Chromeo’s Dave 1 on ‘White Women’ and Bringing Back the Funk
Somewhere at the intersection of Hall & Oates and Daft Punk are two 35-year-old Canadian music nerds with a fetish for leggy women and a knack for retrofitting funky sounds from bargain bin records into slick, party-starting dance anthems. Since 2004, disco-electrofunk duo Chromeo have been harbingers of music’s now booming ’80s revival. Or, as the group’s Facebook page puts it, when Chromeo started out 10 years ago, “Rick James was still the Antichrist to all but the enlightened. Fast forward to today, and ’80s funk—which makes up a major part of Chromeo’s DNA—is all over the charts.”
Not that David Macklovitch (aka Dave 1, aka the tall, skinny, Jewish one) is hogging credit for this. He and fellow Montreal native Patrick Gemayel (aka P-Thugg, aka the shorter, gangster, Lebanese one) may have been doing the retro-funk thing before it was trendy, but “people know that that’s the identity that we’ve been cementing for ourselves [for years]. If anything, I think it just helps us because now people in the mainstream might be more predisposed to accept the music we’re making,” says Macklovitch.
They call it the age of “post-nostalgia.” On their fourth LP, the provocatively titled White Women (a bridal spin on the title of a Helmut Newton book), released today, Chromeo displays an almost academic preoccupation with the last 40 years of pop music, as well as what Macklovitch calls “the cool records of the moment.” Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Solange Knowles make soulful contributions, while poppier singles like “Come Alive (feat. Toro y Moi)” and “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” are beefy contenders for earworm of the summer. And, of course, Chromeo’s signature synth-infused, Stevie Wonder-smooth funk lives on in tracks like “Over Your Shoulder.”
Ahead of two sold-out shows at New York’s Terminal 5, The Daily Beast called up Chromeo’s singer and guitarist Dave 1 to discuss what he calls their most ambitious record to date, their revamped live show, and who really brought back the ’80s.
What’s the biggest musical difference to you about White Women?
For us, there was a big kind of qualitative leap on this record. The sound is a lot more polished and the vocals sound more accomplished and there’s poppier tunes than before, like “Jealous.” But there’s also deeper, kind of more musical moments, like the Solange track or the Ezra track that cover some territory that we never explored before. We’re four albums in. It’s time to challenge ourselves and kind of push ourselves to make something better and to make things stimulating for us. I don’t know if you can hear it… It’s like sometimes [people will] say “Oh, it’s so different” and then sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, it’s the same Chromeo.”
It does sound more diverse.
Yeah. There’s more of an emotional palette on it and the pop songs are bigger.
What made you go with the title White Women?
It’s the title of the first book by Helmut Newton. I was at his retrospective in Paris a couple years ago and they had all his titles listed. I knew him, I knew his work but I didn’t know the individual book titles. They were so funny, like his second book was called World Without Men—which, in hindsight, is really what I should have called the album. But the first book was White Women and I was like, “Dude, that’s so ballsy.” It’s so wrong, yet so funny. I called Pee and I was like, “Yo, Bowie could have called an album that. Like, Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry could have called an album that. Or like, the first Strokes album, with the hand on the tuchus, that would have been perfect!” And I thought for a second like, “Why don’t we just call our next album that?” Pee was like, “Are you serious? You wanna go there?” And I was like, “Why don’t we?” Then we found a way with the bride to kind of make the scene work.
There’s been a kind of ’80s revival since Chromeo started out—do you credit some of that to your music?
Um, not really…it’s hard to tell. I think in certain kinds of hipster circles, maybe we made it cool to listen to black music from the ’80s and funk music from the ’80s. I live in Williamsburg and when you go to some restaurants in my neighborhood, now they play boogie and disco and funk records, whereas I know that five, six years ago they weren’t playing that. Maybe we had something to do with that somehow, but you can’t really take credit for a zeitgeist. I think people know that that’s always been our thing and if that wave ever is over, we’ll still be doing it. We’re not gonna change.
What else do you think is driving that sound now?
It just happens. Like, you had the Daft Punk record and then the Bruno Mars record and new records just come out. I mean, it makes perfect sense—we just knew before. Maybe we were some of the first to realize that there was a huge trove of amazing music that had not been referenced, yet that everybody loves. At every wedding and every bar mitzvah, they play Michael Jackson, and they play Chic and that’s when everybody starts to dance, yet, for some reason, people weren’t making music that was influenced by those sounds—well, we were, but a lot of people weren’t. If there’s one thing we’re not gonna do, we’re not gonna take authorship or claim responsibility for any kind of these trends. We just do what we do and people like you know that we were doing it first and that’s cool, but it doesn’t even matter. Like even if somebody thinks we just came around and if they enjoy our music, who cares?
