Liberté, Egalité, Authenticité – the motto French duo Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo and Thomas Bangalter live by. You may know them better as the EDM prodigies underneath the robot helmets of Daft Punk. And no, you can’t pay any attention to the men behind the curtain; all you’ll find is a workshop of smoke and mirrors and the deftly hidden footprints of its creators.
One half of the duo, Thomas Bangalter, gave the following explanation for their metamorphosis, “We became robots after an accident we had in our studio… We don’t wear helmets. Everything’s real!” Although he’s joking, they do live more ‘real’ lives than other celebrities. Thomas says they “live more like [their] audience than the artists who have the same kind of fame as ours.” This freedom to buy milk in their pyjamas at the local tabac without being recognised is almost unfathomable; and yet, they’ve managed to cultivate a world in which they can. But can we use these systems through which celebrity is made for anonymity? Daft Punk say yes, if a little muffled by their helmets.
A Consistent Triad?
Their robot personas are fictional characters living in a non-fictional world. Yet Bangalter and de Homem Christo have never made a distinction between themselves and the robots, they claim to be them –simultaneously authentic, real and virtual.
So, in spite of the metal where their faces should be, like their song goes, they’re really just Human After All. And what is more human than forming a scratchy sounding teenage band like their Darlin’?
Unfortunately, Darlin’s music was deemed less sweet than the name, reviewed by a music magazine as “daft punky thrash.” Although according to band manager Daniel Dauxerre this “changed the optimistic view they had on their music,” their response was to embrace the need for change and create Daft Punk, transforming the insult into the signifier of the all-time greatest EDM duo.
When they got onto the 90s rave music scene, the protocol was to look away from the DJ, in its underground, anti-stardom world. But their music was different; they were making sounds no one had ever heard before. At a gig in Wisconsin in 1996, Thomas pulled the wire that connected to the mixer – creating that usually migraine-inducing wasp’s buzz – and innovatively used it as a bassline to play his beats over. It was impossible not to turn around and look at this visionary of a DJ… and maybe take a photo or two.
Their talent caught the eye of the virtual music world’s predecessors- magazines and MTV who exploded their fame when they aired their music video ‘Da Funk,’ featuring a ‘dog’ exploring New York nightlife.
Watch the video for ‘Da Funk’ here:
Music video director Daniel Brereton describes the dog in a way that oddly suits Bangalter and de Homem Christo, writing “the dog blends into the New York nightlife and then at the same time is outcast.” While the duo was never outcast by others, they wanted to self-isolate from the fame that was broadcasting their faces to the public and still be at the rave. They wanted their music to be centre stage and not themselves, but this was slowly becoming less of a possibility.
The fame was never the point of their music, illustrated in the following interview with Radio Dijon Campus:
Interviewer: “Techno music is… underground, anti-star system. Yet you’re becoming stars. How do you feel about that?”
Thomas: “I still believe it’s anti-star system. We try not to expose ourselves too much. The music is the only thing that really matters. Then people decide for themselves. But we’re not really trying to show ourselves off.”
But the media began to show them off on their behalf, creating a total lack of control and ownership over their privacy, which Bangalter in particular cannot stand, according to friend Serge Nicolas. He recounts going to a rave with him aged 18, where Thomas took ecstasy, saying, “I remember Thomas saying he did not like it because using ecstasy made you lose your critical faculties. And that was it. He hates nothing more than losing control.”
So, Thomas and Guy-Manuel decided to reject fame’s place in their life and wore masks to hide their faces. At first, they used ones from joke shops that were translucent (and bloody unnerving.)
But, as is their MO, they decided to go even further and break more boundaries, by ‘becoming’ robots. They went to Tony Gardner, a special effects designer who worked with them to design individualised sleek and innovative robot helmets. They had a human touch in their creation, but they ultimately looked about as electronic as their beats.
They have maintained their privacy since the decision over 20 years ago, and the public respects it. No one has hunted them down and done an exposé, no one has waited outside their house with a camera or hacked their iCloud photos, and this is because the very thing that hides them has become iconic.
It is a representation of their genius; as opposed to a black cap and sunglasses, they’ve created wearable art. Their online fanbase recognises it as what makes them different and creates the unique brand that is Daft Punk. And what’s cooler than a robot being the one who makes your favourite electronic music?
“It is a representation of their genius; as opposed to a black cap and sunglasses, they’ve created wearable art“
Beauvallet, the Editor- In -Chief of Les Inrockuptibles said of the disguises, “Weirdly enough, creating those robot personas let them stay human, grounded, and completely free.”
And in response to the idea that the personas make their music any less from the heart, Bangalter said, “I think that giving people our music to listen to is the most personal thing we can give because it is really us…showing that is much more of a commitment to our audience than showing ourselves physically.”
The notion of ‘auteur’ comes to mind when one thinks of the respect people have for their anonymity; it is when the auteur uses innovative and beautiful methods to ask the same of people that ‘ordinaries’ have, people bow to their creative genius.
De Homem Christo has said, “the robots are famous, we’re not.” The duo has always spoken of music with the same respect as one might expect about a deity, and the robots have protected their shrine. If control is their most valued currency, then these helmets were their best investment.
And isn’t there something beautiful in knowing that a human heart beats and feels underneath the robot?
Their genius will be missed, their enigmatic craft will remain adored and their musics ever-championing 120 bpm heartbeat will be danced to ‘One More Time’ ad infinitum.