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.)
En route to a famous old bar called Harry’s New York, we pass the stately music hall L’Olympia. “When we were kids, Guy-Manuel and I went to see My Bloody Valentine there,” Bangalter says. “It was incredible. Guy-Manuel was bare-chested, with his long hair, pogo’ing!”
“Crazy pogo!” cries de Homem-Christo, smiling at the memory.
“I ran into a guy I knew a few days after, and he said, ‘Was that your girlfriend at that show, jumping with her shirt off?’ ” Bangalter continues. “I told him, ‘No, it was my friend Guy-Man!’ We would go to concerts and dance. We were in the pit for sure.”
They claim a burnished wood table at Harry’s and order sidecars. Bangalter starts wolfing down nuts from a ramekin and describes the duo’s origins. “I met Guy-Man in eighth grade,” he says. “At the end of the year we took a class trip to Pompeii, and in the car ride we began making up songs. When we got back, we recorded them with a little Casio keyboard.”
“It was Italo disco by 12-year-olds,” de Homem-Christo says. I ask if the tapes still exist, but he shakes his head: “Just our first music video. My father still has it. It’s Thomas singing, and I’m laughing at him while I hold the camera.”
Daft Punk grew up comfortably. The school where they met was the Lycée Carnot, whose alumni ranks include Jacques Chirac, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and World Trade Organization head Pascal Lamy. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo would rent horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen on VHS, watching them together at Bangalter’s father’s Montmartre apartment, which Dauxerre, the onetime record-store clerk, remembers visiting in the early Nineties: “It was beautiful – a big apartment with two floors, a room with a piano in it and a room for the studio equipment. I didn’t go to nearly all the rooms.” (Bangalter père has since moved to Brazil, living in a tiny coastal village so remote it was without electricity until recently.) The first thing Brancowitz remembers hearing about the teenaged Bangalter, before he met him, was that he bought a different new record every day. “That meant a lot when we were kids,” Brancowitz says. “It meant you had to be very rich.”