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Daft Punk On 'The Soul That A Musician Can Bring'

In spite of the robotic persona they've cultivated for years, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo elected to make the latest Daft Punk album in a real studio, with real musicians.
David Black
Courtesy of the artist
In spite of the robotic persona they've cultivated for years, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo elected to make the latest Daft Punk album in a real studio, with real musicians.

With a few Grammy Awards behind their helmets, All Things Considered revisits a conversation with Daft Punk. It originally aired May 16, 2013.

French electronic duo Daft Punk burst out of the late-'90s dance movement with music they produced in a home studio. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo built a cult following wearing robot helmets onstage and in the press, and mostly working alone. But they recorded their new album, Random Access Memories, in professional studios, with real live musicians. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo spoke to All Things Considered's Audie Cornish from London. You can listen to the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.

The lead single from your new album is called "Get Lucky" and the singer is Pharrell Williams, but I understand it was co-written by you and Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, who was a big producer of the '70s. What does this song tell us about the album?

THOMAS BANGALTER: This song is really in some sense — can be a summary of this record, this album, Random Access Memories, that we're just about to release. We've been making dance music, myself and Guy-Man, for about 20 years now. Initially, we were making house music and electronic music in our bedroom for a very long time and but we were always very influenced by a lot of classic records including Chic records and a lot of the disco records that Nile Rodgers wrote and produced.

And it was somehow maybe a child's dream to possibly one day be able to make music with one of the musicians we really love. And so "Get Lucky" is really about this encounter between Nile and also Pharrell Williams, which we've been friends with and which we've worked with in the past, but about really teaming up and getting outside of our home studio and really reaching out to other musicians and performers and making music and having fun in the studio making music together. This record is really about the music we wanted to listen to right now and so it's this kind of summer disco jam that we wanted to make with Nile and Pharrell.

It's interesting because both of these producers, Nile [Rodgers] and Pharrell Williams, are very closely aligned with the kind of period that they came out of. I mean, Pharrell is one of the definitive producers of the aughts — kind of modern hip-hop — and Rodgers is obviously a huge voice of late '70s radio and disco.

BANGALTER: In that sense we could say that we came out of the '90s and of this new French electronic music scene in '90s and defining a certain sound at the same time. But it felt interesting to us to say, "OK, let's just team up with the different talents and let's try to make the music of today."

So it's true there was no sense on this record to think really about the future of music or the music of the future, rather than really to focus on, OK, what are we missing right now as music and what is the music we want to make?

And it sounds like this speaks to the album title. Random Access Memories. Obviously RAM is a reference to a kind of computer data storage. What does it mean for you here?

BANGALTER: It's the parallel between computers and hard drive and the human brain, but it's really also having fun with the word "memory," which has become a very technical, very sterile term and word. And obviously when you use the plural, which is "memories," it's something that is totally different. It's something that is highly emotional and we were always very interested in the difference between technology and humanity and the difference between something that has an emotional quality and something that has not any kind of emotional quality in the world of technology.

So it felt like going from a very technical term — that is, random access memory — to random access memories completely changed the perception of those three words and made them extremely human in the way that we wanted to pursue the concept of this record and the process of making this record in the most human way possible.

On the album, there's a song called "Beyond" and it is somewhat of a departure from what people expect of your music in that it opens with this kind of orchestral introduction. Pretty soon after, this song gets to the digitally altered robo voices that people might recognize from your music. But talk a little bit about the use of live instrumentation and orchestral elements in this album.

BANGALTER: After the last world tour that we did in 2006 and 2007, we stopped making our music for about a year and a half and worked on the score for Tron: Legacy, which was a Disney film. And it was a very interesting opportunity for us. First, because we love film-making and we love film scoring in general, but also it was an opportunity to work with an orchestra — something we've always wanted to explore and do — and really stopping this process of our own.

[To] spend 12 or 14 or 15 months working with orchestral music really opened us to the idea of team work and the idea of working with musicians and also a certain idea of a spectacle. It's true that it's something that we've tried to gradually do, you know, with our characters and our person as robots and trying to build this fantasy or fiction in an entertaining way.

And after having created a very ambitious tour and show around electronic music with — we were standing as robots in this big, primitive light — we thought that a way to keep on that spectacle was to work with orchestral ensembles as well as electronic layers and electronic elements.

We really loved it and loved that exchange with the musicians and the performers and decided to try to do a new record but doing it with live musicians — not only limited to orchestral orchestrations but also to live drummers and bass players and guitar players and keyboard players. And do somehow an experiment with pop music in a new way for us.

