On its release in June 2000, music critics took a surprisingly progressive view of manufactured American pop duo Daphne & Celeste’s debut album, ‘We Didn’t Say That!’. “Though some of you may find the fact unpalatable, excellent pop stars don’t always have to make excellent music,” wrote NME, who gave it 5/10. All Music declared it either “the utter dregs of the pop barrel, brilliant art stunt – or both.” But as a pop-obsessed 10-year-old, their singles ‘Ooh Stick You’ and ‘UGLY’ had offended me like nothing since Cher’s ‘Believe’ had the temerity to spend seven weeks hogging the Number 1 spot in 1998, denying good songs (like Bryan Adams and Mel C’s ‘When You’re Gone’ and Will Smith’s ‘Miami’) their rightful chart triumph. I thought Daphne & Celeste’s chipmunk cheerleader chants were beyond annoying, a judgment that holds little to no water given that I happily owned CDs by Steps, Five and Geri Halliwell.
When I (tentatively) mention this to Celeste and Karen (who was given the name Daphne by their management) over the phone, they laugh. Unlike me, they didn’t take themselves seriously 15 years ago. Nor do they seem to now as they prepare to release their brilliantly bizarre and unexpected comeback single, ‘You And I Alone’, in collaboration with underrated British producer Max Tundra (aka Ben Jacobs). It’s a glitchy, juddering, low-key pop song where the duo sing disquietingly about cryptic long-distance communications before breaking into a surrealist rap that cites Pink Floyd’s ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court & Spark’ and 1980s kids’ TV show Educating Marmalade.
“We’re going about it the same way we always have,” says Celeste. “We don’t really know what will happen but our intention was to have a good time. When we were approached with the song we were like, ‘does this sound like it’s gonna be fun?’ And it genuinely did. I’m hoping that people can feel that vibe and have a good time with it. It’s been so fun working with Ben, and I’m excited to see what our separate fanbases think about it. He may have a different fanbase than we do.”
“Oh, you think?!” says Karen.
A year before ‘We Didn’t Say That!’, Ben Jacobs had released his debut single as Max Tundra, ‘Children At Play’, through Warp, its frenetic drill’n’bass aligning him with labelmates Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. In 2000, Domino put out his debut album, ‘Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be’, a sorely underrated record of blissful electronic maximalism. It’s fair to say that he wasn’t exactly about to bump into Daphne & Celeste on CD:UK.
“One of my pet hates is melancholy electronica, which there was a hell of a lot of when Daphne & Celeste came around,” Ben says. “Glitchy, minor chord, drifty bullshit. And so I’ve always tried to make music that’s the opposite of that – packed with melodies, twists and turns and the rest of it. I guess one of the similarities between Daphne & Celeste and myself is pretty much every song I’ve ever released is quite cheerful and upbeat. They were so brash and multicoloured – and they were very different to what I was into at the time, they were a bit of a shock to the system. I wasn’t ready for it then, but as the years have evolved, you hear those songs from time and time and think, that’s very much a part of my life. For a while I’ve thought they were the perfect pop band. They touched a nerve. I remembered them and thought, bloody hell, wouldn’t that be a great collaboration.”
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In February 2011, Ben tweeted at Celeste offering to write the duo a comeback single. (He’s also tried Cher and Taylor Swift, but sadly to no avail.) Three months later, she replied saying yes. “It just sounded cool,” she says today. “He sounded cool. The whole situation sounded weird and cool. His music is weird but it’s appealing, and has a pop sensibility.”
“It’s so eclectic and definitively his own thing,” adds Karen, who had seen him play at the music venue where she used to work in Brooklyn. “There’s nothing quite like it. It did seem like it was going to be a really unexpected collaboration. When we were in the band, everything was really fucking unexpected, and that’s what got us excited about this.”
Shortly after Celeste tweeted back at him, the chorus of ‘You And I Alone’ arrived to Ben in a dream. Dreaming up whole songs isn’t an uncommon occurrence, he says, admitting that most of the melodies on his last album to date, 2008’s excellent ‘Parallax Error Beheads You’, came to him in the moments just before waking. When he composed the song properly, the idea was to for it to be “very original and odd but also quite poppy at the same time,” he says. “I wanted to do something that was quite at odds with their back catalogue, but might also be seen as an evolution of what these two girls would be doing now after 15 years in the wilderness. I wanted it to be quite strange and quite catchy.”
