1Which track from your 1971 Yamasuki album ‘Le Monde Fabuleux des Yamasuki’ did Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders include on his 2008 ‘Late Night Tales’ DJ mix album?
“I wasn’t aware of this. Could it be ‘Kono Samourai’?
WRONG. It’s ‘Yama Yama’. ‘Le Monde Fabuleux des Yamasuki’ was an ambitious pseudo-Japanese concept album of pop songs…
“At the time, there was a television series called Kung Fu starring David Carradine, and my writing and production partner Jean Kluger and I decided to do something with karate. I wanted to have the special shout of death [kiai] that a karate master uses before he kills somebody on an album. I don’t speak Japanese, so I bought an English-Japanese dictionary, chose the poetic phrases in English and learned the pronunciation phonetically, before teaching the children’s choir the lyrics in Japanese. Even in Japan, they didn’t think it was strange. It must have been a good accent! We hired a Belgium karate master, who wore his traditional outfit and delivered his shout of death. He was in front of me opposite the microphone in the studio and his arm kept brushing millimetres past my face, so I was a little frightened I’d end up dead! But it was fun.”
2Which girl group released a cover of ‘Aie a Mwana’ (the best-known title of a song written by yourself and Jean Kluger) as their debut single?
“And that song is how they got their name as well. I did the lyrics in Swahili, even though I don’t speak the language. I asked the guy I was working with who helped with the lyrics to tell me phrases, and I chose the ones that sounded good. When the single was first released there was a transportation strike, so it flopped because it wasn’t distributed. When I later met Bananarama, I told them I was the godfather of their band and they laughed. Funnily, it was the favourite song of the dictator of the Congo at the time – he told me it was the most popular song in his country.”
Did you enjoy the Bananarama cover?
“No, I thought it was awful! They didn’t know how to sing at the time. [Pause] I’m joking! It was fun. They originally thought it was Swahili folk song, so I was happy with that.”
3Which English football team’s fans used the Gibson Brothers’ 1978 hit ‘Cuba’ (which you wrote) as a chant, changing the lyrics to be about central midfielder Thiago Alcântara?
“I’ve never heard of this. I’m learning a lot of things I don’t know about my songs. Which team was it?”
“I need to look that up!”
What was it like working with the Gibson Brothers?
“Good. They were real brothers. I used to work with them as musicians, and one day they came to my house with a demo of ‘Come to America’ and I thought it was great. We were trying to find a name for them and I said, ‘If you were a girl band, it would be easier – we’d call you the Fender Sisters. So we went with Gibson because it was the name of another guitar brand that everybody would recognise. Alex [Francfort], their keyboardist and vocalist, had learned Japanese at school in Paris and told me they spent weeks learning the ‘Le Monde Fabuleux des Yamasuki’ track ‘Aieaoa’ there! When ‘Cuba’ the album was released [in 1979], it only received one review in France which said: ‘If you have this record in your hands, the only thing you should do is throw it in the trash bin!’”
4Your son is Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter. But what was the first-ever record cover he appeared on? (Clue: it’s produced by you)
“I remember that he did a couple of record covers. He designed some artwork on a Macintosh paint programme of a dancefloor with coloured squares and I used it for a dance song [‘Ottawan Megamix’ in 1989]. It was so early that I had to get in touch with a little company that had just started in California called Photoshop to get it off the computer so I could use it.”
WRONG. Even earlier, in 1977, he was pictured as a child in a pushchair on the cover of Soul Iberica Band’s ‘Baby Sitter’.
“Ahhh yes! The cover of ‘Baby Sitter’ was taken in the garden next to my house, with the babysitter pushing him in a stroller when he was aged around two or three. ‘Baby Sitter’ was a big disco hit in Japan.”
Did you always know that Thomas would follow in your footsteps?
“Never. His mother wanted him to learn piano and his teacher was in the Opera of Paris. After a while, I asked him if Thomas was any good, and the teacher replied: ‘He’s OK, but he has a great sense of rhythm that makes people want to dance’. When Thomas met [Daft Punk bandmate] Guy-Manuel, their common love was cinema. I think Thomas only came to the studio with me once which is good, because otherwise he would have learned to produce in a normal way and lost what made Daft Punk unique.”
5Which band did you once intend to send a letter to asking if you could join them?
“I didn’t send the letter, but I did songs because of The Beatles, especially Paul McCartney. My brother used to live in Brighton, so I used to get the Beatles records before normal people in France. I was creative at the time and really thought I could bring something to the band, so wrote a letter to them [Laughs].”
Did you ever meet Paul McCartney?
