PHARRELL WILLIAMS can’t stop singing. Here in a windowless conference room at Pier 59 above New York City’s Hudson River, the 40-year-old hitmaker is, without impulse, breaking into song. It’s nearly as loud as the white polka dots screaming from his black long-sleeve Comme des Garçons top. But he fails to warble the contagious hook of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” P’s first No. 1 single in seven years. Nor does he hum the melodies of his production on “BBC,” Jay-Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail superstar posse cut. In this sterile office space, Pharrell is crooning the opening notes of Daft Punk’s 2000 new-millennial classic “One More Time” in a manner that could pass for a tribute show. On the receiving end of Williams’ powerful falsetto are the song’s architects Thomas Bangalter, 38, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, 39, aka the Robots, who sit across an oval table in black leather chairs. It’s somehow not awkward.
This assemblage represents a moment for everyone involved; yet Pharrell only cares to toast Daft Punk’s recent success. Sure the Virginia native producer has played a part, writing and singing on the instantly classic disco-funk hybrid “Get Lucky,” a global sensation that ushered in the French musical icons’ chart-topping comeback album Random Access Memories. Yet today he seems more fanatic than peer. He bypasses multiple solo looks for this magazine shoot as not to absorb Daft Punk’s warm spotlight, despite being in the midst of an unpredictable comeback of his own. When you ask about his work with a certain twerksome celebutante (name sounds a lot like Molly), he deflects, making your query seem trivial and borderline insulting. Pharrell simply won’t let the gravity of this moment—right here, right now, with the Bots— escape you. “Think about it,” says Williams, injecting an enormous pause, for emphasis. “Right now, you’re in the middle of what was and what it is about to be. Do you know how important now is? All of this is unbelievable. I’m pinching myself.”
Daft Punk flew in from Paris to be here today. To pose in blinged-out Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking tuxedos and don their signature helmets, which look like illuminated motorcycle headgear with a sheen metal finish. And to discuss how they’ve fearlessly navigated 20 years of sonic creation. “This is a journey, but for us, we are not afraid of any consequences,” says Bangalter, the chattier half of the Bots. “We do exactly what we want.” Bangalter and de Homem- Christo own every aspect of their musical outputs, and rarely divulge what’s to come. Such as with the 10-minute-and-33-second remix to “Get Lucky,” which they’ll tease, but remain tight-lipped about before it drops three weeks later. “We talk about the present because it’s such a gift,” Williams explains. His eyes then go straight to Daft Punk. His role is clearly supporting cast today. And the music symposium begins.
VIBE: What drew you guys to work with Pharrell on Random Access Memories?
THOMAS BANGALTER: We’ve always been big fans of his work and output as a producer, rapper and musician. But what we really appreciate more than anything is a multitalented artist that has a strong aura and is super talented, charismatic and very glamorous. His natural glamour—he is as elegant in jeans [as he is] in a tuxedo.
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: Thank you.
Do you remember your first time hearing Daft Punk?
WILLIAMS: I’ll never forget. I was talking to this girl, and all of a sudden I heard a song and was like, “What the fuck is that?” Because it just seemed like something regal, something very royal and different, from a higher caliber. When that guy sang “One More Time,” I was like, “What the?!” And then it was everywhere. Like, I heard it in cars in the hood. From that point I was in love with the sound and the groove. Isn’t that the most amazing feeling when we hear something and ask, “What is it?”
GUY-MANUEL DE HOMEM-CHRISTO: That never happens to us.
BANGALTER: It’s cool as a musician to be challenged by new music. It’s always something you look for, because all of us are music lovers. We have this repertoire where each time there is a song that makes a difference, people know it.
Did you expect Random Access Memories to be received so well after being off the scene for so long?
BANGALTER: We were very surprised about how much our project got noticed in a world where we went undercover for a long time. But there is no fear in what we are doing. There is no insecurity of being in the spotlight or losing the spotlight—that’s not what drives us. We’re amazed at how many ways we can connect with people through music and art because we don’t take anything for granted.
