How Does It Feel

The second best thing that happened to me in 2001 was spending an hour with Destiny’s Child in the basement of the Civic Centre in Peoria, Illinois. The best thing was driving to that arena in a rental car, doing 80 MPH on this flat earth and listening to Daft Punk’s Discovery for the first time. All of that land speed record fury road hogwash came true as I melted in their slipstream. The engine of Discovery moves like techno, but the frame is made of soul and disco samples from the Seventies. The singing is another thing altogether, filtered and transformed into mechanical birdsong, low on meaning and high on sentiment. With the Chrysler PT Cruiser’s built-in CD player working at its limits, I rode eternal with Daft Punk, shiny and chrome.

Later, the battery died because I left on the headlights and had to wait three hours for AAA. Such is the fall from machine grace. Daft Punk made it worth the wait, though, and thinking of them being gone leads me to some basic questions. How good were they? Almost impossibly. Is this breakup a stunt? Hopefully. Were they scammers? In a way, though only in the tradition of popular music’s cannibal contract.

Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo formed a vector; their direction only corresponded to positive developments in popular music and their magnitude was considerable. Some of that can be easily seen in their production of other artists, work they were picky about. They’re responsible for the acrid fry of Kanye West’s 2013 album, Yeezus, producing its four most important tracks, including the bug-zapping opener ‘On Sight’. Daft Punk worked on two hits from The Weeknd’s 2016 album, Starboy, while Bangalter produced a chunk of the 2017 Arcade Fire album, Everything Now. Why they decided to break up in 2021 – eight years after releasing an album they never toured – is a mystery as of now. The band has made no statement other than posting a clip from their 2006 film, Electroma, in which one robot self-destructs and the other walks into the sunset.

Go back to the band’s beginning, in 1992, and you’ll find the rapid reinventions of their twenty-nine year career visible in the first five. The teenage Bangalter and Homem-Christo first record as a rock trio named Darlin’ and release two songs on a compilation put out by Stereolab’s label, Duophonic, in 1993. They are unremarkable, tame versions of Stereolab’s German backbeat and guitar ostinatos. In May of 1993, Dave Jennings of Melody Maker calls the single a ‘daft punky thrash’. Discouraged but still very much eighteen, Bangalter attends his first rave on top of the Pompidou Centre in the Beaubourg. (If that doesn’t read, culturally, imagine attending your first rave on the roof of The Whitney.) There, he hears a Chicago house classic – Phortune’s ‘Can You Feel The Bass?’ – and nothing is ever the same. Long into the band’s career, Daft Punk cite Chicago house as their inspiration (and later recite the names of 40-odd house and rap producers on a track called ‘Teachers’).

A few months into 1994, Homem-Christo and Bangalter take a hard turn from Darlin’ and create the first three Daft Punk songs – ‘The New Wave’, ‘Assault’, and ‘Alive’ – for Dave Clarke’s SOMA label. The angry saw-tooth waveforms that show up twenty years later in Yeezus are there in ‘The New Wave’. There’s no melody of any kind but plenty of sweet agitation in the sounds. Produced in Bangalter’s bedroom, it comes across as entirely professional.

Homework, the first Daft Punk album, is released on Virgin in January of 1997, and the duo make two decisions: to tour steadily for the year and never be photographed without their masks. One live recording from that tour is released in 2001 as Alive 1997, and you can easily find a clip of their LA performance of ‘Rollin and Scratchin’. This is Daft Punk 1.0, working with a manually connected system, drum machines controlling the synthesize patterns via leads. At one point, Bangalter turns the knobs on a Doepfer filter and the music becomes harsh and asthmatic before dropping back into a comfortable, woody midrange. This method is part of ‘French touch’, a brief genre which matches these electronic sweeps with big, juicy samples of old disco records. That filtering move, which removes the spatial aspect of the music only to bring it back double, became the ‘drop’ of EDM and still plays a part in the structure of variously affiliated dance songs. The disco sample reached its apex with Daft Punk themselves and had mostly faded by 2005.

An instrumental called ‘Da Funk’, first released in 1995, becomes the duo’s first American single in 1997. Spike Jonze uses it to score a real shaggy dog story. Jonze films an actor wearing an enormous dog mask limping around New York on crutches, blasting the Daft Punk song from a boombox. The squelch on ‘Da Funk’ is slower than the Daft Punk average tempo, and the rhythm is built from two Seventies funk tracks by Barry White and Vaughn Mason. At the time, Bangalter revealed that the pair had been listening to Warren G’s ‘Regulate’, but critics were shy about tying the act to hip-hop. (Somehow, even though hip-hop is built from records played in discos, hip-hop is never allowed to coincide with disco.) Daft Punk ignore this, slowly compiling everybody’s best strategies, like dance consultants.

