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Whether it's a four-minute love song about a caress that lasts ten seconds, a journey through the universe in a silver plane or a simple escape form war, Air promise that you'll never have a bad trip with their music. Danielle Brigham talks to Jean-Benoit Dunckel, one half of the enigmatic French duo.
Danielle Brigham, 13 Feb 2004
"Music is our way to escape from the reality of everyday life," says Jean-Benoît Dunckel, one half of Air. "It can get lonely on my little asteroid with only one flower for company and my two volcanoes. Sometimes I need to just let my mind float off into the galaxy."
So he didn’t really say that last bit but in my mind he certainly did. There’s always been something so enchantingly out-of-this cosmos about Air that listening to records like Moon Safari is like stepping right into the pages of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic fable. And there’s something about talking to its creator Jean-Benoît Dunckel that’s like a meeting with Le Petit Prince himself. Maybe it’s his sweet, childlike French accent. Maybe it’s the measured delivery of his thoughts, dropping simple sentences like philosophical pearls of wisdom. More probably it’s all this talk of love and beauty and the universe.
Sometimes Dunckel loses me ("We are lost in four dimensions"), but most of the time it’s all pretty straightforward: "I think that when we choose to think that we are living in a small world we become trapped in our lives. I think it’s from the desire to be able to fly away and go away somewhere else. Without committing suicide, of course," he adds laughing.
Birds, planes and general traversing-across-the-universe feature heavily in the imaginative new landscape of Talkie Walkie. With its luscious compositions and gravity-defying melodies, it plays like an otherworldly symphony and dreams like a Moon Safari sequel. It’s an awful lot of fancy for the Parisian pair who, in a former life, were a high school maths teacher (Dunckel) and an architect (Nichlas Godin).
But don’t think that the artistic partnership, now into its ninth year, has wasted away the left side of Air’s collective brain. It’s their mutual respect for reason and emotion - intellect and imagination - that makes Air such a compelling, timeless, cross-generational sound. Dunckel describes "the science of music" like a maths equation: "You have to understand the process of making a sound and it’s really interesting because you have some psychological rhythms, some scientific rhythms and some physical rhythms. Doing a record is really complicated in one way because if there is a little section on the chain that is not working you will only be able to tell at the end.
"It's really hard sometimes to know when something is good or not, because creation has some subliminal laws to respect. Like when you record something you have to go fast and if you don’t you lose all your time and energy in some really little details. You have to be very clever to understand what is important and what is not.
"Sometimes making a song is like a sculpture," he continues changing from maths to artist’s hat. "You shape the gum but when the gum is too dry you can’t shape it anymore. It’s gone, you know. The style is gone and the energy and the emotion is lost."
Emotion is a word that Dunckel uses a lot. Intending that Air's trademark Vocoder-ized vocals sound more like angels than robots, their modus operandi is to breath human life into the somewhat cold nature of their technology. But whatever you think about the contradictions in their music, don't pigeon-hole their sound and don't dwell too long on their past body of work. They may spend an entire year perfecting a single song, but Dunckel and Godin tire easily of the finished product.
"You know when you release an album you are fed up with this album because you did it for one year before and you heard the tracks maybe 150 times on the mixboard. So you know you want to escape from it. Right now I am fed up with all that I have done. I think that we get bored very fast of everything and that's why we try to go quick in some different directions.
While their last record, 10 000 Hz. Legend, received mixed reactions from the Moon Safari devotees, Dunckel says that he has no regrets about the harder, darker, more challenging sounds of the 2001 record.
"We are proud of having done something as crazy as that album. And I think that it worked because commercially we sold more than 500 000 records, and for me it's a lot for this kind of music. The problem is that we are not hit-makers. We can't do hits. Our success will come with accident."
So what then were their inspirations for Talkie Walkie? "We wanted to always be modern, to try to invent some new production tricks," Dunckel explains. "This modernity aspect of music is really important for us because we are haunted by this label of retro, futurist artists. We want to do something new and to do the sound of now. And that’s why we are very influenced by R 'n' B or rap or electronic music, because I think that we are doing songwriting through a window of electronic music.
"Also we wanted to be more emotional because we had something to tell and I think that songs are like comments of life. A good song is a necessary song. It has to exist for the songwriter to be more comfortable afterwards. It's like a kind of a psychological exorcism."
Not surprisingly, many of these ‘exorcisms’ on Talkie Walkie are of the romantic variety. Songs like ‘Venus’, ‘Cherry Blossom Girl’ and ‘Run’ – "It’s about a girl touching the chest of a boy," says Dunckel. It’s a four-minute song about "a caress that lasts ten seconds". One to get lost in.
So too with ‘Universal Traveller’, a song about travelling the universe in a silver plane. Very Petit Prince, non? "It’s for all the promotion and for touring shows," says Dunckel. "We always travel and so we pass our time in planes. The idea was like when you go to US the time seems to stop because the sun stays in the same position in the sky. So you leave Paris at 3pm and you arrive in LA at 3pm."
And then there's 'Surfing on a Rocket', which not so whimsical after all. "A rocket for me was more like a missile. Like an intercontinental nuclear missile," explains Dunckel. "We did it because of the war, it's a pacifist song.
"The basic meaning is the fact that when you send a missile it's like surfing on a missile because nowadays even the poor people have possibilities to make war abroad with terrorism. And so it's like a suicide. Like surfing on a rocket, because when you send a rocket you know that one day you will have the same rocket coming to you."
It's the first time that Air have "psychologically exorcised" political sentiments through their music: "I remember I used to go near the studio in a little café in Paris where I would have ten minutes to have a coffee and to read the newspaper. After six months it was really, really painful, all this war everywhere, and I stopped buying the newspaper because it was too depressing. So we just did a song about that." Like he said, "A good song is a necessary song."
"You know the Surrealist movement at the beginning of the century came right after the First World War," he continues. "It was sort of a reaction to the war, because it was so violent and many people died for nothing. So these artists said, 'what's the point to live in this world, it's so stupid'. All their ideas were something to escape from reality, from the laws of gravity and politics and everything. It's the same for us, we don’t do politics. Our own way to escape is to do songs and I think that with Air we try to create a very comfortable cocoon in which you can rest and dream and imagine."
And then, before disappearing into the telephonic ether forever, The Little Prince left me with these final words. "We don’t smoke but I think that people who do drugs and listen to our music will never have a bad trip. Because it's sweet. It's about the energy that you have deep in yourself that will always be there."