AIR. It always was an ambitious name for a band, so brief and elemental. It posed from the start the question of substance, and when the French duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel turned up in 1998 with the, well, airy electronic sketches of Moon Safari, they achieved saturation in certain circles followed by a depletion of density.
Having spawned no imitators, initiated no trends, they returned at unhurried intervals with albums mining essentially the same concept: highly produced affairs with a pop sophistication so uncanny as to cause as much wariness as listening pleasure, earning them not-quite-friendly designations like “soft electropop.”
And now they’re back, three years after their 2004 sortie Talkie Walkie, with a new album called Pocket Symphony that finds them in a stripped-down, quiet place, a minimalist project that might or might not prove a commercial risk. The “French Touch” club wave, to which they only awkwardly belonged in the first place, has long since waned. They are alone – a condition, it turns out, that they find quite appealing.
On a chilly evening, Godin and Dunckel sit in a Williamsburg photographer’s studio, letting a soggy couch support them after they’ve posed for a shoot. They’ve had a tedious day, spent mainly at the French consulate renewing passports after a misunderstanding with authorities at JFK. Godin, who has the perkier personality, is distracted at first, texting with his girlfriend in Paris. Dunckel seems part contemplative, part jetlagged.
Neither man is a massive physical specimen, but both are attractively lanky and appear comfortable in their skin and relaxed-European garb: jacket, dark pants, open shirt. They are, to put it simply, French – casually, fluidly so, but leaving no doubt as to their cultural provenance. For this writer, who happened to grow up in France about the same time Godin and Dunckel did, it’s an uncanny blast from the past.
And so is their music in a lot of ways. There’s a retro, romantic underpinning to their work – a self-conscious effort to put themselves outside trend and time. Critics pin on them pop labels – post-Kraftwerk synth-electronica, post-Gainsbourg French existential pop, and the 1990s “French Touch” club music – but they resist all designations.
The influences they credit are not performers but composers – Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Philip Glass – and most of all the soundtrack composers of their childhood like Ennio Morricone and Michel Colombier. A fascination with film scores is key to the Air sensibility and results from the pair growing up with a typically French cinema habit.
As epiphanies go, Godin likens the first time he heard Morricone’s soundtrack to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in its life-changing effect, to an American first hearing the Beatles in 1964 on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“I think for a French kid watching these movies was the biggest shock you could feel when you were a teenager or child,” Godin says. “Because pop culture isn’t a French thing, but music soundtracks are a strong part of French culture.” He cites composers such as Georges Delarue, who worked with Jean-Luc Godard, or Michel Colombier.
Growing up, Godin says, “You can’t be French and say I’m going to be hip hop. As an American teenager you can dream of hip hop, but as a French teenager it’s ridiculous. But we have these soundtracks. That’s why we go more into this orchestral music.”
That premise, of course, is open to challenge – after all, there’s a profusion of quality French hip hop – but it indicates from where Air is coming. They are, in a sense, space-age cultural conservatives, purveyors of a nostalgic electronica in which lyrics are optional, song structure is secondary, and the priority is the establishment of a sonic haven where you can be free with your fantasies, just like at the movies.
“Normal people go to the cinema and that’s the way they get moved,” Dunckel says. “And so I try to model this emotion and make music with it, and have the same effect. What I take from a movie, I put it in some speakers, and that’s the basis of Air’s music, I think. People just listen to our music and they think they are in a movie.”
Air have one actual soundtrack to their credit, the 2001 score to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. It was their second full-length project and seemed a departure from the proper progress path for a new pop group. Looking back, it may have proven a rare chance to score a full movie from a clean slate rather than assemble a package of songs “inspired by” the film, as is increasingly common.
It’s an approach they’d like to revive, although probably not with Coppola: “She’s doing less and less in terms of traditional soundtrack,” Godin says. “She works with a guy who collects a lot of songs and puts them in the movie. We prefer the traditional approach.”
Dunckel picks up: “I think that when you do a soundtrack, your heart is more full and your mind is more open, and anything is possible. But when you do an album, it’s more formatted. Even before you start you feel more limited, because it’s songs. When it’s a soundtrack, it can go in any direction; there’s no rule.”
Some people like songs, of course – even Air, when pressed to discuss specific tracks. Still, they are coming back to the wide-open soundscapes of their early work. Principally instrumental and, on the whole, a relatively quiet album, Pocket Symphony lacks the agitation of 10,000 Hz Legend or the crisply packaged pacing of Talkie Walkie. It makes no apologies for the minimalist serenity that may drive antsy listeners up the wall, but that reflects the state of mind of the duo, who are now deep in their thirties.
“Every record reflects where we are,” says Dunckel. “It’s amazing. I can read all my life looking at the records we did. Moon Safari was innocence, 10,000 Hz was tortured…”
Asked how they’ve changed, Dunckel answers by means of a projection.
“I think there is always this girl that we are speaking to,” he says. “Like the average woman, or the girl that we would like to have, or that we have just had, and it’s this freeform shape, this woman that we are talking to and is always there.”
“At the beginning she was a brunette,” Godin interjects. “Now she’s a blonde.”
“At first she was only there to pass a good time with,” Dunckel continues. “But now she is a mother. She has to be able to face maternity.”
