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In the final scene of Daft Punk’s 2006 arthouse movie Electroma, a robot refracts sunlight through a broken glass and sets itself ablaze. It walks burning into the night and the credits roll.
Daft Punk revisited Electroma this week as the French electro duo released a video announcing their split after 28 years. Two robots – representing band members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo – wander in the desert. Eventually they pause. One manipulates a device in their companion’s back. A countdown begins to bleep. The robot steps away and self-destructs. Music swirls in. It’s Touch, a melancholic mid-tempo workout from their 2013 album Random Access Memories.
It would require a heart of metal not to experience a twinge watching Daft Punk bow out. Yet it feels telling that the sequence with which they chose to exit is from earlier in the film, before the second robot goes up on smoke. Apparently a robot setting itself on fire is not a metaphor with which Daft Punk wished to engage as they exited the stage. They could give up on being pop stars. But they could not entirely walk away from being artificial people. At the end of the farewell clip, after all, one robot endures.
Pop stars hiding their identity behind a persona is nothing new. David Bowie did it with Ziggy Stardust. And by the early Eighties Kraftwerk – Daft Punk’s teutonic precursors – had carried their “Man Machine” concept to the logical next step by behaving in a robot-like fashion in public (and, so the rumours went, in private too). More recently, groups such as London music collective Sault have arrived cloaked in mystery. Who are they, really? Nobody knows.
Daft Punk, though, took the conceit to extremes in that they appeared as invested in concealing their identity as they did in the idea of pop stars conjuring with alternative personas. Having first donned robot masks in the run-up to the 2001 album, Discovery, they seemed not so much fascinated with the idea of playing robot as in keeping their real appearances under wraps.
This in part felt like a misjudgement regarding their degree of fame. Yes, hits such as Da Funk and Around The World had catapulted Daft Punk into the charts. But this was Chemical Brothers/Crystal Method level of celebrity – not Britney Spears besieged at the hair dressers. Even if the whole world knew what they looked like it’s quite possible they could have stomped around Paris or their adopted home of Los Angeles uninterrupted. On the scale of famous people you are likely to bump into in Hollywood, a French house duo was way down there.
Still, it hadn’t taken Bangalter and de Homem-Christo long to work out they weren’t keen on having their images plastered everywhere. When their 1997 debut, Homework, became a smash they took evasive action. They would wear bin-bags over their heads and plastic masks that blurred their features. Or else turn their backs on interviewers. Posing for the front of Mixmag that year they sported devil masks.
Nobody cared enough to be caught up in the drama of what they did or didn’t really look like. In part because their music was so sublime it eclipsed the two very humdrum men behind it. But also because of dance music’s culture of anonymity. The duos making up Orbital, Chemical Brothers and Leftfield all looked interchangeably like your older brother or possibly your dad. Few fans were especially invested in these musicians as celebrities in the first place. The whole point of techno is that it was extraordinary music created by ordinary people.
Daft Punk’s robot masks came later, debuting in a 2001 Face magazine photoshoot in Los Angeles. Initially the new look was received as an ironic commentary – in one memorable shot the two robots larked with members of a nudist colony.
“They wanted to portray a day in the life of Daft Punk," Luis Sanchis, the photographer behind the shoot told Creativeboom recently. “I came up with some of the scenarios, like the one with the people naked. That shot was actually taken in the Los Angeles house they were staying in at the time. We hired people from a real nudist colony, and as I was preparing the lights they came in – and all of a sudden, they were naked!”
The masks were more than props. Working with Hollywood special effects designers and inspired by the robot Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still, Daft Punk spent a fortune on the helmets and appeared to have poured as much creative energy into them as into their music. Collaborators were required to sign non-disclosure agreements. This was to prevent fans getting their hands on the mask blueprints. When copycats helmets started to circulate, Daft Punk were pleased to discover the measurements were slightly off – “the proportions are really hard to get right just by looking at pictures,” said Bangalter.
