Wanna party like it’s the ’70s, ’80s or even the noughties? The cult Canadian band Chromeo span all decades with their retro-nuevo electro-funk. This June, the duo will deliver their fifth album, Head Over Heels, ahead of a Splendour In The Grass run. And, amidst a funk resurgence, Chromeo’s timing couldn’t be more auspicious.
Today Chromeo’s frontman (and guitarist) Dave 1 (aka David Macklovitch) was supposed to be conducting interviews but, being MIA, P-Thugg (Patrick Gemayel), the lowkey keyboardist/bassist/talkbox-operator, fills in. Macklovitch has long juggled Chromeo with such side-hustles as editing Vice and notably scholarship (dude has a PhD in French Philology). The Millennial Robert Palmer is a hipster fashion icon, too – once profiled by the bougie Mr Porter. But in 2018, Chromeo is the priority. “We both are fully committed to Chromeo, 24/7,” Gemayel insists. “[Dave] stopped his academia a couple of years ago when we started touring for the fourth record [2014’s White Women]. Neither of us would have time for anything besides Chromeo right now. We’re so, so busy working on the record and starting new tours.”
The FunkLordz’ story begins in Montreal, Quebec. Here, Gemayel and Macklovitch bonded over music at their private school. In fact, Macklovitch’s younger brother Alain found fame first as the champion turntablist A-Trak. Launching in 2002, Chromeo signed to the electroclasher Tiga’s Turbo Recordings. They introduced their kitsch pastiche of vintage funk and contemporary urban on She’s In Control – home to the hooky hit ‘Needy Girl’. The reception to Chromeo’s follow-up, Fancy Footwork, led to a major deal with Atlantic. Now based in Los Angeles, Chromeo re-emerged last year when Lorde, another Splendour headliner, approached them to remix ‘Green Light’. Then, in November, they issued ‘Juice’, the lead single from Head Over Heels. Chromeo recently performed at Coachella.
Chromeo have declared Head Over Heels to be “a love letter to all the sub-genres of funk music that have influenced us since we were teenagers.” It’s also their most musically ambitious album. “It definitely has a more live feel,” Gemayel ponders. “We decided to not necessarily drop the electronic side – because all the drums and most of the sounds are still sort of electronic and very synthesiser. [But] we just decided to add a layer of live instrumentation – more than we’ve done so in the past. We used to be a bit more frugal with guitars and live bass but, on this album, we went all out and decided to record full live guitar tracks, live bass tracks [and] live piano tracks – in terms of organic instruments. ‘Cause we’ve always had the live component, it was just played with electronic instruments.”
Chromeo have vibed with other artists previously. Early on, they actually jammed alongside their hero Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates, for his webcast Live From Daryl’s House. What’s more, Chromeo have an old affiliation with Solange Knowles – the avant ‘n’ B star appearing on their past two albums (‘When The Night Falls’, from Business Casual, is a bop!). Yet Head Over Heels has collabs galore. Indeed, there is a lavish roster of guest vocalists – including The-Dream (‘Bedroom Calling’), French Montana, UK rapper Stefflon Don, and buzz R&B singer Amber Mark. Musical input comes from the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, and the New York jazz ensemble Onyx Collective.
The album’s key single, ‘Must’ve Been’, features both US singer/rapper DRAM and guitarist Jesse Johnson (formerly of the Prince-associated funk band The Time) – making it geek heaven. Gemayel maintains that this curation “happened organically”. “The DRAM collaboration was more of like, ‘Oh, he would be great on a track because he’s very Chromeo-compatible.’ It’s mostly about how we see somebody matching our music or not; how we can incorporate somebody in our world. It’s about bringing people into the Chromeosphere. For example, DRAM is a current artist and, hearing him on TV, on radio, we were like, ‘Well, this guy has a great voice. He would completely fit with us as a George Clinton-type of addition to the band.’ So it’s very funk-compatible.” Chromeo’s connecting with Johnson was serendipitous. “I remember seeing D’Angelo a couple of years ago. We were opening for D’Angelo at a festival, playing right before him. Jesse was his guitar player. We just bumped into Jesse behind the stage. He came and he said, ‘Hi, I’m a fan, I like you guys’ stuff’ – and [I was] completely slapped, taken aback, flabbergasted, like, ‘What! Jesse Johnson, you know my music? That’s insane.’ We kept in touch. We exchanged phone numbers and decided to give him a call on this album – like ‘Let’s see if he wants to come in.’ He lives not too far from our studio and he just came in, very organically. We had two tracks for him to play on and we kept one of them. It was great.”
One individual not heard on Head Over Heels is Solange, her career lately in the ascendant with A Seat At The Table. Will Chromeo work with her again? “We would absolutely,” Gemayel responds. “We were thinking about maybe bringing her back on this album. But I think the collaboration levels – it was beginning to be a bit overwhelming. So we decided to not add any more people on the record and just to present a new type of collaborator to the fans. But we thought about it. We almost did it for this album. Maybe next album. Solange is a genius in her own right. We do keep in touch. It might happen again.”
For all their quirkiness, Chromeo do have social significance. The pair have joked about being “the only successful Arab/Jew partnership since the dawn of human culture.” In Australia, Chromeo have a loyal following in migrant circles. Born in Lebanon, Gemayel himself moved to Canada at eight – and, as part of a tiny “ethnic underminority”, didn’t know where he belonged. “I come in as an immigrant. I have a strange accent. I go to my first school in Canada and I think I throw most of the white kids off – the ‘locals’ – and then, organically, you gravitate towards [the] people who accept you first.” Inevitably, he developed an affinity with those from black diaspora communities.
In many ways, Chromeo presaged that funk revivalist Bruno Mars. Mars has been accused by some of co-opting black music culture, although others argue that he is showing cultural appreciation. As for Gemayel’s take? “Bruno’s genius, and his downfall also, is that he doesn’t have one specific genre attached to him. Bruno is such a great interpreter, and such a great singer, that he can sort of do any style. He can hop from reggae to rock to funk – he can pretty much do anything. [But] he doesn’t represent the same thing that we represent. We represent a universe; we represent funk music; we try to pass down the dynasty of funk and keep it alive. Bruno is a performer. He will go from a ballad to a throwback rap song with Cardi B in a split second. It doesn’t matter to him. He embraces variety – and that’s how he sells records. We’re not in the same vein at all. But, usually, when he tries a style, he nails it. It’s not as in-depth musically as we would have gone. But I think he understands the major elements of funk when he does a funk track.” Ironically, Gemayel believes that Mars’ success with the 24K Magic LP has benefitted Chromeo. “We were fighting for funk for the longest time. Now that Bruno has legitimised it on the mass scale, then we have more chances to be on the radio; to go out there; to be a bit more commercial.”
In July, Chromeo will finally return to Australia with their sleek funk ‘n’ B. “We’re gonna play maybe three or four of the new tracks from the new album – maybe more,” Gemayel promises. “Then, basically, it’s just a medley of the greatest Chromeo hits from the last 10 years. So you’ll get a nice ‘greatest hits’ plus new songs from this album.”