If love and romance are stereotypes of the French, then Paris natives Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are cultural clichés. But without romantics, the world would be filled with nothing but bitter scrooges. That poor prospect aside, Air makes music about love sound quite different from many of the 896 billion other love-centric albums unabashedly released into the world thus far. With Air, it's '60s Jane-Fonda-in-Barbarella-style retro-futuristic love. And this planet could use more of that.
Air has impeccable taste, and although the two admit that their third official studio full-length, Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks, 2004), is primarily about their sexy thoughts about ladies, there's nothing obvious or explicit about it. On the other hand, Talkie also brings it back to something synonymous with the obvious: pop music. Whereas the duo's last album, 10,000 Hz Legend (Astralwerks, 2001), and its soundtrack for Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (Astralwerks, 2000) were spookier, more melancholic and more linear, Talkie is a return to easy-going and fluttering synth pop. Not since Air's debut, Moon Safari (Source/Caroline, 1998) — with its grand synth and string gestures, vocoded voices, poppy acoustic fingerpicking and simple midtempo pop structures — have Dunckel and Godin gone back to that contented, 3-p.m.-on-a-Saturday place.
NO SLEEP FOR THE WEARY
After playing more than 100 live shows (as a five-piece) in support of 10,000 Hz Legend, the two locked themselves in their Paris studio and wrote more prolifically than ever. The results were a 19-song soundtrack called City Reading (Tre Storie Western) (Astralwerks, 2003) for Italian writer Alessandro Baricco's reading of his City novel; 19 pieces for a score to the ballet Near Life Experience, choreographed by France native Angelin Preljocaj and performed throughout Europe; and 10 songs for Talkie Walkie. Dunckel and Godin are not exactly slackers. For the artist album, the guys did all of the recording themselves, including vocals (even the high parts). But they got a little help from French flute player Malik and string arranger Michel Colombier. Once the initial recordings were done, producer Nigel Godrich stepped in and worked with Air at OceanWay Recording in Los Angeles.
“The concept was to do something very, very minimal because at the same time, we were doing two other extra projects,” Dunckel says. “The music for the ballet was very experimental and special. And at the same time, we were doing a record with Alessandro Baricco, and so the music was supposed to be very ambient because the writer was supposed to tell the story of his book. So we decided, for this album, to do some very normal songs — like verse, chorus, break and chorus again. So this was the reason why it sounds more catchy, more easy to get.”
With three deadlines looming at once, Dunckel and Godin chose not to labor over their ideas too much. It may seem like a limitation, but it allowed the two to fine-tune their instincts and avoid dwelling on doubts. “We're really fast guys,” Godin says. “We don't have a lot of time because we're very, very busy. So we're in the studio, and we'll say, ‘Okay, let's do a song very fast,’ because we don't have time to spend days in the studio. Sometimes, you work on a song and don't find any ideas. So you work on another one just to get away from the other one. And then the new one you make goes so fast and so easy. And that's what happened with my favorite song on the album, ‘Another Day.’ It happened in, like, two hours.”
“Sometimes, you do music, and you always want to push it more,” Dunckel adds. “And the more you push it, the worse it is. For this album, we wanted to do something really easy, really natural and quick.” Quick as it may have been, it doesn't sound like any kind of rush job, which is a testament to Air's talent and experience. It helped that the duo limited their track count in Digidesign Pro Tools. “We wanted to use between six and 10 tracks for each song, for the songs are really simple,” Godin says. “For example, ‘Another Day’ is six tracks. And Moon Safari was all recorded on eight-track.”
THAT FUNNY FEELING
Although visual projects such as movies, ballets and books offer starting points for the imagination to take off from, Air's artist albums start with a completely blank canvas. But for Talkie Walkie, the lack of a preconceived concept allowed the guys to talk about their favorite subject: girls. “This album deals with girl seduction,” Dunckel says. “It's about the special feelings that a girl can give to you. It's very erotic. This album is really about the way we would like to behave with girls. For example, the song ‘Run’ is just a photograph of one moment when you hang around in your bed. You just woke up, and you are with your girlfriend, and your girlfriend just put her head on your chest. And the sensation is really pleasant because her hair is all over your chest.” Ain't that sweet?
But it's definitely a good thing that Dunckel and Godin are so in touch with their feelings, because their sensations — more important, their instincts — are key to making their best music. It tells them when to stop adding parts, when to change tack and when to move on. “You put the music on, and if it means something to you, it's okay,” Dunckel says. “But when there are some little moments when you feel that there is a lack of something, or when you feel like you are losing your attention, it's bad. It's just a question of sensation. Sometimes, it's more about your body reaction, because I think that you can feel with your stomach when the song is good or not. You can feel the rhythm of your stomach when the song is deep and the sound is deep. We call that the ‘cycle music,’ the direction of your body and your brain. It's based on the fact that it's a very physical reaction when you listen to some music.”
