Daphne & Celeste (with Max Tundra) The notorious pop act is back after 15 years

Pre-9/11 pop music was uncanny, hyper-simulated, not-yet hyperreal, and somehow innocent. Now, the web-surfing public is thrilled with the latest celebrity “no makeup” selfie, deeply interested in the idea of the famous-person-as-human-being; meanwhile, in 2000, pop sensations like Daphne & Celeste were literally “manufactured,” made-up, and edited in post-production to look more like cartoon characters, and these disembodied creatures became household names overseas. The award-winning documentary Bully reflects an age of political correctness, in which people are acutely aware of the ways in which their careless comments might affect others. In the halcyon days before the towers fell and postmodern pessimism infected the world, Daphne & Celeste’s “U.G.L.Y.” was an international sensation, celebrated for its never-ending litany of insults. When those teen superstars, known to friends and family as Karen DiConcetto and Celeste Cruz, played the Reading Rock Festival with the intention of meeting Eminem (only to hear Eminem had pulled out), Cruz performed to 25,000 angry rock fans wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “WHO THE F**K IS EMINEM?”

British producer Ben Jacobs, known for a handful of wonky, playful, and often brilliant releases as Max Tundra, has used the magic of the internet to fulfill the dream of a very specific subset of 90s kids, reuniting Daphne & Celeste for a new single to kick off his label Balatonic.

“You And I Alone” is a completely different beast from D and C classics like “U.G.L.Y.” and “Ooh Stick You!” — the girls’ voices are finally heard at their natural pitch, and the brand of their airheaded hyper-referentiality has matured considerably. Cheap yo-mama jokes have been replaced with grown-up cultural touchstones, like Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and eternal pop-art classic Twin Peaks. The song is an incredible and unexpected collaboration between two very different acts, and it offers a rare window into the progression of a pop act that would ordinarily be relegated to a passing news feed oddity on Cool Freaks’ Wikipedia Club.

TMT connected with Jacobs, DiConcetto, and Cruz on Skype to discuss the circumstances of this miraculous connection, as well as the past and future of Daphne & Celeste.

Have you guys been pretty good friends for the past 15 years?

KD: Yes.

CC: We’ve been living together, hanging out together. We’ve stayed friends.

KD: Are you asking if we had a falling-out or something?

No, but I’m wondering how close you were before the project started.

CC: The band was manufactured. We met each other through the band.

KD: We were thrown together, and then we became like sisters.

The question on all of our minds: Is the new single a one-off project, or is there more to come?

BJ: That all depends on you, the public.

KD: Well actually, no, Ben, we do have some things that are in the works. But we can’t talk about any of it. We can only talk about the single.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Ben, I think it goes without saying that your production on the new single is kind of a departure from the rest of the Daphne & Celeste discography.

BJ: Yeah, thanks. [laughs]

Why did you court them specifically for a collaboration? That happened on Twitter, right?

BJ: Basically, I tweeted them back in — when would that have been, 2010, you think? 2011, I think. Obviously, the beauty of Twitter is that you can contact famous people. Who better to contact than Daphne & Celeste? I wasn’t expecting a response, either, but Celeste got straight back to me.

CC: It took me about four months.

BJ: Really? It felt pretty quick. I’ve sort of told myself that she replied straight away, but maybe I’m wrong. Yeah, I just thought it would be fun to apply my production style to a band that sounded historically very different to what I usually do, and that it would fascinate and excite fans of both Daphne & Celeste and Max Tundra.

So, you courted them specifically because of the differences between your style and the style of their older music?

BJ: Well, that’s one of many reasons. I was kind of knocked sideways when those songs came out back in the day, because they were sort of quite unlike anything I was listening to as a cool twenty-something. And, they’ve sort of stayed with me, so I was wondering what those two were up to now. A lot of people have been wondering that as well. It just felt like a perfect fit, really. We had some fun recording it.

Karen and Celeste, when you first heard the instrumental Ben sent you, what did you think?

KD: We loved it.

CC: That’s why we made a comeback.

KD: The first time we listened to it, we thought it was such a great song.

CC: Considering what our old songs sounded like — to make those songs evolve, I didn’t think that was possible, to make a grown-up version of our sound. When we heard this, we thought, wow, if Daphne & Celeste grew up, they would sound like this. The minute we heard it, we knew.

Over the past 15 years, how often has the idea of a comeback come up?

CC: We did a reunion tour a couple years after the group… There were a lot of pop-based reality shows happening, where they were throwing people back together and filming them, so we were contacted for some of that and that just sounded like torture. I don’t know why anyone would do that. We had ideas of our own, because fans would come to us and ask us to come back, but nothing ever solidified.

KD: This is the first time it felt like there was a point. This is the song to come back for.

So it definitely took someone like Ben to bring you two back together.

KD: Yeah.

BJ: I’ve got a question for these two that I don’t think I’ve asked them before: Has anyone else ever approached you with music in the last 15 years and asked you to come back?

CC: Yeah.

BJ: You didn’t choose them?

CC: They’ve proposed it through Twitter before. When I got your message, I was like, “Sure, you’re Max Tundra.” When you sent the press packet, we were like, “Oh. Okay.”

BJ: Good answer.

CC: Usually it’s some guy with a studio set up in his basement.

BJ: Locks you in there for 20 more years.

I used to read NME and I would read it from cover to cover, and even down to the adverts for “musicians wanted” in the back, because that was your weekly serving of what the hell’s going on in music. Now, anyone can search for anything. You have to be more unusual, I think. Thinking of the late 80s, it was like, “These are the bands,” sort of like in Mullholland Drive, “This is the girl.” This is what you’re going to listen to. Now, the kids are asking why. Which is healthy.

