The enduring influence of Daft Punk: “They gave off this attitude of not giving a fuck”

Contemporary dancefloor dons Disclosure, Parcels and Kelly Lee Owens tell Thomas Smith how the robots, who sadly powered down last week, inspired them to go harder, better, faster, stronger. Main image credit: Dean Chalkley / NME

Despite being a shiny presence over pop music for almost three decades, it was shadowplay that came to define Daft Punk in the end. You never knew when they might show up and rewrite all the rules again, and you sense that’s the way they were programmed to like it. Contemporaries dance heroes Kelly Lee Owens, Parcels and Disclosure can all attest to that.

In 2015, the former had a lengthy chat with helmet-less hero Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, one half of the duo, on a night out, not clocking who she was chatting to. “I only found out afterwards who I’d spent the time talking to,” she tells NME. Likewise, Parcels and Disclosure were both blessed by clandestine appearances at their respective shows in Paris in recent years. Parcels went on to collaborate on a song with them (2017’s funktastic ‘Overnight’), but Disclosure have a twinge of regret how their encounter went down.

“We went backstage in our show in Paris and our dressing room was full of people, Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence reveals over Zoom. “Our rider had been totally drunk by all these people that we didn’t know. We asked our tour manager to clear the room so we could prepare for the show, and the last two people to leave were Daft Punk. We didn’t talk to them face-to-face that night – but they told people that they enjoyed the show, which was nice.”

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We may never see the pair stalking shows together again. After nearly 30 years, the iconic French duo called it quits last week (February 22). In the eight-minute clip that accompanied the announcement, the two Robots – aka Thomas Bangalter and de Homem-Christo – enter the desert but only one makes it out, er, alive. In a scene re-cut from their 2006 film Electroma, Bangalter requests that the self-destruct mechanism is set off by his pal, and is promptly blown to smithereens. It’s oddly beautiful for a creative partnership built on bromance to end in such a devastating manner.

Fan theories are already abound: why did de Homem-Christo walk on into the desert without Bangalter? Are we to glean meaning from the clip, or is it just a grandiose way for one of the century’s biggest artists to say “ta-ra”? The answers are still up in air and no reason has been given for a split. We hope Homem-Christo brought a dustpan and brush to sweep his mate up, though.

In their 28 years, Daft Punk released four albums – from 1997’s game-changing ‘Homework’ to 2013 disco-voyage ‘Random Access Memories’ – scored a Hollywood blockbuster (2010’s Tron: Legacy), produced their own films, embarked on one of the most revered live tours of all time and collaborated with The Weeknd and Kanye West. ‘Random Access Memories’ was widely considered their magnum opus and now acts as their dramatic finale, their love for electronic, rock, pop, disco powering a truly wild ride.

The pair met at school in Paris in 1987, bonding over a shared love for guitar music, and went on to form the trio Darlin’ alongside Laurent Brancowitz (later a founding member of indie-pop heroes, Phoenix). A handful of what they later called “pretty average” shows in 1992 garnered an infamous Melody Maker review, in which they were dubbed “daft punky thrash”.

They turned their focus to electronic music and released a smattering of singles in the years that followed, including 1995’s ‘Da Funk’. After a stint on Scottish indie label Soma, the pair eventually made the leap to work alongside Virgin Records on a licensing deal for their music.

‘Homework’ turned the head of a Welsh techno pop-star Kelly Lee Owens, who was enamoured by intensity in both the studio results and their live shows. “I just felt this raw energy that these people, or robots, were creating – and the mystery shrouded around them was super intriguing,” she says, crediting the “punchiness” of ‘Revolution 909’ as a key touchstone in her development and the music she is working on now.

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Bangalter was adamant that every creation be on their own terms: fearless and joyful. From their studio in Paris, they transmitted an unpretentious camaraderie, gleefully pinching samples from the depths of their record collection: Elton John and Kiki Dee, Barry White and Billy Joel were all chopped and morphed into something new. Fake crowd noise elevated the house groover ‘Revolution 909’, while they unashamedly list their influences on ‘Teachers’, including the DJs that paved the way, like Paul Johnson, Derrick Carter and Jeff Mills. It was just fun for the sake of it.

For Owens, their approach to the album provided valuable lessons creatively and on a business level. “They gave off this attitude of not giving a fuck and they did have a bit of a DIY attitude when it came to the business side of things,” she says. “They were signed to major labels and doing a licensing deal, and that really informed me in terms of what I should do with my music. They showed that you don’t need to give your masters away and play all these games: you can make great music and people in the industry will want to work with you anyway. That spirit is really needed more than ever. And it’s not about being ‘controlling’; it’s being protective of their creativity and not allowing that to be exploited.”

In the years that followed, the pair tinkered away with solo projects alongside their Daftendirekt tour in 1997, the most memorable being Bangalter’s turn in French House trio Stardust’s spectacular one-hit wonder ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ in 1998. It would signal Daft Punk’s shimmy towards the world of pop and the album that followed in 2001, ‘Discovery’, remains their most complete work: concise, joyful and encapsulated their lust for life – and music – with it.

For Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence, it was an example of a dance album with a voice: be it via their own robotic vocals (‘Digital Love’, ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’) or through manipulating their sample choices (‘Superheroes’). Lawrences references the groove of ‘Voyager’ as something that he’s “ripped off shamelessly” and that he has “definitely referenced them in the last two or three years” on Disclosure’s own work. Give a listen to their recent work ‘Ecstasy’ EP, on which they used Daft Punk as a mixing reference, and you’ll know what he’s talking about.

