Daft Punk & Air: Disco Tech

DAFT PUNK AND AIR ARE THE BEATLES AND STONES OF THE INTERNATIONAL DANCE SCENE. SO WHY IS THE FRENCH ESTABLISHMENT – SO PROUD OF ITS TRADITION OF NURTURING CULTURE – SO LUKEWARM ABOUT THEIR PHENOMENAL SUCCESS?

“GAY.” WELL, THAT wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Nicolas Godin, however, is pretty clear about the perception of Air’s music among some of his countrymen, who unlike the rest of the developed musical world, remain stolidly unimpressed by their achievements. In the rest of Europe, they are worshipped for the cosmic/kitsch dimensions they have brought to ambient pop. In England, they are revered and imitated. In America, they have attained respect and admiration on a number of levels – from mavericks like Beck, who makes a guest appearance on their new album, to director Sofia Coppola, who commissioned them to soundtrack her movie debut The Virgin Suicides, to the programmers of the US basketball championship, who used Air’s ‘La Femme D’Argent’ to soundtrack the trailers for their upcoming games.

The French, however, are concerned that the soft, disingenuous poptones of Moon Safari might have presented an image of their country as musical powderpuffs and prancing Parisian popinjays. Established French magazines like Les Inrockuptibles are lukewarm towards them, suspicious of their immediate success abroad. Explains Jean Benoit Dunckel, “They still have the old romantic ideas of becoming a star, where you start from nothing and climb the ladder. Nowadays, as you know, you have to be huge with your first album – like Massive Attack with Blue Lines, Daft Punk with Homework, Air with Moon Safari. In France, they think if you are successful with your first album, there is something fake about you, that you are the product of marketing.

“In France, nobody tries to imitate what we do. We are hardly ever recognised in the streets. We are the band who got huge in England. That’s all they talk about.”

Moreover, the French domestic music scene outside of Paris is somewhat tribal, dominated by lovers of heavy rock on the one hand and lovers of French hip hop (especially in the South of France) on the other. Both these hardy contingents smart at the essentially Parisian tendencies of Air. Hence their mistrustful and macho dismissal of Air’s music as…well, as Nicolas put, it, gay. Le vice Anglais…

“Because the French love their own country, they were not pleased about the fact that we were showing a certain kind of image of France. They were jealous of that.”

Jealousy may be the key word here, explaining why groups like Air, to say nothing of Daft Punk, Cassias, Phoenix and Alex Gopher among others, remain prophets not without honour save in their own country.

For decades, French rock and pop remained laughably negligible beyond its own shores. Yet with typical Gallic pride, they maintained not only a rock magazine (Les Inrockuptibles) but also – and to universal derision from across the channel – a Minister for Rock, which cannot have been a very strenuously overworked portfolio in the early Nineties. Yet somehow it took les foreigners to pick up on the big acts sitting under their noses.

Travel to any French city, but Paris in particular, and one was struck by the sense of narcissistic cool, style and panache exuded by the young, a world of scooters, outdoor cafes, Gauloises and surly chic enacted on every street corner. Such a way of living wafted alluringly across to the London pop scene and, in various ways, added aroma to groups ranging from The Style Council to Stereolab and St Etienne. Yet somehow it was as if French Boy And Girl were too busy maintaining this uniform sense of cool, too busy Being Themselves, to actually form any bands.

In London, by contrast, youth culture’s sense of self was post-modem and inchoate, the sum of various imports and influences. London Boy And Girl frantically picked’n’mixed from all over the shop in order to maintain an ever-shifting identity. This made for a thriving and fertile pop culture, which, ironically, attracted true Parisian hipsters like Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab over here.

Then, sometime in the mid-Nineties, things began to change. It was around this time that the prototypes for both Daft Punk and Air first made their appearance. There was Darlin’, a left-field indie band named after a Beach Boys song that featured both members of Daft Punk as well as a future member of Cassius, Phillipe Zdar. (DP would eventually take their name from a phrase used in a disparaging Melody Maker review of Darlin’). Meanwhile, Orange, featuring Air’s Jean-Benoit Dunckel and future Gallic funkster Alex Gopher, also debuted, before quickly splitting off into splinter groups.