Initially the helmets had featured “brown wigs”. At the last minute, on the way to that fateful nudist colony shoot, the duo had yanked out the hair extensions. Later versions would come with air-conditioning and sophisticated communications systems. Another set was designed specifically for media appearances: they were shinier and photographed better.
Yet in 2001 the masks were regarded as merely one component of Daft Punk’s playful new image. Indeed, the real focus was on their shapeshifting sound, which had progressed from floor-filling electronica to a sort of fantasy r’n b – influenced by house music but equally by movie scores and the Gallic-Japanese aesthetic of cartoons such as Ulysses 31, with its incredible theme by Denny Crockett and Ike Egan.
If Daft Punk were obsessed with the idea of themselves as robots, the public would be reeled in only when the duo embarked their first major world tour in 2006. Here, their anonymity was part of the fun as they bopped in their gleaming chrome robo-domes from inside an LED pyramid.
One rumour at the time was that Daft Punk had stayed at home and dispatched lackeys to do the gigs. This was a delicious conceit – and one better than Kraftwerk, who had publicly speculated that a day might come when they could put up their feet and send robots out to tour for them.
Sculpted Daft Punk helmets by Alterian Inc. pic.twitter.com/WIUgrc6Ena
— Daft Punk Fandom🤖🤖 (@Daft_Wub) February 18, 2021
Suddenly the robots made sense. Techno artists have been consistently underwhelming to watch live. In the nineties, seeing Paul Oakenfold or Carl Cox noodling on stage in their baggy t-shirts always broke the spell slightly. But electronic music played by a duo of shiny-headed robots – that was a spectacle that could sweep you away.
“We’re not performers, we’re not models – it would not be enjoyable for humanity to see our features,” de Homem-Christo told Rolling Stone in 2013, “but the robots are exciting to people.”
This was one of several interviews they gave promoting Random Access Memories. That record was a conscious move away from electronica towards a warmer retro-pop. And yet most of the media coverage around the LP focused on their appearance – specifically, how ordinary they looked.
“De Homem-Christo, 39, has a wide face, delicate features, stubbled cheeks and long brown hair,” said Rolling Stone, as if describing a rare geological phenomenon rather than an electronic musician in early middle age. “Bangalter, 38, is tall, slightly rumpled, bearded, hair thinning, handsome in a cinema-studies-professor kind of way—he’s funny, good with eye contact, palpably eager to make himself understood,” added a GQ profile around the same time.
Stubbled cheeks, thinning hair – it was all so unremarkable. Indeed, had the pair not invested so thoroughly in the mystery of their appearance it’s a certainty that nobody would have cared. When last did anyone wonder what the members of The Chainsmokers looks like?
Still, with Daft Punk creating such a fuss about their “secret” identities it was inevitable someone would take a peek at their inner circuitry. And so images began to circulate of the pals in their off-duty duds. “Has Daft Punk been unmasked?” went a Vanity Fair story in 2014 – the same year they accepted their Album of the Year Grammy in white-tuxedo robot suits.
“Back in June, electronic duo the Knocks posted a photo on their Facebook page that appeared to show the French Daft Punk-ers—Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter—unmasked and playing champagne beer pong in the Sony offices, to boot,” continued the piece. “The picture was promptly removed from Facebook, the Knocks were banished from the music world entirely… and the Internet suddenly had what seemed to be a pretty good idea of what these dudes looked like.”
This was by way of unveiling a new snap purporting to be of the pair at LAX. airport in Los Angeles. “One appears to be wearing a blue Texas Rangers hat,” said Vanity Fair. “The other may be wearing a trucker hat.”
These and other photos doing the rounds did not quite rock the world of pop. It turned out Daft Punk – two middle-aged French musicians – looked exactly as expected. Like two middle-aged French musicians.
Today, as fans process the duo’s break-up, they will experience a deluge of conflicting emotions. Gratitude for the wonderful music, regret Daft Punk did not have at least one more classic recording in them. But one thing nobody cares about is what these partners in escapist electronica look like in real life. If anything this overplayed mystery served as an unhelpful reminder that Daft Punk were as invested in marketing and hype as any other pop stars – that they were human after all.