On the morning of 9 September, 1999, something unusual happened. Two musicians – named Guy-Manuel and Thomas – were experimenting with a sampler in the studio they were working in, when, all of a sudden, the small piece of hardware exploded with a terrifying flash, knocking the duo out cold.
The sampler’s programming had crashed due to the infamous “9999” bug: the machine simply couldn’t cope with the vastness of a number that exceeded its constrained understanding of time. When the two recovered from the explosion, they found the studio coated with a thin dust of gold and silver. They looked around. To their shock, they had become robots encased in beautiful metallic suits: with Guy-Manuel in a golden-domed mask, and Thomas in a shining grey helmet, they resembled the protagonists of cheesy science-fiction films. The transformation was initially difficult, but the two soon decided that, actually, life as robots suited them rather well.
Daft Punk were never just musicians. They were artists doing the work that all great artists do: subverting expectations, pushing boundaries, and committing the zeitgeist to a medium that we can only admire but never hope to replicate. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter took the tremendous energy of the Information Age and used decidedly retro instrumentation to bring it to heel in an extensive catalogue of house and funk. Their iconic helmets demonstrated that they were a product of the grinding collision between the nostalgic past and the high-tech future.
Over the course of their career, they would release four iconic albums, create the soundtrack for one of the most successful films of 2010, and collaborate on a string of hit singles, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, and The Weeknd. All this, and yet Random Access Memories was the only album to be created in a studio, with the others made in Bangalter’s home on their laptops. Daft Punk never repeated themselves, not even slightly, never compromised, never slacked off, and never sacrificed a moment of detail to get something out quicker. One telling anecdote about their process is from the studio production of Giorgio by Moroder, where they used three different microphones from different eras to record the titular Giorgio Moroder speaking about his life as he changed the music scene from the 70s through to the modern day. It’s practically impossible to notice, but it’s there. They knew it was there, and so it mattered to them.
Their ability to find fleeting samples in relatively obscure albums (primarily funk and soul from the 1970s) and transform them into some of the most iconic tracks of the new millennium was unmatched. Let’s take Face to Face as an example from Discovery: this four-minute track alone samples Electric Light Orchestra (twice), Kenny Loggins, Surface, and The Alan Parsons Project (again, twice). Although sampling can be a contentious topic in some circles – purists see it as a form of plagiarism – there is no doubt that Daft Punk were the masters of it.
It’s worth noting at this point that Daft Punk hated the idea of being celebrities (the main reason why they adopted the masks, aside from the aforementioned explosion). Although it took them quite a few years to hide themselves under their iconic headgear, they always covered their face in interesting ways: latex dog heads, clown gear with protruding red noses, bug eyes, kabuki helmets, frog hats, pig masks, and so on. Rarely discussing their private lives and creative processes, interviews with them were exceedingly uncommon – maybe an inconvenience to obsessed fans, but necessary to protect both their image and their sanity.
Daft Punk understood that the artist is a myth – a character that is presented to their audience through carefully orchestrated public appearances, studio albums, festivals, and tours. Their masks and outfits weren’t just cool (which they definitely were), they were a conscious stance. They created for themselves the incredibly privileged ability to completely separate their public personas from their inner lives. They, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, made music, released it, and played it. For everything else, they sent in the robots to do the dirty work.
They also understood one of the central paradoxes of fame: that, even though we’re desperate to know everything about a celebrity, when we think we do, we quickly get bored of it. Take Taylor Swift, who has been forced by studios to reinvent herself time and time again because the public got bored of her. When we got fed up with the sweet country girl, she was made into a popstar. Then, when we got fed up with that, she was made into a princess. And then a rebel. Without having to worry about the drama of the two as celebrities or as characters to try and decipher, fans were free to listen to the music and appreciate it for what it is: the defining catalogue of a changing century.
