pop music

‘Human after all’: Daft Punk’s career-defining, legacy-making moments

Paolo Abad
‘Human after all’: Daft Punk’s career-defining, legacy-making moments

HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER. The French electronic act will be remembered as musical pioneers.

Screenshot from YouTube/Columbia Records

The duo’s legacy of reshaping and revolutionizing music can never be played down

Rumors that Daft Punk would appear at The Weeknd’s 2021 Super Bowl halftime show – a reprise of their 2017 Grammys gig – sent their massive fan base into a frenzy. Many clamored for another tour, possibly in the aftermath of this damn pandemic.

None of those can happen now. After 28 years, the celebrated French electronic duo exited the scene, arguably at their prime.

“French music – and electronic music – is where it is now thanks to Daft Punk,” their former longtime manager Pedro Winters (a.k.a. Ed Banger Records honcho Busy P) told Paper magazine in 2007. “It’s just a fact. We all owe them something. Daft Punk opened the road to a lot of things, to all the artists.”

“It’s an honor and a responsibility to carry such a powerful heritage, not always easy to be honest,” he wrote much later, after news about their retirement broke. 

“Daft Punk left the game with a flawless legacy,” tweeted hitmaker Mark Ronson. “I would say enviable but impossibly unattainable is more appropriate.”

Screenshot from YouTube/Recording Academy

Way before they first donned their chrome helmets, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Man de Homem-Christo started out experimenting with layers, textures, and pieces of music – often from disparate sources and influences. The result was something unheard of.

In a way, Daft Punk both embodied the “punk” in their moniker and eschewed it. “They’ve been bucking the status quo ever since,” wrote Ryan Dombal in a 2013 cover story for Pitchfork. “It’s why Daft Punk are more punk than almost any punk band of the last 20 years: They refuse to take the familiar path.”

“This is new music, so it’s a new way of doing things. There is nothing to follow. There are no rules anymore,” Bangalter told Mixmag in 1997.

With Daft Punk, it’s really less of breaking the rules. They’re making the new rules.

That attitude persisted: “We liked the idea of doing something we had never done and that no one was doing right now,” he said much later in 2014, promoting what would be their 4th and final studio album (not counting their score for Disney’s Tron Legacy).

It will always be tricky to condense such an immense legacy. But the least we can do is chronicle some of the key moments in their career that made them industry juggernauts.

Homework and the rise of ‘La French Touch’

There’s a standout scene from Eden, a 2014 French film, where fictional versions of Bangalter and de Homem-Christo take over the decks at a cramped house party.

“It was a preview of what was coming from Daft Punk and music in general,” its screenwriter Sven Hansen-Løve, who was at that actual party, told The Hollywood Reporter. “We didn’t know they would be that big, but we felt something transformative was happening that night.”

Transitioning from a stomping techno track, the pair drops the needle on a vinyl record. While the rest of the dancefloor quickly latches onto the tune, a baffled onlooker dismisses the unfamiliar sound: A slow burn of a groove with murky, throbbing basslines. 

The film’s protagonist comes to its defense, “You don’t get it. It’s amazing. Modern disco.”

That track was 1995’s “Da Funk.”

Alongside “Around the World,” “Burnin’” and “Revolution 909,” it later became one of the carrier singles of their debut album, Homework, released in 1997.

Predating the full length’s release, the single “Da Funk” was a massive hit that would first make ripples through the then-burgeoning French dance music scene and then the top of the charts. The slinky pleaser “Around the World,” with its guileless hook, captured an even wider audience beyond raves and dives.

Homework came out of a different epoch in dance music, when genres like garage, acid house and Detroit techno dominated the scene across Europe. Meanwhile, the French scene was forging a unique style of house music: the so-called French Touch – splicing together bits of 70s to 80s dance music, giving it the pulse of house and techno, and then adding its telltale filter and phase effects.

“[That album] contains many of the vital essences of the styles that Daft Punk have gone on to develop since then,” Mixmag’s Matthew Collin noted. “It’s a glittering synthesis of dancefloor fantasies, sometimes euphoric, sometimes kitsch or cartoonish… but never venturing far into darkness.”

Photo from Daft Bootlegs

Daft Punk was just one of French house music’s stalwarts, of course. But while there were blockbusters like Cassius’s “1999” and Stardust’s (a one-hit, one-off trio Bangalter himself belonged to) “Music Sounds Better with You,” the French Touch only reached its zenith of commercial success with Homework.

Soon, record labels raced and wrestled to sign them on. But the duo was taking notes from their musical forebears – house and techno producers who set up their own labels and were totally in charge of their own output.