You connected with Kanye West to help produce his Yeezus LP. It sounds very different from when he sampled you guys for “Stronger.”
BANGALTER: It’s good that it is different, beccause the impact that “Stronger” had is very important. Somehow, it turned out to be this combination between hip-hop and electronic music, and almost started the mix of those genres. We’re all trying to push the envelope and to see where the music can go.
Were you surprised by the sound that Kanye West was going for on Yeezus?
BANGALTER: No, we were not surprised. I think the interesting thing is that we were the first people that Kanye came to. It was at the very beginning of the process, and he just wanted to make the record. We discussed it a lot… the approach. The very first track we did was “Black Skinhead.” We had recorded [the drums] earlier during the recording of our album, so we had those drums. It was a great twist of pushing the envelope. The last trackwe did was “On Sight,” which was even more ghetto, but in another sense. One was super rock and the other was more techno/ghetto/ house. His ideas were really making a lot of sense… Do something with a lot of integrity. And [they were] also about reinventing; this is what we try to do ourselves as artists. And that’s what you appreciate with someone as popular and as big as Kanye is. We were happy to help figure out a direction he was looking for in terms of substance. He really responded positively to those ideas we were throwing out to him. And then he ran with it.
Seems like you guys had to tap into an entirely different energy from your own album.
BANGALTER: It’s funny because working on those two records—Random Access Memories and Yeezus—was like a preposition of what else it can be. Dance music can still be this joyful disco-bliss, something that it’s currently not. And hip-hop, even on a mainstream level, can still be a very radical punk-rock approach. Those two records, in the end, are very radical.
You’ve been very busy lately, too, Pharrell, working with Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Robin Thicke. But what was it like in the studio collaborating with Miley Cyrus on her album?
WILLIAMS: Her album is dope. She’s super duper talented, but I want to spend this time talking about the Robots. It’s a rare opportunity, because they don’t talk to people.
BANGALTER: [Pharrell’s] getting a lot of exposure right now, but he would totally be [relevant] 30, 40 years ago as well. He has that timeless quality of what a great entertainer is.
You’ve got a lot of other great musicians who played on Random Access Memories. How did you go about getting them all on the album?
WILLIAMS: They won’t ever take credit for that, but there’s a reason why that album is the equation that it is: You have to love music. You have to love the musicians that pontificated and decided to put it on tape. When you listened to this album, you were listening to two huge fans working with people they have admired all their lives. And that is one of the biggest things that I have an incredible admiration for when it comes to them because they have the willingness to stare all of the contemporary and modern equipment in the face and go, “I will not use your preset. You will not lock me in this box.”
BANGALTER: That’s that energy. We wanted to do dance music with live musicians.The process—the arrangement, calling, production on these instrumental tracks— was new for us, but there was so much life and energy from the music performances themselves.
DE HOMEM-CHRISTO: For instance, with “Get Lucky” we would have Nile [Rodgers] performing on guitar, then we added Paul Jackson Jr., who was feeding off the energy from Nile playing. Then we added the keys and the final bass parts—it felt like everybody was up there playing with Nile. It was becoming easier and easier. By the time we connected with Pharrell to finish writing the song, it was infused with so much performance that it became the easiest song to write to. It became this timeless piece.
WILLIAMS: I find it so funny when people say disco. It’s not disco. It’s not of that time. It was never meant to relate to an era. I’d say post-disco.
BANGALTER: It’s something as simple as music that makes us feel good and makes people feel good. Nile made music in the ’70s and the ’80s that made people feel good. And it’s us and Pharrell that make people feel good in the ’90s and 2000s. That’s four different decades. It feels like the four of us are teaming up and playing music for the fifth decade. At some point we can still recognize Nile’s guitar, Pharrell’s voice; but somehow it’s a little bit of a different twist on it. And it has both that familiarity that feels like you’ve heard it before, and then there’s something new, like music you could hear in 2014 that encapsulates those things. Trying to focus on happiness in a very essential way can become some kind of a bigger statement.
