, it can give ideas to artists and record companies that they can do it the same way. The playing with masks is just to make it funnier. Pictures can be boring. We don't want all the rock n' roll poses and attitudes - they are completely stupid and ridiculous today." The strange thing is, though, that when the photo shoot begins and they slip the masks over their faces, they seem to lose their inhibitions and start gooning around and throwing silly shapes, like actors hamming up a role, or like... well, like daft punks, really.
FOR men so young - 21 and 22 - Daft Punk's fascination with the past is unusual. Perhaps it's the current mood within the European dance scene, which as it approaches maturity is beginning to obsess over its roots and ancestry. Perhaps it's because, coming relatively late to house and techno, they feel a burden of debt to those who blueprinted the genres - especially since they have enjoyed more economic success than many of those innovators. "This new music, dance music, has started to become a huge thing all over the world, but it has a completely underground background," says Thomas. "This background is very important. Some people see The Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, Future Sound Of London, maybe us, as something completely new, but it's nothing that didn't exist before. That's maybe the way America sees dance music sometimes, as a new thing. Then you have to tell them that before us you had Frankie Knuckles or Juan Atkins and so on. The least you can do is pay respect to those who are not known and who have influenced people." On 'Homework', the track 'Teachers' settled their debt to history, namechecking a list of dance pioneers ranging from Jeff Mills and DJ Pierre to George Clinton and Dr Dre. "People are starting to be able to make a living from dance music today," continues Thomas. "That was not possible before unless you were a DJ playing every night and doing a record every month. A lot of very talented people have suffered because of that, suffered from not having the respect they could have now. It's not about being sad - like when you have the Oscars and they pay tribute to all the dead people, I don't think that is constructive - it's just good for people to know what happened before us." This has been a remarkable year for French dance. Daft Punk are only the best-known of a nouvelle vague of artists including Motorbass, Dimitri From Paris, DJ Cam, Etienne de Crecy, I:Cube and many others, all of whose music revels in a joyous vivacity and healthy irreverence for petty divisions of style and genre. Thomas has often insisted that Daft Punk's nationality has no relevance to their sound: "There is nothing French about our music," he once shrugged. But, although he is sick of discussing the French scene, he does have some insights into its current strength.
"Very quickly - as I have said this thousands of times - it's a combination of two things. First, the UK press were interested in
a few early acts and it became maybe a trendy thing. Because of that exposure, people were looking at France, DJs were looking,
distributors were looking, so people in France started to have the feeling that it was maybe worth doing an enterprise, starting a label,
saying, 'OK, I can do it now,' and taking more risks. Maybe it gave them some confidence. Of course, most of these people are not new,
most of them are over 25, we are more or less one of the youngest. But because of that exposure it makes a snowball also, you know. Then
it keeps on because there are actually quality records coming out."
The paradox is, however, that at the same time as French dance music was achieving global acclaim, French politicians were damning their
indigenous dance scene and armed riot police - the fearsome CRS - were busting raves, particularly in the conservative South. After the
recent replacement of the right-wing Chirac government with the centre-left Jospin administration, Thomas hopes that those days are passing.
"Maybe it's coincidental, but the last two years of police cancelling raves and making roadblocks corresponded to two years of
right-wing government. I think eventually it will change, because the instruction of the police is completely driven by the government.
We are not betting on the Left having the solutions, but the Left is at least more tolerant. The funny thing is that there are so many
more important things to care about than whether you can party or not..."
Daft Punk, mind you, are not your typical ravers. They are sober and efficient, not caners and wilful dissipaters, unlike a good proportion of the DJs on Britain's club circuit, who seem intent on shoving most of their disposable income up their nostrils and down their gullets until rehab or liver disease pull them up short. "Personally I don't like ecstasy," remarks Thomas. "It makes me lose any sense of critical judgement - it makes me like every track I hear. All the music we've done, I think people can enjoy it and really go crazy even if they're not on any drugs. Maybe that's why it's successful and has crossed over." Their bone-shaking, genre-splitting 'Daft Mix' DJ sets have already attracted superlatives - but when they actually play live, it's something else again. What happens is this: they haul bits of their studio up on stage and literally rip their album into shreds, taking the constituent parts and remodelling them into a new whole, like a DJ would do with a box of records. They twist it like a New York disco maestro - EQing the cymbals into a shrill fizz of white noise, jamming the bass so low the bowels quake - but with the urgent velocity of the technofreak. It's 'Homework', sure, but not as we know it. Camp orchestral flourishes dissolve into sheet-metal hammering, alchemical flashes of acid... and a magical moment when they fuck with the bass on 'Around The World', making it retch and quack and wail like an abandoned baby. And as they gun the machines, hidden away in darkness, a few hundred Norwegian kids stomp up a dust cloud, which hangs there, trapped in the strobes, like some ghostly ectoplasm.
THESE are still early days for Daft Punk. One hit album and a bag of silly masks does not necessarily guarantee career longevity in a fast-moving, dynamic genre where you're only as good as your last tune. They have not committed any new recordings to tape as yet (although there have been releases on their independent labels, Thomas's Roulé and Guy-Man's Crydamore). "It's not important," says Thomas, dismissing the thought with a flick of his wrist, like he had all the time in the world, which, in a way, he has. Thinking back, there was something he said earlier, too. It was about the masks again, but it seemed to sum up Daft Punk's attitude: the casual optimism of youth, that endless Summer before twentysomething uncertainty sets in, a time when you genuinely believe that you can achieve anything: "This is new music, so it's a new way of doing things. There is nothing to follow. There are no rules any more."
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