En route to a famous old bar called Harry's New York, we pass the stately music hall L'Olympia. "When we were kids, Guy-Manuel and I went to see My Bloody Valentine there," Bangalter says. "It was incredible. Guy-Manuel was bare-chested, with his long hair, pogo'ing!"
"Crazy pogo!" cries de Homem-Christo, smiling at the memory.
"I ran into a guy I knew a few days after, and he said, 'Was that your girlfriend at that show, jumping with her shirt off?' " Bangalter continues. "I told him, 'No, it was my friend Guy-Man!' We would go to concerts and dance. We were in the pit for sure."
They claim a burnished wood table at Harry's and order sidecars. Bangalter starts wolfing down nuts from a ramekin and describes the duo's origins. "I met Guy-Man in eighth grade," he says. "At the end of the year we took a class trip to Pompeii, and in the car ride we began making up songs. When we got back, we recorded them with a little Casio keyboard."
"It was Italo disco by 12-year-olds," de Homem-Christo says. I ask if the tapes still exist, but he shakes his head: "Just our first music video. My father still has it. It's Thomas singing, and I'm laughing at him while I hold the camera."
Daft Punk grew up comfortably. The school where they met was the Lycée Carnot, whose alumni ranks include Jacques Chirac, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and World Trade Organization head Pascal Lamy. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo would rent horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen on VHS, watching them together at Bangalter's father's Montmartre apartment, which Dauxerre, the onetime record-store clerk, remembers visiting in the early Nineties: "It was beautiful – a big apartment with two floors, a room with a piano in it and a room for the studio equipment. I didn't go to nearly all the rooms." (Bangalter père has since moved to Brazil, living in a tiny coastal village so remote it was without electricity until recently.) The first thing Brancowitz remembers hearing about the teenaged Bangalter, before he met him, was that he bought a different new record every day. "That meant a lot when we were kids," Brancowitz says. "It meant you had to be very rich."
De Homem-Christo's parents ran an advertising agency together, and he hails from a clan of dubiously distinguished Pan-European extraction: His great-grandfather, Francisco Manuel Homem Cristo Filho, was a writer, described by present-day historians as "the first authentic and indisputable Portuguese fascist" and a personal friend of Benito Mussolini's. "I know him only from photographs, of course," de Homem-Christo says. In the Portuguese city of Aveiro there is an Homem Cristo street and an Homem Cristo school, both named after his ancestors.
In their late teens, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo formed a scrappy rock trio called Darlin' with Brancowitz, who joined through a guitarist-wanted flier. Darlin' had a bald hamminess notably in contrast with Daft Punk's coy MO: Onstage they covered "Love Theme From Kiss"; de Homem-Christo wore his fur coat, with glitter on his hands and a star on his cheek. They were "talented," says Dauxerre, who helped Darlin' book the only two shows they played, but "a lot of people thought they were wankers." (At one show, in Versailles, they shared the bill with a local act called Loveboat, featuring Thomas Mars, Deck D'Arcy and Christian Mazzalai, who would later form Phoenix with Brancowitz.) "Some people thought maybe they were pretentious, because they said, 'We want to be stars' and things like that," Dauxerre continues. "They knew exactly what they wanted."
Daft Punk's division of labor has always been murky to outsiders, and the pair prefer it this way. Bangalter says that he's more "hands-on" when it comes to "technology" but that he and de Homem-Christo typically feel like they have a special connection, "like Siamese twins." Gondry says, "To me, Guy-Manuel is a little bit like Meg in the White Stripes – she was quiet, but she anchored Jack White." Dauxerre remembers being stunned by de Homem-Christo's facility with melody: "He'd hear something, say, 'That's great, just change one chord,' and it was obviously better." House-music hero Todd Edwards, who's collaborated with Daft Punk numerous times, says, "Thomas is more the frontman, the one setting everything up, taking the lead on all the executive decisions – so the work is getting done, then Guy-Man comes and puts his input in, which is crucial." For the new Daft Punk album, Giorgio Moroder, the disco godfather, delivered a spoken-word performance into three microphones from three different decades. "Thomas has superears," Moroder says. "I asked the engineer, 'Who will ever hear the difference between these microphones?' He told me, 'Nobody. But the boys will.'"
