Sometimes, the collective “we” forgets just how avant-garde Daft Punk has been throughout its uncanny career arc. In the wake of the ubiquity of the hit single “Get Lucky” and the mass hysteria preceding the official release of accompanying album Random Access Memories early next week, it’s easy to overlook the challenging elements and influences the duo of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo have incorporated into Daft Punk’s shiny metallic pop-art appeal. At the same time, it’s amazing how remarkably consistent the vision of the maverick electronic group has proven – how it’s been expanded upon and elaborated as it morphs into different incarnations.
This is nowhere more clear in what hindsight is proving to be – in my not-so-humble opinion – the best Daft Punk interview ever published. Speaking to the late, great Stop Smiling magazine in 2008 for a cover feature Q&A centered around the U.S. release of Daft Punk’s first feature film, the wildly experimental road movie Electroma, the individual members of Daft Punk opened up like never before; it may be, in fact, the most loquacious de Homem-Christo has ever been to a journalist. (The photographs by David Black are also amazing.) In addition to going deep into the roots of their obsessive cinephilia, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo painted a picture of the influences and elements that have gone into their utterly distinctive iconography – who knew, say, how big of an inspiration Led Zeppelin was on the pair in terms of maintaining a secretive yet irresistible mystique?
What’s most surprising, though, is how Daft Punk foreshadowed the themes, music, and even the inventive marketing concepts driving the Random Access Memories phenomenon in this half-decade-old conversation. From proclaiming the profound influence for the ’70s cult-film musical Phantom of the Paradise which features both the acting and songs of key Random Access Memories collaborator Paul Williams, to how the post-Internet age has encouraged the group’s fans spontaneously react to to Daft Punk’s music and visuals with their own homemade viral responses, to the very first media revelation that Daft Punk was already in the studio, at work on a new album that wouldn’t see release until five years on.
Until now, this landmark interview has only existed online in excerpt form. However, the version printed below is expanded well beyond what was published in the print edition – making this an essential document in the evolution of Daft Punk’s fascinating, ever-expanding universe.
Matt Diehl: I had a very interesting reaction to Electroma. The first time I saw it, I hated it; the second, third, and fourth time I saw it, I loved it.
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo: Cool! I’m happy you didn’t like it the first time. You’re not the only one.
Thomas Bangalter: That you watched our film more than twice is interesting considering what we were trying to do. When we were conceiving Electroma, we knew it was not specifically an entertaining experience on the first viewing. We were thinking more of the long-term effect that the images would have.
GH: Electroma was an attempt to break the formula that is everywhere now in cinema. Watching movies today is a very passive experience: a lot happens onscreen, but as soon as you walk out, you don’t remember anything. Most of the new, big blockbusters are like that – the more I watch them, the faster I forget them. Electroma is maybe too artsy for some, but when you get into it, you have more of an active response.
MD: You’ve referenced classic “midnight movies” as an influence on Electroma. In a way, the midnight movie back in the day was a communal, proto-rave ritual. People would often go every week to see the same movie – Eraserhead or some other transgressive cult film designed to provoke the viewers’ imaginations, then take drugs and space out together.
TB: We’re very happy that, in Paris, Electroma has shown for the past two years as a midnight movie. Every Saturday night, 50 to 150 people come and watch it. The interactive process is very interesting.
GH: When we were kids, we’d go see Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight: people would act really crazy and dress as the characters in the movie. If Electroma can be a little bit of that, great; that’s the way it should be.
MD: I never thought of Rocky Horror Picture Show and Daft Punk together, but it makes perfect sense. Each fuses music, visuals, and audience participation in their own unique way.
TB: The development of a subculture of uncontrolled gatherings is interesting to us. Even though it’s unrealistic to do nowadays, Electroma was created very much as a theatrical experience. In a very naïve, simple sense, we photographed the images to be projected on a big screen in a dark room, not thinking about any other context.
MD: One reason I keep coming back to Electroma is how aggressively experimental it is; it unabashedly challenges the audience. Its uncompromised artistic indulgence reminds me of classic experimental independent film – iconoclastic works from filmmakers like Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Warhol. It’s provocative, as opposed to something designed for mass appeal.
TB: In a lot of cult films, the film stands for the memory of the vision experience of a film. That’s one of the central themes: how can you define a story or experience where the memory becomes more interesting than the experience itself? Why do some images stay with you, and some lose their primal impact, now that we’re surrounded by a saturation of images all the time? We’re really drawn to strong concepts that trigger viewers onto not a mind trip, but an intellectual process. Whether sensual or a physical, it’s ultimately emotional, linked to how your brain interprets images. The difference with music is that, because it’s often in a shorter form, you can listen to music while doing something else; it becomes the soundtrack of our lives and memories. You can listen to a song a thousand times, whereas it’s unlikely that you’ll watch a movie a thousand times.
MD: The two films that Electroma most evoked for me were Easy Rider and Zabriskie Point: both encompass a journey, and Zabriskie Point specifically deals with the desert landscape as visual metaphor.
TB: Zabriskie Point, yes. What was very strong about Antonioni’s work is the void that it captures, the silence Usually in Antonioni’s films, what’s not there is the story. In Blow Up, this void is captured and left with the viewer; the audience waits to see it, but that only happens after the film is over. We like to play with old memories and different ideas and influences. Combining them produces something different and surreal, where you can’t really recall where you’ve seen this combination before.
MD: What all these films share is their deliberate pacing. They seem to approximate real time, yet also feel like faded memories.
TB: What was really radical about Electroma's approach was making the story so meditative. Trying to capture the void on every level created just an environment around the viewer. There are different phases of all these bizarre elements: the loneliness and boredom creates a hypnotic state that’s almost like the desert itself.
MD: Electroma uses source music as opposed to a traditional score, à la the films of Kubrick and Woody Allen. Why use other artists on the soundtrack as opposed to original Daft Punk music?
GH: It was a really interesting challenge, but ultimately a joy, to do this movie without Daft Punk music. It was cool to do something not linked to our music for the first time, yet have people get it as a Daft Punk work. All the tracks came from our own record collections. As well, Electroma is a combination of all the movies we like, paying a big, almost unconscious homage to them. There are so many different influences: in the end, it becomes such a melting pot of everything that it resembles something else altogether. We love cinema the same way we do music-we’re from a generation that doesn’t segregate. It’s a combination of activism on one hand, and politics on the other, trying to break boundaries between genres without being “fusion.” I don’t really like “fusion” in general, but maybe you can like both punk and disco.
MD: On your first album, the track “Teachers” spelled out Daft Punk’s musical heroes-everyone from Dr. Dre and George Clinton to Li’l Louis, Jeff Mills and Kenny Dope. Who are your “teachers” in terms of cinema?
TB: There are so many. Kubrick, David Lynch, Tarkovsky-everyone from Chaplin to David Fincher: all the people who play with the “real.” Buñuel is probably our favorite director in his use of symbolism and how he plays with very strict stereotypes and codes. Did you see his Simon of the Desert? There’s a big column in the desert that the main character stands on for days and days; at the end, he’s in the club in the ’60s and people are dancing. It’s super cool.
MD: Los Angeles impacted Daft Punk’s creative DNA?
GH: Maybe it’s because we come from France, but when we are there we feel more creatively free. It’s strange: we feel more aware in L.A., and it expands our approach. Right now we are making music in Paris, but maybe we’ll go back there to find some visual ideas.
TB: I live probably a third of the time in Los Angeles, and still have a place there. On a very personal level, I like the combination of living between Paris and somewhere else.
MD: L.A. and Paris are such different cities, one ancient and culturally pedigreed, the other so young in the scope of world history. However, there seems to be a lot of crossover between them right now. For example, Sofia Coppola had a child with Thomas Mars from the Paris-based rock group Phoenix, and Justice seems to play L.A. every other week. Why is this?
TB: With its resources, L.A. has become this big workshop for us, where it’s easier to create certain things than in France, where the mentality is sometimes not so enthusiastic about this process. It’s very fluid from a practical production level to put ideas into instant action in L.A. Everything is possible: you can gather a production crew together in a few hours and do a film test of any kind. It’s the birthplace of movie magic-a blank canvas where you have access to pencils, brushes and pens of every size and color. If you have something in your head, there’s this feeling that there’s nothing limiting you putting it onscreen exactly the way you want it. Both Electroma and our most recent tour happened from the meeting of our ideas and L.A.'s creative infrastructure. We tricked the system with the same spirit that we initially had in our bedroom home studio in Paris.
MD: Hollywood seems very interested in Daft Punk, but what’s been the reality in terms of working with studio executives? Do they “get” Daft Punk?
TB: We’re in the process of defining what we’ll do next, and what we can do within this side of the system. We might have an idea now that maybe we’ll end up doing in five years, but right now we are trying to meet different kinds of people that share our sensibility. In music, we’ve worked with both underground labels and major labels and never felt we’ve had to make any creative compromise; therefore, we’re definitely not against doing a project with a major studio as long as we feel that there’s a guarantee of creative control. It’s hard.
