Human After All? 10 moments that defined Daft Punk
Countless music fans and artists claim to have had life-changing and deeply religious experiences at festivals and concerts. While many of these stories are highly personal and not to be discounted, few hold a candle to the night Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter went to a techno show on a Paris rooftop in 1994. It was a night that didn’t just kindle the flame to these two young musician’s blazing careers but sparked a global popular culture movement, lit the match on a seven billion-dollar-a-year industry, and altered the trajectory of electronic music as the world knows it.
de Homem-Christo and Bangalter, who would come to form one of the most iconic dance music duos in history, originally were members of a three-piece punk rock band who called themselves Darlin’. But after a series of foretelling events—including four “pretty average” tracks, only two gigs, and a loathsome piece of criticism from a Brit music journalist dubbing their music “a daft punky thrash“—they abandoned their rock-and-roll ambitions, disbanded, and looked toward new horizons. New horizons that, for the most part, were unfamiliar to the world.
The pair formed Daft Punk as a sort of cheeky Warholian nod to that negative review that, in hindsight, altered the direction of their career for the better. They began experimenting with drum machines and synthesizers, drawing inspiration from UK rock and acid house, and mixing high-brow and low-brow art forms. As a painter takes their first strokes on a canvas, so too did Daft Punk begin penning their own career long masterpiece on the Rowland TR-909. One that would carry with it profound effects.
Throughout their 28 year career, the Parisian duo conquered incredible feats in production and musicianship. From historic live sets to industry-shifting releases, the milestones accomplished by Daft Punk and the precedence they set are not just directly responsible for setting the electronic dance music industry into motion. The consequence of their sound is effectively responsible for molding the entire music industry at large.
While the list of feats that these “EDM Godfathers” accomplished are endless, we’ve managed to funnel down ten career-changing moments that defined Daft Punk, cemented their legacy, and carved out their place forever in history. Perhaps a few of the embers which grew to be the guiding light for the world of dance music.
1) 9999 - The Transformation Begins
The date was September 9, 1999, when the dreaded “9999 bug” corrupted Daft Punk’s hardware. A virus that deleted all of their files and sent sparks flying from their sampler, injuring them in the process.
And so it began. The humans formerly known as Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas-Bangalter were born again as the robots Daft Punk. A clear cultural metaphor for the “Y2K bug” scare, Daft Punk were themselves the product of a rapidly-changing technological world and a reflection of the insecurities that accompanied embracing the new internet age during the 90s decade. Moreover, the project was a tongue-in-cheek postmodern critique on the information overload that resulted from living in an “internet highway” society.
Assisted by Hollywood makeup and special effects designer Tony Gardner, gold and silver plated helmets were created that would go on to become the iconic Daft Punk look. And with it, a brand new concept regarding artists and their ability to create otherworldly personas for their fans. A visual aesthetic that is frequently replicated in today’s music scene.
2) "Around the World" Music Video
Among the several individuals that Daft Punk piqued the interest of was Michael Gondry, a french director, screenwriter, and producer who would late go on to write and direct Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004. But this was 1997 during the time when Daft Punk was working on their debut album.
After hearing Daft Punk’s music, the future Academy Award-winning filmmaker was inspired to create a visual depiction of what their computerized beats made him feel. The “Around the World” music video, filmed and directed by Gondry, was the first time Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter were seen donning their recognizable robot helmets. Taking away their former identities, but in doing so, giving them a new one.
3) Debut album, 'Homework' (2007)
The songs that came to be the meat and potatoes of Homework were written without the intention of ever creating an album, some of which included hit singles “Around the World” and 1995’s “Da Funk,” which became their first commercially successful single in the same year. Commenting on titling their debut work, Thomas Bangalter told Pop Magazine,
Hunkered down in a bedroom studio filled with drum machines, synthesizers, sequencers, and wires stacked to the brim, de Homem-Christo and Bangalter’s minds did what they were always naturally wired to do— create. What resulted was a 16-song record that charted in 14 countries and put the spotlight on French house music across the globe. Meanwhile, the young Frenchmen were just getting started.
“You always do homework in the bedroom.”
- Thomas Bangalter (right)
4) Spike Jonze creates music video for "Da Funk" (1996)
While Daft Punk’s debut album had names like George Michael cooing and calling to collaborate, they elected to go with the likes of Spike Jonze to help them with their first music video. Just as video was beginning to brim and MTV was blossoming, they dropped a peculiar video that featured a dog-man doing various things around New York City with a boombox. While the artists said the video didn’t have any hidden meaning, the mystery and allure of the plot further enhanced people’s curiosity about the duo and their ability to create audio/visual content.
The video has drawn several interpretations, but Bangalter has stated: “There’s no story. It is just a man-dog walking with a ghetto blaster in New York. The rest is not meant to say anything. The rest is not meant to say anything.”
Coupled with their staple helmet heads, the masked music makers were beginning to garner international attention around their enigmatic identities. But Daft Punk refused to play into the PR game, opting to wear masks and plastic bags to cover their face at shows and during interviews. The pair just didn’t see the need to be showmen in addition to being musicians.
“We wanted to draw a line between public life and private life,” de Homem-Christo told Interview in 2001. “We didn’t understand why it should be obligatory to be on the covers of magazines as yourself.”
