Chromeo: Two Boys From Montreal Conquer the WorldChromeo's Dave-1 and P-Thugg teach the advanced class on the '80s.
As I settle with Chromeo backstage, P-Thugg (aka Patrick Gemayel) settles into a leather seat like he is at home. All he needs is a remote and a joint and he is set. Dave-1 (aka David Macklovitch) is poised elegantly on a stool, ready to engage in dialogue.
For those who haven’t heard the music, Chromeo’s sound recalls the best of 80s funk—Rick James, Jodeci, and Prince to name a few—while incorporating modern elements of electro and hip hop. This retro-style gives them a special cache that has landed them on New York’s ultra-cool Vice Records label alongside electro-juggernauts Justice, garage skid superstars Black Lips and indie darlings Bloc Party. Their tracks are played in clubs all over the world, having been remixed by master club DJs like Surkin, RAC, Sammy Bananas, MSTRKRFT, Sinden, DFA and Lifelike to name a few.I think it's very important to have constraints when you create. It's like in English poetry, the iambic pentameter. Do you know how hard it is to write within that format, that meter? I mean that's constraints, but that's what makes it brilliant. Our songs have to be 3-minute ditties with a memorable chorus, a bridge, two verses and a solo at the end. It's almost a fascist structure. But to be able to make something really catchy, lighthearted and seemingly effortless within that really rigid frame, that's what kind of squeezes the best out of you
Not bad for a couple of guys from Montreal. And music is just “a hobby.” Dave-1 is earning his PhD in French Literature from Columbia University. P-Thugg also has his own stuff going on outside of Chromeo. They both maintain that Chromeo will end either when “no one wants to hear them anymore” or “the moment that it stops being fun.” For now, we are lucky to have them working on music.
Dave-1 and P-Thugg bill themselves as the first successful Jewish-Arab partnership since the beginning of time. But they didn’t get along at first.
P-Thugg starts the story. “Back then it wasn’t cool to be eclectic and all, so you had your crew, you had your style—and you didn’t get out of it. Dave was a hippie grunge guy and we were total rivals. I remember one guy in my crew was trying to get this girl. And another guy in Dave’ s crew was trying to get the same girl. And we all went into this girl’s birthday party and we were all there, just grilling each other.”
Dave-1 picks up the story. “I remember we’d fight for music. They’d put on hip hop. Our whole crew would stop dancing and think it sucked. And then we’d go in and put Nirvana on and slam dance and they’d look at us like freaks.”
But how did the guys finally connect?
Secret Chromeo fact: Back in the day,
Dave-1 was actually a skater into 90s
alternative acts like Nirvana and Seven
Mary Three. He didn't get into funky music
until he joined P-Thugg's band!
P-Thugg: “Me and a friend of mine had started a band in our high school and we were looking for other musicians to join in the band. And Dave was a guitar player back then, still is. He just joined the band. At first I didn’t like him. I was like, ‘Hey, who is this skater kid?’ It took a couple of days and we became best friends.”
From there Chromeo was born.
Chromeo is one of those band names that perfectly encapsulates what the band is all about. It immediately brings to mind some tortured robot with a tragic Achilles heel. Everything is hard logical steel and circuitry, except for this gooey, fallible heart.
“Dead on man.” Dave 1 is quick to link it to the music. “A lot of the music that we try to channel through what we do is like, really macho, but really sensitive at the same time. Prince is like the best example. Prince is like this macho alpha hermaphrodite—you know what A lot of the music that we try to channel through what we do is like, really macho and really sensitive at the same time. Prince is like the best example. Prince is like this macho alpha hermaphrodite-you know what I mean? He's completely ambiguous about his sexuality, yet he's incredibly macho, yet his music is super sensitive. He is half way between a sensitive harmless woman and a sexual predator. I mean? He’s completely ambiguous about his sexuality, yet he’s incredibly macho, yet his music is super sensitive. He is half way between a sensitive harmless woman and a sexual predator. He kind of mixes it up!”
“That’s what we liked about that kind of music. Those were dudes that wore lipstick—you know? Not that we would do it, but they were really chrome Romeoes. They had the metallic bad boy shell, but then they had the bleeding heart inside.”
Chomeo channel those influences effectively—perhaps too effectively. Some music critics write them off as hopelessly retro-obsessed, or reduce them to a simple pastiche or homage act.
The academic in Dave-1 kicks in: “Well, there’s a big difference between a pastiche and an homage. I’ll take homage, but I won’t take pastiche. Because, a pastiche is, like, a mocking imitation.”
P-Thugg agrees: “Pastiche is like, ‘I’ve mastered this style and here it is. Hah ha hah. I’m so good.’”
