Daily Telegraph Article
Daily Telegraph Newspaper
There's a musical revolution going on and its leaders are. . . French. With the release of their super-cool album 'Moon Safari', Air beat the British at their own game. Ben Thompson meets the duo at their studio in Versailles as they prepare for their first UK tour
Any list of the cultural turning points of 1998 would have to begin with January's first Top of the Pops appearance by the French duo Air. Two mild-mannered 28-year-old Parisians - one a former architect, the other a reformed maths teacher - Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel (J-B to his friends) seemed unlikely shock troops for a pop revolution. After the release at the beginning of the year of their beguiling album Moon Safari, these two soft-spoken men overturned one of Britain's most cherished certainties: thanks to Air, it could no longer be said that the people of France (with the possible exception of Serge Gainsbourg, although he came from another planet and therefore didn't count) were temperamentally incapable of producing great pop music.
Beyond the suppleness and sheen of the single they were miming to, there was something magnificently insouciant about Nicolas and J-B on TV that night: a certain jut to their hips that proclaimed, 'We are French and we don't care.' Hindsight always sees in 3-D, but anyone with an eye for burgeoning national self-confidence would have taken Air's British television debut as the cue for a trip to the bookmakers and placed a large wager on the host nation to win the World Cup. There was an element of prophecy in the group's choice of name, too - their music has been all around us this year. It has also been very easy to breathe in.
As if the hit singles Sexy Boy and Kelly Watch the Stars didn't make a big enough impact, La Femme D'Argent, Moon Safari's instrumental opening track, has become a kind of signature tune for all that is jaunty and unthreatening about life at the end of the millennium.
But there is more to Air's music than meets the ear. Sexy Boy, the song they performed on that first Top of the Pops appearance, seemed on first hearing to be a diverting if slightly vacuous piece of bilingual homoerotic intrigue with mild disco-revivalist overtones. Listening to it a few times, and watching the bizarre animated video in which a monkey experiments with rocket flight, another story began to emerge - a story of dry, Darwinian wit and expectations elegantly overturned. Who was that simian space invader, and what was he up to? 'He wants to be fashionable,' J-B explained to the NME, 'and in his dreams he's sexy boy, but in reality he's just a monkey.' There's a little bit of that monkey in all of us.
Whizzing through the underpasses of Paris towards Air's studio in a record company limo with tinted windows, you realise that it would be possible to speak to the duo on their home ground without any sense of the country they come from. The funny thing is, the country they come from has very little sense of them either. If the Legion d'Honneur is on its way, it is still in the post.
At the end of 1997, one French music magazine voted the emergence of 'La Scene Groove Francaise' (the sudden upsurgence in internationally acclaimed homegrown disco endeavour of which Air, along with friends Daft Punk and Etienne De Crecy, are the demure figureheads) as the year's ninth biggest event, behind such epoch-making happenings as the reformation of Echo & the Bunnymen.
In this unsympathetic climate, it is hardly surprising that Air seem to be managing to keep their feet on the ground. 'People tell us we are successful,' says the ebullient, shaggy-headed Nicolas, showing the way into the small Versailles recording studio that Air hope to buy when they have a bit more money. 'But we have no real evidence for it.'
'Some day,' adds the smaller, quieter J-B, 'we will go to live where we are popular, just to have a little pleasure when people recognise us.'
Because some of their lyrics are in English, Air don't count as part of the 40 per cent of music played on French radio which the law decrees must be in their mother tongue. 'That's why there is so much bad music here,' J-B complains. 'Record companies have to sign bands who are horrible just because they sing in French.' Nicolas adds, 'In our own country, I am proud to say, we are considered as foreigners.'