“Lose Yourself to Dance” is the second single, also featuring Pharrell. What is the statement of that song?
WILLIAMS: “Lose Yourself to Dance” makes me feel like walking down the street in the middle of the night in London and it’s 1984, 1985. I don’t hear ’70s in that at all. For me, it doesn’t sound at all like a Bowie record, but I feel like David Bowie would have loved that record. He could actually sing it.
BANGALTER: We’re trying to define—or redefine—what dance floor music can be. Whether it’s something lighter or something more primer. “Lose Yourself to Dance” is almost this idea of a timeless place or dance floor where you can lose yourself. The idea of unity of the dance floor, people being connected.
Have you been out to clubs lately? Often in America, does it seem to be about standing around and popping bottles rather than dancing?
WILLIAMS: It’s a completely different culture, but that’s okay. That’s what evolution is about. You add “r” to the word “evolution” and you get “revolution.” It’s a revolution, spiritually… It starts somewhere, and we’re at the time [right now] where it shifts. I said it a couple of years ago, people don’t want to think anymore—they just want to feel. And that’s where we are.
BANGALTER: For us it was really interesting to say we’re doing this dance music, or dance floor jam, but it’s all handmade. “Lose Yourself to Dance” is important—it’s another statement, maybe it’s different than “Get Lucky”—but it’s more essential and original. It’s really about what dancing is—people interacting and what the dance floor is. In the same way that “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” where you hear the sounds and are like, “Wow!” It’s interesting to experiment what the dance floor can be. Like, how can you be turned into the act of dancing at a time where dance music is done with a drum machine and computers? There’s not a point to challenge that. One of the important things for us in this record is that it’s done with live musicians and it comes out at the time in dance and pop music where no one does that. It’s this idea of ice cream flavors where everybody is eating strawberry ice cream. We’re not saying strawberry ice cream sucks, but that there’s room for other flavors. We’re also not saying we don’t like strawberry ice cream, we only like vanilla or chocolate. There’s really this thing where dance music has gotten so big, but it cannot crash pop music so it became pop music. It took one direction, and that direction became that single flavor. It’s really important that we contain different flavors on the dance floor. It’s not about saying that flavor is not good; the thing that’s not good is that there’s only one [flavor] and that no one, especially the musicians, are questioning that.
What about outside of dance music?
BANGALTER: What’s happening in the alternative scene right now is much more interesting to us. Whether it’s Bon Iver and James Blake; they are very interesting artists. It’s like [when we are] doing a film score. It’s a challenge. We have to score a film that fits into the dialogue and the scene. In some sense, pop or dance music has its own room. You can encourage a certain dynamic of a young generation that felt maybe they didn’t fit in, but in the end feel energized by that possible vitality. That’s what the music needs, and what the people need. The next generation of music is coming with fresh ideas and from kids who have enough self-confidence that they won’t be crushed by their own insecurities.
How do you get rid of insecurities, the fear?
BANGALTER: You don’t bluff. For us, we have no goal. The problem is when you have a goal; you’re ready to reach it at any cost. We have no direction, and we don’t know in which direction we want to go.
DE HOMEM-CHRISTO: We don’t feel like we have to do anything we don’t want to. So if we wanted to release an album or just experiment, we put all this thought, time and money into experimenting. There was no guarantee we’d make anything at the end. At the end, it took five years to make, and we had no clue where it was going to end up. When we feel excited by an idea, whether it’s a movie or anything we think we can participate in, we’ll do it. [We] just find the right partners in order to spend our time enjoying life. The only pressure is our pressure. To me, and I think it’s the same for Pharrell, we’re just friends and we’re all professionals. So people that like what we do or what Pharrell does call us genius, but we really don’t care for the term. We just like what we do.
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