Dave-1 nods. “It’s an exercise in virtuosity. If I do a Dylan pastiche, I could sing the phonebook with a Dylan voice and a Dylan intonation and you’ll be like, ‘You really ‘got’ the Dylan essence.’”
“We are an homage certainly. We’re children of that era and we pay tribute to it. We do it in our own different way, which is hip hop influenced. It’s in the here and now. It’s electro influenced. It’s Daft Punk influenced. It is just in a different context. Whenever you change context you change music—because the expectations are different, the ways you are creating it are different, and the audience is different.”
“So, we do live with a whole like ‘80s thing’ on our sleeve. And some people just have a bias against 80s music, but if anything, we have exposed that this bias is arbitrary. Because why have a bias against 80s music and not 70s music? I mean they’re just decades. I mean, even ‘the 80s’ are arbitrary. The fact that a decade begins in one year is arbitrary. They’re just decades. Music didn’t change radically from December 1979 to Feburary 1980.” He laughs. “It’s a continuum, you know?”
Chromeo: The world's first successful Jew-Arab
partnership since the beginning of time.
It could only happen in Canada.
P-Thugg chimes in: “The real 80s are from 84 to 87.”
Dave-1 continues: “All these things are arbitrary distinctions carved out by music journalists or people that need to theorize and write about music. We just felt that a lot of that stuff was being forgotten and wasn’t being considered sophisticated or polished or intellectual or able to be appreciated by Musos or whatever. But I’m the biggest Muso. We listen to Muso stuff too, like Steely Dan and Prog, but we also love Rick James and Hall and Oates in the same breath. I could put Bob Dylan, Axis: Bold As Love and Rick James in the same sentence. I don’t see why one is better than the other. They are all phenomenal.”
“Some people have this hierarchy where The Smiths or Frank Zappa is taken more seriously than Michael Jackson. But you can’t fool me, because I know everything there is to know about Frank Zappa. I used to play “Fusion” on the guitar. I used to play Chick Corea songs—I know all that stuff. And that’s why, for us, we are so militant about the stuff that we like. Because, to me, it’s just as valuable—but people refuse to see the value in it. But just because there are not crazy scales and really complex songwriting and lyrics filled with innuendos that doesn’t mean that Rick James is naff, it just means it appeals to a different part of your brain.”
Chromeo make an excellent case for giving Jodeci respect. Although I don’t think most diehard music fans will ever want to mention Rick James in the same sentence as Jimmy Hendrix or Bob Dylan, the music does speak to a part of the fan that wants to be carefree and dance. But when your band limits its style to the best of the music from 1984-1987, can that get limiting after a while?
Dave-1 cocks his head to think: “I believe in creation within constraints. I think it’s very important to have constraints when you create. It’s like in English poetry, the iambic pentameter. Do you know how hard it is to write within that format, that meter? I mean that’s constraints, but that’s what makes it brilliant. Our songs have to be 3-minute ditties with a memorable chorus, a bridge, two verses and a solo at the end. It’s almost a fascist structure. But to be able to make something really catchy, lighthearted and seemingly effortless within that really rigid frame, that’s what kind of squeezes the best out of you.”
“So, we have tons of constraints. We use really weird obsolete equipment. I have a completely non-technological idiosyncratic way of approaching songwriting and P as well, in his own way, and that’s what we cultivate. You don’t want to have endless resources at your fingertips, because it will dilute whatever energy you have to put into the project.”
What do you say to music lovers who don’t get it?
P-Thugg: “You don’t have to ‘get it.’ You just need to like it or not. We’re not writing a book or a thesis on anything. It doesn’t have to be cerebral. You don’t have to ‘get it.’ You just have to enjoy it.”
Dave-1: “Our music is not a riddle. It can be seen as a game of references for educated music lovers. They’ll detect a nod to Hall and Oates here, an homage to Prince there. But for 17-year-old myspace kids, who don’t know what that is, our music is still enjoyable.”
AFTERWARD - Chromeo's Rare Grooves
Dave-1 and P-Thugg from Chromeo are indisputably intelligent and talented guys. They are also uncanny marketers. Chromeo remix the shit out of their singles. Nearly every Chromeo single has been remixed multiple times to guarantee club play and drive music collectors wild.
Here are a few notable remixes for fans to track down.
Chromeo “Needy Girl” (Lifelike edit)
Chomeo “Destination Overdrive” (DFA Remix)
Chromeo “Tenderoni” (Sinden remix featuring Kid Sister)
Chromeo “Tenderoni” (MSTRKRFT remix)
Chromeo “Fancy Footwork” (RAC mix)
Tune in to the interview show with host Scott Wood, every Monday @4:30pm on CJSF 90.1FM www.cjsf.ca for more interviews with your favorite indie acts. You can also listen to and download both new and old shows at www.winniecooper.net.