CHROMEO (David Macklovitch – Dave 1, and Patrick Gemayel - P-Thugg) are defined by an impasse, a scenario or question without a seemingly satisfactory resolution: How can wonderful, serious, dance-pop music also include, and be born of, humour and wit? The options: accept that this can be so, or express an inability of acceptance – Chromeo as ‘ironic’. When a band like Chromeo present themselves audiences divide, and these are the best kind of bands.
Their latest, fifth, album Head Over Heels is an unrivalled exploration of funk, pop, and relationships that should hit many top 10 2018 lists, justice prevailing. It distills genres and decades down to their cores, and then lets them swirl around in individual songs (funk and the Seventies, power pop and the Eighties, Nineties R’n’B, Gangsta’ rap) and yet always sounds like Chromeo; street smart, a little buzzed on adrenaline, ready to fall in love. We spoke with Dave 1 four years on from the release of their last album White Women; in the interim, the world seems to have changed tremendously.
DiS: The small details you’ve put in Head Over Heels are fantastic, and the little skits that recall 90s Gansta’ rap and R’n’B really give this album both a sense of playfulness and respect to its influences that’s not been in the Chromeo cannon until now. So how did you approach this album as regards a progression from your last?
Dave 1: It’s strange because White Women enjoyed a considerable success, especially in America. It was our most successful project. We had a song on top 40 radio so for us, it was a little bit like: “Where do we go next?”
So for Head Over Heels we wanted to do something even slicker and more overt and in your face. At the same time, we said: “OK let’s build our own studio spend a full two years in Los Angeles and take advantage of all the resources that are at our disposal.” If we want to bring in other writers, or other session players or feature guest vocalists we could do whatever we want because they’re there.
We had a bucket list of people we wanted to collaborate with from The-Dream, Raphael Saadiq to Amber Mark and we could get all of them on this record. It was our ultimate teenage fantasy album where we had people from the Nineties we listened to, people from the Eighties and people from today and at the same time it’s the most ‘balls out’ version of Chromeo and in that respect, it was really freeing. It felt like we were closing a chapter that began with Fancy Footwork and closes with Head Over Heels.
So this is the kind of album that can only happen when you've got a major label on-side?
Honestly, it was more our management that made it happen. The record label was very supportive too, incredibly supportive and we’re grateful because we don’t fit into any pre-existing category or box in today’s musical landscape. So yes, we enjoyed the support of our record label and the dedication of our management, and they were able to fulfil our wishes.
We also worked tirelessly on this album to get all the details right. It’s funny because when I listen to it now, I don’t know if I want to keep the same amount of insane detail everywhere, but we had to get that out. It was accomplishing that narrative that started with Fancy Footwork, the first time we used the legs iconography and as we evolved and as our sound got slicker and we started on the last album to collaborate, so this just felt like the closing accomplishment. It’s extremely freeing actually because after this record, we’re already starting to write and we’re going to have some more music out next year, we can really explore new things and new tonalities within Chromeo because this was the most funk of the funk records. It ticks all the funk boxes from Prince, Minneapolis, but there’s also Steely Dan moments, Nineties R’n’B moments, Phil Collins/Peter Gabriel moments. It’s everything we’ve loved.
Putting yourself as the legs iconography on the cover is an interesting statement. What does this mean?
We didn’t want to use female body parts. I think it’s a responsibility of artists to be aware of what’s acceptable and what’s challenging, and how those parameters change, and be attentive to that and to be attentive to issues that matter at the moment when you produce what you want to produce. Otherwise, it’s like being tone-deaf. So we were like: “OK now it’s time for us to fully embrace the symbol that we used before, and to make an album cover that puts our money where our mouth is.” We are the legs.
The male gaze, to so call it, is thankfully on its way down and I completely appreciate the point, irrespective of intention…
But even with our intention we can’t, and we don’t want to, control the translation. I read reviews that say: “Oh there’s weird misogyny in ‘Juice’.” My initial response is: “Did you even listen to the lyrics?” They cite the line “relationship ain’t a democracy”… but the next line is “I’m good if you stay on top of me”. It’s about relinquishing control, it’s not a male-female comment. It’s the opposite of pop-music seduction, but people will hear a line and it can take them away from the way the writer intended, so at some point, you have to consider that when you’re writing music. We know our fans will appreciate the perspective we put out, and we’re pretty outspoken about our beliefs on social media so we also have to acknowledge that, hey, not everyone is going to get Chromeo.
When you put something out there, you’re putting it out there to music critics, as people, to put their own projection onto as the initial filter.
And that’s fair game. In our career, we’ve had praise from critics and we’ve been shitted on by critics and that’s fair game and it’s far from me to rail against critics and journalists. Even if we get a scathing review somewhere it’s part of the discourse, and by the way, the music we make lends itself to this polarization. If I wanted to make an album that everyone likes I would make a woke R’n’B’ album, because what would there be not to like about it? It would be great and I think with Chromeo we do tread a fine line between sincerity and irony, we play both sides.