MD: You recently split with your longtime manager, Busy P [the colorful impresario of Ed Banger Records and svengali of its much buzzed flagship act, Justice]. In his stead, you’ve created a whole new infrastructure in L.A. Who are the new people that were brought in, and why?
GH: That all came about when we decided to do Electroma and the Human After All videos with Paul Hahn, our collaborative partner in Daft Arts. Since we’d been more based in L.A., he’d been helping us with everything on the visual side. Paul comes more from film and advertising: he supervised the movie, produced it and helped write it with us. Then, when we decided to play Coachella in 2006, he took on the role of producing that show and did a really great job, so now we’re working on everything with him full-time. Everything we do now, we do with him.
MD: Does he bring a new energy to Daft Punk?
GH: It’s a really new energy. For example, Pedro was not so much into the movies, so now we work more and more with Paul. It’s just very different: Pedro is more of a “celebrity manager” who is more into the music. He is not only just a manager, he also has creative input – much more with Justice than with us, you know. With Justice, he’s got a big creative input. Paul, on the other hand, is a really great special-effects creator, has got a great knowledge of cinema, and knows how to do many different things. Every time we work on a video or movie, he’s there with us, really a part of our team. For example, Paul produced the robot helmets with Alex & Martin, the French directors that designed them. That’s really a big part of Daft Punk because it involves creating our image.
MD: According to his resume, Paul also worked on the video for “Thriller”!
GH: Yeah-he worked on a lot of retro movies. That’s another link we have with him, which is really fun.
MD: Your L.A. roots are deep now, but when Daft Punk first performed in America, it was in 1996 at the “Even Furthur” rave in rural Wisconsin. What were your impressions?
GH: We were twenty-year-old kids, and I thought it was really one of the best festivals we’d done. It wasn’t huge, but it was in the woods, in nature, really outside the city. Techno music was known in Chicago and Detroit, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. It felt like a special moment; we have great memories of it. Even now, people go on YouTube to get videos from that night – it was true energy.
MD: Did you go to Chicago afterward and go meet all house legends?
GH: Yeah, it was incredible to go there. We met all of the Chicago producers-DJ Sneak, Boo Williams, all the artists from Trax and all the good, original record labels. It was really crazy for us because those were our idols. We were in Chicago not so long ago, and it was really cool to go back. We just worked with Kanye West, too. He’s a great guy, full of energy and ideas all the time.
MD: How did that first Chicago pilgrimage affect Daft Punk?
GH: It was really important to know where the music came from. America is very different from one city to another, always bringing you to different places. We were in a crazy dynamic of going around different countries for the first two years, just having fun. It opened up our view of the world.
MD: It’s ironic that you are putting your focus into feature films right at the dawn of YouTube. Daft Punk has proven immensely popular there thanks to homemade videos like “Daft Hands” [an ingenious visual accompaniment to “Harder, Faster, Stronger, Better” that eventually made it on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”]. How do you feel about that?
GH: It’s really flattering to see that people bounce different stuff off what we do. It’s really cool because everyone can give their own interpretation. With small video cameras and computers, it’s gotten so much more creative than before; with the right tools, you can create whatever you want. It’s just funny to see so many different ideas and different stuff. It’s cool.
MD: With so many fans taking videos at your concerts, do you think you’ll ever release a DVD of your recent live show?
GH: I think what people did on YouTube is far more exciting-much more lively than what we could do ourselves. Anyway, we didn’t do it and the show is over now. The mystery of memory is much better to me and Thomas.
MD: Did you ever think you would influence a generation of American musicians like MSTRKRFT, The Rapture, and Ratatat? LCD Soundsystem and DFA would probably never have existed without Daft Punk, for example.
GH: No, I didn’t expect that. Most of the young artists that pay tribute to what we do make good music, so we’re flattered. If they were making shitty music, we would know we’d done something wrong. In French we have a saying: c’est reposer, ca fait laure, ce reposer. It means if you relax on what you’ve already achieved, you’re finished.
MD: If you rest on your laurels.
GH: Exactly. It’s human nature to stop experimenting once you believe that you’re the best. I hope my example influences people to not listen to anybody but themselves, to just do what they want and not follow.
MD: What will the next Daft Punk project be? Will it incorporate film and music in a way that we haven’t seen before?
TB: The next film will be very different. It won’t be like Electroma.
MD: Will you ever make a movie that has your music in it?
GH: It would be fun-it could happen, for sure. I really don’t know what we’re going to do next in music or movies; we are just starting to work on it, gathering ideas, combining new technologies and seeing what comes out. Right now, we are free of all our record contracts, so any direction is possible. We’ve always tried to never do the same thing twice, and now we are trying to do music in a different way. Image and music together have a strong impact: the live show we did was really interesting for us because it blended music, video images and lights, a combination that we never tried before. It wasn’t a concert, but something different – more of an experience or happening.
MD: What was the inspiration to make it so experiential?
GH: It was an idea that was in our heads for ten years, and when Coachella asked us to do a concert, the time was right. Like everything we do, the first thing we asked was, can we bring something interesting to the table? We didn’t want to go back on the road with just a table, two samplers and a drum machine. What we came up with was complex and expensive, yet more concentrated than a really big Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd show. The intention has never changed: it’s always about making the best possible music to our ears. Especially what happened with this tour in 2007, with Kanye West sampling us and getting attention from many new people: it was very unexpected – and bigger than before.
MD: It’s interesting that Human After All received a mixed reaction upon release, but after hearing those songs on the recent tour it sounds as iconic as anything you’ve done.
GH: All our albums have always been destroyed at first in the press. With Homework, it was like, “You sold out to major company so you’re not underground anymore.” With Discovery, they said we made bubblegum music that sounds like Supertramp. For Human After All, they were like, “This is worse than anything Daft Punk has released previously.”
MD: It’s funny: Led Zeppelin wasn’t appreciated by critics at first, either – and in a way Daft Punk has become the Led Zeppelin of its generation.
GH: Led Zeppelin is one of my top three bands ever. I’ve actually been listening to Presence by Led Zeppelin today. Great album.
MD: Presence is sort of Zeppelin’s Human After All, in a way.
GH: Ok, so then what’s next for Daft Punk?
MD: Physical Graffiti!
GH: Yeah! That’s a really a crazy album – one of my favorites. I used to listen to it when I was really small, because my father had it. I don’t know what to think about the comparison, but it makes me happy.
MD: Led Zeppelin not only made the best music, but they felt that creating mystery and atmosphere were paramount. I feel like Daft Punk maintains a similar credo.
GH: Mystery is very important to us. Like what Led Zeppelin did on their fourth album, it’s important to me and Thomas that, when you listen to our music or watch our movies, there’s a big space for your own interpretation. Electroma is really about letting imagination fill the gap. There’s no dialogue, and very little given to the viewer to understand; I don’t even know myself if there’s something to understand. Even for us, making it was more like a question mark than an answer. With both Electroma and our music, we always try to make it timeless and universal. “Da Funk” is now more than ten years old, but it doesn’t sound like an old track. I really like this idea of having something wider than just a small niche category in a shop-of not being classified. The purpose of art is to look much further beyond the frontier: it’s a global thing, and soon enough it’s going to be a galaxy thing. We spent a lot of time and energy at the beginning trying to smash all the preconceived ideas that people had about electronic or house music, and now people see it differently. It’s really good to break all the rules and barriers; I don’t know how you can listen to just one thing. We started with house as our biggest influence, but ’50s music was also there, too. And while it’s not the trend to like reggae or classical music now, you must be really stupid if you don’t. If Justice makes you think about Devo and LCD Soundsystem makes you think about The Fall, it proves that music is in a good way.
MD: Do you feel as excited about the filmmaking process as you do about creating music?
GH: I like movies as much as I like music, and I think doing Electroma was in a way a really similar experience to making an album. We’re excited: the more we make music, the more images we have in our heads. That’s been the case since our first album. It’s really linked.
MD: Comparing Daft Punk’s cinematic oeuvre to, say, George Lucas’ filmography, I see Electroma as filling the same niche as, say, THX 1138. Does that mean the next Daft Punk is going to be Star Wars? Or American Graffiti?
GH: I don’t know. We’ll see.
MD: What would be the ultimate Daft Punk movie project?
GH: I don’t know. I really don’t want to know, because if I knew I would do it and then I wouldn’t have anything else to do. I prefer my art to challenge me. Electroma and the shows we played were big surprises for us in the way people reacted to them. Coachella was supposed to be just one gig – there weren’t supposed to be any more shows after that. Electroma is the same: we just did it, never expecting to be even to having an interview about it today.
A Rational Conversation: Amanda Petrusich Explores Our Evolving Perceptions of Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips...
