Most musicians are coy about their influences. Maybe they'll half-heartedly mention hearing the Beatles in their parents' record collection. Or insist that, since each band member listens to different kinds of music, their own sound is impossible to categorize.
Chromeo would never do that. David "Dave 1" Macklovitch and Patrick "P-Thugg" Gemayel, who've been known to refer to themselves as "the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture," proudly admit to spending their high school years obsessing over '80s electro-funk artists like Rick James, Zapp and Prince.
Four albums into their career, the Canadian duo are still on the same page musically. What has changed is the number of fans who've turned to that page. Chromeo's most recent album, White Women, came just short of cracking the Top 10 here in America, while their annual "Funk on the Rocks" celebration is likely to sell out Red Rocks for its third year in a row.
In the following interview, singer-guitarist Macklovitch explains why he and Gemayel would never cover a Prince song, talks about recruiting Jamie xx and Four Tet for their Red Rocks show, discloses the names of artists who'll appear on their next album, and admits how awful Chromeo were when they recorded their first hit.
Indy: So I was listening to your first album, She's in Control, this weekend, and...
Dave 1: I'm sorry. [laughs.]
That's okay. I was going to say that ...
It's just that I'd forgotten how different it sounds from the newer stuff.
The sound was pretty bad.
I know, I can't even listen to it. I mean, it was so long ago, and we didn't know what we were doing at all. But I like it for that reason, because there are some good ideas here and there. And there's some stuff that's really raw and absurdly low-fi. And it's a really honest record.
It's really just two hip-hop kids trying to make song-based music, without really knowing how that's done or how to go about it. We knew that we were gonna have an '80s penchant, and that there'd be some analog synthesizers involved. We were just developing the Chromeo persona, you know?
I did notice that the choruses, when they do occur, aren't nearly as catchy as what you're doing now.
I didn't even know what a chorus WAS. But at the end of the day, there's still "Needy Girl" on there. And that's what gave us a career, you know? If it weren't for that song, there wouldn't have been enough interest to go on and make the second record.
And now you're headlining Red Rocks for the third year in a row. What will that be like?
We've got a couple of tricks up our sleeve, you know, to make it special. Because obviously we don't have a new album out, so it's not like we've got new material to play. So we're gonna play songs from the whole catalogue, but there'll be a little twist to them.
And we're gonna have some special guests, too. I can't really tell you who, because the ink isn't dry, but I think we can say that we'll have a horn section on this show. And there's really only one horn section to have, so that's the horn section were gonna get.
[Note: Chromeo's management subsequently confirmed that the Dap-Kings horn section will be backing Chromeo for most of their Red Rocks set.]
When I saw you back in 2010 at the Ogden, which is a much smaller venue than Red Rocks, it was totally packed. Everyone was soaked in sweat and insanely enthusiastic. Is it like that when you play Red Rocks?
I hope so. It was at capacity the last two years. People do have room to not be completely on top of each other, but it was still a dance party. Since Red Rocks is an amphitheater that goes way up, I can only really see what's happening in the first 10 rows. But from what I could see, it was wild, yeah.
I want to ask about the band's '80s influences. I remember the first time I heard Rick James "Give It to Me, Baby," on this black radio station in L.A., and thinking, "What kind of music IS this?" It just felt to me like there was no precedent for what he was doing. What did you think when you first heard him?
I had the same feeling. I mean, we didn't hear him on the radio, because we grew up in Montreal, Canada, and, you know, there's not a very big funk tradition there. It was definitely marginalized. And when we heard Rick James, it just sounded like music from the future. You had this tremendous orchestration, and sounds that you never heard before. The brass sections kind of reminded us of Michael Jackson, but then, at the same time, you had synthesizers that we'd never heard before. And then you had this really flamboyant personality spitting out vocals.
The same goes for Zapp and Roger, and also for Prince. The fascination we had with them is what pushed us to make that kind of music, or at least to somehow pay homage to it.
When Prince passed, what was that like for you personally? And will you be doing a Prince cover or anything like that?
No, I'm not doing any Prince covers. First of all, why would I? I can't sing as well as him, I can't play his parts the way he plays him. So what am I gonna do, like a mediocre version of a Prince song? My entire career is an attempt at a Prince cover, you know what I mean? So why would I need to butcher "I Wanna Be Your Lover," when you've got other people out there that could play it better than us?
I mean, I think it's pretty obvious when you hear our albums that we would never have made this music if it weren't for him. Everything we do has some of his DNA. And all we can hope to be is like, you know, midgets on the shoulders of this giant.
So yeah, of course we were devastated. The people that have influenced our music the most are Prince, Hall & Oates, and maybe some early Daft Punk. So for us, it was obviously tragic. But for everybody, it was tragic. I mean, I don't have a claim to sadness over Prince's death that's bigger than anybody else's claim. We're all bummed. Everyone's bummed together about this.
I understand that Blood Orange, who's one of the few current artists who gets '80s music the way you do, was going to be on the White Women album, but wasn't able to due to scheduling problems. Any chance he'll be on the next album?
I don't think we have plans to do anything with him right now, but I would love to. He's a friend, and we're fans of what he does. So, you know, we'll see. There are definitely guests on the new album. Maybe he'll be one of them. I can't really say who they are yet.
Sure you can.
No. [pause] I mean, um, we do a song with Miguel. And we have some interesting co-writes, too. We have some stuff with [Bleachers frontman] Jack Antonoff, which is kind of unexpected. But I can't really say the other guests on the record yet. It's still pretty early.
I want to ask about Jamie xx and Four Tet. What made you want to share the Red Rocks bill with them? They're both pretty different from you.
Yeah, but Funk on the Rocks is kind of like a one-day, Chromeo-curated festival, where we pick three or four of our favorite artists of the moment and try to bring them together. I'm a massive [British band] xx fan, like everybody else who's basically breathing and on the planet. And, Jamie xx put out that stellar album last year, so I thought it'd be cool to have him.
His solo stuff is really different from what I expected. Was that also the case with you?
Totally. Well, actually, I had seen his deejay set, so I kinda knew what he was into. He's a hip-hop kid, you know, and he's also an old-school British rave kinda nerd. So it made sense that he had all that stuff on his album.
And then Four Tet, he's kind of like an electronic music legend. He's been doing it longer than us, I think. And What So Not is like really, really fresh Australian beats-driven electronic music that's current and super-relevant. So it's an eclectic bill, but it's all dance music, and it's all fun, and it's all beats-oriented.
Any final thoughts on where Chromeo is at now, or where it's going?
Just that I'm grateful for the fact that I'm still doing this after 10 years, and that people still want to speak to me about our music. As you can tell, I'm pretty humble about our beginnings, and I still think there's a lot for us to prove, and to improve upon. But the fact that there's still interest in a quirky, left-of-center band, and that we can headline Red Rocks for the third year in a row, that's the biggest blessing I could ever ask for.