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Air are keen to talk about intellectualism and art. fine, says James Kelleher, just so long as we can also talk about blowjobs. Maintenant, read on…
James Kelleher, 29 Nov 2001
France: cradle of democracy, enlightenment, fine vinyards and bloody revolution. The textbooks and holiday brochures have not yet had the chance to add “double-barrelled Moog attacks” to that list, but Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Duckel aren’t inclined to wait around for history to catch up with them. Air have had a funny old time of it this year, with their sophomore ‘proper’ album, 10,000hz Legend, equally lauded and reviled by critics and listeners alike – it still sold in bucketloads mind you, which is why Air have suffered (by their own reckoning) at least two hundred and fifty interviews since its release. We can safely assume then, that any queries about musical influences will be met with extreme and legally justifiable violence...
Each time that JB and Nicolas abandon the comforts of their studio/laboratory to set out on tour, they go out of their way to make sure that the music doesn’t remain static, spending “a lot of time rehearsing and finding new arrangements for songs, so if somebody saw us in June, it might not be the same show they will see tomorrow,” as Nicholas puts it.
It’s an admirable way of encouraging audience recidivism, but I suggest that this is as much a way of keeping things interesting for themselves as for their audience.
JB concurs: “Yes, especially for us, it’s important not to get bored. In the studio, you know, our processes of recording are so strange that on stage we are obliged to do something else. We just keep the soul of the tracks, and we put the soul in another body. We’re doing a Frankenstein, we create other bodies on stage...”
There’s a definite strain of restlessness that informs every decision Air take as a band, for starters avoiding the recycling of familiar instruments on new recordings:
“We just get bored with our instruments,” says Nicholas. “It’s not a policy, it’s more that when we get into the studio, we don’t want to see our old equipment, we want to buy some shiny new toys – it’s more for the fun.”
Then there’s the rollcall of progressively more übercool collaborators (Mike Mills, Sofia Coppola, Beck and Christian Dior, to namedrop a few), but JB is keen to point out that their intentions are completely honourable: “You know, we don’t want to be known as ‘hype’ artists, we don’t want to work with the hype-est guys. When you work with Mike Mills, he’s always evaluating everything, and with us, he didn’t just keep with one style – he was able to re-invent something new for each track.”
When I offer (more as a compliment than anything else) that despite this, they seem to have a definite golden touch when it comes to choosing creative partners, they respond with a terse and maternity-dress-wearing silence. Nicholas pointedly drinks some iced water. I hear somebody upstairs dropping a pin on the carpet. Sooooo... how was it working with Beck, then?
Nicholas jumps back into the conversation at the mention of everybody’s favourite idiot-genius: “It was good. It was fast. He came into the studio with some stupid jokes.”
Jokes? I assume this is why he’s creasing himself laughing at the close of ‘The Vagabond’?
“It was funny, because he came in, and he was recording for one hour, and he must have been telling jokes for four hours.”
JB explains why it’s essential to have a good humour/work ratio in the studio: “Because the jokes liberate your soul. Because when you are recording something, you have some people there, and you are afraid to be yourself, you are afraid to make mistakes, you have some pressure. But if you tell some jokes, it’s easier for you and if you do something really bad, it doesn’t matter. Because what we want to do is something expressive, and there are no bad things in art.”
Ah, the ‘a’ word – whenever Air make reference to art, they pronounce it like it’s wholly capitalised – repeatedly (and without a whiff of irony) emphasising that they are Artists first and foremost, everything else being of the most remote concern. I ask Nicholas why the obsession with a term that most bands would run a mile from: “Because before Air, I had some power, I had some sex, I had some drugs, I had some money, I was cool and my life was great, so the only thing that interests me in Air is to make some art. I don’t care about the rest, because I already had it.”
Are they comfortable having their music used in advertisements, to be used to sell more ‘stuff’? Nicholas is defiant: “Yeah, it’s not to sell – we’ve sold almost 4 million albums, but I think commercials are good to get people to understand your music better. Most people watch TV, and most of them have no chance to listen to good music – they buy their music in big malls, and listen to horrible radio stations... I discovered ‘Barbara Ann’ and ‘Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)’ by listening to commercials as a kid.”
Surely it’s a two-way deal though – companies buy your credibility to suggest their latest vacuum cleaner is surely the coolest vacuum cleaner on the planet right now...
“I think with big stars like Madonna or Britney Spears, it’s just a way for them to make more money, but for more underground acts like us, it’s more important than that...”
The late Bill Hicks gave a strict warning to artists who involved themselves in advertisting: “You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. You’re just another corporate shill, a whore at the capitalist gangbang...” Do Nicholas and JB see this as simplistic grandstanding, a relic of the days when ‘sell-out’ was the worst possible label you could attach to a band?
“We think advertisements can still be art, this is a way now to do art.” says JB. “You know, when you put a record out on the market, you have no control over it, I mean sometimes we hear our music on the TV behind some pictures, and nobody told us. But what you can do with advertisements, you can have the control by saying ‘no’. Sometimes we say yes, sometimes we say no, but we don’t change anything in the way we make our music to accomodate that.”
Does he think that the dreaded star status has been conferred upon him by other people?
“The difference is that in England, you start a band to become famous, whereas in France you start a band because you are interested in making art, so it’s two different concepts. I think French people are more intellectual than in any other country.”
This is way above my Irish head, so we move on to talk about blowjobs instead.
There is some confusion when I enquire if it amused them to have a heavenly, ethereal chanteuse contributing lines to ‘Wonder Milky Bitch’, a song which is an obvious paen to oral sex – Nicholas looks baffled for a second, and then “But... that’s JB singing!”
The “ethereal chanteuse” in question, after much laughter, says “it’s not the first time – because when I sing falsetto, it sounds very like a girl.”
“On that song, I did the man and he did the girl,” Nicholas confirms, looking vaguely sorry for me, “but we don’t have sex.” Memo to self: check liner notes more scrupulously next time.
Both Nicholas and JB have grown accustomed to the patter of tiny feet around their respective households of late, and I wonder aloud whether it’s changed the dynamic within the band. “I think so many people have kids, it’s not that special, Nicholas says skeptically, “I think it’s the most banal thing, for a man, there’s nothing more banal – I think it’s a thing that’s shared by most people. People that don’t have kids are pretty weird, I think.”
There’s been some amusing rumours doing the rounds at some of Air’s fan sites, particularly the message board postings with lurid titles like “dAfT pUnK aNd AiR aRe ThE SaMe bAnD!!! [THIS IS TRUE!]” I offer JB the chance to clear the record once and for all, to finally put the rumours to rest, but he looks me in the eye and says: “Well, that is true.”
Just remember where you heard it first.