Less interested in making lucrative work, Daft Punk was looking for a “partner” that wouldn’t force them into relinquishing creative control. “The ideas we have are totally against the keep-it-underground thing. People think once it’s gone overground you lose control, it gets spoilt. We want to show that you don’t lose anything,” Bangalter told Mixmag’s Alexis Petridis in 1997.

The birth of the robots
Screenshot from YouTube/Recovered Memories

The pair’s creative philosophy extended into remaking their public image. Around the time of Homework’s making, Daft Punk were already starting to hide their faces, toying with an assortment of masks.

“We decided to become anonymous to try and prove that it’s possible to do things exactly the way you want to,” he told Nylon

On a far less than auspicious date, September 9, 1999 (9-9-99), Bangalter and de Homem-Christo – the humans – became robots.

“There [was] the 9999 bug,” Bangalter himself laid down the legend. “At some point, we were doing a track and our sampler crashed and it exploded and there were sparks, and we were hurt a little bit. So we had to make a little surgery, and then we became robots.”

Brought to life by special effects expert Tony Gardner, their new cyborg characters looked straight out of the 1951 sci-fi flick The Day the Earth Stood Still. Bangalter often took the silver helmet, and de Homem-Christo, the gold one.

‘Human after all’: Daft Punk’s career-defining, legacy-making moments

Their real-life identities and history in the Parisian scene were never a secret, but as they turned into droids, they started to become a little more elusive and enigmatic. The Daft Punk project became less about those lads from Paris, and more about the “visual, musical [and] multimedia spectrum of things.” 

Those glinting helmets were also a reflection of their attitudes toward fame, especially in the realm of pop music.

“I remember when I was a kid, I would watch Superman, and I was super into the feeling of knowing that Clark Kent is Superman and no one knows,” Bangalter recounted in a 2013 GQ interview. “We always thought as we were shaping this thing that the fantasy was actually so much more exciting than the idea of being the most famous person in the world.”

To borrow writer Ryan Dombal’s words: they became “legitimately famous and faceless.”

“At first, it was a way to represent ourselves as robot people. And people have a really special relationship with the Daft Punk robots, especially when we go on tour,” De Homem-Christo explained to Plan B.

He later told Pitchfork, “It’s more like a mirror – the energy people send to the stage bounces back and everybody has a good time together rather than focusing on us.”

“The whole thing of pop stars is so fake,” De Homem-Christo opined. “This is different, people don’t have a big idol onstage. So they are just being more natural and enjoying themselves. But we like robots anyway, we are big fans of sci-fi, and we like the relationship between technology and humans. It’s such a rich relationship.”

Discovery and the new rules

Made at the turn of the century, Daft Punk’s sophomore effort Discovery is considered by many chroniclers as one of the most important works in dance music. With its cultural impact, it also cemented the duo’s place in the pantheon of dance music greats.

The album opens with “One More Time,” a 5-minute jaunt with deft sampling and Romanthony’s gracefully autotuned singing. 

It always had the makings of a timeless classic in its ability to “distill 25 years of pop and house into five and a half minutes of first-time joy,” praised Pitchfork. But it wasn’t always the universally embraced anthem it had come to be. 

It was first released as a single in November 2000 – a glimpse into the entire full-length album dropped later in March 2001. Response was divided; some even ridiculed it as cheesy and bordering-on-cloying pop.

“It was either A: the ultimate expression of sizzling filter disco crossbred with adrenal pop and sung by a Dalek, or B: a total sell-out, with Daft Punk doing a gross commercial imitation of themselves,” wrote Kevin Braddock for Mixmag in 2001.

Discovery turned out to be an astonishing leap from the club-focused Homework, in a way that the house/techno/electro-tinged grit of the latter was traded for retro-futuristic tones and wide-eyed romanticism ready for the airwaves.

“Daft Punk took their existing filter-disco sound… and blended in a palette of textures and tones sourced in 1970s radio rock at its most overground, overproduced and over-lit,” observed NPR writer Simon Reynolds.

There’s a plethora of references to be spotted – from the incendiary and propulsive sampling in “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “Crescendolls,” to the Italo-inflected trifecta of “Voyager,” “Veridis Quo,” and “Short Circuit.” Sniff a hint of yacht rock, even, “almost a decade ahead of chillwave or groups like HAIM.”

While Homework, Bangalter told GQ, “was a way to say to the rock kids, like, ‘Electronic music is cool,’ Discovery was the opposite, of saying to the electronic kids, ‘Rock is cool, you know? You can like that.’”

