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Daft Punk: All Hail Our Robot Overlords

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This past march, five years after Daft Punk began work on Random Access Memories, a commercial aired during Saturday Night Live, serving cryptic notice that the duo were back. The spot featured eight bars of a song called "Get Lucky" along with a graphic of the robot helmets fusing together. The music – jaunty throwback disco played with whip-snap precision on guitar, bass, drums and keyboards – heralded the earthbound shift in the duo's sound. It was over in 15 seconds.

Fans promptly uploaded the ad to ­YouTube; someone looped the bars over and over into a 10-hour marathon. Music sites and message boards went into red-alert Daft Watch mode, breathlessly relaying the news, for instance, that 13 untitled songs attributed to Daft Punk had appeared in the database of a British royalty-distribution agency: "They range in length from 3:48 to 9:04," one writer noted.

"Our output is rare," Bangalter says, "and that means people pay attention more." A few weeks later, Daft Punk dropped a second SNL ad, which revealed the album title. Posters and billboards featuring the album art went up in cities, as part of the masterfully suspenseful, deliberately old-school rollout. "When you drive on the Sunset Strip and see these billboards, it's more magical than a banner ad," says Bangalter. In a matter of weeks, Random Access Memories had gone from a stunningly well-kept secret to one of the decade's most hotly anticipated releases.

Daft Punk's last album, 2005's Human After All, was a lean exercise in mechanized dance rock, bashed out in under two months. The album sounds bracing today, but it severely underperformed its predecessors, critically and commercially. Perhaps in reaction to this, Random Access Memories is, in extreme contrast, the most ambitious, costly and time-consuming album of Daft Punk's career: an opulent suite of gold-plated disco grooves, purple lyrics and prog-operatic flourishes, precision-engineered to overwhelm. "We spent more than a million dollars making it, easily," Bangalter says. "But that's not important."

When Pharrell, visiting Paris, first sang his verse for "Get Lucky," Daft Punk told him to "sing it again, again, again," Pharrell recalls. "Then I did four or five more takes, they picked what they liked, then I sang each of those parts over and over. The robots are perfectionists." Daft Punk hired choirs, string sections, trumpeters and pedal-steel players; they recorded sound effects on the foley stage at Warner Bros. They played parts themselves, then paid session pros who'd worked on Thriller and Off the Wall to play them better. They coaxed vocals from guests like Panda Bear and Julian Casablancas; Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers played guitar on three tracks. They flew to legendary recording studios in New York and Los Angeles, like Electric Lady and Henson, to capture the unique sounds and vibes of the classic rooms. Wherever they went, they kept the mics running, capturing freewheeling jams – "We had Ampex reels everywhere," says de Homem-Christo – that they edited later using Pro Tools, conjuring songs out of the footage "like we were making a film," Bangalter says. "There are songs that span two and a half years and five different studios."

Finishing a second round of sidecars, we take a cab to the restaurant at Amour, a boutique hotel in nearby Pigalle co-owned by Daft Punk's friend Monsieur André, a graffiti-writer-turned-scene-king who greets them warmly in the lobby. Conversation about the new album continues over dinner: "The Seventies and Eighties are the tastiest eras for us," says de Homem-Christo, tucking into a sausage salad. "It's not that we can't make crazy futuristic-sounding stuff, but we wanted to play with the past."

Their gaze wasn't entirely backward-facing, though. Kanye West swung by the Paris studio at one point, and they took a break to work on music ostensibly for his next album. "We had a combination of live drums and programmed drums going," says Bangalter. "And Kanye was rapping over it," de Homem-Christo recalls.

"Not even rapping, more like screaming in this very primal way," Bangalter says. A few months ago, West played rough demos for A-Trak, who describes them as "futuristic, electronic monsters" with no melody, just "very distorted percussion and Kanye screaming – they're incredible." In the Chicago hip-hop auteur, Daft Punk clearly see a kindred spirit. "Kanye feels comfortable around us, so he allows himself to be vulnerable," Bangalter says.

"He's radical in the choices he makes," says de Homem-Christo. "He doesn't give a fuck."