Karen, in 2005, I think you set the paradigm for the entire media narrative around Daphne & Celeste when you told Q Magazine that the project was completely manufactured. It’s been 10 years since then. Do you want to clarify that at all? To what extent is that still true?

KD: The full extent.

CC: We were a manufactured band. We auditioned for it in New York. Originally, they wanted cartoon girls to do the songs, like, anime characters, so we were both convinced that the only reason we got the band in the first place is because we kind of looked like anime characters. I stand by what I said in 2005.

I guess the thing I’m wondering about is this: Considering the duo was originally manufactured and put together artificially, I want to know if you consider the new single more genuine. How is it possible to come back with a genuine project that was originally manufactured?

KD: That’s interesting. I think we were very lucky that our record label and our producers and our manager let us do our own thing. We could say whatever we wanted to say. We created the characters Daphne & Celeste. We didn’t have control over the music, but we had control over what we said. We take complete responsibility for our obnoxious moments.

CC: For better or for worse, they allowed us to say whatever we wanted at the ages of 16 and 18.

KD: Yes, it was manufactured, but the relationship that we developed was genuine. The music was not, but our relationship was.

CC: It’s the most amazing thing to get to do over, because the music industry has changed so much that we were a manufactured pop group, but now we can go about it in an entirely different way. Doing it guerrilla-style, on our own. We’ve made so many choices with this project, which is very new and refreshing for us.

As a person who has done a lot of DIY music, I’ve never had the kind of exposure you’ve had to the workings of the industry. Now that you’re outside of that establishment, are you able to make more genuine music?

KD: Definitely. We were hired to sing those songs, back in 1998.

CC: We were pretty jaded, which is why it took us so long to make a comeback. If you’re not going to make a piece of art worth making, you might as well not make anything. A half-assed comeback was never an option for us.

KD: When you’re not under contract at a major label, you can work on things you’re passionate about. That really worked out when we started working with Ben.

Daphne & Celeste (Photo: Bart Koscinski)

Max Tundra on synth (Photo: Jack Barnes)

Ben, the only full-length Daphne & Celeste record was We Didn’t Say That! in 2000, which produced a couple pretty big singles. When did you first hear that record, and what did you like about it?

BJ: I didn’t hear the album for a while, but the singles were all over. You’ve got to remember, Daphne & Celeste were household names in the UK in 2000. They were on loads of TV shows, in magazines and newspapers. They were the flavor of that pop era. Back then, I was into sort of “cool” music, indie music, or whatever, so I didn’t buy the album at the time, but once they had replied in the affirmative on Twitter, I bought the album. It’s surprisingly good. It’s not all good.

CC: Hey! It’s a classic!

BJ: [laughs] It is one of those classic pop albums, with lots of producers, lots of sounds, very eclectic.

KD: Just one producer. [laughs]

BJ: Really?

KD: Yeah, you can tell.

BJ: Lots of writers, though. One of things I was delighted with when I received their vocals was how amazing their voices sound. Whoever produced that album didn’t do them any favors by speeding their vocals up a bit. The new song has a lot of space to breathe, and it kind of celebrates their voices in a way that wasn’t done before. I wanted to do something that flattered them.

Karen and Celeste, how often do you revisit that album? How do you feel about it?

KD: I try to listen to it in my car on the way to work every morning.

CC: Every night before I go to bed. It’s hard to describe to people and people get annoyed when I say it, but you know when you, like, do something in high school that you’re proud of but you’re also embarrassed of? That was Daphne & Celeste. I loved all the experiences, but I was 16.

KD: I don’t have a copy of the album, but it is available.

BJ: It’s not on iTunes.

KD: You can listen to it on YouTube.

No one realizes that whenever Karen and I were anywhere, people would shout ‘ugly’ at us. If anyone was concerned about us getting what was coming to us for making a song like that, we did.

CC: How many times did we perform “U.G.L.Y.”?

KD: At least a thousand times.

BJ: Do you still know the lyrics?

CC: Yeah.

KD: No. There was one time we went back for a couple of shows and we couldn’t remember the words.

CC: Oh my god, that’s true.

KD: I do like playing it for my friends’ kids. Like, “This is what I did when I was a teenager.”

BJ: If you do track the album down, you should check out my favorite song on there, which is “Roll Call.” That track is quite Tundra in terms of having multiple key changes and several styles.

CC: A lot of people have copied that song.

I checked it out on YouTube. I like most of the stuff I’ve heard.

BJ: “Star Club” is pretty good, too.

KD: Some of these songs have aged better than we expected them to age. With the way music has gone, it’s interesting, because at the time we weren’t the cool kids at the pop table.

BJ: Who were?

KD: Westlife.

BJ: Oh, shit! My grandma was a Westlife fan.

CC: Daphne & Celeste was not experimental pop.

KD: Spice Girls.

BJ: Solo Spice Girls songs.

Would you guys like to be evaluated at this point as being progressive popstars? Is that what this comeback is about?

CC: No. It’s about genuine fun. That’s what pop is about. You know our age. We’re making a pop comeback. The comeback is literally just to have a blast.

That’s good.

CC: A lot of indie music and music in general takes itself too seriously now. What we were always about was poking fun at that. Maybe if we were Thom Yorke, sure. You’ve listened to our lyrical content. We’re not Thom Yorke.

BJ: Celeste, it’s interesting that you say that, because Max Tundra stuff is always fun. Within electronic music, there’s a lot of miserable, boring stuff. Dudes with laptops. So dull. I’ve always tried to make music that’s enjoyable, and so have the girls.

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