Daft Punk is the House band you’ve heard of even if you don’t listen to House.
Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem have actually been collaborating for a lot longer than you might expect. They first met as schoolmates and by 1992 had formed a rock band, Darlin’, along with French alt-rock guitarist Laurent Brancowitz. While Darlin’s sound isn’t much like them at all, one of their notable influences (and the source of their name) was the Beach Boys, whose song of the same name they covered. Darlin’ broke up in 1995, but Brancowitz and the bots have remained friends since.
Darlin’ were derided by critic Dave Jennings, of the British music magazine Melody Maker as “daft, punky thrash”, a phrase that obviously stuck with Guy-Man and T-Bang, as they named their next collaboration after it. They began experimenting with synths and drum machines after attending a rave at, of all places, EuroDisney (today known as Disneyland Paris) and meeting Stuart MacMillan, of the House band Slam. Their debut single, “The New Wave”, was actually meant as a demo track, and remains somewhat obscure; it was later reworked into “Alive” off their first album, Homework. Their second single, “Da Funk”, was a greater success. Both singles were released through Slam’s label, Soma Quality Recordings.
In 1997, Daft Punk released their first full album, Homework, through Virgin Records. Homework was a major hit, charting in 14 countries and heralded a revival for the House genre. It was originally intended as a series of singles, but somewhere along the way, they realized they had enough material to make a proper album. Five singles were released from Homework, each of which was accompanied by a video from indie directors ranging from Spike Jonze (for Da Funk) to Michel Gondry (for probably the best video of the lot, Around The World.) These, along with a live performance of album track Rollin’ and Scratchin’ formed Daft Punk’s first film: DAFT: A story about Dogs, Androids, Firemen, and Tomatoes. A live album, Alive ’97, followed in 2001. ’97 is not a conventional live album but rather a single 45-minute medley featuring elements from many of Homework‘s tracks, and is notable as an early example of an album released through the internet, alongside the 2003 remix album Daft Club.
Daft Punk’s second album, Discovery, released in 2001, adopted a more synthpop-influenced sound that made heavy use of soul and disco samples, and took many of their early adopters by surprise– at one time “Disco, very” was a common (and not always flattering) nickname for it. Discovery was a tribute to the rock and dance music Thomas and Guy-Man had enjoyed growing up, and more specifically to their relationship with that music. While it was divisive among House fans, it found a great deal of mainstream acceptance over the next several years and formed the basis for several early internet memes. Rather than a traditional music video structure, Daft Punk partnered with anime director Leiji Matsumoto (of whom both were lifelong fans) to turn Discovery into a feature film, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem.It was also during this period that Daft Punk adopted their now-iconic robot helmets– they had previously worn plastic bags, halloween masks, and wigs as disguises.
2005 saw the release of Daft Punk’s third album, Human After All, composed and recorded in just 6 weeks from September to November of 2004. Another foray into a new sound, Human After All took a stronger influence from Rock and Industrial music and carried themes about the dehumanizing effect of mass media and the relationship between humanity and the artificial (as embodied by their robotic personas, especially in the accompanying film, Electroma, directed by the band themselves and using neither dialogue nor Daft Punk’s own music.) It initially received a mixed reception, derided as repetitive and unpolished. It was not until their 2006-2007 Alive ’07 tour (their first since 1997), and the ensuing live album that Human After All‘s image began to be rehabilitated. Alive ’07, while still best listened to as a complete work, is more easily divided into distinct tracks than its predecessor, and consists primarily of mashups of material from their first three albums. Its light show has to be seen to be believed.
Daft Punk’s next project inverted their usual pattern by having the film come first– they wrote the soundtrack for the movie Tron: Legacy. The original film is another lifelong favorite of the band, and they were reportedly very concerned about getting the sequel “right.” While the film was a modest success (and opinions are divided on its quality) the soundtrack is pretty awesome, featuring a mix of Daft Punk’s signature electronica with the epic orchestral elements of a blockbuster film soundtrack.
In 2013 Daft Punk returned to the disco and soul-influenced sound of Discoveryand turned it up not only to 11, but possibly even to 12 with their greatest mainstream success to date, Random Access Memories. However as usual for Daft Punk, Memories was a departure as well, largely eschewing the use of electronic instruments in favor of session musicians and collaborators on a scale comparable to your typical Gorillaz album (say, have we done Gorillaz yet? I could probably tackle that too, preferably after the new album’s out and I have time to form a coherent opinion about it.) from Giorgio Moroder to Nile Rodgers to Pharrell Williams. Memories’ lead single “Get Lucky” was the band’s first Top 40 hit and remains their only top 10 hit in the United States of America. Memories has, so far, produced no accompanying motion picture apart from its music videos, but it did finally score them their first Grammy– and then their second, third, fourth, and fifth, including a Best Album win that earned them the bitter emnity of the only people who love drama more than Taylor Swift, her fans (Also totally down to do a Taylor Swift retrospective one of these days.)
Since Memories they have been less active, at least for the moment. In 2016, they collaborated with The Weeknd on two tracks (which they performed with him at the Grammys, naturally.) Despite 2017 being the 20th anniversary of their original tour and the 10th of the Alive ’07 tour, a third tour does not appear forthcoming. But one thing is for sure, whenever they strap on those big silver and gold helmets again, it’ll once again be to bring us something completely different from their previous albums.