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
2013 marks the 30th year anniversary of The Flaming Lips’ formation, and the recent history of Oklahoma City’s greatest alt-psychedelic-freakout band remains eventful. A sampling of notable incidents since the release of their 2009 album Embryonic: The Flaming Lips recorded a cover album of Dark Side of the Moon ; their song “Do You Realize??” became, and then stopped being, the official state rock song of Oklahoma; they released a collaborative album called The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends ; they released a video for their collaboration with Erykah Badu from The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends featuring nude images of Badu’s sister Nayrok prior to approval from either of them; after Erykah Badu publicly attacked Coyne for doing so, she was replaced on the song and her sister was replaced in the video by Amanda Palmer; the band appeared in a Super Bowl ad for Hyundai and frontman Wayne Coyne appeared in a commercial for Virgin Mobile; Coyne, one of the only two constant members of the band and its driving creative force, separated from his wife of 25 years, Michelle Coyne. And we can’t leave out the Lips’ planned upcoming collaboration with, yes, Ke$ha…
Uh-huh, the saga continues. Last month, the band released the well-received album The Terror, bringing the attention back to their music – but then last week they released the video for “You Lust,” which featured several close-ups of male and female genitals, the male ones being Coyne’s. Ducker spoke about pop culture’s evolving perceptions of Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips with Amanda Petrusich, a writer for publications including Pitchfork and The New York Times, a teacher at New York University, and the author of It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music.
Eric Ducker: I wanted to talk about Wayne Coyne because it seems like starting with The Soft Bulletin – but particularly with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and all the touring/videos/promotion that followed it – he emerged as this shaman-type figure for a lot of people. They saw him as the freaky dude who could help them through the bummer of the Bush years. That perception still exists, and has been incorporated in even more mainstream ways, like the recent Hyundai and Virgin Mobile ads. There’s also been this growing undercurrent, particularly in the past two or three years, of people thinking that maybe Wayne Coyne is just a creepy dude. What’s your take on the current perception of him?
Amanda Petrusich: A lot of what Wayne Coyne does is explicitly performative, but I also believe him to be a genuine American oddball – I don’t think his eccentricities are that carefully formed or filtered, and subsequently, he does a lot of stupid shit. He also does a lot of beautiful shit. In terms of the sea change you’re talking about, the fuss with Erykah Badu certainly changed the way he’s understood; that, for me, felt particularly pivotal. Releasing naked footage of anyone without their express consent is fucked, and then making a public mockery of their concerns is even worse. I don’t really see another angle to that debate. I’m sure Coyne lost fans over it. I’m also sure he lost fans when he was constantly tweeting naked pictures of his now ex-wife. This seems almost silly to say, but Americans are still fairly puritanical about sex. Broadly speaking, there are certain things we don’t easily abide, and perversion is one of them – we’re horrified by it, the subsuming quality of desire. It’s a weakness: don’t acknowledge it, certainly don’t indulge it. I’m being reductive, I’m sure, but I can understand how in a post-Gaga universe – by which I mean a pop landscape where a certain kind of quasi-weirdness is expected and embraced – a dude like Coyne might see being sorta pervy as the last great subversive act. Especially for a middle-aged white man from the Midwest. Oh God, did this just get irrational?
ED: Nah. After the Badu episode and the Tweeting pictures of his current ex-wife, do you consider him releasing videos that feature close-ups of genitals (including his own) to be more off-putting? Or do you think now he just has the freedom and platforms to do whatever he’s always wanted?
AP: He’s always had that platform. It doesn’t feel so anomalous to me in the context of his discography, which has always been confrontational in its own way. The Badu episode was upsetting because the question of consent was raised and ignored. I’m less irked by the other videos.
ED: Are you surprised that, even with the disturbing and weird stuff he’s been putting out, he’s still being used for national commercials by major corporations?
AP: There’s a great scene in a recent New York profile of Coyne where he’s meeting with a bunch of people from Omnicom, the advertising conglomerate. It’s clear that they see him as this kind of weirdo beacon – a gatekeeper, almost: one of the guys asks him what his three favorite things are, and Coyne says – and earnestly, I believe – sex, sleeping, and money. Which is the least outsider-y answer imaginable.
ED: In a way, he kind of reminds me Snoop Dogg, though Snoop’s answer to that question would probably be the same except he’d probably replace “sleeping” with “drugs.” They’re both a representation of something that can be used in advertising and marketing to communicate an idea (Coyne=weirdness, Snoop=coolness) and each still retains a certain “authenticity” for a lot of people. And in both cases, most people aren’t aware of what they’re really about and into.
AP: Right. They communicate a shorthand that doesn’t take much work for the audience or for the copywriter. I suppose that’s part of being a public figure of any sort: streamlining a brand.
ED: Do you think advertisers or marketers care, or if it even matters that Coyne’s actual kind of weirdness is much stranger and darker than the simple surrealism in those commercials?
AP: But do we know how strange and dark it is? It’s funny, I find him almost fantastically inscrutable. Especially in light of The Terror, which is such an odd record. There have always been fatalistic undercurrents on his albums; even on an anthemic song like “Do you Realize??,” he sings, “It’s hard to make the good things last.” So maybe the darkness or desperation isn’t so new, but it’s certainly manifesting in some interesting ways right now. I suppose that makes sense for our cultural moment, doesn’t it? It makes sense he’s selling us cars.
ED: Yeah, I don’t think the darkness is anything new. He’s probably always wanted to make videos about putting babies with grownup faces in meat grinders. Now he just has the money and the avenues to make it happen.
AP: Absolutely. He’s been alluding to a particular aesthetic for a while, and he’s finally in a position to realize it. Cred alert! I’d never heard of The Flaming Lips before I saw the “She Don’t Use Jelly” video on an episode of “Beavis and Butthead” when I was 13. I recall Wayne Coyne had orange hair – prison jumpsuit orange – and there was a woman in a plastic pool holding out a plate of fried eggs. Even then, I had some vague sense it wasn’t about toast. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Fugazi (and of course, by “listening to Fugazi,” I mean maniacally rewinding “Promises” on my Walkman), Pixies, and Sonic Youth, and I equated atonality and dissonance with artfulness and meaning. That’s not really what The Flaming Lips were selling. You can hear a little of the early-1990s grunge distortion in that track, but it’s so melodic and clearly indebted to certain strains of smiley American pop. It’s goofy, and it was undeniable, in its way. I mean, that’s a move, couching whatever subversive agenda you might have in pop. It wasn’t until a lot later, after Zaireeka, that I realized the band had these brash, experimental origins. That they ever ended up – and stayed! – on Warner Bros. feels so anomalous to me now; maybe by anomalous I just mean it’s unlikely that they’re a successful major label band.
ED: They seem to be going through a cycle where they make an album that is an artistic statement that the music lovers and music journalism community positively respond to, creating this idea that they’re back or have “returned to form.” Then they do all this other extraneous stuff for three or four years that kind of makes you forget about them as a group that makes albums; then they put out another one, and you have to go, “Oh yeah, I actually want to think about The Flaming Lips as musicians again.” Stuart Berman touched on this idea in the intro to his Pitchfork review of Embryonic.
AP: Totally. One of things I like about Coyne is that he’s ambitious. Coming of age when I did, in an era where ambition seemed so gross, it took me awhile to figure out how to value that in an artist – but now it feels so important. His moves don’t always work on me, but I appreciate that there are moves: I appreciate that this record is bleak and occasionally hopeless feeling, that it required a reimagining of his stage show, that it’s consistently introspective, that it nods to some less obvious influences, that it managed to reignite interest in the band as A BAND. It’s also a very contemporary sounding record. Someone sharper than me could probably dissect the precise sonic crossovers, but the vibe is almost James Blake-ish to me, sometimes – very lonesome and deconstructed.
ED: I agree, but if I go see them play and he gets in the plastic ball and walks on the crowd, which he very well might, that will bum me out.
AP: Me too, man! Let’s pop the ball. Let’s find the ball and tear it up.
ED: But if I was old enough to have gone to shows in the 1970s, would I have ever said, “I will be bummed out if Parliament-Funkadelic bring out the Mothership tonight”? Were there anti-Mothership people?
AP: Interesting question. Maybe! Maybe there was a vocal “Goddamn this Mothership!” contingent. Wouldn’t it be great if there were people in the front row, like, visibly yawning? Of course, you can now argue that culture has been accelerated to the point where we actually can’t tolerate repetition. The “Sophomore Slump is now the “Sophomore Who Cares.”
ED: We haven’t talked about Coyne’s own nudity in his videos yet. On one hand I can see it as a positive thing, where you can say, “Why shouldn’t we be exposed to what a 52-year-old man’s naked body looks like,” especially if he keeps putting naked women in their twenties in his videos. But on the other hand, I can see why someone would say, “Why are you now obsessed with showing me your weiner?”
AP: I’m uptight about so many things, but not about nudity. So I guess I find his nudity unremarkable. Like “Eh, weiners.” Although it occurs to me that we also exist in an era where the cultivation of mystery is so dead; we reveal so much, so readily. Has it changed how you hear his music?