Perhaps that sense of detachment is why they’ve developed such a massive cult following. It’s certainly part of what made them feel so cool. When The Strokes also blew up in the early 2000s, people were attracted to them for their seeming boredom and apathy. They sang songs about being tired of living in their fancy New York apartments and meeting up with loads of different girls, and people found that exciting. Daft Punk exhibited that same sort of apathy. Their music was punchy, exciting, and loud, but everything they did in public was distinctly moderate and subdued. They just seemed better than all of this – the industry, the newspapers, the public eye – and their avoidance of it all was, contradictorily, impossible to take your eyes off. They set a standard for anonymity in the music scene – Deadmau5 wears his iconic mouse helmet, Marshmello wears his… well… Marshmallow, MF Doom wore his metal mask, and Sia wears her fringe. Gorillaz notably took the idea and ran with it, designing an entire cast of characters for Damon Albarn’s passion project.
Perhaps the best example of the project’s dynamism can be seen in Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, an hour-long animated film set to their seminal Discovery album. The video, which is now available in its entirety on YouTube, is a Japanese animation exploring the world that Daft Punk experienced during their rise to fame, giving us a wry “insider’s look” at an industry that many consider to be exploitative in its commercialisation of talent and art. The hyperbolic critique of the world of fame is interesting as it shows scenes of outstanding glamour and adoring fans, alongside the realities of mountains of autographed pictures and, err, a volcano filled with dastardly cultists. Maybe just going with the “tortured artist” approach to the film would have been too predictable for the duo.
With no dialogue and almost no sound effects, Interstella is a perfectly-suited accompaniment to their music (rather than the far more common case of it being the other way around in normal soundtracks), giving a heightened sense of drama to an iconic album – the film gives us a framework by which to listen to the album, but by no means defines the meaning of Discovery, meaning that the listener isn’t bound to a particular imagination of the 14 tracks upon future listening, in the same way that a screen adaptation of a book series doesn’t hold the reader’s imagination hostage to a certain interpretation of the story.
The last thing that Daft Punk needed was a faceless executive several pay-grades above them, making decisions on how their art should be understood. As several contemporary interviews show, they didn’t know how it should be understood themselves – and that was how they liked it, thank you very much. It seems that their philosophy was that they were the ones making the music, but not the ones interpreting it: going back to their mastery of samples, their skill was in finding subtle moments of the music they were listening to that could be flipped, so why would they want to deprive other listeners of the fun by limiting their music to a certain strict narrative?
If you’ve not already seen Interstella (and believe me, you’ll remember if you have), now might be a good time to watch it – there are heavy spoilers ahead.
By recruiting their childhood hero (and one of the greatest animation directors of all time) Leiji Matsumoto, Daft Punk found that the best way to pay tribute to their Saturday mornings sat in front of the television was to emulate it in a film that would also secure the legacy of their sophomore album by matching its dramatic sweeps, danceable rhythm, and wandering storytelling every step of the way.
If you’ve forgotten the details of the plot, here’s a summary of the 65-minute animation. Beginning on a distant alien planet, a band plays to an adoring crowd inside a giant, organic-looking stadium, everyone moving perfectly in sync to the house anthem of ‘One More Time’. We see shots of the whole ecumonopolis (planet-sprawling city) joining in on the fun, dancing in decisively retro garms to the planetary groove – including the security forces, who are hapless to the arrival of an obscenely evil-looking colonising force, who invade the planet and kidnap the band using sleeping gas. The guitarist, Arpeggius, tries to escape but is also captured by the black humanoid figures (‘Aerodynamic’). As they villains depart with the captive band, the security team wakes up and puts out an intergalactic cry for help, reaching the radar of a pilot named Shep (rudely awakening him from a daydream about the band’s bassist, Stella) who pursues the kidnappers through space (‘Digital Love’) before arriving on Earth. ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ then plays to a sequence where the blue-skinned band are refashioned into a more human form, forced to don a glitzy set of rock costumes, and have their memory reprogrammed such that they never realise that they are not of this world.
