Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter wasn’t wearing a mask when he played a rave in rural Wisconsin, bundled in a varsity jacket, back in 1996. He was just a French guy with puffy hair jacking Chicago tracks… in the middle of nowhere. The event was a techno camp-out called Even Further. It was a big deal that Daft Punk was there, because Bangalter had come all the way from France, but it didn’t seem like a revelation. It was just Chicago through a different lens.
A decade later, the story of Daft Punk and French house has been told at least a billion times. But what every retelling gets wrong is that this music wasn’t just a mélange of filter effects, space disco, and rock ’n’ roll grafted onto house and techno–at least, not exclusively. The story of French house is about the ways in which imitation can become something new, and about the French “touch.” It’s something Philippe Zdar from Cassius refers to as panache, which roughly translates to “style”–France’s not-so-secret weapon.
Paris didn’t jump headfirst into acid house like London had in 1988. In fact, it wasn’t until 1991 that guys like Zdar started going to raves. “The music from Detroit was like punk to us. The music that our parents loved, we hated,” says Zdar. “Space disco was the stuff our parents loved. We didn’t want to hear that kind of French music.”
Before raves, Zdar was making hip-hop with his friend Hubert Blanc-Francard (Boom Bass). However, once the techno bug bit, their attention shifted. Zdar and Blanc-Francard formed La Funk Mob, releasing a handful of influential early ’90s breakbeat tracks–most notably “Ravers Suck Our Sound” (Mo’ Wax)–in ’94. Zdar also teamed with Etienne de Crécy to form Motorbass; their 1996 “Pansoul” (Different) record was a classic example of never-been-to-Detroit idealism. “In the early days, we were into techno, and that’s it. We were trying to be Detroit,” says Zdar.
Around the same time as Pansoul’s release, a couple new kids emerged in the growing scene. “I was hosting a show at [Radio FG] when I first met Daft Punk,” recalls Jerome Viger-Kohler, co-founder of the legendary Paris dance night Respect. “At first I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ when I saw Guy-Manuel [de Homem-Christo]. He was kind of a young rocker, really shy. This was back in the day when everyone was wearing trainers and jeans.”
Viger-Kohler was just a radio station intern at the time, but that was about to change. Along with Fred Agostini and a little help from Pedro Winter [Busy P of Ed Banger], he started Respect at Queen, a Parisian gay club. “It was October 1996, and Daft Punk played the first party,” says Viger-Kohler. “Six times they played for us–every time there was a key moment, they were there for it.”
Respect’s first three parties were a huge success, and the night quickly became the focal point for French Touch. “It was like a tornado. Virgin in France had just signed Air and Daft Punk,” says Viger-Kohler. “Then we did the [Respect is Burning] compilation with Astralwerks… When we played at the first summer of P.S. 1’s Warm Up in New York, there was no money, and all the DJs played for free. But we loved it.”
French Touch had moved closer to Chicago than Detroit; the disco, funk, and house elements grew more refined. By the summer of 1998, the scene produced two global juggernauts: Cassius’ “1999” (Virgin/Astralwerks) and Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You” (Roulé). The songs were inescapable–Stardust even managed to crack the U.S. Billboard Charts at #69. “The response was so crazy… it was like, ‘Oh, la la la’”, says Gildas Loaec, co-owner of Kitsuné and former manager of Bangalter’s Roulé label. “We used to joke that the reason [Stardust] was so big was that people were hearing the lyrics as “music sounds better with E.”
The success was a blessing and a curse. “Suddenly, everyone was trying to be Daft Punk or Cassius or Air,” recalls Zdar. “I remember going to a record store, listening to 200 records, and all of them were shit. [French Touch] became a recipe, and it got too easy–just like punk.”
“We were bored of the sound and crowd by 1999,” says Viger-Kohler. “After a while, [the people at Respect] came to the club expecting filter house.”
The scene’s golden period was over, but the mark had already been made. Now the lid was blown off France’s electronic music scene, and its humble house and techno copies had grown into something else entirely. “It wasn’t some big marketing plan,” says Viger-Kohler. “I am sure the first Motorbass album was just those guys doing crazy, spontaneous music while they were on Ecstasy. It was the same thing for us. It wasn’t about making it big. We just wanted to make it beautiful.”