ON THEIR DEBUT, MOON SAFARI, THE FRENCH DUO AIR MAKE LOUNGE MUSIC FOR THE ELECTRONIC SET
AT ANY OTHER moment in pop history, putting the words French band on your album cover would be guaranteed commercial suicide. But that’s exactly what the Parisian duo Air have done, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. Because in case you haven’t heard, French music is undergoing a renaissance — or should we say a naissance, since there is virtually no precedent for the raft of eclectic DJ artists and technosavants (Etienne de Crecy, Dimitri From Paris, Daft Punk) who have recently made Paris a youth-culture mecca.
Although Air are considered part of France’s nouvelle vague, the soft-spoken pair — Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, both twenty-eight — are quick to dissociate themselves from their nation’s booming dance-music scene. “We have nothing in common with DJs, because we are pure musicians,” says Dunckel during a promotional visit to Amsterdam. “Air’s music is searching more in a harmony way than a rhythm way — we think only in terms of feeling the keyboards and finding good chords.”
Despite the fact that Air pack virtually no rhythmic punch (and have an image as nebulous as their name), the band’s stylish debut, Moon Safari, has struck a powerful chord with techno-addled European audiences. The record is a rare marriage of original aesthetic vision and immaculate execution; it’s a seductively timeless work that’s poised between the past and the future, emotion and logic. Most of Air’s sparse vocals may emanate from a Frampton-esque vocoder (“the third sex,” says Godin), but the melodies could make an android cry.
Although Moon Safari might evoke some imaginary jet-set movie from the sixties, the record’s elegant simplicity makes it an equally suitable soundtrack to cosmopolitan life in 1998. One influential endorsement of this view comes from the elegantly simple French designer Agnes B., who is set to sell a clothing line inspired by the duo in her stores worldwide (a previously unreleased Air single will come with every purchase).
While the practical applications of Moon Safari reportedly span boutique and boudoir, the band itself is divided on the latter venue. “Well, I tried making love to ‘Le Soleil Est Pres de Moi’ [from Air’s Premiers Symptomes EP] and it was good,” avers Dunckel.
“If I make love to our music, I hear all the flaws and I just go like that,” counters Godin, making a wilting gesture.
Performance anxiety of a different sort derailed the duo’s previous incarnation as the rock band Orange, which disbanded in frustration at its own lack of originality. Godin quickly overcame his bout of artistic impotence, but a return to music involved much soul searching for Dunckel, who, as a new father, had taken a gig teaching physics. When the pair reunited as Air, its soulful brand of easy listening found such favor with jaded taste makers that Air began to feel the pressure of mounting expectations.
Dunckel and Godin elected to retreat to their native burg of Versailles to record Air’s debut and decamp at an eighteenth-century farmhouse-turned-studio. (Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing was also recorded there.) Just 100 meters from a golf course where Paris’ power brokers shanked and duffed, Air plugged in their rudimentary 8-track tape machine and began tooling around with arcane keyboards balanced on crates. “If you use a computer, you have to be a brilliant musician to come up with something good,” says Godin of Air’s laid-back, retrotech approach. “People like Daft Punk or Björk have done great things with new technology. But we are afraid that we’re not that good, so we prefer to hide behind a Fender Rhodes [electric piano], which sounds beautiful whatever you play.”
Musically, Air draw inspiration from vintage film scores and the harmonies of classical music. “You read a Rachmaninoff score and it’s so imaginative,” rhapsodizes Dunckel. “After you play Debussy’s chords for three hours, you have great references of harmony when you relax and play on your own.
“You can listen to Debussy or Prokofiev or Dvorak without knowing a lot about them,” he says. “We like to see the emotion; we don’t want to have to go in and look for it. We like love at first sight — you don’t want to talk to a girl for hours to discover you love her. Our music must be love at first sight.”
One of the few outsiders to enter Air’s Versailles love shack was Beth Hirsch, a Florida-born actress and musician who sings on two songs. “I found their work habits a little, er, laissez faire,” Hirsch says. “I told them, ‘The difference between y’all and us is that we’re there to work; you work for ten minutes and talk about it for forty.'”
Hirsch is one of Air’s many U.S. affiliates. The band can count among its admirers such nineties hipsters as Beastie Boy Mike D, Beck (who is remixing Air’s ‘Sexy Boy’ single) and visual artist Mike Mills (director of the ‘Sexy Boy’ video). America’s affinity for the band is mutual: Not only do these Agnes B.-boys swear fashion allegiance to the venerable U.S. work-wear label Dickies and sing about Jaclyn Charlie’s Angels Smith, but they positively gush when talking about contemporary American music. “In Europe, there’s a real divide between house culture and pop rock,” says Godin. “In America, artists like Beck and the Dust Brothers are using melodies and samples, traditional instruments and computers, with crazy breaks in the songs. They mix the past and the future. Everyone’s talking about this French vibe, but, personally, I think the next big thing will come from the States.”
© Steven Daly, Rolling Stone, 19 March 1998