We kind of joke and say that this record, Random Access Memories, is our first studio album even though we've been making music for 20 years. But this was an opportunity to work with musicians and to glorify, you know, live performances and the magic of human performances and possibly do a little bit of dance music at the same time.

Was that scary for you?

BANGALTER: It's not really scary. I mean we're not scared of experimenting. I think it's the opposite. It's a very exciting process. It's a little bit overwhelming in some sense, but we usually like to take our time.

You know, we're releasing music every three, four, five years. The last studio album — the last album we did as Daft Punk — was in 2005. We released Tron in 2010, which was a score so not really a proper Daft Punk album.

But being able to — taking our time and experimenting is definitely some kind of a luxury but it's not really scary because we feel very, very free and very liberated from any constraints. We really feel we have the freedom to experiment, and if we don't like something, you know, we might work a few weeks or sometimes a few months on some ideas and we put everything to the trash and then we start again.

We like the idea of not building the next experiment on past experiences, so we like the idea of feeling like beginners all over again. We felt like total beginners when we did the Tron score and here because it was going into a studio and doing a record in the same way that people would do record maybe 30 or 40 years ago.

Although with a certain — as if we also had known what happened the 30 following years, you know. So that was interesting. We were almost sometimes putting ourselves into a studio feeling, okay, we might be in 1978 when we're doing that on the process but at the same time we exactly know what happened in the next 35 years.

Daft Punk's music has been so closely aligned — or has been the inspiration for electronic dance music as people might recognize it now coming out of their radio. Did you make a conscious effort to back away from the tools of that sound, which these days is the laptop?

BANGALTER: There's a confusion sometimes with the laptop being the current tools and where electronic music initially comes from. We come from the previous generation of electronic music producers — before the age of the laptop. So a lot — most of the electronic music we've done was made in a home studio that was some kind of a collection of hardware components of drum machines, synthesizers, samplers, little guitar pedals and in a kind of a DIY process.

But where we were collecting different pieces of hardware and making the connections in between them to create our own creative ecosystem in some sense, a laptop today is a completely different beast. It's somehow, most of the time, some kind of a timecode solution with a piece of software and a lot of different virtual instruments inside. And so it's a very different process.

It's almost like comparing someone that does practical special effects using miniatures and model-making and time-lapse photography and then someone that has been working on a computer doing CGI effects. So it is synthetic — it is synthesis. But making music with a computer today is what you can call virtual synthesis, which is almost something different.

We really wanted to say, in our quest of experimenting with electronics and experimenting with what the future could be, we might have forgotten some techniques that are gradually disappearing. So we definitely used computers on this record but we tried to use technology in an invisible way. We said it earlier in the same way that maybe Peter Jackson can use technology to tell the story of The Lord of the Rings, to put it to screen. This record that we're doing here is not a technological record in the way where you would put technology on top of it. You're hiding it under.

Is there a song on the album that is a good example of that kind of invisible technology?

BANGALTER: Yes, the song "Touch" that we recorded and wrote with Paul Williams is an interesting example because it's a song that has a certain timeless quality. There's definitely some Dixieland part in it and some more psychedelic synthesizers and some kids choir and a lot of effects. It has about 250 tracks in the song and we could not have handled as many tracks 30 or 40 years ago.

Multi-tracks were limited to 24 tracks. You could maybe synch two multi-track tape recorders together and that would give you about 48 tracks — and although if you took a third one it's — but using 250 tracks to make this recording showed that we were trying to create something that's timeless but at the same time using the up-to-date modern horsepower of computers today that couldn't even, was not even possible maybe 10 years ago.

This record definitely uses computers and technology in many ways — it just doesn't really use computers as musical instruments. They're to handle assets and pieces of audio and also in order to edit the music and put it together.

We were just not really feeling comfortable as musicians to be able to perform and capture certain emotions just with computers as musical instruments rather than using a guitar or analog synthesizers or a piano, a trombone, a bass, a live drum kit.

On the song that features Giorgio Moroder, "Giorgio by Moroder," you hear him describing how he first got into using synthesizers. And he is an Italian producer that helped make some of the biggest dance records of the late '70s — is synonymous with the work of Donna Summer, "I Feel Love" and electronic music that really is a precursor to what we hear today. Can you tell me what kind of an influence was he on your music?

BANGALTER: Giorgio Moroder is an important influence for us because he's a pioneer of some sort and he has this amazing career and life journey. He started in a small town in Italy and went on to play in hotel lounges in the early '60s. And then had this career in German pop music in the late '60s and ended up almost inventing or being part of the founders of disco and electronic music and somehow techno in the mid-'70s. After that he moved to Hollywood. He won Academy Awards for the music of Midnight Express and Top Gun, but did music for Flashdance.

