Cover feature for Dazed & Confused, December 2010. A world exclusive, this was Daft Punk’s only interview and shoot for their Tron: Legacy soundtrack – we coaxed them out by promising to shoot in full 3D and with a robot orchestra. (We then had to find someone to pay for it all.)
Photoagraphy Sharif Hamza Styling Robbie Spencer
Digital dance overlords Daft Punk have surprised everyone by creating an orchestral score for the year’s biggest sci-fi spectacular. Rod Stanley spends a few days in LA to find out why they’ve swapped chips for cellos
If you look closely at the back of a circuit board, that tightly packed grid of lines and soldering points looks a lot like a top-down view of a futuristic city. At least, it must have seemed that way to director Steven Lisberger in the late 1970s, around the time he moved his small animation studio to Los Angeles. Inspired by his experience of the first video game Pong, Lisberger had a vision of the future – a utopian virtual world that existed inside computer space, populated by avatars of programs and the people that created them, and enabled by a new form of animation that swapped paintbrushes for pixels. He called it Tron.
Los Angeles, 2010. The world’s entertainment centre stretches out beneath the wings of the computer-controlled Airbus, continuing its automated descent to LAX. Around 18 million people live here in an area that runs to the horizon in a scarcely interrupted grid of light, their flow within it determined by a ceaseless, automated blinking – red, green, red. And somewhere in it sits a cluster of people busy reactivating the Tron universe for the first time since 1982, for a next-generation 3D spectacle they hope will be the ultimate film thrill ride. Daft Punk, robot overlords of the digital disco, provide the soundtrack to this immersive vision of a futuristic electronic society – except, in typical Daft Punk style, nothing is quite what it seems.
In an eminent Hollywood mastering studio, Thomas Bangalter relaxes on a sofa, smiling at the sounds filling the room. The door opens and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo enters, nodding a greeting. He expresses pleasure at the overall sound balance, and the engineer continues clicking her mouse, offering a breakneck overview of what this pair have spent the last two years working on. And one thing that is abundantly clear, notwithstanding snatches of crisply edited beats and haunting synth riffs, is that much of the music is orchestral.
17 years after they struck the UK dance scene like a glitterball comet, Daft Punk remain probably the most successful electronic music act in the world. As they discuss cutting a couple of reference CDs to take away, the film’s music mixer Alan Meyerson jokes that they don’t want to leave many of those lying around: “These guys have some pretty sophisticated fans who will try anything to get hold of this.” Thomas laughs and relays a story about a fan who got in touch with sequel director Joseph Kosinski, claiming to be Thomas and asking him to send over all the tracks by email. Meyerson puts down his headphones: “And then there are the not so sophisticated.”
The blacked-out BMW pulls into traffic, and their manager adjusts the volume of the music. “Daft Punk EQ’d my car stereo,” he smiles, sounding very much like the great LCD Soundsystem song that never was. Six weeks after Dazed first met up with them in London, as they were about to record with an orchestra at AIR Lyndhurst (built by Beatles producer George Martin in a Victorian chapel), Daft Punk are sitting in the back of the car, looking tired but relaxed. “We feel good,” shrugs Thomas. “There is more work to be done, but we’ve more or less finished now.”
“This project is by far the most challenging and complex thing we have ever been involved with,” he continues. “Coming from our background of making electronic music in a small bedroom, and ending up having our music performed by a 90-piece orchestra, with some of the best musicians in the world… We are lucky to have had the opportunity to experience some powerful moments artistically over the years, but recording this orchestra was a very intense experience.”
This project is by far the most challenging and complex thing we have ever been involved with
A few days later, the completed soundtrack album is played through at their studio, and Daft Punk’s skill as composers is clear. Dance has flirted with classical in the past, and composers from Hans Zimmer to original Tron scorer Wendy Carlos have incorporated electronic music into film themes, but this score is a new form of cybernetically enhanced organism, seamlessly merging emotional strings and horns with pulsing bass and sci-fi synth. There’s an electronic version of the main theme that fuses with the instruments so completely that it somehow seems to be originating from within that same high-domed Victorian chapel – it’s crazy and beautiful, a classical orchestra cutting shapes at a 90s warehouse rave. Thomas nods, saying they spent about six months just experimenting with the sound; recording was very pure, he adds, and they limited themselves to six or seven digital sounds, embedded like virtual instruments within the orchestra. He namechecks Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, John Carpenter, Vangelis and Maurice Jarre as soundtrack composers that have been inspirational to them.
A gate glides open automatically and the car pulls into their studio base. In their upstairs production offices, one wall is covered in a giant space scene, a red electric guitar on the floor; a few people tap away at computers, sheltered from the oppressive heat. It’s a hint at the preparation needed to record with an orchestra, not to mention the pressures of working with one of the world’s biggest film studios – after all, Daft Punk are notoriously protective of their creative control. “The most pressure we feel is always from ourselves, even in a project like this,” says Thomas. “I think that is why we took so much time before we jumped on board, so we could guarantee our freedom and room for experimentation in this environment – it’s a dream factory. Hollywood is at the corner of imagination and industry.”