Tell me about the collaborations with Solange and Ezra Koenig—I loved “Ezra’s Interlude” in particular.
Oh, thank you. Great. Well, [Ezra’s] one of my closest friends, so we talk every week and we hang out all the time, so he always comes to the studio regardless. He had this song that he wrote just on vocals and piano that he couldn’t use for Vampire Weekend so I was like, “Man, could I…could I do something with that?” And he was like, “Yeah, let’s try it,” so that’s how that song came about. And with Solange, we had her on the last record [Business Casual, from 2010], but between the last record and now, Solange the solo artist really kind of blossomed. So we were like, “Let’s do something with her again, in a capacity where she’s a real voice on the song, where it’s a co-write and the whole song is a duet between us and her.” I think it’s a standout on the album. It’s really different in terms of motion and texture and tonality. I’m really proud of it. And it’s like, who knew Chromeo could make that kind of beautiful stuff?
Your old school influences like Fleetwood Mac and Hall & Oates are pretty well known by now, but what else influenced you while writing White Women?
I was listening to the same things everybody else was listening to, you know, Kendrick Lamar and Haim and Drake and Dev Hynes and Vampire Weekend, the same records you are listening to and everybody else in the office is listening to, you know? The cool records of the moment. Quality records of the moment are always going to influence you when you work on an album; we’re not stuck in the past. Like, I hate groups that—well, I don’t hate groups, I hate when groups say, “Oh, I don’t like any of the contemporary music now, I don’t think any of it got soul” and all that. Like, bullshit! Dude like, I’m the first guy that’s gonna download Skrillex’s album and try to find things that I like. Seriously! For real! I mean, I haven’t really gotten to it yet, but I will. (Laughs.) He’s my homie, so why wouldn’t I? I listen to everything. I mean, there’s stuff I don’t like as much, but even though our music’s got this very, very, very, very specific sound, what informs it is extremely broad. It goes from Rick James and Hall & Oates to A$AP Rocky to Calvin Harris.
What else has been going on between albums? Did you finish your French lit PhD?
No. (Laughs.) Are you calling from the GSA [Graduate Student Association]? Um, nah, I tabled that to start working on this record. It’s on hold now but what I was working on was the pleasure of reading, from the perspective of the history of the rhetorical tradition.
And you taught at Barnard, what was that like?
Fun. I loved it, I miss it. You’re making me feel really bad for being on tour right now! I really, really loved it. It was amazing. I always wanted to do it, since I was a kid. But with Chromeo now, to be honest, it’s become such kind of a broad, all-encompassing art project. From our stage design to our artwork to our merch to our videos to the collaborations with artists that we make, it’s actually become really, really stimulating. Every press release, every tweet, down to every edit of every video and every edit of every photo is all hands-on by us.
Pee and I, we toured for two years after Business Casual and basically we made a deal: We were like, you know what, I’ll stop school and Pee will move to New York ’cause he was still living in Montreal. We were like, “Let’s both compromise and make a record where we’re together every single day.” And so Pee moved to New York, I put school on hold and we both set up a studio in Bushwick and basically worked on this album every single day for a year and a half. It’s the most fun we ever had making music, in our entire life. Thirty-five-year-old dudes, homies since we were 15. But you could hear it, it’s a fun record. There’s a lot of laughs on there.
You and Pee always look so great together because you have that whole odd couple style thing going on, which has been going on since high school—
We have, but now we’re like the sexiest odd couple.
You weren’t before?
Not so much, no. (Laughs.)
Do you guys give each other style pointers?
We both do that together, all the time. ‘Cause we both love what the other wears. We stay in character but I’m always like, “Dude, let’s try to do some crazy, futuristic, Afrika Bambaataa shit on you” and he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, totally that’s what I wanna do.” And then he’s like, “Yo Dave, you should definitely do like the leather pants with the crazy, pointy shoes and why don’t you…?” “Oh okay, cool.” We have fun with it.
You should dress like each other for a day.
Yeah, for Halloween! For Halloween we did that for years. There used to be photos back in the MySpace days. But you know what, this year’s gonna be a good year to bring that back. We’ll do it this year.
I also heard you’ve revamped the live show. What are some highlights?
It’s all on Instagram. I’m almost offended that you don’t know. (Laughs.) But yeah, basically we worked with a French contemporary artist and designed an entirely chrome set and there’s like really cool, interesting lighting concepts during the show where like you’ve got mirrors, but then the mirrors become clear, and then there’s some color at certain points, it’s a whole narrative. You’ll see.