"You Can't Go That Far With Irony": An Interview with Chromeo
Releasing hit singles for free? Re-creating Hall & Oates classics? Courting Vampire Weekend for some remix work? Yes, these are just some small facets of Chromeo's neon-accented world.
Two years after the release of the universally beloved Fancy Footwork, everybody's favorite synth-funk duo from Montreal -- Chromeo -- recently released a new single entitled "Night by Night." The electro-disco jam is being made available for free on the Green Label Sound website, and is one of the first finished tracks planned for inclusion on Chromeo's upcoming third album.
In the long gap between albums, band members Dave-1 and P-Thugg have been keeping busy, whether with their heavy schedule of tour dates, Dave-1's extra-curricular activities as a graduate student at Columbia, or their remix work for other buzz bands like Vampire Weekend. In the midst of the hoopla surrounding "Night by Night's" premiere, P-Thugg took a little time-out to talk to PopMatters about the new single and the evolution of his band ...
"Night by Night" is apparently your first original song since 1997. How did the song come together, and why did you decide to start writing again at this particular point in time, after such a long break?
We were just so busy touring that we didn't really get to do stuff. So, at the beginning of [last] year, in January, we took some time off, a little bit, and we had like one gig a month, specifically to start recording the new album, which we really want to finish soon. We're halfway into it and "Night by Night" is the first single that came into our heads. This song was actually done last year, like last December, and we started working on the rest of the album, and that's the first song that we were really happy with so we decided to release it when the Green Label thing came along. It was the most complete one out of the one's we had.
So the other tracks are going to get a little more work between now and when we hear them on the album?
"Night by Night" contains most of the elements of what one might call the "Chromeo sound," but there's also a bit of a disco feel to it.
Yes. You know we're trying to get into new shit every time we have a new album coming out. Different vibe, different styles. And this song we were doing it from the perspective of a seventies rock guy who's doing a disco song. You know like Rod Stewart, "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Like all these seventies rock guys had disco songs in the early eighties and it's really something that we wanted to capture. Even Fleetwood Mac had a disco song. And these are all bands that we love, like classic seventies rock. And we like how you can hear, like the white guy doing disco.
You guys seem to be pretty interested in vintage equipment. Have you picked up any new keyboards or other instruments lately? Does the equipment you find end up influencing the sound of the records you make?
When I do demos I'm really inspired by the equipment itself. I don't want to get to esoteric or like, abstract, but the synthesizer ... you just look at them and they look great, they sound great ... every sound you make will inevitably inspire something.
I'm always buying new, old-school keyboards, that I'll play around with for hours and hours and hours, and I always try to recreate sounds or find new sounds, and then you find something and you're like "this is a great sound. Nothing else sounds like this."
Do you ever buy a keyboard or a synthesizer just because you know it was used by someone you look up to?
Oh yeah. Like I know, pretty much, you can give me any song and I'll tell you what keyboard was used.
[Hall and Oates' 1981 hit single] "Private Eyes"?
Private Eyes!? That's a CR78 drum machine, a CT70 Piano. I actually, when I bought by CT70, I recreated [that] song. Cause I had all those machines. [Laughs]. And most of Hall and Oates is CR78, LM1 drum machine, or CT70 piano. And I also know that 'cause we've done shit with them. [Laughs]
The popularity of Chromeo seems, to me at least, to be this thing that's always growing at a steady pace. I know tons of people who've been into you guys since She's In Control or the initial release of Fancy Footwork, but at the same time, I feel like I'm always running into people who are all excited because they just heard "Bonafied Lovin" for the first time. Did you guys feel like you needed to get back in and do some more shows and release some more tracks to make sure that sort of momentum keeps going? Or was it just a matter of finding time to get together and work on a new album?
It's more like we have stuff in our heads, you know thinking about songs. The trouble is getting together and having time to make these ideas happen. We really had been touring too much. We still are in our hotel rooms thinking of ideas, but it's really easier to be in the studio. That's where my love is, just be there for ideas and play with ideas. We're not the DJ making stuff on his computer in the hotel or anything.
What I really like about how we did it [in terms of finding fans] is that everything was organic, it was like naturally progressing to building a big fanbase. I don't like borrowing money to start a crazy marketing campaign. I don't like being in debt.
