In the new issue of Rolling Stone, Jonah Weiner goes in-depth with the mysterious French duo Daft Punk about why they are so bound to their signature robot helmets. Turns out, beyond flash and pure entertainment – although they don't deny that spectacle is an important part of the intrigue – Daft Punk do have higher conceptual ideas about their futuristic gear.
Daft Punk has a long history with anonymity-granting uniforms. In the beginning, the duo wore black bags on their heads, and the first version of their helmets featured wigs: one with straight, fluid hair for Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo; one with curly hair for Thomas Bangalter. The illuminating cover story excerpt that follows is a reminder that no matter why the robo-dance Parisians wear them, their helmets are an inescapable part of why we can't get enough of Daft Punk.
Read on to hear it in their own words:
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.)