Los Angeles. April 11, 2013.
Giorgio Moroder is waiting for the robots to arrive. The rendezvous point is a beige hotel-suite off the Sunset Strip, a few miles from the Italian-born producer’s home in Beverly Hills. Last summer, Lindsay Lohan set up shop in the very same room for two months, then fled owing $46,000. Decorated like a funeral-parlour waiting-room from the 1970s, it takes granny chic to the next level. I’m tempted to ask Mr Moroder if he agrees, but the man credited with introducing electronic music to the mainstream via Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” is busy, snuggled in the corner of a sofa lamenting his ill-fated venture into sports-car manufacturing.
Debuting in 1991, the Cizeta-Moroder V16T wasn’t quite as successful as his euphoric Eurocentric synth power-pop. In fact, only 11 cars were ever made. The 73-year-old puts this down to three slight flaws. One, they cost $300,000 each. Two, they were built without speedometers. Three, they were illegal to drive on the road. Nonetheless, Moroder is counting down the days until the gleaming pearl white prototype in his garage turns 25 years old, gains antique status, gets a working speedo, and finally starts tearing up the Californian tarmac. He estimates that it’s currently worth $600,000. Insurance shouldn’t be an issue. After all, this is the guy who produced Bowie, Blondie and Janet Jackson and composed the soundtracks for Scarface, Top Gun, Midnight Express, American Gigolo, Flashdance, Cat People and The Never Ending Story. Grammys, Golden Globes, Oscars, platinum plaques – Moroder has them all and then some.
There’s a knock on the door. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, the humanoids behind Daft Punk, stroll into the room checking their iPhones. Considering that just outside the hotel there’s a huge billboard of their gold and silver-helmeted alter egos watching over West Hollywood, it makes sense that they’ve chosen to fly beneath the radar for this clandestine meeting. Bangalter is tall, thin, stubbly and dressed in double denim. De Homem-Christo is shorter, quieter, with ear-length dark-brown hair. He’s wearing a tight grey t-shirt and black jeans. It’s a bit disorientating to see them in the flesh. Since they started turning heads and moving feet back in 1995 with “Da Funk”, the duo have gone to great lengths to preserve their anonymity, spawning a legion of musical and aesthetic imitators in the process. In stark contrast to the former occupant of this room, they can go anywhere they want without being hassled by the public and paparazzi, yet can sell out arenas around the world, ignite Twitter meltdowns over a 15-second snippet of a new song and get the industry’s greatest musicians begging them for cameo spots. By turning themselves into robots, 38-year-old Bangalter and 39-year-old de Homem-Christo have proven that there is a way to have your cake and eat it too. But can their vocoder electro funk continue to thrive in a musical landscape dominated by hip pop trance and teethgrinding brostep?
Nothing is being left to chance. For Random Access Memories, the follow-up to 2005’s Human After All and their fourth album proper, the French-touch trailblazers have travelled deep into the star system to select the finest co-pilots for their highly anticipated mission back to the forefront of dance music. Nile Rodgers, Julian Casablancas, Pharrell Williams, Panda Bear and, of course, Mr Moroder are just a few of the experts handpicked for the job. A lot has changed since their last expedition, which featured no guests. Rappers now namecheck them, thanks to Kanye West, Busta Rhymes, and Nicki Minaj using the hooks from “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “Technologic”. Parisian producers Justice, SebastiAn, Surkin, Kavinsky, Mr Oizo, Busy P and the late DJ Mehdi have pushed their filter-house blueprint into banging new directions. Most crucially, American kids have collectively gone apeshit for electronica, popping molly at Skrillex mega-raves every chance they get. Even Radiohead’s Thom Yorke borrowed their helmets to DJ at a Hollywood Halloween party. By not releasing anything in the last eight years apart from a couple of remix albums, a live album and the classical score for Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk have seen their legend grow and mutate beyond anyone’s comprehension. The cumulative effect is that the world is gagging to find out exactly what they have been making in their lab all these years.
