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The Robots Who Ruled the World

On Monday, Daft Punk exploded themselves in the desert and announced their dissolution. But if this is really the end, the electronic duo’s myth and legacy remains unvarnished.

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Let’s begin in the desert—specifically the Empire Polo Ground in Indio, California, the site of the famed Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—on April 29, 2006. There, on that day, Daft Punk appeared in something called the Sahara Tent before a crowd expected to total 10,000 fans. The helmet-clad duo hadn’t performed live since 1997, and this set was coming at a challenging point for them: on the heels of their disappointing third LP, 2005’s Human After All, and at a time when electronic music was largely forgotten. They weren’t the first dance music legends to play the Sahara Tent: The previous year, ’90s electronica torchbearers the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy headlined that stage, and while those sets were warmly received, the relatively basic performances setting the small humans against giant backdrops didn’t exactly change the trajectory of popular music. But now it was the robots’ turn, and they dared to dream bigger.

What you see in the low-res, pre-iPhone video from that night is the rebirth of Daft Punk—and the birth of modern electronic music as it stood for nearly a decade. Atop a 24-foot LED pyramid, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo ran through a collection of their greatest and deepest cuts as 40,000 people rushed the Sahara Tent and nearly caused it to collapse. What happened next might be more familiar—the early viral fame, the Kanye West samples, the Weeknd collabs, the song that charted in the top 10 in 32 countries—but it’s worth recalling the inciting moment. For an hour and 15 minutes in 2006, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo virtuostically reappropriated their work, putting each song in a fresh context while building and releasing tension throughout. The on-stage pyramid and its lasers—potentially a gimmick in the hands of a lesser group—only enhanced the experience.

On Monday, Daft Punk returned to the desert one more time, only there were no dramatic set pieces, no LED lights, and no genre-shifting performances. In an eight-minute YouTube video titled “Epilogue,” Bangalter and de Homem-Christo used a clip from their 2006 experimental sci-fi film Electroma to announce the end of their 28-year partnership. (They offered no reason for the split.) It’s a somewhat silly way to end one of the most successful musical pairings of the 21st century—the moment of self-destruction is primed to be GIF’d into oblivion itself—and it’s difficult to take two guys who never publicly took their helmets off at face value. It’s still affecting, however: Music’s most famous working Parisians, the improbable superstars who went from rave kids to dance heroes to standing next to Beyoncé at the TIDAL launch event, are apparently calling it quits after a long and fruitful career. The timing and manner of the announcement may seem odd, but it still bears mourning. From electronica wunderkinds to disco-house savants to hired-gun production wizards, Daft Punk lived many musical lives in their time together. Their influence extended to everything from Top 40 to underground hip-hop, and even in the most fallow times, they were a totem for hipster coolness, the kind that people like James Murphy invoked with a mix of deference and irony. But nearly three decades of success and several iterations of fame couldn’t change them—they were intent on keeping the helmets on till the very end, even as their progeny rose and fell around them. And if there’s one thing they understood better than any of their would-be successors, it’s that the best way to keep the mystique alive is to never reveal who’s behind it.

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Before there were robot helmets, there were regular old masks—the kind you might buy at a novelty store.

Bangalter and de Homem-Christo began performing music together as teenagers in 1992 Paris as part of a trio named Darlin’. The group, which included future Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, drew its inspiration from a Beach Boys song and released a few minorly successful singles on a label founded by avant-pop legends Stereolab. Darlin’, however, failed to achieve its mission, which was, according to de Homem-Christo, meeting girls. The group quickly split, although not before they were given something important: A negative review in Melody Maker called their music “a daft punky thrash.” As Bangalter and de Homem-Christo began experimenting with drum machines and synths, they had a name for their new endeavour.

The duo quickly fell in love with electronic music, hammering out songs in Bangalter’s bedroom using mostly samplers and a Roland TR-909. After a few early singles under the new moniker were released through Soma Quality Recordings—most notably “Da Funk,” a pulsating burner that eventually received a surreal Spike Jonze video—Daft Punk signed to Virgin Records and began working on what would become their debut album. But Bangalter and de Homem-Christo refused to play the PR game, opting to wear masks and plastic bags to cover their face at shows and during interviews. They didn’t see a need to be showmen in addition to 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.”

