Sitting in a hotel lobby in downtown Los Angeles, David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel look exactly as you’d expect from the musicians better known as Dave 1 and P-Thugg from the funk duo Chromeo: Macklovitch in chunky black glasses, a leather jacket and skinny jeans, and Gemayel draped in Cuban-link gold chains from the 1980s (how did he become so interested in jewelry? “I’m Lebanese,” he deadpans), a cylindrical leather cap and a perfectly tailored double-breasted suit the color of Prince’s in Purple Rain. It’s a Friday afternoon, or what Macklovitch calls “casual Friday,” meaning his and Gemayel’s elaborate ensembles are nothing out of the ordinary.
“We just want to be Halloween costumes,” says Macklovitch, the more vocal of the two, who is tall and thin with wavy dark hair. “If someone can dress as Chromeo for Halloween, then we’ve done our job.” He and Gemayel grew up idolizing – and eventually modeled their sound after – artists who were so visually recognizable, Macklovitch says, that they often looked like cartoon characters: Snoop Dogg, the Beastie Boys, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and ZZ Top. “That’s what we like is when you build a mythology around a band,” says Macklovitch. “We find it’s important to cultivate that … You know, like Chromeo: Arab-Jewish duo from Canada, they speak French, they look crazy, they’re riding around in crazy cars.”
“They reference black music from the Eighties,” adds Gemayel, who is shorter and rounder than Macklovitch and frequently finishes his sentences, the result of their nearly 25-year-long friendship.
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“But they dress completely different,” Macklovitch says.
Since founding Chromeo as a goofy side project after high school, Gemayel and Macklovitch have transformed it from a dance-club act to an international force. Its two members together juggle at least half a dozen instruments and control almost every aspect of their sound and image, from the set design and album art to the accounting. Sixteen years in, Chromeo can no longer be easily dismissed as a retro novelty act. But for a band built on the nostalgia of the Seventies and Eighties, a time when music industry sexism was on full display, its biggest challenge isn’t how to be consistent, but rather, how to stay relevant.
Chromeo’s answer to that question comes in the form of its new fifth album, Head Over Heels, which features collaborations with rappers French Montana and Stefflon Don, and soul singers Dram and Amber Mark. It’s stacked with talk-box–assisted pop songs about dating mishaps, comically disastrous relationships and anxiety-inducing sexual encounters. Many of the songs are written from the point of view of what Macklovitch calls the lovesick “schmuck,” a character that’s constantly getting swindled in pursuit of romance. Macklovitch insists it’s only semi-autobiographical – just don’t assume it’s about a man and a woman.
“We hope that the music isn’t hetero-normative,” he says. “It can be any relationship. The pronouns are just placeholders. Obviously, right? Anyone can go through this, these are just angles that we felt could bring some diversity to the way people sing about love.” He cites “Must’ve Been,” the album’s first proper single, for example, as a song that flips a double standard on its head. “[It’s] bringing the walk-of-shame idea to the male subject instead of always having it be this kind of really weird thing to shame women,” he says.
But Chromeo’s most overt attempt at subverting gender norms comes from the album’s visuals. Like a lot of Chromeo albums, this one, too, depicts long shiny legs, high heels and miniskirts (The imagery is a campy nod to rockers like ZZ Top, who famously penned a hit song called “Legs” and once made a music video depicting high-heeled legs as cyborgs). But this time the legs aren’t disembodied, and for once, they belong to Macklovitch and Gemayel themselves. “We didn’t want to have these, like, fragmented women’s body parts on our artwork for this album,” says Macklovitch, adding that his and Gemayel’s rethinking of their past imagery was spurred by a fan’s criticism of it online. “It just didn’t feel right in today’s context and we felt like we should take responsibility for that image and if we’re gonna have sexy legs, then let it be our sexy legs.” Besides, says Macklovitch, “It felt more empowering for us and it felt more responsible and it’s more striking.”
“Plus, I’ve been wanting to shave my legs for a long time,” Gemayel admits.
“Why not?” says Macklovitch.
“Heels are fun,” says Gemayel.
“They look good on men,” adds Macklovitch.” It doesn’t matter. Anybody can wear anything.”
“It just hits you right away,” says Gemayel of the album cover, shot by famed fashion and art photographer Jason Nocito. “Me with my Latin girl legs and him with his beautiful pins.”
“They’re our real legs, for the ‘Juice’ video and then we did it again for the album,” Macklovitch says proudly. He’s talking about a clip in which he and Gemayel strut through an orange grove at sunset wearing leather miniskirts and red heels. It’s an incredibly romantic scene, which is fitting for a song about the relationship that arguably means the most to Chromeo: Their own.
“It’s a marriage,” says Macklovitch. “That’s the thing, too, is that a lot of our songs are about relationships, but a lot of those relationships can apply to P and I, too, because we are in a relationship.” (Their musical coupling aside, Gemayel says he’s in a serious committed relationship and Macklovitch says he’s been seeing someone for the last six months. “Historically, my shit’s always been a mess,” he professes.)
Macklovitch and Gemayel met in high school in Montreal, Canada, bonded over their love of Jamiroquai and the Roots and became best friends playing in funk bands together. “Whatever band we were a part of, P and I were the nucleus,” says Macklovitch. “People would come and go, but it was always us, right, P?” The two eventually started making hip-hop beats and producing their own music, forming Chromeo in 2002 as a weekend hobby. Initially, critics didn’t know what to make of the music: Had Gemayel and Macklovitch not been such skilled musicians, Chromeo could’ve easily been mistaken for an Eighties parody band.
“We suffered from that,” says Macklovitch. “But the thing is, we were just coming into our own, too. We can’t blame people for thinking that [we were a joke] because our music is funny.”
“It’s definitely atypical,” adds Gemayel. “You can’t really get into it and understand everything at once.”
“Now people don’t questions us. I mean, sometimes in reviews there’ll be a little bit of snark. You know, they call us arch a lot,” says Macklovitch. “It’s a word I learned in Chromeo reviews. It means kind of like smartass.”
“That’s fair,” says Gemayel.
By the time they released their sophomore album in 2007, Chromeo were booking spots at major music festivals with dance hits like “Tenderoni” and “Fancy Footwork” (the video for which features a parade of women’s torso-less legs). Meanwhile, Gemayel was still working as an accountant – he learned the trade as an eight-year-old helping out at his parents’ deli – and Macklovitch was a PhD student studying French literature at Columbia University and teaching at Barnard College. He dropped out to focus on the band full-time before the release of White Women in 2014, but says his teaching schedule forced him and Gemayel to set firm boundaries and record their albums within short periods of time.
“When you’re starting a band, you don’t want to have crazy expectations and throw your life into it and end up like an old sour musician playing pub gigs,” says Gemayel. “We had, like, other ambitions, too.”
“And then we ended up putting all of them into Chromeo,” says Macklovitch.
But Gemayel hasn’t given up on his day job completely. Now he just has one accounting client: Chromeo.
“We have business managers, but I’m there every day looking over Excel sheets, working pen in hand. We run a business, you know?” says Gemayel.
It’s a business that comes with plenty of perks, like getting to wear a plum-colored suit and gold chains on casual Fridays. “If I had a nine-to-five job, I couldn’t do that, put gold teeth in my mouth,” says Gemayel. “But that’s why we chose this, and that’s why we’re doing this.” The high heels, it turns out, are just a bonus.