Daft Punk's Electroma ends in robot suicide. The gorgeously shot hour-long film is about two androids that drive across California in a black Ferrari coupe. Their license plate reads "Human," and it's clear that's what they want to be: Stopping at a blisteringly sterile medical facility in the desert, they're attended to by white silhouette "technicians" who pour latex over their helmets and fashion them into human faces -- grotesque, expressionless caricatures of the men beneath Daft Punk's disguises, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. But the man-masks are neither convincing nor weatherproof, and as they wander through a sunbaked robot suburbia, their faces melt. Distraught and inconsolable, the chrome-domed android takes off his leather jacket, flips a switch on his back, and explodes in the desert. His companion, whose helmet resembles something a Harley biker might wear in space, lights himself on fire. Cut.
There is no dialogue.
The soundtrack features music, but none of it is by Daft Punk. Even weirder, Daft Punk do not actually appear in the film. Instead, actors play the robots. "It is inspired by surrealism in general, painters like Magritte," says Bangalter, the taller, more talkative member of the group, who wears the silver mask. "It's about creating sensation without triggering the verbal area of the brain." He pauses to think. "It is music for the eyes."
Electroma is quiet, calm and deeply unsettling. It couldn't be further from the French DJ duo's other project out this fall, ALIVE 2007, which is, simply put, a bolt of lightning captured on DAT. Roughly the same length as the film, ALIVE is their first collection since 2004's critically panned Human After All. It exceeds all expectations. Recorded in Paris last summer, the album documents the searing energy of Daft Punk's first live hometown show in a decade. The two meld their biggest hits into a frenzy of house and electro that's the most exuberant and sexual release of the millennium, binding classics like "Around the World," "Harder Better Faster Stronger" and "Da Funk" together in a sound collage that's so cathartic it transcends genres. This isn't dance music, punk or hip-hop. It's all of them. Daft Punk are rock stars.
After a nine-year hiatus from DJing live, they amped up production values and
took their disco circus on the road, where, dressed in their helmets and Hedi
Slimane-designed leathers, they basted audiences in sound and light. Daft Punk
are the underground's most colorful and visible ambassadors, the first
electronic music act to matter since the dot-com implosion in 2000. New York
City favorites the Rapture, who were opening up on the American leg of the tour,
had trouble competing. "Our soundman put it really nicely," says Gabe Andruzzi,
the Rapture's keyboardist. "He said it was like the Jetsons versus the
Flintstones," Andruzzi laughs. "It was like opening up for a movie. No, a
Daft Punk's first gig since the late '90s was at Coachella in 2006. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo transported 11 tons of equipment to the California desert to play atop a giant pyramid. The crowd's general exhaustion with homogenous indie rock and Daft Punk's showmanship combined to make the performance memorable. The DJs were stunned by their audience's response. "It completely snowballed," says Bangalter. "The Coachella show was supposed to be one of only two or three, but after there was a sense that it was worth going back on the road, worth showing people all over the world, because of this excitement about us and our music. Now we are finishing at 45 shows."
Pedro Winter, Daft Punk's manager and head of French indie electro label Ed Banger Records, which Winter launched in 2003, recalls his response. "When we put out Human After All, I got a lot of bad feedback, like, 'It's so repetitive. There's nothing new. Daft Punk used to be good.' Then they came back with the light show, and everyone shut their mouths. They said, 'Ooh la-la!' People even apologized, like, 'How could we have misjudged Daft Punk?' The live show changed everything. Even if I'm part of it, I like to step back and admire it. Me, I cried."
"Ah, Pedro," jokes de Homem-Christo. "We have an expression. In France, you say he is a fleur bleu. A blue flower. It means he is crying all the time."
Daft Punk might be the best known of Paris' brainy disco artists, but they're
not alone. Over the past three years, the City of Lights has seen an
intellectual dance-music revolution, the result of labels like Ed Banger and
KitsunÃ© fostering and promoting artists through record releases, collaborations
and, of course, parties. The Ed Banger nights in Paris are the equivalent of
underground-overground parties in New York, London, L.A. and Tokyo, like the now
defunct MisShapes party, Steve Aoki- and the Cobrasnake-hosted events, and the
GBH crew's evenings at Hiro and Studio B. Clubs like Paris Paris, Le Baron, Rex
and others are meeting spots for the most creative and social artists,
musicians, designers and club kids in France. Just like their American and
British cousins, the neon-clad kids there like to dance.
Daft Punk, who were recently considered part of the ancient regime, over and
done with, are back in business. "When we were growing up, there were few
composers, like Serge Gainsbourg, we could look up to," says de Homem-Christo.
"Now, for the first time since the first wave of what journalists called 'French
Touch' -- with bands like Air or Cassius -- there is another new wave of really good
bands. It took 10 years, but now there is a good dynamic in France that's
producing music with good energy."
As Daft Punk's return was embraced by their native country, downtown New York and alternative L.A., they also achieved a measure of mainstream success by aiding in tantrum-prone rapper Kanye West's Akira-style video for his song, "Stronger," which samples Daft Punk's "Harder Better Faster Stronger." (Bangalter and de Homem-Christo don't actually appear in the video, mind you; instead, the actors from Electroma are the ones wearing the robot suits. Yes, it's still weird.)