It's really interesting to just look at the career of a musician and a producer that went into many different genres and many different styles and many different places but always breaking the barriers between genres and at some point reinventing himself all along the way but also inventing things at the same time.

We live today at a moment where there's a focus on electronic music and a focus on how electronic music might be this new trend or new music, and it was fun for us to do a track around the life of Giorgio, this man that's in his 70s and speaks about his connection with techno and electronic music that happened 40 years ago.

Also the idea of making a track which is almost like an autobiography or like a documentary was something interesting to us because it felt in the form that it was original. And when we have an idea that we feel is original that hasn't been done, we usually, you know, write it on a small notepad and try to see if we can make something out of it.

Do you think acts from the late '70s, early '80s — some of the big pop acts — took more chances than people do today?

BANGALTER: When you look at what we can call the golden era of concept albums, which starts in the mid or late '60s and ends maybe in the early '80s, it's an interesting time for music. You see all these very established and popular acts and bands and artists that were somehow on the top of their game but really trying to experiment. To make these really ambitious records and take a lot of risks and reinventing their sound in some sense and really experimenting with recording techniques and experimenting with composition.

The best example is probably the most famous one, which are The Beatles, which at the time were the biggest artists and the biggest band on the planet. And the series of records and albums that they worked on and produced with George Martin in the late '60s are really, at each time, a complete reinvention and really an idea of pushing the limit and feeling okay. There was a time where these established artists were the people that were experimenting the most.

The experimentation has been now in the hands of the underground scene — of the alternative, the independent scenes. The alternative and independent scene of bands that are really experimenting but they might not have a lot of the means to do so. It's what we can call in French something called bricolage — meaning that you try to experiment with what you have, even if you have some limited means.

But the time for ambitious experimentation with some means in this idea of an experimental super-production in music seems to have been long gone. And we're definitely not the — we haven't been the biggest-selling artist but we feel we are today. We have been established artists, and we wanted to take the chance of trying to experiment — or bring back a sense of ambition, of artistic ambition in trying to experiment and doing something that is not around at a certain time. We liked the idea of doing something we had never done and that no one was doing right now.

It sounds like, with the song "Doin' It Right," which features Panda Bear, that you're posing the question to yourselves, essentially, that if you're doing it right, people will still dance. But is it with some apprehension? Are you nervous about how the album will be received?

GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM-CHRISTO: I don't think we are really worried about — I mean, we cannot — we are concerned, but from the start we made music just Thomas and me in a small bedroom and we just were having fun and we still are having fun. And that's the main — that's what we like to do and that's what it's been for 20 years.

The magic — we can try to capture the magic — the music that comes out of the speakers. That sparkle of magic that we can get sometimes is just what we are looking for and if it works while we're in the studio the two of us, then we think that maybe we can share it with an audience. And it's been the case from the beginning.

So the main priority for us is to be happy with what we are doing, you know? And we make sure that the result, with a test of time, that the songs we are doing are still relevant after a few months or a few weeks to us, and if we are still happy after that time then we share it with people.

But we've never — the worst for us would be to put out some music that we don't totally validate. That's why from the beginning we worked with a major company, but at the same time we've been producer of our music and independent.

The big difference with Random Access Memories and maybe Tron is that we decided to share the experience of making music with a bigger team. We are not really skilled musicians. I mean, I can play a little bit of guitar. Thomas can play piano. For once we decided to get out of this bedroom and not be playing the few loops that we were able to play as poor musicians. We are really really happy to see that our vision has been held and that we were able to get a lot of people on board and to share this album with all these people. To see all the enthusiasm is maybe one of the things that is the most — that we are the most happy about.

Guy-Man, earlier Thomas said that you guys were trying to make the music of today — that something was missing, in a way. What do you think that is? What is the music of today?

DE HOMEM-CHRISTO: Music of today is a lot of different styles, a lot of different genres. As Thomas pointed out, it's a lot generated by computers, and it's all in the box, in your laptop. From the beginning, with our first album, we wanted to make the music that maybe was lacking around us — the music that we wanted to hear.

And it's true that for the last few years, with this laptop-generated music around us, whether it's e-pop, EDM, even pop music — all the genres have been done with these computers — what was really lacking to us is the soul that a musician player can bring. We took a totally different direction than what is out there, I think, now, and we simply got back to working with musicians. And some really good musicians that have experienced all the great era of the '70s and '80s albums, all the big masterpieces we know. I think we manage — I hope we manage to bring back some soul and emotion.

So it's not the music of today or the music of the future or the past. Some people would think that it's kind of retro to work with these guys and to have this type of, like, disco or funk, but to me it's just putting back some soul or some life in music.

