Space to Breathe: An Intimate Chat with Air
With the release of Air's fifth full-length album, J.B. Dunckel discusses his experience working with Nigel Godrich, his desire to score the next Bond film, and his fear that in the future, anyone can sound like Elvis.
"I will do the best I can to sound clever."
The above sentence is a strange thing for a rock star to promise at the start of an interview, but then again, J.B. Dunckel's group, the French pop duo Air, could never be accused of being particularly ordinary. Concocting a seemingly dichotomous blend of electronic and organic sounds, Dunckel and bandmate Nicolas Godin have crafted a worldly, chilled-out potpourri of new wave synths, Burt Bacharach-style trumpets, and influences ranging from French film composers to obscure Japanese keyboard maestros (Tomita, anyone?) over the course of 14 extraordinary years.
The two Versailles-raised musicians met at the Conservatoire in Paris, and played in various configurations until settling on the Air moniker in 1995. The group first burst into the popular consciousness with 1998's Moon Safari, which, with its warmly cinematic Moog-lounge, had a radio-ready yet hipster-approved pop sheen that lent itself to a unquenchable cultural ubiquity. In an era when "electronica" meant computer-created club tracks, and "rock" meant live drums and guitars, Air served as the jovial French ambassadors innocently staking their territory in between the two, blazing trails for a spate of knob-twiddling, indie-friendly acts – Zero 7, Lemon Jelly, Thievery Corporation, and the like – who flooded soundtracks and after-party mixes in the years to come.
Instead of resting on its laurels and pushing out a decade's worth of music for Nissan commercials, Air has followed the popular success of Moon Safari with a collection of albums that have consistently built on its legacy and challenged listeners' expectations. The group's sophomore effort, 2001's moody, experimental 10,000 Hz Legend, alienated many fans and critics with its dark textures and strange robot voices. The more instrumentally-minded 2004 release Talkie Walkie struck a happy medium between the poles of the first two records, while the group's fourth effort -- 2007's Pocket Symphony -- was a quiet, meditative affair that found the band collaborating with acclaimed producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck).
Air's long-anticipated fifth album -- simply titled Love 2 -- was by some accounts not intended as an album at all. During press for Pocket Symphony, Godin lamented how the concept of the start-to-finish LP had been tarnished by music-downloading services like iTunes, and proclaimed that Pocket Symphony would be the group's last album to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. When recording began on Love 2, however, Duckel and Godin couldn't help but again spend their time thinking about the big picture and painstakingly mapping out the album's flow, track-by-track. "We couldn't do it any other way," Dunckel says. "It's simply not our nature."
As the album title might suggest, there's an elevated atmosphere of sensuality to Love 2, something that was lacking on the gentle, suite-like Pocket Symphony. When asked what he hopes listeners get out of the new record, Dunckel deadpans, "huge orgasms." He's not kidding. From the whispery vocals of "Love" to the slinky guitar runs of "You Can Tell," Love 2 bubbles over with sensuous grooves that at times wouldn't seem out of place in a porno flick. "We want to give people a big, audio caress," Dunckel says, with less irony than you might expect. "But please, not in front of the children!"
Since Moon Safari, Air has become perhaps most famous for its well-documented soundtrack work, from scoring Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides to contributing tracks to Lost in Translation. The most striking cinematic excursion on Love 2, however, concerns the handful of upbeat instrumentals that skew closer to spy-movie theme music than Air's usual ambient-pop. "Be the Bee" boasts a rollicking rhythm section of thumping bass and chugging drums, while "Eat My Beat" propels forward thanks to fuzzed-out surf guitar and whirring, siren-like synths. Is there a new espionage film in the group's future? "We are big fans of Daniel Craig," Dunckel says with a laugh. "Our entire plan was to be in line for the next soundtrack. I hope [the producers] will suddenly realize how 'James Bond' we are."
Photo: Luciana Val & Franco Musso
Much of the rest of Love 2 remains tethered to Air's distinct brand of emotive, atmospheric pop tracks. Where Pocket Symphony found the group exploring Eastern influences with Japanese instruments like the koto and the shamisen, Love 2 returns to the band's bread-and-butter: soft acoustic guitars, muted trumpets, cosmic Moogs and other tasteful combinations of synths, strings, and horns. Mellifluous piano arpeggios wash over the midtempo percussion of "Tropical Disease," while "African Velvet" features subtle saxophones swaying in and out of a leisurely guitar-guided rhythm (the lyrics follow suit: no fewer than three songs have the word "light" in the title).
The musicianship is strong and sturdy throughout Love 2. Godin's bass is, as ever, a consistently sleek and unassumingly funky presence. Dunckel, meanwhile, clearly has fun rooting around his closet for instrumental comfort food like the Mellotron keyboard, which he employed regularly for The Virgin Suicides soundtrack and dabbles with on new tracks like "Night Hunter." "Playing it feels like having an orchestra under my fingers," Dunckel says. "There's nothing like it."
Yes, Air play instruments -- amazingly enough, even after more than a decade on the pop-music radar, the misperception of the duo as exclusively Pro Tools-wielding studio producers all too often remains. Godin and Dunckel have long been perplexed by the "electronica" term and the fact that they, two multi-instrumentalists with roots in the early-'90s French rock scene, are so frequently pegged as the contemporary kings of the genre. With everyone from freak-folkers to singer-songwriters embracing the bleeps and clicks of music-mixing programs, it's fair to ask what "electronic" even means anymore. "Everything is electronic," Dunckel says matter-of-factly. "If you take an acoustic guitar and plug it in, that's electric. Even the sound of your voice is translated into electronic fields."
That said, Air certainly concedes that it has spent a fair amount of time behind the soundboards, as well. The group helped pioneer effects like vocal manipulation, as witnessed on vocoder-assisted Moon Safari hits like "Sexy Boy" and "Kelly Watch the Stars." Nevertheless, Dunckel expresses disappointment with the sudden omnipresence of robo-technologies like Auto-Tune in contemporary pop and R&B. "The worst is when it's used discretely and you can hardly tell," he says. "It disguises our humanity." He envisions a time in the not-so-distant future when producers will regularly utilize plug-ins of other people's voices. "That's the next step," he says. "I'll record something, pick the 'Elvis Presley' sound, and turn my vocal into his."
Love 2 also marks the duo's return to producing after enlisting Godrich for Pocket Symphony. While Dunckel describes the experience with Godrich as a rewarding musical lesson, he says the band felt an urgency with the new album to take matters back into its own hands. "In ancient times, when a woman was pregnant, there was no obstetrician, but the baby would come anyway," Dunckel says, before pausing for effect. "For this album, we just really wanted the baby to come."
Fortunately for Dunckel and Godin, on such matters as collaborators and producers Air has had a tremendous amount of creative control, thanks in no small part to the fact that albums like Moon Safari proved so successful even without label influence. "People think there is always someone [from the record company] coming to the studio, saying, 'you should add a snare to make it more commercial,'" says Dunckel. "But it's not like that at all. There's no pressure."
Indeed, the group seems more or less content with whatever fate is destined for its latest effort, satisfied with taking things one day at a time. Besides a fall international tour that spans such countries as Australia, China, and Russia, Air's upcoming plans are, well, up in the air. "Next year we might be a big stars again, or we might become an underground band," says Dunckel, sounding mildly bemused by the prospect of either scenario. "When you throw a stone, you never know where it's going to land."