Electro-funk duo Chromeo recreates the pop sounds of yesterday
By Paul Rogers
When Chromeo robo-walked off their Montreal mother ship with electro-funk floor-filler “Needy Girl” in 2004, many saw them as a one-hit—or at best one-album—wonder. After all, how could a misfit duo that had apparently beamed in from 1982, dubbed themselves “the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture,” and endured a credibility-sinking coronation as “the next Hall & Oates”—from Daryl Hall himself—be anything but a novelty? But after a solid start with ’04’s opus She’s in Control, singer/guitarist Dave 1 (the Jew, a.k.a. David Macklovitch) and keyboard player/talk box addict P-Thugg (the Arab, a.k.a. Patrick Gemayel) massively consolidated their position with 2007’s critically lauded Fancy Footwork and the two-year world tour that followed. But there was an even bigger surprise in September, when Chromeo’s “tricky” third album, the brilliantly-titled Business Casual, turned out to be an adventurous triumph which retains all the playfulness of their previous offerings, only with more nuanced songwriting and welcome undertones of earnest soul. For a band supposedly well past their sell-by date, Chromeo are sitting mighty pretty: Several of their songs (“Don’t Turn the Lights On” and “Fancy Footwork”) have landed on video game and movie soundtracks, Business Casual has earned rave reviews and the twosome’s acclaim has snagged them a mid-bill berth at SoCal’s giant Coachella Festival in April. Chromeo is performing Saturday at the Fox Theater Pomona. CULTURE chatted with P-Thugg about the paradoxical pleasures of “easy rock,” his passion for the vocoder and why we shouldn’t even be talking about marijuana at all!
It seems like every review of Business Casual describes the album as more “sophisticated” than its predecessors. Would you agree and how so?
Yeah, I agree with that. Basically what we did on this third album is really put more emphasis on musicality and musicianship than on previous ones. We’re just trying to evolve musically without losing the candid side of our music and the immediate aspect of it . . . We put a lot more work into vocal harmonies and we hired a string section, that we’d never done before, for a couple of songs. A lot more work on chord progressions—more complicated chords. I took a lot of time perfecting my theory and my piano skills.
Chromeo was written-off in some quarters as gimmicky when you first appeared. Was spreading your musical wings on Business Casual a conscious effort to show that there’s more to your band than just throwback 1980s stylings?
A bit of this, a bit of that. We came in approaching the ‘80s when it wasn’t really popular . . . We tried to distinguish ourselves by choosing other elements that people wouldn’t necessarily see in ‘80s music to re-appropriate in today’s musical terms. When you think of the ‘80s, everybody has the same five, six, seven, eight elements in their head. But we tried to find the other stuff . . . from that era that people forgot or have never paid attention to.
Were the 1980s truly a golden era for pop music, or are we just seeing that decade through rose-tinted spectacles?
I think every era has a magical moment and the ‘80s definitely have their place in music history. The ‘70s was all about rock n’ roll; the beginning of heavy metal . . . and the ‘80s was all about electronics and how the videos got incorporated into the image of bands. Electronic instruments—drum machines, synthesizers . . . it truly revolutionized music when all the machines came in [during] the early ‘80s. And a lot of what we do today, without realizing it, is based upon the developments in those early days.
Talking of electronic developments, one constant with Chromeo is your use of vocoders. What is it about that device that has you so hooked?
Well, first of all, I can’t sing! And this allows you to sing and to be a frontman without having the necessary talent! Physically, I don’t have a great voice and we need to be two front guys for the band . . . [And] it’s all about the sound. Me hearing somebody sing something sappy or very romantic in a robot kind of voice, or something very fierce sung in a robot voice, to me is just incredible—it’s out of this world.
Between 2007’s Fancy Footwork and the new record, which fresh sounds have impacted you and Dave?
We’ve been incorporating more of late ‘70s-type classic rock, or “easy rock” stuff—like Michael MacDonald, the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan. Stuff that was very rock but also to us had a great deal of funk in there and a great deal of songwriter skills . . . It’s very smooth, very romantic, but very macho at the same time. And that’s kind of present in everything we do: the macho/the romantic; the tough guy but the sweetheart; the business but the casual; the Jew and the Arab. We like to play off, not necessarily paradoxes but, like, contrasts.
You and Dave have been friends since age 15. How does that long relationship impact the way you create music together? Is there a degree of telepathy by now?
There’s always been a degree of telepathy. When we first started making music together it just clicked instantly. We never really had to talk too much to achieve things. It’s really handy now because not only do we bounce off each other quite harmoniously but we also never lose time arguing over stuff. It’s not necessarily that we agree on everything, ’cos that’s kind of impossible, but we trust each other enough to drop an idea or our own beliefs just for the sake of finishing a song or making things work faster.
Partying seems central to Chromeo’s ethos, lyrics and the whole dance scene with which you’re associated. In your experience, is marijuana a drug of choice in that scene, or do other “pleasures” take preference?
Unfortunately, in this scene people’s drug of choice is other things than pot! But pot should be the norm; pot should become like wine; pot shouldn’t be a subject to talk about. I mean, pot should be a basic of life like milk, wine, honey. It seems like we’re getting there, slowly.
Here in California, medical marijuana has been decriminalized and dispensaries are established. How does that compare to Montreal, where you’re based?
In Quebec, in Montreal, it’s not as open as B.C. [British Columbia] and Vancouver are about pot, but I’d say the laws are pretty lenient on it. They also have decriminalized it for possessing a small amount. We’re nowhere near where we should be, but it’s definitely a lenient city for pot. I mean, they will never go after you for a couple of grams or a couple of joints in your pocket . . . [and] if a cop sees a plant on your balcony—I’ve had that happen to me—they honk at you, they tell you to bring it inside, but no one wants to take legal steps. Everybody’s kind of accepting it slowly but surely, but nobody really has the guts to change laws.
Finally, how would the world be different if marijuana was fully legal for recreational use everywhere?
There would be a lot more funds to focus on real problems. It’s such a waste of time and money to go after [marijuana] dealers and people who smoke pot. It’s such an aberration to me. Put money into education; put money into police where the real problems should be solved—cocaine addiction, heroin addiction, meth addiction.
The Missing Peace
Chromeo (David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel) once described itself as “the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture.” Now if only Israel and its Arab neighbors could partner up this way, the world would be a very different place considering the Jewish state is one of the most progressive in its approach to medical cannabis. The country boasts one of the world’s superstars of marijuana research (Dr. Raphael Mechoulam was the first researcher to isolate THC) and its Health Ministry supplies approved patients with meds . . . for free. Oy vey!