The simple answer is disco. While it has many moods and textures, Random Access Memories has more in common with C’est Chic than a Skream set. Which, depending on your age and narco intake, will either be the best or worst news you’ve heard this month. It is a wilfully nostalgic, indulgent ode to the art of studio recording, an antidote to the abrasive nature of modern laptop music. Apart from one track, the album features entirely live drums, no 808s. Everything is played on “real instruments”. There is just one sample, from Apollo 17, the last manned voyage to the moon. Who would have thought that Daft Punk would ditch their beloved samplers and choose a wah-wah guitar as their primary weapon to destabilise the direction of EDM in 2013? Perhaps that’s the reason why they’re launching the album in the tiny Australian outback town of Wee Waa (population 1,689). Perhaps not. Whatever the case, their glitterball fever seems to be contagious – “Get Lucky”, the album’s funky earworm of a first single, rocketed straight to number one on the iTunes chart in 46 countries.
Last night’s Dazed shoot with Daft Punk and Moroder was the first time a human being has ever been officially photographed with the robots, and this morning’s secret summit marks another milestone – Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have never before agreed to be interviewed with another artist. But then Hansjörg “Giorgio” Moroder has always been unique. His music is so influential that for Random Access Memories the duo created a homage to him entitled “Giorgio by Moroder”. The producer narrates key moments from his life over the course of the track’s nine minutes, from growing up in a tiny German town and sleeping in his car after performing at discos, to finally discovering the Moog modular synthesiser with which he would change the sound of pop. Accompanying him, an arpeggiated Italo synth line segues into a free-jazz section before climaxing with an epic drum-break befitting of Wembley Stadium. The song, and the entire album, is the robots’ way of finishing the musical history lesson they set 16 years ago with “Teachers” and Homework. Their lives may have irreversibly changed, but Daft Punk still believe that for their music to evolve they need to look back, learn and pay respect to past masters in order to become masters themselves.
Giorgio, 12 hours after your Hedi Slimane shoot with the robots, what’s it like seeing these two guys turning up in ripped jeans and trainers?
Giorgio Moroder: Disappointing. (laughs)
Thomas Bangalter: That’s why we’re hiding! It’s not a sight worth seeing. That’s why we’re anonymous – for people not to pay attention.
GM: You know one day, if I write a biography, I’m going to ask you guys to give me the tapes from our recording sessions because I told you two everything about my life. Well, almost everything, right?
TB: We might release it before you write it! (laughs)
GM: I’m starting to do a little bit of DJing so I might play it then.
TB: You can tell your life story live!
GM: I’m reserving that for your tour.
TB: (laughs) Considering all the different people working with us on this record, we’ve no plan to go on tour right now, but it’d definitely be...
GM: You two would come up as the robots, and then I put on a little mask and emerge... like Zorro!
TB: What’s interesting is how we’ve had a similar path. What you did with Donna Summer was to introduce America to disco. It’s the same thing that happened for us when Homework channelled Chicago house and techno and introduced it to people that didn’t know about it. In the song we just did together you talk about how much the odds were against you – an Italian kid coming from a small town in the German mountains to go on and have your career. And we really felt the same in some sense; what are the odds of us coming from Paris and being able to somehow influence wider pop culture, to culturally connect the dots from the outside?
GM: When I was 15, 16, I rarely listened to European music; it was all American. We only had Radio Luxembourg, which just played American and English stuff. That really informed my outlook. My concept, first of all, was to make something for the world, not Italy. Fortunately I started in Germany, but I did some bad stuff there. The problem is that all the songs I’ve since forgotten about are coming out again on the internet. Some German stuff, with lyrics. So bad! I did one good pop song; I should have continued with that, but then I got offered to work with some female singers in Germany and I didn’t want to, but I had to make some money. You learn. Nobody’s a genius at the beginning.
“We have no anxiety about our new music. Sharing it with the world is something different. It’s a big question mark. Excitement and madness enter the equation” – Thomas Bangalter
TB: I think we’re still looking for different formulas. We don’t feel that we’ve settled into a format. We’re only going to do new things if we’re bringing something unique each time.
Is that why it takes so many years to release a new album?
TB: Yeah. It’s not about seeing what else is out there, it’s seeing what we’ve done, pushing a new direction from within. There’s no need to force things to happen – there’s always a point where we’re not sure what’s going to come next. It’s like being a scientist in a research lab. You study but don’t know whether the results will result in you finding something or not. That doesn’t mean that going on a quest without finding what you first set out for is not an enriching experience. That’s what most of the time spent between our outputs has been – experiments and pure research.
How do you feel that music has been affected by the rise of advanced affordable technology?