The result was less of an homage than a bricolage, as De Homem-Christo suggested, “The first albumwas more a Chicago sound. This one is having influences from all the music we listen to, but always having the beats and the effectiveness of a club sound.”

“It’s the product of the new rules: a synthesis of dancefloor functionalism and blatant pop savvy, making notions of ‘underground’ and ‘commercial’ meaningless.” added Mixmag’s Braddock.

With Discovery, the robots have become true pioneers – taking the helm on an interstellar odyssey.

The Alive 2007 Tour and the birth of EDM

In 2005, Daft Punk’s meteoric rise to superstardom hit a roadblock. That was Human After All, which felt like it wasn’t just a blip in their career but an actual flop – commercially and critically.

It was a grinding whiplash, but it didn’t drive them into obscurity. The clamor for them to do another big live show was a persistent hum; they haven’t performed live since 1997 after all.

“It’s like a snowball that was rising,” De Homem-Christo told Billboard in 2007, adding: “an invisible snowball that has just happened to arrive now.”

Then came an opportunity from a Coachella booker with a substantial six-figure offer. Daft Punk set out on a tour that did not only get them out of the danger zone, but let them move the course of history for modern electronic music as a whole.

“That triggered the ability to bring the show to the next level,” Bangalter recounted. “We were ready to play again – we’ve never done anything for the money or tried to take economic advantage. But we have crazy ideas, and these ideas can be expensive.”

‘Human after all’: Daft Punk’s career-defining, legacy-making moments

On April 29, 2006, the robots stood atop a colossal, luminescent pyramid at the Sahara Tent, and played in front of a roaring crowd in the tens of thousands (and that hallowed Coachella stage could only take as much). 

They tore through their entire discography: hits and deep cuts alike – even tracks off the disappointment that was Human After All, and ingeniously juxtaposed and meshed all of them together into something fascinating and new. It was more than just a dazzling audiovisual spectacle. It was mythical.

“The thing we focused on is what you get out of the show: an intense experience of music, lights, and robots, with a thin line between fiction and reality,” Bangalter said.

The Alive tour was also a well-oiled machine of a production mounted around 48 times across 5 continents, with over half a million ravers in attendance.

“We compare it to a Broadway musical. There’s a lot of people involved and every night is a different performance, even though it’s the same music and the same show,” Bangalter told Spin. “But it’s also like a movie in that you focus on an experience rather than the ego of the performer.” 

“It’s more like a rave party where the DJ isn’t important,” said De Homem-Christo in a 2007 interview with Paper. “This is what we do: We are two robots in this pyramid with this light show, but everything is [meant] for you to have fun and enjoy yourself.”

‘Human after all’: Daft Punk’s career-defining, legacy-making moments

Crucially, the Alive shows represented a pivotal moment in history. They came at a time when mainstream culture had assimilated electronic music. In the succeeding years, the DJ became the new rock star.

“It was kind of the birth of EDM  right there,” DJ and KCRW music director Jason Bentley proclaimed in the documentary Daft Punk Unchained. The Alive tour then became the paragon of what an electronic act can – or should – pull off. “From that point on, dance music needed to have a giant spectacle on stage.”

“The Alive tour and its recording opened the floodgates for dance music as mass culture, which is cool in theory and fairly disastrous in practice – a Pandora’s Box for all sorts of soulless industry cash-grabs and stupid pyrotechnics,” NPR writer Meaghan Garvey suggested.

The Ringer’s Justin Sayles pointed out that “without the pyramid, you likely don’t get electronic superstars Avicii or Steve Aoki; Calvin Harris probably doesn’t earn $178 million over three years without the robots paving the way. You certainly don’t get dubstep demigod Skrillex, who said he decided to start making electronic music after catching the Alive Tour.”

Bentley added, “You could love it or you could hate it, but the fact is: Nothing was the same after that performance.”

‘Stronger’

Daft Punk already had several megahits under their belt and was in the middle of touring their Alive show when controversial rapper Kanye West came out with a flip of 2007’s “Stronger.”

The Graduation  track heavily sampled one of Discovery’s blockbuster singles, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” with its warped robotic hook, even as it was already a well-known tune at the time. But it did give the French producers a role in shaping the course for hip-hop and – to some extent – pop in the years to come. It even led to their first televised live performance at the 2008 Grammys.

DJ and producer A-Trak claimed responsibility for prodding Kanye to take on the Daft Punk hit, explaining in a Genius pag] annotation how he inadvertently introduced them to him: through a Swizz Beatz-produced track that sampled their 2005 single “Technologic.”

