A breath of fresh Air
The French duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel aim to keep their live show interesting when they arrive in Tel Aviv with just one other band member
There’s perhaps never been a band whose name so accurately reflected its music as Air. Over the course of 12 years, The French duo, consisting of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, have perfected a dreamy electronica sound that has been described as a relaxing Prozac vision of the late ’70s, built upon synthesizer maestros like Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis, new wave music of the nonspiky variety and obscure Italian film soundtracks. But to 39-year-old Dunckel, it’s just music.
“I grew up listening to all kinds of music – classical but also a lot of electronic music like Kraftwerk, then all the English dark rock like Joy Division, Siouxie and the Banshees, and of course, I was a big fan of Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed,” said Dunckel in a phone conversation from Paris, ahead of the group’s debut in Israel on October 2 at Hangar 11 and October 3 at Zappa, both in Tel Aviv within the Heinekin Vibes framework.
The band’s name is an acronym for amour, imagination, rêve – love, imagination, dream – a combination that adeptly describes the mesmerizing tones the duo produce.
I remember hearing “Cherry Blossom Girl” from their 2004 album Talkie Walkie for the first time on the car radio and getting so immersed in the density of the track that I missed my exit home. Another fan who caught the Air bug early on, and was in a position to advance the band’s career, was filmmaker Sofia Coppola.
She asked the group to compose the music for her 1999 debut film The Virgin Suicides, and since then has chosen Air tracks to accompany scenes in both Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette.
“I think our music works well in films because it’s quite melancholic – it just fits well with some scenes. Our music is light, often instrumental and it has romantic melodies. It just has that certain flavor that complements visuals,” said Dunckel. “I’m very pleased with how Sofia has utilized our songs.”
Coppola became enthralled with the band after hearing its 1998 debut Moon Safari, which was the culmination of a three-year partnership by the duo, who met in the mid-’90s while studying at the Conservatoire in Paris. Embarking on an ambitious tour after the release of the album, the group achieved moderate indie circle success in Europe and, in somewhat of a breakthrough for a French act, the US.
“Our intention wasn’t to only play in France – we wanted to make music for the human race,” said Dunckel. THAT GOAL has come to fruition, with resultant albums, 10 000 Hz Legend, Everybody Hertz, Talkie Walkie and last year’s Pocket Symphony, winning the group wider appeal, resulting in a featured slot at last year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Despite using a high-profile producer Nigel Godrich for Pocket Symphony, and guest appearances by British rockers, Pulp vocalist Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, Dunckel claims that he and Godin haven’t made an attempt to overly commercialize the band’s sound.
“When we find an idea, we try to push it further. We’ve always done that, through changing the instruments we play, to find another way to do things. Ultimately, I think you can always recognize that the song comes from Air,” he said.
However, according to Dunckel, Godrich, who’s been at the helm of Radiohead’s opuses, provided a unique take on the traditional Air sound.
“Working with Nigel was like collaborating on the engine of the Concorde. The Concorde was made by the British and French – with the science coming from the French industry which they’re good at and the design and style from the British.
“It was the same thing with Nigel. He added the charm and style to our inner workings. He always tries to find a new trick to use on each song, which helps make the music sound fresh,” said Dunckel.
Keeping Air fresh is foremost in Dunckel and Godin’s minds as they embark on a three-week jaunt – dubbed the “Close Up Tour,” which in addition to Tel Aviv, will find them performing in Romania, China and Latvia.
“For us, it’s a special tour. We’re trying out a new formula to perform live. We’re only going to be three band members on stage, just us and a drummer. Usually, we’re a fivepiece touring band,” said Dunckel.
“We want to try a more minimalist approach, to get more out of less. The sound may not be as loud as usual, but it will have a different charm. I think our music works because we have good songs, and good songs can be played with many different configurations.” LIVE AIR has a different sound and feel than the band’s recorded works, said Dunckel, but it’s more of a textural difference than any concrete changes made to the material.
“We try to find the fire in the song, to get to this warm energy that makes the song cool. On the album, the songs are prisoners of the tapes, but live you can get some feeling into them. However, there’s not a lot of improvisation going on. The songs are well composed,” he said, adding with a laugh, “sometimes we change versions of songs, but when we change them too much, people tell us they don’t like it.”
Despite his freedom within Air, Dunckel felt the need to branch out, and in 2006, released a solo album, Darkel – German for ‘dark’ – a move he described as cathartic.
“I wanted to push myself in a certain way. The songs were mine dealing with my own subjects. I don’t think it fit into any catalogue. And my approach was different. I was alone for the whole process and it gave me clarity about the music. It felt like a new start for me, almost like going to self-analysis,” he said.
Dunckel, however, remains happy within the Air fold, and doesn’t see any major upheavals ahead. The Paris-based musician said he was taking in stride the new competition on the music charts from within his country provided by an unlikely source, the wife of French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Carla Bruni, who released an album this year called As If Nothing Happened.
“I’ve heard it. There’s definitely something cool in it, it has some charm,” said Dunckel.
“I don’t really feel any competition with her, it’s a different type of thing she has going. Anyway, we don’t have the same access to the media that she does.”
LOFTY MONIKER. The band’s name is an acronym for amour, imagination, rêve – love, imagination, dream. Pictured: Jean-Benoît Dunckel (left) and Nicolas Godin.