Read the Remix article on Air and its latest album, Pocket Symphony. The French duo revisits Remix to talk about the virtues of live performance and creating an album that feels like a journey from beginning to end.
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Read the Remix article on Air and its latest album, Pocket Symphony. The French duo revisits Remix to talk about the virtues of live performance and creating an album that feels like a journey from beginning to end.

There is a bit of irony that surrounds the success of Air, one of France's most popular musical duos: the literal and perceived nature of the group's sound. Whether blasting Pink Floyd fantasies in their late-'90s live shows or composing puppy-love make-out messages in the studio, Air's Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are typically regarded as electronic maestros of the first order. Fans and critics alike adore the duo's use of classic synthesizers and contemporary drum machines, as well as the tweaked and twisted vocals (think 2004's “Run”), which sound like textbook examples of the Pro Tools cut-and-paste aesthetic. But the audience's perceptions aren't always the same as the artists' intentions.

“Our music is not electronic,” Jean-Benoit Dunckel (keyboards, vocals) says, asserting his card-carrying musician credibility. “It only sounds electronic because we use computers to record it. “We use live drummers as well as the Elektron Machinedrum, and we will often play a loop that sounds like a sequence.”

Although Air does embrace much that modern technology has to offer, Dunckel and Godin are old-school musicians, whose fourth proper studio album, Pocket Symphony (Astralwerks, 2007), longs for the good-old days. “This is probably the last time we will record in the old-school way, with a beginning, a middle and an end,” Nicolas Godin (bass, guitar, vocals) explains from a Manhattan hotel. “Everything is changing, and nobody will record that way anymore. So this is our tribute to that era, the idea of conceiving a record as a trip, like when you had vinyl with an A-side and a B-side. The CD arrived, and that was forgotten.”


Pocket Symphony is largely a return to the sound of Air's debut EP, Premiers Symptomes (originally an import-only French singles collection, reissued on Astralwerks, 1999). To a large degree an instrumental album — except for appearances by Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon (as well as Dunckel and Godin's demure vocals) — Pocket Symphony may be the most subtle, sedate and soothing album of the duo's 12-year career. And while Dunckel and Godin admit to a warmer embrace of Pro Tools technology than in the past (“You can travel everywhere around the world just carrying some files — it's great,” Godin marvels), their heart is still in live performance.

“On songs like ‘Napalm Love'' and ‘Redhead Girl,''” Godin explains, “those are all live. It is the piano and the bass playing the same thing all the way through the song. We play from beginning to end even if it is the same notes and patterns. You can hear it. It is the same chord but never played exactly the same way. [But] we do overdub because there are only two of us.”

“We need to touch,” Dunckel says. “When you do music, you have your body, and the way you play is like a dance. I don't know why, but humans feel that. Music is made for humans, and when it is a computer, it doesn't sound the same; the feeling is not right. You have to really play it. Your body has to appropriate and condense the instruments to put them into the music. And then it is possible for the people to understand it.”


Appearing a bit rattled after a U.S. customs ordeal where Air's passports were confiscated and hole-punched, Dunckel and Godin are understandably tired. Dunckel is the cool, collected type whose expressions never betray his emotions, while the painfully thin Godin displays a keen sense of humor.

“Two years ago, someone came on the tour bus and took our passports,” Godin recalls. “When we brought our new ones, U.S. Customs said, ‘These are the stolen passports.'' So they destroyed our passports.”

Luckily, the Internet saved the day. “They finally Googled us and realized we were who we said we were,” Godin says. “They were laughing, the problem was resolved, and then they said, ‘Come on. Why are you with a stolen passport?'' They still didn't believe us! But we are glad to be here; we could have been in jail.”

Produced by the returning Nigel Godrich and recorded at Mayfair Studio #2 in London, Revolvair and Gang in Paris and Air's own studio in Bastille (soon to be uprooted to Paris and renamed Atlas Studios), Pocket Symphony benefits not only from live performances and witty guest-vocal turns, but also from Godin's embrace of the Far East. Returning to his childhood love of discovering new instruments, Godin played the Japanese koto and shamisen on Pocket Symphony, bringing an exotic air to the duo's retro lunar tracks, especially the humming “Mer du Japon.”

“When I touched the koto — oh my God,” Godin says with a laugh, “I'd forgotten how cool it was to play something new. It was very flexible, and we used it on a lot of songs. Every time you hear a harp, like on Jarvis' song, ‘Hell of a Party,'' that is the koto. It took me 10 minutes to learn how to play it, but it takes a long time to find the right balance of position and sound. [As for] the shamisen, it's like a banjo that you play with a stick. It is really hard to play.”


Pocket Symphony's instrumental focus was also influenced by two recent projects with old pals. Air wrote and performed the music for Charlotte Gainsbourg's 5:55, where they played a mostly subordinate role. Air was also hired to compose the soundtrack to the Sofia Coppola film, Marie Antoinette. (Although their tracks for the movie, save “Il Secondo Giorno,” were ultimately rejected and then reworked for Pocket Symphony.)

“Those experiences made us more confident on guitar and piano,” Dunckel says. “We were forced to play in the studio, and that made us better. Since Nigel was there, we had nothing to worry about, not about the production or keyboards or what beat we would add. We were just concentrating and focusing on the way we had to play together.”

