France has produced several duos that have shaped the face of electronic music as we know it today, but there is still no one quite like Air. Comprised of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, the Versailles natives approached music from curious backgrounds; namely, architecture and mathematics respectively. It is perhaps because of this right-brain-oriented training that they emerged from the same scene as peers like Daft Punk and Justice with a radically different sonic palette. Air's work is inherently more experimental, prone to such flourishes as elongated ambient passages, orchestral suites or monologues spoken in Italian, often within the same album.
Their career trajectory is just as much of an anomaly. After skyrocketing to fame with their landmark 1998 full-length Moon Safari, they took on a project that few artists would be brave enough to attempt so early in the game: a film soundtrack. That soundtrack was of course The Virgin Suicides, the iconoclastic debut from director Sofia Coppola, and the band would go on to memorably feature in her subsequent masterpiece Lost in Translation. This was followed by a few masterpieces of their own; 2004's Talkie Walkie in particular seemed to set the stage for all manner of genres that emerged in alternative music over the course of the proceeding decade.
Amazingly, Air is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. And to commemorate their legacy (aside from their first-ever greatest hits compilation released last year) they are about to embark on their first tour of the United States in seven years. To get a grasp on how Air actually feels about such accomplishments, we caught up with Nicolas Godin for an immersive, retrospective conversation on their insurmountable legacy.
So... 20 years. What is your head space like after building this project for most of your life?
Oh my God. I don't know if it's the fact I'm getting old or just the fact that I haven't been reflective for so long but it's makes me feel crazy. It gets, after you hit 40 years old, you know your life is changing really quickly. Like it feels that you're going through the other way, on the other side of the border. It's like the second half. And it's very strange, especially for artists.
I don't know, there's something that's... there's something about when you start making music that's very spontaneous, you know? And it is hard to keep that, especially when you make and record and record again. It's very hard to maintain. Each one of us has to be good at something, and once you've done that it is difficult to be good at other things. Sometimes I really wonder how many records should a man should make.
It sounds like you're in something of an artistic crisis.
Perhaps. Everyone has to make a few records to show what they're capable of, but listening to [our old] records I'm not sure if I like them. It's a very, very complicated thing. It's getting more and more hard to do something good because when I started, I was making records on the road and I was putting this or that in it and I was singing something with a vocal on it and it was great. But if I do that now it would be horrible. It's hard for an artist to renew yourself. Because you try new things and after a while you all of a sudden have tried everything.
But you have never stopped... what do you do to keep your work engaging for you, without thinking about your audience?
I think this can be found in collaboration. Because that's when you are confronted with new worlds and new ideas. I'm not surprised that so many albums now have so many collaborations on them. Because I think it's the key to be able to have a new energy in a positive way.
So this is your first major tour in years. Are you excited? Do you like touring?
I like touring, yes. Particularly to play at someone's stage and go through the classic songs. It's unbelievable when you get on stage and play live and you hear certain songs. It's not ... They don't even belong to us anymore, they belong to the audience. It's a great feeling.
So right now, you are preparing to play songs from Moon Safari, is that a challenge for you to get back into the head space of playing a song you wrote 20 years ago?
Oh yes. They were, of course, well done at the time, but now it is fun to choose new amenities so to speak. It sounds super fresh when you work it like that, never odd.
Do you have any songs you're tired of playing?
Hmmm. I suppose no, because then I wouldn't play them. [Laughs]
Do you have any wild tour stories?
No, I think it's kind of... It's a paradise. You travel, you go to nice hotels, you eat good food. It's nice to tour, you don't even want to go on vacation after that. In other words, it's fucking cool. I can't believe it's my job really, it's just crazy.
Did you ever even think about having another job that wasn't a musician?
Yes, actually. I am a musician because I like to create alternate universes. Like you're here on Earth listening, but you're transported into space, you know? You're literally somewhere else. So I think I would have liked to be a decorator. Because you open a door and you're in a universe. And this is the thing I love to do, I like to create worlds.
So you recently made your first greatest hits collection. What was that process like? Was it full of pressure?
Oh my God, it was horrible! It sounds untrue... But it was horrible to choose them. And I really hated it. It was a torture. Some of the tracks I really wanted to be on the record but we couldn't fit them.
I was a little crushed that "Surfing on a Rocket" didn't make it.
Ah yes, well, as I said, it was horrible to choose. One of my favorite of our tracks is called "Run" and thankfully that made it on there, but it wasn't a guarantee. Record companies will try to choose more obvious songs to make singles but I don't think it's cool, and that track I pressed for.
You all have received huge acclaim for your soundtrack work with Sofia Coppola. Do you see that as different from when you're writing an album?
Making a soundtrack is cool because basically music is language, and when you look at a film you describe what you have in front of you instead of describing with words. You describe it with sound and melodies. But it's so fucking cool, like you don't ask or second-guess yourself... You don't have the blank page. You just have something that's right in front of you and you just have to follow the instructions. It's like a manual, you know? Making an album is so much harder. So much more programmatic.
So writing The Virgin Suicides was easier than writing Moon Safari?
Yes, absolutely. We were able to go for a completely opposite concept with The Virgin Suicides. Moon Safari was more fun while Suicides is, of course, about hese five girls committing suicide. And after Moon Safari it was easy to make a dark album.
Really? I would think the opposite were true.
Not for us! I remember we had some pieces of the movie... We had VHS tapes being sent to the studio every day. And I didn't really understand just how much of the work still needed editing. We were only seeing these separate scenes. I could see girls killing themselves and obviously that produced this very dark music. But when I saw the movie afterwards I could see there was much more light. It was very cold and hot at the same time. The movie is very sensual. There's this kind of light aesthetic that is subjective and very deep. It's very strange.
I find it fascinating you took on a project like Suicides right after your first album.
It's great because we didn't have single album syndrome, no sophomore slump. It was very helpful in that way.
Has your artistic persona changed over the years? If so, what do you think is one of the biggest changes?
I think I'm like a drug addict who need something stronger. Even as an infant, when I was younger I was very happy, and the more I grew up, the more I needed something more strong to a degree. I listen to more and more classical music, stuff like that. Something more strong than pop music. I think pop music has something to do with youth, and the way I grew old, I needed stronger effects. So over the years I would describe myself as requiring more and more stimulation.
Do you still listen to pop music?
It depends on your definition. I would say I listen to a lot of hip-hop, which some consider pop music. I listen to a lot of hip-hop artists and hip-hop records because they don't try to repeat the past. It's something, what they do, I want to be able to do that. So I'm attracted by that. And I just want to say how much I enjoy Kendrick Lamar's new album.
If you had to pick a single experience in your time as Air as the most special, what would it be and why?
Playing the Hollywood Bowl. Growing up in France and working through that scene is one thing, and then you make a record and then suddenly you play at the Hollywood Bowl... Wow. It's just... You shouldn't believe that something like that was ever reachable, but it was actually reachable.
For more of our interview features, take a look at our chat with rising crooner Khalid right here.