Daft Punk: How the Pioneering Dance Duo Conjured 'Random Access Memories'

Daft Punk
Photo by David Black

Shrouded in calculated mystery and unveiled gradually via traditional media, the act's first album in eight years is a bold, high-end effort to make everything old new again

It started with a Facebook post: Two helmets, one gold and one silver, halved and fused down the center, set against plain black. Then came the 15-second ad, aired during the March 2 episode of "Saturday Night Live"; its first appearance online was through an excited fan's YouTube video of his TV screen.

Next were the billboards, first seen around South by Southwest and Ultra Music Festival in March, then across the globe, from the Bowery in New York to Old Street in London. Those who spied them shared them, posting pictures to Twitter and Instagram by the thousands; on Reddit, one fan created a map of billboard sightings. By the time the Coachella festival rolled around in April, speculation was feverish.

In one sense, it was crystal clear. That high-gloss head gear belonged to Daft Punk, the French duo that had changed the course of dance music with two seminal albums (1997 debut Homework and 2001's Discovery) and one spectacular live show: the pyramid, which debuted famously at Coachella in 2006, and which many credit with solving the riddle of how to present dance music on a big stage, ushering in the eventual EDM era of extravagant production. But in another, it was frustratingly cryptic: Was this the new music Chic leader Nile Rodgers had been tweeting about, saying he had cut tracks with the band that were "genius"? A new live show that would change the plot again? Something else entirely?

The full story would be revealed at Coachella, through video shorts played between sets (creating another camera phone moment). Daft Punk-producer/Âperformers Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter-would release its sixth studio album, Random Access Memories, on Columbia Records on May 21. First single "Get Lucky" featured Pharrell Williams on vocals and Rodgers on guitar; the 13-track album also boasted collaborations with Animal Collective member Panda Bear, the Strokes' Julian Casablancas and disco godfather Giorgio Moroder. Diverging from the band's previous work-and that of most DJ/producers it had inspired-the album was recorded entirely live: No drum machines, no pre-fab loops and noises, and only two samples. Even the water droplets that close space symphony "Motherboard" were captured on a sound stage, as they might have been in the recording golden age of the '70s and '80s.

We'd searched a long time for the sound of the future. This time we stopped searching

... Bangalter says. "In this quest for the future, we might have overlooked some things from the past."

The full package of Random Access Memories-the billboards, the secrecy, the music itself and the manner in which it was recorded-could be called a throwback, but Daft Punk would rather refer to it as an experiment. Its purpose: To discover if in the modern age of popular music-defined in the band's thinking by speed, sameness and disposability-something deliberate, challenging and grand in scope could succeed, or as Bangalter puts it, "if the culture would allow for records like this to be produced. We hadn't really found anything that touched us on the radio, except for some classic recordings. We went back into the studio and said, 'OK, let's make this music that we want to listen to now, in the present.'"

If any act can challenge the zeitgeist, it's Daft Punk; that rare band that sits in the middle of the Venn diagram of scenes. Coachella music fiends might follow the act for the experience of its live show; hipsters for the android-cool of its visual aesthetic and connections to high fashion (Saint Laurent's Hedi Slimane designed this album's sequined robot suit); the top 40 set for its contributions to the wedding DJ canon (like 2001's "One More Time"); hip-hoppers for its previous focus on samples, and sample-able sounds (Kanye West made the duo's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" into his own "Stronger" in 2007). Electronic dance fans simply claim the two artists as their own; innovators, forefathers, trusted emissaries to the pop world and the divine clockmakers of EDM: They set the gears in motion, then stepped back, not releasing new music since 2005's Human After All (save the soundtrack to Disney's "Tron: Legacy" in 2010), or touring since Alive 2007, which introduced the pyramid.

"Daft Punk were the first to bring songwriting to dance music. They made dance songs popular because those were songs, not tracks," says A-Trak, aka Alain Macklovitch, the turntablist-turned-dance DJ who introduced West to the band's music. "If you look at how big electronic music is now, everyone who is doing it big started by idolizing them."

Far from a festival banger, "Get Lucky" is a four-minute song that could almost be called a ditty: An easy disco jam featuring the inimitable guitar work of Rodgers, with Williams exhaling a groovy vocal about good times, plus a declaration: "We've come too far to give up who we are." It could be about self-expression, or it could be about dance music, losing its connection to its roots as the EDM craze rages on.