TB: The problem with music and technology right now is that there’s this utopian idea that technology is going to assist you in freeing your brain to reach higher goals. But the reality is that technology just makes you lazy. Tablets and stuff do so many things for you, but at the end of the day more people are going to be playing Angry Birds on them than reading books. I think, historically, the best use of technology in creativity is like when Giorgio found a Moog modular synthesiser that just made these strange noises, and was the first one to say, ‘I can do pop music with it, because no one’s done it before.’
Giorgio, your 1979 album E=MC2 was marketed as the first ‘live-to-digital’ recording. What artistic hurdles did you have to overcome to create that?
GM: That was a nightmare. I was concentrating so much on the technology that I forgot the song. We had a little machine called The Composer, which was this little gadget that could program five mechanical pianos so they all played simultaneously from a click track. We recorded the album on a digital recorder for the first time ever. We started to do edits and we could hear them, but they couldn’t render it because the computer didn’t have enough memory. So I had to take the song back to the inventor (digital recording pioneer Dr Thomas Stockham) in Utah and edit it the way it was supposed to be. I asked if I could take a picture of the waveform and he said, ‘No! No!’ I think he was involved in the military. He never showed it to me. He thought that I would give away his secret! It’s a bit like the Daft Punk effect!
TB: I can clearly see similarities in trying to tame a certain technology. This new record was one of the most difficult and challenging things we’ve ever done, creatively. When we did the Auto-Tune thing with ‘One More Time’ it was a relatively new piece of technology, and it felt like, yeah, there’s still something to do. The Cher track ‘Believe’ had come out but it felt like there was still a new way to experiment with samplers. The problem today is most of these things have been overdone. But that’s what real artists are supposed to be; as an artist, you should look to evolve. You don’t get classical composers saying, ‘Oh yeah, I wrote this symphony, it’s really easy.’ I remember with the first samplers you only had like, two seconds of space. Now you have an infinity of sampling time. That’s quite a traumatic experience. It’s like giving a painter a canvas this big, and then extending it and saying, ‘It’s infinite.’
GM: However, what Skrillex does with Ableton... It’s like being a little god. It’s not just pushing loops – that’s easy – but to do the effects... He’s a genius. Those effects become one-time pieces, they’re not reproduced. The fact that you can do all this technical stuff now is interesting. But I’m not going to do that as a DJ, because I’m too lazy to learn all the little things. I don’t know how to use anything! Zero! (laughs)
Do you think that the best music comes out of limitations and constrictions?
TB: Some of the best music comes out of challenging situations, when you’re pushing yourself into new territories and stepping out of your comfort zone as a creator. When Giorgio was using all the new technology for Midnight Express or ‘I Feel Love’ he was out of his comfort zone because the synthesiser went out of tune at every bar. The most important thing is that pop music needs to feel spontaneous and easy.
GM: What I’m personally missing the most is the human interaction. When I was making those records I used the best musicians in Munich. It was great because the bass player and guitarist had ideas. Now you sit in front of a computer, do it and hope it’s going to be great. All I have for feedback is my wife or son... and my son is biased against everything I do! Everything is bad! He’s 23, so you know... But to have a guy like Nile play a guitar for you is a luxury, right? It’s expensive, but it certainly gives the songs something else, whether that’s great riffs or great ideas.
What about you, Guy-Manuel? What were the biggest challenges for you in making the new record?
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo: It was a really special process, this one. Every album we’ve done is tightly linked with our lives. You cannot separate your life and your music and your job; everything’s linked. Making it has been like being in a boat on a really choppy sea. The internal, personal stuff Thomas went through during Human After All made it closer to where he was at the time, and this one feels a lot closer to me than him. We make music together, but this one took me to some special depths, getting really close to what I was going through personally. I’ve never been too technical; Thomas is more the technician. This album has more soul.
“It still amazes me that everyone is so crazy about what we do. Maybe I am just dreaming, but people seem to really freak out. I don’t know why!” – Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo
TB: Yeah, I think we wanted to get closer to our emotions. Working with musicians, but trying to do something that was a very close and intimate way of sharing something, especially because music is not so emotionally charged these days. The whole thing was an emotional ride. It’s like Guy-Man says, we took the boat and left the shore but we didn’t know whether we were going to make it to the other side, and at some point when you’re in the middle, you don’t really know what’s happening because you’re as much away from the start as the end. You can turn back, but it’s going to take as much time to turn back as to reach the other side.
