Feeling nostalgic about the ’80s is like doing a side-by-side picture comparison of Madonna’s face then and now. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know something is slightly askew. From The Breakfast Club to the Culture Club, Vuarnet to Jim Varney, the decade that was anything but decadent is remembered more for bad-hair days and cellphones the size of synth-guitars than for its contribution to the collective consciousness.
For two 15-year-olds growing up in Montreal at the tail end of the Mulroney era, however, the time that taste forgot was fertile ground for a couple of fast friends to marvel at music videos and bond over hip-hop beats. A few starter bands and 17 years later, Patrick Gemayel and David Macklovitch are better known as Chromeo, a retro-electro homage to bygone soul-funk pioneers like Zapp, Rick James, and Parliament, along with a shit mix of other influences that includes Bronski Beat, Hall & Oates, Billy Ocean, and Led Zeppelin.
Bordering on pastiche, Chromeo tackles the task of taking us back with a rigour and respect so entrenched that Gemayel and Macklovitch won’t sample other people’s songs on their own tracks. It’s Spandex-booty-bouncing music with an undeniable ’80s flair that somehow comes across as genuine instead of gimmicky. For Gemayel, the secret to the Chromeo sound is equal parts presentation and preparation.
“If your research is not deep enough and your creation is not deep enough you can’t go very far and all you can really do is just try to mimic all the funny stuff they did back then and all the things that are average to everybody,” he says on the phone from a sold-out tour stop in Toronto. “Like, in the ’80s there were fluorescent colours and weird haircuts and Converse. That’s all the surface, but we really try to tap in and find everything else that is objectively good, a bit forgotten, and, you know, from funkier times.”
Keeping it light also means creating band personas that, on the surface, parody all that was awesome about the ’80s. Gemayel takes on the role of P-Thugg, a cocktail-sipping studio savant who handles the keyboards, synthesizers, and talk box with the same smooth finesse as he does the ladies. Macklovitch is Dave 1, a cerebral sophisticate and lyrical Lothario who plays the guitar and leads on vocals. Just don’t mistake the stage names and throwback image for anything less than straight respect.
“It’s never really parody, it’s more of a wink,” Gemayel explains. “We know what’s really bad and cheesy and we don’t tap into that like a parody or ironic band would. Those types of bands don’t last that long because you can only joke around for so long.”
The zany band aesthetic works because it is actually a closer interpretation of their real selves than a spoof of over-the-top ’80s imagery. Dave 1—whose younger brother happens to be turntable wunderkind A-Trak—is currently studying towards a PhD in French literature at New York’s prestigious Columbia University, where he also teaches; P-Thugg is a serious sneaker pimp, style maker, and vinyl collector. With or without aliases, respecting each other as collaborators is what has connected them for nearly 20 years.
“We don’t let our egos interfere in the creative process. We both trust each other very much, so if the other person doesn’t like a certain idea it’s going to get dropped almost instantly and we’ll move on to something else,” Gemayel says. “We have the same sense of humour, so all of those little tongue-in-cheek things and inside jokes in the songs or those little references, we do it together. That all helps keep a band together for a long time.”
Since forming in 2002, Chromeo has produced three studio albums: She’s in Control (2004), Fancy Footwork (2007), and Business Casual (2010), each earning the duo more followers and favourable reviews than its predecessor. Chromeo’s sound and image on all of their full-length releases tells the story of a work very much in progress.
“Everything has been very, very transparent. She’s in Control was our starting album and you can hear it. Fancy Footwork was that first discovery of what Chromeo’s sound should be, and you can hear it. It’s very innocent, very candid,” Gemayel explains. “On Business Casual, we tried to keep that fun and lighthearted side that we had on the other albums, but at the same time grow and evolve musically without taking ourselves too seriously while still trying to show a bit more sophistication in the arrangements and vocal harmonies by adding string sections to playing acoustic guitar and stuff like that. It’s like a natural evolution.”
The beauty of Business Casual is that it doesn’t even attempt to masquerade as serious or thought-provoking. Instead, it’s the type of music you might expect to hear wafting across the Shuswap at the height of summer, or rattling from inside the tinted windows of a car cruising along Robson. Replete with rollicking bass lines, perfectly placed sax, happy-go-lucky synth riffs, and ever-present talk box modifications redolent of the ’70s and ’80s, the album shows reverence for a decade that seems to be remembered more for new wave and MTV than for laying the foundation for modern funk-rock music.
“A lot of black music from the ’80s has been forgotten or laughed at,” Gemayel argues. “It’s completely outrageous. Why is Rick James not as good as a record that everyone thinks is genius? Rick James is a genius. I mean, he wrote string parts, he wrote everything. He did that orchestral funk, you know. We’re trying to make that valuable again.”