Sounding Board

Deconstructing: Daft Punk, Will Oldham, And Two Decades Of Mysterious Musicianship

One of the things I remember most from this year’s SXSW isn’t a particular artist, a showcase, or party. It’s a Daft Punk billboard.

During that week, rumors had slowly swirled around Austin about the possibility of the French electronic duo performing at a secret location (which, to my knowledge, never actually happened). But the remote possibility turned plenty of heads, including mine, even with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Prince, and Depeche Mode all vying for the mega-conference’s attention. I later crossed paths with an oversized advertisement that featured a helmet split into two different designs on a black background. Thomas Bangalter’s silver helmet was on the left. On the right was Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s gold headpiece.

Daft Punk slowly built up suspense toward the release of their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories. Along the way, they laid out clues including a short Coachella teaser and searing helipad trailers. As always, they revealed nothing about themselves. It was nothing new for the French duo, which for 20 years now has wholeheartedly embraced a sense of mystery as part of their artistic identities.

Will Oldham also started his career as a professional musician in 1993. Over that period, the Louisvillian songsmith has carved out a niche as a fringe Americana folk artist who’s capable of evoking poignancy from any genre he traverses. He’s recorded under countless monikers, including Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, and Will Oldham, and collaborated with his fair share of musical cohorts. Until recently — when he published a book-length interview, Will Oldham On Bonnie “Prince” Billy, with musician-author Alan Licht — he stayed quiet about his life outside of music.

At first glance, the French dance purveyors and American troubadour have little in common. Yet two decades later, both acts possess a rather similar aura that sets them apart from many other artists. In fostering their mysterious identities while maintaining relative anonymity, Bangalter, de Homem-Christo, and Oldham have somehow transform into musical icons without subjecting themselves to the downsides of artistic fame.

Daft Punk and Will Oldham were hardly the first musicians to blend these elements into their art. Many legendary acts from David Bowie to the Residents have embraced alter egos and faceless mythology. For Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, the robot outfits first emerged out of shyness. They wanted to be average guys with the ability to transcend their normality onstage from time to time. In GQ’s recent profile with the group, Banghalter recalls his fascination with the separation of Clark Kent and Superman as two sides of the side person. The rationale behind their anonymity has evolved over time as he’s likened the robot suits to a more “advanced version of glam” — where the men and the robots behind the masks exist in mutually exclusive realities.

The duo has thrived by establishing this separation. It’s something they’ve painstakingly reinforced as the years have passed. During their Random Access Memories press cycle, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have repeatedly emphasized this point in nearly all of their interviews. Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal described it best in calling the duo “famous and faceless.”

Oldham has the opposite problem. He’s a cult songwriter with a far smaller, albeit diehard, fan base. His weary face and grizzled beard, however, are iconic. And the Kentuckyian’s distinguished look has a striking familiarity — it feels like you know him, even if you don’t. Daft Punk have sold and will continue to sell millions more records than Oldham ever will, but more people probably notice him walking down the street.

His rise, as many journalists have noted, was one enshrouded in ample amounts of obscurity. In recent years, he’s allowed the outside world to peer ever so slightly into his world. But that’s a rare privilege as he’s long refused to divulge details about his life, in turn bolstering his enigmatic persona. “I realized that the more information you have about Will, the less you know about him,” said Licht. “By leaving things out, a clearer picture of him actually emerges.”

While he originally developed Bonnie “Prince” Billy to alleviate some personal attention, the two do in fact overlap. But even he’s admitted that he doesn’t always know where Oldham, the person, ends and Billy, the persona, begins. “[Bonnie “Prince” Billy] is not like Ziggy Stardust, which seems to be a completely separate and constructed reality; for it to have value, it should be distinctly connected and related,” Oldham said to Grantland.

The divide between Oldham and his musical identity has troubled listeners who desperately want to know about the man behind his majestic and harrowing songs. Originally, he didn’t think it would be entertaining to insert his “banal humanity” into compositions. So he purposely placed distance between himself and his works, which many people have mistaken as being one in the same. Thus, he strongly disagrees and, to a degree, resents it when people attempt to make sense of the differences between his onstage character and offstage personality.

“I think I’ve always been aware I am not fully the person that people think they’re buying the records of,” said Oldham. “And I don’t want to have to pay for not being that person down the road, you know? I don’t want to be punished for being who I am one day, because someone has assumed that I’m something that I’m not.”

But it’s a common misconception that the barriers Oldham, Bangalter, and de Homem-Christo actively construct make them reclusive. Sure, it’s an aversion that led both musical acts to develop anonymity as an integral part of their artistry. But it’s hardly an attempt to hide from the outside world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and allows the three musicians to live freely and bypass the cult of personality that many stars face. It’s why; at ages 38 and 39, Daft Punk’s members can walk down most streets in plain clothes with their children without being swarmed by fans and paparazzi. On a different level, Oldham approaches making records as a relatively social experience with a sense of community. That’s most recently apparent with What The Brothers Sang, a collection of Everly Brothers covers that he and Dawn McCarthy recorded together.

In their own ways, Daft Punk and Oldham see themselves as part of a timeless musical lineage from which they draw. It’s not about being unique per se, but rather a part of larger tradition. That’s extremely clear with Daft Punk, which have fully embraced their influences and even devoted tracks like “Teachers” and “Giorgio By Moroder” to them. Likewise, they pursued collaborations with their predecessors and followers with equal vigor for Random Access Memories that includes Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams, Pharrell Williams, and Panda Bear.
According to Licht, Oldham devours his musical influences with the same sort of intensity, but in his own introspective way. “Will’s not an end in himself, he’s one link in a variety of different chains– part of a continuum,” he said. “There are precedents for things that he’s done and he’s absorbed things from other people that have come out in a different way. By listening to so much music by other people and working with many people, it puts him in line with everything that has come before him and will come after.”

Of course, both artists have built careers that are largely based on impeccable and enduring musicianship. But why they’re revered has just as much to do with the masterful cultivation of carefully crafted personae throughout their two decades making music with these projects. They occasionally reveal parts of themselves, but rarely tell people directly what they’re doing. That wondrous mystique and futuristic escapism often blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. It’s that allure which has defined and will continue to drive Daft Punk and Will Oldham well in the future.

“When you know how a magic trick is done, it’s so depressing,” Bangalter recently explained. “We focus on the illusion because giving away how it’s done instantly shuts down the sense of excitement and innocence.”