Film: Les francais under a groove
French music has never been hip - but that was before a breath of fresh Air.
Friday 15 May 1998
After decades of pop music that was Eurovision in all but name, the country that inflicted "Joe le Taxi" on an innocent listening public appears to have colonised the wittiest, most playful realms of dance with a nouvelle vague too funky by half. Daft Punk, Motorbass, Dimitri and Laurent Garnier and, above all, the duo Air, proffer, broadly, a jazzy take on the UK's dance revolution that is frankly too good to be French.
Until you meet Air, you could suspect that L'Academie had secretly enticed the finest UK house producers in an attempt to manufacture their own version of Cool Britannia. "We didn't want to play live," insists Nicolas Godin, the pragmatist to Jean Benoit Dunckel's dreamer, reflecting on Air's recent appearance on Later with Jools Holland, "and then they said Lenny Kravitz will be there!" If this charming pair are deep cover agents, then their adherence to the peculiarly French reverence for the anodyne American rocker shows they've really done their homework.
Moon Safari, Air's first album, deployed this fusion of effortless cool and disarming naivety in equal measure. A wistful, bittersweet collection of apparently featherweight pop, it sounds like Simon and Garfunkel arranged by Kraftwerk and played by Herbie Hancock, and found itself labelled superior easy listening when it charted at number six on its release in January.
The pouting electro-pop of the first single, "Sexy Boys", reached the Top Ten, an unexpected commercial success which "Kelly, Watch The Stars" consolidated with a Top 20 entry last week. Yet, despite the sleeve's coy, posed illustrations of Godin and Dunckel and its 1970s typography, Moon Safari is far too, well, sincere merely to end up as an ironic accompaniment to a spot of shag-pile lounging.
Ask Dunckel about the album's poise and attention to structure and the Truman Capote-lookalike delivers an earnest disquisition on composition, music's role "as an international language", Mozart's experiments with sonata form and the need "to make people fly when they listen to our music - we are searching for beauty in the chords. We are doing music in an intellectual way: we have a perfect world in our mind." If he wasn't so ingenuous and free of pomposity, his pronouncements would be embarrassing.
"We have been very influenced by Claude Debussy," says Dunckel, who was educated at the Conservatoire in Paris. "There is no tension in his music: it is very sweet, light and our music is the same thing." In fact, it's this intentional lack of drama that lends the album its affecting edge - play the ostensibly up-beat "Ce Matin La" when you're not feeling your best and you'll see there's very little "easy" about listening to Moon Safari. As if to emphasise this and go beyond the keyboard noodling in which they occasionally indulge on the album, Air's performance on Later with Jools Holland turned "Kelly, Watch The Stars" into a Roxy Music stomp and cranked up a similarly breathless version of "Sexy Boy".
Feted as the heralds of a French pop boom, Dunckle and, in particular, Godin don't understand the current British infatuation with French pop. "I don't find a good record in France," frowns Godin. "Who is good in France? I think Motorbass, they did a good album and Daft Punk, but it's not enough to make a musical nation."
But they are obviously ecstatic about their success in the UK and despite the fact that they have both abandoned careers (Dunckel in teaching, Godin in architecture) to pursue Air, the pair of them are content to enjoy their cross-channel adoption while it lasts. "We try not to think too much about it," laughs Godin. "England goes so fast in the music business - you have a hit and afterwards they say 'Bye-bye'. England needs bands like people need food."
Thanks to their English lyrics, Air suffer from the aural quota which dictates that 40 per cent of radio airtime must be devoted to music in French. "We're not considered French at home," says Godin, adding that a modest but devoted following abroad and relative anonymity in France is exactly the way they want it. "We would like to be an impossible band," grins Dunckel, "to be discovered in France as a foreign band."
Entrez dans la funk - who else is who in the Paris crew:
Laurent Garnier: A prime mover in bringing Paris disko across La Manche, the legendary DJ has been filling dance floors in the UK since the Eighties. Strangely enough, Garnier rarely makes it into French sound round ups.
Daft Punk: Culpable with fellow leading lights Air in gratuitous use of the vocoder, the Daft duo plundered Chicago house roots and rejigged it with an enigmatic Parisian smirk in their debut hit album, 'Homework'.
Dimitri from Paris: The man purported to own 4,000 toy robots ploughs a suitably kitsch furrow on his album 'Sacre Bleu': Sixties trash sensibility meets Seventies film-soundtracks in a Nineties disco.
Motorbass: 'Pan Soul', Philippe Zdar and Etienne de Crecy's cheeky slice of house arguably epitomizes French dance at its playful best. Zdar popped up on the Mo' Wax label as La Funk Mob a few years ago.
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