THE DANGLING CARROT
Like most innovators, Dunckel and Godin are not satisfied to do the same thing over and over. From Premiers Symptomes, a collection of Air's earliest singles (Astralwerks, 1999), to Talkie Walkie, a common thread persists, but each release takes a different approach. “We have a style for the chords, but the songwriting changes from every album,” Godin says. “Different projects will challenge our visions to try a new style of composition.” Whereas 10,000 Hz was more complex — “We wanted to find the most complicated structure and chords and to be very hard to follow,” Godin admits — Talkie Walkie was a return to the simple old pop construct. But the change doesn't stem from laziness, and the duo didn't acquiesce to label demands for a more marketable album.
“I think because we always have something to tell, we are not satisfied with the music that we have done, and we are always searching for something else,” Dunckel says. “And we don't feel satisfied of the music that we can listen to at the radio from fashionable bands. Even when we listen to classical music, beautiful old music, the harmonies are splendid and fantastic, but it's retro; it's old. And we have no new bands that we really, really, really like. Some things are good. For example, some Radiohead songs are really beautiful, and even commercial projects like Coldplay, sometimes the production is interesting. But there's no one album which is completely from the beginning to the end tremendous. I know it's very pretentious; I'm sorry. But we're unsatisfied, so we do our own music for ourselves. And it's a very, very selfish way to do music. Sometimes, some friends that we know say, ‘Oh, yes, [your music is] good, but the beat is not fashionable; the beat is weak.’ We don't care. We just do the beats that we like.”
So the real barometer for testing out the strength of their songs doesn't come from outside influences. Dunckel and Godin keep those sorts of decisions an internal affair. “If Nicolas is not pleased with a song, we always redo it until it's good, and we do the same for me,” Dunckel says. “We try to forget our egos because Air is just both of us, so we are just forming one soul. And we feel that Air is more clever than each other. We record very fast, as quick as possible without thinking about it too much. And then, the next morning, we try to redo it. I trust Nicolas' taste. Sometimes, I know that it's very shocking, but when you say, ‘I don't like your idea,’ deep in me, I feel a little bit discouraged. But I accept it because I know that there's no way to speak about it. It's not important; we'll find another good idea.”
Determining whether an idea is worthy enough to keep running with is another matter. “We call it the ‘shampoo concept,’” Dunckel says. “You know in the morning when you wake up, and you watch yourself in the mirror, and you wonder about your hair? You ask yourself, ‘Do I need to wash my hair or not?’ And when you ask that to yourself, it means that you have to do a shampoo, because when you have a doubt, it means that it's bad. It's the same with music. When you have a little doubt, it means that you have to redo it and find another idea, 'cause when you really feel deep in yourself when an idea is good, you can feel it.”
And although there are many good ideas to stumble upon, whether those ideas are actually new is dubious. Pessimists say that there are no new ideas; everything's been tried before, be it by Elvis or Dinosaur Jr. or Underworld or Dolly Parton. But you can always take an old idea and tweak it. “The song ‘Venus’ is very simple chords; it's an A minor,” Godin says. “It's not very original, but each time we want to use a not-so-original chord, we play it in a really weird rhythm, which makes it sound very fresh to our ears. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we make simple songs sound fresh?’ One way is to not go back playing at the right time on the first chord. That's a trick we used on ‘Biological’ and on ‘Alpha Beta Gaga.’ At the seventh beat, we'd go back to the first one. So it makes the progression very original.”
AIR GUITAR AND COSMIC VOICES
The song “Run,” despite its familiar and romantic cuddling sentiment, sounds almost spooky and mysterious, as if it were conceived inside a crater on the moon. Springy synth stabs and an odd bell-toned arpeggio give way to layers of spacey vocals. “It was hard to do because we had a verse, and the verse chords were okay, but it was a little bit tragic and really strange,” Dunckel says. “And first, I recorded a voice on it, and the voice was a little bit weak. There was no feeling and no emotion on it. And we just recorded a verse, and the chorus was completely different. The chords were more boomy, more strange and more cold. And during one year, we tried to invent a new chorus for this song, and it was never okay. And suddenly, we said to ourselves that the chorus has to be more simple, so we just recorded with a keyboard some parts to do some interesting chords, and it was not okay because the sound was too normal. And suddenly, Nigel Godrich spoke about doing some loops with voices, so we just harmonized the chorus chords with some voices. I recorded, like, 16 voices, and we made some loops with it. I did a stereo scale of each note. And each note faded in and faded out on each chord. It's like a chord of volume.”
