Most musicians are coy about their influences. Maybe they’ll half-heartedly mention hearing the Beatles in their parents’ record collection. Or insist that, since each band member listens to different kinds of music, their own sound is impossible to categorize.
Chromeo would never do that. David “Dave 1” Macklovitch and Patrick “P-Thugg” Gemayel, who have referred to themselves as “the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture,” proudly admit to spending their high school years obsessing over ’80s electro-funk artists like Rick James, Zapp and Prince.
Four albums into their career, the Canadian duo are still on the same page musically. What has changed is the number of fans who have turned to that page. Chromeo’s most recent album, “White Women,” came just short of cracking the Top 10 here in America, while their annual “Funk on the Rocks” celebration has sold out Colorado’s massive Red Rocks Amphitheater for the last three years.
In the following interview, singer-guitarist Macklovitch explains why he and Gemayel would never cover a Prince song, and admits how awful Chromeo was when it recorded its first hit. Chromeo performs at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival in Phoenix.
The Entertainer!: I was listening to your first album, “She’s in Control,” this weekend, and…
Macklovitch: I’m sorry. [laughs.]
That’s OK. I was going to say that …
It’s just that I’d forgotten how different it sounds from the newer stuff.
I can’t even listen to it. I mean, it was so long ago, and we didn’t know what we were doing at all. But I like it for that reason, because there are some good ideas here and there. And there’s some stuff that’s really raw and absurdly low-fi. And it’s a really honest record. It’s really just two hip-hop kids trying to make song-based music, without really knowing how that’s done or how to go about it. We knew that we were going to have an ’80s penchant, and that there’d be some analog synthesizers involved. We were just developing the Chromeo persona, you know.
I did notice that the choruses, when they do occur, aren’t nearly as catchy as what you’re doing now.
I didn’t even know what a chorus was. But at the end of the day, there’s still “Needy Girl” on there. And that’s what gave us a career, you know? If it weren’t for that song, there wouldn’t have been enough interest to go on and make the second record.
I want to ask about the band’s ’80s influences. I remember the first time I heard Rick James’ “Give It to Me, Baby” on this urban radio station in L.A., and thinking, “What kind of music is this?” It just felt to me like there was no precedent for what he was doing. What did you think when you first heard him?
I had the same feeling. I mean, we didn’t hear him on the radio, because we grew up in Montreal, Canada, and, you know, there’s not a very big funk tradition there. It was definitely marginalized. And when we heard Rick James, it just sounded like music from the future. You had this tremendous orchestration, and sounds that you never heard before. The brass sections kind of reminded us of Michael Jackson, but then, at the same time, you had synthesizers that we’d never heard before. And then you had this really flamboyant personality spitting out vocals. The same goes for Zapp and Roger, and also for Prince. The fascination we had with them is what pushed us to make that kind of music, or at least to somehow pay homage to it.
When Prince passed, what was that like for you personally? And will you be doing a Prince cover or anything like that?
No, I’m not doing any Prince covers. First of all, why would I? I can’t sing as well as him, I can’t play his parts the way he plays them. So, what am I going to do, like a mediocre version of a Prince song? My entire career is an attempt at a Prince cover, you know what I mean? So why would I need to butcher “I Wanna Be Your Lover” when you have other people out there who could play it better than us?
I mean, I think it’s pretty obvious when you hear our albums that we would never have made this music if it weren’t for him. Everything we do has some of his DNA. And all we can hope to be is like, you know, midgets on the shoulders of this giant.
So yeah, of course we were devastated. The people that have influenced our music the most are Prince, Hall & Oates and maybe some early Daft Punk. So, for us, it was obviously tragic. But for everybody, it was tragic. I mean, I don’t have a claim to sadness over Prince’s death that’s bigger than anybody else’s claim. We’re all bummed. Everyone’s bummed together about this.
Any final thoughts on where Chromeo is at now, or where it’s going?
Just that I’m grateful for the fact that I’m still doing this after 10 years, and that people still want to speak to me about our music. As you can tell, I’m pretty humble about our beginnings, and I still think there’s a lot for us to prove, and to improve upon. But the fact that there’s still interest in a quirky, left-of-center band, and that we can headline Red Rocks for the third year in a row, that’s the biggest blessing I could ever ask for.
McDowell Mountain Music Festival, Margaret T. Hance Park, 1134 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, mmmf.com, 3:30 p.m. Friday, March 3, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 5, tickets start at $40. Chromeo performs at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, March 4.