ED: Not at all. Part of the thing about all the nudity in all the videos is how unremarkable it all is. When they did the “Watching the Planets” video, I thought it was interesting when I heard he was going be naked in it, but in the end, it’s a pretty uninteresting video. Of all the videos they’ve done after Yoshimi, “I Could Be a Frog” is probably the only one I actually think is good.
AP: Ha! I agree. That’s the thing about nudity, isn’t it? So much build up, and then you’re like, “Oh. Okay.” I also like that video, and I like that Coyne’s maybe trying to desensitize us to things we might presently overvalue. But that aesthetic we were referring to earlier could also probably be summed up as “Periodically Quite Indulgent.”
ED: Are you more interested in The Flaming Lips as a studio band or as a performative experience?
AP: Performative experience. I like some of their records a lot, but the performative area is where they’re doing more interesting work, frankly.
ED: On stage?
AP: On stage, certainly. Critics used to worry a lot that “the music” was being eclipsed by “the showmanship,” but those membranes are more permeable these days, and with a figure like Coyne, I’m not sure it’s in anyone’s best interest to separate the two.
ED: Let’s close this with a hypothetical situation: Four years from now, the band have already finished touring and promoting The Terror, they’ve already put out 12 more videos featuring naked and tattooed twentysomethings covered in blood and glitter, they’ve already collaborated with a dying Brian Wilson for two weeks on a collection of songs that they released on a hard drive the size of a lithium battery that’s encased inside a model of a stick of dynamite crafted from petrified whale vomit. Then one day, Wayne Coyne calls you up and says, “We just finished a new album of songs that I’m really proud of that I think will have a positive effect on the psyche of the human race. I want to do something that helps me truly connect with people. What should I do?”
AP: Oh, wow. This is like the interview portion of the Miss America pageant, and I’m about to say “World peace,” and I’m also going to pronounce both words wrong. I’m a big fan of non-virtual interactions, so this, for me, is Wayne Coyne driving around and playing various living rooms in North America. Perhaps unannounced. Perhaps nude! I believe Mark Richardson, in his 33 1/3 book about Zaireeka, called that record the anti-MP3, and that’s what The Flaming Lips do best: deny the notion that music can be one-dimensional.
A Rational Conversation: Philip Sherburne Muses on the Simultaneous Return of Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk...
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Almost every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
On the same recent week, both Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx put out new singles, the former with “Get Lucky,” the latter with “Back 2 the Wild.” Likewise, the two duos comprising Thomas Bangalter/Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo and Felix Burton/Simon Ratcliffe respectively are veterans of the 1990s electronica bubble (historically referred to as “The Time Before EDM”), but each has seen their careers unfold in very different ways. Despite stylistic and geographical differences, Daft Punk has had Basement Jaxx remix some tracks, and vice versa. As well, other people previously have compared the two groups.
In an attempt to delineate the linkages and contrasts between the two dancefloor titans, Ducker spoke with writer Philip Sherburne, who has vividly analyzed evolutions and movements in dance-music culture since well before, um, The Time Before EDM, for outlets spanning Pitchfork and The Wire to SPIN and Beatportal .
Eric Ducker: How deep were you into following electronic and dance music when Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx first came around in the mid-1990s?
Philip Sherburne: I’d been listening to electronic music since around 1994, but I spent most of my time with Mo’ Wax and Warp type stuff. I had an allergy to “dance” beats for a long time, probably not unlike a lot of white suburban types raised on punk and indie. I remember, in fact, that Daft Punk’s Homework was one of the first “house” records that really grabbed me at all. It was the minimalism that did it, really – the repetition; not long after that, I’d fall hard for minimal techno in general, so I suppose Daft Punk helped point me in that direction, as odd as it may sound. I didn’t pick up on any of Basement Jaxx’s early club singles until well after the fact, and I only vaguely paid attention to Remedy. It was Rooty that really hooked me.
ED: Where were you living at the time?
PS: I was in Providence from 1994 until 1998, and then San Francisco after that, until 2005.
ED: I ask because I know you live in Europe now, but for Americans in the 1990s, a lot of us lumped disparate dance music together even if there were entire genres and communities and countries that actually separated them. I do think, however, that there are significant connections and parallels between the careers of Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx.
PS: You’re right. I was trying to remember how I even heard Homework in the first place; it was probably through working in a record store, and it’s probably the same with Remedy. Even at the time, I’m not sure how much I lumped them in with the “electronic music scene.” They seemed somewhat separate from that to me, maybe because so much of what I was gravitating towards was anti-pop, and both of these artists were so obviously POP. And they both presented themselves as artists that came from dance music, but had a much more open-ended (and open-armed?) proposition. Both started out around 1994, if I recall correctly, and did their time in the trenches, recording club twelve-inches and whatnot. But both artists used their debut albums to make a much broader statement. I remember the videos from Homework, which seemed crazy to me at the time – an electronic track with an actual video?
ED: Also, both were acts that rock-focused music magazines could feel comfortable with, both had their songs soundtrack big commercials, and so on. And there are some more recent parallels, like how both recently scored films: Daft Punk did TRON: Legacy, Basement Jaxx did Attack the Block. (Of course you could also throw their peers Chemical Brothers and Underworld into this whole soundtrack conversation, too.). Primarily, however, I’m interested in why one group is so revered and one is a little on the margins, because both of them have developed in interesting ways and have pretty consistently put out quality music. In America, one is a festival headliner, while the other remains firmly on a smaller stage.
PS: My heart probably belongs with Basement Jaxx, although I’m not entirely sure why; it’s possible that I just like underdogs, and if all the hype were going to Jaxx, I would be rooting (Rooty-ing?) for Daft Punk. But I don’t think so. The obvious and oft-remarked upon differentiator is Daft Punk’s 2006 Coachella performance – that kind of solidified the myth. People still talk about that performance. (I wasn’t there, though I did watch some of it on YouTube, and I get it.) That set the tone for pretty much everything that is happening in main stage EDM today – the massive light rigs, the CGI motion-capture whateveritis that Skrillex and everyone else is putting together. The 2006 Coachella show was smart for another reason, too: Daft Punk managed to do that at exactly the moment when people were beginning to be nostalgic about their early work – almost a decade after Homework. There was, I suspect, a growing affinity for electronic music at the Coachella crowd in 2006 anyway. In addition to the way they’ve crafted their image and mythology, Daft Punk have always seemed to have a remarkable knack for being in the right place with the right sound at the right time. I also think that Daft Punk have had a much more consistent vision than Basement Jaxx. From certain angles, that may not be true; the Jaxx are actually incredibly consistent in their overall approach, even if the results are wildly varying. But Daft Punk very carefully honed their aesthetic over time. Even when they opened up to hard-rock guitars with Human After All, they managed to fold it into something essentially Daft Punk. They’re streamlined, just like the chrome on their helmets. Basement Jaxx, on the other hand, have been all over the place with this kind of tropical/club-hybrid clusterfuck – in the best way, in my opinion. The casual fan has less chance of liking every single Jaxx song, or even each of their albums. I would be curious, too, to see how British attitudes towards the two acts might differ from Americans’. Basement Jaxx seem like a quintessentially English sensibility – or multi-cultural English, in any case: there’s much more Caribbean influence in their music, much more Carnival. Daft Punk always felt way whiter to me, no matter how much funk and disco they sample.
ED: Right, Daft Punk seems like the classier of the bands. Basement Jaxx is much more overtly crass, and I’m not using that term in a negative way. But that said, EDM culture in America is pretty into crass these days.
PS: Totally. Basement Jaxx can be a little sloppy, a little messy; they’re much more likely to incorporate sounds or vibes that are faintly ridiculous, even a little ugly. That’s what people mean when they talk about the group’s “maximalism.” Daft Punk is much more controlled. But I’m not sure that Basement Jaxx’s “crassness” is necessarily the same as contemporary EDM’s. It’s a lot more sexual, for one thing. It’s more rooted in funk, and not at all in moshing, as is, say, main-stage dubstep. And despite American EDM culture’s fondness for drops and tempo changes and moments of rupture, it’s still a far more uniform experience than what Basement Jaxx is trying to do. Basement Jaxx is going for a kind of experimental jubilation – god, that sounds corny, but whatever – whereas American EDM is a very programmatic, up-and-down roller-coaster vibe. But Daft Punk had some other things in their favor, as far as American fans go. Daft Punk understand the value of hard, shiny sounds, which translate well to crowds raised on rock. And they also had a crucial advantage in their imitators. I suspect that plenty of listeners discovered Daft Punk through Justice, who took the Daft Punk sound and ran towards America with it. Justice was the gateway drug, and they helped stoke enthusiasm in that kind of sound, even when Daft Punk was off lounging on an island, or whatever they do with their downtime. Basement Jaxx never really had any disciples like that, no one to carry the torch for them.