"It has an openness, a groove, in reaction to how formulaic and overcompressed EDM has become," A-Trak says. "'Get Lucky' sounds less loud than anything else on your iTunes from the last five years, and that's beautiful."

Better still, the song is shaping up to be a hit. "Get Lucky" set a Spotify record for first-day streams upon its release on April 19. It debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 with 113,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and is now at No. 17 in its third week; sits at No. 1 on the digital download charts in 55 territories worldwide; and gave the band its first No. 1 on the U.K. pop chart.

"People have been stuck in their opinion of what's good and what's bad, and everything started sounding the same," says Interscope DJ/producer Zedd, aka Anton Zaslavski, whose "Clarity" is in its seventh week on the Hot 100. He was 11 when Discovery was released, and says it's what got him interested in electronic music. "This is like God coming and saying, 'This isn't the only thing there is; listen to this.' It sounds like [the album is] different from what people will expect, but they already have positive thoughts about it."

Random Access Memories is Daft Punk's magnum opus, a collection in the tradition of landmark LPs like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the Eagles' Hotel California, but imbued with the years of electronic music development that came after it. It has moments of light and fun, like "Get Lucky" and another Williams track, "Lose Yourself to Dance" (which could be the next single); as well as extended journeys like the 250-track "Touch" with 72-year-old singer/songwriter Paul Williams; album closer "Contact," which features the voice of Apollo 17 Captain Eugene Cernan; and "Giorgio by Moroder," the nine-minute epic already getting buzz, featuring Moroder narrating the course of his creative life. "We put a click on the 24-track, which was synched with the Moog modular. I knew that could be a sound of the future," he says at one point, before the Moog itself erupts into that very sound; the basis of all electronic music that followed. Those types of intersections among sound, history and feeling are stitched throughout the record like sequins on a robot suit.

"Hearing the album for the first time was a very exciting experience, and a bit nerve-wracking for us," Columbia chairman/CEO Rob Stringer says. "It was like, 'Oh, my God, if we don't get this I'll be depressed for life.'"

That initial listen happened for Stringer and Columbia president Ashley Newton in August 2012, a few weeks before its final mix down. Daft Punk had financed the recording itself, a process that Paul Hahn, director of the group's production company Daft Arts and the closest thing it has to a manager ("They're largely a self-managed band," he says), calls "an odyssey." Random Access Memories was recorded during the course of two-and-a-half years, in some of the world's legendary recording studios, like Electric Ladyland in New York and Henson, formerly A&M, in Los Angeles. There was also studio time in Paris, sessions with full orchestras and choirs, and cargo shipping of the band's 5-foot-by-7-foot custom Modcan modular synth ("It looks like something from the Wendy Carlos days," Bangalter says) between Paris and L.A., all footed by the band.

"We do things very independently," Hahn says. "Our live show, for example, we created without label support or sponsorship. This album was no different. Once it was recorded, we looked for the right scenario to release it."

NEXT PAGE: "My mom asks me every day if we're going on tour. Everybody does"

The band chose Columbia "for the culture of the company, and the talent of the people they had put together," Hahn says, but also for the gravitas of its name and brand. "It felt interesting conceptually to write this story with a record company like Columbia, with a 125-year legacy," Bangalter says.

The current deal is for one album only, and not a 360 arrangement as some had speculated. "We just want to have our autonomy and be able to find the right partners for each endeavor, but that's not to say our relationship with Columbia won't expand," Hahn says. "We hope it's a long-term relationship."

The band appealed to Columbia's sense of history immediately, laying out its vision of billboards and gradual reveals in its first meeting. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo even gave Stringer a copy of coffee-table book "Rock N Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip." After hearing the album, Stringer was onboard with the plan.

"We wanted it to be a campaign of weight, like when record companies had the confidence that they had a big, big record," he says, pointing to Michael Jackson's Thriller as an example. "In a way, nothing changes in that dynamic. We believe this is a big, big record in many ways."

Quarterbacked by Columbia senior VP of marketing Scott Greer, the rollout took "an analog-to-digital approach," he says, using paid media offline (like a billboard on Sunset and San Vicente Boulevards in Los Angeles) to drive earned media online (like hundreds of social posts about a billboard on Sunset and San Vicente). The plan worked, with social media spikes following every reveal, including two additional "SNL" spots (another 15-second teaser adding the vocoder line of "Get Lucky," and an extended 60-second spot showing the robots playing the song with Williams and Rodgers), the Coachella unveiling and the eventual release of the single.

