In the almost three decades between early singles like “The New Wave” and Monday’s abrupt apparent breakup announcement, Daft Punk moved as much like engineers or software developers as musicians in the quest to locate dance music’s perfect sound. They workshopped product that catered to an unfulfilled need, then made calculated adjustments along the way, trying new things and learning from the mistakes that came from fiddling with the formula. The French duo was in a long conversation with the Zeitgeist, interested in nothing less than shifting culture — a lofty aim for any band but one that you could argue this pair of chrome-domed dreamers made good on more than once since 1993, gauging the reverberations that followed the more audacious career moves Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo made in times they were interested in being seen or known. What set Daft Punk apart from many of their fellow electronic-music evangelists (Moby, Fatboy Slim, Paul Oakenfold), the classic-rock icons they grew up idolizing (the Beach Boys, Kiss, Led Zeppelin), and pop and rap stars like Kanye West and the Weeknd (who would enact similar plans in their wake) is that they were able to accomplish ambitious abandon without being subsumed by branding, and without leveraging much personal peace for cultural cachet. They bridged the gap between the music of their childhood and the disparate sounds of pop in their adulthood. They’re superstars you might not notice in a supermarket. They’re potential retirees in their mid-40s. They played a good game.
As visionary as they were, in many ways Thomas and Guy-Man arrived at the right place and the right time, growing up in France adjacent to explosions in both rock and roll and electronic music. They tried their hand at shoegaze in their first band, Darlin’, named in honor of the chipper 1967 Beach Boys tune and famously written off in one withering review as “daft punky thrash,” a dig they would use to their advantage in their next endeavor. Traversing the vibrant early-’90s European rave scene, the duo seemed to find new footing in the propulsive sound of thumping, programmed drums, a literal expression of the forward advance of new technologies that would alter not just the sound of music but the methods of making and experiencing it. Bangalter’s father had been a disco producer of some renown in the ’70s, logging hits with local acts like the singing duo Ottawan, the family band the Gibson Brothers, and others; his son’s ease in navigating the business aspect of his career was as much informed by a sense of history as his sample-speckled music was. Daft Punk retained control of its art and creative direction and rarely made cynical money moves. (In the BBC’s 2015 retrospective Daft Punk Unchained, it is suggested that, as the group began to take off, big-name artists like Janet Jackson came round looking for beats but left empty-handed.) The singles that would grace 1997’s Homework were met with enthusiasm by a fertile crop of videographers soon to make the jump to motion pictures. Spike Jonze directed Big City Lights — the short, sad story of an anthropomorphic dog, which doubles as the video for the duo’s breakout single, “Da Funk” — the same year he picked up directorial duties on Being John Malkovich. The monster mash set to “Around the World” helped put Michel Gondry on the radar of more fans and fellow artists in the years before he would wow audiences with era-defining work like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In the Homework era, Daft Punk used advancing tech and up-and-coming audiovisual artists to execute its vision of carrying the power and kinetic energy of the rave scene out to a worldwide audience. Once the duo found its bearings, it hit the stratosphere. Donning robot masks (at first as a joke about the Y2K “millennium bug” and later, more permanently, as helmets in their public comings and goings) and building on the big, catchy melodies and knack for sampling displayed on Homework’s “Around the World” and “High Fidelity,” Thomas and Guy-Man set their sights on space travel. 2001’s Discovery is remembered fondly alongside works like Basement Jaxx’s Remedy and Rooty, Moby’s Play, the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, and films like The Matrix as monuments to the “techno” revolution, but Discovery aspired to be more. Early in the sessions, interest in a film component turned into plans for a full-fledged anime: Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem — made in collaboration with Leiji Matsumoto, creator of cool, vibrant ’70s anime staples like Space Pilot Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 — put Daft Punk in touch with childhood memories while tapping into the growing youth interest in anime outside of Japan stoked by the airing of shows and films like Dragon Ball Z and Akira in Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block. The album is more than just a stunning application of sounds from across the planet, expressed in the tension between coarse electro and lush disco in “Short Circuit,” in the Moroder-esque house beats of “Veridis Quo,” in the godlike sample work in “Face to Face” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” in the sensual funk of “Something About Us,” in rockers like “Aerodynamic” and “Digital Love,” or in perfect dance-floor heaters like the album’s calling card, “One More Time.” Discovery is an ingenious visual album, a great anime in its own right. It’s also a prescient story about greed that highlighted the selfishness and stubbornness of the music business’s executive class at a crucial point when those qualities nearly led major labels to sink the whole ship doubting the power and pervasiveness of digital music and piracy.
