Electro-funk duo Chromeo savor pop’s uncool past
It’s not exactly big news that artists in search of tomorrow’s dance music find their inspiration by combing through the past. Lately, it’s more the rule than the exception. And these days, confronted with heavily picked-over retro-pop resources, dance acts are increasingly trolling through bins of a conspicuously hipper vintage — running everything from drug-fueled ’70s disco to gloomy ’80s synth-wave through the millennial irony filter, to varying results.
Meanwhile, the touchstones of Montreal electro-funk duo Chromeo are a lot less cool than that: think the funk of Rick James, the party-guy side of Phil Collins, and the parachute-panted New Jack Swing. But somehow, airlifting maligned stylistic flourishes (like slap-bass, orchestra hits, and talk-boxes) into the present day can breathe new life into those things you thought you’d never want to hear again. Distance, after all, does make the heart grow fonder — even if we’re talking about epic sax solos.
But it’s misleading to refer to Chromeo entirely in terms of the past. Alex Frankel of the NYC disco-funk act Holy Ghost — which is supporting Chromeo on their summer tour that hits the House of Blues tonight — says those sounds we associate with the past have been with us all along. “We make music with old instruments and equipment so it sounds old,’’ he says of both bands. “The records made between 1977 and 1984 sound better than any other recordings ever. At least to us. So that’s the sound we go after.’’
That time period factors heavily into “Business Casual,’’ the upcoming third Chromeo record. “It’s like the late ’70s stuff — what people call yacht rock,’’ says David Macklovitch, a.k.a. Dave 1, the guitar-playing, singing half of Chromeo. (Patrick “P-Thugg’’ Gemayel plays keyboards, synthesizers, and talk box.) The likes of Toto, Christopher Cross, and Boz Scaggs have all wormed their way into their ever-growing catalog of referents. But, he says — and this tends to be the knock on Chromeo in general — “people don’t take that music seriously for some reason.’’
It’s a problem shared by two of Macklovitch’s biggest musical heroes: Hall and Oates. Chromeo performed live with Daryl Hall onstage at the Bonnaroo festival earlier this summer, and had previously recorded a session with him on the webcast series “Live at Daryl’s House.’’
“It was definitely the highlight of our career,’’ he says of Bonnaroo. “To be playing alongside one of our idols, him playing our songs as we’re playing his songs, it was surreal.’’
It’s a feeling that Hall shares. “When I played my songs with theirs at Bonnaroo, the energy was palpable and electric in the audience,’’ Hall says. “Chromeo provide an unstoppable groove that is infectious and very hard to resist.’’
“Hall is a visionary and he still hasn’t gotten all the credit he deserves,’’ Macklovitch says. “If we, as a new generation, can help him achieve that, then he deserves our help.’’
So why the lack of cred? “The issue with Hall and Oates in the ’80s, I guess people saw them as big pop song writers, but they didn’t realize how highbrow their music was,’’ Macklovitch says. “When we first came out, no one else was referencing that ’80s funk sound — so coming from a skinny dude with glasses, they thought it had to be ironic. Even though there is a healthy amount of humor in our music, there is a serious amount of songcraft too.’’
Take “Don’t Turn the Lights On,’’ the first single from the new record. It’s a more layered production approach than usual Chromeo fare, with levels of harmony and rich, multi-tiered instrumentation. “It’s not a radical change,’’ he says. “You’re still gonna hear all the staples of the Chromeo sound. I think on a couple of tracks there’s a grown-and-sexy sophisticated feel. We’re just trying to work with arrangements, chord progressions, harmony, stuff like that.’’ Don’t worry, the throwback funk bangers are still in the mix.
Of course, having fun is always more important to the duo than sounding serious. “Exactly,’’ he says. “You think Michael Jackson was serious when he wanted to turn into a werewolf? It’s funny because Rick James wears red boots, but the songs are serious. You listen to a song like “Ghetto Life,’ that’s almost like a predecessor to conscious hip-hop. That stuff is classic, how can you not like that?’’
Boston’s dance-pop foundations played a big role in Macklovitch’s musical development as well. He grew up in Montreal, and lives in New York City now, but a summer in Boston when he was a teenager was revelatory. “That’s when I discovered JAM’N 94.5. This was the mid-’90s, so they were playing a lot of R&B, but they were playing a lot of ’80s stuff too, like New Edition’s ‘Cool It Now’ 90 times a day. It became my favorite song, and now you hear that in Chromeo.’’
The New Kids on the Block too, he says, loom large on their landscape. “New Kids on the Block, they were like real hip-hop cats too. I think Joey was like one of the biggest graffiti writers out there. I used to write graffiti like that. So I got love for that. I got mad love for Boston. They were just like us, hip-hop kids like we were.’’ Pop masters not taken as seriously as they would have liked, but solid songwriters that could get everyone on the dance floor. Cheesy keyboards aside, that sure sounds like Chromeo.