Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, aka French ambient electro band Air, talk to Monocle about their working life, from a reluctance to dance on stage and their inner maths geeks to finding studio voodoo power.
“We’ve recorded our last two albums in our new studio – it’s great but we’re worried it’s too nice. Maybe it’s a danger to be comfortable in case you forget how to be creative, you know? But then we remember that The Beatles recorded all their albums at Abbey Road and we draw a little comfort from that. And anyway, we’re glad we built the studio now – in 10 years’ time perhaps there won’t be record companies to pay for a studio anymore, but here we can make music forever.
We love the vintage synths and acoustic instruments but we also use new programs and computers; we’re always mixing the old and new stuff. The studio is an instrument in itself. It’s a miracle. The best acoustic engineers in the world can make something that sounds like shit and then you can just walk into someone’s house and clap your hands and it’s perfect – it’s like running on ice.
Most days we write a bit, we try something else, we think ‘maybe some organ here, a guitar there’, we’re always experimenting, playing. Our working habits depend on our deadline – we work a little bit every day but we’re not in the studio for 12 hours or anything like that. Working long hours is no good for you - after five or six hours you start to destroy the good stuff that you’ve done – and it’s a bit of a cliché for the French but lunch and dinner time are very important.
Touring’s changed because the business has changed. Before the internet when record sales were amazing, you used to tour where you sold lots of records – the US, Germany, England. But now you just need a roomful of people which means you can go where you like to go on holiday – South America, Asia, Mexico. We’re still pretty static onstage. We’re big fans of Iggy Pop but after the age of 20 you shouldn’t dance. Iggy was born to a rock’n’roll wild animal but we weren’t meant for that. We’re love messengers!
We studied maths and architecture so our music is a bit mathematical, abit spiritual, but it’s all about space: creating something that soundsbig but we’re also obsessed with the moon and the stars. We’re obsessed with feeling weightless. The key to success for an artist is to seemeffortless, but you have to work to be effortless, that’s the thing.
Some songs take longer than others. Sometimes it takes an afternoon, sometimes you can have a great verse and it gets stuck and it can take six months sitting unfinished. We’re always looking for a solution. We like music because you can wake up in the morning and start again. Why be an architect when you’re involved in long projects – one thing for years and years? With music and painting you can do it all in one night.
What we do isn’t really work. We’re just excited to do it. We neverunderstand the concept of work – giving your time to someone else? Yousay that you’re playing an instrument, playing the piano – not that you’re working on it.
Creatively, disagreements are good because it means you always come to a point where you have to make a decision. I think making music with someone you agree with would make the most boring music you could imagine. Would you form a band with your best friend? It would just be guilty pleasures, one after another.
Being a perfectionist is so depressing; focusing on the details can often mean that you miss the big thing. A good song is a good song, it’s not all about the fiddly things. It’s more about a sort of energy that you’ve captured. Writing a song is like trying to capture a piece of magic; it’s a mystery – this charisma – it’s like finding a treasure. You have to realise what it is to be able to capture it. So often that means you have to work fast.
When you think about it, a lot of great music has been created because people want to get rich and famous – Noel Gallagher just wanted to have a Rolls-Royce, right? This idea of having a big limo full of girls and drugs was quite fun. If music doesn’t sound glamorous anymore it’s because there’s no money in the record industry.
We have to act quickly to get down in music what’s in our heads. There’s magic in a recording studio – we balance that against the fact that we’re not great composers like Beethoven but we can try and re-create something amazing like “You Really Got Me” – the magic in The Kinks studio that comes through on the recording. What’s amazing with The Beatles is that it’s the best of both worlds – the best of composition and the best of capturing the moment. What they did in Abbey Road with the engineers and the songs and the vibe is just amazing – you can hear the Beatlemania on the tape. Making music in a studio is like voodoo; it’s about capturing a moment. That’s what pop music gives to the history of art – the ability to capture a moment.”
Journey to the moon
The duo have just completed the soundtrack to Le Voyage dans la Lune, a 14-minute lost masterpiece by French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès.
The film is widely regarded as the first international blockbuster in film and pre-empted many now-standard sci-fi storylines: a rocket-trip, aliens and a narrow escape back to earth. The film was brought back to life by Technicolor experts and a lot of love, not least from Air themselves for whom it acted as an inspiration for the new full-length album of the same name.