All good things come to an end, and even robots power down. After four studio albums, two tours and 28 years of service, legendary electronic duo Daft Punk have moved from “is” to “was.” It’s a simple change really, as the sentence that marks their storied career remains: Daft Punk was the most conceptual and influential electronic musical act of its time.
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter met in 1987 as students at Lycée Carnot, a Parisian secondary school that counts among its alumni a former French President, an expressionist painter, a Nobel laureate, philosophers, prime ministers, a sci-fi author and others.
Like many kids in many schools, the friends started bands and recorded demos. For six months in 1992, they formed a rock trio called Darlin’ with Laurent Brancowitz. They wrote four songs and released an EP, which Dave Jennings of Melody Maker infamously derided as “a daft punky thrash.”
In Bangalter’s own words, it “was pretty average,” so Darlin’ broke up. Brancowitz went on to play guitar in the extremely successful alt-rock band Phoenix, and the other two turned to embrace the underground sounds of Paris’ bubbling warehouse rave scene. Gay clubs and French castles pulsed with samples of disco and soul repeated and stretched into euphoric mantras. French Touch, as a style, was gloriously simple and unimaginably effective.
Taking their name from their failure, Daft Punk released a song called “The New Wave,” (later called “Alive”) in 1994. In 1995, they released “Da Funk,” a stomping, side-winding synth riff that the duo told Swedish magazine Pop #2 was inspired by weeks of listening to Warren G’s 1994 G-funk masterpiece, “Regulate.” Britain’s big beat heroes The Chemical Brothers liked it, incorporating the song’s upbeat robotic snarl into their live shows. Daft Punk needed a manager.
Enter Pedro Winter, a Parisian rave promoter as lanky as he was enthusiastic. He helped the band sign to Virgin Records, navigating the relationship to be more like a partnership, as Daft Punk valued creative control above all else. Their debut album was recorded using a make-shift “studio” that David Guetta once described as “two small Mackeys, 8tracks connected together, a ghetto blaster, no real monitor and… only one compressor on the master.” It was made at home — well before “bedroom pop” became a widely accepted genre — so they called it Homework.
That album dropped in 1997, and rocketed the top of the underground. Music videos directed by Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze made Daft Punk oddball favorites on MTV. Bangalter and Homem-Christo obscured their faces, wearing paper bags over their heads in interviews and smudging their pictures on the album art. They never wanted to be the center of attention. They wanted the music to speak for itself.
The duo did tour that year, a trek later documented on the incredible live record Alive 1997. Breakneck bleep-bloops and white noise tidal waves explode in a style that defines itself. The duo wasn’t wearing masks then, but they would soon put them on and never again be seen without them.
Settling back into their studio, the duo took a risk on nostalgia, setting forth to record a disco-inspired album called Discovery. I once heard a rumor they wrote the song “One More Time” and then sat on it for two years, waiting to see if it sounded “timeless.” During this time, they concocted a cool story about a studio explosion that left them disfigured and close to death.
“We did not choose to become robots,” Bangalter is reported to have said. “We were working on our sampler, and at exactly 9:09 a.m. on September 9, 1999, it exploded. When we regained consciousness, we discovered that we had become robots.” From then on, they appeared in full body suits, topped with light-up helmets that change ever so slightly for each musical era, setting a new (and subsequently much-followed) standard for producer anonymity in the process.
Discovery came out in 2001, a weird, sleek, and at times borderline-cheesy amalgamation of pounding 4/4 beats, robo-Van Halen guitar shreds and extraterrestrial wah-wah’d funk. It was far from an expected sound for the era, but it did become a global hit. “One More Time” even landed on the Billboard Hot 100, at No. 61.
People imagine that Daft Punk were always beloved international icons, but that’s because they see them through a modern lens. Being into Daft Punk and even “dance music” in the early 2000s made you a pretty weird kid. Joke was on the rest of the world, because the weird kids all remember that night in 2001 when Cartoon Network’s Toonami played the first four music videos from Daft Punk’s animated feature film Interstellar 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem.
Directed by Kazuhisa Takenouchi and produced by the iconic anime studio Toei Animation (Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball), the film sets every note of Discovery to a narrative. An alien band is abducted by an evil force, brainwashed and enslaved to become pop idols. It does not paint a pretty picture of the music industry, and it is in fact amazing.
From there came Daft’s most underrated, and in some ways, their most important release. Human After All was written and recorded in six weeks, a minimalist exploration of humanist themes and emotional depth. By design, it’s the most robotic sounding thing Daft Punk ever created, and the themes of its austere lyrics tackle love and mindfulness, being in the present moment, commercialism, industry and, literally “Emotion.”
Upon its release in 2005, people kind of hated it. Pitchfork trashed the release, calling it “not just a failure, but a heartbreaker” and stamping it with a feeble 4.9 rating. However, it laid the course for the harsh, visceral, metal-infused sounds that would become integral to the forthcoming blog house, American dubstep and EDM zeitgeist — particularly once fans got to see it played live.
“When we put out Human After All, I got a lot of bad feedback, like, ‘It’s so repetitive. There’s nothing new. Daft Punk used to be good,'” Pedro Winter said in 2007. “Then they came back with the light show, and everyone shut their mouths… People even apologized, like, ‘How could we have misjudged Daft Punk?’ The live show changed everything. Even if I’m part of it, I like to step back and admire it. Me, I cried.”