“Kanye heard [Busta Rhymes’s] ‘Touch It’ and thought that beat was cool,” A-Trak narrated. “I said, ‘He just swooped up Daft Punk.’ And Ye said, ‘Who?’ I just couldn’t believe that Kanye had never heard Daft Punk.”

‘Human after all’: Daft Punk’s career-defining, legacy-making moments

“The interesting thing here is how he took our music and really made it his own in terms of his personality,” Bangalter said in a joint interview with West published in Spin. “That’s what we’re trying to do as artists – make universal the things we want to express. That’s what Kanye does. He distorts the original meaning of the song. That’s what’s interesting.”

“I faced some backlash when the single first came out,” West said. “I think the electronic community was saying, ‘How dare you sample this holy grail?’ And the hip-hop people were saying, ‘You have to always do what we’re used to you doing.’ But I think hip-hop is about always being new and cutting-edge and coming up with a combination you haven’t heard.” 

“We were really breaking new ground, and I can only imagine how long it took to make the original,” he added. 

West and Daft Punk would later join forces once more on 2013’s Yeezus. 

“Stronger” was also a “full circle” moment for the pair. Hardly anyone believed them when they claimed that they were influenced by American hip-hop early on in their career. “Da Funk,” for instance, was ostensibly their extrapolation of gangsta rap.

“Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was in itself derived from spliced bits of Edwin Birdsong’s relatively obscure funk track “Cola Bottle Baby” from 1979. West’s “Stronger,” meanwhile, only used Daft Punk’s vocal track.

“So many people have influenced us,” Bangalter told Anthem. “We [are] just two white kids from Paris making this connection so being reconnected back to American culture, to urban culture and African-American music, it’s really cool because we’ve been extremely influenced by it. It’s this continuation of art and creation.”

“It’s a funny thing. It’s quite symptomatic of this circle of sampling and being sampled and passing it along to the next producer,” he also said in a 2007 Billboard interview. “We’ve always been very open-minded and excited about unexpected connections.”

Tron: Legacy
Photo from IMDB

Coming on the heels of their 48-show tour, the pair took 2 years off work on the Daft Punk project to write the score to Disney’s Tron: Legacy, the 2010 sequel to a cult-favorite sci-fi film from 1982. 

Tron left a strong imprint as a kid,” De Homem-Christo told Dazed. “I was eight, he was seven. Maybe I only saw it two or three times in my entire life, but the feel of it is so strong even now.”

Daft Punk took up the mantle of Wendy Carlos, the 1982 original’s composer – herself a veritable trailblazer in electronic music. As pioneers themselves pushing at the frontiers of music, they would understand this vision of a clandestine digital universe of lightcycles, gladiator disc games, and algorithmic physics.

Working with one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world didn’t faze the duo, who had always prized creative control. To be able to work in this “dream factory,” they mulled over their decision for a considerable time.

Their approach to composing the score wasn’t what people were expecting: that they would be working with their tools and tricks, as they had been, up to that point. However, save for a few tracks, the soundtrack was going to be largely symphonic.

“Derezzed,” which was used to great effect in a fight sequence, was the closest to being a signature Daft Punk piece. “End of Line,” with its echoes of a sinister and languorous “Da Funk,” could also qualify. 

‘Human after all’: Daft Punk’s career-defining, legacy-making moments

“In the past, we have worked with clashing genres like disco and heavy metal, and here we would do it with film scores… this idea of the ultimate retro-futurism,” Bangalter told Dazed.

Maybe there were hints already of a classical sensibility somewhere in their discography, like – as they claimed – the baroque mold of “Aerodynamic.” By and large, however, working with an orchestra was new territory for the duo. 

“Daft Punk would not exist if there was no technology. So here was a way of saying: Okay – if there was no technology, let’s see what we could have done. This is what Daft Punk would have done in 1750,” he exclaimed.

There were 6 or 7 – tops – electronic instruments used, and they had to make those blips and pulses cohere with the rest of the ensemble.

They wanted to give the soundtrack a timeless quality, too. “A cello was there 400 years ago and will still be here in 400 years. But synthesizers that were invented 20 years ago will probably be gone in the next 20,” Bangalter mused.

“We knew from the start that there was no way we were going to do this film score with two synthesizers and a drum machine,” he shared. “There’s more latitude to experiment with an orchestra.”

The two took on the opportunity primarily as self-avowed cinephiles, but the chance to collaborate with a huge team was also too good to pass up.