The roots of this particular journey lie in Daft Punk’s 2007 world tour, when director Kosinski and another producer met with them and asked if they would be interested in working on a Tron sequel. The film had not been approved at that point, but a shared affinity for the world of the original became clear. “As soon as we saw the filmmaker was not trying to copy the first, but expand it after almost 30 years, we thought it was interesting,” says Thomas. “Then we questioned ourselves to whether or not it was something we could actually do.”
Before introspection, however, there was the matter of completing the tour, an audio-visual epic with Daft Punk triumphantly atop an illuminated pyramid in front of delirious crowds of up to 60,000. “It’s a big blur,” smiles Guy-Man, visibly lighting up at the memory. “Always a crazy reaction. Everybody was giving so much back to us… a party every night.”
“Just seeing that the music and robots still mean things on a deep level to people was definitely an affirmation we received with a lot of humility,” adds Thomas. “That tour gave us the energy and enthusiasm to keep on doing unexpected things. So, after we finished, we thought the idea of an audio-visual odyssey in 3D in the IMAX, with a partner as unexpected as Disney, seemed a good way to build something new.”
Already with experience in film, from working on their own videos to directing 2006 robot road-movie Electroma, the pair detail their involvement with the filmmaking process, and how they set about learning film scoring from scratch. “This movie was cut to the music,” explains Guy-Man proudly. “Usually, composers come in at the end when everything is done.” If they did a score again, would they work this way? “We won’t take two years again! We learned enough this time to start more quickly.”
This dedicated approach has clearly earned admiration from the filmmakers. A couple of days later, at an open day for the film in Venice Beach, Steven Lisberger is the most compelling character, baffling the assembled American entertainment journalists with his passionate exposition of his original utopian vision: “There are no mining colonies on planets, no vampires, no apocalypse… but we are all Users now,” he thunders, referring to the original film’s notion of individuals interacting in cyberspace. “Our world has divided into the analogue and the digital, but we seek wholeness. That’s the image of the disc. Are we going to use technology to bring us together or keep us apart?” In his notes for this soundtrack release, Lisberger writes: “Daft Punk has increased Tron: Legacy’s bandwidth, adding depth to the low end, the Soul, and expanding the high end, the Spirit. They have decompressed the Tron universe and created a new form of cyber-opera.”
“Tron left a strong imprint as a kid,” reflects Guy-Man. “I was eight, he was seven. Maybe I only saw it two or three times in my entire life, but the feel of it is so strong even now, that I think the imprint of the first one will not be erased by the new one. It has a real visionary quality to it.”
On its release in 1982, Tron defined an entire visual language, setting the parameters for something that at that time had only been glimpsed – the computer world. To a generation growing up with the first video games, the idea of being able to go inside a game was an incredibly powerful one, and its pioneering computer-generated imagery ensured its aesthetic was “imprinted” on the minds of a generation – one that would later use computers to create dance music. Early rave was preoccupied with the idea of using technology to create an alternate society, a kind of cyber-pagan utopia that can be traced back to the world of Tron.
“There was a naïve quality in 1982 around technology and the start of video games,” agrees Thomas. “And that’s like the start of electronic music – there was this statement, and ideologically these things to fight for. But these thoughts are outdated now – socially and artistically irrelevant. So as always, what can you do next?”
Guy-Man pinpoints the roots of their creative approach to one specific choice they made 17 years ago. “I think there was a turn, right when we started,” he says thoughtfully. “We’d made ‘Da Funk’. And in England and Scotland, where our label was, there was big pressure and big attention on us… especially when you are 17. It went crazy on us so fast. And we actually did a ‘Da Funk 2’ in the studio. I think we’ve never talked about it… We really thought there was a formula,” he laughs, miming playing a synth, “Parp parp paaarp parp PARP! I remember feeling we have to kill that stuff, and go the other way. There were two roads there, and we took the road doing totally the opposite – we did ‘Rollin’ And Scratchin’ instead. And we consciously killed ‘Da Funk 2’. It’s always about following the unexpected.”
“We knew from the start that there was no way we were going to do this film score with two synthesisers and a drum machine,” adds Thomas, by way of conclusion.
We knew from the start that there was no way we were going to do this film score with two synthesisers and a drum machine
Of course, many will be expecting exactly that, and both admit that the filmmakers were originally expecting a purely electronic score. Daft Punk’s musical melting pot, from disco to funk and metal, has long been discussed, but perhaps there are classical elements that have gone less remarked. “Yeah, the baroque quality,” nods Guy-Man, adding passionately that he hopes this soundtrack encourages their fans to explore classical music. “The soul and emotion of it is so powerful that to like it is so easy – it’s just people think you need to be educated. I thought that myself for a long time, until I had listened to so many kinds of music, that one day I just tried it. But it’s not about learning… it’s about learning that it’s just there.”