Growing up with pop music in your second rather than your first language doesn't have to be a problem. 'As a kid,' Nicolas explains, 'you don't understand the words, and you don't care, because books are more important for that.' Like Kraftwerk and Bjork before them, Air mirror back on itself the assumed superiority of English-speaking pop, with very entertaining results. Sometimes talking to them feels like being an extra in that Hollywood Old Testament epic where the small army holds up polished shields to reflect sunlight into the eyes of their oncoming attackers and they all run into a ditch.
Asked to explain the difference between modern digital recording techniques and the old-fashioned analogue technology to which Moon Safari's easy-listening feel seems to hark back, Nicolas replies with typically satirical reference to national stereotypes (at least, I hope he does, because if he means this, Air have a problem). 'Digital is like your wife,' the Frenchman twinkles. 'She stays at home to raise the children and do the cooking. Analogue is like a mistress - it's passionate, but you can't count on it. . . that's why people in my country like to have both.'
Having the best of both worlds is something Air seem to excel at. Their studio is located between deer-infested woodland and a quiet suburban golf course. It is half an hour's drive from the centre of Paris, but the only disturbance is the gentle babble of birdsong and the soothing swish of the trees. In the room beyond their flickering computer screens - the title of the new tune they're currently working on reads, rather ominously, Punk Song - there lurks a veritable treasure trove of antique keyboards and amplifiers. Air have been collecting them for years. Rare as lizards' teeth in other countries, they're relatively easy to come by in France where people don't tend to know their value. And the mythical brand names - Moog, Vocoder, Korg, Hohner, Marshall, Wurlitzer - are an international language all of their own.
Those curious as to the spiritual origin of Moon Safari's pristine pastoral reveries need look no further than the place it was made in. There is none of the mouldering smell of old takeaway food and drummer's athlete's foot here, which all too often set the atmosphere in the environments where music is recorded. How can they work in these conditions? 'We are the fresh French,' says Nicolas, smiling. 'You English give us your fashion designers and we give you our DJs.'
Air's enthusiasm for every aspect of the pop process is in sharp contrast with the rather jaded current mood of the Anglophone pop establishment. Their manager is an old friend from their schooldays in Versailles. Eschewing the venality and cynicism often associated with his profession, he positively brims with excitement about the demands of an imminent world tour. 'For us,' he says excitedly, 'every day is something new.' He then plunges into a too-rapid-for-lapsed-A-level-students mother tongue conversation with the nattily attired chauffeur. The only word that emerges clearly is 'le remix'.
Before qualifying as an architect, J-B studied classical piano at the Conservatoire de Paris, so talk of the influence of Debussy on the mood - if not the mechanics - of Air's music is less fanciful than it might seem. They do have a traditional pop background as well. Nicolas and J-B first teamed up as teenage members of an unsuccessful indie band called Orange. 'Everybody else went off to do something different,' Nicolas remembers, 'until we were the only ones left.'
Air's first single, Modular, released in 1995, combined J-B's old and new careers in French dance music's first (and last) explicit tribute to Le Corbusier. Asked about the relationship between music and architecture, this elfin father-of-one was once heard to observe that, 'For me it's the same thing, you are still building shelters.' If Air's suburban idyll offers a respite from the turbulence of the grim, racially divided estates immortalised in the film La Haine, that's because their music - eloquently characterised by the group themselves as being 'like the sci-fi of Jules Verne: starships made of wood' - harks back to a time before French ideas about the future lost their innocence.
When this antique vision of tomorrow rubs up against the present, sparks are bound to fly. Air's only British live appearance so far - an unexpected and thrillingly tumultuous showing on BBC2's Later with Jools Holland, earlier this year - suggests that next month's frenziedly anticipated first UK tour will be far from the laid-back affair their mellow reputation might indicate. 'When you watch TV,' Nicolas explains, 'the viewer is like the artist, making entertainment by zapping from one channel to the other, so you have to do something quite aggressive to capture their attention. When we play a concert it will be different again. It can't be the same, otherwise we would get bored, and if we get bored we don't do the show - we have to make fun for us, so we can make fun for the people.'