Future Music Magazine
Future Music Interview
Like a breath of the fresh stuff, Air have captured the imagination of many a weary listener with their rich, organic sounds.
Parisian duo Air have blown into an awful lot of ears lately with a rare and beautiful collection of songs - yes, that's songs - that are both evocatively retro and alluringly contemporary. Seldom has a name been so appropriate to the essential yet transient blend of music it represents. It's a seductive sound, where clattering beats are forsaken for the soothing sounds and kitsch pop that they capture on the surprisingly lo-tech debut album Moon Safari.
Music and sex
As multi-instrumentalists, both Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel (J-B) have been hitting, strumming and twiddling for at least half of their 28 years. J-B studied classical piano at the Conservatoire in Paris, where he learnt the works of Bach and Debussy among others. Nicolas, on the other hand, was encouraged by his boho folks to tinker with any musical instruments lying around the house from an early age. But it was while the two were in their teens that they first pooled their resources: "We went to the same college.
Etienne de Crecy was there as well and around the end of the 80s we did a kind of noisy pop thing - a band called Orange - using electric guitars with a Moog," explains Nicolas in his heavily-accented Gallic burr. "Because we had so little money, we bought all our equipment from second-hand shops, and with no money and so much time, we got to know how to use what we had, making the equipment work as hard as possible. This was at the end of the 80s and there were things like DX7s everywhere 'cos no one wanted them."
While their music developed as they collaborated on and off over the years, the pair's approach to gear remained pretty much the same, wringing the max from anything they could lay their hands on, with a predilection for retro synths and their associated idiosyncrasies. And it's thoroughly beneficial to the pair's output that they're based in the arty Montmartre district of Paris, a long-time haunt for musicians of all descriptions, and a melting pot of ideas. And Daft Punk live up the road as well. "There's a real buzz here, I don't know why. There's been a mixture of music and sex here for a very long time" J-B grins. "After they play, they go and see a bitch!" Nicolas offers with a mischievous cackle. J-B and Nicolas have also been privy to some tasty gear deals in their manor too, as Montmartre is famed for its abundance of music shops. "It's incredible," Nicolas enthuses.
"Equipment is so cheap here, especially all the old stuff. I bought my TB-303 for forty pounds and I picked up a 909 for two hundred. And you can buy a Moog for nothing. I think it's because France is a country where there aren't that many people making this kind of music, so the demand isn't so high for these things." And, lest we forget, you needn't be armed to the teeth with the latest and greatest kit to get classy results, as J-B attests: "It was strange with our album to discover that you can still make a great record with cheap equipment. The more you play with these instruments, the more you find you can get from them. It makes you more creative. It's a big motivating force."
A very small house in the country
Remarkably, Moon Safari was recorded on an eight-track machine, using a purposely restricted array of gear. "When we came to record this album we wanted to do something very precise, so we used instruments and equipment that we knew really well, recorded on to an eight track through a simple mixer. We wanted to keep things as comfortable as possible," J-B explains. The recording took place over four months in a stone cottage on the outskirts of Versailles, a town steeped in history which also happens to be the place where both Nicolas and J-B were born and brought up.
"We rented this cottage on the edge of a forest rather than going into a professional studio, basically so that we could afford more time. It was empty, so we moved all our equipment in and set up in one room," Nicolas reveals. To a nucleus of traditional instruments like a grand piano, pianola and Nicolas' guitars, they brought their full compliment of creaky analogues: "We were using old Roland drum machines, Moogs, old Korg stuff, ARP synths and the Rhodes electric piano," Nicolas expands, "and we also used a lot of guitar effects: distortions and flangers in particular.
We like the Electro Harmonix effects." The distorted organ lead lines on album opener La Femme D'Argent demonstrate this creative use of stomp-boxes perfectly. "If I want a flanged sound I put a guitar box into the inserts on the mixer and I can control it manually," Nicolas continues. "It's more spontaneous that way. I don't like to have to push buttons on a rack," he adds. J-B is also quick to point out that they don't consider themselves to be studio spods, and many elements of their tracks are flukes. "We're not very good technicians, and the kind of effects and equipment we use are such that you're often obliged to hit them! So accidents play a part in our music as well. All the time." And not always happy ones it would seem. "There are mistakes in my playing on this album," J-B confesses, "parts where the rhythm is wrong or keyboards are out of tune." In truth though, what J-B sees as mistakes, the average listener sees as interesting quirks that, if anything, add to the appeal.