ED: Do you think Basement Jaxx has been hurt by their amount and choices in guest vocalists?
PS: It’s funny you say that, because that’s really become the norm these days, but I agree with you. I was thinking that in many ways, they sort of helped pioneer the Major Lazer approach – again, maybe the Caribbean thing is not coincidental.
ED: Starting with Kish Kash, which was Basement Jaxx’s first album that didn’t really catch on in America, they started using more “name” vocalists. And some of them are cool “legend” choices and some of them are buzz artists of the time, but a lot of them don’t know really what to do on a Basement Jaxx track. Also, the effect on listeners when they see them all listed on the album art can be, “What kind of mess is this?” Looking at the tracklist of Scars in 2009, did you necessarily want to hear Lightspeed Champion, Santigold, Sam Sparro and Yoko Ono on something that’s not a mix you’ve made?
PS: Right, and Daft Punk’s use of the vocoder lends a uniformity that’s probably a lot more reassuring to people. You know intuitively that it’s Daft Punk “singing.” I was just listening to Scars, and, thanks to crappy metadata, I had to resort to Discogs to figure out that it was Santigold singing.
ED: And when Daft Punk did use collaborators on Discovery, it was people who were significant to them, like Todd Edwards and Romanthony, and a relatively small part of the population. I’m curious what the effect of them incorporating guest vocalists on Random Access Memory will be. The Neptunes remixed Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Stronger Faster” and added Pharrell’s singing on it, plus Daft Punk co-produced N.E.R.D’s “Hypnotize U,” but Julian Casablancas and Panda Bear are new voices for them.
PS: I guess it depends how they process them. Pharrell’s contribution is certainly, noticeably him, and it’s kind of jarring. Casablancas is a little more interesting, because he does have some Daft Punk-y elements in his solo work. Again, it’s like they’re folding something into the mix that was already related. It’s funny too, because we talk about how streamlined or focused Daft Punk are, and yet in 2005 when Human After All came out, there was a lot of criticism of what a hodgepodge it was. But they’ve somehow bent all those sounds to their aesthetic. They did the same with Discovery, too, incorporating stray tropes from the 1970s and 1980s before those things had been recuperated and canonized. Maybe Daft Punk are the Borg?
ED: Maybe Basement Jaxx tries to incorporate and spit out too much for people.
PS: They do; speaking as a fan, there’s plenty of their catalogue that just doesn’t work for me. But, as Matthew Perpetua noted in his Pitchfork review of Scars, they also take more risks, and maybe more audacious ones – although the heavy guitars in Human After All were pretty audacious at the time.
ED: Going back to what you said earlier about Basement Jaxx being a proto-version of Major Lazer, what do you think would happen if Diplo took them on tour as an opening act?
PS: I guess it depends upon how rambunctious their live act was. The idea of Basement Jaxx opening for Major Lazer is a little SMH, just from a jaded old-guy perspective, but it does make a certain amount of sense. It’d be nice to get David Rodigan in the mix there, too. Have Basement Jaxx ever played Bonnaroo? I feel like they would connect way better in that context than at, say, EDC. Basement Jaxx are sort of on a Ze Records tip. They should do a cover of “Shake Your Head” by Was (Not Was), which is totally a proto-Jaxx song if ever there was one.
ED: Basement Jaxx has never played Bonnaroo. And it’s been nine years since they did Coachella.
PS: I’ve never seen either act live, and I’m totally willing to concede that while I prefer Basement Jaxx’s records, Daft Punk probably put on a much more satisfying live show. The streamlined nature of their sound lends itself to a live performance. Their live sets are like proper DJ mixes, whereas I can only imagine that Basement Jaxx live would be a much more disjointed affair. Which might be another way of saying that Daft Punk live sets probably go much better with psychedelics and/or ecstasy than Basement Jaxx would: “Who is this woman screaming at me now? I’m getting out of here.” Daft Punk is all about the synthesizer cocoon, whereas Basement Jaxx is more likely to trigger a fight-or-flight reflex.
ED: Let’s look at the two new singles that each has released. Upfront, I’ll say I like them both.
PS: Yeah, me too, although I’ve heard the “Get Lucky” loop so many times now that it’s becoming weirdly anonymous. I almost wonder if they’re lessening its impact by using it in so many previews. But it’s a solid introduction to the new album. You can hear the looseness of the “real” musicians that they’ve talked so much about. It’s warm, enveloping, and it sounds pretty good even at a shitty bitrate. I’m sure that at CD quality it will sound amazing. (The people I know who have heard the LP tell me that it sounds amazing from an engineering perspective.) I really like the Basement Jaxx single, “Back 2 the Wild.” It grabbed me immediately – it’s recognizably them, and it doesn’t give up their maximalist tendencies, but it also feels way more focused than they have in a while. I hear a big Tom Tom Club influence on it, but in a way that feels fresh. It’s kind of garish, but it’s also really clean. It’s really smart, too: There’s a “Sueño Latino” sample somewhere in there, I’m pretty sure.
ED: Right now the lyrics on “Back 2 the Wild” are a bit of a sticking point for me, but I think my relationship to them will change over time, meaning I’ll stop caring.
PS: What bothers you about them? Is it the (genuinely problematic) jungle-primitivism trope?
ED: They are dumb, but I understand why they are dumb and I love plenty of songs with really dumb lyrics. I have to believe they are consciously dumb. I can’t be positive that they were purposefully written as dumb, but I get why you’d have really dumb lyrics on it. The lyrics for “Get Lucky” are also pretty dumb, since they seem like the typical young Pharrell looking at the clouds stuff, but again, they work well with the vibe.
PS: I was just going to say, “Get Lucky” isn’t going to win any poetry prizes either. For some reason, those lyrics almost sound more goofy too me, maybe just because of the difference between Pharrell’s suave delivery and the obviously over-the-top quality of “Back 2 the Wild.” I kind of tune the latter out. It’s like “Wordy Rappinghood,” where it just becomes chatter. I’ve never been much of a lyrics person, so what I gravitate to most in the Basement Jaxx tune is just the sound of the thing; I love that kind of ungainly, detuned bass line, and all the freaky synthesizer squeal in there. In some ways, it’s not that far off from what, say, Caribou is doing these days; it’s just gold-plated and turned up to 11. Well, Caribou as Daphni, anyway, and I realize that’s still kind of a shaky comparison. But still.
ED: I remember about a decade ago, when there was still a The Face magazine, and when Johnny Davis wrote his last Editor’s Letter, he listed all the things he’d learned from working there. One of them was something like: “Don’t put Basement Jaxx on the cover, those guys don’t sell magazines.”
PS: He’s probably right. It’s not like this photo quite measures up to the robot costumes. If anything, that picture just makes me want to forget many things about my own fashion choices in the ’90s. Daft Punk would never be sullied by man-pris.
ED: C’mon, Basement Jaxx look kind of cool here.
PS: How much of a difference do you think the whole robot shtick really makes? Honestly, I tend to forget about it, but Pharrell kept harping on about “the robots” in this interview, as though he really bought into the whole thing.
ED: I don’t think it matters that much that they specifically chose robots. But that said, robots are kind of default cool, and the type/era of robots they picked are specifically cool. The robot stuff gives them a theme and a concept to work with and explore. It creates a base that will inspire people when they collaborate with creative people in the visual arts and fashion and film. But look at Rooty from Basement Jaxx, where all the album art and associated singles had the consistent look of airbrushed animals. That’s the best stylistic choice Basement Jaxx have made. Should they have started performing wearing animal heads? Probably not. That would have been a gimmick, just like the robots are essentially a gimmick, but not a cool gimmick.
PS: Yeah, I think the robot shtick is just a way of reinforcing their mystique, a mystique whose real power lies in the fact that Daft Punk don’t put out that many records, they tour infrequently, they rarely allow remixes of their own work, and they rarely remix anyone else They’ve been absent from the festival scene for years, they hadn’t put out an album (other than TRON) for years, and yet they’ve still been placing ridiculously high in the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs poll, year after year. (This despite the fact that they rarely perform as “DJs” anyway, but that’s another issue.) They get off on being withholding, and fans lap it up. It’s interesting, too, because the campaign for the new album goes in the opposite direction; it’s carpet-bombing oversaturation, while still somehow preserving the mystique. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain it.
ED: I don’t know if they get off on being withholding, but yes, the fact they do so little and are still kept in such high regard does seem counterintuitive. The robot thing is partially a matter of convenience and lifestyle preservation. I know Thomas Bangalter has a family and lives in Los Angeles; I’m not sure about Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. They probably don’t like doing photo shoots or being in videos, so now they never have to. They don’t like having to talk to people they don’t know, so they mostly don’t have to.
PS: Get off on being withholding is an Arrested Development reference. They seem like the lucky ones, because they reached a certain stature before social media kicked in and the music industry tanked. So they can exploit social media without really being of it. They’re sort of like Radiohead being able to do pay-what-you-will on their albums, having already attained mega-stardom.
