Last night, at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in southern California, Daft Punk debuted a teaser trailer for their new album, Random Access Memories: Without warning, a nearly two-minute video popped up on jumbotron screens flanking the festival's various stages, in which Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers and the Daft Punk robots rock out in heavily sequined getups to "Get Lucky," the album's lead single. Surprised festival-goers at the main stage began dancing and pointing camera phones, oblivious to the fact that the French dance heroes – Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo – were in fact standing in civilian garb on the edge of the VIP section, watching themselves on the screens with delight. (Pharrell was standing nearby, and he gave Thomas a high five afterwards.) When the screens went black, Thomas and Guy-Manuel were shown tweets from attendees giddy about what they'd just seen. Thomas grinned. "The fun part will be seeing the footage people shot when it hits the Internet," he said.
Random Access Memories, made in near-total secrecy, is one of 2013's most eagerly anticipated – and most enigma-enshrouded – releases. Late last month, for an upcoming Rolling Stone profile of Daft Punk, they discussed the new album’s creation in extensive detail at their studio in Paris. Here are the ten things you need to know:
They began working on Random Access Memories in 2008, in Paris, with no clear plan. "After three records, there was a sense of searching for a record we hadn’t done," Thomas says. The duo were dissatisfied with early demos that leaned heavily on electronic equipment, feeling like they were operating on "autopilot," Thomas says. Eventually, a new approach emerged: "We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers," he explains, "but with people." Except for a snippet of "an Australian rock record" that opens the final track, "Contact," Daft Punk foreswore samples entirely, and they limited the role of drum machines to just two of the album’s thirteen tracks. The only electronics come in the form of a massive, custom-built modular synthesizer that Daft Punk played live on the album, they told me, and an arsenal of vintage vocoders on which they manually manipulated factors like pitch, vibrato and legato. "There’s this thing today where the recorded human voice is processed to try to feel robotic," Thomas says, referring to the undying AutoTune vogue. "Here, we were trying to make robotic voices sound the most human they’ve ever sounded, in terms of expressivity and emotion."
The title captures the duo’s endless fascination with blurs between humans and technology…"We were drawing a parallel between the brain and the hard drive – the random way that memories are stored," says Thomas.
…and their endless fascination with the past. 2001’s Discovery was in part a backward-looking concept album about revisiting the funk, disco and soft-rock of Thomas’ and Guy-Manuel’s childhood. For Random Access Memories, they hired "top-notch session players," says Guy-Manuel, with credits on classic records by Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, and Eric Clapton. Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers played rhythm guitar on a few tracks. "The Seventies and the Eighties are the tastiest era for us," Guy-Manuel says. "And all these guys were tripping on meeting again and playing together again." He adds: "It’s not that we can’t make crazy futuristic sounding stuff, but we wanted to play with the past."
Pharrell, Julian Casablancas, Giorgio Moroder, and Animal Collective’s Panda Bear are among the guest vocalists. "We were at a party for Madonna’s last album," Pharrell recalls, "and I was like, You guys should have produced this! Why did that not happen? Madonna and the robots would have been unbelievable! They were like, We’re working on something. I said, Whatever you do, call me – I’ll play tambourine on it. They looked at each other and they were like, We’ll be in touch." Pharrell wound up singing on "Get Lucky" and a stomping disco track called "Lose Yourself to Dance."
The album’s move away from computerized sounds reflects Daft Punk’s "ambivalence" about the EDM craze they helped to inspire. "Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone and it’s not moving one inch," Thomas says. "That’s not what artists are supposed to do." He adds that the genre is suffering "an identity crisis: You hear a song, whose track is it? There’s no signature. Skrillex has been successful because he has a recognizable sound: You hear a dubstep song, even if it’s not him, you think it’s him."
Keep an eye on those Saturday Night Live commercial breaks. So far, Daft Punk have debuted two fifteen-second chunks of "Get Lucky" in ads that play during Saturday Night Live, incrementally revealing more of the song. Along with billboards advertising the album, these TV ads represent a throwback impulse that's guiding the new album’s roll-out. "When you drive on the sunset strip and see these billboards, it’s more magical than a banner ad," Thomas says. "SNL is this part of American culture with a certain timelessness to it." (A billboard overhanging the I-10 east greeted motorists driving to Coachella this weekend.)
The new songs came together around the world. Most vocals and overdubs happened in Paris, but the rhythm sections were committed to Ampex reels in Los Angeles and New York, at Electric Ladyland studio, Henson (formerly A&M) studios, and other venerated old rooms. "There are songs on the album that traveled into five studios over two and a half years," Thomas says. "They’re vials being filled up with life. Today, electronic music is made in airports and hotel rooms, by DJs traveling. It has a sense of movement, maybe, but it’s not the same vibe as going into these studios that contain specific things."
While recording, Daft Punk found time in their schedules to jam with Kanye West for his next album. At their Paris studio, they laid down a combination of live and programmed drums while Kanye worked out rough vocals on the fly. "It was very raw: he was rapping – kind of screaming primally, actually," Thomas says. "Kanye doesn’t give a fuck," Guy-Manuel adds. "He’s a good friend." Director (and longtime Daft Punk compatriot) Michel Gondry says that Kanye recently played him "two songs" that sprang from the session. "One of them, I told him it sounded solid and powerful – I envisioned a cube when I heard it," Gondry says. "He told me, Chris Cunningham’s already directing the video!"
The biker gear from the last album and tour is out; sequins are in. Hedi Slimane, the Saint-Laurent-by-way-of-Dior-Homme fashion designer who made Daft Punk’s black-leather bike-dude outfits for their last album, 2005’s Human After All, designed their new look (spied for the first time in the exclusive photo above.)
They say there are no current tour plans to promote the album. Their "Alive 2007" world tour, in which they played within a giant steel pyramid covered in screens, was a marvel of pop stagecraft, but Thomas says "we have no current plans" to tour the new record. "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 added, it will be with a career-encompassing set list, not one overly focused on the new material.