Daniel Vangarde, Father Of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter & Disco Innovator, Breaks His Silence

Daniel Vangarde has lived a fascinating life. He’s lived at least three of them, in fact.

His first act was as a producer, A&R and all-around catalyst for some of the most popular European disco and funk acts of the 1970s and ’80s, shifting millions of copies. Since the late 2000s he’s been residing and working in a Brazilian village of 750 people, teaching English, computer literacy, vocational skills and a range of artistic expression.

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Somewhere in the middle he gave birth to a son, Thomas Bangalter, who also made some decent records himself.

Vangarde (born Bangalter) helped guide the early movements of Daft Punk, at a time when the pre-Homework duo had magic in their fingertips but hadn’t yet mastered the close control of image and narrative which forged their mystique. Vangarde doled out critical advice to Thomas, Guy-Manuel and a coterie of close friends in the ’90s Parisian scene, instilling in them the requisite knowledge to play the industry game on their own terms and better enabling them to sculpt their consequential destiny.

Then followed a high-profile battle with France’s publishing and rights society, SACEM, over both restrictive practices for modern artists and historical aberrations for post-World War II remuneration to Jewish musicians. Sufficiently content with both his own success and the imprint he left on the next generation, Vangarde retreated into silence, only fleetingly emerging when required (including a trip to the 2014 Grammy Awards, where he watched his son clean up). There were no plans to issue communiqués with the music ecosystem — until now.

Following a deal with powerhouse French label Because Music, the vaults of Vangarde’s Zagora Records have been busted open. The resultant compilation, Daniel Vanguarde: The Vaults of Zagora Records Mastermind (1971​-​1984), out Nov. 25 on Because Music, should re-situate him in a lineage of discotheque-pleasers with a taste for suave, symphonic and Star Wars-influenced material that bristles with joie de vivre. The comp is surprisingly tight for an era which left no excess untested; it’s not a stretch to say, from the colorway of his suit down to his perm, the Daniel Vangarde peering out from the cover might just have been the model for Disco Stu.

Having undertaken the grand sum of zero English-language interviews for 75 years, Vangarde made himself available to Billboard from the deep Bahian forests for an extremely rare and rather charming conversation about it all.

One thing that’s clear across your life is a fascination with culture and society outside of your own. You produced artists from the French Antilles and the West Indies, kickstarted a cossack dance craze in the late ’60s, and latterly founded an NGO. Where does this curiosity stem from?

I always liked traveling: I spent 10 summers of my adolescence in Costa Brava [Spain], visited Swinging London, and in 1966 hitchhiked from New York down to Mexico in order to visit the Tarahumara. Life felt like an adventure.

In 1971, I happened upon Guadeloupe and loved it — the people, the place, and the local rhythmic music, biguine, which I took back to work on in Paris. Throughout trips to Kathmandu, Bali and Malaysia in the ’70s, my love for African, Arabian, South American and other music outside the French or Anglo-Saxon tradition kept growing.

What were your dreams for the world back then?

Ah, that is easy. I was curious about the globe and completely against war. I was politically active from a young age. I was arrested during the student revolution in ’68 and spent three nights in a jail cell without light. That was very frightening. They say there were no deaths but I am certain this is untrue, there was great violence. For years afterward I had to cross the street whenever I saw a policeman, you know?

You had post-traumatic stress?

Yes, yes, it was this: it was post-traumatic stress. But I stayed against nuclear factories, against the Algerian War and successfully avoided my own military service. I did not change my point of view that mass consumption is a dead-end of civilization. In 1968, we had spiritual belief in a more open future. Today we have realism about our present moment, and that is what it is.

When you were 25, you and longtime collaborator Jean Kluger came up with Yamasuki, a faux-Japanese project whose only release is still pored over by record collectors and DJs like Four Tet. Why did you decide to jump into the deep end with such a specific concept?

After the success of “Casatschok,” I was mostly considered a choreographer. Shows about kung fu were beginning to sweep through television, so Kluger and I thought about creating a Japanese dance, which we called Yamasuki, but the great sound of the music caught on more. We really got into a Japanese mindset: I bought an English-to-Japanese phrasebook, we learned phonetic pronunciation and taught a children’s choir lyrics in Japanese. We even hired a karate master to deliver a shout of death [kiai] — except he had no sense of rhythm, so I would stand in the studio, cueing him when to shout… and trembling on the other side of the mic.

As disco became popular globally, and you had French artists like Cerrone winning Grammy Awards for Best New Artist, was there any competition or jealousy? Or did you regard them as your peers?

Peers, totally. There was no competition at all. If there was any competition, in fact, it was with American and English production. I never used a mastering studio; I would be there at the Phillips factory, watching the acetate get pressed, making sure the sound was impeccable. Cerrone, he was not a friend, but we would see each other at the discotheques when taking our new records to the DJ for promotion. The same applies for Jacques Morali {the disco producer responsible for the Village People] — at this time, for the French to have success away from home was a great feeling.

Some of the records you worked on were massive. “D.I.S.C.O.” was the third biggest-seller of 1980 in Germany and the fifth in the UK; the Gibson Brothers sold millions of copies; you’ve been sampled and covered by Erykah Badu, Bananarama, Roger Sanchez — it’s a legacy of success by any other name. Did that come as a surprise to you?