ED: As for the carpet-bomb marketing for Random Access Memory, I’m sure it’s a calculated decision: they’ll promote the shit out this album for 12 to 18 months, cutting out a lot of the extraneous things that wear people down, like photo shoots and interviews; that will result in them having money and the opportunities to do all kinds of money-losing things they’re interested in, and they can hang out for three or four years after. If you can pull it off, I can see why it would be appealing.
PS: As long as the album is solid, I don’t see why they can’t pull it off. It’s become like a perpetual-motion machine at this point. Blogs and websites can’t really afford not to cover every viral hiccup at this point, even if each new post yields diminishing returns. And they’ve been very smart about keeping people on their toes. That live show in whereverthefuck Australia, the tracklisting released on Vine The TV commercials! I mean, when did you last see a TV commercial for an album?
ED: Right, and the fact that they’ve debuted them all on Saturday Night Live. At first it seemed like a strange choice, until I realized it’s because Saturday Night Live would have been the hip choice during the era they’re trying to evoke.
PS: Yeah, that makes sense. SNL is one of the last monocultural institutions, which is definitely the vibe they’re trying to evoke. Can we coin a new genre? Water-cooler house. Just kidding.
ED: The other thing is, for all we know, Daft Punk might not even like making music. Or they might find the entire music world and industry distasteful. Whereas it seems like Basement Jaxx really do like making music and DJing and doing Essential Mixes, so they keep doing them all, even if now they have diminishing returns or only occasional spikes of interest in what they’re doing.
PS: You definitely get the sense that Daft Punk want to keep the entire entertainment industry at arm’s length. Good for them if they can pull it off. I’m guessing that, as long as they keep calling the shots, they can.
Few people are as well positioned to give a proper perspective to America’s mass-market dance-music moment as Pete Tong. Why? Because he was there – or, more to the point, he’s been there for nearly 30 years. Though born, raised and based in England, Tong’s watched over and championed U.S. dance culture going back to its primordial, halcyon mid-'80s days of Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage (where he peddled Chicago house records to New Yorkers, alongside Shelter resident Tim Regisford and now-Atlantic Records president Craig Kallman).
Since 1991, he’s raised the house as a DJ and programmer at BBC Radio 1’s globally influential Essential Selection and Essential Mix shows – one of the few media venues where pop-hit-making DJs rub shoulders with established house/techno giants and bubbling underground producers. He’s also served as the A&R-minded founder of FFRR Records, which since the mid-'80s has been home to artists as diverse as Goldie, Orbital, Lil Louis and Portishead, among many others. It was via FFRR that Tong helped put together 1986’s seminal compilation The House Sound of Chicago: in its importing of cutting-edge club sounds from the American Midwest to the U.K. and Europe, that album would change global culture forever in its wake.
Now, as Americans have finally begun dancing en masse for the first time since the disco craze of the ’70s, Tong is once again playing the part of all-around hustler. Shepherding the music through its corporate growing pains, he’s currently playing to the mainstream market’s taste in beats, while also trying to guide it. As a radio personality who’s gained the moniker the “Pied Piper of Dance,” Tong continues to play the part of major selector for “Evolution,” the primary EDM presence on Clear Channel’s “I [Heart] Radio” online radio service. Increasingly, Tong’s daily show – now rebranded under the “Evolution” name – is making its way onto terrestrial Clear Channel station, holding down daily slots on Boston’s 101.7 and on Miami’s 93.5.
A true dance-music macher, Tong’s also helped found IMS – the once Ibiza, now International, Music Summit: an annual conference that explores global dance culture, IMS is set to host its first U.S. event, a one-day symposium in Los Angeles on April 17th. Tong’s also on the board of the recently announced Association of Electronic Music, a trade institution that will “represent the common interests of all individuals and companies whose business is electronic dance music and to advocate on behalf of electronic dance music as a musical genre.” (Their first issue is to lobby Europe’s Performance Rights Society on behalf of DJs “being charged extreme license fees” for the records they’re playing out.) Also in 2013, Tong will re-launch FFRR in the US (through his old buddy Kallman at Atlantic), with the summer release of a full-length artist album from Jamie Jones and Lee Foss’ deep-house super group, Hot Natured.
That’s a lot of institutionalized knowledge to tap into – which is what we did recently when we spoke with Tong by phone in advance of his inevitably crazy week at WMC/Ultra.
The Daily Swarm: Before we get to discussing the States, do you mind setting the scene of where you were professionally during the Acid House explosion in England, just how radical a cultural shift it was there?
Pete Tong: When I came onto Capital Radio, which was the biggest station in London, it was 1987, just at the start of house music; we’d already been through the electro and hip-hop phases. I always say that in the U.K., 1987 was Year Zero, and most DJs that existed before Year Zero dropped away; I somehow managed to get across the line and get down with the new wave, even though I was quite established. If you had come to see me play in 1985, I would have been playing old records from Blue Note, Donald Byrd – funk records that were made five years before, maybe some disco, things like that; the only new records I’d play would have been on Def Jam, Sleeping Bag, or Profile. That was the mix of things everyone played. Gilles Peterson would play that kind of thing, although there’d be more jazz; Oakey [Paul Oakenfold], too, actually. The often not-told story about Paul is that he was working at Champion Records as a kind of A&R/DJ promotions man, running around selling Run DMC and Salt-n-Pepa. If he played anything before ’87, it was hip-hop; then, obviously, Paul started going to Ibiza and all that, made his name as a DJ, and developed the Paul Oakenfold sound. But I digress. Once house music arrived, everything else went out the window.
One day, a box of records arrived from the exporters in America to the importers in the U.K. That’s the way it worked: whatever some shipper in New Jersey wanted to send us [laughs] is how the word got about. So I opened a box, and suddenly there were these records from [record labels] DJ International and Traxx. They had a completely different sound – totally minimal, totally lo-fi, the songs sounding like they’d been made in an hour. And the rest is history.
The Daily Swarm: Having seen that Year Zero of Acid House transpire in the U.K., how does it compare to America’s current EDM moment? In the States, it seems to me Year Zero took place around the Daft Punk live show of 2006-07, which sold out coast to coast. But I wanted to hear from you.
Pete Tong: I think they are different, and equally relevant. In England, it felt like a movement, maybe because the country’s tiny compared to the U.S. Really, when you talk about ’87, it was just two centers, London and Manchester, with a small number of DJs with a bunch of different sounding records, and a very committed bunch of people. It felt like you were part of a gang, a tribe; it was very social. Clubbing in London was a very exclusive thing before, and when Acid House came along, it became a very inclusive thing – the rope was gone and everybody came in. Obviously, there was a drug element – it was the loved-up, smiley-face generation – but it was very much a youth-culture movement.
In America, it’s been more like a kind of chemical reaction: two or three things happened at the same time that caused this explosion. There was a cultural element because of the raves and the one-off huge festivals that had been championed by the likes of Insomniac [the producer of Electric Daisy Carnival] and Ultra for ten-plus years, and they made a massive contribution over time. You can’t get into a club when you’re under 21 in the U.S., so the one-off events were phenomenally important in creating that candy-raver kind of thing; I suppose that’s where the youth-culture element comes from. They didn’t necessarily know who was playing the music, who the music was by, or what the records were; they just wanted to be at those events cause that’s where their friends went.
On top of that came the success at pop radio. Suddenly hip-hop and R&B didn’t dominate pop music anymore: the soundtrack changed to a 4/4 beat courtesy of David Guetta and Will.I.Am. [via songs like The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”]. The whole sound of American pop radio changed to dance music. Pop artists started wanting Guetta, Calvin [Harris], and the Swedish House Mafia writing for them, not Pharrell and Dr. Dre. That had a massive impact.
Then the third element was the professionalism and the entertainment – the sheer unbridled, unequaled, “Fuck me! What have we just seen” when people saw the Daft Punk pyramid for the first time at Coachella. It said that these DJs put on a show that’s worth watchingm, and could now compete with the biggest rock bands and acts in the world. Obviously, that really works in America. So, it was these three things coming together that got us to the place we’re at today.
It’s funny how the term EDM has metamorphosized more quickly than any term in dance music since I can remember, meaning one thing one year and something else the next. If somebody used it in an interview two years ago, it would have meant all of us – dance music in general, electronic music, call it what you want. Now it means something cheesy, very large, very Vegas, in your face – it defines a specific type of music, not all of us anymore. That’s very much due to what’s happened in America; in fact, for the rest of the world, [EDM] means the American sound.
The Daily Swarm: So, you’re expanding the work you’re doing with Clear Channel beyond just the online 'I [Heart] Radio’ platform to daily shows on terrestrial stations in Boston and Miami. Can you talk about DJ’ing on American radio versus DJ’ing on an institution like BBC’s Radio 1? What are some of the opportunities and limitations that come with each, the things that you can do in one place as opposed to another, and how the job differs in terms of programming?
