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Daft Punk: All Hail Our Robot Overlords

The most revealing interview ever with the mysterious French duo

May 21, 2013 10:00 AM ET
Daft Punk 1184 cover
Daft Punk on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Peter Yang

Click to listen to Daft Punk's Random Access Memories

Daft Punk's Paris studio sits on an ugly, bustling thoroughfare on the south side of town, near a train station and a hospital, behind a green garage door. To enter, you press a buzzer and present your face to a security camera, at which point the door lurches upward to reveal a lovely cobblestone courtyard and a cluster of beige buildings covered in whorls of ivy. On an early spring afternoon, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter – lifelong Parisians, longtime friends and the compulsively secretive musicians behind the Daft Punk robot masks – are standing on the cobblestones, blinking in the sunshine like they've emerged from a deep cave. Which they sort of have. "It's the first beautiful day we've had in weeks," de Homem-Christo says. Nodding toward a windowless room where he and Bang­alter have spent untold hours hunched over synthesizers, chasing new sounds, he musters a resigned Gallic shrug: "We're always in the darkness, anyway."

Bang­alter plucks a key from his pocket and unlocks the room – it was here, in April 2008, on the heels of a world tour, that Daft Punk withdrew to write songs for their fourth album, Random Access Memories. On the road, they'd transformed packed amphitheaters, baseball fields and soccer stadiums into euphoric raves, manning an arsenal of ­custom-built supercomputers from within a 24-foot-tall aluminum pyramid covered with screens and centered within an Atari honeycomb of glowing LED beams. Daft Punk had first broken big during the Nineties electronica boom, but the tour – a hallucinatory spectacle of pop stagecraft without precedent – made them several orders of magnitude more popular, transforming them from survivors of a bygone fad into unwitting pioneers of a dance-music craze that has since swallowed the pop world whole. Another act in a similar position might have coasted – selling out bigger and bigger venues, pumping out the same throbbing beats – but Daft Punk quit the road after 48 shows, and when they started on their new material, it was with a fidgety desire to reinvent themselves. "Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone, and it's not moving one inch," Bang­alter says. "That's not what artists are supposed to do."

Pharrell Williams on Daft Punk: 'The Robots Are Leading'

Tall and bony, Bang­alter, 38, is wearing a gray sweater and skinny jeans with a hole in the knee big enough to toss a tennis ball through. He has a long, bearded face and curly brown hair grown into a modest Jewfro. (Bangalter's father, a Seventies-era disco artist and producer who recorded as Daniel Vangarde, is Jewish, but the Bangalter household was not religious.) When Bang­alter is feeling relaxed, his eyes twinkle and his body language grows demonstratively warm: He'll lean in close, nudge you heartily to emphasize a point. At other times, though, while someone else is speaking, he'll scrunch up his nose in apparent disdain, like he's noticed a bad smell. The director Michel Gondry, who's known Daft Punk since they hired him to make the video for their percolating 1997 hit "Around the World," says that Bang­alter has a blunt criticality that can be off-putting. "We were in a coffee shop in Paris one time, and he told me he hated my first movie," Gondry recalls with a laugh. "He said it was lacking in life, it was contrived! Really harsh, right? Some people, they just say what they think."

De Homem-Christo, 39, has a wide face, delicate features, stubbled cheeks and long brown hair. As a teenager he wore his mane greasy and stringy, and he was often spotted wearing a fur coat and carrying his possessions in a plastic shopping bag. Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, who first met the duo in 1992, says that de Homem-Christo used to resemble "a girl" and "a crackhead," but today his look is more hygienically scruffy: brown leather jacket, scuffed motorcycle boots, a tiny wishbone pendant hanging over a black velour sweatshirt. He's not overly fond of eye contact, and he's taciturn where Bang­alter is expansive. "Guy-Man doesn't talk too much," says Daniel Dauxerre, who used to work at a Paris record store, New Rose, where the Daft Punk guys crate-dug as teens for Augustus Pablo and Beach Boys vinyl. "When he does talk, he's got a very dry sense of humor – he might be making fun of you, you never really know."

Daft Punk: 'Get Lucky' Sums Up 'Celebratory' Spirit of New Album

Daft Punk are the most enigmatic superstars in pop. In addition to hiding their faces at performances, in videos and in photographs, they operate largely in secrecy and keep a tight grip on biographical details in those rare instances when they grant interviews. So it's with widened eyes that an outsider enters their work space, where even mundane objects thrum with seeming Talmudic significance. In the synthesizer room, there's a weathered vinyl copy of Rod Stewart's Blondes Have More Fun in one corner and a dinky JVC boombox for listening to rough mixes nearby, with a black plastic pyramid perched on top. Blu-ray copies of Tron: L'Heritage (Tron: Legacy, for which Daft Punk composed the music) and Star Wars: L'Integrale de la Saga occupy a shelf near a book of Saul Bass designs, a Walker's Rhyming Dictionary, and an old Life Science Library volume called The Mind. Tacked to the wall is a snapshot of the Daft Punk robots standing with R2-D2 and C-3PO at an Adidas advertising shoot. "This was the moment I felt we truly entered pop culture," says Bang­alter.

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