A healthy distaste for repeating themselves would send the robots running far from this achievement in the time following Discovery. After painstaking years spent producing the last project, work on the next album wrapped in six weeks, four of which were spent on mixes. 2005’s Human After All rejected Discovery’s sunny melodies, taking greater interest in pounding rock riffs and latent philosophical queries about the nature of existence and the pitfalls of tech. The best of these experiments pointedly challenges the notion that there’s all that much space between rock and dance music and reimagines French house as a sound that’s more combative than the euphoric strains of “Around the World” and “One More Time.” “Robot Rock,” “Television Rules the Nation,” and the title track are hall-of-fame Daft Punk tracks, but a poignant capriciousness and mischief make the album hard to sit through, and videos like horror-makeup and effects vet Tony Gardner’s spooky clip for “The Prime Time of Your Life” or the self-directed “Technologic” video, a chilling mirror on Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” video, didn’t lure fans in. It’s a shame, since the album’s darker, more abrasive edges presaged landmark 2006 gems like Justice’s classic remix of Simian’s “We Are Your Friends,” the Simian Mobile Disco single “Hustler,” and Crystal Castles’ “Alice Practice.” On tour behind Human After All in 2006 and 2007, Daft Punk mashed up the new songs with old favorites, reclaiming a measure of honor for the album one audience at a time. The pyramid show memorialized in Alive 2007 isn’t just a radical act of shifting perceptions of an album widely deemed to be the group’s first misstep. It’s the birth of the highfalutin 21st-century stage show, where you might see an artist flying overhead or encased in a see-through storage container suspended above the stage. If that era didn’t wow its critics or its listeners at first, it did offer a glimpse of where pop culture was headed.
The same is true of the robots’ work on the soundtrack to 2010’s Tron: Legacy, the sequel to the 1982 classic Tron and an early salvo in Disney’s lengthy campaign to reimagine and remaster its old properties. Like Daft Punk’s 2006 music video turned motion picture Electroma — whose referential sci-fi and carsploitation iconography didn’t save it from the same complaints about plotlessness as the art-house meditations in Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy — Tron: Legacy is overlong and undercooked, captivating in its optics but lacking a certain soul, both in the film and the accompanying soundtrack, though it shows glimmers of the synthwave aesthetic more frequently attributed to 2011’s Drive. Legacy put Daft Punk in touch with an orchestra and helped fertilize the seeds of an even more organic-sounding album than Human After All, plans that would come to fruition on 2013’s Random Access Memories, an album often misunderstood as a rejection of the electronic sound of Daft Punk’s past that is better conceptualized as the summation of all the threads they had explored since the early ’90s.
It’s the band’s own fault for marketing the thing like a blockbuster ’70s pop album, but when you hear George Clinton and Dr. Dre shouted out on Homework’s “Teachers” or suss out Maze and George Duke samples on Discovery or note the interest in bridging rock and EDM sounds that informed Human After All, you realize they were always chasing the same restless, muscular sound all along and coming into greater and more varied expressions of it only as they pushed themselves past the music they made in their bedrooms in the early years. (In the few times the band produced for others under the Daft Punk banner, it was the fullness and perfectionism of that sound that their collaborators were after. They created something powerful, irresistible, and specific that is distinct even when another star is present. “I Feel It Coming” sounds more like RAM than Starboy; you could easily fit “On Sight” or “Send It Up” on Human After All.) “The Game of Love” hits the same soulful points as “Something About Us.” Prog-rock closer “Contact” is the hyperactivity of “High Fidelity” expressed through live keys and drums. “Fragments of Time” gets from its session players what “Face to Face” achieved through sampling. The mini-opera “Touch” may seem indulgent, but remember that the robots got the idea for masks watching Paul Williams in Brian De Palma’s outrageous 1974 musical Phantom of the Paradise. Was Daft Punk this molting, unpredictable, ever-changing thing, or was it more like an operating system whose day-to-day mechanics progressed through the years but always in service to a steady and unchanging core mission?