“When we recorded our early singles,” Godin adds, “we had this weirdness. We recorded in our living room. We didn't have much money. Our weird music was part of our charm. So now we have accepted who we are. With Charlotte Gainsbourg, for the first time we did a real album. There was a singer, a producer, a lyricist, and we did all the music. We did a classic album. Wow. For us, we don't need to do that, but now we know we can.”


Pocket Symphony recalls Premier Symptomes in mood, direction and execution. Air used a variety of synths: the ARP 2600, Dave Smith Poly Evolver, Clavia Nord Lead and Elektron Monomachine, as well as Korg and Yamaha synths. The difference is that real drummers accompanied the band's live performances and the occasional Machinedrum beat. The music is seamless, subtle and constant, placing the listener in a nocturnal slow-motion world. Air toyed with IRCAM plug-ins but ultimately abandoned the idea. In fact, there are no plug-ins on the record. What sounds like a drum loop is often a live drummer playing a part as if it were a loop. And vocals and instrumental performances are live and unedited wherever possible.

“If you hear three choruses within a song, then we have played three choruses,” Godin insists. “We hate to cut and paste.”

“But sometimes we can't do it,” Dunckel adds. “On ‘Night Sight,'' we couldn't do it because that was improvised. We jam and improvise on chords, then throw up ideas and decide which to keep. Originally, there was no beat in that track, no measure, [which makes it] a nightmare to move sounds within the computer.”

Air's preference for live, practically stripped-down tracks influenced the duo's use of EQ settings and effects (sparse delay, reverb and added treble for Dunckel vocals), live-string orchestrations and drums. But certain effects are forbidden. “Since Moon Safari, we can't use vocoders anymore,” Dunckel says, laughing. “We've burned that trick.”

As for the live drums, former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen and Beck's Joey Waronker provided bubbling rhythms. “We recorded a lot of the drums at the end of the songs,” Dunckel recalls. “For ‘Once Upon a Time'' and ‘Photograph,'' we recorded the tracks and added the drums at the end of the process. We will record with the Elektron or a click, then hire a drummer for one day and make him record drums for all the tracks. Then we decide if we want live drums or machine drums on the track.”

“For some songs,” Godin explains, “Tony Allen had the click in his ears then played the entire track. On ‘Space Maker,'' we asked Joey to play the beat as if it was a loop. It is supposed to sound like a loop, but it is a real drummer playing all the way through.”


Air likes to work fast — so fast that for some tracks, they can barely remember what happened. The pair bounces memories off of each other to come up with a blow-by-blow description. And they end up remembering the synths used for dense tracks like “Napalm Love” and “Redhead Girl.”

“On ‘Napalm Love,'' the bass was recorded first,” Godin says. “The rattling sound in the intro is the Elektron Machinedrum. I was playing with one of the knobs — I have no idea what I was doing, but I was making the beat. The guitar doubles the melody with the Nord Lead. Then that low warbling tone is the Monomachine. It has a special knob that controls the delay. But [at that point], the delay is about to feed back. At the end, I put it down, but not too much. The entire sound is feeding back and filtering. We recorded that all live, then overdubbed where he had to. We don't program keyboards. That is the Poly Evolver doing the percussion in the left channel, and that deep tone is the Nord Lead again.”

The eerie vocals and somnambulant tones of “Redhead Girl” come near the album's end, like the moon fading before sunrise. Dunckel's high-pitched vocals were panned in Pro Tools for an ominous spreading effect; the Poly Evolver cycles in Moog-like tones; the Korg MS-20 produces a whirring hum; and at one point, vocals loop like a spooky, hovering siren that recalls The Beach Boys' “‘Til I Die.”

“I think I recorded my vocal in stereo there,” Dunckel says. “We looped it and added the fade-in on the computer. That is all it is — I am sorry!”


Ultimately, Dunckel describes Pocket Symphony as an album of dual perceptions. Like their roles as hardworking musicians turned electronic trendsetters, Dunckel and Godin see the value of double entrendre, both literal and figurative.

“We are always doing symphonies,” he explains. “But we do it with small things — little beat boxes, instruments — and as a kind of night cycle. And there is the contrast between the word ‘pocket,'' which is small, and ‘symphony,'' which is complicated and wide.”

“Listening to an album used to be like a voyage,” Godin says, returning to his earlier theme. “Now, with the iPods and the shuffle mode, that way of making albums will disappear, and it will turn into a new thing — who knows what? People will download Pocket Symphony and listen to it illegally or not, but will anyone listen to it from beginning to middle to end?”


Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apogee Rosetta A/D converters
Apple Mac G5 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD

Synths, instruments
ARP Solina String Ensemble synth
Clavia Nord Lead, Nord Lead 2 synths
Dave Smith Poly Evolver synth
Elektron Monomachine SFX6 keyboard/sequencer
Fender Rhodes Mark II Suitcase 73 electric piano
Fender '60s Telecaster guitar
Gibson '60s CS356 guitar
Guild '70s acoustic guitar
Hartmann Neuron neuronal resynthesizing keyboard
Hofner Club Bass 500/2
Korg MS-20 synth
Yamaha CS-60 synth

Sampler, drum machines
ARP 2600 synth (for percussion sounds)
Boss SP-202 Dr. Sampler
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1

Mics, mic preamp, EQ, compressor, effects
AKG C 12 VR (vox), AKG C 414 B-XL II (piano) mics
API Lunchbox effects rack
Boss VT-1 Voice Transformer effects unit
Neve 1070 preamp
Urei 1176 compressor

Mackie 32-channel mixer

Genelec 1031As