Daft Punk goes outside comfort zone for new album

LOS ANGELES – It’s tempting to say Daft Punk has gone Hollywood.

The influential French electronic duo crafted its first film score, for “Tron: Legacy,” three years ago and are now releasing a well-financed, smartly hyped pop album featuring what they call an ensemble cast of contemporary singers and veteran musicians.

There’s long been a show-biz bent to the work of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who for the last 13 years have hidden their faces in public appearances by wearing robot helmets and costumes. Bangalter compares the mystique-building masks – echoed by musicians including Deadmau5 and MF Doom – to an ever-evolving comic book superhero who starts as a side story “then maybe 50 years later it becomes like a big franchise movie in Hollywood.”

Yet Daft Punk’s new album “Random Access Memories” isn’t the special effects-filled summer blockbuster you might expect. The group that helped popularize electronic dance music in the United States has used almost exclusively live instrumentation on the 13 songs, many modeled on the easygoing groove of late 1970s pop and disco. At a time when drum machines and urgent computer-generated chords dominate the charts, Daft Punk went the opposite direction.

“Human voices in pop music are becoming more and more robotic,” Bangalter said. “(The album) is a robotic project and a technological one that is trying to get more and more human.”

Through arranger Chris Caswell, the group linked up with players who could evoke their favorite music from Chic, early Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac. Chic’s Nile Rodgers, drummer JR Robinson and bassist James Genus lay the musical bed for vocalists including Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear from Animal Collective and Pharrell. It’s a long way from the two-man home studio productions that defined the first three Daft Punk albums.

“Making music with musicians and bringing back a certain craftsmanship, that was totally unfamiliar for us. It was somehow a certain fantasy,” Bangalter said. “It’s funny because it was somehow a luxury to be able to do that. But at the same time it was not a comfortable position.”

They started with several days of jam sessions in Los Angeles, then spent four years layering sounds, editing, rearranging and re-recording. Bangalter compares the duo to a film director “shooting for months and months, stopping sometimes to do reshoots and then lots of editing … to create at the end a certain spontaneity that is somehow constructed.”

Early response has been mixed to the hotly anticipated album, which streamed on iTunes prior to Tuesday’s release. “This album makes me not like LA,” DJ-producer Diplo tweeted. “These guys are way smarter then me.