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Guest DJ: Daft Punk On The Music That Inspired 'Random Access Memories'

Daft Punk's latest album is <em>Random Access Memories,</em> the duo's first record since 2005
David Black
Courtesy of the artist
Daft Punk's latest album is Random Access Memories, the duo's first record since 2005

Editor's note: Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo visited our New York City bureau to speak with All Songs Considered about the making of their new album,Random Access Memories, and share music by some of their favorite artists. NPR Music's Sami Yenigun spoke with the band from our D.C. studios. Read the Q&A below, where we've embedded YouTube videos of their selections, or listen to the entire interview. You'll find more guest DJs in our archives, including sessions with Thom Yorke, Brian Eno, and Panda Bear.

Sami Yenigun: Thank you so much for coming in. I want to ask you guys: What are some of the influences that came into putting [Random Access Memories] together?

Thomas Bangalter: The idea behind this record was to focus on the eclecticism and variety of the music that we like and actually not thinking in any kind of formatted way about music or any musical genres, and that's why we really like this chaotic — initially chaotic — juxtapositions of all the different collaborators that worked on the record and all the different styles and different eras that the music was pointing towards. So we really liked the idea of breaking all the barriers between these musical genres. It's a little bit like a hard drive where things are fragmented and next to something completely different.

Yenigun: A lot of these collaborators are from the golden age of '70s and disco. Is that something you were pulling from when you put thought into this record?

We're making music like the soundtracks of our lives and we don't really associate it with a certain environment where music can be listened to in a bedroom or a dancefloor.

Bangalter: Not really. It's true that we very instinctively and spontaneously reached out to musicians that have touched us, and which we really love. And whether it's Nile Rodgers, or Giorgio Moroder, or Paul Williams, they are really iconic artists and iconic producers and songwriters, and it was a blast to have the ability to interact with them and ... create something new. Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder are really the foundation for modern pop music and dance music, and we were really excited by the idea of getting with them and doing new music together, and also preserving a certain craftsmanship that we loved from these records from the '70s or early '80s that were special for us. But we really tried to create something more composite, something that didn't really exist. And that's the juxtaposition and the idea of Random Access Memories: the juxtaposition of different ideas, of putting a Panda Bear from Animal Collective and Julian Casablancas from The Strokes next to Paul Williams or Nile Rodgers.

Yenigun: I'm curious, are there any examples of these records from that era that we can take a listen to?

Bangalter: "Good Times" from Chic is definitely one of these records that we wouldn't stop listening to when we were 10 or 11 years old. It's really what it's about and what dance music and disco music is about, which is having a good time.

Yenigun: Great let's take a listen.

Yenigun: So you said you were pretty young when you first heard this song. I'm curious after all these years, does it conjure up the same feelings you had when you first heard it?

Bangalter: It's timeless and universal music. We get the same feeling we get when we were kids, for sure. And I think it's the same for everybody. If you drop that song in any club or birthday party, people are going to fill the dance floor right away. It's instant effect.

Yenigun: And this is something you wanted to bring to your record?

Bangalter: I think it's something we try to do in our music: We are making the music we would like to listen to. So making music for us is a very personal process. We aren't really making music for the audience or thinking about people's expectations. So the music on this record is really the music we wanted to make because it's the music we wanted to listen to. It's true we wanted to create music that could fit in some timeless place or timeless zone, where we can keep a focus on an instant effect that would last. So that's why our creative process takes a lot of time, sometimes years making records, because we like making a song or making a track and letting it rest and seeing if it does indeed have that lasting power.

Yenigun: So you feel that you need to take a step back after you've taken the first step toward a song?

Bangalter: Yes, that's something we usually like. Sometimes we feel this thing instantly, but sometimes we like to let it rest a little bit, like wine. A track like "One More Time" on our second album, Discovery, we recorded it in 1998. While we were making the rest of the record, it sat on a shelf for almost two and-a-half to three years, and by the time the single was out in late 2000, it became the sound of 2000 or 2001. But it had been made three years before, and some people are still listening to it today. But we felt like, at least internally, we had tested the song and somehow tried its longevity internally before releasing it.

Yenigun: This is a very dance-y track with that 4/4 beat underneath. I noticed that not everything on the new record has that 4/4 kick necessarily. I'm curious, did you feel that you wanted to make a record that included things that didn't need to be played in a club? Are there any examples of songs that you can think of that are better suited for bedroom listening or places outside of a dancefloor?

