July 12, 2007
Daft Punk Planet
Robots and other techno-logic maintain a dance duo’s passionate fanbase
by Alfred Lee
It’s close to midnight on June 29, and people are getting antsy. Yet another line, full of eager twentysomething faces, stretches around a Hollywood block. Rumors spread about how many more will be let into the building – 100? 75? 15? Inevitably, the line stops cruelly short. The doors close. Scores of disappointed souls turn away, searching for something else to do with their night.
The fuss is over a film. In this case, a chance to see the first U.S. screening of Electroma, a feature written and directed by the robot-suit-wearing dance musicians Daft Punk (played by actors). Much of Electroma, which lacks both dialogue and any actual Daft Punk songs, consists of the two band members roaming the California desert for scene after slow-moving scene. Judging by the ensuing walkouts and boos over the final credits, the movie didn’t go over too well.
But then, neither did Human After All, Daft Punk’s only release of the past six years, which was a critical disappointment and didn’t rise past No. 98 on the Billboard album charts. Still, that didn’t keep the masses away from Electroma that night, and tickets for the group’s rabidly anticipated July 21 concert at the L.A. Sports Arena are sold out. (Some are already going for $200 on eBay.) Meanwhile, Kelly Clarkson sits at home with a canceled tour.
“It shows that all the rules are off, that you don’t need [recent] hits to be a popular band,” says Adam Shore, general manager of Vice Records, which is handling Electroma’s distribution. Vice hopes to bring the film to about 20 cities, as well as back to L.A., before releasing it on DVD later this year.
Despite their recent lack of traditionally measured success – definitely nothing on the level of once-ubiquitous dance smashes such as 1997’s “Around the World” and 2001’s “One More Time” – the French duo’s popularity has never been higher. They also seem to be only growing in influence: Two direct descendants, Justice and Digitalism, are among dance music’s rising stars, while dance-punk dignitary LCD Soundsystem name-dropped them in songs “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” and “Losing My Edge” (“I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids,” he brags). Daft Punk has also been rediscovered by the hip-hop world, sampled in Busta Rhymes’s monster 2006 single “Touch It,” plus its five remixes, as well as Kanye West’s brand-new “Stronger,” which cribs its beat from Daft’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” The DJs even appear in the song’s requisite Hype Williams video.
With both the film and the concert tour getting their U.S. starts here, it’s shaping up to be the summer of Daft Punk in L.A. “There’s just a lot of connections between Daft Punk and L.A.,” Shore explains. “Those guys lived in L.A. for a few years, the film was made in Southern California, the film company is based there, and that’s where they’ve sold the most records … and feel like their biggest fan base is.”
One of those fans is Brian Leggett, a recent college grad who made the trek from Long Beach for the Electroma screening, only to get turned away. “Coachella really turned me on to them,” he says, adding that he doesn’t generally like electronic music. “There’s just this myth about them, you know? It’s just cool with the helmets and the robot stuff.”
Ah, yes, the robot stuff. Depending on whom you ask, the secret of Daft Punk’s appeal to Leggett and his young generation lies either in a timeless quality to the music or a mystique carefully cultivated through years of media manipulation. Both were on full display at the watershed Coachella performance last year, the duo’s first in the U.S. since 1997, where they appeared before at least 10,000 fans as robot gods on a giant flashing pyramid and unleashed a 90-minute mashup of what felt like every song in their catalog, synced to a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-on-ecstasy light show.
“That Coachella performance, there’s never been anything like it,” adds Shore, who describes himself as a huge Daft Punk fan. “It really just devastated everybody who was there.”
“Some of them had a religious experience,” says Tucker Neel, curator of Perspectives in the Crowd, an exhibition on display at the Bolsky Gallery at Otis College through August 29 (with a reception this Saturday). Perspectives is a projection of more than 50 short films Neel collected from fans who put their own videos of the Daft Punk Coachella performance on YouTube. “Like, really, you talk to these people, and also the comments on their videos are incredible: ‘This is undoubtedly the best concert I’ve ever been to in my life. I feel like I was touched by God.’ And you have to think, these are two guys dressed as robots that really just push buttons.”
Neel has ordered the films in a non-chronological fashion, and cut the sound out of some of them entirely. The result is an exhibition that captures not so much what being at the Coachella performance might have been like as it does the set’s emotional impact on the spectators. The silent portions are particularly revealing, not only producing some aesthetically striking moments but also engaging the group’s mastery over visual expression. Neel finds especially fascinating several instances when fans, some standing right next to the stage, turn and watch the show on monitors instead.
“They just understand how media works. I think it’s built into their concerts,” Neel says of the group. “They understand that their image [will be] repeated – not necessarily within a static media like print media, and not necessarily within the news media. [On the Internet] it becomes self-generating, it becomes viral. And if you harness that, you can really do a lot with your image.”
Perhaps no contemporary musical group has mined as resonant a visual stamp, declining to show their faces even in their initial series of music videos by directors Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Roman Coppola, and Seb Janiak. With the release of second album Discovery came the robot theme, along with feature-length anime film Interstella 5555, which literally illustrated each track from the album. It’s almost as if they predicted YouTube: A “Daft Punk” search there nets about 17,000 results – several thousand above sextuple-platinum artist Carrie Underwood and more than double that for the Beastie Boys.
At this point, “they’re well known for being well known,” says Austin Hall, a 19-year-old student at Carleton College in Minnesota and originator and star of YouTube video Daft Hands. The vid, in which Hall spells out the words to the increasingly faster “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” with letters written on his hands, has already had nearly 700,000 page views, spawned multiple parody videos, and garnered film-festival invitations. It also, consciously or not, features all the hallmarks of Daft Punk’s visual success: anonymity, word fetishes – “They’re known for words more than meaning,” Hall explains – and a playful sense of humor. Hall was inspired by a student concert at his school, where he heard an a cappella version of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” (A video of that concert is also available on YouTube, and has received close to a half-million hits.)
And so it goes, as the group’s empty-vessel approach continues to invite audience participation in a myriad of ways. “Mystery goes a long way,” says Shore. “Virtually everyone in the media is overexposed. Daft Punk is really special in that they have a mystique that other bands don’t have. [The audience] can fill in the blanks with their own emotions and their own ideas.”
Daft Punk performs Sat., July 21, L.A. Sports Arena at 9 p.m. Perspectives in the Crowd, Otis College of Art + Design, Bolsky Gallery, 9046 Lincoln Blvd., L.A., (310) 665-6909. Otis.edu. Reception Sat., 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Closes Aug. 29.