Moon Safari was pretty much entirely self-produced in this idyllic venue, as J-B explains: "It was us and one other person, Stephane Briat, who was the mixer of the album. He works very precisely and sometimes there were so many different parts and instruments going on that we needed that." So was it four months of hard slog then? "No, no," Nicolas responds. "It wasn't like we worked non-stop during the time we were there. We'd break at weekends and take days off, so there was no real pressure, and that was very cool.
And that's why the album is cool, because we weren't in a rush to do it." The lazy, spacy feel of Moon Safari certainly bears out this relaxed approach, while the diversity across the ten tracks indicates the absence of any kind of preconceived marketing agenda. "We wanted each song to be a surprise. We wanted people to think, 'I wasn't expecting that,' and that's why you have a moody track then something kind of poppy..." J-B explains. "Also we wanted the album to be an adventure. We wanted to build Moon Safari like a sort of trip, so that each time a new track comes in you have to swing into a new ambience." Playing and writing duties are pretty evenly distributed and Air tracks can grow from either of the pair's initial inspiration. "We have no rules when we write songs. We play ping pong with the ideas, so it's a regular exchange between us," Nicolas offers. "We could start with a chord or a melody...
Sometimes I arrive with an idea and we'll develop it but then the original idea won't work so we drop it." And what about samplers. Do they play a big role in Air tracks? "Samplers? Mmm... no," Nicolas responds. "Sometimes we use them but it's really hard for us because when we've got the idea of a song, we play it on a piano and compose from there. Then when it's finished it's very hard for us to find samples that go with the song or the tempo," he continues. "I think if you want to use samples, then you have to start from samples and build your song around them... but we don't really work that way. Maybe for the next album we'll try and get more inspired by samples. It's a really fresh way to compose but as this is our first, we were afraid of not doing good work so we stayed with all our old habits. For the next album though we'll turn ourselves more to modern equipment and we'll be running more risks."
Air's use of vocoders has played a huge part in distinguishing their sound, while simultaneously drawing the occasional dubious comparison to ELO. Originally employed to mask the voices of J-B and Nicolas, the pair are unrelentingly tight-lipped as to the particulars of the machines they use. "We like the vocoder very much," Nicolas whispers.
"We have four of them: one from Germany, one we picked up second-hand in Pigalle... But we can't tell you what they are, it's secret! If you find one that we've got, maybe you'd be able to make a record like Air," he chuckles. "Vocoders have very particular sounds," J-B continues. "In the 70s they were very robotic, but we try to make it angelic. Sweet, you know?" If further proof of this saintly sound is needed, look no further than Air's Top 10 single Sexy Boy, which illustrates the warmth and expression that can be achieved with machines that are more often regarded as harsh and mechanical.
Never mind the beats
There's a noticeable absence of beat trickery in Air tracks, the tendency being toward sparse, repetitive loops and occasional, but very subtle percussion. Hardly the kind of thing we've come to expect from modern dance music. Where are the beats, boys? "I play drums on the album, but we use a sampler," Nicolas explains. "We'll record two measures and loop it, because I'm not so great that I can play regularly all the way through," he owns up. "The beats are very simple, because we like that a lot, and when we compose the songs we have no beat, so when we finish we say 'Oh shit, we forgot the beat!'," Nicolas laughs. "It's funny because beats are phenomenal in music today. It's often the most important thing, but we don't really care for that; it doesn't mean anything to us in our music. We only really use it for keeping the tempo. We're interested more in harmony and chords. For us every track has to have strong harmony and a strong melody. That's the most important thing"
Something in the air
The current buzz that Air are generating is still a surprise to them, having always considered their music to be leftfield. "We like a lot of mainstream French music from the 70s but we thought our music would always be underground. We never imagined it could be commercial," J-B reveals. Things are different across the channel though: "In France we are so late at picking up new music. There's a huge gap between the mainstream and more experimental music, so whereas in England you can go into a record shop and buy jungle or house or whatever, you can't really do that in France, and even if we do well in the rest of the world, we'll always be able to work in a low key way here."
Nicolas sees this conservatism as a national trait: "In France we don't like success. We like losers," he laughs. "In the 50s there were the jazz men and before that painters - all underground people who became famous - but the French don't like that. People prefer us to stay underground. I think they're suspicious of success. They don't think we could do it with our art alone. It's the same with sport. We can get to the final and play well but then we lose; we don't have any fighting spirit.
People like to have fun too much." Sounds okay to me, but Air couldn't be further from this categorisation, with a rigorous promotion schedule taking them all over the globe, their newest single - Sexy Boy - getting frequent airing on MTV, Moon Safari already touted as album of the year by a handful of pundits and rehearsals for the pending live shows ensuring the last thing they'll be doing is losing in the final.