To Air Is Human

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

The latest recording by the Parisian duo Air, 10,000 Hz Legend, has received radically mixed notices. Some critics trumpet it as the most intriguing artistic statement yet from an act as distinctive and contrary as any on the contemporary international scene, while others dismiss it as thematically overwrought, musically underdeveloped twaddle. But virtually no one is on the fence regarding the disc -- which is just the way Air's Nicolas Godin prefers it.

"I like when someone likes something or hates something and then explains why," notes Godin, 28, in an accent as heavy as a fallen soufflé. "If someone dislikes something with a lot of cleverness, it is interesting. That's why I like when there are very strong positions. I even like when people don't say what they think, but they take a position just to argue. But I am French, you know."

Indeed he is -- not that anyone who's read about Godin and partner Jean-Benoit Dunckel of late could have missed this snippet of information. Scribe after scribe has used 10,000 Hz Legend as the hook for pieces about the "French invasion," an alleged musical assault that also includes Daft Punk and Mirwais, the producer behind Madonna's most recent hits; nearly all of these journalists take advantage of the topic to joke about the French's supposed inability to rock -- a thesis that Godin is more than willing to confirm. "French people have the taste of shit in music," he declares. "That is why there has been such bad music in our country for thirty years. When I'm making music, I want to forget that I'm French."

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.

At the same time, Godin acknowledges that the relentless emphasis on his nationality is becoming tiresome. "In Europe, people talk more about us being from France than about our music. And in France, it is the worst country for us. They only talk about that we are a success in England and what that means for France. But to me, there is more to success than this. That's why I'm so relaxed about the response to the album. Because I did what I wanted to do, you know? If I tried to do some music to please some people and it doesn't work, it would be very sad. But now I did the music I had to do, and even if we don't sell any albums, I could take refuge in the music that I did, because I know it was a good way to do it.

"Making money is not that important," he goes on. "Because when you have a cancer or AIDS or something like that, money will not help you to survive. To me, it is much more important to do something interesting in your life before dying."

With 10,000 Hz Legend, Godin and Dunckel have achieved this flamboyantly expressed goal: Even those who loathe it will have a hard time dismissing it as ordinary. Prior to this recording, the twosome's efforts were principally instrumental, but nine of Legend's eleven tracks feature lyrics that are as quirky and eccentric as the melodies and rhythms that accompany them.

According to Godin, these words deal mainly with "sexual frustration, which I think is a big problem with our society right now. I think the sexual potential on earth is not shared by everybody -- only by a few elite." But "Electronic Performers" and "How Does It Make You Feel?", the integrated cuts that kick off the platter, deal less with the mating habits of the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat than with the coital peccadilloes of man in the machine age. The first of these songs is an odd mélange of synthesizer washes, assembly-line thumping and acoustic piano études over which an effects-laden, android-like voice dabbles in romantic existentialism ("We need to use envelope filters to say how we feel...I want to patch my soul on your brain"); on the latter, this same character, or one very much like it, offers up post-industrial pillow talk ("I am feeling very warm right now...Well, I really think you should quit smoking") amid hooky repetitions of the title by an angelic chorus. The results suggest Bicentennial Man as a soft-core-porn film, not a family- friendly Robin Williams vehicle.

But just as Legend seems on the verge of turning into a sci-fi concept album -- The Many Loves of Mr. Roboto, perhaps? -- the Air pair mixes things up. Special guests carry part of the load: "The Vagabond," a futuristic folk song, and the heavenly dance ditty "Don't Be Light" both feature the singing skills of one Beck Hansen, a longtime fan of the group, and "Sex Born Poison," an eerie bit of kinky automation, includes some words of wisdom from Buffalo Daughter's Sugar and Yumiko, who croon in Japanese. Still, Godin and Dunckel are more than capable of getting weird all by themselves. Witness the twisted pop songs "Radio #1" and "Lucky and Unhappy," as well as "Wonder Milky Bitch," a twisted ode to oral sex ("Tasting, touching, swallowing me/Drinking me like Bloody Mary") that's inexplicably accented with Jew's harp twanging and other country-and-Western touches. Hmmmm.

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.

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.

"People think that musicians are so sophisticated until they go on tour, and then they become the wild man. But they have to know the truth. They have to know that people are farting in the studio. Humanity has to know that."

A vital mission to be sure -- but for Godin, the real reason to tour is because "it is so magical that I can touch people's sensibilities so far from my home. When I was a kid, I read interviews of people and saw them live, and it helped me a lot when I was a teenager to think that somewhere in the world people were doing something interesting. So now we have to prove to a lot of young people that it's possible to make something interesting of your life and let them know that there is something different from their school or their parents or the things the culture forces them to do that they don't like."

Nevertheless, taking their show on the road opens them up to greater scrutiny and the misunderstandings that often come along with it. But instead of fearing insults, Godin says he's more worried about "people liking us for the wrong reasons -- like because we are so melancholy. Which we are, but not only. In France, we like to have a lot of pleasure of life, but we also have a sense of the mortal. So we always have the melancholy and the happy in the same body -- and that is what our music is about. Some people like us because we are so fresh, so full of life, but others like us because we are so melancholic. And that is not right."

Worse, though, are fans "who say the album sounds like Pink Floyd," Godin grouses. "That is a bad reason to like our music -- because Pink Floyd is so man, you know. It is music made for men by men. It's not music for sex, you know, or music for girls. I think Pink Floyd music is just a man thing.

"I want girls to like this music," he continues, "because pleasing a girl, it is so mysterious, I think. You wake up in the morning one day and you don't wash your teeth and you have bad hair and you don't have the right clothes, and then you meet this girl, and she likes you. But on another night, when you are clean and you try to have a sense of humor and good conversation, she may find you boring. So if a girl likes your music, it means you have done something strongly mysterious."

And if a girl doesn't like it?

"Then she doesn't like it," he says. "It is not important if a certain girl likes it or not, because if you take your favorite song of the Beatles, I can go in the street and find ten people who really don't like it -- but it is still a masterpiece. So if she doesn't like it, that's fine, because we are here on earth to exchange some ideas and just to talk -- you know?"

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