Bangalter: On our albums, there has always been a fraction of the record that is oriented to the dancefloor and "One More Time" is a song like that. And other pieces of music that are not necessarily four-on-the-floor records — a track like "Something About Us" on Discovery — can be maybe similar in tone to new tracks on the record, like "Game Of Love" or "Within" or "Beyond." And at the same time, "Lose Yourself To Dance" or "Get Lucky" might have certain similarities with the spirit of "One More Time" or "Around The World." We usually say that "Around The World" was a song inspired by disco and by Chic, and there are definitely similarities between "Around The World" and "Get Lucky." The main thing is that we really replaced the drum machines by live drumming, but apart from that, the music comes from the same place. We're making music like the soundtracks of our lives and we don't really associate it with a certain environment where music can be listened to in a bedroom or a dancefloor. But this album, Random Access Memories, felt for us like a musical journey, where we were trying to break the different barriers and the different genres and not think really stylistically about four-on-the-floor or not. The process was more spontaneous than that. It's maybe focusing more on the emotion. And if you take a song like "Retrograde," from James Blake, that we really like, when we listen to the song, we don't think about whether it's something we listen to in a bedroom or a dancefloor or in a living room, rather than just feeling touched by the power of the music, whether we're listening on headphones walking down the street or during night times with friends.

Yenigun: You said this song is something that conjures up a great deal of emotion in you. I'm curious, what is it about James Blake's music that stirs up these feelings inside?

Bangalter: It's pretty much inexplicable. Probably because it's the magic of the music. But I think James Blake is an example of a new songwriter — a new artist, a new musician, a new producer — that manages to express beautiful things with his voice and with modern technology, with synthesizers, drum machines and electronic instruments. And that's, for us, the perfect example of how we love to interact with electronic music instruments. Our record does not have a lot of electronic music instruments. There are a few tracks that have more of it, you know, but it's true that we're living in a time where we're not feeling really touched by electronic music that fails to carry those kind of emotions. But it's always good to listen to a song that is made with electronic instruments and feel something deep inside. So that's why we really like him.

Yenigun: I'd like to hear an example on your record that uses electronic technology, maybe not in instrumentation, but...

Bangalter: Probably the most electronic track on our album Random Access Memoriesis called "Doin' It Right," that we co-wrote and co-performed with Panda Bear from Animal Collective.

Yenigun: He's one of the many guests you had on this album. How'd you go about picking the people you wanted to feature on this record?

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo: I think we didn't really pick anybody. Rather, [we] randomly sometimes bump into people that we like, like Pharrell Williams, who we bumped into at a hotel room about three or four years ago and then bumped into again at a party two years ago, and then spoke a bit and decided to work together on some songs. Panda Bear, for example, put out an album two years ago called Tomboy, and he reached out to us to do a remix of one of his songs and we decided to go back to him and propose [that he] be a guest performer on our album. Paul Williams we met through Chris Caswell, who [had] been playing keyboard on Random Access Memories and has been an arranger and was the best friend of Paul Williams. All of the guest performers, rather than us actively going to them, it's been more like life put everyone in the same room or hotel lobby and [we're] randomly meeting these people. And what's fun is that all these guests are people that we love so much.

Yenigun: So, the human connection.

de Homem-Christo: Yeah, it's really life, human connections. It's really simple. We've always been really shy and making music in a small bedroom on our own. And in more recent years, we've been more open to the outside and working with different collaborators. When we did our movie, Electroma, it was the first time we were in touch with a big team, a big group of people. And then working with an orchestra on Tron, teamwork has been more and more something that has interested us. And especially on Random Access Memories,the team was so big and such in a good vibe, and a lot of enthusiasm went into making the record, and a lot of love that we all share, I think it's all one of the best things that has happened to us recently: sharing our work and allowing people into our bubble and maybe us getting into a bigger bubble with all of them. Random Access Memoriesis the result of all that teamwork, and it's one of the things that I think we are most proud of. But it's all been random and the result has been incredible [for] us. We are really thankful and really blessed.

Yenigun: You mentioned Paul Williams as one of the guests you had on the record. Can we hear some of his music?