I will say that when I started to make songs, I wanted to write to The Beatles and tell them that there should be five members. [Laughs] I was this certain that I could bring something to them. I imagine that maybe everybody that records hopes that his music will be understood and appreciated by the public. But even if I was expecting success, I recognize it’s a great privilege to live your life off of music.

Daniel Vangarde Gibson Brothers
Daniel Vangarde With The Gibson Brothers

What was your relationship to fame throughout all this?

I only did one LP as a frontman, which had the privilege of being banned on radio and television. The lyrics concerned how France is the third biggest producer of bombs and mines. Of course, that’s a state secret, so the record was buried, and I was never a frontman again. But that’s alright: I was an author, composer and producer; an artisan. I sought no fame, no show business. A reporter asked me recently: “So you live your life in the shadows?” And I said, “No! I live in the light, normally, like you do.”

Interest in the Zagora reissue is however fun to me, because I was not fashionable at all. I produced La Compagnie Créole, a very big band in the ’80s, and we could sell out three nights at L’Olympia but I could never once get a journalist to come see the show. That’s just how it was then. If it’s not chanson, it’s not serious. In France, popular music is suspicious.

By the time your career wound down around 1990, was the love for music still present? Was it a creative rupture or a decision to be with your family?

Truthfully, I was not producing music that excited me, and I thought it unwise to carry on. When making a hit my hands would become wet while mixing, and a physical sensation would overtake my belly. So if I was not feeling anything, why would anyone else? Also, there was a new generation doing dance music, and of course this was very close for me.

Yes, on that note… perhaps no one in the last 10 years has done more to kickstart the revival of disco and analog production than your son, Thomas. Why do you think that era has swept back into the public consciousness?

I can see why. Nothing replaces rhythm. Songs that you can dance to, with a melody you can sing — not rap, not techno, not even Daft Punk can compete with this human response to a good feeling. There are different chapels today: you have country radio, rap radio, rock radio, but the old repertoire has maintained.

What aggregates the masses are famous hits, and disco was the last of this kind of music. When they decided that disco was over and they started to burn the records [1979’s infamous bonfire of hate, Disco Demolition], I thought it was a joke, because I never thought happy, dancing music could possibly fade. And when disco came back, I realized it hadn’t faded after all.

Your know-how helped ground not only a young Daft Punk, but also their peers Phoenix and Air, all of whom credit your advice with allowing them to navigate the music biz and retain creative freedom.

I think all artists should have this freedom. I helped Thomas, Guy-Man and their friends as much as I could to allow them to release without barriers. They were only 20 years old and the industry could have squeezed them — a normal contract generates interference between your work and the time it’s released. I made an introduction to my English lawyer, who is still [Daft Punk’s] lawyer today, and advised them not to let the author’s rights society in France authorize their music for film or publicity. My input was to help create a good environment that allowed them to produce freely.

Daniel Vangarde
Daniel Vangarde

Do you think the industry is a better place for young artists now than it was in the ’90s, or the ’70s? Or is it contingent on who you are?

That’s difficult to say. I think the music industry is in a terrible situation, not because of the internet, but because record companies and publishers didn’t know how to use the internet. When I helped Thomas set up Daft Club [a groundbreaking hub for digital downloads and fan service, released in tandem with 2001’s Discovery] even then, many considered the internet science fiction for geeks. And what was the result?

They should have contracted the hackers! The best guy from Napster should have been contracted by record companies to organize a new paid system. At a time when people paid $10-20 for an LP, of course they would have accepted paying $1 instead. But the industry did nothing, music became like free air, and once the value collapsed to zero for many years, it was hard to come back from this.

In the ’70s, the artistic directors of a record company or programmers of a radio station held all the control. So I didn’t think it was good then. But I can’t say it’s better today either. It’s difficult for true talent to break through or generate wealth in the same fashion as before.

As you’ve never given interviews, your working practice from that era is lost. I mean — Bangalter now rings with a uniqueness and star quality, so why did you use Vangarde as your professional surname?

I wanted to allow future Thomas to use Bangalter! No, I chose a pen name in case I had success; I did not wish to book a hotel or restaurant and be recognized. Why Vangarde? Originally I had prepared Morane, the name of a small French plane in the early 1900s. But on the day of registration with SACEM, this was already taken, so I was given one minute to change. I quickly thought of another plane called the Vanguard, and this stuck by complete accident.

You’ve been distant from your own catalog for so long. Why now?

I’m afraid it’s not very romantic. I have known Emmanuel [de Buretel, kingpin of French electronic music] since he was 25. When Because Music showed interest in buying Zagora Records and releasing some old tracks, I trusted them, and said, “You’ll be the owner of the catalog, so if you want to, yes.” As I have never done photos or interviews, I did not expect interest at all. I could even not remember some of their choices, so I had to go on YouTube and listen back as I was certain these were not my songs! To see any reaction has been a huge shock. Because made a very good decision.

So you never considered what you’d like your legacy to be?

I think I will not die. I have songs that I did 50 years ago that are still popular. If people are happy when they hear the songs and go to dance, or go to see the bands still touring, they do not die. This is the answer of my legacy.

And are you satisfied?

Yes, I’m very happy. I have the privilege to do what I want, and a good personal life… in the shadows. [Laughs] I have a good relationship with Thomas and now I have two grandchildren. One is 20 years old and the other is 14 — I love them. I go on being free and having my health. What more can I ask for?

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