Chromeo: Is Pop Finally Ready for a Former Barnard Professor and Accountant?

Chromeo at SXSW, Friday March 14th 2014

Misha Vladimirskiy

Dave Macklovitch, 36, hastily unsheathes a whole-wheat veggie wrap from pastel green butcher paper and digs in heartily. He's sorry to be impolite. It's 4:00 in the afternoon and the lead singer of wry, Canadian, electro-funk duo Chromeo has forgotten to eat lunch. In a snug, asymmetrical t-shirt and thick black glasses with a silver stud in his left ear, he's seated at a small, cherry wood dining table in his posh South Williamsburg condo next to partner and producer Patrick Gemayel, or P Thugg, 37, who wears a white beanie and black Megadeth tee.

When they started Chromeo a decade ago, Macklovitch, who is lanky and half-Moroccan, and Gemayel, stout and Lebanese, were pop music's post-modern odd couple, making song-based electronic music long before EDM and Daft Punk had become the new normal. On breakout singles like "Needy Girl," from their 2004 debut She's in Control and "Bonafied Lovin" from 2007 follow-upFancy Footwork, the duo proved adept at recontextualizing the sounds of ‘80s funk and disco giants (Zapp & Roger, Kool & the Gang, Rick James) in songs that playfully subverted those genres' typical machismo.

"Jealous (I Ain't With it)," the lead single from "White Women," Chromeo's fourth album due from Atlantic/BigBeat May 12, is a love song about being insecure, written from the perspective of what Macklovitch characterizes as "a castrated, overgrown child posturing as a male."

"We like to talk about emotions that people never glorify in pop music but that everyone can relate to," he says. Gemayel puts it more succinctly "We're not alpha males."

Chromeo has always been a study in contrasts— literate Lotharios in leather biker jackets— and Macklovitch's apartment surfaces them plainly. Just as striking as the two-tone animal skin rug and elegant glass side table topped with a weighty anthology of 20th century French furniture, is the dyspeptic warbling of Atlanta rapper/singer Future, whose new album Honest plays on a loop via skinny MacBook. On a bookshelf by the door are Proust and "White Women," the Helmut Lang photo anthology that served as a namesake for the new album.

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"You can kind of flip the semantics and the semiotics of it in different ways," Macklovitch says of the title. "[We thought] it was shocking and funny coming from ambiguously ethnic guys like us, but at the same time it was fecund creatively."

For "White Women," Macklovitch and Gemavel left no synth unturned, ratcheting up production values and pushing each song to its ultimate, Quincy Jones conclusion. After touring behind 2011 LP Business Casual, they finally quit their day jobs— as a Barnard French professor and accountant, respectively— and immersed themselves in the new project full-time for a year-and-a-half.  

The result is a fuller, more polished and ambitious sound that threatens to finally impel the band from pop's quirky edges to its gooey center. At Coachella this year, Chromeo brought its flamboyant live show to the main stage for the first time, playing just before Girl Talk and a reunited Outkast. Next up is a summer tour that includes gigs at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury.

"When we started there was no scene for what we were doing, it took us three years before we could actually play in front of a favorable audience," Macklovitch says. "But now, thanks to people like Daft Punk and Bruno Mars, it's come around. There's a lot more funk being accepted in the mainstream."