Daft Punk: “Alive” in Color

This story first appeared in Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music. Order your copy today.

Daft Punk: Human After All Daft Punk: Human After All (Virgin, 3/15/05)

Daft Punk: “Technologic”

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As the story goes, Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo became robots at exactly 9:09 a.m. on September 9, 1999, in a freak sampler-related accident. However ridiculous, this bit of science fiction may fit no one better than the world-famous French dance duo, whose digitized existence has taken on a mythology of its own. Despite limited material and general unavailability, Daft Punk has managed to grow its legend and vast following, and this hands-off approach has led to speculation and hearsay that do more for the band’s popularity than an interview ever could. Of course, Daft Punk’s prestige is also due to one of the most talked-about live shows of the past decade.

By the early 21st Century, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had achieved near-ubiquity on a global scale — whether listeners recognized their music as Daft Punk songs or not. But even after the two invented a new origin and delivered a new studio album — Human After All in 2005 — listeners felt like they knew the story. Initial reviews of Human After All criticized the album for being repetitive and not as elaborate, and some felt that the mystique was gone.

But in 2006, Daft Punk presented a staggering, futuristic light show at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and with it came a true reintroduction. The success of the show sparked new interest in the group, and the subsequent Alive Tour 2007 was, by all accounts, a triumphant visual spectacle. Bangalter and Homem-Christo, bedecked in futuristic leather and shiny robotic helmets designed by French fashion icon Hedi Slimane, played every show atop a monolithic pyramid, surrounded by tessellating triangles that strobed in prismatic precision.

At the heart of the tour’s visual aesthetic was a synchronized, intricate light design that mirrored the ebb and flow of the music. The pyramid itself was divided in two pieces, with Bangalter and Homem-Christo’s command center located in a gap three quarters of the way up. Dynamic lights outlined and crisscrossed the structure, which was centered on an enormous geometric grid. Programmed patterns, multicolored lights, and a thick fog (which only grew more dense during the song “Steam Machine”) contributed to the surging sensory onslaught. The show was shocking in scope, worlds away from the typical rock-club experience, and at the center of it, the heroic robots — wordless, nameless, faceless — worked their magic.

Daft Punk has always been a visually oriented band with a chicken-versus-egg history. Does the music come from a place of sci-fi influence or has the sexy, synth-heavy music spawned the hyper-futuristic aesthetic? Most likely, it’s a mixture of both; as one element developed, so too did the other — though the visuals have become dramatically more elaborate as the group has found greater success. Often, the stage persona and mysterious aura are attributed to shyness, but Daft Punk also revels in the romance — and apparent approachability — of mystery. The duo has placed a premium on secrecy, granting only the occasional interview and revealing its faces even less frequently. Since the days of Homework, Daft Punk’s 1997 debut album, Bangalter and Homem-Christo have performed in disguise.

Indeed, the actual members of Daft Punk are mere side notes in the larger scheme of a performance, even for as centered and perched as Bangalter and Homem-Christo are. It fits the members’ view of themselves as operators of a system, rather than live musicians. On stage, samples, loops, and other pattern-based sounds are triggered manually with MIDI controllers through Ableton Live on customized hardware.

The two also made use of the JazzMutant Lemur, a touch-screen controller that allows for unlimited touch points — meaning that Bangalter and Homem-Christo could use the device simultaneously to control audio and visual components. And by dynamically linking sound with light and color, improvisation could be reflected in the accompanying visuals. The duo likens its performances to those of Broadway musicals, in that they operate on essentially the same script, but results vary night to night, depending on how the different elements are sequenced and mixed. It’s a highly technical act, almost entirely dependent on electronic stability and synchronicity.

Bangalter and Homem-Christo have expressed disinterest in the typical rock-icon status so often associated with acts of their magnitude. The robot costumes are an implicit rejection of idolatry; by not giving fans a face — or even a name — Daft Punk has become part of the system that it operates, inseparable from the music and impervious to rock-star worship.

This rare feat is the result of years of aesthetic cultivation. Few photographs exist of Bangalter and Homem-Christo out of costume, albums are few and far between, and live performances are equally as rare. It’s all part of the mythology surrounding Daft Punk. And although the duo has remained largely silent through its career and time in the limelight, its visual output speaks volumes. Whereas other artists may debate themes and talk history and context, Daft Punk lets its beats, synths, and lights do the talking. That’s not to say that its music requires limited thought, but that it engages multiple senses in an immediate way. You don’t so much listen to Daft Punk as you experience it.

By combining light, color, and sound in absolutely massive doses, Bangalter and Homem-Christo are responsible for one of the most multisensory tours in recent music history, the effectiveness of which was amplified by a consistent code of aesthetics throughout the group’s existence. There’s no sense in restraint; participating in the fantasy and immersing oneself in robotic transcendence is the best way to enjoy Daft Punk.

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