Godin and Dunckel are family men, though vague about the number and distribution of baby-mamas. Dunckel and his girlfriend live with his three kids and her two in a loft in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a once-seedy, now artsy district near two major train stations. Godin has two kids, a steady girlfriend, and lives in the upscale 16th.
Between work and family life, Godin and Dunckel by their own admission don’t get out very much anymore. They don’t exude fascination with other pop developments, in Paris or elsewhere, and they reject any association with a music scene. They are quite literally bande à part, a French term for outsiders that translates to “a band apart.”
“Even when the ‘French Touch’ started, we were the only ones to do music with no beat in it,” Godin says. “And that’s amazing, even when we are part of a movement, we are alone in this movement. Now more than ever.”
“We are more part of a culture than part of a music scene,” Dunckel says.
Typically, a stance of splendid isolation in pop is hard to back up, exposed as it is to accusations of arrogance or complacency that are all too often well-founded. So it’s tempting to scrutinize Air for signs of hubris or, at least, disconnection with daily life. Remarkably, there are precious few. Godin and Dunckel are too down to earth, too obviously true to their game, and most of all too damn intelligent.
In fact, you could fairly call them intellectuals, ones who made the most of their high-end French public education and ultimately, despite becoming full-time musicians, never renounced their original fields – architecture for Godin, mathematics for Dunckel.
That background means that when Godin talks about building a song, he’s barely being metaphoric.
“Every song has an approach,” he says. “Our music is very built with a foundation and space. The first thing that they taught me at school is [that] the important thing is not the walls but the space behind the walls. The wall is nothing. Just put two walls together and it creates a space. Because if you take a baseline and a point, the whole energy between them creates the space of the music.”
“Our music is very spacey, it’s the most spacey music I know,” Godin continues. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing of bad, but at least it’s fucking spacey.”
The mathematically trained Dunckel, meanwhile, brings to the Air tracks the tinkering of an experimentalist who knows there can be beauty in an unexpected equation.
“Theory can be really important for improving music,” Dunckel says. “You say, I’m going to do some conceptual music now, and I want to reverse what the melody will do. I want the melody to be done by the bass, the bass lines to be made by the drums… It can lead to some really weird music.”
He grows animated as he details an example: “One day we made a track, we reversed the tape, pitched it down, picked it up… We wrote it down on paper, recorded the guitar making new chords, these chords were weird because we made some mistakes, we kept some reversed tracks mixed in with some new parts – it’s a theory thing but it works. The track is called ‘Caramel Prisoner’ – it’s on 10,000 Hz. Things like that.”
By stripping down the sound on Pocket Symphony, the pair have allowed themselves to dwell on conceptual matters. “Nightsight,” the album’s closing track, offers a simple illustration. It is built on two cycles, one of four notes and one of seven. The cycles merge and separate to an almost hypnotic effect kept off-kilter by the unusual spacing.
“When the cycles just go back together it’s such a relief,” Godin says. “And we say that the system of the song is that magic moment when suddenly they go back together for [about] one second. So we didn’t want to have too much on top of it. They just separate and come back together; that’s what creates the satisfaction. It really is a theoretical thing.”
Though it might sound paradoxical, for Air, the return to theoretical basics has meant a chance to make music that they consider warmer, by which they mean more sensual, compared to Talkie Walkie, which may be their best-crafted work songwise, but they now feel lacks an overall emotional signature.
“Our music maybe on Talkie Walkie was too cold, and I like that in the early years we were more sensual,” Godin says. “So many people made love to ‘La femme d’argent.’ We wanted to go back to that vibe.”
They like the idea of listeners having sex to their work. “At least feel some sensuality, some sexiness,” says Godin. A sonic architect, he wants to remodel your bedroom, perhaps modify some other spaces in your world to make them more conducive.
In the end, it comes down to basics. Music. Sex. Fantasy. On the new album, these themes seem to join in the repeated evocation of Japan. They know Japan from touring, of course, and Godin recently took up study of the Japanese koto, which he plays on the album. But Japan is also a parallel fantasy that could etch itself, in the end, anyplace.
“It’s a Pacific wind blowing in your face,” says Dunckel, explaining the song “Mer du Japon,” one of the few that includes a vocal part. “It’s like when you are amazed by an Asian girl, by her beauty, and you are jetlagged because you are in Japan, the wind from the ocean in your face, you are a little bit dizzy, you are lost…”
The essential truth that Air is onto is that: It’s important to be able to get lost, especially when you’re a star, or when you are creative, or when you live in the city, or maybe simply when you are human at all. Like the element they chose as their name, Godin and Dunckel have perfected the art of being present and absent at once vis à vis their audience, their peers, and even their country.
Two years ago, they were awarded a top French honor and made Knights in the National Order of Arts and Letters in a fancy government ceremony, the Minister of Culture reading a citation and adorning them with the order’s official lapel ribbon. They were, as ever, slightly flattered, slightly nonplussed, and not entirely there, already reworking the event into their fantasy world, turning it to potential creative material.
Godin smiles at the memory.
“I didn’t expect it, no,” he says. “But I was always a fan of Star Wars. I wanted to be a Jedi for the Republic, and now that’s what we are: knights of the French republic. When you are an artist, things happens to you, and you transform them into fantasy.”