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Daft Punk: All Hail Our Robot Overlords

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He moves toward the room's centerpiece: a massive modular synthesizer roughly four feet tall and six feet wide. "This is a custom system, new and handmade for us by a guy in Canada," he says. Bolted into four dishwasher-size wooden cases are dozens of oscillators, noise generators and envelope followers; above these are Borg filters, Boogie filters, step sequencers and a vintage oscilloscope. Blinking lights, silver switches and 933 different knobs sprout from the facade within an overgrowth of red, gray and yellow cables. "With a synthesizer like this, there are so many elements affecting the sound, from room temperature to capacitors – thousands of chaotic little parameters," Bang­alter says proudly. "It's the opposite of the sterile environment of a computer." He heard that the Canadian producer Deadmau5 caught wind of the setup, contacted the manufacturer and "ordered the exact same one."

Over the past decade, Daft Punk's influence has grown gargantuan – it's hard to name another act with its fingerprints on as many bands, sounds and trends. You can hear them in the reference-dizzy dance punk of LCD Soundsystem, who made their admiration explicit on "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House"; in the ­Auto-Tuned bleat pop of T-Pain and his imitators (Daft Punk got to the effect before anyone but Cher thought it was cool); in the hazy loops of chillwave acts like Toro y Moi and Washed Out; in the rehabilitated easy-­listening cheese of Phoenix and Chromeo; in the brash new meld of hip-hop and electronic music that Kanye West staged when he turned de Homem-Christo's vocoder-bent voice into a chart-topping hook on "Stronger." In 2011, backstage at Madison Square Garden after a Watch the Throne show, Jay-Z told de Homem-Christo that Daft Punk's pyramid had been "a huge influence" on the tour. Even Disco Stu wore Bang­alter's chrome robot helmet on The Simpsons. But when Bang­alter invokes the sterility of computer music with a scowl, he has in mind Daft Punk's most direct musical descendants: the heroes of the mainstream dance takeover, all of whom are bananas for Daft Punk. David Guetta spins their tracks in Ibiza and called their debut, 1997's Homework, "a revolution." Avicii has described his earliest entree to electronic music as "listening to a lot of Daft Punk, way before I knew what house music was." Deadmau5 owes them his helmets. Skrillex has commented that seeing Daft Punk's pyramid "changed my life." Swedish House Mafia proclaim that "Daft Punk are our heroes in all ways possible."

From the Archives: Robo-Punk: The New, Shinier Face of Daft Punk

All that love notwithstanding, Bang­alter and de Homem-Christo are deeply ambivalent about these heirs, with their pummeling buildups and clockwork kiloton bass drops. "Today, electronic music is like an audio energy drink," Bang­alter says. "Artists are overcompensating with this aggressive, energetic, hyperstimulating music – it's like someone shaking you. But it can't move people on an emotional level. It's a way to feel alive, but . . ."

"It's not deep, it's surface," de Homem-Christo offers.

"Maybe it's the difference between love and sex, or eroticism and pornography," Bang­alter says.

As Daft Punk got deeper into making the new album, they were eager to junk old habits and proceed "from scratch," Bang­alter says. Their longtime technique of sampling funk, disco and soft-rock vinyl suddenly struck them as canned, over­familiar. The drum machines they'd once used to propel tracks sounded rote – "­autopilot," Bang­alter says. They struck upon a new plan of attack that would lead Daft Punk further away from electronic music than they'd ever gone: "We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers," Bang­alter says, "but with people."

The idea was to overhaul their sound while keeping its DNA intact, and to outpace their successors in the process. "In electronic music today, there's an identity crisis," Bang­alter says. "You hear a song: Whose track is it? There's no signature. Everyone making electronic music has the same tool kits and templates. You listen, and you feel like it can be done on an iPad." He frowns. "If everybody knows all the tricks, it's no more magic."