He sent over the music, the duo recorded vocals in New York, and he polished the whole thing off. The song was actually finished four years ago, and the trio only just met for the first time in LA, where Karen lives. “Relationships, work projects, all of that” kept it from coming out sooner, says Celeste, who lives in Brooklyn. (They are both now actors and writers.) Perhaps stranger than Daphne & Celeste releasing their fourth single, 15 years after their last one (a cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’), is the fact that they’ve remained close friends in the interim years.
“Unfortunately it’s not a very dramatic story,” says Karen. “It would be a much better narrative if this song had reunited us. But we’re like family. We lived together in Brooklyn for years, Celeste lived out here in LA for a year – we’re like sisters at this point.” An hour on the phone with them confirms this – they frequently collapse with mirth at each other’s answers, and it’s easy to imagine them leading journalists down the garden path back in the day.
In 1998, Daphne & Celeste were formed by a management company who already had a record deal on the table for a duo of “fun girls with fun personalities,” as Karen recalls. The two child performers didn’t know each other beforehand, but after successful individual auditions they were paired off for a second round. “I mean, Celeste, I don’t want to throw us under the bus, but we’re hardly the best dancers,” says Karen. “Our skills are very limited. We were dancing about to this song – and we did later realise this was ‘Ooh Stick You’ – but we were laughing and making fun of the song while we were dancing to it.”
The idea was only ever to launch the band in the UK, where the post-Stock Aitken Waterman wave of manufactured pop acts was cresting its last wave with acts like B*Witched, 5ive, Steps, S Club 7, Westlife and Billie Piper. Until Karen and Celeste reached Britain, the possibility of standing alongside them didn’t seem real, says Karen. “Honestly, before we went the first time, I thought I was going to use this free trip to look at drama schools in London. But then we got there, we were doing photoshoots, my name was Daphne…”
Management knocked two years off Karen’s age, too, taking her from 17 down to Celeste’s 15. But that’s the only manipulation they experienced, a far cry from the horror stories you might reasonably expect (unless you count being made to do a tour of ASDAs across the country and perform in school assemblies). “Someone asked us an interesting question the other day,” says Karen. “‘Did we have any media training?’ We were like, obviously not! It was quite obvious that we didn’t go through the pop machine in that way, and I think ultimately that’s what made it so much fun for us. Everything about the music was manufactured, but everything that we said in interviews and our personalities was not, for better or worse! But that’s what made it really fun for us ‘cos we weren’t little robots who had to say certain things.”
“I couldn’t imagine how much harder that would have been,” says Celeste. “Being able to keep our own identity in press was a relief. I think it would have been intense to be fed what you had to say, and that was definitely going on with some other bands.”
“We also had each other,” says Karen. “People who are doing it on their own – that can be really challenging. And when we went back to New York and New Jersey, our lives were normal.”
Their devil-may-care attitude and propensity for egging on each others’ fibs in interviews helped them find favour in the indie music press among early adopters of poptimism – NME’s late Steven Wells was an enormous fan, once writing of them, “These women are funny, fucking funny. And also totally, utterly and irredeemably completely bastard MAAAAAAAAD!” They found peers in H from Steps and a few others, “but to be honest the pop world was really, really sticky business,” says Celeste.
“It was like high school,” adds Karen.
“I don’t want to say cutthroat, but it was serious,” says Celeste. “Everyone was very, very serious. And we couldn’t help but make fun of it.”
‘Ooh Stick You’, their debut single, had charted at Number 8, but its follow-up, ‘UGLY’, only made it to Number 18 (though it did find a spot on the OST to cheerleading comedy Bring It On). “People were looking at us like, ‘how are you holding up, are you okay?’” says Karen, putting on a grave voice. “And we were like, ‘we are fine!’ It wasn’t hard to deal with because we just weren’t taking it as seriously, so there was a bit of a disconnect with some other people.”
The one thing they did take seriously was wangling themselves a place on the bill at Reading Festival, primarily so Celeste could meet Eminem (who eventually pulled out) and, obviously, because they thought it would be funny. “I just started telling press that we were playing,” says Celeste. “We were just lying! It was an obvious joke ‘cos it’s Reading, and at the time it was very hard rock – like Slipknot and Foo Fighters and guitars in your face.”
“We said it everywhere,” says Karen. “And eventually they called and said, ‘hey, do you guys wanna play?’”
“I literally couldn’t have come up with a better ending,” says Celeste. “It was the ultimate prank. Here we had been pranking press all along and it was the ultimate one. And then everybody came!”