What they compile is an impeccable mille-feuille. The electric sugar of old soul and disco records forms the first layer, over which they stack deft keyboard melodies and electronically filtered singing. (Find the ‘Daft Punk Medley’, a brief piano rendition by Chilly Gonzalez, and you’ll hear how durable their themes are.) The third stratum is a family-friendly nostalgia, more Star Wars than Blade Runner. There is very little sex in Daft Punk’s world, no violence, and no explicitly stated politics. We are always returning, never arriving.

Michel Gondry directed the video for their next single, ‘Around The World’. There are no samples in this song, and the duo does beautifully without them. The song has only three words – around the world – sung into a vocoder, gently tootling as a bass line circles the keyboard figure. In the video, breakdancing men and swim-suited women move precisely, going upstairs and downstairs in sync with the bassline. There are skeletons and robots, too, but no sign of the band.

After Homework, the band refines their mission by working on a side project, Stardust. ‘Music Sounds Better With You’, the only song under the Stardust name, becomes a worldwide hit in the summer of 1998 and remains the central song of French touch. The track uses a bright burst of Chaka Khan’s 1981 song, ‘Fate’: three keyboard chords and a sharp, high guitar figure. Over this, Benjamin Diamond sings, ‘I feel like the music sounds better with you, love might bring us both together, I feel right’. Those are also the only lyrics, and the song repeats and rolls like a disco holding pattern. The clip introduces a tendency seen in many Daft Punk videos. The three men of Stardust are painted silver, playing keyboards and guitars on a cloud. In Stardust’s case, nobody played any guitar on anything at all, and this is where a benevolent deception enters.

In 2001, having become fully helmeted robots as a result of the Y2K bug (their story) Daft Punk launch deep into popularity with the best album they ever produce, Discovery. (Disco? Very.) In the 2015 documentary, ‘Daft Punk: Unchained’, you hear Les Inrocks founding editor Jean-Daniel Beauvallet describe Discovery as ‘one of the first post-sample albums, which builds music out of other sounds. Sampling means taking parts of a song, looping it over and over until it becomes music. But they changed them so much that samples became unrecognizable’. This reorganization of fragments was old hat for producers like DJ Premier and J. Dilla, who routinely atomized records and assigned those bits to the pads of an Akai MPC and created songs that bore no resemblance to their sources. Apart from the fact that nobody says ‘post-sample’, Beauvallet’s distinction can only be working to distinguish Daft Punk’s work from that of these Black American producers, who got there way before them. In light of this, and the fact that Black Americans supplied most of the samples on Discovery, Daft Punk’s elevation can be a slightly queasy affair, even for those of us who adore them.

Discovery is a patchwork of samples, just as much as Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique or The Avalanches’ Since I Left You or Jay-Z’s The Takeover. The band turns everything up here, including the contradictions. They use other people’s records more than ever – huge chunks of Edwin Birdsong and George Duke records power big songs – while also creating their most expansive melodies. Discovery is also where they solidify their fourth and most powerful layer – joy. Daft Punk are the least cynical pop act of the 21st century. They provide the emotionally moist sweep of rock without rock, the thrill of victory without the burden of a self, and the plush comforts of nostalgia without the indignity of aging. Daft Punk are a psychological car bomb that drives into your garage on a silver disco E-ZPass.

Discovery allows the assembly line to slow down for the first time. ‘Something About Us’ is a quiet storm R&B song, crooned through machines. It may be uncanny to have the robot singing a winelight love song, but not so uncanny it doesn’t work. ‘Nightvision’ is a placid instrumental that could be a NASA rewrite of Billy Joel’s ‘Just The Way You Are’, and its air-conditioned detention cell vibe may have inspired the movie Drive. (Homem-Christo went on to co-write and co-produce Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’ for that soundtrack.) But check your files – the duo cut up this very same Billy Joel song on Homework’s ‘High Fidelity’. The plan was always there. Not DJ big – Billy Joel big.

