The neo-retro electro-funk phenomenon Chromeo recently headlined at San Francisco’s Mezzanine. Along with Flosstradamus, Codebreaker and Frisco Disco DJ duo Richie Panic and Jeffrodesiac, the max capacity show was free of charge thanks to a massive sponsorship from the car company turned music promotion agency, Scion.
Prior to the performance, Eric Kozak of Denver’s DJ team White Girl Lust sat down with Chromeo’s Dave One and P-Thugg, who generously gave us the following skinny on their history, the state of the music industry in the digital era and their evaluation of the electro scene.
Eric Kozak: What was the song that made you guys say, ‘Wait; this is gonna work?’
Dave One: You know, we got signed (to Turbo Recordings) before really knowing what we were going to do. We’re still signed to that label—Tiga’s label. He knew me as a hip-hop producer and he wanted me to do something, and was like, ‘well I’m gonna get P-Thugg involved.’
EK: So he figured that regardless, you could usher in a sound.
DO: Yeah, but we didn’t know what it was gonna be; so we started toying around with demos and doing different things… We didn’t know it was gonna be Jeri Curl kind of funk stuff. Then we did “Mercury Tears,” which was on our first album and on an URB compilation…
P-Thugg: It was the B-side to “You’re So Gangster.”
DO: Yeah, yeah. That was the first song that made us go ‘Ah, this is gonna be kind of our style’—like the analog synths and the processed vocals.
EK: I remember hearing “Needy Girl” and catching a little bit of press about it; but that single hung out on various media sites and blogs and just was constantly floating around.
DO: And the video too.
EK: What would you attribute to the fact that it didn’t just come out and be hyped up for like three or four moths and then just go away?
DO: Our whole first album—very long shelf life. It took a year or two years to catch on.
EK: It’s odd, cuz in the era of blogdom, something comes out and it’s hot-hot-hot, and then bam, it’s dead.
DO: That’s just a profile of our band. We started kind of before all this stuff was happening. We came out before the big music blog explosion—right on the cusp, really. I feel like, for the people who like us—and some people don’t like us obviously—but people have strong opinions about our music. People don’t have strong opinions about James Murphy’s music (LCD Soundsystem/DFA Records); everybody just likes it.
EK: I know a few people that have strong feelings about James Murphy’s music.
DO: [Laughs.] I think there’s more people that have stronger opinions about our music because; well, because they over-think. But our stuff was a little before…we’re not one of those blog-house groups. That’s not what we do. Our stuff is almost like a vintage record or a re-issue. Even on the new album, there’s so many re-mixes done and stuff popping all over the place; it’s just the kind of presence that we have. I don’t know what to attribute it to, but it’s like some people take us seriously enough to make it…
PT: I think it’s just the music. I mean, we put a lot of thought and work into the songs and they’re not a sign of the times—they’re not disposable. It’s not music that you listen to every night when you get into the club for like a summer and then you forget about it. The album is still in your CD player, just like Thriller is still in my CD player.
DO: I wouldn’t say timeless, but it’s definitely something where we’ve tried to transcend current trends in electronic music. It’s not necessarily intentional, but it’s at least half intentional to be contrary to what everybody’s doing.
When our first album came out, DFA was the big thing. Everything was this disco-funk. Not much of that is present today—only the best. Now it’s more like distorted electro, and again our sound is completely opposite to that.
EK: Do you think blogging is fucking up the music game? Is it gonna fuck up your record sales that your singles get blogged and re-blogged…
DO: Yeah; well, the whole digital medium fucks up record sales. It’s not just blogs. It’s Limewire. Hypebeast. Hypebeast is becoming the best of all blogs. It’s becoming the new Limewire, because I’m not going to find necessarily a “Riot in Belgium” remix on Limewire, but I will on Hypebeast.
EK: Are you saying that blogging is a symptom of necessity now?
DO: Yeah, cuz the record label asks us, “Which blogs can we leak this song to? Which blogs can we leak that one to? Oh, we can’t do that one…” So, yeah, digital is putting a dent in record sales; but lucky for us, we don’t rely on record sales.
EK: So the leaks are premeditated by the band and the label from a publicity angle?
EK: And the real money for you guys is in touring, and maybe licensing?
DO: You saw the Reese’s commercial?
EK: What got licensed to Reese’s?
DO: “Needy Girl.” We’ve had a few of them. Heineken licensed “You’re So Gangster;” McDonalds licensed “Rage!”
“back in the day”
But yeah, record labels are obsolete. Imagine if there was a company whose sole purpose was to make money off of our T-shirts; an independent company that has a staff of people—and product managers, and interns—just for our T-shirts. They’d be doing better (than the label) because we sell more T-shirts than we do CDs at every show. The whole medium of having a plastic thing with the music on it; it’s completely obsolete. There’s really no point that people pay for that, aside from a collectors item.
It’s actually a really interesting time. In twenty years we’re gonna look back and feel like we’ve lived through a really dramatic media shift. Not just CDs but paper (is obsolete.) Right now we’re just lost. The fact there’s no YouTube for Audio. People are using YouTube for audio with just a still image. We’ll probably look back at Myspace and feel like we were so advanced at using such a ghetto site. It crashes all the time, has errors, “Please contact…” We’re still using these tools that are so inadequate.
