A funny thing happened at Bonnaroo this summer: A half-Jewish, half-Arab duo from Montreal turned a field in Tennessee into a living, grinding shrine to '80s-era blue-eyed Philadelphia R&B.
For any erstwhile punker who grew up thinking Hall & Oates were kind of cheesy — let's just say there was at least one person in the audience fitting that description — and has been less than psyched by the lionization of "yacht rock" and lite-FM staples like Michael McDonald, Chromeo converted whatever doubters there were into retro-futurist funk believers.
It helped that their collaborator for the evening, the newly cool Daryl Hall, owned the stage — and looked like a wizard. His long hair flowing at all times — as if being tossed around by some kind of awesome force field that the combination of his voice and synth were creating around him — Hall looked ... magical. You half-expected him to ride off on a unicorn after the set. Of course, there were special effects at work.
"Leaf blowers," P-Thugg (aka Patrick Gemayel), the keyboard-and-vocoder half of Chromeo, tells the Scene. "And, uh [laughs] ... there's two of them in front of him. ... Powerful leaf blowers, just going at it [laughs]."
But while the mystical locks can be explained, the chemistry between Hall and Chromeo is less easily dissected.
"That was really surreal and amazing for us," Gamayel says. "Playing along with your idol, you know, playing huge hits — they have this amazing catalog of hits that are just undeniable." And teaming up with a genuine practitioner of the music they love, rather than some almost-as-good fill-in, was a natural move. After all, Chromeo are what Gemayal calls "students of the game."
"We're the type of guys who will turn the record around and read every credit," he says. "See who's done what, you know, and memorize it."
That kind of attention to detail is why they enlisted Larry Gold to arrange the strings on their latest album, Business Casual. Gold is perhaps best known for his work with Gamble and Huff in the '70s, and for Chromeo, it makes a difference when you go to the source — and that starts with their equipment.
Gemayal says that for $1,500, he could replace all his vintage synthesizers with computer plug-ins. Instead, "I choose to buy all of them physically, spend 20 times as much money, and have the problem of fixing them every month," he says. "It's a choice — the hardest choice, but the best choice."
According to Gemayal, what makes his expensive habit worthwhile is ... the smell?
"There's a part that kind of inspires me when I walk in the room, and I see all these vintage synths, and it smells like the '70s," he says. "You know, they're old, there's wood everywhere, and I kind of arrange my studio in that era — I have records all over the walls. You get in, and ... it's a vibe. I feel like I'm in the '70s, and it just puts me in that mood. And I get very, very creative."
Gemayal doesn't say whether Daryl Hall smells like the '80s, but the computer plug-ins that are supposed to duplicate the sound of his vintage synthesizers? For the most part, those stink. "They will never capture the sound," Gemayal says, "because there's always that element of surprise in the real machine."
Chromeo have tried to build an element of surprise into their new record, too. They've kept the funky basics of previous efforts while expanding their sound to include more ballads, the aforementioned disco-days string section and even a collaboration with Solange Knowles — sister to Beyoncé and noted fan of Grizzly Bear, the band responsible for putting "Michael McDonald" and "Pitchfork" on the same search results page.
"We want to have a bit of an evolution without losing, like, the innocence and the magic of the first two albums," Gemayel says. "So it's a balance we have to play, y'know, between how advanced we want it to be musically and how fun we want it to be ... We don't want to end up with a free-jazz record, [where] we get long hair and beards, and we're on acid."
Put some leaf blowers on those beards, though, and you might have something.
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