Air: The light fantastique

Air took off with a multi-million-selling debut in 1998. They may have had a few earth-bound moments since then, but they're back and feeling uplifted, they tell Fiona Sturges
Click to follow

Jean-Benoit Dunckel, one half of the French pop duo Air, is rolled up in a ball at the end of a sofa, his eyes clamped shut. His musical partner Nicolas Godin, a dandyish figure in a velvet suit jacket, is flitting around the room like a hyperactive hamster. It's a crisp December afternoon in Paris and the pair have been stuck indoors all day doing interviews. Now they've obviously had enough. If they're planning to make a run for it perhaps they could wait until our interview is over, I suggest. Softly spoken and ceaselessly polite, Godin smiles and shakes my hand.

"Of course!" he exclaims sympathetically. "You have to excuse us. We're just a little tired from all the talking. Honestly, we're happy that you came." Mmm. He may be a talented musician, but he's a bad liar. Godin and Dunckel are reluctant stars more at home making music than talking about it. If the business of promoting an album, a tedious process involving press interviews, TV appearances and endless photo shoots, is their idea of purgatory, however, touring is nothing short of hell.

"To tour too much is to kill the pleasure of playing music," says Dunckel, finally sitting up and taking a sip of mineral water. "Also, we are not the kind of guys for rock'n'roll living. We think it's a cliché, it's pathetic. It's sad that so many musicians pursue this image of a rock star that doesn't really exist. I think the reason we are successful is because we are different from that. We do things the way we want to do them. It's important for us not to lose our personalities."

Before Air arrived on the scene in 1998, France was viewed by music aficionados as a creative wilderness, a land of kitsch Eurovision contenders and Jean Michel Jarre. But then came Air's Moon Safari, a soothing piece of retro-futurist whimsy which shifted over two million copies worldwide and turned our preconceptions upside down. French pop was instilled with a new confidence that, six years on, shows little sign of abating. Though Godin and Dunckel are keen to distance themselves from their nation's dance boom ("We are not DJs, we are musicians"), they concede that the rise of Gallic dance acts such as Daft Punk, Kojak, Rinocerose and Alex Gopher may not have been possible without them.

Moon Safari struck an instant chord with the post-rave generation happy to spend their Friday nights indoors. Hailed as a masterpiece by critics, it became the soundtrack for myriad middle-class dinner parties.

"I've heard Moon Safari called dinner party music in England," admits Godin. "Apparently that is an insult though in France we respect food, we take it very seriously. To play our album while you eat is a great compliment to us."

Their follow-up album 10,000 Hz Legend was an altogether different beast, however. If their aim was to shed their easy-listening image they certainly succeeded. Essentially a homage to Seventies prog rock, the album was fiercely indulgent and, in parts, almost unlistenable. Godin and Dunckel admit to being dismayed at the critics (and poor sales) though they say they'll defend the album to the death. Even now they insist they dislike prog rock.

"For people to say 10,000 Hz Legend was a prog-rock record is ridiculous," says Dunckel. "I have always found prog to be the most embarrassing of styles. It's not cool at all, there is no sense of humour."

"As an artist you can't control what people to think about your work," remarks Godin despondently. "It's like when you take a girl out for the first time. While you may think you're being smart and funny, she may think you are being stupid. One day you give up trying and start to act natural and suddenly she loves you."

Are you saying the album was a mistake?

"Of course not," he cries. "We're proud of it and we were very surprised at the reception. I'm sure that one day it will be understood as a great album. Perhaps it will be our Pet Sounds."

Still, it comes as a relief to find that, on their third album, Talkie Walkie, they have ditched the Pink Floyd-style noodling and reverted to the touchy-feely optimism of Moon Safari. Like their debut, it's a seductively timeless work and comes with the same pristine execution, though that's not to suggest that it's a carbon copy. For a start, Dunckel and Godin have decided to tackle the singing themselves rather than using guest vocalists.

In keeping with Air's sound, their voices have a distant, slightly disembodied quality that come into their own on "Biological", a song in which a lover is tenderly reduced to her natural components ("Thousands of hairs, two eyes, only it's you /soft skin, billions of genes, again it's you").