Pete Tong: I’ve flirted stop-start with American radio my entire career to not very much effect. It’s been far more effective to just have people streaming [my radio show] from England, legally or illegally. Nothing’s had greater impact than that.
The Radio 1 shows are twice a week – effectively two blocks of airtime. One’s my show, where I pick all the music. It serves as a kind of pyramid of what’s going on at that moment in time that people should listen to: I draw them in with big tunes, then take them to a much deeper place. And I don’t mean deep as in “deep house”; it’s a broader world than the access point. Part of what I do has always been to be entertaining; it’s also been my raison d’etre, though, to give 'em one part of what they know, and two of what they don’t, to broaden out and promote new artists. The other show is the Essential Mix, for which I serve as a producer and host: it’s a fantastic platform for people to express themselves, and to introduce new artists.
In America, what has finally come along with the 'I [Heart] Radio’ opportunity and Evolution is the sheer scale of what they’ve got on offer: the ability to go on seven days a week, two hours a day. That really fascinated me, because I can almost run a radio station within a radio station. I can have a playlist. I can repeat stuff. I can rotate stuff. Therefore, I feel like I can have an effect. I can actually make some ripples by playing some song five, six, seven times a week, and maybe help by scaling some things up.
I’m not stupid. I’m very mindful of the American market. There’s no point in me coming and just playing a bunch of things that go over people’s heads, or don’t fit people’s tastes. I want to embrace what’s working, and – again – to fan out from there to see if it will work. Some might say, “You’re wasting your time, just give them what they want.” But that’s not me so laughs I give them some of what they want, and some of what I think they might want.
The Daily Swarm: “Some of what I think they want” speaks to promoting new artists – on Radio 1, that often means tunes on small labels from all over the musical map. For example, late last year you started playing “So Good To Me” by Chris Malinchak, a release on a small Brooklyn label called French Express that isn’t even all that well known in New York. How long do you think it will be in America’s evolution before you are able to break somebody like Chris Malinchak on a Clear Channel platform?
Pete Tong: Well, most people listening to that record who program regular radio would probably just not get it all. They might think they picked up an [adult contemporary] record or something. But I know where it came from, and the movement behind it, the DJs and the label; I know why it’s there, and how it’s causing excitement on the street, in Brooklyn and elsewhere. I also have hard data of that record having an incredible reaction in all these places in the world where I play it. It’s a brilliant piece of music if you program it right; with that one, it’s only a matter of time before people are going to come around.
I already sense a little bit of a ripple happening in America where certain people are changing. If a year ago everyone in pop music would want a track from David Guetta or the Swedes or Calvin, I feel now that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. It might be quite soon that people are looking to Malinchak or Disclosure or something. I am listening to Timberlake’s new record right now, and I sense that it’s just around the corner. It’s not gonna be long before the biggest acts in the world, the best A&R people, the best managers will want something else. People aren’t stupid – they’re watching what’s going on. I feel validated in that sense: [with the new artists I support] I am not knocking on a door that’s never going to open.
The Daily Swarm: So do you think that the market will go towards other producers turning into huge names, or towards a sort of diversification?
Pete Tong: I don’t think there’s much room left for big producers. Swedish House Mafia are who they are, and they’ve got their gang with them – Alesso’s very good, Otto Knows is pretty talented – but there’s never going to be another Swedish House Mafia. I doubt there will be another Guetta, but there can be another Deadmau5 and another Skrillex because they weren’t like anyone else when they came along. I think all this excitement is fertile ground for people to break through. There is a tendency where so many DJs and so many clubs in America (particularly in Vegas) are playing the same 20 records. That is definitely an issue: people are getting paid more and more money, and feel like they have to deliver. Balls breaking out of the safe zone are rare; it’s a tightrope walk. But once in a while, someone different will break out 'cause they made an amazing record, or are incredibly talented, or just different. Take Dillon Francis, or Skrillex, or Zedd, maybe. I think that’s taking us down a different road right now. It will be interesting to see where it goes.
The American sound was not really run by Americans but by Swedes and a Frenchman, and then Deadmau5 came along. I would say now the American sound is dominated by Americans, or by what’s happening in America; it might be German in Zedd’s case, though he’s almost an adopted Californian. We’re already seeing EDM 2.0 in the shape of Porter Robinson and those types. And then on the other side, I think we’re going to see more interest in Seth Troxler and Jamie Jones, and in Brooklyn-based labels such as French Express and Soul Clap.
The Daily Swarm: Do you think that there’s room within what you’re calling “The American Sound” for the underground to make an impact?
Pete Tong: I’d like to think so, but the underground relies a lot more on environment – the underground needs to be delivered in a slightly different way. It isn’t going to come off the main stage at Ultra with fireworks and explosions. Ibiza is a great melting pot for all that. In Ibiza, you can go to a Guetta gig and see everyone go mad and get their cameras out; then you can go to a Marco Carola gig at Amnesia and see just as many people going just as mad, even though you won’t hear a lyric and you won’t know a song. But Marco goes for environment in the way he plays, and the very particular way he sets up that room that he plays in. That’s the way it used to be at the beginning of house music, with all those legendary clubs – more like what we were talking about in England circa ’86-'87. You’ve got to ask yourself, is America going to do that? Does it want that? Is it ready for that? It was vilified back in the day as being part of the gay scene – and it was only New York, Chicago and Miami that were playing on that level. Places like Danceteria and Paradise Garage were social clubs, where drag queens mixed with straight people, and all of them loving house music.
But I’d like to think that with all these millions of new people interested in the scene, some of them will grow up with it – that they’d want it to evolve into something different. It’s like what you see in England right now: there the mainstream, the main room, has been dominated by the likes of Guetta for the last 5-7 years, but now the next 17-18 year-olds are coming along and saying, “You know, that’s not for me.” They’re listening to Jamie Jones – it’s not just the old people; with the deeper sound, the audience has always typically been a little older, but now it’s not. It’s very young again! So you’ve got young people mixing with 30 year-olds who wouldn’t want to dance to David Guetta. Eventually that’s probably going to happen in America. If you batter the kids every day with the biggest DJs that are always on the radio, that are always headlining shows, the same ten people everywhere you go, then one day just through evolution and age groups changing that moment will come along. I suppose in a way it happened already when kids decided that Skrillex was cooler than, I don’t know, Paul van Dyk.
The good thing is that it feels like it’s not going away in America, that it’s there to stay. It might ebb and flow a little bit, but…. I’d be curious to see if Vegas can carry on the momentum of its function.
The Daily Swarm: Do you think it needs to? If Vegas drops off, do you feel like there will be a falloff?
Pete Tong: Only in DJs’ earnings [laughs], not in how people love to dance.
Is a state of misery and despair the best environment for an artist to create? We often associate bliss with complacency, all the while assuming depression breeds the sort of frantic desperation that allows the ideas to flow. But much in the way that FaltyDL, aka New York electronic-music producer Drew Lustman, approaches production with an open mind, he found inspiration came from an unexpected place for his latest album: happiness.
Midway through creating Hardcourage – released earlier this year via the esteemed Ninja Tune label – Lustman found himself in a harmonious place after being enveloped in a new relationship. Those amorous feelings are evident throughout Hardcourage; like previous FaltyDL efforts, however, emotion proves merely a thread connecting a range of styles and influences. Spanning early drum and bass/jungle to vocal-laden garage and cerebral IDM, Lustman keeps listeners on their toes by drawing from a variety of reference points.
I had the opportunity to watch Lustman perform a FaltyDL set at a recent Boiler Room event in Los Angeles: here it was made clear that Lustman’s multifaceted approach permeates his identity as an artist – and is one of his biggest strengths. His set entailed a range seldom approached anymore; as such, the crowd drew from the unpredictable energy and sonic tension hovering in the room. To that end, I spoke with Lustman about his new label, his background as a musical outsider, and how he persevered to finish Hardcourage.
The Daily Swarm: It’s been emphasized that you fell in love halfway through making your latest album. Can you explain how love became such an inspiration for Hardcourage? Was it hard to get back into the creative process since you were so content at the time?
FaltyDL: Yeah, it was difficult. I mean, my focus in life got pushed outside of music for the first time in a long time, and so strongly. And it’s more than love; it’s about lust as well. It’s about really wanting to have this woman. It was like a narcotic to me. So, I think it was even more than love: I was just overtaken with this longing for this woman in a sense.
The Daily Swarm: So, almost in the same way you create music, it almost became like an addiction?
FaltyDL: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. I was a bit powerless over it. It did sort of happen in the middle of making all of these tracks and delayed some things; in the end, though, it really enriched a lot of the music as well. I’m glad it happened. (laughs)
The Daily Swarm: There was one track, “For Karme,” that you wrote for her, but wanted to keep it off the album. How were you convinced to release some of these tracks that you never intended to share with anyone?