These first green shoots of a Parisian scene coincided with our Britpop, which reasserted a sense of national musical identity that soon contracted into a nostalgic conservatism. Meanwhile, just as we were regaining our notions of Britishness, the French were finally loosening their grip on their sense of “Frenchness”. Jean-Benoit Dunckel explains the current French wave as “the real first time that the French are becoming European, especially through the electronic arts, trying to express something through English lyrics. It’s an attempt to reach out to the rest of the world.”

A number of indirect cultural factors had a hand in this, including the increasing visibility of multi-ethnic communities (prefigured by the success of MC Solaar), but ironically the likes of Air and Daft Punk’s incursions into the joys of kitsch, analogue and electronica weren’t just inspired by British rave but also the pseudo-French tendencies of the peripheral English scene. The authentically French Air, for instance, often paid homage to the occasionally pseudo-French north London-based St Etienne, while Daft Punk owed their musical beginnings to a label set up by Stereolab.

Meanwhile, the legions of fringe fans left disaffected by the diminishing returns of Britpop looked in desperation to a place we’d never thought of looking in years – France. And, as the acid/rave/techno wave swept slowly but gigantically across Europe, Paris suddenly became massif and central to the new electronica sensibility.

There’d been a burgeoning club scene in Paris for a while, with neo-house groovers like La Funk Mob waiting to be discovered. But it was Daft Punk who impacted instantly, when their debut single, ‘Alive’, was picked up by Glasgow’s Soma label and at once feted by The Chemical Brothers and the less likely antennae of Annie Nightingale. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem Christo had known each other since they were schoolkids and were barely into their twenties by the time their debut album, Homework, became the club crossover hit of 1997. Homework was disingenuous disco, shamelessly plundering dance’s cheesy past, eschewing digital state-of-the-art methodology in favour of DIY analogue.

Homework nonetheless came at techno from seemingly obvious yet utterly unexpected angles. Tracks like ‘Around The World’ might have been bouncily reminiscent of novelty Seventies synth hits by the likes of Hot Butter or one-hit Gallic antecedents Space (remember ‘Magic Fly’ from 1977?), yet they were driven by an unrelenting, infectious sense of innovation – the way they audaciously tweaked the treble on, say, ‘Daften-direkt’, to suggest the opening of the doors on to a crowded nightclub would become an oft-mimicked motif on subsequent dance records. Hungry British hipsters left jaded by the know-it-all, done-it-all sensibility of the homegrown techno scene snaffled up Daft Punk’s brio and elan like fresh bread. Thomas Bangalter describes DP’s biggest hits as “honest and true and naive”, and it was this that hugely appealed.

Yet DP weren’t as naive as they let on. Bangalter’s dad was a wily veteran of the Seventies disco scene, co-responsible for visiting upon the world the likes of The Gibson Brothers’ ‘Cuba’ and Ottawan’s ‘D.I.S.C.O.’, and was accredited as a vital guiding hand as DP negotiated their way into the biz. As for DP themselves, in their ostensible desire not to be sucked up and spat out by the image-obsessed American and UK media, they came up with a super-effective form of (anti) imagery of their own – they refused to appear bare-faced in press shots, always donning masks of some sort. This is a concept they’ve extended further for their latest album, Discovery, in which they declared themselves “dead” and replaced by “robots”, that is themselves in upgraded, programmable masks as opposed to the plastic jokeshop fare of yore.

What’s more, uncomfortable with signing to a “multinational” like Virgin, DP have sought to preserve a sense of indie/underground integrity by being assertively proactive in the manner in which they are packaged – in terms of videos, logos and the Internet. And so, in their desire not to be image and merchandising fodder, DP have paradoxically ensured, in their winningly faux-naif way, that they are marketed far more effectively than their anonymous dance contemporaries.

Not that Daft Punk have merely worked for themselves alone. Their success has opened a pathway for French contemporaries (and even elders) like Alex Gopher, Cassius, Kojak, Bob Sinclar, Etienne De Crecy and DJ Dimitri, while even the likes of Basement Jaxx have benefited from the pulseways they’ve fashioned.