That renown helped pave the way for their electro colleagues. Drill-bit funksters Justice, the dreamy Sebastian and sultry sex kitten Uffie, have become ubiquitous dancefloor staples. Justice, whose video for their Michael Jackson-paean "D.A.N.C.E." was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award in September, are probably the most famous of the Ed Banger artists, but all are part of a local scene in Paris. "They're like one big happy family," says Mark Hunter, aka the Cobrasnake, the Internet photographer whose specialty is capturing the new rise of global nightlife. "It's all super-good vibes. You get the sense when you go to an Ed Banger party that their focus is on collaboration rather than career." About Daft Punk, he's unequivocal: "There's a lot of hometown pride for them out there. They're treated like kings."
Winter, who's been with Daft Punk since 1996, says the duo have earned that
status. "French music and electronic music is where it is now thanks to Daft
Punk," Winter explains. "It's just a fact. We all owe them something. Daft Punk
opened the road to a lot of things, to all the artists. I am where I am because
of Daft Punk."
That's a debt he plans to make good on. On their most recent tour, Winter and Daft Punk attended a series of Ed Banger after-parties. Winter also DJed the Colette Dance Class in New York in the fall of 2006. Presented by Parisian lifestyle boutique Colette, a one-stop shop near the Louvre for all your Angela Boatwright, Ryan McGinnis and Nan Goldin needs (and whose PR director is Winter's wife), the parties are an ongoing series of nightlife events in which club-goers, sometimes wearing masks, are taught dance moves. The inspiration behind the masks is distinctly Daft Punk-ian. "Daft Punk hiding themselves? It's that the two guys are really shy and they needed to find something to get them out of the limelight," says Winter.
But de Homem-Christo says that it goes deeper than that. "At an arena, the
audience looks up to an idol, to an artist, to someone who is dancing, and
there's more of a cult of personality around him, like the one with Mick
Jagger." The 33-year-old continues, "But us, we are robots. The interaction is
totally different. We feel that people can't have a relationship with someone
who is above them, you know? Robots don't make people feel like there's an idol
on stage. It's more like a rave party where the DJ isn't important. This is what
we do: We are two robots in this pyramid with this light show, but everything is
[meant] for you to have fun and enjoy yourself."
Bangalter said that the two became robots as they were working in their studio on the morning of September 9, 1999, at precisely 9:09 a.m. He explained that he and de Homem-Christo were working on their sampler when it exploded. When they regained consciousness, they discovered that they'd become machines. Regardless of the credibility of that tall tale, Bangalter's story was a fun way to defuse pre-millennial angst and poke fun at DJ culture in general. No one expected the costumes to last. But they did, and at this point, the helmets are as iconic as the KISS makeup or Iggy Pop's leather jacket. By now, the two are almost like method actors (or method DJs); they are rarely photographed without their masks. Many of their fans don't know what they look like. "The mask gets very hot," Bangalter admits. "But after wearing it for as long as I have, I am used to it."
Daft Punk met when they were 12, bonding over a mutual love of midnight movies, Easy Rider and the Velvet Underground. They founded a Beach Boys-inspired band called Darlin in high school (with Laurent Brancowitz, who later joined wistful French outfit Phoenix), and put out a single in 1992. A negative review in British music mag Melody Maker called their song "daft punk," and the two adopted the slur as identity, just as they were beginning to go to raves. ("Raves changed everything," Bangalter says.)
After years DJing around Paris, they released their debut, Homework, in 1997. Its dark, grinding house numbers, including "Da Funk" and "Around the World," became popular as DJ culture reached its zenith. Going back to the studio, Daft Punk returned in 2001 with the funkier Discovery, which was more sonically complex than its minimal predecessor and featured the undeniably joyful wedding disco of "One More Time." For that album, Daft Punk wrote and produced a Japanime film called Interstella 555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, using Discovery as the soundtrack. After releasing a remix record, the two were on hiatus until 2004's Human After All, which was recorded in just six weeks and largely derided as a lackluster effort.
In the interim, dance artists had been rising to the fore in Paris, New York and elsewhere. James Murphy, one of the co-founders of DFA Records and the man behind LCD Soundsystem, was one who bridged the worlds of punk and dance. On his debut in 2005, Murphy released a single called "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," which he has said was a fantasy of his, an extension of the typical punk-band-playing-the-rec-room dynamic of American youth. The lyrics imagine a fist-fighting good time as "robots descend from the bus." When asked about the song now, Bangalter becomes coy. "It's a cool song." The 32-year-old continues, "Would we play James Murphy's house now? We can't confirm and we can't deny. There are a lot of secrets about us. That's what's exciting, you know?"
Maintaining the aura of mystery is one tenet of the group, who have worked with some of the best video directors in the business to capture a moment and obfuscate their own identity: Spike Jonze, Roman Coppola and Michel Gondry. The latter director's older brother Olivier is directing and editing the video for the first single off of ALIVE 2007, "Harder Better Faster Stronger," which was shot at Coney Island earlier this summer. Daft Punk arranged for audience members to bring cameras (250 people did) -- post-modernism at work.
We are happy to mean something," Bangalter says. "The hardest thing for an artist isn't measuring up to people's expectations. It's about getting across the understanding that what we did was legitimate. We see it as a validation, sort of -- whether it comes five years or 10 years down the line, obviously it's better if the validation comes while you're still alive."