That first full-length for Virgin, 1997’s Homework, sits alone in the group’s catalog today, sounding unlike anything that came after it; it’s largely instrumental music built for late nights in warehouses, composed of chopped vocal samples and booming kick drums. It’s more abrasive and physical than the music being made at the time by the likes of Air and Moby, and it’s more accessible than anything by Aphex Twin or the aforementioned Chemical Brothers. Daft Punk achieved this by dutifully studying their influences, who largely came from Black American genres: Chicago house, Detroit techno, Los Angeles gangsta rap’s G-funk. (Daft Punk ultimately becoming more famous than their Black forerunners is not unlike the Rolling Stones eclipsing blues musicians like Muddy Waters—something that the Parisians were aware of early on, which is likely why they shouted out many of the musicians and DJs who laid the groundwork for them on “Teachers.”)

Homework is fantastic, but it’s harsh and jagged. Most of it doesn’t scream burgeoning global icons who will one day flank Beyoncé. It does, however, contain one perfect piece of pop music: “Around the World,” a slow-disco anthem with an infectious melody topped with a loop of the titular phrase, run through a vocoder. The song became an international hit at a time when electronica and big beat looked like the next big things; its Michel Gondry–directed video earned a spot in the MTV rotation, which helped propel “Around the World” onto the Billboard Hot 100. That’s no small feat for something recorded in a bedroom and mixed on a boombox, released at the height of 1990s music industry excess. But “Around the World” is also significant for how it informed what came next: Its blend of robotic vocals and undeniable melodies laid the blueprint that Daft Punk would build on with their follow-up, 2001’s Discovery, a disco-house masterpiece that’s on the short list for best albums of the millenium.

The samplers and drum machines were still present on Daft Punk’s sophomore album, but the group developed a deeper affection for vintage synths. Suddenly, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo began incorporating more Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. Combined with their leap in songcraft, the results were stunning. Soft-rock sojourns like “Something About Us” sit next to sly funk missives like “Voyager.” “Aerodynamic” combines house with Yngwie Malmsteen–style guitar arpeggios, as enjoyable as it is ridiculous. The duo’s voices had also become prominent instruments in their own right: “Harder Better Faster Stronger” may be constructed around an Edwin Birdsong loop, but the song becomes mesmerizing during its breakdown, as the chorus gets sliced and pitch-shifted up and down the scale. (Kanye West and at least a few YouTubers figured out how to harness that song’s magic for their own benefit too. The work truly is never over.)

At the emotional core of Discovery sits what may be the finest moment in the duo’s catalog: the anthemic opener “One More Time,” the kind of song that can unite the bros and the PLURs—a song that feels as natural at a rave as it does in a soccer stadium. It’s also a showcase for what Bangalter and de Homem-Christo could do with sampling; shortly after Monday’s breakup announcement, a video made the rounds showing how expertly they chopped and rearranged Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You” into a new composition. It’s the kind of record-flipping dexterity normally expected out of hip-hop producers like DJ Premier, but Daft Punk turned it into one of the best house songs of the young century.

Even as electronica faded and critics turned their attention to rising guitar-revival bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes, Discovery broke through immediately in ways that Homework hadn’t. It reached no. 23 on the U.S. charts—impressive for a group on their level in the prestreaming era—and was eventually certified gold. Rock critics who had mostly ignored house music fixated on the album (something James Murphy invoked with a mix of irony and deference on another song, when he sang, “I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids”). The album helped kick off a hipster-friendly mid-2000s microgenre that would earn the regrettable name bloghouse. There’s almost certainly no Chromeo or Justice without Daft Punk, and LCD Soundsystem and early MGMT likely sound a lot different if Discovery was never made.

