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.