BANGALTER: I didn't really say the music of today, rather than music we wanted to listen today. It's a very humbling position, and we're not doing this in any kind of judgmental way based around what we would hear, you know?

It's a very subjective, personal, instinctive approach as musicians of saying, "We don't want to replace what's around; we just want to widen the possibilities." There's a certain craftsmanship in recording music in studios that is gradually disappearing and we thought that this was maybe a sad thing for this craftsmanship to disappear.

These techniques that have been developed over — maybe from the beginning of recorded audio in the late 19th Century for 60, 70, 80 years, until the pinnacle of the audio file quality in maybe the mid '70s, early '80s — these techniques should not completely disappear. It was really an homage to a certain craftsmanship that we felt was disappearing.

Are we hearing some of this in a song like "Lose Yourself to Dance"? Does it have that quality that you were looking for? A kind of warmth and a kind of pleasure principle?

BANGALTER: "Lose Yourself to Dance" is probably the simplest track from the production perspective on the record, where it has the least amount of elements. But at the same time, we feel it has this quality we're looking for because there's not any electronic instruments in it or electronic drums. The only electronic element is the robot voice, which is a vocoder.

But the whole fantasy that we had, and whole dream that we had, was could we still do, or can we still make, today, dance music without a drum machine?

We didn't really know if it was possible. Just the idea of having John JR Robinson, which is one of the best player, drummers in the world — the most recorded drummer, I think, in pop music history — having him with his solid groove and with Nathan East, this amazing bass player and then Nile on his guitar making magic and Pharrell singing and us with the vocoders singing with him — it's a very simple layout, but it's extremely human.

That's what we were trying to create — dance music almost created in an acoustic way. Guy-Man said it's all about having fun; music is about making you feel good. It's also about having a strong point of view and maybe making some kind of a statement, whatever the statement can be or will be.

We felt like, by going this route and working with musicians and doing this thing acoustically and taking the time to record everything from scratch — not using any sound banks, any presets, any virtual instruments, using layers of claps and taking the time to record the claps for four minutes, or using a shaker and recording the shaker for four minutes and not relying on the technology of using these sound banks — it seemed that it was a statement that we're trying to do in a very genuine way with a lot of enthusiasm and having fun.

The computers are maybe helping us and could do the music instead of us and we can just become these over-writers, but we don't really feel that's where the fun is. The fun is by making the actual music and not totally relying or relying primarily or heavily on technology. It has nothing — again — nothing judgmental, but for us it was just more fun and more challenging to do it this way because it's actually much more difficult.

You're talking so much about kind of putting the humanity back into this music, and at the same time a huge part of your persona is the idea of the robot. You guys are always in public with the helmets so people don't know what you look like; the use of the vocoders and the robo voices in the songs. It seems like it's the opposite, really, of what you're trying to do here.

BANGALTER: It is and it is not. The fiction and the story, it's about these robots. We directed an experimental film about seven years ago, eight years ago that was called Electroma and that followed the story of these two robots which are in the desert that were somehow desperately trying to become human. And that's maybe what somehow is the story of this record, the story of these androids or these robots or these vocoder, robotic voices that are trying to feel an emotion. Or trying to have their robotic side going toward humanity in a world where human beings are gradually going toward technology and toward this idea of robots, you know?

It's maybe something we felt, which is we are two robots trying to become human. So it meets halfway; it has this kind of a cyborg and droid quality, but it seems that it's a story that has some emotion with it. Because it's about artificial intelligence in some sense, but it's in the same way that if you have HAL, you know, in 2001 — an artificially intelligent entity that is very elegant and that maybe knows — is so intelligent that he knows that he's not a human being. Here it's not about the intelligence side of it, rather than emotional side of it. A robot that is sad because he cannot feel, or something like that. So it's almost this paradox.

But it's always been for us about the interaction between technology and humanity, and we couldn't have done our project, definitely, without technology. As Guy-Man said, we are poor musicians in terms of performers.

We created the music initially with drum machines and samplers and taking little bits of pieces of records and but also using synthesizers. What we are are producers and songwriters. We're always trying to have a sense for melody and harmony and things that we feel we're able to manage. But on a production level, we totally, it's true, relied on technology. It doesn't mean that we cannot at a certain time look at technology and maybe not decide to glorify it.

We live and we're totally addicted and we're totally connected to technology ourselves, but we were interested in, again, sustaining a certain craftsmanship that was maybe existing before technology that we think shouldn't completely disappear and has the right to coexist with today's technology.

And this coexistence and this idea of mixing both is what makes us excited about the future, about getting the best of both worlds and combining the superpowers of computer processors with ideas and real stuff and real things.

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