“This project is by far the most challenging and complex thing we have ever been involved with,” Bangalter admitted. “Coming from our background of making electronic music in a small bedroom, and ending up having our music performed by a 90-piece orchestra, with some of the best musicians in the world… We are lucky to have had the opportunity to experience some powerful moments artistically over the years, but recording this orchestra was a very intense experience.”

“This was an opportunity to work with musicians and to glorify, you know, live performances and the magic of human performances and possibly do a little bit of dance music at the same time,” he told NPR.

In a way, their work on Tron paved the path to their next and final project – considered by some as their magnum opus.

Random Access Memories
Screenshot from YouTube/Daft Punk

Released in the midst of the EDM boom – an empire Daft Punk had indirectly helped build, 2013’s Random Access Memories felt like they were acting on an impulse to correct the status quo.

As GQ’s Zach Baron wrote in 2013: “Electronic dance music had never been more popular… but to their ears it sounded derivative, safe, like a wan copy of something they themselves had done a decade prior, back when they were trying to overthrow their own elders.”

However, the Grammy-winning album was really more of a personal statement about the zeitgeist, than a seething condemnation of the movement that came after them.

“Technology has made music accessible in a philosophically interesting way, which is great,” Bangalter said in a Pitchfork interview, referring to the democratization of music recording. “But on the other hand, when everybody has the ability to make magic, it’s like there’s no more magic – if the audience can just do it themselves, why are they going to bother?” 

Their supposed comeback spent five years on the backburner. Somehow, the two robots got stuck in rut approaching the record with their own DIY ethos of sampling and looping.

In true Daft Punk fashion, the key was really a departure from the familiar. They went into a real studio – and jammed with real musicians to create a sumptuous and gleaming disco sound recalling the glory days.

“We took a totally different direction than what is out there now,” De Homem-Christo told NPR. “We simply got back to working with musicians – and some really good musicians that have experienced all the great era of the ’70s and ’80s albums, all the big masterpieces we know.” 

“It’s a very subjective, personal, instinctive approach as musicians of saying, ‘We don’t want to replace what’s around; we just want to widen the possibilities,’” Bangalter also said. “There’s a certain craftsmanship in recording music in studios that is gradually disappearing and we thought that this was maybe a sad thing for this craftsmanship to disappear.”

They enlisted the help of veteran sessionists and collaborators: disco-era titans like Giorgio Moroder (“I Feel Love,” “Flashdance,” “Together in Electric Dreams”) and Nile Rodgers (CHIC); even Pharrell Williams and Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) – modern-day musical heroes in their own right.

Bangalter and De Homem-Christo’s time in the studio produced not only a monumental hit like “Get Lucky” as the cherry on top of their storied catalog, but also a mind-blowing tour de force such as the rhapsody “Touch.”

Was it nostalgia or self-indulgence that spurred them to record Random Access Memories? 

“What was really lacking to us is the soul that a musician player can bring,” de Homem-Christo said. “Some people would think that it’s kind of retro to work with these guys and to have this type of, like, disco or funk, but to me it’s just putting back some soul or some life in music.”

Bangalter added, “It’s true [that] there was no sense on this record to think really about the future of music or the music of the future, rather than really to focus on, okay, what are we missing right now as music and what is the music we want to make?”

There’s a sense of irony in a pair of automatons trying to bring back the “soul” and shying away from their old electronic tricks. Not many artists had the luxury of experimenting and taking a risk the way they did though, and that’s something the two sought to do once more.

“We have been established artists, and we wanted to take the chance of trying to experiment — or bring back a sense of artistic ambition in trying to experiment and doing something that is not around at a certain time,” he said.

Screenshot from YouTube/Daft Punk

Twenty eight years had passed when Daft Punk the legend was born, and now, disco is enjoying a resurgence. To a certain extent, they can take a bit of the credit because of the bold step they took in 2013.

“The thing we can ask ourselves at some point is like: We’re making music for twenty years. How many bands and acts do you have that are still making good music after twenty years? It always sucks – almost always, you know?” Bangalter pondered.

The matter of reflecting on Daft Punk’s legacy doesn’t boil down to acclaim. It’s the things they dared to do.

“We are happy to mean something,” Bangalter once said in 2007. “The hardest thing for an artist isn’t measuring up to people’s expectations. It’s about getting across the understanding that what we did was legitimate.”

“We see it as a validation, sort of – whether it comes 5 years or 10 years down the line, obviously, it’s better if the validation comes while you’re still alive.” – Rappler.com

Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.