“The end of ‘Aerodynamic’ is completely baroque music, a classical composition we put into synthetic form,” says Thomas. “This film was the opposite – we wanted to make it timeless. A cello was there 400 years ago and will still be here in 400 years. But synthesisers that were invented 20 years ago will probably be gone in the next 20. Synths are a very low level of artificial intelligence,” he smiles, “whereas you have a Stradivarius that will live for a thousand years. In the past, we have worked with clashing genres like disco and heavy metal, and here we would do it with film scores… this idea of the ultimate retro-futurism.” Retro-futurism is one of Thomas’s favourite words, and it’s no accident that some of the most powerful moments in sci-fi film have been set to classical music, such as the space docking scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, played out to The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss.
“Daft Punk would not exist if there was no technology. So here was a way of saying: Okay – if there was no technology, let’s see what we could have done. This is what Daft Punk would have done in 1750!”
Daft Punk would not exist if there was no technology. So here was a way of saying: Okay… This is what Daft Punk would have done in 1750!
A music theatre, downtown. As members of the mechanical orchestra slowly assemble themselves, two robot figures have taken to the stage. Thomas sits down calmly at the grand piano, lights reflecting off his silver head and hands, and plays a Bach prelude amid the faded grandeur of the empty theatre. Guy-Man stands beside him, curved visor impassively facing front, and the few people present fall silent. It’s a powerful moment, evoking both the dispassionate nature of technology and the humanity of live performance. These robots have provided an elegant nexus for Daft Punk’s ideas about art, technology and humanity for over a decade, and that technologic transformation back in 1999 created two genuine pop icons for the 21st century.
The robots also make an appearance in the new film, surely a childhood fantasy fulfilled. “Last week we were with Steven, we played him the soundtrack, and he was so moved by it, and appreciative,” Thomas later reveals Lisberger wept during playback. “That is the kind of moment when you feel it is really worth it, to have the ability to give back to someone that inspired you. And the rest is fun! It is as fun as being in Star Wars,” he says, referring to last year’s Adidas commercial, “when we were in the cantina with C3PO and R2D2.”
Guy-Man chuckles, “We are lucky.”
Given their reputation for elusiveness, Daft Punk are surprisingly open, except about plans for the future: a subject that results in the visors sliding down every time. More film scores? Maybe. New Daft Punk material? Perhaps. Touring this soundtrack live with a 90-piece orchestra on a floating electronic city with players parachuting in from the edge of space? They rule nothing out.
“One thing for sure is that we have been creating a lot of music,” Guy-Man says, teasingly. “The energy we got from the tour has been put back into this movie, and some other stuff too.”
“Electronic music has definitely taken over America,” says Thomas, discussing their ongoing association with rap megastars from Kanye to Pharrell. “There is more and more interaction with hip hop.” Do they simply find dance music less appealing at the moment? The only real dancefloor number here, “Derezzed”, clocks in at one minute and fifty seconds, after all. “For us, yes,” he says. “We are definitely excited by music, but just trying to constantly experiment. And sometimes that means going with other art forms, because you think there’s more latitude to experiment with an orchestra than an 808 drum machine and synth.”
Throughout their career, Daft Punk have not been afraid to make mistakes, and while not every creative choice has been welcomed with open arms, people have usually come round to their way of thinking. “When Homework came out, people said it was a sellout and the death of techno,” laughs Thomas. “We’re definitely ready for whatever happens with this, and feel very happy about it on a personal level. We have plenty of experience of ups and downs.”
When Homework came out, people said it was a sellout and the death of techno
Despite this insistence on never repeating themselves, Daft Punk have also somehow remained a permanent fixture in music’s fast-revolving firmament; three hours after our arrival in LA, a DJ had already played “Robot Rock”. “It is puzzling,” says Thomas. “Especially tracks like that off Human After All that were not so much appreciated – I mean, we were very happy with that record. But in electronic music, having been around for 17 years and to not have been tagged ‘uncool’ is surprising.” How have they done that? “We have no idea.”
“And if we knew, we wouldn’t tell you,” laughs Guy-Man. “No, I think it is just because we are dedicated and we are passionate. We met when we were kids. And it is about taking your brain out – you just feel, and you enjoy. It is like two kids playing, and if something makes you laugh or is exciting, then you keep on. It’s doing things not for fame, success or money, but enjoying the journey rather than the goal.”
Pool party, an LA rooftop. Acres of tanned flesh in the 40º heat, relentlessly locking step to a machine groove that has become a kind of aural wallpaper. Technology can set you free, or it can become a prison – that was what Steven Lisberger saw 30 years ago when he gazed at a circuit board and saw the possibilities that lay beyond it. Will we use technology to bring us together, or keep us apart? In their ongoing mission to make us feel emotion in the midst of the most synthetic spectacle, Daft Punk are a celebration of humanity in a robot world, not just in art and music, but the way we live. “Technology is an interesting subject, people thinking: how much good, and how much bad, does it inherently carry?” said Thomas. “And I think our way of participating in that debate is to have made an album with real people, and not so much with computers. Maybe that’s what we feel right now, surrounded by all this technology. Whether subconscious or not.”
Originally published in Dazed & Confused, December 2010, and syndicated in The Independent.