Bangalter: Yes. I mean, probably one our favorite songs or moments from Paul's career, which we really admire from beginning to end, is the song called "The Hell Of It," which is the ending title [music] of the movie that we love so much called Phantom Of The Paradise, directed by Brian De Palma. It's a 1974 film that had a very major place in our teenage years, [in our] discovery of films and music and what we wanted to do as musicians and as artists.

Yenigun: You mentioned this song is hugely influential in your teenage years. I'm looking at the list of songs you brought in and one of them is The Strokes' "Hard To Explain," which, for me as a teenager, was a big, big record. One I listened to all the time. I'm curious why you picked that one.

I think The Strokes and Julian Casablancas are really in the legacy of great bands. And The Strokes, to me, are as good as The Velvet Underground.

de Homem-Christo: I picked it because, obviously, Julian Casablancas is on our record and has been one of our favorite composers in the rock category, and that song in particular, to me, is full of magic. Julian and The Strokes to me are... meeting Thomas when we were 12 or 13, we were huge fans of The Velvet Underground, and the New York punk scene in the '70s has been influential on what we do, even if you don't notice. And I think The Strokes and Julian Casablancas are really in the legacy of great bands. And The Strokes, to me, are as good as The Velvet Underground. So we've been really lucky to work with them and that song to me encapsulates the magic of The Strokes.

Yenigun: God, I love that song. That's a more rock-y influence like you said. You're known as electronic music producers, and I know that's sort of a limiting term, because you've done things in a lot of different genres. What was an influence in the electronic side of what you do? Are there any names in particular that stick on your mind?

de Homem-Christo: A lot of them in the '70s, when it started. But, I mean, Kraftwerk was very influential, obviously. And maybe more close to us in France, Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygène album.

Yenigun: Where were you when you first heard the Oxygène album?

de Homem-Christo: I think we were so small. We were babies. Maybe that's why, it's been there since we were born.

Bangalter: The funny thing with Oxygèneis that the recording engineer and the mixing engineer that mixed it in the studio — where we recorded Pharrell's vocals and Panda Bear's vocals — was an audio consultant on our album, too. So it's one of those connections we [got to] invite on board, people that really contributed to the songs that we love — in the same way that we recorded [Daft Punk fashion engineer Janet] Hansen recording in a studio in L.A. that used to be A&M Records, where Paul Williams recorded all these songs, and The Carpenters recorded their songs, too. So it was interesting, too, to see the connections between the people and the places that were taking us back to this music that we love.

Yenigun: For those at home, who are less familiar with Jean Michel Jarre, can you tell us a little background on him and then we'll listen to his music.

Bangalter: He is the son of the famous French composer Maurice Jarre. He wrote the Lawrence of Arabia score, for example, the soundtrack. He's been making electronic music since the early '70s-mid '70s.

de Homem-Christo: You would have Tangerine Dream and CAN or Neu! and Kraftwerk. He was part of the electronic scene from the '70s. The ambient scene.

Yenigun: And what have you brought for us [to hear] today?

de Homem-Christo: It's "Oxygène (Part II)" — Oxygène songs are like "Part I" and "II" and "III" and "IV" — and this part was maybe less known. But I really like the classical side of it and it could have been done today, in a way.

Yenigun: Our producer, Robin is having an "oh my god, I remember this" moment right now. You said you heard this song when you were really young. We're running out of time, but I wanted to ask you if there was anything on the new record that any young kids listening to this show right now, that you'd want to have the same effect that this song had on you? What do you think you'd pick, what would you go out on?

de Homem-Christo: I think "Motherboard." Listening to that song again right now, I think there are a lot of similarities with "Motherboard," or it has a lot of similarities with that song. Mainly because we used a modular synthesizer on Random Access Memories which is a big, big wall of cables. It's like an old synthesizer that people used in the '70s and '60s and earlier. And that typical sound is what you can hear throughout our album. And "Motherboard," which is the only instrumental song on the album, is full of this big modular synth.

Yenigun: I want to thank you so much for coming in. Daft Punk has been a huge influence on my musical taste and it's been a pleasure talking with you today.

Bangalter and de Homem-Christo: Thank you for having us.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sami Yenigun is the Executive Producer of NPR's All Things Considered and the Consider This podcast. Yenigun works with hosts, editors, and producers to plan and execute the editorial vision of NPR's flagship afternoon newsmagazine and evening podcast. He comes to this role after serving as a Supervising Editor on All Things Considered, where he helped launch Consider This and oversaw the growth of the newsmagazine on new platforms.

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