French house producers Daft Punk hide their faces to show their worth
by MIREILLE SILCOTT
In January of 1996, Glasgow's famously esoteric Soma label put out a jiggly, tweaky techno track accredited to some enigmatic producers using the monicker Indo Silver Club. The record was so hot and so mysterious that it immediately burned its way through the racks of every vinyl shop from here to hell knows where. No one was certain who Indo Silver Club were, but some DJs, whose record crates already contained a looped acidic ditty called "Da Funk" by two young Parisians known as Daft Punk, had more than a hunch. It was that mutant bass. That zippery sample schtick. That crazy, unmistakable funk.
Just over a year later, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo, aged 22 and 23, are signed to Virgin after a global bidding war and almost 250,000 singles of Da Funk sold. Their debut album Homework, which contains both Da Funk and the Indo Silver Club production, has hit the Top 10 and 20 of France, England, Germany, Belgium and Sweden. Headlines on magazines like the Net 'zine The Raft are blazing "Move over Tom and Ed," asking The Chemical Brothers to relinquish the spotlight to these fresh "French blokes." But even if the nutshell-story of Daft Punk reads like an easy sub-to-pop tale not altogether unlike The Chemicals', the chapters Daft are living now--the ones where they are all successful and champions of some important dance music crossover--are quite different from Tom and Ed's.
"There is no relation between them and us. None at all," said a piqued Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo in 1996, after being compared to The Chemicals one time too many. Bangalter is more diplomatic. "The Chemical Brothers," he says on the phone from an American "DJing tour" location, "they are so much more rock-influenced than us. So the fact that people who like The Chemical Brothers like our stuff too is good. As far as I am concerned, it means people, maybe unknowingly, are getting steps closer to dance music, to house music."
Daft Punk's music sounds like an amalgamation of house's broadest history pressed into the tightest dance tracks imaginable. There are loops of Philly disco, stabs of Chicago jack funk, jangled breaks, squelchy acid straps, borrowed hip hop, samples of parties being broken up, radio broadcasts, basement boogie-downs, a.m. raves and disembodied voices chugging through talk boxes. Quite right that they have much less "rock" than the "indie-dance" and Oasis-collaboration business of The Chemical Brothers, but in more ways than just musical.
Flipping the bird at rock's conventional star system, Daft Punk decided several months ago never to have their faces photographed for media use. "We were sick of having our photos taken, and we didn't want to get into the attitude/ ego thing with our faces," says an excited Bangalter, who now only gets photographed wearing a mask. "To us, the Daft Punk logo should be the star--the concept is to keep us more low-profile than the music itself. The star system is becoming more and more ridiculous in dance [music], you know. People are taking their personal images quite seriously."
After much print, The Chemical Brothers are inextricable from their celebrated drunken-student-with-sampler posture. Pop watchers all know they hold pill auctions on their tour bus and dig messy pubs. Daft Punk have protested, but the media are still trying to find a good character niche for the lanky, talkative Bangalter and the squat, silent Homem Christo. Many personalities have been thrown on them for size: "undaft, non-punky" (Q Magazine), "a little daft, and rather punk" (Mixmag), "two kooky Parisians," (Jockey Slut) or "not your average bicycle-riding, garlic-crushing onion breathers" (Loaded). But the two, who met at school and started a surfy punk band called Darlin' as teenagers (they released one record on Stereolab's Duophonic label in 1992, and an NME reviewer called it "daft punk," hence the new name and direction), don't quite fit any of them. They keep to themselves, are not particularly connected, and have been known to act bored or downright surly at their live gigs ("we are concentrating"). Besides having impressive names, a good amount of French-ness and one father who produced some disco in the '70s (Bangalter's), they are hardly celebrity fabric.
"I'm not interested in our public image as two characters," says Bangalter. Still, taking pictures on the condition that latex pigs' heads or Beavis and Butt-head masks be present can come across as shunning the press to get press. Or worse, like playing underground martyrs à la Pearl Jam. "No. It really isn't like that," says Bangalter. "We are completely interested in visual concept on the whole--album covers, videos. How we look is irrelevant. It has always been irrelevant in house or techno music."
There was a time not long ago when most house acts were defined mainly by logo or label. Times have changed: techno act Underworld got too many Top 10s last year with "Born Slippy," a song buttressed by a video containing Underworld's "star" producer Justin Robertson beating his head and mouthing the words of the track he programmed, but never even came close to singing. Formerly faceless music is fast becoming face-full. So while Robertson is idiotically lip-synching, Daft Punk are simply steering clear.
"We do not want to fake it," says Thomas. And one look at Daft Punk's video for "Da Funk" (directed by Spike Jonze), shows that not "faking" being rock 'n' roll superstars works graciously for dance music producers. In the video, a man with a huge dog's head, carrying a boom box playing "Da Funk," roams New York chatting and running errands while the song surfs in and out of the city noise. The music is present but the producers are not, as is the case when a DJ plays the song in a club. The approach (recently also employed by Future Sound of London) is a really comfortable way for dance DJs and electronic music makers to leave their old identikit fractal videos and hit the mainstream without completely losing the plot, or as Bangalter says, "losing the real."
Two years ago, France's club music production was barely worth the mention. The country that since the 1960s spawned nothing much better than Vanessa Paradis or Johnny Halliday had truly created only one important international figure in house, a DJ and producer named Laurent Garnier. In 1995, Garnier initiated an imprint called F Communications, and the label became the starting point for abundant French export projects and labels, as well as what has now been globally termed "a renaissance in French music." But Daft Punk affiliate themselves with none of the French developments. "We are very happy with what has happened--at least people don't automatically say it's shit because it's from France anymore," says Bangalter. But we do not want to be implicated in a strict French scene. It is limiting. People should be acknowledged on their own."
Daft Punk have put a great deal of effort into being loosely associated with other musical communities, though--communities perhaps more authenticated on music's map. Highly influenced by Chicago house producers like Gemini, DJ Sneak and Cajmere, the duo wear their appreciation for America prominently. They have even included a "respect" track called "Teachers" on Homework, citing the names of all the DJs and producers they like. It is an old house trick: defining your music and your public persona by calculated association, going back to the days when credits, "shout outs" and chosen remixers spoke volumes more about a producer's worth than a photo ever could.
"I think that giving people our music to listen to is the most personal thing we can give," says Bangalter, "because it is really us. And showing that is much more of a commitment to our audience than showing ourselves physically. We show instead our taste."
Listen to the stylistically varied songs on Homework and you will understand Bangalter. Stare at the teenage punk-patch logo on Daft's CD cover art. Check the desk photographed on the cover's inner leaf, scattered with stickers, pop cans and Chic records. Notice the way Homem Christo and Bangalter's voices sound when paying respect to their elders. Daft Punk have created an album which drips buckets of personality. Not the personality of "two kooky Parisians" hanging by the Eiffel Tower waving baguettes, or dispositions daft and punk, or not daft and not punk. Just who they really are. So who needs pancaked faces when you've got all that?
Daft Punk's DJ tour stops at Channel Productions' first year anniversary party on Saturday, April 5 with DJ Stacey Pullen, Felix da Housecat, live acts Rabbit in the Moon and Barada and local DJs. Party starts at 10pm. $25 advance, $30 day of, $35 at the door. Location to be revealed 24 hours prior. 981-8488