Bang­alter shows me a little magic on the fly. He tweaks an oscillator on the massive synthesizer, and a piercing drone rings out. He drops to a knee, runs a cable from an output into an input, turns a knob a millimeter. Scratchy distortion musses the edges of the signal. He fiddles some more, and the drone flips into a hypnotic hiccup, then down into a mighty house-music thud. Bang­alter beams like a kid with a chemistry set. The synthesizer is "a little bit everywhere" on the new album, he says, played by hand each time: "With this, you'll never get what you're getting again – there's no Save As. It's a playground for building a sound from the ground up."

De Homem-Christo checks the time on his phone. The plan is to go for a drink and then get dinner across town, but we've got some time to kill.

"What do you want to do?" Bang­alter asks de Homem-Christo. "Un café? Un thé? Chocolat?"

"Strip club," de Homem-Christo deadpans.

No musical act strikes the same balance between gravitas and goofiness as Daft Punk. On one hand, they speak loftily about artistic evolution and music being "an invitation to a sonic journey"; on the other, they wear kitschy helmets straight off the covers of Eighties-era Isaac Asimov paperbacks. Bang­alter describes the robot look as both a high-concept philosophical gambit – "We're interested in the line between fiction and reality, creating these fictional personas that exist in real life" – and a way to enfold Daft Punk's music within a tradition of flamboyant pop theatricality that includes "Kraftwerk and Ziggy Stardust and Kiss; people thought the helmets were marketing or something, but for us it was sci-fi glam."

The robots also let Bang­alter and de Homem-Christo, both receding gearhead types, exert a gravitational pull on audiences that their bare faces – handsome in rough-hewn but unremarkable ways – could never equal. "We're not performers, we're not models – it would not be enjoyable for humanity to see our features," de Homem-Christo says wryly, "but the robots are exciting to people."

Back in the Nineties, the duo placed black bags on their heads during promotional appearances and bought creepy Halloween masks to wear at photo shoots. The robot helmets, designed by French artist friends, originally featured campy brown wigs – curly for Bang­alter, flowing for de Homem-Christo. En route to the 2001 magazine shoot where they first unveiled the helmets, though, Daft Punk yanked off the hair, deciding the robots looked better bald. "Sleeker," Bang­alter says. Today they own several different versions of the helmets – some with built-in air conditioning and communications systems, for live shows; others constructed of materials that photograph better, for shoots and projects like 2006's Electroma, the trippy, dialogue-free feature film that Daft Punk directed. Their latest helmets were made by a Hollywood special-effects shop "that worked on the new Spider-Man," Bangalter says, adding that the firm signed a nondisclosure agreement regarding the helmets' exact specifications. He compares Daft Punk to "Warhol, mixing mass production and art," but the duo can also resemble the Walt Disney Company, or Coca-Cola – a big-money multinational safeguarding its IP. Homemade robot helmets proliferate online, modeled on fan sites and sold on eBay, "but the proportions are really hard to get right just by looking at pictures, so they all seem a little bit off," says Bangalter.

With the sun about to set, Daft Punk leave the studio, grab espressos at a cafe down the block, then descend into the Metro and board a waiting train. The car is three-quarters full, and no one pays the pair any mind. It's impossible to imagine riding the New York subway with comparably famous American musicians – you trade in your MetroCard the day you start booking arenas – and this speaks to the paradoxical, and enviable, position that Daft Punk occupy: They're anonymous icons. "One thing I like about the masks is that I don't have people constantly coming up to me and reminding me what I do," Bangalter says. "It's nice to be able to forget." (There are occasional downsides: Several years ago in Ibiza, Bangalter says, some guy ran up exorbitant bar tabs at clubs while claiming to be him.)

We come aboveground in the tony Ninth Arrondissement. De Homem-Christo lives 15 minutes away, in the arrondissement that includes the pretty neighborhood Montmartre. Bangalter splits time between a home in the fashionable Marais and a glass-walled house in the Hollywood Hills that he bought in 2004 from one of the producers of Natural Born Killers. Both are the fathers of young children, though they don't like discussing their families publicly. (Bangalter does note that his son is currently enjoying a biography of Jim Morrison.)

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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