Two men stand at the apex symmetrical silver stairs. They strut through smoke and starry light toward synths with high-heeled legs for stands. The man in the Taqiyah cap is stout with a blocky beard and gold-toothed grin. The other is long, lanky and bespectacled with shimmying hips and a boyish smile. Back to back, they're a leather-clad yin and yang with the power and magnetism to turn a “Momma's Boy” into a rock god, and to turn a crowd anxious modernists to putty in their hands.
Self-proclaimed Funklordz Chromeo are on the road in support fifth studio album Head Over Heels. While the album is heavy with features and co-credits, the tour is Chromeo stripped to its essence. The stage production is overwhelming but surprisingly simple. Devoid modern LEDs and expensive visuals, the show uses an entirely-reflective, completely-chrome set up, paired with the duo's laid-back choreography and big personality, to blow your mind. It's an in-your-face display minimalism brought to its maximum conclusion, a story opposites and attraction, old styles made futuristic.
The stage Chromeo inhabits ten feels otherworldly — or maybe just from another time. Outside the venue, day-to-day life can feel dark and cynical. One's actions, like angles before a front-facing camera, are ten over-planned. Chromeo attacks that darkness with a chrome guitar, blasting it with a beam brilliant light. Chromeo fers escape.
“At the show, all your self-consciousness has to go,” says the duo's vocoded synth-slayer P-Thugg. “That's how we approach things. It's like, 'OK, this technically should be cheesy. Do not touch this.'”
“Oh, so you're saying 'how could something so wrong be so right?'” chimes in frontman Dave 1. “People feel a sense release. They bond. It's like there's no self-consciousness, and everyone's smiling.”
“It's like stepping on the dance floor,” P-Thugg continues, “knowing you can't dance…”
“…and its OK,” Dave 1 interjects.
“Which we encourage you to do entirely.”
Dave 1 and P-Thugg put everything they had and a bank loan into this show. Every performance is Chromeo or bust, and that passion bleeds into infectious showmanship. When the Funklordz give pause, you instinctively scream. When they say, “This is the part where you can dance,” you break it down. When they say, “We won't play the next song until at least 20 people get onto shoulders,” men in the audience aren't too macho to climb aboard.
Chromeo's charm is hypnotic, but beneath the grand peacocking are two heady music nerds having the time their lives. Once upon a time, David Malkovich and Patrick Gemayel were just two surburban Montrealers geeky enough to investigate Snoop Dogg's grooves. Hip-hop hits the '90s led them down a yellow-brick road discovery toward an Emerald City '70s and '80s funk, disco, rock and soul.
“We were in on a secret, because we knew the samples,” Dave 1 says. “We heard Warren G 'Regulate' before hearing Michael McDonald. Our parents didn't listen to that. It was earth-shattering for us. Coming from a hip-hop background, P loved it because it was the originals behind rap songs. Me, coming from a very typical North American rock background — kid] learns guitar, tries to shred — it showed me a whole other approach to what playing music could be. It was repetitive and centered on groove. I didn't even know guitars could do that, that drums could do that. To me, it was just about making noise and playing fast. We never looked back.”
They formed their first band at 15, what Dave calls “an acid jazz thing.” One band became many. They traded rock riffs for rap beats, but whatever the style or formation, the nucleus was always the two. At 19, they opened a local record store. P-Thugg was the accountant. Dave 1 stocked the shelves with hip-hop LPs, but there was a second floor alien to both: the electronic music section.
“Montreal was a huge hub for dance],” Dave remembers. “Derek Carter and Carl Cox, we didn't know who these people were, but because World Champion DJ and Fool's Gold label founder] A-Trak is my younger brother and we would drive him to raves and stuff, those names were familiar to us. Even Armand Van Helden … ”
“The only reason I knew Armand Van Helden's name is because I looked like him,” P-Thugg interrupts. (A-Trak and Van Helden later formed the duo Duck Sauce.) “I would walk up and down the techno area the store]. I had the same chinstrap beard, and people were like, 'You look like Armand Van Helden.' I'm like, 'Who the fuck?'”
Curiosity bit again, and the funk addicts played some the store's dance selection. Mr. Oizo's Analog Worms Attack, Stuart Price's Les Rhythmes Digital and Daft Punk's Discovery unveiled a new world.
“Mr. Oizo felt familiar to us, because he uses SP-1200s and drum machines that are a big part hip-hop,” Dave says. “He chops up samples.”
“He was like a mix Premier and an electronic music guy,” P-Thugg says. “We were like, 'Whoa, that's our bridge.'”
It was the early 2000s, and a new brand electronic music fused with rock and retro influences thrived in an emergent and url-driven, international hipster scene. Soulwax, LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture and Fischerspooner played synth-driven music with punk-rock attitude.
“It was cerebral disco,” P-Thugg says, “synth disco, new wave, stuff that we like — but nobody had tapped into the funk.”
“We saw a lane,” Dave 1 adds.
“And it combined everything that we love,” P-Thugg finishes.
In 2004, people told Chromeo they'd be crazy to throw back to the '80s. “Too soon,” their friends said, but they didn't care. Chromeo released their debut album, She's in Control. They wrote wavy synth lines over drum machine beats and added live instrumentation, then wrapped them in lyrics about planes, sometimes love and “Needy Girl”s. Classic cut “You're So Gangsta” shows influence from West Coast rap and its Parliament sample base. It was cheesy but confident, just daring enough to win a special place in the mid-aught hipster's heart.