Chromeo seems to have, for the most part, avoided a lot of the hipster backlash that a lot of bands that get coverage from the hip websites and MTV spots receive. Do you have any idea why how you've managed to maneuver past that, even though Chromeo seems to fit the bill as one of those bands that hit all the notes that were trendy at a certain time, are super-well dressed, and are doing this retro-music that a lot of people often can't decide if they like for real or if they like ironically?
Yeah, we were scared of that on the first album, because our music can so easily be seen as pastiche or ironic. I think the only way we can speak against that is just keep doing what we're doing and showing our sincerity. You can't go that far with irony. You can only do one album and then you run out ideas. It's not enough to make three, four, five albums and keep touring.
How important has working with or around other artists been to your success? It seems like both of you guys have been in environments where you're surrounded by people interested in music the way you are, whether it's your connections with people like A-Trak, or Dave's work at Vice, or the work you've both done with other groups. How has that helped you out in terms of inspiring your creativity or helping you narrow down to what it is you really want to do?
I think it helps us because we really enjoy it, we've been doing it so long. It's like a part of my life, I can't just stop and not make music. It's just genuine. Whether I'm making money or not, I'm just going to keep making music. When it's genuine, people feel that. They really feel that. They see we're not in it for the money, not for the fame. We've been doing it since we were 16. A-Trak started his DJing at 12. It's like our musical family. And people can see that.
You guys have remixed a lot of other peoples stuff, and have been remixed very often yourselves. How does doing the remix work compare for you to actually doing compositions for Chromeo?
Yeah, we've been remixing more than we ever did. We usually do very few of them because it's just not our thing. Vampire Weekend, for example, are friends of ours, we both respect each others music. Every artist has a story. We don't just take contracts and do shit we don't like.
Someone told me there was going to be a Chromeo remix on the Phoenix remix album, but I guess that was just some sort of electro-pop, Francophilic wet-dream dream he had.
It is kind of a wet-dream! [Laughs] I would love to do that. We have mutual respect for each others music, but there's nothing being planned. I'm sure we'll run into each other soon. We both love Phoenix a lot.
I read an interview with Dave where he was saying that originally Chromeo was going to be a project where you brought in other singers, and then he ended up singing almost accidentally. That's obviously worked out pretty well, but do you have any plans to produce at all for other singers? Any interest in the additional possibilities that would bring, like working with different types of voices, or producing for other singers?
Yeah, it [the use of Dave-1 as a vocalist] just happened. And people are coming up and complimenting us. And girls will be telling me like, "Oh my god, Dave has such a deep voice," and I'm like "Oh really?" [Laughs] Like it just started because we like to do everything ourselves. We're super neurotic, super controlling. It took us years to delegate our artwork and let other people take initiative on our behalf. And we did it for artwork, we did it for videos. But for music it just seemed weird to have someone else be our singer. Because we knew our style, we knew our dynamic so they were like
"Needy Girl" was the first song we did that on. We were hiding behind our vocoders and stuff and we were looking for someone to sing on it, but Dave did the demo to send out to look for people, and it turned out that it just sounded great. And we decided to keep it. He was really not into it, he was like "Are you fucking crazy? I'm not a singer." I was like "Trust me, just do it you sound great." I sound like shit that's why I use the talk-box. But he sounded great so we would just roll with it. So on the first album there's half of the songs he's singing on 'cause we were still not that confident with it, but on the second album our sessions would just take longer and we just recorded his vocals and that was it. It's hard for us to see 'cause we're not objective. But people seem to be into it.
[As for working with other artists], I can't talk now because nothing is set in stone, but there're a couple of bands that are interested in us producing for them. We're more interested in producing that collaborating. I see myself producing an album for another artist. I'd love to work with Vampire Weekend again.
You're giving away this new single for free. As a band that manages a lot of their own business and promotion efforts, do you have any thoughts about new models for success in the modern music business?
As far as business is concerned, giving away a free single that was just like our way to thank all the fans for all the support for the second album. Like here, it's free. But really we let the managers take care of that. It's not good to think about it too much when you're a band member.
I do the accounting for the band, but I try not to think about the business too much. I think the decisions like when we're on tour, how much we spend on tour, I want to know about that. But the business like marketing and labels, I don't get involved. If I have to go to meetings and stuff I'll be there and be nice to people, but I don't want to get too involved. It's hard because I'm such a hands-on kind of guy, but there's a time when it's smart to let it go.