"The idea was entirely fan-driven and based on fan discovery," Greer says. "It was an old-school record company reveal: You don't know anything until you rip off the shrink wrap."

Led by the United States, the reveal happened harmoniously across all Columbia markets worldwide, after Stringer and team traveled to London and took meetings with the marketing teams from every country, explaining the rollout and "giving them their mission statements," Greer says. "Everyone was facing the same direction. 'This is the date the spot's going to premier on "SNL." You can then place your spot on your relevant pop culture show after that date.'"

While the expense of such media sounds big-each broadcast spot and high-­visibility billboard could easily be in the six figures-Stringer says it's all relative. "Remember, we don't have a band going around the world doing television-that costs a lot of money. We were channeling the money in a different way."

And Stringer believes it will all be worth it. "I honestly believe that sales of this record will justify this approach. Otherwise I wouldn't do it," he says. "What's exciting about this project is how groundbreaking it is, but also commercially viable. I think it's the soundtrack of the year."

He points to "at least four radio records" on the album, including "Lose Yourself to Dance" and "Instant Crush" with Casablancas, and other opportunities: "Licensing and synchs will be dramatic," he says.

For Greer, who also spearheaded Columbia's similarly long-lead rollout of Adele's 10 million-seller 21, the campaign is already historic. "To me, this is a never-forget period of time, being inspired and being a part in something that at least we at Columbia think will change how records are marketed."

The robots-as their collaborators and friends affectionately call them-aren't the first artists to assert that today's music is missing something. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl caught hell for praising "the human element" in his 2012 Grammy Award acceptance speech for best rock performance, which many took as a slight against electronic music. Moroder himself, who launched the disco movement by introducing synthesizers to the recording studio, took to Facebook to decry the current use of extreme compression to create more loudness, posting a snapshot of two waveforms-one from 1977 and another, much denser, from 2013-with the message, "It's not funny anymore. We have to do something!" In a video for Vice's Creators Project, former Swedish House Mafia collaborator Williams said he was "in a Nile Rodgers place" when Daft Punk came calling, unaware that the band had already been recording with the legend. The wild success of acts founded on musicianship, like Mumford & Sons and Adele, suggests that perhaps the music-buying public is ready for a page-turn too.

"It's not a statement against music made with computers today, but there are wonderful things you can do in a recording studio you can't do at home on a laptop. That's what we wanted to try to express," Bangalter says. "Is it still a show when a magician makes a trick in front of an audience, if everyone is a magician and everyone knows the trick?"

Speaking of magic shows, there aren't any plans to take Random Access Memories on the road. "Not right now," Bangalter says. "We really want to put the focus on the record and not send mixed messages. That's still part of the experiment."

"My mom asks me every day if we're going on tour. Everybody does," Hahn says with a laugh. "We have been very inspired to do something in the live performance space, but for us right now we're very concentrated on the launch and getting this music out to people in a way that's positive. We want this album to have a cultural and artistic impact."

According to Bangalter, it already has. "The excitement and enthusiasm we had making the record, that we're seeing in the audience right now as the record is about to be revealed, is exactly what we felt was missing somehow in music, which was not missing back in the golden age," he says. "There's a tremendous amount of excitement around movies, TV shows, videogames, festivals and around a lot of artists, but not around a piece of recorded music."

It's an effect he hopes will reverberate to the potential Punks of tomorrow. "If this attempt can maybe inspire some 18-year-old kid-'You know, that's the kind of record I want to make' or 'That's the kind of spectacle or show I want to do'-that's the way the newer generation will be able to challenge their laptops, to do something not living in the climate of security of formatted content, but something elevated, in an exciting and elegant way."

For now, the return of Daft Punk has already changed the course of electronic dance music, releasing some pressure right as the proverbial bubble was starting to really swell. Despite the music's more mature vibe, the neon-wearing EDM army seems to trust the robots.

"The single came out last Friday and I had a big sold-out show in New York on Saturday. I ended my set with 'Get Lucky,' and I think it's the first time a lot of people heard it live," A-Trak says. "The reaction was unbelievable. I was actually moved. People were dancing with each other, how they're supposed to. The groove is back."