Stardust On The Gay Bars, Firings & Failures That Led To 'Music Sounds Better With You'
It's the hottest June on record when Alan Braxe steps outside to smoke his first cigarette of the call. France is in the midst of a deadly heat wave, and the 47-year-old producer has taken refuge in a southern French home, the air conditioner on full blast. Before the sweltering heat of summer, recent headlines exalted the French Touch movement of Braxe's roots. This coverage from joyous to forlorn, one week celebrating a landmark rave at Versailles, only to then mourn the brutal and sudden loss of Braxe's friend and fellow producer Philippe Zdar of Cassius 11 days later.
Those headlines remind us that what the world calls “French Touch” has a rich and storied history, a 30-year narrative that builds on the lives of several influences and landmark releases. Braxe and his collaborator Benjamin Diamond have to think back on it now, because their international hit and genre milestone “Music Sounds Better With You,” made alongside Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and released under the group name Stardust, is about to turn 21. Finally of legal clubbing age in the states, the song is about to be introduced to a new generation of dance fans.
The anniversary is marked today with a limited edition vinyl re-release and a first-ever digital release across streaming platforms. if you know dance history, you know this news is truly magnifique.
“Sometimes, when I go to clubs as a DJ -- and I believe it's the same for Benjamin -- young people who've discovered the track tell us they love it,” Braxe says. “We had the opportunity to work on this song, and it's kind of a gift.”
In 1998, “Music Sounds Better With You” became an accidental generational anthem. A simple, repetitive vocal over a short sample of Chaka Khan's “Fate” sold more than two million copies worldwide, topped the charts in Spain and Greece, broke the top 10 in nine countries, hit platinum in the UK and Australia, silver in its native France, and topped the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart for two weeks. It even crossed into the Hot 100, peaking at No. 62.
Today, it's widely regarded as one of the best dance music songs ever recorded, but it's story is one of almost casual coincidence. To truly get to its roots, you have to go all the way back to Paris in the late '80s. Braxe and Diamond went back even further to their boarding school college days (what kids in the States would call middle school). They'd built a teenage friendship around music, but neither of them had even heard of “house” before, and how could they? It had only yet begun to exist.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, communities of young black and Latino men, many of them ostracized for being homosexuals, gathered in nightclubs in Chicago and Detroit. They rallied around new genres of music called “house” and “techno.” The sounds were funky and strange, edgy with science fiction strangeness, altogether soulful, mechanical and unlike anything the world had heard before. By the late 1980s, some of these futuristic grooves made their way to the gay Paris underground. It was there that Braxe, Diamond, Bangalter and a generation of French music makers discovered what would become their life's obsession.
"I instantly fell in love with it, Braxe says. "It's hard to imagine now because we have this music all over the place, but at that time, it was completely new. The way it sounded, the arrangements -- it kind of blew me away."
Braxe and Diamond were 17 when they first, independently of each other, walked into Parisian gay clubs and had their lives changed. They began to buy every house and Techno LP they could get their hands on, while every weekend, they hit small club dance floors or drove out to the a Parisian suburbs to attend sometimes illegal, sometimes thousand-person raves.
"It was a lot of mystery, a bit esoteric and very exciting," Braxe says. "People were discovering this music all together and starting to exchange ideas. It was whatever you wanted it to be, and for all of us, it was just having fun, dancing and listening to music. What just amazed me with these parties was that sometimes they were in weird places, with lots of people, and there was not any form of violence at any time. It was just good will, fun and very loud music. The concept was very basic, the mood was really good, and I think we were all amazed by this new energy and new sound."
By the mid-'90s, some of the French DJs bought synthesizers and samplers to start making records of their own. Bangalter, having infamously failed with a rock band called Darlin', reinvented himself with bandmate Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo as an experimental electronic outfit called Daft Punk. Their debut album Homework became an international success, shining a spotlight on the nascent Parisian movement which had earned the label French touch.
Meanwhile, Braxe had failed out of university and found himself coming out of a year of conscripted military service to very low prospects.
“I had no interesting options regarding work, so I decided to give it a chance in the music business. I bought some equipment, and when I had some demos ready, I played them for Bangalter, and he released it on his label...I’d been learning music for 10 or 12 years, and finally at 25 I thought to myself, ‘This could be my job.’ Suddenly, it became very obvious to me that this is what I was meant for, what I was really interested in the most.”
Diamond also found himself in strange straits around the time of Homework's release. He was working in the movie industry and moonlighting as lead singer in a local funk and soul band, but when his bandmates discovered he'd worked as a vocalist on a Homem-Christo original, they fired him on the spot.
“For them, it was, like, bougie techno stuff,” Diamond remembers. “They said, 'Go back to see your Daft Punk friends and forget us.’ So, that's what I did.”
At Bangalter’s studio, he wrote and sang what has become one of dance music’s most recognizable hooks.
“Ooh, baby,” he croons with cocky smoothness. “I feel right, the music sounds better with you. Love might, bring us back together, I feel so good.” That couple of lines was looped over a snippet of guitar lick from Khan’s 1981 deep cut. “Fate” wasn’t ever released as a single, but that couple of seconds have become iconic. Infectious and energetic, Braxe says the innovation lay not in any complicated technicalities or even in its method of composition. The key to its timeless success, he says, is in what it lacks.
“It's very simple -- in a way, very brutal,” he says. “It's a kind of an on-off process; off with the production at very low filtered, and then on with all the drums and the vocal...in this instance, simplicity was maybe the new factor with Stardust. Whether it's a song or even in fashion, what passes the test of time are [simple] creations. If you put too much effect or rely too much on the production techniques of one specific period, it's going to be dated, and five years later you can feel like, 'Oh, it sounds a bit too 2005,' or whatever. This song was made in late ‘90s, but it's so simple its hard to put in a specific field. It's just as it is.”
“Music Sounds Better With You” was released in July 1998, the same month that France’s soccer team won the World Cup. Paris became the center of the world, and Stardust provided the exultant soundtrack. The group never intended to hit it big, and “Music Sounds Better With You” remains the outfit’s only release. Braxe has gone on to be a revered producer in his own right, with a catalog that includes more collaborations with Diamond as well as his contemporary Fred Falke, remixes for Franz Ferdinand, Justice and Jamiroquai, as well as production credits for Kylie Minogue and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Diamond released three albums throughout the 2000s, and of course, Bangalter found wild success with his Grammy-winning duo Daft Punk.
Two decades after Stardust’s singular release, France has another gold trophy and the message of the Stardust classic rings true as ever. Just today, as the trio’s multi-generational classic sees its debut on streaming platforms the world over, new generations of French producers climb the charts, bolstered by the shoulders of those who came before. DJ Snake’s latest hit, a bi-lingual crossover featuring J Balvin and Tyga, currently sits at No. 16 on the Hot Latin Songs chart. It’s called “Loco Contigo,” or in English, “Crazy With You,” because as a great trio once said, that’s who the music will always sounds best with.
"[It's] going back to what happened like 25 to 30 years ago, when everyone was just experimenting with no boundaries in mind," Braxe says, now on his sixth and final cigarette of the 40-minute call. "It's really creative. You can do whatever you want. There are amazing tools, modular synths and hardware being released right now. I think its a good time to experiment on a wide perspective."
Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You" is now available in a special 21st-anniversary 12" vinyl rerelease via Because Music.