Chromeo Defends the ’80s

Chromeo’s Dave-1 knew this phone interview was from New Orleans by the area code. “Wobble Wobble,” he said when he saw the 504 area code. “I’m an old-school Master P fan. Like old school. I was a Master P fan when he still lived in Oakland. In 1999, 2000, when nobody else in Montreal was bumping the Hot Boys, me and P [bandmate P-Thugg] were already huge Mannie Fresh fans.” His affection for No Limit is not obvious in the music of the Montreal-based electro-funk duo; almost every song on this year’s Business Casual album would sound perfect in a mix between Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” and Madonna’s “Into the Groove.”

Chromeo plays Sunday night at House of Blues, and the band was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects in “Don’t Turn the Lights On”—an award it lost to Katy Perry’s “E.T.” Our conversation started talking about another video, “Night by Night.”

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Was that you doing the dancing?

No, it’s a double. All the close-ups are me, but I still had to train for one day with a choreographer to learn the twisting and shit. All the moves are some other kid. What’s crazy is that I’m tall. I’m 6’3” or 6’4” and this kid is super short. When we finished the video, we were like, “Everybody’s going to be able to tell,” and nobody could tell.

Was the opening shot of your feet walking the streets of New York a reference to Saturday Night Fever?

A little bit of that, definitely. It’s more of a reference to a French movie, De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté (in English, The Beat That My Heart Skips) for me because I lifted the outfit from that. The dude walks around with boots and slacks and a leather jacket, so I wanted to reference that.

Would you ever do a video as directly referential as the “Bonafide Lovin’” video again [which was done in the style of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” video?]

No. Keep in mind though that when the “Bonafide Lovin’” video came out, that’s the video that got the most love on MTV. It came out in ’07 or ’08, and in that context it was kind of subversive for us to come out with this homage to Dire Straits, but now we’re way past that. We’ve stepped up our game so much with videos on this new album like “Night by Night,” “Don’t Turn the Lights On” and “Hot Mess” which is like some Police Academy shit.

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What does being nominated for a VMA mean these days?

Depends for who. For Katy Perry, it’s expected. For Kanye, it’s expected. Even for someone like Tyler the Creator, it’s expected because he was the breakout revelation of the year. Objectively speaking, he had the best video of the year so he deserves to win. If he doesn’t, then Kanye should go onstage and bum rush it.

We’re very much a marginal band. So for us to have that co-sign, again, there’s something subversive about it. The way we operate is very much in the margins of the music industry. We’re not on the radio all day. We’re not on TV all day. We don’t do the style of music that fits into dominant trends at all. We came out with this Rick James meets Huey Lewis meets Larry David kind of music when no one thought that shit was cool. It’s dope for us because it’s kind of a career achievement. It’s also a nod from the mainstream to the underground to tell people like us, “If you keep doing your thing and you make no concessions or compromises, the accolades will eventually come.”

Why the obsession with the ‘80s?

I think it’s a generational thing. For me, it’s the music that I was listening to as a kid so it marked me. It really affected me. Also, I think I can make the case for the ‘80s being a very underrated, undervalued decade in music. People associate the ‘80s with some kind of decadence, but for us it’s one of the most experimental times in music. When a guy like Herbie Hancock, who is a traditional jazz musician, starts entering the world of synthesizers and drum machines—look at what he did. Look at what “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock did compared to where this guy comes from. It’s unbelievable. People like Kraftwerk, Michael [Jackson]—there’s a lot of musical experimentation that happened once synthesizers and drum machines became the tools of choice for musical production.

You have a band like Cameo, which was kind of a run-of-the-mill funk band from the seventies with 11 musicians or so. When you strip that down to three members and do a song like “Word Up” with a groove that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard of—that shit is so weird. It almost doesn’t even have a groove it’s so square, but that’s what makes it crazy. Roger with “More Bounce to the Ounce,” those are like musical UFOs that came out during the ‘80s.

When we came out with Chromeo, we wanted to rehabilitate a part of ‘80s music that we felt was completely overlooked. It was black music from the ‘80s. The Smiths and New Order and Joy Division and the Eurythmics—nobody ever criticized that, but for some reason, when we first came out in 2004, nobody was taking Rick James seriously. Nobody was taking Hall and Oates seriously. That’s changed. Hall and Oates have been inducted in the music canon, but that’s in large part thanks to us and the new generation of musicians reappropriating them.

