The most surprising thing about Daft Punk’s helmets is how light they are. Constructed from metal-plated fiberglass and acrylic, they aren’t burdened with the heft you’d expect. The flashing LED displays that were part of their first versions are gone and the multi-colored wiring on the exposed back panel leads nowhere. Putting on the gold, full-face visor model of Daft member Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo is like enveloping your head in a single sunglasses lens, tinting the world a dampened green. Wearing it feels like being a kid in a Halloween mask for the first time—there’s the same giddy thrill that no one can see what you are really doing and the same excitement about how weird and awesome you must look. I don’t know what it’s like to wear Thomas Bangalter’s sleek, silver headpiece. I didn’t try that one on.
In the ’90s Daft Punk emerged as France’s greatest purveyors of liberating dance floor cheese and sleaze. Even in the beginning, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo did their best to hide what they looked like. While promoting their 1997 debut album Homework they resorted to measures like covering their faces in whipped cream for photo shoots or giving the starring role in their first video to a melancholy dogman with a broken ankle. As to why they’ve always been interested in preserving their anonymity, Bangalter responds, “It can be from very practical reasons to very conceptual ones to very political ones or ideological ones. [The idea was] started to show that there’s no one path to follow and you can do what you want. It fits into what we want to express, but also it fits our lifestyle. It definitely allows us to have this every day life and look in the streets like any one.”
There were always people eager to expose the group’s faces. (This element still exists, as a video of the undisguised duo DJing at a Milwaukee rave in 1996 recently appeared online.) In 2001, Daft Punk hoped to eradicate this problem when they debuted their robot costumes along with their second album and first masterpiece, Discovery. Devised by directors Alex & Martin and built by make up and animatronics effects creator Tony Gardner (whose credits range from Three Kings to Seed of Chucky), the robots gave them a way to hide their identities, but were bizarre enough to keep Daft Punk culturally compelling. The press played along, dutifully printing quotes from the group stating “We are robots now,” and recounting their story about how their bodies were irreparably damaged on September 9th, 1999, when a sampler in their studio exploded.
Now, six years on and one redesign later, it’s becoming clear that the robots do not represent Bangalter and de Homem-Christo the actual breathing people with passports and swimming pools, but rather they represent the greater concept of Daft Punk. Daft Punk is the vehicle for all the art and ideas that spring from the pair’s vastly creative, and entirely human, minds.
“The music has never been the most important thing,” says Bangalter. “Rather there’s a general creative approach with many satellites around the music as the main vector. Before people were thinking that all of these things around the music were a part of some kind of promotion or marketing. I think last year and this year, what we are trying to do is put it in a way that people can understand that it’s not a marketing play. It’s just a general universe that we can create from fiction and reality.”
On the Friday morning of the photo shoot for this article, when I got to see the world through Daft vision, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were not there. They were somewhere else in Los Angeles, preparing for their highly-anticipated summer tour. Instead it was Peter Hurteau and Michael Reich wearing the Daft Punk helmets and the leather outfits designed by Hedi Slimane when he was with Dior Homme. Hurteau and Reich played Hero Robot #1 and Hero Robot #2 in Electroma and are called on as stand-ins when there are events at which Bangalter and de Homem-Christo want Daft Punk to appear, but are unable to attend.
Two days earlier at a bakery/restaurant in Beverly Hills, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo arrived, in person, for our interview. The location was chosen because it was around the corner from the audiologist who’d be fitting the pair for new earpieces to wear during their upcoming shows. The duo now spend an average of six months a year in Los Angeles and look comfortable here. With their faded pastel T-shirts and outgrown stubble that aspires towards total beardhood, they cultivate an effortless blend of California slack and Euro sophistication. Of the two, the ice pick thin Bangalter does most of the talking. When de Homem-Christo does speak, his blue, cartoon critter eyes float away towards the window.
“We definitely were having more fun at an Orbital show than at a Teenage Fanclub show, even though we still loved their music more,” adds Bangalter. “There was a level of excitement that was not the same.”
While still teenagers, the group formed and dissolved the rock trio Darlin’ with Laurent Brancowitz (who would go on to be a member of light jammers Phoenix), but not before a dismissive review in Melody Maker called them “a bunch of daft punks.” After hearing My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon,” the moody British band’s own dalliance with dance music elements, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo began experimenting with drum machines and beat boxes in their bedrooms. By the time they were barely into their 20s, their innovative, but ultimately pop, output as Daft Punk was already inspiring rock kids to explore the same alternatives they had. “I bought ‘Da Funk’ the first week it came out. I bought it on CD single,” says bassist Jamie Reynolds of the Klaxons. “I was going to indie clubs at the time and you’d hear it in between the Stone Roses and the Charlatans. For people who were into guitar music, [Daft Punk] and early Chemical Brothers were an acceptable way to get into beats.”
“They put guitar solos on Discovery when there were not a lot of guitar solos happening,” says Jesse Keeler of burly house duo MSTRKRFT. “Their major influence has been to not stick by any rules, and in dance music there are a lot of rules.”
In 2005, Daft Punk released their latest album, Human After All. It was their first record not met with overwhelming adoration. Some complained that it didn’t have the level of exacting care that was expected of them, others felt it just tried to shred too hard. “As much as the first two albums were entertaining, we felt like the third album was about this feeling of either fear or paranoia,” says Bangalter. “It’s not a fun record. It’s not something intended to make you feel good.” (Though it should be noted that two years later, singles “Robot Rock” and “Technologic” are still dancefloor fillers.)
—Jesse Keeler of MSTRKRFT
Daft Punk did not play any shows in support of Human After All directly after its release. They waited a year, when there was, as Bangalter says, “enough content, material and technology to join all of it together in order to express what we want to express.” They debuted this new stage show at the 2006 Coachella Festival for their first performance in the US since 1997. Its myth making status was almost instantaneous. By the following Monday morning, the internet was flooded with digital pictures, YouTube clips, MP3s and breathless praise.
“It was best show I’ve ever seen. There are many levels of why it was so good,” says Panda Bear of the group Animal Collective, a year later. “It was in this huge tent. We were standing way in the back and even all the way back there it almost seemed impossible. It sounded really, really amazing back there. The stage show was really elaborate and intense. It was the most epic looking thing.”
Daft Punk played a few more festivals during 2006, and this summer they will complete a brief tour of the North America, the UK and Paris with what Bangalter calls “the special edition of what the tour was last year. It’s not ultimately a new show, rather it’s a fine tuned, refined, ultimate version.” They plan to film these shows for an eventual live DVD.
Bangalter and de Homem-Christo see themselves as working in the tradition of pop art, using the accessible to reveal larger truths. The revelations, however, are about Daft Punk itself, their own mysterious creation. “We like the idea that each time you add a piece of art or you add an album, you open up a side of a cube or a diamond,” says Bangalter. “Every piece brings a new light or adds a new nuance.” When asked about future plans, the pair hesitate and then admit that they don’t always know what’s next. There is no grand Daft Punk master plan. It is two men imagining what’s inside the minds of two robots—figuring out how to blow minds and circuit boards by exposing their gleaming insides.