You won't get a lot of wild stage antics at a Chromeo show, but the duo's subtlety is no less engaging. The first thing you'll notice is Pee Thug (aka P-Thugg, aka Patrick Gemayel), the stocky Arab behind the keyboard, dressed in the style made popular by Mexicans in L.A. (think calf-length shorts, knee-high athletic socks and flip-flops). The next thing you'll notice is the tall, lanky guitar player with the hipster-collegiate aesthetic, Dave 1 (known as David Macklovitch at Columbia University, where he assistant teaches when not making music). As a band, Pee Thug and Dave 1 seem drawn to these cartoonish dichotomies, from their oppositional heritages (Dave 1 is Jewish), to the common, catchy '80s electro-pop (think Cameo) they make with decidedly uncommon instrumentation.
“Live, Pee has to get his Roger Troutman on,” says Dave 1, referring to the lead singer of Zapp, who popularized the use of the talkbox. Pee sings comedic support vocals through the effect pedal's attached plastic tube (the talk box is also connected to his Yamaha DX100 keyboard) and filters the sound by changing the shape of this mouth. “It's a thing with our live show,” Dave 1 continues. “Some people think there's a ton of talkbox on our records, but there's not. On ‘Woman Friend,’ for instance, that's actually vocoder with my singing, but we freaked it.”
Since Dave 1 permanently resides in New York City and Pee Thug in Montreal (though they're both originally from Montreal), “freaking it” in the studio can be an ordeal, logistically. Their studio is in Pee Thug's home, so he regularly sends demos to Dave 1, who's more conceptual in his approach. “I make up detailed arrangements in my head so when I show up, I lay them down, and we see if it works or not,” Dave says. “But things only come together when we're both in the lab.”
The guys have dozens of synths (including Moogs, a Roland Juno and Sequential Circuits keyboards) and other cool gear, which they used on Fancy Footwork (Vice, 2007), their sophomore full-length album. But the live show is a different animal. “A huge challenge was to get our drummer to play the drum sounds from the record 'cause live drums would just ruin everything,” Dave says. “So we bought a Simmons kit, and Pee hooks it up to his MPC and changes all the patches from track to track. When we're not playing with our drummer, the drum tracks are added to the Ableton sequences. Pee's [also] got a billion keyboards in the studio, but live, he only brings a couple.”
Even so, it's still pretty risky business for Pee and Dave when they bring even a small amount of vintage gear on tour. “Instrument and gear problems sometimes kill a show pretty quick,” Pee says. “We use a lot of vintage gear, some of it more than 30 years old, so you can imagine it's not always reliable. For example, we did a show in Manchester a couple of months ago, and the first hit the drummer gave to the snare on our Simmons drum pads just broke it in half. The clamps fell apart, and the snare fell on the ground — great intro to the show. I quickly replaced the snare clamp with a tom clamp, and we did the show with two toms instead of three. Dave had to amuse the crowd for a good 10 minutes, but the show went great when everything started working well.”
Fancy Footwork will no doubt amuse crowds as much if not more than their debut album, She's in Control (Vice, 2004). Elastic bass and keyboards on “My Girl Is Calling Me (a Liar)” straddle the line between a porno soundtrack and the theme song to a '70s TV show. Brassy percussion and lagoon-side guitars of “Bonafied Lovin' (Tough Guys)” sound inspired by a Caribbean cruise. And the record's title track builds upon an easy, two-stepping beat with hollow drum-machine breakdowns and aircraft take-off and landing effects. Running throughout it all is a sort of sneering, lover-boy braggadocio. Delivered with such a distinctly '90s pop earnestness, it seems damn near ironic.
“We're supersincere in our approach and in our influences, but then again, we totally understand when people find our stuff funny,” Dave says. “I mean, was Michael Jackson fully sincere when he wrote ‘Thriller’? Like, ‘Check it out guys: I'm gonna write a song about turning into a monster. Be afraid. Be very afraid…’ The bottom line is, you can't really tell. It's just got to be catchy and fun to listen to. That is all.”
Akai MPC1000 sampling workstation
Apple PowerBook running Ableton Live software
Clavia Nord Modular synth
Fender Jazz Bass
Gibson Flying V guitar
Korg MicroKorg synth
Simmons electronic drum kit
Yamaha DX100 keyboard with talkbox
Agogos, cow bells, triangle, wood block, cymbals, vibraslap, gÜiro, egg shakers