Credit: Getty

Upon its release in 2001, NME’s Stephen Dalton said ‘Discovery’ helped “reinvent the mid-’80s as the coolest pop era ever” and that we ought to “play this orgasmically great record until your brain implodes with joy”. So the people did: lead single ‘One More Time’ became an inescapable international club hit and their biggest-selling single until 2013’s planet-devouring ‘Get Lucky’.

This was also the era that saw them adopt the iconic robot get-up – until then, they’d played about with a variety of more low-key masks. The duo claimed the reboot was the result of a studio “explosion” that turned them into robots, and the sleek helmets propelled two average-looking French dudes into intergalactic rave masters – yet another playful twist on the assumption that all DJs and producers were faceless and replaceable. The mystery remains an enticing prospect today. Few artists – aside, perhaps, Burial and Banksy – have had the conviction to see out the shtick with such conviction. “I was never really interested in knowing who they were,” Kelly Lee Owens says. “The music they released gave me everything I needed – and that was the genius of it, really”.

Parcels keyboardist Patrick Hetherington agrees: “I couldn’t quite grasp the imagery growing up, these two robot things with this crazy electro music. I think they always really struck the feeling that something grander was at play, in the music and the imagery – that enigma that felt larger-than-life. That was inspiring.”

“I was never interested in who they were.The music gave me everything. that was the genius of it” – Kelly Lee Owens

As the duo slipped under the cloak of anonymity, their work became more sporadic. 2005’s ‘Human After All’ – written and recorded in just six weeks – was widely considered an underwhelming comeback, leaning too heavily on the rock heritage and lacking in ideas. The album would receive a belated reappraisal when witnessed at festival sets during their Alive 2006/7 world tour, when a recording of their homecoming Paris show became a spectacular live album. When dance-punks LCD Soundsystem sing about Daft Punk playing at their house, it’s probably fair to assume it’s about ‘Human After All’s lead single ‘Robot Rock’.

The big beats bonanza of 2007’s Alive Tour ushered in a refresher of what a festival headline act could be, proving that electronic music could hold its own on the main stage. But the band are lumbered with the responsibility of predating the wave of faceless EDM acts that followed, from Deadmau5 to Marshmello. Speaking to NME’s Kevin EG Perry in 2013, the band said that EDM “lacked depth”. “I don’t know EDM artists or the albums,” Homem-Christo joked. “At first I thought it was all just one guy, some DJ called EDM.”

Final record ‘Random Access Memories’ acted as a rebuke to the weight they’d been forced to carry by critics. Hyped to high heavens following the success of Pharrell-featuring lead single ‘Get Lucky’, it was another homage to the music they’d grown up enamoured with: ‘70s US soft-rock and disco. Bangalter said that the duo took inspiration from the people and places that were involved in their favourite records growing up. When the pair recorded with guitarist Nile Rodgers at New York City’s famed Electric Ladyland studios, they requested that Rodgers stand in the exact same places as he did decades prior with Chic; it was an attempt to conjure similar magic.

Tron Daft Punk
Daft Punk in ‘Tron: Legacy’ (Credit: Disney)

Beneath their visors they were laughing in the face of criticisms they’d faced their entire career: that their music was overblown, repetitive and merely style over substance. Tracks such as ‘Touch’, ‘Doin It Right’ and ‘Within’ exaggerate their techniques to the extreme, but from ‘Get Lucky’ to ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, they never abandoned sharp pop songwriting.

Beyond igniting the mainstream’s disco inferno renaissance – see Dua Lipa, SG Lewis and Kylie’s recent albums – you can see the touchstones of ‘Random Access Memories’ in rising artists like Parcels. On the Aussie band’s 2018 debut, collective instrumentation and playing is chief to the success of disco-pop bubblers ‘Tieduprightnow’ and ‘Lightenup’. Daft Punk must have recognised it too: the duo introduced themselves to Parcels following a sold-out Paris show in 2017, and later invited them into the studio.

“We didn’t believe that would really happen until months later when we were on a flight back to Paris to join them in the studio,” says Hetherington. “We pinched ourselves walking home from the studio every night – but they didn’t bring ego and it never felt like we were working under them. It was collaboration and we were all meeting in the middle just trying to catch a cool musical moment.”

“They were perfectionists but also looking for something simple and human” – Parcels’ Patrick Hetherington

Parcels joined illustrious company with their 2017 single ‘Overnight’. In the band’s final decade, they produced songs with only a handful of artists, including Kanye West (‘Yeezus’, 2013) and The Weeknd (‘Starboy’, 2016). The sleek ‘Overnight’ would be the final piece of music that Daft Punk were involved in before their split.

Hetherington says of their time in the studio: “We learnt about delicacy and having a really deep investigation into every note of every chord; but also about feeling and not thinking. They also helped us to realise that we’re a band, that we want to be playing real, live instruments together and recording it like that because that’s when we sometimes hit something special.”

If this truly is the end of Daft Punk, it’s a bittersweet one. They snuck out the back door in badass fashion, erasing the hope that they had some creative distance left to run: their indelible mark on modern pop will now have to suffice. They toyed with the role of technology throughout their career and never lost sight of the connectivity and joy music can bring: they were human after all.

“They’re perfectionists and they’re trying to make the music shine,” Hetherington says, “but they’re also looking for something simple and something human. That’s the sweet spot.”

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