Beyond the music, however, Daft Punk leveled up in one other way around this time: In the process of making Discovery, they traded in their plastic Halloween masks for robot helmets, conjuring their own iconography out of thin air. Over two decades, the helmets went through many iterations—some had air conditioning, some allowed communication during live shows, and one set was provided by the company that makes Black Panther’s and Thor’s costumes for Marvel movies. Perhaps it’s a little goofy to see two grown men wearing helmets and shiny suits, and it could feel a bit cynical when companies placed them in commercials next to C-3PO, but the switch was an effective branding exercise; a rock-star maneuver; a wholly autonomous act of mythbuilding. As Bangalter would tell Pitchfork in 2013: “When you know how a magic trick is done, it’s so depressing.”

Like Discovery, the Coachella set changed a lot for Daft Punk. In the aftermath, they embarked on the Alive Tour, their first since the months following Homework’s release, when they played in front of no more than a few thousand people. This time, shows were considerably larger, as they brought the pyramid to five continents for 48 dates. They scored Disney’s Tron: Legacy in 2010 and their sound infiltrated hip-hop: Kanye and Busta Rhymes both rode Daft Punk samples to chart success. And eventually, the pair would produce for the likes of the Weeknd, Arcade Fire, and Kanye himself, on Yeezus.

The Coachella set and resulting tour also reverberated throughout the industry, most obviously by ushering in an era of gaudy set designs in rap and electronic music. (Both Kanye’s Yeezus and Saint Pablo tours feel distinctly influenced by the Daft Punk performance, while fellow masked house producer Deadmau5 has cycled through at least three versions of his live-show cube.) But the Coachella set was also proof of concept that DJs could be rock stars, which indirectly influenced the EDM boom of the early 2010s and brought a new wave of brash, loud, oversexualized artists whose music stood in stark contrast to Daft Punk’s. Without the pyramid, you likely don’t get electronic superstars Avicii or Steve Aoki; Calvin Harris probably doesn’t earn $178 million over three years without the robots paving the way. You certainly don’t get dubstep demigod Skrillex, who said he decided to start making electronic music after catching the Alive Tour.

To their credit, Daft Punk wanted little to do with the world they helped create. They had no interest in EDM—de Homem-Christo calling the genre “really efficient on the body” may be the nicest thing either ever said about it—and they quickly abandoned attempts in the late 2000s to produce their fourth LP on laptops. (Bangalter said they were worthless for “generating emotion as musical instruments.”) Rather, while the rest of the industry zigged to a more aggressive and synthetic sound, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo zagged, ditching their samplers and drum machines to instead work with more live instrumentation. Those studio sessions resulted in 2013’s Random Access Memories, a star-studded album that mixes pure disco with funk and prog rock, enlists a star-studded guest list ranging from Julian Casablancas to Giorgio Moroder, and calls on studio musicians who worked on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But really, the album stands as testament to the duo’s otherworldly knack for infectious sounds. You can hear that electric guitar and I haven’t even written the words “Get Lucky” yet. The Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers–aided track became a cultural sensation from the moment it first appeared as a snippet on Saturday Night Live; it would eventually sell nearly 9.3 million copies, making it Daft Punk’s biggest song to date while transforming them into a mainstream concern. Random Access Memories marked the third wave of Daft Punk’s success, and while it may not be as influential as the projects that came before it, the album may be the one the average fan remembers most.

Since then, there hasn’t been much new material aside from the stray producing or songwriting credit. That makes Monday’s announcement all the more curious: The group hadn’t put out a proper album or new song in eight years. Nobody was necessarily expecting a new project, and some of Bangalter’s and de Homem-Christo’s best works have come while working separately. It’s tempting to pick at the conspiratorial threads—the 20th anniversary of Discovery’s release is on Friday, after all—but until the next Coachella performance, all we have to go on is the “Epilogue” video and the word of their publicist. It would appear that Daft Punk died out in the desert, just like they were reborn there nearly 15 years ago.

The duo’s name trended on Twitter throughout much of the day alongside the titles of some of their most popular tracks. While at least part of that was people getting off their “Thank you Daft Punk” jokes, there was an earnestness to much of it: some thanked the group for getting them into electronic music, a handful offered up fan art, while others saluted them for incorporating anime into their early videos. The robots had inspired real human emotions. But if this is the end for Daft Punk, perhaps we shouldn’t mourn too much. We should be thankful that they went out with a little mystique, helmets on and all. The truly depressing thing would be knowing how the magic trick is done.