Air: ‘If We Don’t Surprise People Any More, Then We Will Die’

“THE FIRST time I was in LA,” says Nicolas Godin, “I was in a very cool hotel. And in front of that hotel was a very cool second-hand clothes shop, a Mexican thing, with boots, hats, belts. And in walked James Woods, looking for something. And I said oh my God, James Woods!”

“And about that time, if you’d told me we’d make the music for his movie, I would not believe it! He is one of my favourite actors. With Christopher Walken and James Stewart. I like tough guys like that. Tough guys are very good. And James Woods knows how to choose his films. He plays in very trendy movies; he works with stupid crazy people.”

Woods’ latest very trendy movie is The Virgin Suicides, and the latest stupid crazy people are its debuting director, Sofia Coppola, a splendid cast headed by Kirsten Dunst and Kathleen Turner, and those French masters of musical melancholy, Air. The duo, sleepy-eyed Nicolas and bushy-tailed colleague Jean-Benoit Dunckel, hot as cool gets after the international success of 1998’s lush, suggestive Moon Safari album, had always fancied the notion of sculpting a soundtrack. Lovers of such perky, precise hits as ‘Sexy Boy’ and ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ have expressed surprise that they’ve scored such a droll, downbeat movie. With an idiosyncratic blend of accents and grammar which actually shame the vagueness most Brits emit, they explain how and why this came to pass. They also, relevantly, discuss teenage sex and death.

“Mike Mills, who does all our artwork and videos, knows Sofia well,” begins Jean-Benoit. “She’d loved Moon Safari since it first came out. We’ve always wanted to do a soundtrack. It’s natural for us…instrumentals are easy!”

“People had begun to stereotype us as French funnies,” grumbles Nicolas. “As cartoons of easy listening. So when we read the book by Jeffrey Eugenides and saw the style of the picture and the actors involved, like James Woods, we realised it was the opposite of our image, and therefore interesting. If you’re doing something new, you’re excited.

“We’re big fans of soundtracks – they were my first introduction to classical music. I like pop songs too, of course, but here you can use more strings, and have a theme you return to. I love Morricone, and all the great French composers…I know we never had great pop artists, but throughout the Sixties and Seventies there were so many good French soundtracks. This soundtrack was a good opportunity to get rid of some ideas, to approach the dark, melancholy side of our music and then escape from it for the next album. The Virgin Suicides has tragedy on it.”

“It’s good to surprise people,” decides Jean-Benoit. “We feel obliged to. If we don’t surprise them any more, we will die. This is a movie about teenagers who have spleen. Spleen is a French thing. Yes, like in Baudelaire, good. It’s when you have bad ideas, a nervous breakdown. That’s the way he uses it.”

Have you ever contemplated suicide? “What – you mean, specifically for me?” Jean-Benoit’s startled. “Er…yes. I had some friends who committed suicide, so…yes…it’s a very violent act, the most violent you can do in your life. But for girls, I think that a suicide attempt is just a shout for help. To say to people: I’m here, take care of me! When a boy commits suicide, it’s not the same – it’s to end his life.”

Controversial stuff from the stylish Frenchman. We continue to avert ennui by chewing on immortality. Do you believe scientists’ claims that soon we’ll be able to live forever?

“I just hope they can do it before I die,” muses Nicolas. “And I hope it happens while I’m still able to have an erection. It’s no use living forever if you can’t…make it. Maybe it gets boring if you live beyond 70, anyway. It’d probably get boring after you were three hundred, for certain. But then, no – look at all the things that have happened in the world in the last two millennia….the world is always turning. Science will deliver people from the hard life, I believe. They’ll turn more to spirituality, and religion. So you could never get bored. Unless you lived with the same wife forever. Ha, ha!”

Are your lives like a French movie, full of sex and abstract philosophy?

“Well…when we act in our videos, it’s usually just catastrophic. But we have a certain style. Sofia’s brother [Roman Coppola] made the ‘Playground Love’ one. In France, there are so many movies full of bad acting. They’re very strange. Either very good or very bad. If they have no money, they don’t care – they shoot it anyway. It’s great: they have no fear. They can make a movie from three people talking in chairs, like this. In American movies, they make simple stories with a huge budget, and in French movies we make complicated stories with no budget. And bad actors. The Virgin Suicides is different: it’s well-organised.”

You’re rather unpatriotically dismissing one of France’s proudest cultural achievements…

“Oh, look, have you ever seen Jean-Pierre Leaud try to act? Have you seen any Eric Rohmer movies?”

Growing up in Versailles, I suggest, you were surely surrounded by vivid imagery seven days a week?

“You never know whether your own hometown is surreal…you can’t compare it. I think when you’re young you live in your dreams, in your head. You escape in your dreams from where you are.

“But it’s true that the gardens of Louis Quatorze’s Palace at Versailles are very cool. When you play there when you’re a kid, you imagine you’re people from the past. Like so many tourists do. It was always a romantic park for bringing some girls and smoking some herb. With the statues everywhere. It’s funny: Louis Quatorze was a very clever guy, who surrounded himself with the best writers, the best philosophers, architects, painters. Also, he was making sex all the time! Everywhere in the gardens there are these little houses of just one room, to make love in any time. Everywhere! His was a completely intense life – cleverness, sex and wine.

“Louis took his pleasures in the forest, and painted all the buildings pink and yellow and red – now they’re all white. I think he was a very clever punk.”

Is that even remotely what you are?

“All the business around Moon Safari disabused us, and now we’ve got more maturity. But it was an adventure. This soundtrack album is the closing chapter of that adventure: now we move on.”

“We were conscious that we were in luck and in fashion, so we just worked hard. I think the French fashion thing in England is over now, and it’s time for the music. Music is just about imagination. Whether you’re inspired by science fiction, or by the sexual, or by the human, the important thing is to have some imagination. Whatever the source is for you, it’s cool.”

Air sign my copy of their first soundtrack album Jean-Benoit writes, “Love can protect you from suicide, luv!” Nicolas writes, “Air are on their way to save me.”

I dig Moon Safari out of my bag. On it they write, “Dreams are real life. Reality is science fiction. Nothing is really important.”

Yeah, whatever.

© Chris RobertsUncut, June 2000

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