GMDHC: You can be confident or wonder what you’re doing there and start freaking out. Right now my brain is shutting everything down, making me pretend that everything is normal. It still amazes me that everyone is so crazy about what we are doing. I’m like, either I am crazy or everybody’s crazy. Maybe I am just dreaming but people seem to really freak out at what we are doing. I don’t know why!
Is that a lot of pressure to handle?
GMDHC: I get everybody coming up to me saying, ‘Are you touring? Are you touring?’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, the album isn’t even out yet. What, do you want the dessert before the starter?’ We don’t even know if there’s going to be a dessert; no one has even tasted the starter yet. And we are in the middle, or rather the robots are in the middle, of that crazy situation. It’s not even the nerves, but every day I’m like, why are people freaking out so much?
TB: I mean, I understand, we have been front-row spectators since the beginning. When you’re in the studio and magic happens, I understand that people want to feel that again because maybe they felt it once thanks to a song we made or one live show. That’s human – your brain wants pleasure, you try to recreate something pleasing that you got once and then you want to do it again and again. But it’s still crazy.
GMDHC: It seems to be a massive step up with the amount of attention we are getting.
TB: The music itself is exactly what we wanted it to be. We have no anxiety about that. Sharing it with the world is something different. It’s a big question mark. There’s a certain amount of excitement and madness that enters the equation.
Giorgio, when you were starting out, did it feel lonely because no one else was really making these sounds?
GM: Well, the only thing I really did on my own was ‘I Feel Love’, because it was so easy. There were no preconceptions – I didn’t have musicians, I just had the machine. Like Thomas said earlier, I had to tune it every ten, 15 seconds, because it went out of tune. It took a long time. Then I got some white noise and tweaked it so that it sounded like a snare, then a hi-hat. All the drums except the kick were synthesised noise. Apart from Donna’s voice, everything was synthesised. At the time there were only three of those Moogs in the world. Nobody knew how to use them. Emerson, Lake & Palmer had one. Walter Carlos had one and this guy in Germany had the other one, which I used. But until the mid-80s, around the time I made ‘Take My Breath Away’, that song from Top Gun, I always used musicians, so I didn’t feel lonely. It felt great.
TB: I think it’s this idea of having a vision and being able to crystallise these ideas and embark on a journey with a group of musicians. What felt so good on the record we just did, and on a lot of music Giorgio did, is that you really feel like everyone is such an integral, irreplaceable part of the process. We had the vision to go somewhere, but we needed them to express their own ideas.
Giorgio wasn’t on the original roll call for ‘Teachers’. why did you choose this album to pay homage to him?
TB: He was not included on ‘Teachers’ because the syllable count of his name was not correct. (laughs)
GM: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
TB: We did a song on our first record called ‘Teachers’, which was a list of a lot of the founding fathers of electronic and house music. We didn’t include Giorgio because we wanted to make a song all about him 20 years later. (laughs) We felt that Giorgio had such an eclectic path; his musical journey is a great metaphor for music and the freedom of music. We think it’s important to connect the dots.
GM: I think I could have been a little more precise when you both interviewed me for the ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ track. I said a few things that are not grammatically correct. But I didn’t have any idea how you guys would use it. I thought you might cut it up into a rap. So I was pleasantly surprised when I heard it the first time. It was also kind of emotional to hear my story and a little bit of my sound in there. I’m one of the few humans alive whose biography is a song.
“The soundtracks for The Social Network and Drive are basically what I did in American Gigolo. I could have done them blindfolded. But I don’t have a monopoly on that sound” – Giorgio Moroder
What were the first moroder songs to influence Daft Punk?
GMDHC: I loved Midnight Express and how ‘Chase’ had this dark urge to it, like the Scarface theme tune.
TB: I loved Donna Summer, from ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Love to Love You Baby’ to ‘Last Dance’.
GM: I had an album out at exactly the same time as ‘Love to Love You’ called Einzelgänger, and it’s great, all electronic. I’m using a vocoder, doing all this cut-up stuff on there, but no one knows about it.
TB: Could I have a copy of it?
GM: I don’t have one. It’s on the internet somewhere.
You are all massive advocates of the vocoder. What is it about that sound that you find so inspiring?
GM: Well, unless you use the vocoder the way Daft Punk use it, it is very limited. When they sing it’s almost human. It sounds sexy. I just used it as an effect. It wasn’t because I was not able to sing; I’m not a great singer but I had some hits as a singer too. It’s a nice effect. When I heard Einzelgänger again I was surprised by how much I used the vocoder, and it was in 1975, before ‘I Feel Love’. I used it in the 70s and the 80s but then I completely forgot about it. I don’t even own one now.
