Daft Punk: A Trip Inside The Pyramid by Dina Santorelli
Ahab takes on the RobotsBooks Reviews Daft Punk
Daft Punk: A Trip Inside The Pyramid hopes to “reveal the story” of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de-Homem Christo, the members of the band Daft Punk. These two Frenchmen are, of course, famous for their robot gear, which puts a barrier of mystique between them and the masses. The book aims to get at “the men behind the masks.”
This is a noble goal. After all, Captain Ahab once told Starbuck, his first mate, “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks…If man will strike, strike though the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”
But A Trip Inside The Pyramid barely scrapes the mask’s surface. It doesn’t have the kind of exclusive, in-depth interviews with Bangalter and de Homem-Christo that might thrust through the wall; in fact, the Robots don’t contribute at all. A reader will hear more from them by piecing together the numerous stories about Daft Punk—in Paste, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, GQ—that came out in advance of their 2013 album, Random Access Memories.
In addition, readers don’t hear from the many artists that Daft Punk collaborated with in the past…or even other French artists who might provide additional insight into Daft Punk’s music. At one point, we get a veiled reference to Sasha Frere-Jones as “one reviewer”…but the critics don’t show up here either.
Instead, the book offers some cataloguing of influence, a smattering of biography, plenty of trivia and a lot of padding. Daft Punk has released four studio albums. Add in several film projects, the record labels started by the two men (Bangalter set up Roule, de Homem-Christo set up Crydamoure) and soundtrack projects, and we find a slightly larger pool of material. But stretching everything out to book-length—without any input from the members of Daft Punk, or really anybody else—presents a challenge.
We learn that Thomas Bangalter was born the same year—1974—that Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” came out. (Food for thought: What would the world be like if everyone’s fate was determined by chart hits from the month of birth?) Bangalter’s dad wrote a disco hit. De Homem-Christo happens to be about 10 months older than Bangalter, and he is “rumored to be of aristocratic stock,” though his name probably gives that away.
The two men started making music in a band called Darlin’, and the ‘90s indie group Stereolab—with French lead singer, Laetitia Sadier—put music from Darlin’ on a 1993 compilation Shimmies In Super 8. (The compilation got panned, a writer called Darlin’s music “daft punk,” Bangalter and de Homem-Christo dug the name—a famous origin story, though we don’t yet see a trend of bands creating new names based on dismissive reviews.)
The book attempts to list and define all the genres of music that influenced Daft Punk. This includes hip hop and numerous strains of electronic dance music. Also: Chic’s “Stage Fright”/“So Fine” single, the Beach Boys (Darlin’ took its name from the Beach Boys hit of the same title), Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon.”
All this covered, the book requires more pages, so it breaks down the samples used on each album. But after their sample-heavy debut, Homework, Daft Punk included just four samples on the follow-up, Discovery. So the book must change tack again. “Reportedly every track on Discovery used a different phase shifter and vocoder effect.” Who reports that? We don’t know.
For Discovery, Daft Punk often played instruments and then sampled their own work. The book does serve to remind readers that the group recorded the album partially in a bedroom—a remarkable fact, considering how Discovery sounds. The band recorded the next release, Human After All, in just six weeks with limited equipment. The band apparently hoped that imposing constraints on their creative process would spark a different kind of energy, but we don’t hear what kind of energy they hoped for, or even how they felt about the final product—Human After All got the worst reviews of any Daft Punk album.
The lengthy gap between Human After All and Random Access Memories—2005 to 2013—requires even more filling, so the book breaks down various Daft Punk film projects, like Interstella 5555 and Tron, a remake of a 1982 movie the Robots scored. Then we get to their latest album, Random Access Memories, not even a year old. (At the Grammys, RAM recently won Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Pop/Duo Group Performance.) The book gives a timeline of the carefully orchestrated album rollout and offers profiles of the studios and the studio musicians Daft Punk used to help create the album. We find a section about the clash between The Colbert Report and MTV’s Video Music Awards.
Anyone who pays the tiniest bit of attention to pop music will be familiar with the hoopla surrounding RAM. Recent history must be approached in a slightly different way. Recapping events from six months ago without adding new information or complicating the narrative leaves much to be desired.
The book ends with, “What’s next for Daft Punk?” Unfortunately, “No one really knows.”
The masks stay on.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.