Daft Punk: They Were the Robots

Daft Punk: They Were the Robots

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were in high school in Paris in 1992, they started a band called Darlin’. It was a guitar-based indie trio with a friend playing drums, and they were serious about making a go of it. By the time Bangalter and Homem-Christo were ready to move on to synthesizers and drum machines and reinvent house music, Darlin’ had received a review in Melody Maker describing one of their songs as “a daft punky thrash.” In a fitting tribute to the often-preposterous nature of music criticism, they named their new band Daft Punk.

Determined to get their electronic music on the map, they passed around their demo disc while also working on their first singles. One of those was “Da Funk,” which did well enough that record companies started to pursue them. Because of the sweeping artistic control they were promised by Virgin Records, the duo signed there in 1996.

By that point, house music had been around for 20 years, a Chicago-born outgrowth of disco. But it tended toward the flat and repetitive. Bangalter and Homem-Christo wanted to widen the genre’s definition by bringing in other elements from indie rock, pop, hip hop, and funk. They also reached back into disco’s earlier sounds.

In 1997, they finally released their first album, a work that had taken four years to create. Homework shook up the world of dance music. The album itself was a huge success in France and Britain, and the singles “Around the World” and “Da Funk” hit the top of the American charts. In the song “Teachers” from Homework, Daft Punk uses the long-standing hip-hop tradition of paying tribute to influences. Unlike the pulsing wall of sound normally associated with house music, there is a deep dimensionality to this song’s sonic construction. The more carefully you listen, the more nuances you will hear, from timbral contrasts to tweaked note-endings that keep the phrases from being identical.

While the duo worked on their second album, Discovery, which came out in 2001, they also focused on honing their live show. An essential element that arose during this period was the use of robot helmets that hid their faces. First they experimented with putting black trash bags over their heads, and then masks, but the full-head helmets with visors proved to be the perfect embodiment of what Bangalter described as “sci-fi glam,” in the tradition of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.

But the music itself was just as important to them, and their second outing was more successful than the first. Discovery included the huge hit singles “One More Time” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” Bangalter and Homem-Christo approached the album more intellectually than they had Homework, trying for a more organized and complex underlying structure to each song.

A good example is “Crescendolls” (the music, not the lyrics, which are almost non-existent). As the name implies, based on the musical term crescendo – growing – there is a new element added every eight bars, until a maximum turbulence is reached. We’re lulled by this plateau, making its syncopated disruption around 2:10 almost alarming.

Daft Punk was committed to long, hard work and contemplation about their craft, so there were always gaps of several years between their albums. It took another four years before they were ready to release Human After All in 2005. But this was not because they were recording the album all that time. In fact, this one took less than two months to record. They had decided to switch to a looser structural technique this time, allowing for some improvisation, in tandem with a more guitar-and-drum-oriented approached that harkened back to their early days in the band Darlin’.

That’s not to say it was any kind of standard guitar-and-drum sound. Witness the intensity of “The Brainwasher,” in which those more traditional rock sounds are processed into alien, bone-vibrating layers.

Both Homework and Discovery had been used by the band to accompany wordless animated science fiction films with behemoth titles (respectively, D.A.F.T.: A Story About Dogs, Androids, Firemen and Tomatoes and Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem). While a film called Electroma did follow Human After All in 2006, written and directed by the duo, it used Daft Punk-like robots as characters rather than using their music.

But they did write one feature-length soundtrack, that of 2010’s Tron: Legacy. The project took two years and was unlike anything else from their careers. Most importantly, it was orchestrated for acoustic instruments by Joseph Trapanese, who has gone on to an illustrious career in television and movie orchestration, most prominently the score for The Greatest Showman. Inspired by Wendy Carlos’ work for the original Tron movie in 1982, the Tron: Legacy score brilliantly blurs the 85-piece symphony orchestra with synthesized sound.

While most bands release a live album or two, Daft Punk’s Alive, named after their 2006 – 2007 tour, is arguably more significant than most because they released so few albums overall. It also documents their skill as live performers, which is nothing to take for granted with brainy science fiction nerds who might well have preferred to hide behind their synthesizers. Alive won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album and one for its live version of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”

The Grammys kept on coming. Daft Punk’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories, won four more – two for the album itself, and two for the single “Get Lucky,” which featured Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers. In contrast with the stripped-down production of Human After All, Random Access Memories included over 50 session musicians and special guests – among them Euro-disco legend Giorgio Moroder, whose voice is heard on the track “Giorgio by Moroder.”

Besides Pharrell, another famous Williams makes an appearance: Paul Williams, who speaks and sings against old-school R&B rhythms on the surprisingly wistful “Touch.”

Random Access Memories turned out to be Daft Punk’s final effort. In February 2021 they announced they were splitting up. But Bangalter and Homem-Christo have not turned their backs on their creation’s legacy. They’re releasing a book about their career, We Were the Robots, in March 2023. And if that’s not enough inside information, Pitchfork staff writer Gabriel Szatan will release his book After Daft later in 2023, a commentary on Daft Punk’s cultural impact.

Header image: Daft Punk promotional photo.

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