Air - Biography
By David Downs
Experimental electronic pop aesthetes Jean-Benoît Dunckel (born September 7, 1969) and Nicolas Godin (born December 25, 1969) didn’t seek the mainstream, it gravitated toward them. Formed in 1995 in their pastoral town of Versailles, France, the pair began their counterpoint to thumping French house with the “Modular Mix” single in 1995 for France’s independent Source Records label. Similarly credible appearances on respected underground labels like Mo Wax preceded a full-blown major career for these purveyors of sweetness and light. Astralwerks Records debut Moon Safari (1998) gave the world the club hit “Sexy Boy” in all its vocoder-laden, porn-tempo slinkiness. The album also boasted the equally honeyed “You Make It Easy.”
Sofia Coppola’s recruitment of Air to do the The Virgin Suicides [Original Soundtrack] (2000 Astralwerks) added even more credibility to the duo, with colossally sensual tracks like “Playground Love” conquering the bedroom more than the dance floor. Air then began to unexpectedly crack the Billboard 200 every three years starting in 2001, when LP 10,000 Hz Legend (2001 Astralwerks) hit #88, followed by Talkie Walkie’s (2004 Astralwerks) reaching #61, and Pocket Symphony (2007 Astralwerks) climbing to #40. With a sound that’s smart yet simple, cliché yet experimental, ethereal yet earthy, the band revels in the progressive exploration of new instruments while recording at a snail’s pace. They continue to chart a deliberately artful course through the ruins of electronica and pop, drawing on their classical training, child-like intuition and a deep, abiding love of French culture.
In 1995, a time when French house was drenching urban clubs with Daft Punk and Dimitri from Paris, Air emerged via the countryside with a distinctly pastoral vibe. Once the home of Louis XIV’s famed hunting grounds, the verdant, quiet forests of Versailles would serve as inspiration to its native Jean-Benoît Dunckel and college friend Nicolas Godin.
Dunckel had been formally trained in classical music at Paris’ Conservatoire where he greatly admired Debussy and Bach. Godin was brought up in a bohemian family that encouraged him to learn any instrument he touched. The duo met at age 15 at school in Versailles. The pair were originally interested in doing something very loud and heavy, so they formed the rock band Orange with Alex Latrobe (later known as the producer Alex Gopher). Labels ignored the Orange demos, but after graduation they nevertheless continued to collaborate as Dunckel went on to teach math and Godin enrolled as an architecture student. With a naturally shy demeanor, Dunckel had a hard time teaching, but Godin reveled in the concepts of balance to be found in the Bauhaus school of architecture. This proved a pivotal step in what would become Air’s sound, as he would later apply it to their music.
Dunckel and Godin changed course from angry Orange and embraced a certain sense of leisure and peace in their music post-graduation. Now without Latrobe, they began to engage music’s ability to transport rather than to disrupt, and is doing so, formed Air. What followed was a string of singles for the much-lauded labels Mo Wax and Source Records, which gave them credibility among labelmates DJ Shadow, Dr. Octagon and UNKLE.
Their “Modulor Mix” 12” first appeared on Source Records in 1995 followed by the “Casanova 70” 12” on Source Records in 1996, then “Modular” on Mo Wax in 1996, “La Femme d’Argent,” “LeSoleil Est Près De Moi” and the Premiers Symptômes CD on Source Records in 1997. In 1997, Air’s “Sexy Boy” 12” Source Records promo preceded a major label debut with Virgin (released in the United States under the Astralwerks label). That same year, Air gained further cred with remixes of Depeche Mode and Neneh Cherry and by joining French musique concrète star Jean-Jacques Perrey for a track on the Source Records compilation Sourcelab, Vol. 3 (1997 Astralwerks).
In 1997, Air rented a house on the edge of the Versailles forest and spent four months making Moon Safari—an album noted for its laid back vibe, adventurous arrangements, vocoder, and distinct lack of samples or heavy beats. As a counterpoint to the rainy, dreary heaviness of respected contemporaries Portishead and Massive Attack, Air was more interested in making people happy and dreamy through use of harmony and melody, the beat being an afterthought; merely a tempo-keeper. They sought sonic answers by pursuing the concepts of logic and balance from their studies in mathematics and architecture.