EK: Let’s step back to the final phase of traditional marketing with independent electronic music—say, when early Daft Punk was touring the Homework era, versus the days now where record sales don’t account for shit. Do you think you’re in a better position today than you would have been then?
DO: I know in the music spectrum we would have had a hard time fitting in because there was no such thing as left-field electronic music. When She’s In Control came out, Hot Chip wasn’t out yet, MSTRKRFT wasn’t out yet, Bangkok Impact wasn’t out yet. Those people funneled into the scene that allows us to perform in different venues where you step into a club and they don’t necessarily expect really hard techno, but they don’t really expect indie rock either. It’s kind of a medium between both. That’s what I think really helped us. That’s why this tour is sold out.
Now there’s a scene for left-field, non- four-on-the-floor electronic music that incorporates vocals and some instruments. That didn’t exist twelve years ago.
There’s a return to kind of a more straight-forward techno thing now, where DJs are just playing kind of hard stuff. But, luckily the scene that we’re in is kind of peripheral to that. We’re not going to play to 5,000 people with their shirts off trancing at 5:30 in the morning in Ibiza; but I’d rather be playing to 400 cool people in London anyway.
EK: In the late ‘90s in dance music there was Fat Boy Slim, Daft Punk, Moby, Crystal Method… And for a minute, URB—and whoever—was hyping up like ‘This is the next rock and roll, guys; we’re goin’ on the big wave. It’s gonna take over hip-hop…’ With the hype around like Justice and you guys, is it possible that we’ll see that same resurgence in dance music, and this time it might come through in the bigger development?
DO: First off, nobody is replacing Daft Punk. They’re not going anywhere. No one’s bigger than them, and no one’s got better music than them. They’re still on the throne. But in those years that you’re talking about, we didn’t know electronic music. We come from a hip-hop background, and we thought electronic music was gay music. We couldn’t tell the difference. We didn’t even know the difference between electronic music and trance. We thought it was all “Dee-di-di-di-di-duh-duh” [sings the Vengaboys’ “We Like To Party”—used for a long and annoying period as the theme song for the Great America amusement park chain].
Vengaboys, to us, was house, techno, electro, trance, downtempo, everything… And we purposely stayed very ignorant about it, because the people that listened to it looked really corny to us—except for Daft Punk. So we weren’t really there for that first peak.
What’s different now is that people’s tastes are more eclectic; so you’ll have kids, like us, that are into hip-hop stuff and techno stuff. I don’t know much techno, but I love Boys Noize; and I’m the guy who listens to Little Wayne 20 hours a day.
And as far as Daft Punk taking over hip-hop, they have taken over hip-hop. Look at Kanye’s new single and look at Busta Rhymes… A lot of people are using electronic music’s techniques to sonically get on that level. When Little John came out with his first productions, you know, all those big sounds, like with Usher. He was like, ‘I go to strip clubs and I hear techno music…’ Well, it’s probably trance, but he’s like, ‘What did they use to do that?’ He bought those sound modules and he made hip-hop with it.
What’s funny is that in all this cross-breeding, our music is staying non-hybrid. We keep doing that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis shit no matter what. The music is changing and you’ve got dance-flavored hip-hop and hip-hop-flavored dance. We’re just trying to make the retro records, and we’re in a retro chamber when it comes time to produce our own shit; cuz that’s our lane. No one else has stepped in that lane. That’s just gonna be our lane. We’re the guys doing that real ‘80s-flavored black music with this kind of crazy twist, cuz we look completely different and our subject matters are funnier.
EK: How do you feel about people coming up and trying to steal the steez that you guys established?
DO: Like who? (Laughs.) There’s this kid in the UK named Calvin Harris. No one here is hip to him, but over there topping the charts. His stuff is ‘80s funk, man. It’s more accessible than what we do, but it’s a little less substantial. To what I can approximate: the guy doesn’t have fifty analog synths stacked in and the drum machines and all that.
EK: Do you think there’s a chance that he’s heard your records?
DO: Yeah, there’s a chance, but we would look so sour pointing fingers at people.
EK: What about the folks that are remixing your shit without your permission?
DO: This is really symptomatic of what’s going on right now: Fancy Footwork 12” comes out. Remixes come with it. The singles are buzzing on the Internet. This kid from the south of France called Strip Steve sends me a remix—a great remix of Fancy Footwork. But he didn’t have the parts; we didn’t give them to him cuz he wasn’t commissioned. So he samples part of the song and does a remix to it. The remix gets everywhere and the record label calls us. “What’s up with this Strip Steve remix?” I said, “He just did it, and it’s great. We’re playing it. He doesn’t want money for it whatever.” The record label’s like, “Okay, cool. Can we give it to people? Can we use it?” We said, “Yeah, cool. Use it.”
Then Boys Noize wants to put it out, but just as an instrumental; so it’s not a remix anymore. We said, ‘Sure’. Except that it contains a sample from our song. And now Boys Noize is getting signed to our label. So Boys Noize is putting out an instrumental version of some kid who’s signed to Boys Noize, who used our record as a remix without the remix blanks. That’s what going on.
It’s inbred, bro. Inbred.
EK: So on Hollarboard, it’s all about the illegal remix. Curtis Vodka and tons of other people are blowing up off totally illegal remixes. Is that cool with you?
DO: We love it. I mean, they’re not making money. No one’s making money. Music isn’t a money-making medium. Curtis Vodka will probably play our records anyway; I know he does. I mean, you call it illegal; I call it free.