To Air Is Human

Air's Nicolas Godin finds life at the heart of the electronic age.

Given this scattershot approach, it's no surprise that Legend is a very up-and-down (or maybe in-and-out) affair. Yet it's also richly textured, multilayered and filled with sonic revelations that take their sweet time exposing themselves. "This is the strength of good art," Godin says. "That you don't hear everything at first, because there's something hidden in it. It's like your girlfriend. If you can read her after one week, you will be disappointed. It is better if all of your life she has to surprise you, and you have to surprise her -- and music is the same."

A few years ago, neither Godin nor Dunckel seemed bound for a musical career. They were raised in Versailles, west of Paris, and by the time they met, both were accomplished players; Dunckel's skills came courtesy of the Conservatoire in Paris, where he studied the classical masters. The two eventually joined forces in Orange, an indie band that also included producer Alex Gopher. But when Orange failed to take off, they set rock aside in favor of more conventional pursuits: Godin went into architecture, Dunckel studied math and physics with an eye toward becoming a teacher.

In the mid-'90s, however, their day jobs came to an end, thanks to Marc Teissier du Cros, a mutual friend who worked for Source, a Paris imprint then gaining cache among the Continent's tastemakers. At du Cros's suggestion, Godin and Dunckel, who'd been collaborating for fun in a home studio, put together a song, "Modular Mix," for the compilation SourceLab. The result was a light but luxuriant example of modern electro that caught the attention of A&R types at the British label Mo' Wax, which promptly licensed the salvo. Before long, Air found itself with a cult following generated by a string of singles that were compiled two years ago on the exquisite CD Premiers Symptomes. But their audience grew substantially larger with the appearance of Moon Safari, a 1998 LP that sold over a million copies worldwide even as it divided listeners into two distinct groups: people who loved Air's music and those who dismissed it as Muzak for the new millennium.

Vive la révolution: Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel of the French electronic duo Air.
Vive la révolution: Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel of the French electronic duo Air.

Granted, Moon Safari does touch upon easy listening: "La Femme d'Argent," the seven-minute seducer that opens the offering, intersperses retro space effects straight out of Deodato with a quietly percolating synth bass line and faux strings, and "Talisman," with its electric piano tinkling and Ennio Morricone-esque orchestration, is overtly soundtracky. But "Sexy Boy," the lead single, is both eminently danceable and erotic in a suitably ironic way, and "Kelly, Watch the Stars!" mates a mutant-funk groove with vocoder warbling and shimmering arpeggios -- a combination that exudes intelligence and wit in equal measure. So, too, does the album as a whole, which goes down so smoothly that its adventurousness is easy to overlook.

Following Moon Safari, Godin and Dunckel were contacted by Sofia Coppola (daughter of Godfather auteur Francis Ford Coppola), who recruited them to provide the score for her directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. The cool yet foreboding sounds they submitted to her added immeasurably to the film's impact. But while the men of Air enjoyed the project, they didn't want to be typecast as purveyors of brainy chill-out music.

"I think Moon Safari and some of our other songs were cool for the background, good for playing for your friends at home," Godin says. "But we wanted this album to be different. This album, you have to listen to it for yourself -- alone." He's proud, in particular, about the greater expansiveness of the music, attained with the assistance of a budget much more generous than any they've had to work with in the past. "We got to associate very cheap instruments with a big orchestra, which I like, because I think little things can have a big beauty in them, and we like to honor that with big arrangements behind. We come from the home studio, you know, but we are not like fetus, like baby. Babies don't stay babies; they grow up. And that is us."

Air is committed to putting this newfound maturity on display by touring behind Legend -- a decision that's earned many of their fellow electronic musicians the enmity of reviewers and concertgoers alike. Even Godin concedes that he likes to hear such performers "deejaying in the clubs, you know, but I don't like to see them live. I think it is a stupid idea to make the Chemical Brothers play in a traditional venue."

Godin hopes that Legend's material will help the duo avoid similar denigration "because basically, you can play all these songs with a guitar." But he's uncomfortable having to go through the conventional concert motions.

"This is not what we want to do, you know, because we are fed up with rock music and pop music," he says. "The aim of my life is not to play with a guitar and sing a song. I have a problem in front of an audience, because I'm shy, and I did this music because I was annoyed by the star system and the music business, and I found all these people really ridiculous. But I do the same thing. I go out on stage, and then I go backstage and I drink some beer. So I hate that.

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