Interview Nik Mercer
Photography Kava Gorna
With over 14 years of work behind them, five full-length albums, a handful of EPs under their belts and almost too much score material to keep track of, Air is a band with seemingly boundless credibility. Members Nicolas Godin and J.B. Dunckel don’t seem to care too much about their cultural and musical weight – they’re in the biz for their personal passion first and foremost. They tell us LP number six, Love 2 (Astralwerks, 2009), was made to be like “starting a new love affair”. Rather than continuing with a “chillout” lounge-leaning atmospheric sound, the guys have taken a risk with some new techniques and styles to keep things fresh for themselves. Expect some kraut, some Afro-beat, some sugary keyboard pop unlike anything you’ve heard J.B. and Nico release before, and an energy and aggressiveness we know you’d never expect from the two sublimely relaxed Frenchmen.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. The name of the new album, Love 2, intrigues me. Why’d you call it that?
Nico: Hmm, “How To Intrigue People”. That’s a good name. It’s a new beginning for us. With Pocket Symphony (2007), we were reaching the end of one path, you know? We needed to regenerate ourselves.
What do you think that path was?
Nico: It was, like, calm, Zen music, very spacey, floating. I think we had explored everything we could’ve in that direction and it was time for us to take a new direction. On this album there is no slow song, so we did stuff like that. We built a new studio, a new space. We found a new way of working. We worked with a drummer in the studio. We didn’t use strings or an orchestra – we did everything by ourselves. We didn’t take on any producer. It was like starting a new love affair. Everything is starting again.
Wait, so you built a new studio to foster this freshness then?
Nico: Yes, the freshness. It’s exactly like when you start a new story with a new girlfriend. It’s the same spirit.
Tell us a bit more about this studio.
Nico: It took us one year while we were on and off tour. We bought a warehouse in Paris and we asked an architect to build a studio inside and put all our equipment and gear in it. It’s completely soundproofed so we can play drums at four in the morning and it’s completely fine.
Yeah, you won’t be waking up any neighbors.
Nico: Exactly. It was the right environment for us. We picked out the colors of the walls and stuff like that. A good creative space. It’s like a Star Wars ship.
I noticed that a lot of the songs – not all of them, but a lot – seem noticeably faster than, really, anything you’ve done before.
And many of your albums are also quite diverse in terms of genre and style, like 10,000 Hz Legend (2001). But in this one, you play around with some things that sound totally new. There are a few kraut-leaning tunes. Were you deliberately trying to incorporate different genres?
J.B.: No, I think we were trained to follow where a song takes us. When we start a song, we know its sound will be revealed and we just try to follow its direction. We wanted this album to be very big-sounding, even though, in our studio, we only have keyboards and guitar and bass and drums. There is a way to make something sound really, really big. Also, yeah, there’s maybe a little bit of a Brazilian vibe on some tracks.
The last song, too—
Nico: “African Velvet.”
Yeah, that one has a really unique sense of rhythm as well.
Nico: Yeah, like maybe a little Afro-beat.
You mentioned your keyboards and equipment and reminded me of how I always find it sort of strange that most people describe you as being “retro” or “retro-futuristic,” something indebted to the ’60s and ’70s, with a strong nostalgia incorporated as well. But I see you as being a very modern band, despite the fact that you use a lot of old instruments.
Nico: Yeah, we don’t try to create music that could’ve been made in the ’60s or ’70s. And when we use retro sounds, often they’re in songs that don’t fit the era they’re from. We don’t want it to seem as though our album could’ve been recorded 30 years ago. We want it to sound like it could’ve just been recorded now. But also, as children, we were fed by the music of the late ’70s and early ’80s. That was the stuff we heard first, so that’s always there and we always look back on that. The music that was on TV, you know? It’s very okay for us.
There’s actually one song on the album in particular that sounds really poppy, though – ”Sing Sang Sung” – in a different way than usual for you guys. It’s one of the most carefree songs I’ve ever heard from you.
J.B.: We like just as much the artistic as we do the mainstream, like the Carpenters. You know what I mean? We don’t have levels for the music we like. We have the same pleasure to listen to some super underground extreme hard rock band as we do to listen to mainstream. In “Sing Sang Sung”, I like that pop vibe – it brings back good memories for me.
Nico: I don’t put things in, uh… ‘le rang’.
Like a hierarchy?
Nico: Yeah, like a hierarchy maybe.
There seem to be so many dichotomies that embody you as a band.
Nico: But I don’t want the album to sound like that because it’s not only that.
Well, it seems like you have a lot of dichotomies to you. You do all these pop songs and then you also do these very artistically-driven, highbrow works, like doing the music for Yi Zhou’s short film, Hear, Earth, Heart. It’s a wonderful film, but it doesn’t really fit with a song like “Sing Sang Sung”.
Nico: [Laughs] That’s funny. It’s true, it’s true. I never thought of that.
Then, on another level, you record things with so many electronics, but you do so to make organic-sounding music. Also, so many of your songs are sad or melancholic, but then there are so many that are sexual or erotic. Those two things seem to be in conflict.
J.B.: We are optimistic melancholics. It’s a very small category of people. We are obsessed by beauty and women, so there are songs we write for love, for women, and this is the romantic Air. We write about love, about extreme feelings, and these things can be very dark too. This is why people like us. We give them empathy. I think that monogamy is the most shared feeling on Earth.
One of the big changes I noticed from your pre-Talkie Walkie (2004) days and after this is how you play with rhythms. Especially with the last two or three albums, you’ve played around a lot with syncopation and how melodies, rhythms, and bass lines overlap to form new sounds and experiences.