This is also their most intimate and romantic album yet. From the opening paean to love, "Venus" ("You could be from Venus/ I could be from Mars/ We would be together"), to the tender, flute-laden "Cherry Blossom Girl" , it reveals two men with a seriously soppy streak. "I guess it reflects how we were feeling at the time," laughs Dunckel. "It comes from a very warm place. We were, and still are, very in love with our girlfriends and we both have beautiful children. It's a happy time for us."

When I suggest that they might be trying to redress the balance and win back fans of Moon Safari, Godin shakes his head emphatically. "No, that is not it. It is more that I was living a nightmare during the making of 10,000 Hz Legend. As the music is a reflection of our personal life, it follows that that album should be darker."

Godin won't divulge the details of this nightmare, except to say that he was in a deep depression. "If I'm depressed, the music will be dark and if I work hard to be more happy, I will make happy music. It's that simple. We are changing all the time and I don't doubt that there will be more storms in our lives. Each record is a stamp of what we are. As long as we stay close to our feeling when we go in the studio, the records will always be honest and natural."

Talkie Walkie is Air's third full-length album though there have been plenty of extra-curricular activities for Godin and Dunckel over the years, among them the soundtrack to Sofia Coppolla's 2000 film The Virgin Suicides and, more recently, a score for a contemporary dance piece Near Life Experience by the choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. Last year they also composed a series of songs at the behest of the Italian author Alessandro Baricco, who played them during readings of his book City (the songs were later released as an album called City Reading). These projects are important, says Godin, "to push us intellectually and find different ways of making music. Most of the time we write music to be played on a stereo. Writing a score is a different discipline. It's all about creating an atmosphere and mood but not intruding on the drama."

It's a source of frustration to Dunckel and Godin that they remain unappreciated in their own land. "Here we are like aliens," sighs Godin. "People are into bad French rock here. Nobody understands us and nobody bothers us. In some ways, I like it. This way we get to follow our own path."

Is it possible that the French resistance to Air has anything to do with their insistence on singing in English. "Maybe," shrugs Dunckel, "Either way it doesn't matter to us. We prefer singing in English. It sounds better for us to say "I love you" than 'Je t'aime'."

Really?

"Of course. We respect too much the French language to sing in French. I think French is not cool with music unless you are Serge Gainsbourg. Maybe when we grow older we will feel differently, but now the strangeness of us speaking English works well. It fits our music better."

"I think also if you want to say something personal then you can hide it better in English" adds Dunckel. "A lot of our friends don't understand what we are singing. With songs like 'Wonder Milky Bitch' (from 10,000 Hz Legend) I think that is a good thing."

Dunckel and Godin both grew up on the leafy outskirts of Versailles,but didn't meet until they enrolled at the same university. They formed an indie rock band named Orange and sent demos out to record companies though they failed to make an impact. Having finished his studies, Dunckel embarked on a teaching career, while Godin stayed on at college to complete his seven-year course in architecture. It wasn't until Godin was 25 that he experienced what he now regards as his creative epiphany.

"I was working at my desk and I had many ideas for what I was drawing," he recalls. "Suddenly everything made sense. I started to see the work as my own vision rather than a combination of other people's designs. The ideas were just flowing out of me. When I went to school the next week and showed the work to my teachers they said it was very original. It was the first time in my life that I was not scared to have my own style and decided that that was the moment to do music again. I knew I could apply those principals to making an album."

Having abandoned his course with just a year to go, Godin contacted Dunckel and the pair began to pool their ideas. Later that year, a friend who worked at Source records suggested they contribute a track to the label's first compilation. Next came the single "Modular Mix" on the Mo' Wax label and a collaboration with the 70-year-old Moog synthesizer legend Jean-Jacques Perrey. In 1997 Dunckel and Godin signed a record deal with Virgin and set to work on their first proper album. They claim today, not altogether convincingly, that they weren't shocked by Moon Safari's success.

"It was our first album so we had nothing to compare it to," remarks Dunckel. "In fact, for me, it could have been more successful. But really, it made no different whether we sold five million or five thousand. It was our first album and it was very exciting." Now they say they feel no pressure with Talkie Walkie. Whether it skyrockets like Moon Safari or bombs like 10,000 Hz Legend, they have decided it's a work of genius.

"We've learned from experience not to care too much what other people think," states Godin. "Our only pressure is to have a good life and feel happy in our work. We can't control the rest, so why waste time trying?"

The single 'Cherry Blossom Girl' is out on Monday. 'Talkie Walkie' is released on 26 January. Air tour the UK in February

Comments