Air: How ELO Can You Go?

Qu’est-ce que c’est? Music that sounds like ELO jamming over a porn flick soundtrack — on the moon!? Oh yes indeedy, prepare to enter the grooveadelic world of mad Parisian duo AIR, just don’t mention “easy”! Havin’ a gas: ANDY CRYSELL

IT’S SAFE TO SAY, Air are not fighting men. But if they were, lawks, the Parisian duo of Nicholas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel would have reached for the bazookas by now.

Let’s recap: your music is polyester slacks, garish cocktails, hordes of bon viveurs drifting zanily through a lime-green and pink lounge and a Philips “music centre” the size of a large kitchen table playing all that grooves, swings and makes people dance. Your music. It’s easy listening. We are right, aren’t we?

“Easy listening?” considers Nicholas as his impish companion looks on frostily. “Well, ha ha, it was very hard to make.”

He’s referring to Air’s inaugural album for Virgin, Moon Safari (their first release since last year’s cult chill-out hit, ‘Le Soleil Est Pres De Moi’ on France’s Source label), which could turn out to be one of the strangest records we’ll hear all year. Not strange as in massively weirded-out or blatantly narco-inspired. More a case of strange as in, despite everything, it’s one huge and affecting ball of melodious, un-tum-offable refinement.

Sometimes it sounds like ELO jamming with The Carpenters, Vangelis, a creator of ’60s soft-porn movie soundtracks and an army of good-natured jazzateers. Which doesn’t read as well as the chic techno folk prettiness actually sounds. You could even argue that Godin & Dunckel are the Simon & Garfunkel of post-dance chillage.

Not that you’d expect to hear such boasts from the affable duo, who combine a typically French penchant for musing pensively over life’s more philosophical dimensions, plus a very British knack of running themselves down before anyone else gets a chance. As Nicholas just pointed out, making music is no easy business for them and trying to get their heads round the end results is even trickier, it seems.

You can press home to them all you like that, in artful missives like ‘Sexy Boy’, ‘Remember’ and ‘New Star In The Sky’, they’ve hit upon an oddly timeless sound, but embarrassed shrugs are the main thing you get back, with them assuming little responsibility for the album and absolutely no knowledge of how it was created. In their own demure, softly-spoken way, then, they are evidently very mad indeed.

“We didn’t expect it to sound like it does. It was like, ‘Oooh, we did all of that? Strange!'” confesses Nicholas.

“And we never really thought our music could be fashionable. It’s not exactly techno, is it?” giggles Jean-Benoit. “It’s music to help you sort out your problems. Everyone can use it to make themselves feel better… except for us, because this album is our problem.” A problem to the point it’s giving them nightmares. Nicholas’ is that all his former school teachers are fans of Moon Safari, while Jean-Benoit’s is that the superannuated, including his grandmother, will like it more than The Kids. More perplexing for them still is that they subscribe fully to the customary maxim that all good pop should distress your elders.

“Which is why we sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable with what we make,” Nicholas explains. “No-one over the age of 25 is supposed to like Daft Punk, but with us, ha ha, I’m sure really boring people like our music.”

Air’s gripe with the “easy-listening” sticker stretches back to reviews of their earliest recordings — inordinately classy 12″s like 1995’s ‘Modular Mix’ and the following year’s ‘Casanova 70’. Making matters worse for themselves, the latter release came wrapped in a superb, though distinctly kitsch, picture of a friend’s parents relaxing on recliners in Monte Carlo in 1970.

“Yes,” deadpans Nicholas, “another of our mistakes.”

But if there is anything trad about their tunes — they record them without computers or sequencers — at least they conjure up a better reasoning for this than most.

“I think there’s a strange balance between the past and the future,” contemplates Nicholas. “We can’t go further into the future until we’ve finished what needs to be done now, and part of that involves looking to the past again, we believe.”

“Anyway, in two centuries’ time, people are going to look at the music of this age and see Goldie and The Beach Boys as working at the same time,” adds Jean-Benoit. “Twenty years isn’t going to make much difference — most people won’t even know what came first, The Beatles or drum’n’bass.”

*

The pair live in twee Montmartre but record in a small studio in equally twee Versailles (as such, they call themselves members of the “Versailles posse”, which we can safely state is not exactly like the Bronx or Compton posses). Prior to Air they were in an indie band called Orange and, being Beatles fanatics through and through (they chatter excitedly about Sean Lennon’s forthcoming album, from which they heard demo tracks on a recent visit to New York), feel as much affinity for rock as the dance scene they’re supposedly a part of. “We like Supergrass, Pulp, people like that,” confirms Nicholas. “But that’s part of your British cultural tradition. If you’re from France and you tried to be like them, people would laugh at you — including the French. It’d be like you playing the accordion and wearing onions round your neck.”

In a sense, their music’s more inherently French in nature than Daft Punk’s global techno — which, incidentally, Virgin released to an unsuspecting UK public at exactly this time last year. But even so, their compatriots across the Channel seem somewhat confused, with most who’ve heard of Air apparently believing they’re from the UK. This is fine, though, the duo laugh, seeing that success over here is still a prerequisite of receiving similar acclaim in their homeland.

“But it’s cool to think that art has no frontiers,” Nicholas smiles. “Not like in football.”

They’ve dealt well enough with the easy-listening imputations, but what about their propensity for slinky, popadelic vocodered voices? Own up, then — closet ELO fans, or what?

“We’re not good singers so we have to disguise our voices,”

Nicholas shrugs. “It’s good, we don’t have a Gaz Coombes or Richard Ashcroft so we don’t have to treat the voice as a delicate thing.

“With us, you can’t tell if it’s the voice of a boy, a girl or maybe an angel. We have this idea of music coming from outer space and this is the perfect way for us to show that to people.”

As for them cutting back on the melodicism and increasing the parent-baiting noise quotient at some point, they reckon the peace-of-mind-shattering, one-country-a-day promotional tour they’re currently on could boost the chances of that.

“Promote, promote, promote,” groans Nicholas. “We’ll probably go crazy one day soon and make the most frightening and noisy techno record there’s ever been.”

In the meantime, prior to them going full-on hardcore potty, they’re off to Madrid tonight, to talk down their gift for celestial music, no doubt; and, quite possibly, to continue their habit for attaining perverse pleasure through persuading their label to show them the worst reviews they’ve received — indeed, they went as far as bribing a member of staff in one of Virgin’s mainland Europe offices to unlock the “top secret” filing cabinet and allow them to sneak out with an unfavourable write-up between two record covers.

Over to Jean-Benoit, finally, who in a rare outburst of forcefulness concludes: “It’s not punk but for us it’s our own revolution, because like all great artists, we’ve started to create our own world and we hope everyone will want to visit it.”

That’s right, pack a bag, book your tickets and, um, invite your nan, even…

© Andy CrysellNew Musical Express, 17 January 1998

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