The Virgin Suicides
You don't measure the success of the Parisian duo Air by the number of records they've sold (rather a lot for a mainly instrumental band), or by the fact that their debut album, Moon Safari, was in the top three of just about every magazine and newspaper's end-of-year poll for 1998. You don't even measure their success by the list of ultra-cool musicians who have been fighting to work with them (they include Beastie Boy Mike D and Beck). No, you measure their success by the fact that they have altered the cultural map of the world. After four decades in which we British (and our American associates) have sniggered at the feeble attempts of the French to come to terms with modern pop music, Air have helped to turn Paris into the hippest musical city in the world.
What makes Air so special is their ability to disappear into a recording studio containing the same soulless pieces of complex electronics as every other studio, and emerge not with robotic rhythms and obvious samples but with soaring, soothing, magnificent melodies. Although very obviously produced by machines, Air's music is never machinelike. It has a deep, warm humanity. It harks back to the "good old days" when people used to write tunes, but it does so using the musical language of synths and samplers and sequencers, and thus gives us a much-needed reminder: modern music can be beautiful, too. We will know if scientists ever build a computer with artificial intelligence, because the first thing it will do is log on to Amazon and order Moon Safari for itself.
Air's ability to be ultra-modern and nostalgic at the same time lies in their deliberate disregard of the past 20 years of musical development. The two musicians who comprise Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel (known as JB), have gone back to the music of the 1960s and 1970s for inspiration. From that time, they have retained an innocent feeling that the future is an exciting place; if you like, they have made themselves prepostmodern. And they have discarded the dominant new music of the 1980s and 1990s. "We are absolutely not hip," says JB. "We like it, but it is not us. We have tried to make our music from a time before hip-hop."
If that were all they had done, Air would just be late bandwagon-jumpers on the easy-listening revival. But instead of staying slavishly with the music of three decades ago, Air have instead imagined how that music might have developed. Ironically, one of the reasons that Air sound so modern is that their roots stretch back further than those of most bands. The duo have happily admitted to looking for inspiration from Debussy and Rachmaninov.
Often these days, when confronted with instrumental music, critics fall back on the idea that it is soundtrack music for a film that doesn't exist. In Air's case, this was an accurate summation. And they've followed up an imaginary soundtrack with a real one. Next week, Air's soundtrack to the movie Virgin Suicides will be released on their own label, Record Makers.
Virgin Suicides is the first film by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford. "We always wanted to do soundtracks," says JB. "When we do an album, it is so hard to find good voices, original voices. Lyrics and voices are always a problem for us, so a soundtrack is cool, so easy for us."
Since both Coppola and Air were new to making films, the duo found themselves being given total freedom. Instead of being asked to write rigidly to cues in the film, they simply wrote pieces of music inspired by what they saw and sent them to Coppola. She then used whichever ones she liked - in some cases putting the music on completely different scenes from the ones Air had in mind when they wrote them.
While Moon Safari was an optimistic album, Virgin Suicides is darker, mirroring the intense, macabre nature of the movie. It's also a harder-sounding album, reflecting the fact that Air used a drummer for the first time. "The drummer was the hero of this album," says JB. For the next "proper" Air album, due this autumn, he promises another shift, this time to a "wilder" sound.
Releasing three albums (plus Premiers Symptomes, a collection of early singles) within the space of two years is a sign that Air are a band in a hurry. "The more you live, the more you feel that time is speeding up," says JB. "We have to express ourselves before dying.
"We feel that we are in the first phase. We can go much further. But we have to work hard and create a lot because maybe in five years we will have no more inspiration, or we will be out of fashion."
JB also wants to raise the band's profile in America. Moon Safari sold "not a lot, but a lot for a French band" there, and he believes that "there are many people there who can love us".
If you haven't fallen in love with Air yet, buy Moon Safari or Virgin Suicides, and you will.