There’s humour, but there’s also a sincere respect for a musical tradition. There’s studio wizardry but at the same time there’s goofy imagery and when you play with those contrasts obviously some people are not going to like it and some people won’t like this and we knew that from the get-go. Our pleasure, and our challenge, comes from making that statement. In a way Head Over Heels is the boldest iteration of that aesthetic and conflict. I get it, it can be a polarising statement… we know that. That being said, there are different directions we’re going into moving forward and so what will be the response be to that?
So there could be more of a departure?
Yes, there will be, and every album we make is a response to the previous album. When I listen to the album tracks on White Women I felt that some of them weren’t clearly defined. Every song on Head Over Heels has to be like a slogan or a teeshirt, like ‘One Track Mind’, ‘She’s Slumming It’, ‘Bedroom Calling’, like they’re hashtags. Now I’m starting to think: “I want to do something way more personal.” That’s our privilege of being artists and we’re also in dialogue with our own work.
When we talk about the legs as iconography, the artist is in dialogue with what’s going on in the world, the issues, but we’re also in dialogue with our own work. We’ve got our own obsessions and our own recurring themes but we also react to our previous offerings and try to move on, or evolve, or correct…
It’s like the slogans you mention, when you look at the hooks there are literally fewer words – like Parliament funk tracks ‘Flashlight’, you take it right back, you focus on the rhythm, and the groove and the space in the groove is created by the feeling and the details. That’s more subtle, and you say that this is more brazen, but to do that needs the ability to be subtle as otherwise it often sounds messy.
When we were making this album… from the beginning of the year to now we’ve played 80 shows. We play over 100 shows a year. So we want an album that you can sing along to when we play live, and this album, the songs weren’t even out and we’d play ‘One Track Mind’ and people would sing along because it’s so easily memorable. But you know what’s funny is that where we would hear a distillation, you would distill this funky music to its essence and a few words that you can repeat, but other people will see that as diluted. Chromeo used to say “I’ll give you bonafide loving”, and now it’s just ‘Don’t Sleep’, it’s dumbed down. Our music can be interpreted in a few different ways and it is what it is. Now that I’ve done that I feel like I want to make seven-minute free-form funk!
So when you talk about these distilled meanings and boiled down approaches, how much of Chromeo is a created narrative and how much is based on your lives? How do you play with the songs?
This is how I could see it. We take a very general topic that we either have experienced first-hand or our friends have experienced. So that’s based on real life. But then we flesh it out into a song, it’s like writing a sit-com. We try to make each other laugh. The themes are pretty universal, and we tried to do what we’ve always done with Chromeo, to talk about love and relationships in ways that aren’t the usual, typical, seduction, or heartbreak extremis themes that you hear in pop music.
‘Must’ve Been High’ is about regret, ‘Don’t Sleep’ is about neglect, ‘Count Me Out’ is about a guy who is too prudish to have an open relationship, ‘One Track Mind’ is about obsession and so on. Those are things we’ve all experienced, but when we make the detail I think: “What’s a funny thing I can thread into this?” So in ‘One Track Mind’ I said: “I’ve been calling you from private numbers / Just to hear your voice then I hang up”. I’ve never done that, but I knew that when I sang it people could think it’s funny or quirky, those are funny details. And in ‘Slumming It’, when I refer to not being allowed in the country club – I’ve never been a member of a country club and I don’t know how to drive, so it’s a mix.
These different songs also feel like different life milestones.
This album contains the seeds of where I want to go next. It’s crazy. I think with Chromeo, there’s always been a juvenile part to our lyrics because P and I met in high school, made music in high school and in Chromeo we revisit that vibe. I’m 40 years old but when I hang out with P, it’s like we’re 15 again, rehearsing at the weekends, playing funk. It definitely taps into that emotion but moving forward I want to tap into the perspective of this grown adult who is a touring musician and the maturity that’s developed, but it’s also strangely regressive to be prancing around in tight leather pants playing guitar. It’s weird, I want to address that more, and also musically on this album, there are songs … the last song we did on the album was the interlude, and we made that song in 15 minutes and it’s the seed of where we want to go next. A little more soulful, almost acid jazz. I was listening to an old Brand New Heavies record. I’ve just been going back to late Nineties soul-jazz-funk and wondering is this cool? I don’t know yet but I know the last two songs written for the record, the interlude and ‘Just Friends’ with Amber Mark, are the launching pad for this next jazz-funk-soul version of Chromeo that we want to explore further next year.
I want to go more like Brothers Johnson, but I couldn’t do that if I hadn’t made this record and we couldn’t have made White Women if we hadn’t done the album before. All my favourite artists are kind of obsessed with one thing, and each album is a re-interpretation or progressive move that pivots around that one thing, but that just doesn’t seem to carry a sense of fashion with it. Fashion seems focused on how people are borrowing from each other. We know what we’re in for when we put out a song with the lyrics “You got the juice” in it, and P and I are wearing skirts in the video. If we’d have wanted to make a Soundcloud album with an artsy aesthetic on Tumblr, we could have. I know how to do that. I choose not to.
Head Over Heels is out now via Atlantic/WEA International. Chromeo play London’s Printworks on Thursday 1 November. For more information about the band, including other tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Tim Saccenti