5) Interstella 5555 - The 5tory of 5ecret 5tar 5ystem
Upon the full-length studio release of Discovery in March 2001, with hit singles “One More Time”, “Digital Love” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” Daft Punk solidified themselves as visionaries in music production.
But the moment they released Interstella 5555 – The 5tory of 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, a visual companion to the breakout album, the two Frenchmen showed that they were far more than just a musical duo. They were visual storytellers who wanted to create entire imaginary worlds for their audiences to immerse themselves in, not just an audiophile world.
The idea that messages held within songs and albums can go beyond music opened up brand new worlds for artists. Daft Punk proved that if you wanted to, an artists could be the character in your own storybook universe.
6) Reinventing the music business
de Homem-Christo and Bangalter were known for a lot of things, and their business savvy was certainly one of them. The duo are said to have changed the way labels and artists conduct business with the innovative deal they penned with Virgin Records in 1996. Although it may seem typical to some, having full and total creative freedom and complete ownership of one’s own music is something that rarely happened in the music industry.
With the creation of Daft Trax, Daft Punk’s own production company, they simply licensed their music to Virgin. This model gave the record company rights to the tracks for a limited time, with Daft Punk owning them outright. This new licensing strategy end up becoming the standard framework adopted widely by artists across the board, from hip-hop to rock and roll.
7) Alive set, Coachella 2006
“A spaceship had landed in the middle of the desert”
Following their Humans After All release, Daft Punk wasn’t necessarily front of mind for most fans. Although new judgments were formed years later about the album, at first it was heavily criticized and not widely accepted by the general public. Still, that didn’t prevent Coachella from repeatedly reaching out to Daft Punk and even raising their offer to get them to play at the mega-music festival in Indio, California. Eventually, an agreement was reached at $300,000, a large chunk of which they used to create their groundbreaking pyramid stage to be unveiled at the show.
What they ended up with came as a complete shock to Coachella fans and the world as a whole. Perched atop a 24-foot LED pyramid, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo ran through a collection of their greatest hits as 40,000 people rushed the Sahara Tent. The level of production and technological advancement in the stage design was something never done before, setting a precedent that acts like Eric Prydz’ Holosphere or Deadmau5’s Cube would follow.
8) Daft Punk scores the soundtrack for Disney's Tron Legacy (2010)
Although they had always been anti-corporation, Daft Punk decided to break their own rules when they worked with Disney to score the soundtrack for Tron Legacy. As was the case with Interstella 5555, it was always about more than just making music to Daft Punk. They wanted to create entire realms. To be masters of their own universe.
At the 2009 Comic-Con in San Diego, it was announced that Daft Punk had composed 24 tracks for the sequel film, which ended up being a box office flop. Daft Punk’s score was arranged and orchestrated by Joseph Trapanese and the three collaborated for two years on the score, from pre-production to completion.
Tron Legacy was just another opportunity for them to show the world the full extent of their imagination. In unison with a full 85-piece orchestra, Daft Punk painted the sonic depiction of the cyber world known as Tron. They even made a cameo in the 2010 reboot, which starred Jeff Bridges. Daft Punk was even rumored to be in talks to score Tron 3, although this was before the duo made the sudden announcement of their breakup in March 2021.
9) 'Random Access Memories' takes home five Grammys
One of the last chapters of the Daft Punk saga was also the high point in their career. In 2013, Daft Punk left Virgin for Columbia Records to release their fourth studio album. Although it was eight years before they actually broke up, Random Access Memories (RAM) was the French production duo’s last full-length album and, shockingly, their first official Grammy win.
While Daft Punk had long demonstrated an elevated skill for sampling music live, Random Access Memories demonstrated that they were truly the best in the game. With hits like “Instant Crush,” and “Get Lucky,” featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, Daft Punk carved yet another body of work into the record books.
At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, RAM swept the competition to earn the Recording Academy’s top categories. In the process, Daft Punk would take home five coveted Grammy phonographs in Album of the Year, Best Dance/Electronica Album, Best Engineered Album, with “Get Lucky” winning Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Record of the Year.
10) “I Feel it Coming” hits No. 1 on Billboard's Top 100 charts
Perhaps Daft Punk’s biggest collaboration, in terms of mainstream success and crossover appeal, is their single, “I Feel it Coming” with The Weeknd. As the Canadian singer was preparing his third studio album, he visited a recording studio in Paris where Daft Punk showed him the instrumental for “I Feel It Coming.”
Within an hour, the lyrics were written to what would become Daft Punk’s first track to make it to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Although their reputation may lead fans to believe that Daft Punk never placed a lot of value on awards, it was a well-deserved recognition that further cemented their legacy. A legacy, that has officially come to a close as of February 22nd, 2021.
Using an excerpt from their 2006 film, Electroma, Daft Punk bid farewell to the world the same way they came in— on their terms and with all eyes on them. Following the 2/22/21 video, their longtime publicist Kathryn Frazier confirmed the announcement but gave no reason why. Whether de Homem-Christo and Bangalter are going to continue producing on their own or not is unknown, so at the moment all fans can do is dream of a reunion tour and reflect on the incredible moments of their career.
Although they never wanted to be seen as “human,” Daft Punk’s career is one that will live in dance music infamy until the end of human existence. To borrow on their 2005 album title, perhaps then, the Parisian duo are truly Human After All.
Attempting to identify and understand the sonic and cosmic creations that weave their way in and out of our lives. And maybe share a few laughs along the way.