“We purposefully cultivate ambiguity” – Chromeo interviewed

in Interviews
by Huw Nesbitt about
CHROMEO-TIMOTHY-SACCENTI-Electronic-Beats

With four albums of hormone-flushed electro funk under their belts, P. Thugg and Dave 1 to talk to EB about irony, Roland Barthes, and subverting cliché. But aren’t they tired of all the posturing? Huw Nesbitt finds out.

 

Since forming in 2002, Chromeo’s David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel’s stated aim has been to subvert funk’s masculine tropes using postmodern techniques that mock pop music’s machismo while celebrating its sound. Although the late David Foster Wallace may have thought that “irony tyrannises us”, for this Canadian duo it’s allowed them satirise certain assumptions about gender that prior to the dawning of the Age of the Hipster (RIP) in the early millennium, were still common—and still are.

On their 2004 debut, She’s In Control they sang about platonic male-female relationships (“Woman Friend”) and female perspectives on heterosexual romance (“Me & My Man”). On 2011’s Business Casual they broached the tricky subject of sex and work, and this year’s White Women sees the duo continuing this approach with dogged determination.

Singles, “Over Your Shoulder”, “Come Alive”, “Sexy Socialite”, and “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” are irreverent, Hall & Oates-esque soulful disco meditations on amour with a distinctly crisp, maximalist sound. It’s a great, fun record, but after four albums, aren’t they tired of this ironic posturing? And just what is it they’re trying to say about romance? Electronic Beats went to meet them before their recent show at Postbahnhof to find out.

 

It’s been nearly three years since you released Business Casual. Where’ve you been?

David Macklovitch: Working on this one, it’s taken the best part of that period, but we wanted to improve everything and make the same qualitative leap that we did between our first and second records.

Patrick Gemayel: We also quit our day jobs, too. I was—am—an accountant. I’m actually still doing the band’s accounts.

DM: Yeah, and I was lecturing at college for a while.

What did you teach?

DM: French literature. Mostly literary theory, philology and semiotics, stuff like Roland Barthes. I actually also studied the history of rhetoric.

I’ve tried looking for reference to Flaubert and Rimbaud, but couldn’t find any.

DM: Yeah, you won’t find any of those. But actually, there’s a lot about Sentimental Education. Teaching at that level was a very cerebral experience and seemingly very far from Chromeo, but there are things to connect them. I think there is the potential to think about our music intellectually. I mean Barthes’ theories were about applying highbrow ideas to lowbrow culture, and the whole thing with Chromeo is this balance between those polarities as well. It’s music you can dance and think about, but you don’t have to know the context to enjoy it.

True. The album has a few nods to lofty ideas as well. The title, White Women, is a reference to Helmutt Newton’s seminal 1976 photobook. Why?

DM: Newton’s photos have always been an important visual influence because he’s another artist, like us, who mixes highbrow and lowbrow. The image of a woman’s legs we use is actually a tribute to him. We also related to the fact that a lot of what he did wasn’t considered art until after he died. And we loved the idea of using that title because it’s so bold, it could have even been the name of a Van Halen record. On a symbolic level it provides a ‘metatext’ for the record too; on the cover we’re having a three-way wedding…

PG: Yeah, it’s like we’re an Arab-Jewish duo making black music on a record called White Women, and it kind symbolizes the fact we’ve been in the band for such a long time too; it mixes things up.

Elsewhere, David you’ve said that the concept behind this album was a desire to blend gender and race. How? Most of the songs are written from a male perspective.

DM: That’s interesting. In terms of narrative, what we’re trying to do is reverse traditional roles. Many pop songs are written from the seductive male perspective. But a new song like “Jealous”, for example, is sung from the castrated male’s point of view and “Sexy Socialite” is about a self-deprecating man that’s being derided by the girl.

OK, but some of the lyrics actually seem misogynistic. On “Jealous” you sing, “You’ve got small breasts, but to me they’re the best“. 

DM: No, it’s the opposite of misogynistic. Misogynistic would be, “I love big breasts.”

It’s still objectifying women.

DM: You can’t talk about a woman’s body without objectifying her? That’s crazy, right? I think that interpretation is a misunderstanding. Objectifying women would be perpetuating clichés about women whereas we try and underscore those clichés. “Come Alive” is about a proletarian girl. I even wrote “Over Your Shoulder” after seeing that “Blurred Lines” video, which I thought must have made a lot of people feel uncomfortable or insecure, so I decided to write a paen to insecure people.

Your fans seem to like your ironic, retro stance almost as much as others seem to hate it. Do you feel misunderstood?

DM: Yes, but we purposefully cultivate ambiguity. And wouldn’t it be boring if we didn’t? All the greatest bands pose interpretive problems. Think about Wu Tang. Why are these grown men from the ghetto referencing martial arts? Or even The White Stripes. Why are these two punks from Detroit doing this Robert Johnson blues thing? It doesn’t seem to make sense. But what these groups are doing is playing with these mixed messages and that’s going to be a part of Chromeo until the end. I mean, think about The Rolling Stones. Even they were pretty ‘retro’ in a way.

What’s the reason for your continued fascination with this period of American pop? This seventies and eighties funk, soul and disco sound.

DM: We just love it. We discovered it when were fifteen or sixteen through artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Jamiroquai. It wasn’t like our parents listend to it! But can you imagine it, two French kids from Canada happening on this stuff? It was amazing. I guess it might have been similar to when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards found out about Chess records while living in the UK. It was just fascinating, and later we decided that we wanted to rehabilitate it because it had been so misunderstood. In America, there was a racist backlash against that and disco was the object of racist, homophobic scorn. Perhaps that’s difficult to understand from a European point of view, but in America, black musicians were shunned. We wanted to modernize it and pay tribute to it.

So what’s next—are you working on another album?

DM: Not yet! This one has only just come out! So for now we’re just touring and concentrating on our live shows. But we will be working on new material this year, which should be good. We’ve still got lot prove and a lot of skeptic to convert. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop being funny and ambiguous. We embrace that. ~

 

White Women by Chromeo is out now on Atlantic / WEA / Big Beat.