Daft Punk’s greatest legacy might be that they put France’s dance music scene on the global map. In 2016 Gallic electronica has a cult following, rivalling that of Chicago house or Detroit techno. Yet it’s defined less by style than its quirky individualism. Indeed, the acts are sonically disparate, ‘French touch’ ever so nebulous. Breakbot, the alter-ego of the hirsute Thibaut Berland, is signed to Ed Banger Records – the electro-house stable founded by sometime Daft Punk manager Pedro “Busy P” Winter and home to Justice. But he’s making retro-nuevo funk, disco and boogie. Breakbot’s new album Still Waters could be the love child of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special.
Berland has an old profile in Australia. The DJ/producer first hit our shores in 2008, on the invitation of Pnau, whose track Baby he remixed. His last major tour was in 2013, when he performed live festival dates. Breakbot has since developed officially into a duo, Berland accompanied by vocalist (and fellow DJ/producer) Christopher Irfane Khan-Acito. The mononymous Irfane featured on Breakbot’s 2010 break-out single Baby I’m Yours – and 2012’s full-length debut By Your Side. Confusingly, though he’s never introduced, Khan-Acito joins Berland’s phone conference today. Berland speaks in broken English, and the internationalist Khan-Acito with an assured American accent. Khan-Acito has impressive credentials. The onetime hip-hopper started the outfit Outlines, aligned with Jazzanova’s hipster Sonar Kollektiv in Berlin. He recently sang on Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern.
Originally, Berland attended the French computer graphics college Supinfocom, where, auspiciously, he crossed paths with Justice’s Xavier de Rosnay. As a student, Berland co-directed an award-winning short animation film, Overtime. However, he had another passion – music. Berland’s primary influences are from the late ’70s and ’80s – Chic, Michael Jackson, Prince… But in the ’90s he discovered Daft Punk and Étienne de Crécy’s Super Discount – and had an epiphany: “I could produce records in my own room.” He messed around with music software. Impressed, Winter released Berland’s remix of Justice’s Let There Be Light.
Still Waters represents a progression from By Your Side, with Berland and Khan-Acito utilising analogue synths and full instrumentation. The single Get Lost, demoed during tour downtime in New Zealand years ago, sets the tone. Most dramatic is the ’80s noir Man Without Shadow. Breakbot also experiment with ambient grooves in Wet Dream. Many dance music acts have abandoned the album, but there seems to be a resurgence – possibly because it’s tricky for even a dance producer to establish an identity, let alone legitimacy, via SoundCloud. For Berland, creating an LP is “a challenge”. Khan-Acito acknowledges that the two share a nostalgic attachment to the format that allows musicians to be ‘artists’. “I don’t really like the idea of just having songs and hits and singles.”
Berland’s background in film is reflected in his albums. “I don’t think it’s like proto-films or like storyboards or images, but it’s more like moods. It’s about my moods – like you’re in a kinda mood one day… But it’s not like precise images. I think it’s more that emotion than real pictures – and then the pictures come and, when you think, it’s like a whole process. I will think about the mood and then the music will come and then I will think about the images. But it’s all a bit tied together, in a way.”
The dance scene is constantly in flux, but Breakbot has a classic sound. The pair have limited their exposure to the latest ‘EDM’ trends. “We listen to older stuff,” Khan-Acito admits. “We’re not out listening to every new track that comes out, unfortunately. Maybe it’s a bad thing…” Not that Berland is antagonistic to current pop. The producer once revealed that he aspires to work with Beyoncé or Rihanna. American pop (and R&B) acts have long courted French dance-types. Well before David Guetta’s ascendance as a pop super-producer, Madonna was collaborating with the Paris-based Mirwais on 2000’s Music. Kanye West sought Daft Punk for Yeezus.
Has Berland made any overtures? “No, we haven’t reached Rihanna and Beyoncé yet,” he sighs. Mind, Berland has had one encounter with popdom. In late 2012 he tweeted Bruno Mars about the resemblance of his single Treasure (produced by The Smeezingtons) to Baby I’m Yours – “hey @BrunoMars ! seriously ?”. Treasure would go down as a multi-platinum international hit. Nonetheless, Berland has moved on, mumbling something about ‘water under the bridge’. “We’ve been talking to each other and we’re kinda cool with them – it’s been okay. People can influence each other and that’s cool.” Says Khan-Acito, “We also come from the sample generation, so it’s kind of ridiculous for us to sample so many artists from the past and then get mad when somebody takes a statement from one of your songs.”
With Still Waters receiving a promo push in Oz, the final question has to be when Breakbot will return. “Actually, we are talking about coming back pretty soon – maybe in April,” Berland divulges. Adds Khan-Acito, “I think it’ll be more of a DJ tour, but we hope to be back next summer, your time, so our winter, for the live tour. But this time logistically it’s gonna be a little complicated in April.”