Retro funk, with a PhD
When he is not touring with US electro outfit Chromeo, ‘Dave 1’ teaches at Columbia University. PaulLester meetsaveryfunkyacademic
TAKE ONE LebaneseChristian Arab and one Jewish-Canadian of Moroccan des c e nt — b o t h obsessed with ’80s machine disco and the sort of middleof-the-road popboogie known in the UK as “guilty pleasures” and in the US as “yacht rock” — and you have got Chromeo.
If their name sounds like Cameo, the codpiece-wearing band which made the slickest American electro-funk of the ’80s, it is no coincidence. That is because Chromeo’s recently released second album, Fancy Footwork, features some of the coolest bass-heavy grooves since, well, Cameo.
But Chromeo, who are playing in London next week, insist they are not some nostalgia act or comedy troupe.
“There’s a huge difference between pastiche, parody and tribute,” points out David Macklovitch, alias Dave 1, from his home in New York, where, when he is not making retro-electro boom-box funk, he teaches French at Columbia University. (He has a Phd i n a dvanced hermeneutics — the science of interpretation — while his Chromeo partner, Patrick Gemayel, aka P-Thugg, is an accountant.)
“Pastiche is an exercise in virtuosity,” he s a y s . “ When y o u d o p a s - tiche, you’re being a show-off. I could do you a pastiche of Prince on the guitar just to show you how good I am.
“Parody shows an underlying contempt; it’s a very sophisticated form of mockery of the thing you’re imitating. A homage is a heartfelt tribute, and I think a large part of what we do is homage. We’re very sincere fans of the music we grew up listening to.
“It’s not satire, either,” he adds, in case there was any doubt. “Satire is also a form of criticism. What we do is a little bit cheeky, like Steely Dan’s lyrics were cheeky. But I’m a Jewish graduate student — if I sang: ‘I love you, baby, I wanna see you take that dress off’, it wouldn’t be true to what I am. I’m trying to remain true to my own social type while still writing love songs.”
He does concede that: “It’s a little bit funny, because whenever you take something out of context it’s funny, but it’s funny in the same way that a white guy and a white girl from Detroit [referring to The White Stripes] playing the Mississippi delta blues is funny.
“We re-contextualise the music and put it into an aesthetic that’s our own. God knows, we don’t have codpieces.”
Macklovitch is far removed from the macho lothario archetype or gangsta/playa lifestyle. Born 29 years ago in Montreal, he describes himself as “half-Ashkenazi, half-Sephardic”.
His father is from an Eastern European background and a third-generation Canadian. He married Macklovitch’s mother, a Moroccan immigrant and Sephardic Jew, “to piss his family off”. Then he decided “to raise his kids in French to piss them off even more: French is my first language”.
In Canada, he explains, there are “two types of Jew — the Chomskian type and the rich type. The Chomskian Jews are like my father — leftie intellectuals who despise capitalism and think the people in their family who make money are idiots. Overgrown hippies, basically.
“My mother isn’t very religious, but she does Yom Kippur, and every year she and my father will have the same argument. My dad will be like: ‘Your religion equals superstition’, and she’ll be like: ‘No, there’s a beautiful tradition there.’
“Myself, I feel close to the Jewish culture. The way I talk, my mannerisms — I’m such a Larry David; I’m Larry David to the core. He’s the only person in the world I want to meet.”
At school, Macklovitch was “always the best student and always the funny dude. I had to make them laugh to get the girls. Now I don’t have to do the shtick.”
What is it about the Jewish condition that tends towards the self-lacerating and neurotic?
“I think there’s something like an Ashkenazi culture, with cultural traits stemming from similar values and behavioural patterns. This comes from an extreme sense of awareness mixed with extreme insecurity mixed with a really good sense of humour and not taking yourself too seriously.
“If you’re extremely aware of everything, that makes you paranoid and your insecurity feeds into that, but you’re funny and detached enough to be aware of it and talk about it. And that creates things like Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Today, Macklovitch is something of a lapsed Jew with strong views about Israel.
“I don’t have anything to do with the country,” he says. “My father thinks Israel shouldn’t exist. He said: ‘Theodor [Herzl] wanted a place where Jews could be safe. Israel’s a place where the Jews are the least safe; therefore, mission failed, bad idea, let’s get rid of it.’
“But my father’s extreme. Me, I think Jerusalem should be split and the pre’67 borders reinstated. I don’t want to be a part of it until I can approve of the place. And I don’t approve of it now.
“New York is the real Israel. If Theodor could have gone to New York, he’d have loved it.”
London is his other favourite city, where Chromeo have won over the hip cognoscenti who get the ’80s funk references as well as the MySpace kids who just like the catchy tunes.
“Why do we love London?” he repeats the question, before listing the reasons: “Monster Munch, Cadbury’s Twirl, Ribena, fish ’n’ chips… It’s a beautiful, ethnically diverse, culturally rich city. It’s the city where the immigration model has worked the best.
“And it’s the only place in the world where you can put on a radio station like Choice FM and hear all the songs we copied! What’s not to like?” Chromeo’s album, Fancy Footwork, is out now on Backyard Records. Chromeo play Fabric, London EC1, on November 28. Tel: 020 7336 8898
David Macklovitch ( right) and Patrick Gemayel: “What we do is homage”