Chromeo

One of the things that people forget is how much of the style and music of that time was geared toward the future, and that people were excited by synthesizers that made sounds that weren’t found in nature.

They could play things that a human being couldn’t play.

I don’t really see it in terms of decades because I still hear it. If you listen to the Triggaman break, when I hear that I hear the guy who really influenced people like Mannie Fresh, and that’s Mantronix. Mannie Fresh used to do Mantronix electro. When you hear that 808 music, it’s the same machine. It’s the same thing, just slowed down. We’re still very much living in that post-synthesizer, post-drum machine era. For us, it was just a way to re-contextualize it and give it this new breath and this new incarnation.

Are you working with vintage gear?

You gotta see our studio. We have like—you can see online, there’s a couple of YouTubes of it. We have stacks and stacks of vintage analog gear. All MIDI, all analog, all vintage synthesizers. We use a couple of modern instruments just for fun, but the reason why our stuff sounds the way it sounds and has the credibility that it has is because we really cultivate vintage instruments.

Do you tour with it?

No. We’d bring one or two and they would just break. When ELO used to tour with that stuff, they’d have like four dedicated technicians just for the synths and we can’t afford that. It’s harder to find parts for those things today. So that stays home.

Where do we see modernity in Chromeo?

You can never have two dudes that look the way we look making this kind of music in another era. We offer a modern perspective. We take that old school sensibility, but it’s in a new context. It’s only funny because it’s in a new context. If we try to completely parody an old-school song, we would have like generic, Kool and the Gang lyrics like “I love you baby” kind of stuff. But our lyrics have such a crazy, neurotic, Larry David twist to them. “I’ll give you bonafide lovin’ / the type that makes me feel old.” That’s almost R. Kelly. The sensibility is modern. The way we make our drum sounds, the way we mix up references. If you look at the Chromeo logo it looks like some ZZ Top arena rock shit and our artwork looks like some Helmut Newton shit. It’s old-school meets new-school. There’s a mix of sensibilities and of references that could only be possible in modern times.

Tell me about the experience of singing with Daryl Hall (on Live from Daryl’s House online).

It was unbelievable. You don’t think that these idols of yours are going to come back to modern times and reach out to you. Hall exists in my record collection. He doesn’t exist as a guy I could just email or call. For him to appear in “I-Can-Just-Call-Or-Email-You-Land,” it was unbelievable. It felt like the A-Ha video where the girl comes out of the comic book. Like two worlds mixing.

He welcomed us. We went to his house. He knew all of our songs and he totally got what we were doing. He was on the phone and he was like, “You guys are like a new John and me. I see it in you guys.” The thing is too, P and I’s personalities are very much like Daryl and John Oates’ personalities. It was surreal, the fact that he knew our stuff. It was one of the biggest honors and most humbling moments of our careers.

Did anything surprise you?

The physicality of his voice. He’s got one of the most impressive voices in modern music.

And one thing that really surprised me too is what those guys listen to and those guys like. They’re really deep into country music, bluegrass, doo wop. They can put together a five-part harmony in two seconds. If P and I try to do that, it’s going to take us an hour and a half in the studio. It’s humbling, man. It makes me want to take singing lessons and guitar lessons. You just feel like you’re a midget on the shoulders of giants.

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Tell me about appearing on Yo Gabba Gabba?

It’s crazy because we did that in ’08 and people still talk to us about it. It’s cool too. I mean I grew up watching Sesame Street. I grew up watching all my favorite musicians on a kids’ show, so to do a modern version of that was phenomenal. A lot of parents tell us, “My kid dances to your music.”

When I was a kid, my dad would play Stevie Wonder for me and I would just dance. My dad would listen to Stevie Wonder and then I would listen to Stevie Wonder—it made that music accessible to many. Obviously there’s awesome music that I would never want my parents to get into—when I discovered Wu Tang, that was my way of saying, “This is for me. It’s not for you guys.” Every generation has that too, but it’s also cool when you have stuff like Stevie that crosses generations. If our music can get even close to that somehow, then I’m honored.

Chromeo plays the House of Blues Sunday with Mayer Hawthorne and Sammy Bananas. Tickets are on sale now.