Although Daphne & Celeste played a few more shows (and the odd reunion date) after Reading 2000, Karen considers it the official end of the band (which fizzled out in reality) and their “crowning achievement”. Walking onstage before Slipknot’s set, they were infamously met with a barrage of bottles (some filled with piss), shoes and other detritus. “It felt like a video game,” says Karen. “Dodging and jumping and seeing like, ‘oh look, two pairs of shoes’. You can’t be scared in that moment because you just have to trust it.”
“It was amazing, I was amazed,” says Celeste. “Also because festivals hadn’t broken in America yet, so I didn’t even know this was happening – that thousands of people would go to a field and rock their faces off.”
I suggest to them that the sight of two teenage girls walking out onto Reading’s main stage, singing live to a backing track in denim flares, and giggling as thousands of drunk misogynists throw stuff at them is a pretty punk thing to do, no matter how manufactured they were. “It didn’t even register as that as we were doing it,” says Celeste. “We didn’t think we would get off stage and get respect from all the rock bands.”
They are refreshingly resistant to retrospective intellectualising of anything they did or the music they made back then. There’s a case for their flippant bubblegum pop potentially being an influence on the likes of Charli XCX, but the release of a comeback single with a producer from the alternative world will inevitably provoke chin-stroking about their music’s actually very postmodern quality, especially given the rise of PC Music’s academic take on the saccharine pop aesthetic.
“I think people intellectualise it too often,” says Celeste. “I think we were about fun and not taking yourself too seriously. Whenever we hit a wall where anything felt defeatist, we would find a way out by poking fun at it, and that’s what allowed us to have fun.”
“Ultimately it was a comedy album,” says Karen. “We didn’t write any of the songs and we would get some of them and be like, ‘what?’ Then we would go into the studio and you would have to embrace the ridiculousness. It’s sort of doing things with a wink.”
“People do like to pontificate about these matters, don’t they?” says Ben. “It’s just disposable pop, that’s what makes it timeless. It’s not arch, there’s no svengali involved, it just is what it is.”
He is aware of the controversy that arose over the likes of the PC Music stable co-opting female vocals and identity in their aesthetic, as argued in an article by The Fader’s Steph Kretowicz last December. As a self-declared control freak, he describes female vocals as “untouchable, a magical thing, a musical instrument that I can’t play so someone else has to provide it.” His aim now is to become a producer and songwriter for pop acts. “It’s such a laugh and pop’s so innovative at the moment, I just want to be a part of that, it’d be nice to be that go-to guy,” he says, jokily ruing the fact that his former Domino labelmate Dev Hynes beat him to the punch. Top of his collaboration wishlist are Miley Cyrus, Beyonce and Taylor Swift, though he admits that’s “quite ambitious, really…”
‘You And I Alone’ will be the first release on Ben’s newly minted label, Balatonic, which initially will be home to his own productions: next year will bring the next Max Tundra album and another instrumental electronic record under a different name. Part of the reason that it’s taken seven years for him to follow up ‘Parallax Error Beheads You’ is that he fell out of love with his home studio, which revolved around a Commodore Amiga 500 and a piece of software from 1989.
“It might take 20 minutes to switch on these machines just to reverse a sample,” he says. “It just stopped being fun. If I wanted to do a chord with seven notes in it, I was using this little black and white telly and thinking, this is ridiculous, I need to rethink it. Then I modernised – I’ve now got a laptop-based studio and can do in five minutes what used to take me five months. It’s extremely addictive making music now – from me dreading it and cleaning under the cooker and doing a spot of gardening rather than actually making music, to forgetting to go to the loo ‘cos you’re chained to the computer.”
He fulfilled his three-album contract with Domino, to his – and, he thinks, their – relief. “It was amazing having the opportunity to release those three albums and basically do what they hell I liked, but I always felt that, spiritually, they weren’t quite the home for me. Lovely people, very supportive, but it does feel good to blaze a trail on my own.” Once we’re done talking, he’s off to the post office to send out radio promos of ‘You And I Alone’, and calls the process of being producer, label owner and head of operations empowering. Come Sunday at 7pm, when the veil of secrecy is lifted and the video premieres, he says he has “absolutely no idea” how the song will be received. “I haven’t had a record out for seven years so I’m not sure what the mechanisms are any more.” Seven years is nothing in comparison to Karen and Celeste’s 15, though, and the fact that they’ve entered into a totally different world to the pop bubble they burst at the turn of the millennium.
“Being part of Ben’s process and how he hears things has been incredible,” says Celeste. “He’ll add this little something that makes all the difference. It’s very, very different from manufactured music, where it’s like, ‘here you go!’”
“You think it’s different from ‘UGLY’? Really?! That’s so surprising…” adds Karen, and they both fall about laughing again.