It’s just a way for us to breathe, and to have new ideas, and a new way of seeing music.
story by Spencer Lokken
photo by Claude Gassian
The last time you had vivid memories of a pleasant dream, do you remember what sort of musical score accompanied your subconscious adventures? Probably not, but if in the future you are somehow able to program your brain with an mp3-style play list before drifting off to that other world, be sure to include some numbers by the hypnotizing French duo, Air. After all, the imaginative elegance of their music is far more meaningful in the bedroom than on the dance floor.
Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin of Air create what some might define as well-arranged, extremely sophisticated elevator music. The two men grew up in Versailles, yet didn’t actually meet until they enrolled in the same college. They started recording as Air in 1995 and gained popularity in the clubbing community by releasing singles on the ‘Mo Wax and Source labels. It turns out, however, that the band would eventually appeal to a much wider audience than the young weekend warriors on the nightclub scene.
Air simply had very little in common with artists like fellow countrymen Daft Punk, whose cosmic pop was starting to infiltrate dance clubs Stateside. Air’s debut album, 1998’s Moon Safari, is a collection of uplifting synth-fueled pop that was met with praise by critics worldwide. Contrary to popular belief, they played all of their own instruments and succeeded in tapping into an overall sound that was both laid-back and compelling. This was a rare combination for downtempo electronic music at the time, and just prior to the ludicrous “chill out” compilation craze pushed by corporate clubbing giants overseas. Moon Safari is perfect background music, yet far too captivating to be heard while in the dentist’s chair. In fact, the immense popularity of the album is probably a Muzak executive’s worst nightmare.
Not the type of artists interested in repeating themselves, Dunckel and Godin then constructed the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. The film perfectly captured the complexities of adolescence and would not have caused such a hefty emotional impact on its viewers had Air not provided the story with their haunting sonic goodness. They showed a much darker side to their art this time around, and die hard Safari fans were let in on the secret of the band’s versatility.
In addition to being exceptionally talented at a plethora of creative roles, the pair are adamant about maintaining a certain level of simplicity and purity in their music. The second studio album, 10,000 Hertz Legend, could very well have been a self-assessed exam for the two to explore those limits. It contained impressive collaborations with esteemed musicians like Beck, yet the album as a whole felt a tad scattered and Air’s true talents were overshadowed by broad strokes of experimentation. Dunckel and Godin themselves have admitted that they too think it’s strange – claiming that 10,000 Hertz was somewhat of a research project.
The band went back to its roots on the dazzling new Air album, Talkie Walkie. It hit shelves in January and gives longtime fans everything they’ve been waiting for and more. With this release, we see the two perfect their signature sound as well as hint to what the future may bring from them. The LP’s ten tracks flow together seamlessly, yet are just as magical on their own. It seems this is far too seldom a notion in contemporary pop, and it could very well be the band’s affinity for classical music that caused such an occurrence.
Songs like “Cherry Blossom Girl” and “Biological” bring back those lost feelings of having your first crush, while stand out “Surfing on a Rocket” is the kind of masterpiece that will make you smile uncontrollably on the worst of days. The goal of the album was essentially to create a pure collection of love songs, a difficult feat considering the overwhelming amount of sappy ballads that currently litter our airwaves. The two ditched the habit of inviting guest vocalists into the studio, and that decision paid off for them in a major way. Not only does their live instrumentation shine through, but Dunckel and Godin also prove that they are fully capable of handling all the vocals themselves.
Air received guidance from Radiohead super producer Nigel Godrich, and the timing to bring in such an accomplished outsider’s wisdom couldn’t have been more perfect. It seems as if Godrich gave the two men the confidence they needed in the booth and we, the fans, are thankful to him for that.
When Chicago Innerview got a chance to speak with shy guy Jean-Benoit Dunckel, it was just before Air’s tour was to begin. After what was sure to have been a hectic week of press and interviews, he came across over the phone the same way the group does through your speakers: intelligent, relaxed, and refined.
When asked about the live show and the difference we may see as a result of their new approach to recording, Dunckel jokingly admitted that, “In the studio we do what we want. On stage we do what we can.” He told me that the stage performance is based on emotion – where it’s important for everyone to share a certain energy. He further commented that “the main objective is to sing well and to do something understandable.”
In this instance, by “understandable” he means one’s ability to decipher the words, not the message. You see, the two have incredibly thick French accents, and Dunckel let me know that even if they lived in the States for the rest of their days, the accents would most likely never subside. I personally think they add to the enigmatic group’s allure, so other than the painstaking process of transcribing our interview, you’ll hear no complaints out of me. I can only imagine what he thought of my accent after living in the Midwest my entire life. C’est la vie, I suppose.
There’s an amazing track on the new album called “Mike Mills” (a longtime friend and director of a handful of Air’s videos) where the listener is mesmerized by the string arrangement and an eerily trenchant, yet repetitive piano solo. The song sounds simple enough, but therein lies the beauty of groups like Air. Much like the very name Dunckel and Godin chose to record under, with this tune, everything is not always as transparent as it seems. When you break down each section of the piece, you realize the way they (along with Serge Gainsbourg collaborator Michel Colombier) have constructed it is sheer genius.
I asked Dunckel about a part in Mills’ excellent 1998 documentary on Air called Eating, Sleeping, Waiting, and Playing. In this particular scene, the cameraman captures a moment where one of the musicians on tour with the band at the time comments on Air’s seemingly effortless ability to profoundly affect people with harmony. Musicians across the globe devote their entire lives to achieve such a success (with an all too familiar outcome), and I was curious to find out if Dunckel had any secrets he was willing to reveal. Without hesitation, he told me that they have absolutely no rules in their creative process of structuring a song and that, “In music, anything is possible. There’s always something new in the recording of each song…The main idea is coming from the process of recording.”
It’s this type of concept I wish more labels were willing to embrace. Air currently records on the stellar Astralwerks, where they (along with a slew of other top-notch artists) seem free to explore their creativity. Dunckel is right, anything is possible in music, and I’m afraid more and more aspiring musicians feel as if they have to conform to some sort of set formula in order to achieve success. (“American Idol”, anyone?)
I wondered what other music Dunckel thought Air fans listened to and additionally, who has influenced the band’s sound over the years. “I don’t know why, but I know that Air fans know a little bit about music,” he said. “They know many, many bands…that’s why everything we do, we try to think about our fans. They’re the base. For us, in the beginning it was David Bowie and the Beatles. Nicolas was really inspired by Funkadelic and bands like that. And I think, also, the main influence is classical music. In terms of arrangement, classical music offers really, really high level compositions. It’s just a way for us to breathe, and to have new ideas, and a new way of seeing music.”
Every project Air is a part of is a reaction to their previous body of work. Dunckel’s admission that they create their music to cure themselves and that it’s a form of “medicine” is a testament to that. The final track on the new album is the stunning “Alone in Kyoto”. It was used to help audiences get inside the heads of the two main characters in everyone’s favorite film of last year, Lost in Translation. We can only dream of what Air will pluck out of the sky next.
Air will play at the Riviera April 20.