FRESH “AIR” BREEZES IN FROM FRANCE
By Paul Freeman [2007 Interview]
French pop artists rarely achieve a following in the U.S. The duo of Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, better known as Air, have earned a devoted cult following. Admirers include Beck and Madonna. The attraction is an airily atmospheric sound that’s truly unique.
Godin says of their success, “It’s a surprise, but, on the other hand, what we do, nobody does over there. It’s natural for some people to like it, because they don’t have it.”
“There are so many places in the world we want to visit where we’ve never been. But it’s a big temptation to keep coming to America, because we have such a warm response from the people.
“In some places, people try to be blasé. In the States, the audience is very positive. They’re there to enjoy the show.”
Godin explains Air’s proclivity for experimentation. “What is cool about the French scene is that we don’t have this big pop culture background. So we have freedom. A lot of my friends live in England and they have to write pop songs. As soon as they find an idea on guitar or piano, they have to figure out a verse and a chorus. They’re prisoners of rules and tradition. When we find an idea on the piano, if it’s a song, fine. But if it’s something else, we don’t care.
“In France, we don’t have a lot of great bands. But at least the few composers we have are as much influenced by classical music and soundtracks as by pop bands. In England and America, most of the bands are influenced by rock, blues and pop. Of course, we’ve had very few good records made here in France in the last 30 years, but the small amount that are good have a lot of freedom in them.”
Both Godin and his musical partner come from science backgrounds. “Architecture and mathematics have a lot to do with the balance of things. And the balance is the most important thing in our music.”
He finds technology to be not dehumanizing, but illuminating. “From the beginning of Air, we always tried to show the friendly side of the machines, to not be scared of them. When we use the Vocalizer, we want it to sound sweet, with lots of feelings in it, not like Kraftwerk, who used it as robot or machine sounds. We wanted to make it sound like an angel.”
Godin considers himself to be more of a transformer than a creator. “The songs are in the sky. They come down to us and go through us. It’s a very bizarre sensation. They just arrive and we don’t know where they come from. You’re a slave to it. You don’t learn to write songs in a school.”
Though they never cater to mainstream, Air has fashioned hits, such as “Sexy Boy” from the 1998 album “Moon Safari.” “We are the kind of band, when we have a hit, it happens by luck. We have some friends who can sit at a table and say, ‘Okay, let’s make a hit.’ And they do it. Us, if it happens, good, but we have no control over it.”
Air’s latest CD, the beguiling “Pocket Symphony,” veers further from their earlier pop directions, wafting towards their classical roots.
Having had music used in Sofia Coppola’s “Virgin Suicides” and “Lost In Translation,” they’ve found that film scoring allows them to enter modern classical territory.
“Pocket Symphony” also contains Asian influences, inspired by Godin’s girlfriend, who maintains a gallery and a fondness for Japanese art.
“It was hard, because we didn’t want to sound like world music. We wanted to adapt the Japanese sound into the pop culture without making it in bad taste. It was risky.”
Air always treads a thin line. “We are surrounded by these tbig things - kitsch and bad taste on our left and on our right, big, pretentious, music. We have to walk between these two worlds, being very careful not to touch either of them.”
Critics in France haven’t always embraced Air’s recordings. “For some reason, people in France don’t understand music. They have weird taste. They like horrible things. It’s bizarre, because in so many other arts and avenues of life, we have a very good sense of what is cool and what is not.”
Godin doesn’t want to let Air continue until its cool turns cold. “So many bands just go on, writing songs that aren’t good anymore. Many artists think they’re geniuses, so if it comes from them, it must be good. They lose their distance and can’t judge anymore. When the time comes, I want to have the strength to say ‘It’s over.’”
He looks forward to leaving the pop world. “I’ve been frustrated not having more time to learn classical music. I’m getting old (37) and I realize I need to start now, to work hard, if I’m going to play the pieces of music I want to play one day.
“You have your ambition - you want to make a band and be successful. But then you have your life, the pleasure of waking up every day, learning the classical music that you love. That’s a tough choice. It’s time for me to think about these things. I want to finish the tour and see what my perspective is.
“I don’t ask for a whole life of creativity. I just ask that, when I don’t have creativity anymore, I can admit it and and not to write something and try to convince myself it’s great. I let life tell me what to do. I don’t make any plans. I just see what will happen.”
For more on Air and their latest album, “Love 2,” visit en.aircheology.com