In the early Nineties, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo lost interest in rock music and gravitated toward underground raves in Paris. "The story I heard is that the girls were not so much beautiful and sexy in the rock scene," says Dauxerre, "but they went to the rave, they saw so many beautiful girls, and they said, 'That's the music we have to do!'" In 1993, after completing high school, Bangalter – who spent several summer vacations as a kid at sleep-away camp in Maine – took an impromptu three-week trip by himself to Manhattan, checking into "some hotel on Madison Avenue" and partying nonstop: "I was out every night, going at four in the morning to NASA, seeing Junior Vasquez at the Sound Factory," he recalls. "I remember the energy of these drag queens – I wanted to move to New York." With $1,500 he received for his 18th birthday, Bangalter bought some synthesizers and samplers and started noodling in his Paris bedroom with de Homem-Christo. They both dropped out of college, naming their new dance outfit in honor of an unimpressed U.K. review of Darlin' that referred to their lone single as "daft punky thrash."
Around this time, Daft Punk experimented with party drugs, briefly. "I did Ecstasy for one year, from early 1993 to early 1994," says Bangalter. "The problem was that I was liking any music I'd hear, any crap – I had no critical judgment. The last time I did Ecstasy was the day Kurt Cobain died. We were at a party in Glasgow when I heard. Then we were going to an afterparty and I almost got hit by a truck."
"That was the first night I tried Ecstasy," de Homem-Christo, who tugged Bangalter out of harm's way, says. "And also the last."
Intent on becoming an international presence, Daft Punk signed with Scottish dance label Soma rather than a French imprint. They made their debut album, Homework, in Bangalter's bedroom, using synthesizers, drum machines and samplers associated with early techno and hip-hop. ("When we toured, we re-created everything live," de Homem-Christo says.) Homework is relentlessly propulsive and assuredly spare, breaking into squelchy acid-house riffs here, syncopated funk beats there. "The first time I heard them, I was like, 'Is this too simple or is this great?'" Gondry says. The album has a prankish air and a prescient genre-agnosticism. Lead single "Da Funk" was inspired by West Coast gangsta rap; for "High Fidelity," they reassembled louche sax snippets from Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" into epileptic house. "For us, there's no separation between what's hip and what's not," Bangalter says.
Much dance music withers when it leaves the floor, but Daft Punk's imagination exceeded raves nearly from the jump. "Music was a vector that we wanted to build a universe around," says Bangalter. Like the other flagship Nineties electronica artists, Daft Punk presented more like a band than DJs: touring behind an album of proper songs, placing singles on alt-rock radio, commissioning inventive videos with then-fledgling directors like Gondry and Spike Jonze. "Dance music is not cool," says DJ A-Trak, who's known the duo since 2007, and who introduced Kanye West to their music. "It has the worst fonts, the worst artwork – let's not forget what a rave flier looks like. And then here come Daft Punk with these crazy videos, beautiful album art. They have a flash and an elegance that other dance acts envied."
It took Daft Punk three years to make their second album, 2001's Discovery. Densely woven but improbably buoyant, it consisted heavily of obscure disco and rock samples plucked from the music of Bangalter and de Homem-Christo's youth. Daft Punk strafed these samples with filter effects that made them seem to glimmer and degrade like memories blossoming and fading; the album, by turns naive, audacious and elegiac, established Daft Punk as pop visionaries. "I call it the Thriller of France," says Chromeo's Dave Macklovitch, who says Discovery was "the blueprint" for his band. "They were fearless on that album," says Pharrell Williams, whom Daft Punk commissioned to remix the single "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" in 2003. "When you're listening to their music, you feel like you've been enlightened."
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