For the lead voice, Air used a Boss VT-1 Voice Transformer to give it a slightly robotic feel. But to get that perfect chorus of voices, more experimentation was involved and not with effects. “We recorded one note with [Dunckel's] voice and then a halftone up and then a halftone up, and then you get all the notes,” Godin says. “And you look at them, and you put each note on the track of your mixing board, and then you push up the faders and experiment with that until you find a good chord. So you have 12 faders with the 12 notes; you put all your faders at zero, and you start pushing one fader, and then you push another one. And then you see how it sounds.”
One of Air's lesser-known signature styles is Godin's guitar work. On the beautiful “Cherry Blossom Girl,” with its synth washes, flute flourishes, sweet vocal harmonies and perfect fingerpicked guitar, Godin plays a '70s Guild acoustic guitar recorded with a Neumann mic. “When I'm a has-been and we can't record anymore, I want to improve my fingerpicking,” Godin says. “I can't wait to be 40 years old and just be retired and fingerpicking all day long like Chet Atkins.” But it's not like Godin is any slouch as a guitar player: He's played since he was 10. And more recently, Godin bought a lesson on tape from a French protégé of Atkins in order to take his fingerpicking to the next level. “I'm still doing a lot of fingerpicking, because you play like a whole orchestra; you have the bass and the melody at the same time,” he says.
DANGER! HIGH VOLTAGE!
Onstage, Dunckel and Godin's live setup includes a Fender Rhodes, a Moog Minimoog Voyager, a Korg MS-20, a Clavia Nord Lead, an ARP Solina String Ensemble, an organ through an Electro-Harmonix delay box and a little Boss SP-202 sampler. But Air doesn't try to replicate its studio recordings exactly. “Now, for the shows, we want to do something more minimal because when you are playing live, the sound can be very complicated because the speakers are bad,” Dunckel says. “And as the speakers are bad and as the room acoustics are so bad sometimes, we prefer to redo the songs and do something more minimal and less-complicated with less instruments.”
Sequencers are definitely out of the picture for Air, even if it means that some parts go unplayed. But the show is more real, and hopefully more engaging, without backing tracks. “We are obliged to forget some parts,” Dunckel says. “But I think that doing MIDI onstage is a mistake because first of all, it's very cold, and second of all, it's very dangerous because it means that the drummer has to play with a click, and if something goes wrong, it's a nightmare. We don't like programming onstage. We like to play everything with our hands. It's more exciting because you improve more yourself. You sing more, and you play better than before.
“And to give emotion, you have to be in danger. It's more exciting. Onstage, when you are alone, when you sing alone, when there is no music in the background, you are in danger because everybody is listening to you. For example, when I'm singing, sometimes my voice is weak. So my only chance to make some interest to the audience is to give some emotion and play on the fact that my voice can be sometimes strange and emotional. It's the only chance that I have onstage to be interesting. And so the more you push yourself, the more you are special, and the more you give some emotion, the more you are in danger, and it's more exciting. And when you're scared before you play onstage, it means that you are really an artist. Because when you're not scared, it means that you are doing some bad music.”
ALL ZEE PRETTY GEAR
“We're really an aesthetic band,” Nicolas Godin says. “So if something has got a cool look, we like to use it. In our studio, we try to find cool stands for the keyboards. We're very sensitive to the look of the instruments.”
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
Apogee Rosetta A/D converters
Apple Mac G4 computer
ARP Solina String Ensemble synth
Boss SP-202 Dr. Sampler
Boss VT-1 Voice Transformer
Clavia Nord Lead 1 synth
Digidesign Pro Tools HD
Electro-Harmonix Memory Man delay
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 drum machine: “I think the Machinedrum was the most amazing thing we used for a long time,” Godin says. “Our drummer told us to buy it, and now it's bad for him because when we got it, we didn't call him back.”
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Genelec 1031A studio monitors: “We like the Genelecs because they're very flattering when you make music,” Godin says. “It makes you enjoy it.”
Gibson '70s acoustic guitar
Guild '70s acoustic guitar
Hartmann Neuron synth: “It makes really THX sounds — you know, cinematic sounds,” Godin says. “We used it on ‘Alone in Kyoto.’”
Korg MS-20 synth
Mackie 32-channel mixer
Moog Memorymoog synth
Moog Minimoog Voyager synth: “We bought it in L.A., and we came back from the store and recorded with it in the next five minutes,” Godin says. “We did the bass from ‘Alpha Beta Gaga’ with it. It was amazing, and we were on tour with it. It's a wonderful piece of equipment.”
UREI 1176 compressor