Jean-Benoit Dunckel, the French composer/keyboardist better known as JB, leans back onto his couch in his music studio, Studio Atlas, in Paris. After a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that he is much more than just a gifted musician; he is an artist, a philosopher, and somewhat of a celestial being.
Dunckel is best known as half of the electronic duo Air. Nicolas Godin is the other half. With their 1998 debut, Moon Safari, and the dreamy single, “All I Need”, featuring vocalist Beth Hirsch, Air entered downtempo/electronica stardom. After that, they composed the score for Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides.
Out of all of Air’s discography, 2004’s Talkie Walkie has stayed in heavy rotation in my collection for years. Tracks like “Surfing on a Rocket”, with its quintessential whisper-like vocals and layers of keys and electric guitar, still put me in a groovy trance. The contemplative “Mike Mills” sounds almost like Vivaldi was transported to the 21st Century. Once Dunckel’s piano comes in at the bridge, the repetition and minimalism are reminiscent of Philip Glass. “Alpha Beta Gaga”, one of the most upbeat tracks, is what I imagine bluegrass might sound like in outer space. “Alone in Kyoto”, used in Coppola’s Lost in Translation as Scarlett Johansson’s character spends the day traveling by herself, is also a highlight.
Dunckel confesses that he’d enjoy the chance to reunite with Air for a future tour. “I would love to go back to Australia and the US. I haven’t been to the US for five years, so I need to go.” Currently, Dunckel admits he hears his new single, “Corporate Sunset”, off his latest solo album, Carbon, on the French radio a few times a day. He explains that the song began as an improvisation on the piano at his girlfriend’s apartment.
“I was at my girlfriend’s apartment, and she was cooking in the kitchen. While I was waiting, I went to the piano, and I played [“Sunset”]. She said, ‘Yeah, it’s very good.’ I like to be advised by the people around me, and most of the time it is women because they understand the vibrations when they hear the music. Women help me because I’m always in doubt.”
Dunckel says “a strong scientific and mathematical concept” shaped Carbon. “I wanted the album to be like a laboratory… an experience with sounds and layers.” His layering of tracks is most evident in the single “Corporate Sunset”, which Dunckel calls “mathematics that you can hear.”
The trippy accompanying “visualizer” shows a series of greyscale circles disappearing and reappearing on a black background is supposed to give listeners the sense of what he’s trying to accomplish, but it mostly disappoints. A promotional video of the album’s three singles, “Corporate Sunset”, “Zombie Park”, and “Shogun”, had moments that veered into absurd memories of SNL’s long-ago sketch “Sprockets” starring Mike Myers as a German talk show host. After the strange pop cultural connection passed, I could absorb Dunckel’s incredibly complex composition process.
Of the three singles, “Zombie Park” is most reminiscent of Air’s sound if fans are looking for a familiar place to enter Dunckel’s solo work. While Carbon overall feels stiffer and less accessible than Air masterpieces like Talkie Walkie or Moon Safari, it does manage to reflect the disjointed times we live in.
Dunckel describes the composition process as less thought and more vibration. “Music is connected to different parts of your body, not always the brain, but much more like the heart. I need to have something in my mind and my heart. I think the most well-shared feeling on Earth is melancholy because everyone is melancholy.”
When inquiring if he ever feels satisfied with his work, he notes that he’s “never satisfied with anything” but admits, “sometimes I like some of my music. On Carbon, I think that there are some really good tracks. My expectations are maybe too high. I make an effort to approach the quality of what classical music masters did, but those are tough comparisons.”
What makes Dunckel push himself to such high standards? “It’s because I want my music to stay after death,” he confesses. “That’s why I’m trying to put a lot of my soul into my music. Music captures the soul of people because the soul is what stays after you. I go to the studio every day because I want it to stay alive. It’s a bit ambitious and pretentious, but I want my music to survive.”