In 2006, Daft Punk made history when Coachella paid them a ton of money to play the festival, and prove to everyone just how ahead of the game they really were. No one could have imagined that the duo would arrive in a glowing pyramid — flanked by brilliant geometric colors, backed by a giant LED screen — to blow everyone’s minds.
This was before the rise of YouTube, so it wasn’t even like people knew it happened after it happened. I had no idea what I was in for when I saw them a few months later in Miami at now defunct-festival called Bang! Like that Coachella crowd several months prior, I have never again experienced one crowd dancing in utter awe, everyone on the same page of love, astonishment and exuberance. (I did actually get to see it “one more time” at Lollapalooza 2007. I bought a t-shirt that I won’t even wear anymore because I’m afraid it’ll become too faded.) Daft Punk expertly mixed their three-album catalog into a mega mash-up of perfection. The sum was greater than its parts. It was an audio-visual revelation, and it was the high point of a concept that will likely never be repeated.
But the concept was to be copied, many times over. Before the pyramid, an electronic act had never appeared onstage with such a massive stage production. After they did it, everyone else wanted one, with the duo essentially (and literally) setting the stage for the oversized and increasingly complex stage productions seen during the EDM explosion in the states in the 2010s and beyond. Skrillex built a spaceship. Deadmau5 erected a glowing cube. Avicii played from atop a giant head. Pyro and confetti blasts became standard operating procedure for every electronic mainstage. The Sahara tent at Coachella where Daft Punk first unveiled the pyramid became ground zero for dance music’s surging popularity in the new decade, with the area growing from a reasonably large tent to a superstructure the size of an airport hangar during the 2010s.
And henceforth came the generation of Daft Punk-inspired dance acts. Among them were Justice, the French duo signed to Ed Banger, a label launched by Pedro Winter in 2003. With their explosive 2007 debut album, that pair went on to capitalize on the ravenous hunger for more of the high-octane electro dance Daft Punk’s tour left in its wake. Electronic music started playing in American house parties and then clubs, and eventually, the stage was set for a the genre to be acceptable and, from 2010 to 2015, dominant.
Indeed, Daft Punk gave birth to many of the producers we now worship, with acts like Skrillex, Porter Robinson, David Guetta, Disclosure, Zedd, Gryffin and Odesza taking major influence from the duo. Porter Robinson once told me that before he and Madeon release a video or consider a concept, they ask themselves “Would Daft Punk do it? Have they done it?”
All the while, Daft Punk faded into the background, but never left front of mind. They appeared briefly in 2010 to conjure the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. Then they started working on a new and (apparently) final album. For this, Homem-Christo and Bangalter gathered their heroes, from Giorgio Moroder to Nile Rodgers, in a studio to record new riffs and rhythms – no longer relegated to sampling the greats of the past, and now having become “the greats” themselves.
The product of those sessions, Random Access Memories, is cinematic and grandiose — and by their standards, organic-sounding, a major departure from the heavy synth sounds of Human After All and Alive 2007. It took people by surprise, but it should not have: Daft Punk gave birth to the trend, but they were never enslaved to it. Though the public took time to catch up to Human After All, they embraced Random Access Memories in real time: The set received rave reviews and chart-topping sales, while the Pharrell-sung lead single “Get Lucky” became an era-defining global smash, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and bringing the group to pop radio and even wedding dancefloors like never before.
Daft Punk would get to take a victory lap at the 2014 Grammys, where they performed with Pharrell, Rodgers and Stevie Wonder, and took home four trophies, including record of the year for “Get Lucky” and album of the year for RAM. Take a minute to watch the clip where the duo hug before getting on stage to accept the latter award. They can’t talk, but every moment of their rise — from bedroom producers to larger-than-life icons — is right there in that embrace.
Daft Punk never toured behind the album, but everyone did some silly math and figured they’d hit the road again in 2017. They never said they would, and they never said they wouldn’t, and when they didn’t — even after they popped up alongside The Weeknd for a pair of popsmashes from his Starboy album, resulting in their lone Hot 100 No. 1 — everyone was a bit let down. Still, the rumor-mill that “Daft Punk is in the studio” never really slowed. We’d all kind of held on to this idea that they had to come back. They had to do something more, one more time.
It feels a little weird, thinking of Daft Punk in the past tense. Bangalter and Homem-Christo are only in their mid-40s. It’s also a little disconcerting that the official farewell is a recycled bit of Electroma — Daft Punk’s dialogue-free 2006 avant-garde sci-fi film depicting the duo stuck in a robot world, desperate to become human, with the duo blowing themselves to smithereens at the end — paired with the final refrain of Random Access Memories‘ “Touch.” It feels low-concept, given Daft Punk’s very high-concept career.
Maybe the guys who never wanted to be famous are rich now, getting older, looking at their families with the frame of “nothing lasts forever, and I should probably pay attention to life’s small details before it’s over.” Maybe it’s time for them to embark upon fuller solo careers. Maybe it was just time to let everyone know, they’re moving on. They’ve said what they have to say – without saying almost anything at all.
We don’t know why they’re calling it, and indeed, hopeful skeptics are conjecturing that this announcement is simply a red herring to set the stage for an actual comeback. But for now, at least, it seems it’s really over. We may know a lot about Daft Punk, but we don’t know what they’re thinking. However, we should all know and recognize by now that Daft Punk owes us nothing — because they already gave us everything, and that’s not a bad deal at all.