Like Air, Daft Punk have found themselves at odds with their own countrymen (though they have enjoyed Number One hit singles in France). They were involved with a dispute with a French TV station who allegedly used extracts of their music for the Rugby World Cup without permission; they clashed with the government, whose vicious anti-rave policies curbed some of their club activity; and Thomas Bangalter has mocked the belated efforts of France’s Ministry Of Culture to provide research and development facilities for French techno. “We’re not IRCAM!” he says, alluding to the Parisian-based institute which supports avant-garde classical music.

Thomas Bangalter has said, “There is nothing French about our music.” Certainly, with Discovery, Daft Punk have attempted to graduate into a space of their own in which pop cultural/geographical considerations are meaningless. Hailed in some quarters as the finest dance album ever made, Discovery has also puzzled and alienated one or two critics with its baroque touches (‘Veridis Quo’), prog-dance tendencies and mining of the Seventies for inspiration. Take ‘Digital Love’, which samples George Duke and whose vocodered vocals and keyboard solos contain clear and potentially embarrassing allusions to Buggles and Supertramp.

However, Daft Punk’s genius is in taking such mouldy old cheesy elements and reinfusing them with such vivacity you almost, if not quite, want to dig out an old copy of Breakfast In America and wonder if it was so bad. In fact, their real antecedents here are Zapp and Kraftwerk, taking a determinedly childlike joy in electronica, making synthesisers feel like Christmas toys just unwrapped. It’s not their Frenchness but their perpetual freshness which distinguishes Daft Punk.

Air, too, have struck an enigmatic note with their second album – 10,000 Hz Legend is less immediate than Moon Safari, whose heavenly muzak opened up an entire new musical lightness of being currently occupied by everyone from Alpha to Zero 7.

Recorded in LA, it bears a new tan, not of West Coast blandness but of a certain darkness this time round. At times it’s faintly reminiscent of Eighties Swiss techno-popsters Yello, full as it is of malevolence and mischief. The opener, on which their electric keyboards seem to click into real life and round on you like giant, speaking iguanas, sets the tone. “It is a declaration of love to our equipment, a tribute to our equipment,” says Dunckel. “This is something no one talks about in songs. since the beginning of pop music, people speak of their everyday life. Our everyday life is our equipment.”

Beck, meanwhile, guests on two tracks, ‘Don’t Be Light’ and ‘Vagabond’, and Air find a way of perfectly showcasing his mock-hicksterism here. “For us, he is the last Beatnik,” says Godin. “He spends his life on the road, he finds it impossible to stay at home. He is the electronic, post-modern vagabond.” Here, indeed, he features like an established Hollywood male lead given a fresh lease of life in a Euro arthouse movie.

Overall, says Dunckel, “There’s a bigger range of emotions – we wanted to have some contrasts in this album, a strange beauty.” No less so than on the prowling, Moog-Mogadon-driven ‘Lucky And Unhappy’, whose uneasy listening suggests that sometime during providing the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s black drama The Virgin Suicides, Air underwent a mysterious metamorphosis. How the public will take to this remains to be seen.

“With this album, there is not such a chic feel,” agrees Dunkel. “I am a little scared. Did people like us for the right reasons? Or did they like a stereotype romantic idea of Paris that we were projecting?”

Whatever. Although feted worldwide, Air, like Daft Punk, are strangely isolated non-celebrities, with only their musical contemporaries for company. Whereas in Britain, bands of the same musical feather tend (or pretend) to be oblivious to each other, in the Parisian scene there is a genuine camaraderie. I remember visiting Air at a studio in Versailles and seeing them hook up with members of the very young but frighteningly versatile Phoenix in the studio, jamming through a variety of versions of ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ on trad and analogue instruments. “Everybody is in the same crew,” says Godin. “There’s no enmity, no hatred.”

“The secret of our music is the brotherhood we have with each other,” adds Dunckel. “When we make a record, we want to be proud of an album, to gain the respect of all our contemporaries, of the guys from Phoenix, say. That helps us to keep a high level – the motivation is not to please the public but our musical friends. We don’t want to look ridiculous in front of them.”

© David StubbsUncut, July 2001

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