There was a period between ‘66 and ‘71 when the best films that imagined the future were made. 2001, Play Time, Fahrenheit 451 and THX 1138 were not flashy, aggressive fantasies, but rather more mellow meditations on the sort of world we humans might inherit. Daft Punk’s Electroma could quite easily have come from this batch, since it shines with a similar aesthetic applied with a completely fresh approach. Shot by Thomas Bangalter himself, the film can only be described as a piece of visceral art free from the traditional foundations of narrative filmmaking. It’s a fully imagined experience made from Daft Punk’s robot guts.
It’s a lot easier to understand Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo if we stop thinking of them as mere musicians who get distracted by side projects and start thinking of them as multi-media artists propelled by an excitement for what comes next, no matter the form. Driven to satisfy nothing but their own creative curiosity, they will always be trying new things to challenge themselves and in turn their audience. This year they’re touring their unparalleled live show and asking their fans open their minds to Electroma.
Anthem was fortunate enough to speak with Thomas Bangalter about the music of film, Kanye West and the days when memory was a commodity.
How did Electroma come about?
We’ve always been excited and interested in images and film as much as music—at every opportunity we try to transcribe music into images. We set up our production company, Daft Arts, two years ago in America to experiment with film and images the way we did ten years ago in the home studio with electronic music. We tried to take no rules into consideration and [to] redefine and explore formats that take elements from the past and the future, to mix stuff that had been done in a way [that] hadn’t been done before.
I was really interested in photography and cinematography, so for the three years I read any technical material I could put my hands on. I got twenty years of archives of American Cinematographer and got into a very technical yet artistic approach to light, emulsion and film. It was a hands on experience with the camera as much as the music has always been hands on with the drum machines, sampler or synthesizer. It’s like what we’ve been doing with music, which is a combination of technique, reading manuals…then forget all the rules, technique and technology.
Who did you kill to get the 60’s film stock?
Unfortunately the 60’s stock don’t exist any more but that’s definitely the question we were asking ourselves: how to achieve the looks we wanted?
You could think that some of these images are stock footage from 1967 but it’s all been custom made in 2006. It’s a combination of retrofuturism by trying to get a 1960s or 70s look yet with ideas that were introduced artistically after that. Almost like creating fake samples, which we have done, especially in Discovery, where people think there are samples from disco records or funk records—there are no samples at all.
I’ve stumbles upon those posts online where they are like, “look at all these samples,” and half of this list is not true. The samples that were used have always been cleared and it’s very blatant. There [are] hardly any credits on Human After All, except in the case of Robot Rock there is a sample of Breakwater. I think that sampling is always something that we’ve completely legitimately done. It’s not something we’ve hidden, it’s almost a partisan or ideological way of making music, sampling things and being sampled.
On my label we’ve been doing records that are 9 minutes with only [a single] one second loop, with even less foundation than there is on Robot Rock. It’s always been a way to reinterpret things—sometimes it’s using [an] element from the past, or sometimes recreating them and fooling the eyes or the ears, which is just a fun thing to do.
How do feel about people like Swiss Beats and Kayne West sampling Daft Punk?
I think it comes full circle and I think that’s what’s fun about music. It’s good to see, not only sampling but also people acknowledging our music because we are really music and art lovers. So many people have influenced us. 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. We feel really humble and happy about the unlikely connection.
You called out some of those influences when you named the best producers of the time on the track Teachers. Did you ever get a hear back from any of them?
One day in LA, the phone rang and it was Nile Rogers from Chic, and he said “yeah, I really like your stuff.” One funny thing is we were doing this song live ten years ago on our ‘97 tour. We were in the UK and while I was singing it live we were triggering with the keyboard pictures of all the producers on the screen. On the night of Halloween we changed everything and we replaced it with horror movie heroes and had some halloween synth lines ….“Michael Myers, Freddy Crugar.”
I watched Electroma with Human After All and it’s obviously paced to work with the album.
Ohhh, well you know a lot of people watch Darkside of the Moon with Wizard of Oz and it’s working fine too but I don’t know?
But this fits too well the song breaks coincide so nicely with the scene breaks and the mood shifts, it has to be more than just coincidence.
No, I don’t know if I would to say that. It’s part of the same creative cycle and one can say that. Despite the fact that there is no Daft Punk music in Electroma that this is definitely the subtext even though we are really into abstract world here but the two works are really responding to one another.
Were they being conceptualized at the same time?
No, not at all. This film was done in a much more spontaneous way, an almost subconscious way. I’m very interested how you can express ideas, and analyzing them afterwards. Primarily it was done much like the music, without using the brain at all or the thinking part of the brain, which obviously is not usually the way you do films. The movie is inaccessible on many points but at the same time it’s not a “brain” movie [but] rather an “eye” movie, something that speaks to the body.