TB: For us it’s our voice, conceptually, aesthetically and artistically. The artists are two robots and usually an artist doesn’t change his voice from one record to the next. It gives us a consistent bridge that can be traced back to ‘Around the World’, which was the very first vocal track we did. Maybe it’s also part of the emotional dimension of the record that Guy-Man pointed out – we want to make the robots feel as human as possible, whereas today it seems human beings are trying to sound as robotic as possible. So it feels like we’re trying to go the other way.
Talking about your relationship with the robots, do you feel imprisoned by them after all these years?
TB: No, no, no. We feel empowered by their personas. It’s like the mythology surrounding a superhero story. You build your own costumes, you dress up and then you try to do something to change the world. If it touches people then they follow it and if it doesn’t people look elsewhere. So having engineered and created these personas that have been embraced like that is still very exciting. Putting on a show like that is like the old-school style of showbusiness. At the same time it’s allowed us to stay anonymous and create a certain mythology that has grown. We’re not trapped; it’s the opposite. We live such an easy lifestyle; we take the subway, and have the best of both worlds. It comes back to superhero analogy – maybe you want to be famous but you don’t want anybody to know who you really are.
What about you, Giorgio? How do you look back on your iconic look from the late 70s?
GM: The moustache?!
The mythical moustache. Do you recognise that guy?
GM: Oh, I love it! No, I don’t. It was the fashion at the time to have a big moustache; now it looks ridiculous. But back then I was never really out in the world. First of all I was busy working seven days a week until ten or 11 o’clock every day, so people didn’t really see me. A producer is always behind the scenes, even more in the movies – nobody sees you. I didn’t even meet most of the actors. When I worked on Top Gun I never met Tom Cruise. You were always in the background. Now it’s totally different.
Your sounds have been widely plagiarised – do you see imitation as the highest form of flattery?
GM: One of the most interesting things, at least for me, are the soundtracks for The Social Network and Drive. Basically, it’s what I did in American Gigolo. I could have done the music for those movies blindfolded. And one of them won an Oscar and the other is this massive soundtrack. So that music definitely feels retro and like what I did in the early 80s. But I don’t have a monopoly on it. The interesting thing is that Sofia Coppola wanted me to write the music for her last movie, and then at the end of our lunch she said, ‘I would like a little bit of retro music too, would you mind?’ I said, ‘No, it’s my music, why would I?’ In the end it didn’t work out, but it seems like a lot of people are using those old sounds again.
Which of your movie soundtracks do you think has stood the test of time?
GM: Midnight Express. I don’t particularly like Scarface. The intro part; that’s beautiful. The rest is really bad. The thing is, when that film came out it was a flop. One of the worst days I’ve had as a musician was when we played the movie to the audience. It was one of the official ones before the premiere. At the end... silence. No applause, not one clap. Some people started to boo. I just thought, ‘Oh God.’ I think he says ‘fuck you, fuck you’ 270 times at the end. But then the video came out, and it became a cult hit.
It’s like when Human After All came out and was savaged by the critics, but went on to become a cult classic. as artists, Do you think the real test is its place in history, not its immediate impact?
TB: That’s the most interesting thing – we want to create something that has the power to touch people through time and space. It’s true about Scarface; the film as a whole left its mark, and the opening title is one of most iconic film scores in the movies. Midnight Express as well. Those main themes and pop songs stand the test of time and still resonate today. It’s easy to say time cements everything, but the interesting thing is also seeing the power of a work of art outside of its original date and context.
Is that why you called the album Random Access Memories – because you feel that these songs could have been recorded way in the past or some time in the future?
TB: This record is like a portal into a space where it’s the past, present and future combined into a cool, timeless environment, where Giorgio and Nile and the robots and Pharrell and Julian Casablancas and Panda Bear are a kind of assembled cast. It’s saying that the best thing from the past can still be done today and can still be done in the future. And obviously live playing is not something that just belongs to the past. If it does belong to the past that’s a little bit scary. It’s an invitation to a dream. We remember as teenagers listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd albums and just going for the ride. If you close your eyes and listen to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ you really see a landscape. You don’t see four guys in a recording studio. There’s less of that in modern music. Pop music has just become about high-quality ringtones. We’re more interested in escapism. The dream is what’s important.
Taken from the June 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused