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The real story of how Daft Punk became the robots

Daft Punk have taken on a robot form for so long that it's hard to remember a time that they didn't don their famous helmets for public appearances. Although the official line has been well told — the one with an exploding discoball — in this excerpt from his new book, Daft Punk's Discovery: The Future Unfurled, Ben Cardew tells the real story of how the enigmatic French duo transformed into robots, according to those closest to them at the time

No matter how many times they told it, the story of Daft Punk’s transformation into robots around the time of Discovery’s recording didn’t get any cooler. There is, in fact, something delightfully nerdy about it: this is the Daft Punk of anime cartoons and children playing with fire engines rather than the globe-conquering electronic music stars. 

Here is how Daft Punk described their transformation in a 2004 interview with Cartoon Network. “We became robots during the 1999 September trip, on 9/9/99,” they explained. “We were just making music in the studio, when suddenly there was a flash. It is not something that can easily be explained. It was not like an explosion, but there were lights and gold and silver powder was everywhere. When we finally woke up, the silver and gold powder became our robot faces. We do not know exactly what happened because when we woke up, we were just robots.” The same flash would, rather conveniently, erase everything the band had been working on until that point, which meant that the duo had to start again on the album in their new robot form. 

Robots, on the whole, are pretty neat things, with a long history in electronic music. Kraftwerk, the German act who, more than anyone, were responsible for taking electronic music into the mainstream in the 1970s, referred to their music as “robot pop”, positioning themselves as robots in the lyrics to their 1978 single The Robots / Die Roboter. 

In concert, The Robots is “performed” by actual robots, who jerk around in vague unison. In their later years, Kraftwerk would come to increasingly hide behind their robot personae, sending their robots along to perform promotional duties, such as for photoshoots and even interviews. (In 2009, the band sent a robot to meet British journalist Miranda Sawyer in an interview for the BBC TV programme The Culture Show.) Daft Punk, never particular fans of the promotional process, were likely taking notes. 

Daft Punk’s decision to adopt robotic personae, while unusual for a major-label act, was well signposted: before becoming the robots, the band had spent several years hiding their faces in photo shoots. Orla Lee-Fisher, head of marketing at Virgin Records UK when Daft Punk signed to the label, explains how she found out about the band’s decision to mask up. “In Christmas 1996 we took a load of journalists – the Jockey Sluts, the Mixmags, DJ Magazine – we took them all on this big adventure before Christmas to Trans Musicales [festival] in northern France, to this massive aircraft hangar in a field and they [Daft Punk] played there,” she says.

“We had loads of photo shoots the next day, so we all went to the gig, took all our journalists the next day and it was like, ‘We will do the interviews and photos. We’re not going to show our faces.’ In those early days, they were like, ‘If we’re DJing, we’re working’, they would show their faces. They would be photographed in the DJ position as they were. But otherwise, they would be disguised. When it came to 'Discovery', they came back with their robot heads. And that was when they took it on another step.” 

“It was really a process that was really, truly ongoing. Because it wasn’t like we built the robots and then they went out and, ‘That’s it! Here they are!’” — Tony Gardner

For practical reasons, Lee-Fisher says she was pleased when the band explained that they were going to be adopting robotic identities. “It meant we actually had photos and things,” she explains. “Because actually before that we didn’t. Everything had to be created: had to have makeup or disguises. So this gave us a visual identity that we didn’t have before that. That is why it was very clever: it became their look.” 

The 'Discovery' robots were introduced to the world in the February 2001 edition of The Face magazine, a monthly British publication that covered music, fashion and culture. Piers Martin, a veteran of British music magazine NME and a dance music fan, went to Los Angeles to interview the band in November 2000, visiting them in their house in the Hollywood Hills. 

Luis Sanchis took the accompanying pictures, including a photo of the band playing the piano that would later appear on the 'Discovery' sleeve. This was no casual set up: Martin remembers the experience as something like a collaboration between the band, their PR agency and The Face. “The Face was quite well regarded at that time, it had a lot of creativity. And they wanted to introduce the robots there and introduce the record. So it was quite a stylised piece,” he explains. “You felt like you were part of the team, part of the campaign, in a way.” 

The idea for the piece was that the robots would be photographed in locations that corresponded to the different songs on 'Discovery' — a guitar shop for Aerodynamic, slumped in an alley for Short Circuit, etcetera — with Martin’s copy tracing the robots’ journey around LA: “Pumped up and looking for action, Thomas and Guy-Man bump into a group of kids breakdancing in one of the dance studios next to the gym. They are bustin’ loose and body-poppin’ to Crescendolls...” and so on. 

Martin remembers being quite taken aback by the experience. “I think I was just trying to get my head around the whole experience of being there, being with Daft Punk, being in LA, being with the robots, it kind of all made sense,” he says. “It was exciting and strange but for them, because they were so convinced by it, it was persuasive; it seemed like a natural progression for their career.” 

Sanchis says that the photoshoot was intense but fun. “You have to go from one location to another one. You have a schedule: from ten to 12 we’re going to the guitar shop, then we have lunch, then we have three to four at the pool, then five to six at the strip bar,” he says. “I remember running around, but I love that kind of stuff because I love to shoot guerrilla-style. So I love to move from place to place and improvise.” As for Daft Punk, Sanchis says they were “super nice”. “In some shoots, people might be more difficult or opinionated,” he explains. “They were super easy. They loved all this stuff that we did.”

The helmets, according to Martin, were very heavy and “quite a faff”. But they looked fantastic. Bangalter and De Homem-Christo’s robotic outfits initially comprised a bespoke helmet each, a gauntlet that allowed them to control the helmet’s electronics, a pair of gloves and a “spaceman backpack” to hide the wiring and hardware. All of this was created by special effects expert Tony Gardner from initial designs by Alexandre Courtès and Martin Fougerol, artist friends of the band. 

“All roads lead back to Spike Jonze,” Gardner tells me about his connection to the project. “Spike knew them [Daft Punk], he had directed a music video for them, and they started talking to him about this idea they had about becoming robots and being more consistent with their disguises instead of being random. They had some ideas for electronics to be incorporated, and Spike said, ‘Oh, you should talk to my friend Tony Gardner, he could figure this out for you,’” Gardner says.

Bangalter’s helmet was apparently inspired by Gort6 from the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, its silver casing, suggestion of a mouth and eye-level visual display coming off as slightly sinister. De Homem-Christo’s gold mask is most notable for its vast LED display, which came to life during their concerts, transforming from a rather imposing black mass into a riot of colour and rainbow effects. The gloves were more standard, made up of metallic plating on ribbed black spandex. But Daft Punk paired their helmets with some spectacular outfits, from a very louche ruffled shirt and cigar combo to sequin-embellished tuxes designed by Hedi Slimane.7

“The Day The Earth Stood Still was a favourite film of Thomas’ and mine, so we had a mutual point of reference from the very beginning,” says Gardner. “You always start pulling references from other things to share with people to communicate something visual... We were pulling references of Gort, which is the robot’s name from The Day The Earth Stood Still, and also the police-style helmets from THX, George Lucas’s student film; then just straight-up police helmets and other things along that line that had a visor built into them.”

De Homem-Christo’s helmet, meanwhile, is more of a “helmet inside his helmet”, according to Gardner. “There’s a clear visor underneath his actual visor that is mounted to a skull cap, so it stayed in a fixed position,” Gardner says. “We had rows of LEDs packed in that space.”

These initial ideas had to adapt to practical considerations to allow the band to play live. Then, over the years, as Daft Punk evolved, so too did their robotic personae. “It was really a process that was really, truly ongoing,” Gardner says. “Because it wasn’t like we built the robots and then they went out and, ‘That’s it! Here they are!’”

Daft Punk's Discovery: The Future Unfurled — a book which features additions from more than 25 interviews, as well as past unreleased interview material with the French duo themselves — is available exclusively from the Velocity Press website now here

Ben cardew is an author and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @bencardew