Seattle, US

Chris's Blog

So, you may know that I've had a link to Air's latest album, Talkie Walkie , for a while now. Imagine my surprise when we actually got to see them in person today. No, not at the big concert tonight at the arena, but in a cozy little radio recording studio in downtown Seattle. Other than radio station staff, there were only 2 other people in the recording booth to watch them play. Rock.

Alex has already posted about how we came to our visit with Air at KEXP . It's almost surreal -- did it actually happen or did I dream it? 42 minutes out of an otherwise normal day... yeah, KEXP Seattle 90.3 was already my favorite radio station, but now, I'm pretty much their bitch.

You can listen to KEXP anywhere around the world, 24/7 thru the Internet (they're even in iTunes), and I highly recommend it; you won't find such an eclectic mix of good, non-commercial music anywhere else. 100% member-supported, no advertising, except for the occassional DJ announcement. I often listen at work while I'm coding.

But I just wanted to elaborate a little bit from my perspective as an aspiring musician.

How does an electronic band do a live performance , you ask? Well, first, they're not completely electronic. Nicolas switched between acoustic guitar and electric bass, adding background vocals; Jean-Benoit led the vocals and played a couple keyboards that looked like portable organ synthesizers or something. They also had a Texan with long brown hair, beard, and sunglasses back them up with more keyboard work, and a black guy with cropped dreadlocks laid the beats with a set of drum pads and hi-hats. (Sorry, I missed their names, but they're touring with them.)

That's what I found most interesting -- I had assumed that pre-programmed drum loops on the record were pre-programmed drum loops live, but no, the drummer was actually playing the percussion, and every time he hit a drum pad it would fire the appropriate synthetic percussive sound. (Maybe they're not pre-programmed on the record, then, either?)

We also got to chat with the station's sound engineer (Scott) for a couple minutes. He knows the station's recording equipment, but not necessarily the band's setup; so the band brings along their own sound engineer, who knows the band's setup, but not the station's recording equipment. The two engineers work together to get things set up for the session prior to the band arriving. Then the station's engineer ran the session while the band's engineer left to prepare for tonight's concert.

The performance was excellent. They played, in order: Venus, Another Day, Run, and Alone in Kyoto; they kept saying it was "stripped down" because they couldn't fit all of their gear into the studio, but the songs sounded 90-95% complete to me, complete with the atmospheric beach-tide sound in the beautiful Alone in Kyoto. Check KEXP's website for a streaming archive of the session; they don't have it up yet, but I'm sure they will soon.

In between songs, host Amanda Wilde interviewed Jean-Benoit and Nicolas, and they responded with really honest, well-thought-out comments. They spoke in excellent, although heavily accented, English, with a certain mellow-but-smirky attitude that is distinctly French (and caused several giggles among the Americans in the recording booth who aren't accustomed to hearing it). Anyway, here's a paraphrased summary of some points I found interesting:

  • The only reason they ended up in the electronica genre is because they didn't want some record producer telling them what they should play or how they should sound. They wanted to have control over their work, which meant they had to learn the electronics and do it themselves. [And once you understand the tools, why not use them creatively?] But they have both played regular instruments since they were kids.

  • They do all of their own singing on their new album because:

  • Electronica has seen too many guest singers; it's boring now
  • The anonymity of someone else singing your songs helps perpetuate the genre's "chilly" image
  • The new album is much more personal to them; they feel like they were faking it with the previous one. "Before, we acted like we were in love, but now, we really want to be in love."
  • It's tempting to think, "Someone else could do that part a lot better than I could, so I'll just have them do it;" it's taken them 6 years and numerous releases to realize that what they perceive as a weakness can add to the intimacy of their work

  • Working on other projects between albums [such as film scores like The Virgin Suicides ] helps them to grow creatively, and adds to the distinctiveness of each album

  • It's easy to write music for a film; your inspiration is right there on the screen. Original material, on the other hand, can be much more painful; it's bizarre and frustrating to sit in a chair for a week waiting for a song to come to you

  • They write songs in English because it's like a mask for them; they don't have a wide vocabulary so it forces them to be simple and honest, to get to the point

  • Maybe all Texans are crazy [in reference to the guy in their band]

  • "We are not scandalous." Groups like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones established a rule that in rock, you have to be scandalous, so everyone is expected to be scandalous now. But rock is all about not following the rules, so not being scandalous is actually more rock'n'roll these days. [And it sounds cool to say "we are not scandalous" with a French accent]

  • [Regarding the concert later that day] "Tonight we will be on fire" (Nicolas) also sounds cool with a French accent

When the session was over , everyone left the booth. I didn't want to be a fanboy and annoy anyone; it was a businessy kindof atmosphere. So I just hung out in the hallway for a couple minutes, waiting for our host to show us out. When Amanda finished chatting with them, Jean-Benoit and Nicolas stepped into the hallway from the studio. Nicolas said "Hello" to me, to which I replied "Bonjour", and he stepped back into the recording booth to talk with the engineer. As Jean-Benoit walked by, I was like "Great job, guys, really good" and he was like, "Thanks," and I was like FUCKIN' ROCK, MAN, I'M TALKIN' TO THE DUDES FROM AIR!! and he was like, well, he was gone down the hallway. And then I was like HELL YEAH MOTHAFUCKA and I raised my devil-signs high in the air and solo-moshed down the hall and into the parking lot.

Or something like that. Maybe it wasn't quite like that. Everything except the stuff in caps-lock. But it could have been like that. DO NOT UNDERSTIMATE ME, PHEWL.
Rock on.

Then our gracious host gave us a brief tour of the rest of the station, which was cool, and that was that. We're going to send her a thank-you card for being so nice to us, and I'm going to send Alex a little somethin-somethin else for hookin' me up with this most excellent experience.