Air’s architectural pureness and simplicity juxtaposed with a sense of adventuresome ambiance is the essence of Moon Safari. The two accomplished this feat by building their own studio in a stone cottage from scratch, to enhance their overall recording time. They also introduced a grand piano, pianola, Godin’s guitars, old Roland drum machines, Moogs, Korgs, ARP synths and the Rhodes electric piano. Guitar effects boxes like distortions and flangers also came in, where they played strange roles like augmenting the organ lead on album opener “La Femme d’Argent.” Taking weekends and days off to keep the pace mellow, Moon Safari was self-produced on an eight-track machine, save for mixer Stephane Briat. The band would work on a song for months and, if they saw it as a dead end, would throw it as they continued to toss ideas back and forth. Though the album was composed primarily on piano, Air’s use of vocoder bears mention. Once used to mask their voices, Dunckel and Godin developed a love for rare vocoders and even more the rare warmth they provided. Air employed an undisclosed type of vocoder in Air’s hit single “Sexy Boy” and “Kelly Watch the Stars.”
Both those singles—“Sexy Boy” and “Kelly Watch the Stars”—found favor in Britain and nabbed airtime on MTV. Later in 1998, Godin and Dunckel toured throughout Europe and America, despite an expressed desire to skip the brutish realities of life on the road. This was later captured in the 1999 Virgin film Eating Sleeping Waiting and Playing. Their early singles were also collected in 1999 under the title Premiers Symptômes (1999 Source).
Around that time director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia Coppola tapped Air to score the soundtrack to her film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, about the death of five young girls in Grosse Point, Michigan. Air endured sped-up production cycles which nonetheless honed their sensibilities for the film. Standout track “Playground Love” with its lilting hypnotic interplay between a simple piano melody and string arrangement is instantly recognizable and complemented by vocals from Phoenix singer Thomas Mars.
That year, Air got around to forming Record Makers, an independent label founded with associates Marc Teissier du Cros and Stephane Elfassi. Record Makers’ goal mimics that of Air, showing the world the power of French music that’s not necessarily dance or chanson. Working with rock, electronic and pop orientated artists, Record Makers exhibit Air’s desire to carefully control not only production but also the visuals, videos, and art of the band.
In 2001, Air took a harsher, darker turn on 10,000 Hz Legend with standout tracks “How Does It Make You Feel?,” “Radio #1,” “People in the City,” and “Don’t Be Light” reflecting the band’s transition from rural Versailles to the Montmartre area of Paris, the mounds of junk keyboards and overflowing progressive culture at the fore. Recorded in Los Angeles and Paris, Legend is more grating than Moon Safari, the result of spending more than eight months in the studio—writing and recording—while learning new instruments. Air was honoring its original pact to avoid re-using gear. Featuring Beck, Buffalo Daughter, and former Redd Kross drummer Brian Reitzell, the album cracked the American Billboard 200 at #88.
2004’s Talkie Walkie backpedaled a bit from Legend. The fourth full-length album’s title is thought to reference one of Air’s influences, Serge Gainsbourg. Standout track “Alone in Kyoto” received placement in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. Tracks “Cherry Blossom Girl,” and “Surfing on a Rocket” became tour hits. In 2005 and 2006, Air collaborated with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, on Charlotte Gainsbourg’s album 5:55 (2007 Vice), and Dunckel also released a solo album as Darkel.
Cocker and Hannon also make appearances on Air’s fifth album, Pocket Symphony, which was released in 2007 with standout tracks “Once Upon a Time,” “One Hell of a Party,” “Left Bank,” and “Lost Message.” Pocket Symphony is deliberately sparse and evocative of postmodern architecture, a trait producer Nigel Godrich encouraged. Eastern influences are noticeable as Godin, upon a request from his girlfriend, learned the classical instruments koto and shamisen through an Okinawa master. Those influences are most evident on “One Hell of a Party.” The album also featured more computers than what appeared on Talkie Walkie, a device that Air at one time steadfastly shunned before discovering the research center IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), run by composer Pierre Boulez, who offered new plug-ins Air could experiment with.
Pocket Symphony set a new record for the band, hitting the Billboard 200 #40 spot. It also bolted to the #1 on the Billboard Top Electronic Albums charts and #3 on the Billboard Top Independent Albums charts.
French culture prides itself as being the great guardians and the great reservoir of Western civilization. And in that way, Air’s Dunckel and Godin are French almost to a fault. They fearlessly ignore mass tastes while crafting exquisite pop gems based on an immense knowledge and appreciation of those tastes. Incorporating their pastoral backgrounds, combined with the rigid laws of mathematical logic and architectural balance, the two have flourished in experimental electronic music’s space. Where others turned the volume up, Air succeeded by slowing it all down, teaching their listeners to savor what others would scarf.
Wildly misunderstood, Air contents itself with its still-outsider status, which acts as a tacit validation of their postmodern pursuits.