In the film’s second act, we see the meteoric rise to stardom of this group – dubbed The Crescendolls – who quickly become the biggest band on Earth, yet are unable to leave their hotel room as the company rakes in fortunes off their success (‘Crescendolls’ and ‘Nightvision’). Their manager, a Doctor-Eggman-esque Earl de Darkwood, looks on as the band soars up the charts, while their saviour, Shep, wanders the streets looking for clues to the band’s disappearance. In a daring move, Shep then kidnaps the band back from the record company, to the theme of ‘Superheroes’, apart from Stella who remains in the clutches of Darkwood. She is then forced to attend an awards ceremony during ‘High Life’, but Shep returns to rescue her despite being mortally wounded in an earlier fight, dying soon after he reverts the mind control effect and returning the band to their alien selves. As his spirit leaves the earth, Stella imagines a hedonistic life with her saviour (‘Something About Us’, one of the best sequences in the film).
Still paying attention? Good, because it’s about to get weirder.
The Crescendolls steal a van and drive to Darkwood’s home, a grand manor that you would be forgiven for thinking was taken right out of a Scooby-Doo adventure. While exploring its halls, they come across an ancient tome detailing their manager’s ultimate plan: the greatest artists that our world has ever known were each tragic victims of similar kidnappings, with the Darkwoods plundering the galaxy’s greatest talent from unsuspecting planets (‘Voyager’ and ‘Veridis Quo’, which happens to be a near anagram of ‘Discovery’). Why? Well, to make a shedload of money for one, but also with the knowledge that collecting 5,555 golden records will let him rule the world (golden records denoting that an album has sold half a million copies).
They find Darkwood in the middle of a ceremony – reminiscent of that scene from Temple of Doom where Mola Ram rips some poor bloke’s heart out – where he is about to place the 5,555th record on an enormous altar, fighting him and his cyborg bodyguards to save the world. The final disc is knocked into the lava below, Darkwood throws himself in after it, and the world is saved from a horrible fate – but The Crescendolls are still stranded on Earth, in human form, and without a pilot. The last 20 minutes of the film (‘Short Circuit’ to ‘Too Long’) are a montage of the Crescendolls recovering their stolen memories (kept on little PSP discs), convincing the people of earth to build them a ship, and returning home to a jubilant planet – although not without some difficulty as Shep and Darkwood’s spirits clash in a battle of good vs evil. And then, err, it’s all revealed to be a dream: a fantastically anti-climactic ending in case you were taking away too obvious a message.
Interstella 5555 is by no means a grand political statement. The story is a swashbuckling trip across the stars, populated with dashing heroes, beautiful heroines, and comically evil villains. However, throughout the film, subtle allegories to issues both in the music industry and wider world are explored. In ‘High Life’, Stella is adorned in designer dresses, high-heeled shoes, and a gleaming smile, and is paraded round red carpets by her producers, before being shoved back into a stretch limo. Her smile vanishes and her body slumps, as old men in suits chatter excitedly around her.
The exploitation of music artists is represented in a stylishly blatant way through the villainous Earl de Darkwood’s mind controlling sunglasses (yeah, really). The Crescendolls perform on stage like animatronics: legs stiff, eyes dead, arms limp, shifting between chords and songs as if on an assembly line. Daft Punk’s joy of music making constantly pervades their music, and the lifeless production of The Crescendolls is as clear a foil to this as any.
Daft Punk and Matsumoto also touch on class issues in one sequence from ‘Something About Us’. As Shep whisks away the Crescendolls from Darkwood’s clutches, they travel through a backstreet of the inner city. The streets are dark and grimy, and populated with rubbish. People in tattered rags gaze at the car, as Stella looks around in horror. Earlier, in ‘Nightvision’, Shep cowers in those same streets, hiding from the blinding lights of police cars. He’s hiding because he’s an alien – more literally, because of the colour of his skin. The film shows him as one and the same with the others, in constant fear of the police. No comment is made, but the meaning is clear. The disparity between those in the upper echelons of the music industry and those who consume it from below is clear.
The film’s mastery of a message without words gracefully takes sexism, class divides, and the very nature of commercialism into its stride, pointing the viewer to the important questions without crudely raising them itself, or trying to ham-fistedly give us the answer. It’s just not their style to tell us: after all, why would their opinion matter? It’s classic Daft Punk. The grandest statements are made with precision and subtlety. In their silence, with their mouths covered by metal masks, they say more than most ever could.
All images credited to Toei Animation