FaltyDL: I sent it to my guy at Ninja Tune and he started with just saying, “Drew, this is really great. This just had to be on the album: there’s a story behind it, and it’s really good. “ And I was like, “Uhhh, I don’t know.” Then I sent it to my friend Dave, who’s sort of my musical confidant. He hears all of my stuff at some point and helps me, so I just bounce things off of him. He’s not a producer, but he’s just got such a great set of ears that I pretty much send everything to him. He said, “Yeah, it’s got a lot of things in it that I love. You should think about putting this on the album; it wouldn’t be a bad idea to release it.” If I’m going to do this, if I’m going to dedicate this album to her and if I’m going to talk about it, then I might as well go all the way and not hold back. You know?
The Daily Swarm: Yeah. So you sort of shifted from wanting it to be this private thing just for her to a more declarative album?
FaltyDL: Yeah, definitely – that did happen, sort of. Once you’ve done that, you’ve set the ball in motion: there’s a press release that tells the story, and artwork that basically has her face on the cover. I’ve got to stand behind it now. I’ve created this monster.
The Daily Swarm: How did you make the decision to include a prominent vocal track with Ed Macfarlane of Friendly Fires? “She Sleeps” stands out a little bit from the rest of the album, but still feels natural. How did you fit that in?
FaltyDL: I didn’t want to put in vocal tracks just for the sake of that it would appeal to more people. On my last album, I had three vocal tracks and I thought it was cohesive; a part of me felt like I just needed to put a few vocal tracks on here, too. I don’t know if they fit so well. But this one was just such a natural collaboration. I was more okay with having a mostly instrumental album, but I looked back at a lot of the albums that I liked growing up, electronic albums, and they have no vocals – like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre, or whatever. They don’t have any real vocals or vocalists, and I think it’s fine not to have that, but I just liked this one so much, and the label did too. So, we threw it on there, and made a music video for it and everything.
The Daily Swarm: I also read that you guys kind of initially bonded over old garage music?
FaltyDL: Yeah, well, I’ve known Ed for a few years. Around 2009, he would come over and tour with Friendly Fires, and we met through his touring bass player, who was a mutual friend of ours. We were just hanging out and talking about music – at the time I was listening to a lot of old U.K. garage – and his eyes just immediately lit up. He was like, “Oh, I love that. I love the shuffle of it and the vocal tracks.” It just literally came up one night over a beer and a conversation. Every once in a while, I’ll email him a YouTube link or he’ll post something on Facebook. We have this sort of silent, mutual appreciation of a certain type of music together, which is cool.
The Daily Swarm: How did the Four Tet remix “Straight & Arrow” come about?
FaltyDL: I’ve known Kieran [Hebden, aka Four Tet] for a little while. He moved to New York about two or three years ago, and a mutual friend of ours introduced us. They just thought we’d get along musically and stuff, and we did. He was actually very close to me throughout the process of signing the album. When Ninja Tune asked me for some names to remix “Straight & Arrow,” they said we should really try to get one big remix. I told them, “Let me ask Kieran. Let me see what he’s up to.” He initially said he didn’t have any time, but then told me, “Hey, it’s done,” and sent it to me. I was like, “Oh, cool. Guess this is finished now.” Yeah, he’s been a friend for a while.
The Daily Swarm: You’ve said that with your new label, Blueberry Hill, you feel the need to “help get the good stuff exposure.” Do you feel indebted because someone took a chance on you? And who would that be? Please excuse the corny euphemism, but is this your way of paying it forward?
FaltyDL: No, not at all. I mean, it’s partly that, but it’s also that I know myself and I love making music and I love also being home. I don’t love the touring part so much. Last year and the year before, I went across the Atlantic Ocean about twenty times. It just became a little too much. A lot of people can do that no problem, but for me, my back started hurting. I’d love to build on a few things here over the years that could really keep me in music in a comfortable way, that I can get behind. And with Blueberry, I want to put out some of my own stuff, but also yeah, some other people’s stuff. And I think to answer that part of your question, if I owe it to anyone, it’s probably Mike Paradinas at Planet Mu. He took the first real chance on me. He put it out there, and I still want to work with him in some way or another. I talk to him all the time. We talked two days ago.
The Daily Swarm: Are you guys in talks to do something in the future, or is it just a thought?
FaltyDL: Well, I may come up with an album under a different name and release it on Planet Mu, or produce some tracks for a singer and shoot them over his way. If I don’t do it in the next year or two – in the grand scheme of things, that’s not forever. I hope to be making music for a very long time, and I think this is definitely what Mike does. We might be doing something together this year or something in a couple years. I don’t really know. I’m not too worried about it.
The Daily Swarm: This album is an even bigger departure from the garage paradigm that people have tried to pigeonhole you in. How conscious do you have to be of that, or does the breaking away come naturally?
FaltyDL: There’s a conscious part of me trying to develop a certain kind of sound. What gets released is such a small percentage of the music I make. I made a hip-hop track last weekend; I made a jungle track two weeks ago. Those may never come out, but if I decided to put those together with ten other ones then that would provide the next question from a journalist: “Have you tried to move away from house music and make jungle again?” You know what I mean? What ends up coming out is always a bit of a coin toss. A part of the problem has to do with the label and what they think is a little more hip. I like making so many different kinds of music that I can never really decide what I want to do until I start to compile the release; then it starts to take some sort of shape. I say, “Ok, well, this is sounding like this. Why don’t we find what else goes with this” – whether it’s a genre, BPM, or palette. But I had a lot of fun putting this one together. It does definitely sound different from my last album.
The Daily Swarm: It’s very cinematic in a way, right from the opener. It was such a strong leadoff.
FaltyDL: Thank you. I really like that one; I’m glad it made the album. I think it actually sounds different from the rest of the album, in an IDM-y sort of way. I don’t know if that’s the right term, but…
The Daily Swarm: What would you say are your biggest influences? What was your first exposure to electronic music?
FaltyDL: I had an Aphex Twin album when I was really young, the Richard D. James album. It blew open the doors of what I thought music was, or could, be. I listened to Frank Zappa, which was weird, out-there music, but it was still made by instruments that I could sort of understand. Then I got the Aphex Twin album, and I was like, “What the hell is this?” I’m attracted to challenging, weird, outsider music, and I think that probably mimics my just being a slightly out of control, creative kid. I found myself in this music, like, “Oh, I can relate to this because it’s weird.” Then as I got older, I got into more conventional types of… mmm, conventional isn’t the right word, but more popular electronic music that appealed to a slightly larger audience.
The Daily Swarm: What do you mean by that?
FaltyDL: I think listening to Squarepusher and Aphex Twin making drum and bass was pretty weird; then as I got older, I ended up on more traditional jungle and d&b like Remarc and Dillinja, stuff like that. Then I kind of went into 2-step and garage, which was popular music in the U.K. around 2000. I mean, that stuff was played on the radio; it wasn’t just weird, home-listening music.
The Daily Swarm: Did you have peers that were into that kind of music here, or were you just on your own?
FaltyDL: Well, I think I was sort of lucky in the sense that I wasn’t influenced by what my peers were listening to in electronic music because it wasn’t popular over here. I sort of discovered that on my own, maybe with a friend or two, and didn’t have the context of seeing it in a club or anything. It was just this foreign music to me. I don’t even really think I thought about it being British. I just thought of it as this weird discovery. I could kind of pick and choose, and not feel guilty about liking anything. It was all sort of fair game for me.
The Daily Swarm: Stateside, we had to take a different approach. In Europe, they have the luxury of being able to discover this music when they would go out on a Friday. For us, it was a scene on the periphery. For me, it meant getting stoned in my friend’s car and listening to Boards of Canada. You can understand why it would take a while to translate.
FaltyDL: Yeah, that’s what I was doing, too. There were a lot of us doing that, but it was just not a huge scene. We would’ve hung out probably if we went to the same high school – I would have been in that car with you, so to speak. (laughs)
The Daily Swarm: Besides the love story, what are you trying to say musically, with this album? What do you think of when you think of Hardcourage?
FaltyDL: I actually feel like my other albums were just as big of an accomplishment. This feels like, not just another album, but it feels like I’ve done this before. For some reason – because it feels like more of an aggressive press campaign – I feel like I’m taking it a little bit more seriously. As my promotions have gotten better and I’ve become more comfortable talking about my art, it feels like a mature sort of act that I’ve created – my career, and what I’ve become in my life. I think what I’m really comfortable with about this album is that I’ve made it, and like any piece of art that you share, it now becomes a gift to anyone that wants to take it. I just want people to interpret it however they want. There’s no secret game as to what it means: just take it in, and hopefully it’s meaningful to you in some way. If it is, then I’ve succeeded. It’s really none of my business what you think of it – whether you like it or you hate it. Obviously, I want people to like it, but if they feel any sort of strong emotion about it, then it’s succeeded in challenging them in some way. Then I feel good about myself.
The Daily Swarm: I feel that a lot.