Nico: We like to play. We think of music as a sort of playground where you can do things like that. After 10,000 Hz when we really started playing live–to reproduce things like this was very difficult. Like with the break from “Mike Mills”. It’s just a nightmare. It’s in 4/4, but the cycle of the piano only returns every seven bars, so at the end, it’s easy to get stuck. We love Philip Glass and Steve Reich in terms of that kind of stuff. And, you know, other bands do things like this sometimes, but for them, they’re in, like, a hard rock stadium, like Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” or something. It’s a way for bands to surprise themselves in some ways. We love these tricks. In literature, we love the way people play with words. In French it’s called ‘ouvroir de littérature potentielle.’ We like to find tricks within language or music, discovering ways to twist these things. We should do it more often. When we do it, I really like the result, but now, it just sort of happens.
It’s got to be very hard to replicate. “Mike Mills” is interesting, too, in that I assume you wrote it for Mike Mills.
Nico: It depends. Which Mike Mills are you talking about? Because there’s the guy from R.E.M. and then there’s also the graphic designer.
Yeah, the designer. He’s such a great guy!
Nico: We started working on his film Thumbsucker, and “Mike Mills” was the working title of the song. Finally, the guy who made the music came and we [were left with the song]. We kept the title.
He did the Moon Safari (1998) cover, right?
Nico: Yeah, the cover, all the videos, he’s amazing. We love him so much. He’s very Francophiled, so he’s very easy for us to work with. With him, we have access to a lot of good, positive things about American culture–it’s a good exchange.
You seem to work a lot with people outside of music, or at least your music. Deliberately. You’ve done collaborations with Beck and Jarvis Cocker and Mike Mills and Xavier Veilhan for Pocket Symphony.
Nico: Yeah, we love to work with interesting artists. The artwork is a way to continue the creative stuff because when you finish your studio work, you don’t create anything else. But with the artwork, you can have access to people who are not in music so you don’t lose contact with the creative world. Like, the album comes out and then it’s sort of sad, so I like to work with different artists to keep me excited.
Back to instruments and all. I’m always interested by your keyboard work. I read somewhere that you’re big fans of Ryuichi Sakamoto. What draws you to him?
Nico: He’s a cool guy. He stands on a thin line of good taste. If he moves a little bit, it’s cheesy, but if he stays on it it’s so beautiful. I like this sort of work. It’s so innocent. When you make your own work and it is innocent, it can be a little cheesy or something. You can see his work as being very beautiful or of pure innocence, or as being something on the edge. He is always on the edge, but he’s very pure. Like the melodies of Kraftwerk. They’re very childish sometimes, but it’s fucking Kraftwerk. They’re geniuses. It depends on the way you look at things. We just always want to be on the edge. If you stay on the edge, it’s a very good place to be because nobody can copy you. You can use the same tools, but you can do something very horrible. Being on the edge gives you more space.
You seem really intrigued by Japan. Like, now you play the koto and the shamisen.
Nico: For some reason, we feel close, attracted to Japan and Japanese environments. Japanese food, Zen, these are things that are very appealing to us. I like the way they do things, the perfection in every move you make. They do things for themselves, just to feel good. They have a lot of self-respect. Most artists, they want to be admired by so many people. In the Japanese culture, though, you look for reasons to be proud of yourself. Ninety-nine percent of artists like to show off.
J.B., you did a solo project. both of you have worked on soundtracks on and off since The Virgin Suicides (2000); and you also have done production work, like with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5:55 (2006). What do those things accomplish for you outside of Air?
J.B.: It depends. You discover different things about yourself and you can use techniques that you hadn’t in the past. It’s very interesting, an experience. With the Air stuff, we had so often worked with someone else, like a producer or a singer or whatever, and I wondered what it’d be like [to do that], except minus one. It was very good for me.
Do you ever get tired of the process that today’s music industry forces you into? EPs, LPs, touring, marketing, licensing…
Nico: I think we do music for ourselves first so we don’t have to be a part of that whole process. Also, making a CD is a way to get things out of you, but music is a way for you to go inside yourself. You make music to learn things and not only to produce things. Like, I make and listen to music every day, like classical music, just to feel myself and learn. I don’t want to spend my life producing stuff. Music means
looking in and out. Everybody can make music with MySpace and all, so an artist today should be able to make less and less music because so many people are making it right now.
The last time time I was in Paris I saw so many posters for the film Cyprien which you scored, J.B. It’s another example of you guys doing Air and then pursuing something that’s pretty mainstream. Assuming you do all of this “mainstream” stuff willingly, what’s alluring about it to you? What does scoring something like Cyprien facilitate for you that Air doesn’t?
J.B.: With a movie soundtrack, you write songs because you have to find the ones that carry emotion that fits. With comedy, it’s harder! With a movie soundtrack, you move so far away from pop music that you really need to learn how to do it, how to take it. You need to have an idea that’s outside of what you normally do. Like playing a role in the theater. It’s really weird and it’s a big challenge.
Today, so many bands make money by getting their songs licensed for films. I like how you guys always make music for films, the way soundtracks ought to be, I think.
Nico: We’re really keen on that. Nowadays, soundtracks consist of just licensed stuff. We’re very nostalgic of soundtracks that aren’t like that. We’re actually going to work on a soundtrack in October, and we’re going to do everything from the beginning to the end. That’s how we like to do things. More and more, soundtracks are just the business of a music supervisor and not a composer.
You’re doing another feature-length film score then?
Nico: The original thing is a book, a manga from a guy named [Jiro] Taniguchi called Distant Neighborhood. It’s an adult manga. They transposed the action to France in the ’60s and are making it with real actors. So we’re making the soundtrack for that. Taniguchi is a big star in France and Distant Neighborhood is a beautiful story.