On a sun-baked Friday in the Mojave Desert a month later, de Homem-Christo is sipping yerba mate tea poolside at a gorgeous old Palm Springs mansion, his ass crack sailing out of black Dior Homme swim shorts. Bangalter is a few feet away, wearing tiny blue Lacoste trunks and a fraying Borsalino straw hat, telling Pharrell he's totally got to see Oz the Great and Powerful. "Really, man?" Pharrell says. "All right, I gotta check that out." Disco blasts from wall-mounted speakers; hired chefs work a barbecue grill; empty bottles of Veuve Clicquot litter tables. Two dudes sit in the kitchen with a large baggie of weed, rolling joints.

It's the first weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and Daft Punk have rented the mansion, which used to belong to Bing Crosby, for a long weekend. Pharrell's just stopping by, but 10 or so of the duo's other friends are crashing here – sharing bedrooms, playing ping-pong in the living room, fixing cocktails from the stocked bar, climbing up to the roof and cannonballing into the pool out back. (Daft Punk's families are elsewhere.) The duo are here to drop a surprise on the crowd tonight, but they're tight-lipped as to what it might be. Are the robot helmets here? "No," Bangalter says. "We can't tell you where they are." Todd Edwards, the DJ, is in the living room, drinking tequila. "Even I don't know what they're doing," he says. "If they don't tell me, I don't pry."

There's an air of bygone music-biz excess to the place that's fully in keeping with Random Access Memories' throwback ostentation. A Porsche Carrera is parked out front, near a massive gong that visitors can bang to announce their arrival. "Guy-Manuel is staying in a bedroom where JFK is supposed to have had his affair with Marilyn Monroe," says Bangalter. Quips de Homem-Christo, "It puts a lot of pressure on me to do something interesting in there."

What they will not do tonight, Daft Punk insist, is perform. Bangalter says there aren't even plans in place to tour the new album: "We want to focus everything on the act and excitement of listening to the album. We don't see a tour as an accessory to an album." (When they do finally hit the road, he adds, it will be with a career-encompassing set list, not one overly focused on the new material.)

Around 7:30 p.m., Daft Punk and their friends – Edwards, DJ Falcon, Maison Kitsuné designer Gildas Loaec and a handful of others – hustle into a van, headed for the festival. Pharrell and his crew follow in a black Sprinter. Bangalter plugs his phone into the stereo, starts blasting Quincy Jones and Led Zeppelin, then turns around and confers in hushed tones with Daft Punk's manager, Paul Hahn, about the imminent surprise: It turns out that an extended trailer for the new album, featuring video of Daft Punk performing "Get Lucky" in sequined tuxes alongside Pharrell and Nile Rodgers, will play on the HD jumbotrons flanking each of the festival's stages. "Will the sun have set by then?" Bangalter asks. "Will people be able to see it?" Hahn says it will be fine.

Security waves us through to the edge of the Coachella grounds, where two idling golf carts haul us to the artists' area. De Homem-Christo darts off to take a piss while Bangalter sketches out a battle plan: The video will be staggered between the various screens, and he wants to catch as many airings as possible. With a dozen-odd friends in tow, he and de Homem-Christo soon make their way to a railing at the edge of the VIP section with a view of the main stage. If any people recognize them, they don't make it known.

At 8:35, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are about to take the main stage, the sun has set and the jumbotrons suddenly burst to life. The Daft Punk logo pops up, and "Get Lucky" rings out on the speakers. People begin dancing instantly, lifting up their camera­phones, shrieking when the robots appear in the video. In less than two minutes it's over, and the screens go black. The collective mood is one of ecstatic confusion: What the hell was that? The Daft Punk crew exchange congratulatory backslaps. Pharrell gives Bangalter a high-five. In a few days, hand-held footage of the trailer will have racked up more than a million views on YouTube, threatening to overshadow the rest of the festival. Right now, Bangalter throws his arm around de Homem-Christo and murmurs in his ear in French. Then they turn from the railing and walk off together, just two more grinning faces in the crowd.

This story is from the June 6th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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