It reminded me a lot of films like Baraka or Koyaniskazi.
Yeah well obviously at the time of Human After All we were completely plunged into those kinds of films, though we didn’t try and do something similar. It’s more like we tried to do music for the eye. Paintings can be similar to music—when you see some Dali or Magritte painting there is this sense, some images really strike you physically like harmonies can do. It just short circuits your brain because it’s linked to some emotions.
The way you edited Electroma also has a musical feel to it, more so than traditional film edits.
It’s true. It was either a very old way of editing or maybe a different way.
I really like fast editing, beginning with Sam Peckinpah to blockbusters that have 6 frame shots, but in terms of raw power, I always thought that long takes have a much more dramatic sense of power.
I mean like in your music, there are a lot of repeated shots almost like rhythms.
I think that that would be more subconscious than deliberate. At the same time, this is what this film is: one personal experience being shared with other people that are appropriating it and making it their own. We always said about Electroma that the only actor in the film is the spectator himself. It is some kind of a film/ environment created for the spectator that lacks everything that a film has, which is a script or dialogue. The story also lacks characters, lacks human beings, warmth and emotion and if you can see the smallest hint of story you are just projecting.
So linking back to Human After All, our first two albums are really happy, they make you feel good and make you want to dance. It’s a natural high. That’s what we are trying to do now with the live shows. They have a real optimistic mood. On the opposing side, both Human After All and Electroma are extremely tormented and sad and terrifying looks at technology, yet there can be some beauty and emoting from it.
You need a starting point to create something, then you need to go with the flow, very spontaniously to make the thing that makes the most sense. The work of art is controlling you. We never try to go against that or against that process. Electroma started as a few images we had in our head of robots in this desert or this white room and this surgical science fiction. Then we took those things, organizing it to try to express something. As soon as you have the starting point you try to stick to it and serve the project and what it’s trying to say. You’re the first spectator to understand the meaning of it. If it touches you, why does it touch you?
How does it compare with working on Irreversible which was another completely unique film?
For Irreversible I was more in the service of Gaspa and his film, so the starting point was not mine but there was the same will to go with the flow of the project. Irreversible was a pure, hyped-up experiment which was super exciting. Gaspar asked if I could work on the soundtrack and to what extent I could enhance the experience. The idea was not to have the music taking over, but just fit into the concept or the aesthetic. From the start, it was breaking so many rules. This idea of rehearsing on set for three days, coming up with the text, shooting for two days and over a period of six weeks just having 6 to 8 shots in the can…
I think to service the film is the most important thing and we tried to do it with Electroma. So some parts [of Electroma] we didn’t put music in because a film is about a film.
Electroma feels completely free, as if it was made with complete disregard for the general standards of narrative filmmaking. Were those even in the back of your mind or was something else at work in your approach to the film?
There are theories that even in a limited area, you have the infinity inside the square. You take a 1 inch by 1 inch hole on a wall and what you are going to be able to see through that hole is infinite. Obviously cinema and music and art and everything we’ve been doing it has an underlying economy because it’s not free, it’s hard to manufacture. We’ve had the luxury of balancing this economy sometimes selling records or another expensive film, [and then] working on a film like Electroma that’s completely disconnected from reality because it’s an extremely limited release.
There’s a way with these constraints, which can be economy based or they can be conceptual. With Human After All we wanted to do it with just two guitars and one drum machine, and getting it done in four weeks there is an infinity of things that can happen inside that four week process. You can be completely without constraints within that time and space. The movie was shot in eleven days and I think getting involved ourselves, much the way we did when we started recording music in our home studio, it’s as convenient and economical as it is also a statement which is not to spend money and not go into a big studio We try to be as free, as radical, as spontaneous and humble as possible and to do exactly what we want to do. So it’s a pretty selfish process at the same time: not thinking about the audience, not thinking about the people that love us and hate us. It’s a very personal, intimate process.
Do you begin by setting boundaries to challenge yourself, or do you find yourself imposing them without realizing it? Is it just part of the way you work?
I think it’s both. It’s like crutches. I really like this French writer Georges Perec, he did a novel [without using the letter] ‘e’. I’m really into and excited by this kind of challenge because not only are you trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, but you are trying to express yourself and limit yourself.
You can always have an infinity of things you can express within [a] closed environment and the thing is that most of these limits are practical and not in our heads. They are from technology [or] financial restraints. When we started to do Homework [samplers] could only have like 15 seconds of sound or memory on it. Memory, which was very cherished, is now very cheap and completely available. It is that you have this endless limits and I think on some level it has helped people but on some level it has created a very poor creative context because there are no limits. We said pretty much the same thing with the home studio where we had so much shit, so many instruments and gadgets that at some point we were like oh our first record we only did with that and that and that. It’s overwhelming, like you are floating into space.