The success of Discovery rattles them, though, and they follow it up with Human After All in 2005, openly describing it as a reaction to Discovery’s painstaking construction. Created in a few weeks and only lightly edited, Human After All sounds like Daft Punk 1.0 with higher production values and more guitars. It’s harsh and claustrophobic, and they quickly move on to Electroma, in 2006. Like everything they produce, the movie looks exquisite but it’s atypically dull, a too-long riff on two robots hoping to become human. The robots (not played by Daft Punk themselves) commit suicide in the film, so it isn’t unfair to suspect that the band saw the end in sight long before this year’s announcement.

The negation of Human After All and Electroma leads to the synthesis of Alive 2007, the peak (and summary) of Daft Punk 2.0. The band toured the world in 2006 and 2007, some of it documented in vaguely legit videos available on YouTube, and on a live album released by the band. A recently uploaded set filmed in Chicago’s Grant Park in August of 2007 shows our boys at the top of a pyramid frame inside a larger triangle, all of it fitted with LED lights, screens, or both. To say this light show worked is to undersell a genuine miracle of cheap tricks and expensive gear. The show is a ninety-minute mastermix of their career, possibly recorded beforehand, possibly created in the moment. It hardly matters. Daft Punk managed to bottle the energy of a club night and unfold it in a setting no different in scope than a Van Halen show. You can hear this on the Alive 2007 album, where the band closes with an ecstatic blend of ‘One More Time’ and the instrumental track of ‘Music Sounds Better With You’, an almost too-pleasing combination of triggers. The music dissolves into a tumble of crackling electronic embers, dying back into brute sound genesis.

The two retreat and re-emerge to do a passable job on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in 2010, their first experience with a string section and a professional studio. This pushes them towards their 2013 album, Random Access Memories, a radical detente between decades of affect and sound and strategy; and the first and last Daft Punk album made in an actual studio. Rather than ape Chic and Michael Jackson records, they hired the musicians who made them: Nile Rodgers, Paul Jackson, Jr. and John J.R. Robinson, amongst others. Paul Williams and Giorgio Moroder are also on here, being their most Seventies selves. Williams sings a saccharine monstrosity called ‘Touch’ and Moroder talks for nine minutes about his importance as an early synth adopter, a very strange choice for a track three slot.

The lead single, ‘Get Lucky’, co-written by Pharrell Williams, was a success and deservedly so. Williams plays the good-smelling lech of disco, staying ‘up all night to get lucky’, the closest to a sexual phrase Daft Punk gets. The rest of Random Access Memories is gorgeous audio best experienced without the lyric sheet. Daft Punk 2.0 was everything about Daft Punk that worked, torqued as far as the material allowed. Daft Punk 3.0 was the band facing off with its heroes and hitting an Oedipal block. How do you kill your idols when you’ve hired them? The strong parts of Random Access Memories stand next to the records they sampled but what makes the album work is also what kills it. Daft Punk lyrics were, from the start, little more than chanted encouragement cribbed from the psychic clipboard of the Eighties: good times, celebrations, togetherness, music and music and music. On Random Access Memories, the band conducts a group therapy session with lyrics that flicker between mutual soothing and despair. ‘I am lost, I can’t even remember my name’, ‘Where do I belong?’, ‘We will never be alone again’, ‘We’ve come too far to give up who we are’. They announce their self-destruct sequence throughout the album, choosing to end themselves rather than their elders. Random Access Memories is too nice to be great but it’s way too much fun to be bad.

The confusion around musical labour obtains once again in the video for ‘Get Lucky’, where the robots appear behind Rodgers and Williams, playing bass and drums. But Bangalter doesn’t play bass on the song – Nathan East does. And Homem-Christo didn’t play the drums – that’s Omar Hakim. This long-running misdirection around physical activity and instrumentation is obviously not accidental, another variation on Oedipal anxiety, more than a little childish. We’re just as good as the bands that play their own instruments, right? Look!

Daft Punk 3.0 ultimately feels most like Stardust, a successful one-off that spread rapidly and atomized. The band’s career makes the most sense if you see the 2007 tour as a goodbye, and all of the subsequent productions and creations as contract gigs. It’s a good way to find their philosophy. You don’t need any remixes of Daft Punk done by people outside the band, but you do need every remix and production Daft Punk did under their own name. The inhuman part was how consistent they were, but much of that came from relentlessly applying a sensibility – as human a strategy as there is.

Read on: Simon Hammond, K-Punk At Large, NLR 118.