The concept became clear on 2007's Fancy Footwork. Its 11 tracks were recorded on two synths and P-Thugg's family PC in the plush confines his mom's suburban basement. The songs, from “Tenderoni” to "Opening Up (Ce soir on danse)," drip in lush '80s sound. The album's gritty synths and full bass chords invite listeners to a weekend world, a nocturnal clubland. Direct lyrical content and unlucky-in-love storylines on "My Girl Is Calling Me (A Liar),” “100%” and “Momma's Boy” solidified Dave 1's tongue-in-cheek character as a lovelorn antihero, a hopeless romantic posturing as a tough guy, looking for love in all the wrong faces.
“We're like the electronic Steely Dan,” P-Thugg says, “clever lyrics, humor and references. Self-deprecating, but brainy.”
Most notably was the duo's new look. A chance meeting between Dave 1 and French design studio Surface to Air gave birth to Chromeo's shiny, symmetrical, '70s-inspired logo. It also gave rise to the band's signature lady-leg synth stands. Just as their idols Parliament Funkadelic, the Wu-Tang Clan and Guns N' Roses built mythologies sight and sound, Chromeo's realm had become three-dimensional.
“We always felt, if you're in a band, it means that somebody can dress like you for Halloween,” Dave 1 says.
That tastefully tacky, nocturnal nonsense shone even brighter on Chromeo's third album, Business Casual. Singles “Night by Night” and “Hot Mess” are sharp-synthed fan favorites in heavy tour rotation. Fourth album White Women saw Chromeo's world expand with funky features from Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, Toro Y Moi, LCD Soundsystem's Pat Mahoney and Solange. Still, solo songs like “Sexy Socialite” and “Jealous (I Ain't With It)” pushed the Chromeo narrative forward to greatest effect.
“We wanted everything to be juxtapositions opposites,” Dave 1 explains. “We look like opposites … we wanted to blend humor and nerdy musicianship, the same way we juxtapose live instrumentation and electronic music. Our artwork looks like ZZ Top, but our music sounds like Rick James. We mix earnestness and this deep, super honest fascination for funk music that changed our life, but also tongue-in-cheek smartass-ness, but I think sometimes that gets lost in translation.”
That rings true on Head Over Heels. The 12-track exercise in collaboration features a star-studded cast vocal features and co-productions, from D.R.A.M. to French Montana, The-Dream to Dark Child and more, a kind Chromeo fantasy cast characters new and old. It's also leans heavier on live instrument recordings, far removed both physically and figuratively from that basement-dwelling family PC. Chromeo take its concept the most “balls out” and clear-cut it's ever been. Storyline lyrics leave nothing to the imagination. These are songs about bad love with good women and the over-earnest man who's addicted to it.
“Growing up like kind a nerdy kid in Canada, I felt very alienated by the content a lot the love songs, because they were never things that happened to me,” Dave 1 says. “When we write Chromeo songs, whether it's a song like 'Momma's Boy' or 'Jealous,' or on the new record 'Juice' or 'Count Me Out,' 'I think she's slumming it with me,' like 'all we're going to have is room service, let's not even go out,' they're just topics that explore another sort aspect relationships. There are other moments in our lives.”
With so many hands in the pot, Head Over Heels can sometimes feel like an echo its influences rather than a sum its parts, but there are plenty moments that shine like a well-waxed car. Bedroom groove “Right Back Home to You” is a proper panty dropper. "Just Friends" featuring Amber Mark is flirty with smooth funk, and both “Bedroom Calling” Parts 1 and 2 catch a groove worth cuffing.
It's Chromeo at it's Chromeo-ist. Fitting then the band appears on the cover as the bodies attached to the faceless sex legs they've so long used as icons. It's another coy wink self-awareness, but some not everyone is in on the joke. Some critics take issue with what could be seen as misogynistic themes, panning lyrics like “relationships ain't a democracy” as being too tone-deaf for today's #woke reality.
“We gave ourselves the challenge riding a fine line,” Dave 1 says. “We knew what we were getting ourselves into. It was a risk we wanted to take.”
The guys frustration is real, and it makes sense. It's not easy being the most talented funny band, especially in a world that's increasingly paranoid for good reason. In the real world, you can barely trust the cops, let alone the president the United States. Our favorite celebrities and artists are accused sexual assault, bigotry is on full display, and equality for the sexes is a constant battlefield. It should be wrong to to get so much joy out a band that walks around on disembodied female sex, right?
What those naysayers fail to realize is, while Chromeo takes its music very seriously, its content is not here to be serious. The band has always been a living dare — a dare to see the smart side kitsch, to let your hang-ups be celebratory sing-alongs, to blur the lines and be your most uninhibited self. Suddenly you're here, waving your arms side to side like an extra in a made-for-TV moment because the man with the shiny teeth and shinier guitar asked you to nicely, and honestly, you want to.
“It's like oil and vinegar,” P-Thugg says.
“Straight up,” Dave 1 replies.
“It's not supposed to be there,” P continues, “but if you shake it hard enough…”
“…Shake it hard enough,” Dave flashes a smile, “and you'll get the dressing.”
Chromeo is already working on its next crop music. Feeling the pressure from streaming, the duo is bound and determined to put out more material without a four-year gap. Still, this tour is a magnum opus entertainment, and the band promises to tour for two years at least. The first leg the Head Over Heels world tour continues through November in Paris. Find all their tour dates at Chromeo.net.