“Yes. I was there when Daft Punk won and performed at the Grammys [in 2014]: during the show, Paul McCartney was singing along and clapping his hands. Afterwards, I saw that Thomas was talking to him for over 20 minutes. I said: ‘What did you talk about?’. He responded: ‘We talked about music. He asked me if I’d like to do a song with him’. I thought: ‘Oh my God!’ So Thomas introduced me to him. That Grammy awards was a special moment for me as a father. I saw Quincy Jones arrive in a wheelchair, and during ‘Get Lucky’, which Daft Punk performed with Stevie Wonder, he stood up and danced. I felt like: ‘Lord, it’s a miracle!’ I was proud.”
6What number did Ottawan’s ‘D.I.S.C.O.’ reach on the UK charts in 1980?
“Maybe Number Two?”
CORRECT. Unexpectedly, it was your protest song following the infamous “disco sucks” Disco Demolition Night of 1979 in Chicago, where a mass destruction of disco records took place in a stadium.
“When they burned disco records in America, it was like Nazi Germany burning books with Jewish writers – those books are still read today. And disco still survives today, and is stronger than ever. The people burning those records were like Trump fans now; it was a homophobic and racist movement. Disco was music made by gay and Black people, so these stupid prejudiced people wanted to use their songs to attack them. So I did ‘D.I.S.C.O’ as a retaliation to say, ‘We’ll see if disco is dead…’.”
7On which two Daft Punk albums do you receive a credit?
“It must be the first two.”
CORRECT. On ‘Homework’, you receive a credit ‘for [providing] previous advice’ and on ‘Discovery’, you’re credited under the heading of ‘Design. Concept. Art Direction’.
“When the band started they were in their 20s, so I helped and advised them so that they got total artistic and financial freedom and stayed owners of everything they do. And I’m glad because I think there’s too much interference between the time an artist thinks of a project and when it’s distributed: it arrives distorted. One of the reasons for Daft Punk’s success is that they did exactly what they wanted and it came to the public exactly, unfiltered, from their minds.”
Did Thomas ever rebel against your musical taste?
“He did something worse than that! [Laughs] They did those first two Daft Punk albums in his bedroom next to my room. At the beginning, they were experimenting and I thought it was really special. I didn’t always understand it, and would say: ‘When will you write a song on top of it?’, not realising it was meant to be an instrumental. But whenever I said I liked something, they’d drop that song and I’d never hear it again! I was the benchmark: if I liked it, it wasn’t good enough! So in the end, I stopped commenting! [Laughs]”.
Ironically, it was hearing Daft Punk that made you want to give up making dance music yourself…
“I was doing dance music and when I heard Daft Punk, I said: ‘No, it’s a new generation coming. I cannot compete with this music’. At the time, I also had a big fight with the French authors’ society [about Jewish composers who had their intellectual property rights, and attendant earnings, stripped from them during the Nazi occupation of France] so the idea of writing a song and the rights going to them? I wasn’t into that.”
Was there ever any discussion of uniting the generations and collaborating on a track with Daft Punk?
“No. I was never involved with them artistically and I would never dare to ask to collaborate on a track together.”
8What is the name of the 2007 single by Erykah Badu that samples ‘Kono Samourai’?
“I know she used it, but I don’t know the name of the song!”
WRONG. It’s ‘The Healer’.
“Yes! I was surprised, but glad it was used by modern artists. When I saw that Yamasuki was used in an episode of Fargo, that was rewarding also.”
9Which famous singer inspired the title of your Soul Iberica Band track ‘I’m Looking For Jeremy’?
“I know that! It was Nina Simone.”
CORRECT. According to Jean Kluger, “a woman in [a] terrible state, who we later realised happened to be Nina Simone, was constantly looking for Abraham. We just changed the name.”
“It was Jean Kluger who had this experience, and I was not there in the studio when it happened.”
It’s one of 20 tracks included on your recent career-spanning compilation ‘The Vaults of Zagora Records Mastermind (1971-1984)’.
“When I was sent the tracklist the label had selected, I had to go on YouTube to verify some tracks to see if I was really involved in them – because I couldn’t remember them at all! [Laughs]. Some I remembered, but others… like when I saw the title of ‘Voyager II’, I thought: ‘Are you sure?!’ But listening back to these tracks, some of which are over 40 years old, I was surprised at how good and present they sounded. Some sound better than some tracks recorded today because they were recorded live on analogue tape. I also realised how serious I was about having fun with my projects.”
10In 2021, MC Blitzy, Luis Fonsi and Nicole Scherzinger recorded a variation on Ottawan’s ‘D.I.S.C.O’ with which title?
“It was for a mobile games company. ‘She’s Bingo’?”
The verdict: 6/10
“I’m very happy, because my memory’s better than I thought! I assumed I’d only get two or three. I will have a good day today!”
‘Vaults of Zagora Records Mastermind (1971-1984)’ is available now via Because Music.