Interview

Q&A: Backstage at Governors Ball, Air Look Back On Two Decades of Being Fabulous

Stereogum is named from a lyric from the Air song “Radio Number 1,” from the French futurists’ 2001 LP, 10,000 Hz Legend. As such, we are always legally and morally obligated to take any opportunity we get to talk to the duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, creators of some of the most forward-thinking yet classically minded pop music of the past two decades and the men indirectly responsible for the existence of thousands of hipster toddlers.

Last year the group celebrated two decades in the business with the release of their compilation album Twentyears, and this summer they are doing their first American dates since the tour for their last proper album, 2009’s Love 2. We caught up with them backstage at Governors Ball this past weekend, right before they delivered an entrancing trip through their back catalog. Though it was a bit of an odd pairing (they played right between Cage The Elephant and Tool), space-age bachelor-pad bangers “Kelly Watch The Stars,” “Sexy Boy,” and “Venus” sounded as luminous as ever, and the two of them look like they haven’t aged a day since taking the cover photo for 2004’s Talkie Walkie. We talked with the pair about life before their 1998 debut, Moon Safari, why France has terrible taste, and why we shouldn’t expect a new album from them anytime soon.

STEREOGUM: So this is your first American tour in how many years?

NICOLAS GODIN: Seven years, I think.

STEREOGUM: How’s it going so far?

GODIN: Very well, because it’s an amazing audience in the States. People like us. There’s lots of good memories of playing here. We toured America the first time in ’98.

STEREOGUM: Can you remember what your first American show was like?

GODIN: Yeah it was in Seattle, in a place called… I don’t remember. It was my first show ever.

STEREOGUM: First show ever live as a band?

GODIN: Yeah, yeah.

STEREOGUM: So you played here first before you played in France?

GODIN: Yeah.

STEREOGUM: How was it? Were you nervous?

GODIN: Yeah, I was nervous, I couldn’t sleep, there was the jet lag and I went on stage, and there was something wrong with my bass, and I was kind of freaking out because I’m a perfectionist. And then after three shows, I learned how to deal with these things, but we were not experienced, because we had never toured before. It was our first show and it was new for us.

STEREOGUM: So Moon Safari came out 19 years ago?

GODIN: Yeah.

STEREOGUM: That’s crazy.

JEAN-BENOÎT DUNCKEL: It’s not our fault. Time is passing too fast. It’s a fault of the time, not us. We don’t feel aging.

STEREOGUM: When you released your first album 19 years ago, did you ever imagine that two decades later you’d still be doing this?

DUNCKEL: No. No, no, no.

GODIN: It took us like three or four years to understand that we were gonna do this for the rest of our lives.

STEREOGUM: When Moon Safari came out, it was completely different than anything that was going on. In America, we had the end of grunge, we had really glossy, Puff Daddy hip-hop, and some people were into trip-hop, but Moon Safari was a completely different thing. Did you worry that people wouldn’t get it?

GODIN: There is two ways have success. You are very commercial or you are very original. We are the second one.

STEREOGUM: So you say it took three albums for you to kind of realize that you were in this for the long haul.

GODIN: Yeah, because we were students, and then we had this huge album. So we were not used to people noticing us. We thought we could go back to our old life very fast. It’s not like someone who tries hard to be a professional musician for 10 years. It was like one day from the other one. When you get this success, it’s just really strange.

STEREOGUM: What was going on in your lives when you made Moon Safari?

DUNCKEL: You know, I was a mathematics teacher. But I think that we always wanted to do music. I think that I couldn’t do another job, actually. It was in our blood, in our genes.

STEREOGUM: Have you ever run into any of your students later on who were like, my teacher is now this rock star?

DUNCKEL: I met some of them, yeah, who were really surprised.

STEREOGUM: How about you, Jean-Benoît?

GODIN: I was a student. When we were 18 years old, we sent tapes to record companies and then we were being refused. So I went back to the studies, I was about to be an architect. And just the last month before I had to work as an architect, I did some music again and I tried to have a second chance, and that’s when it was OK. So I was that close to having a regular job. But it didn’t happen. But really, life was very cool in Paris. We were going out every night, and there was this kind of healthy competition within all of us. We were making the song at home and then and then we are printing an acetate, and then we are going to the night clubs to test it out. That setting just works for us. We never sleep, and it was like the world was ours. It was like being in London in the ’60s. It was a wonderful time very innocent, very fresh, very cool, you know? It’s like, it was like ’67, ’77, ’87, and ’97 it was Paris’ time.

STEREOGUM: Right. You were out there, there was Daft Punk, and Phoenix were getting off the ground.

GODIN: Yes, Phoenix was there. They come from the same part of the city as us. We had this huge success, we had to go to some TV shows, and we didn’t have a band. So Phoenix came to help us with a few TV shows. We spent a lot of time together. I cherish those years.

STEREOGUM: When you look back, and when you play the songs from the era, do you still feel connected to that time period? Do you still recognize yourself? Or do you feel like you’re a completely different person?

DUNCKEL: No, I think I will always be the same person. When we’re doing the Air records, we really want to do something timeless. So it’s really easy for us to play a song nowadays, because we worked really hard at the time to make them timeless. In 20 or 30 years, you still can play them, and it’s just so fresh it’s crazy, like when we play “Cherry Blossom Girl” it sounds like yesterday.

STEREOGUM: Moon Safari was one of those albums where slowly but surely it was at every cool bar, it was at the parties, but it wasn’t like it blew up suddenly with one big song. But over time it was just kind of everywhere. Do you notice a slow-burn success where people eventually knew the name? Or was it all at once for you?

DUNCKEL: No, we didn’t realize we were everywhere. We would have had to be everywhere to realize this. So we didn’t know. I think that we just realized that success was there two or three years after.

STEREOGUM: And when you followed it up with 10 000 Hz Legend, at the time that was very different than Moon Safari and some people were taken aback, they thought it was too dense or not what they were expecting. Was there any backlash at the time and how do you feel about it now?

GODIN: I don’t know, 10 000 Hz was really complicated. I think we were mixed up at the time. We had this huge success, and we were kind of lost in terms of anxiety and stress, and I think the album is really cool because it reflects perfectly our mind at the time. I think we are really honest people, and when we record, we do a real version of who we are, you know? And I thought to myself, “If we do Moon Safari twice, people will be disappointed, and if we do something different, people will be disappointed as well.” So we were in a corner and there was nothing to do, there was no good solution, so let’s be honest. I remember I didn’t know how to deal with, like, this huge professional career and all this traveling and all this success. It was a lot of stress for me and it’s a very stressed album. I think the only simple song with a simple chorus is “How Does It Make You Feel?” All the other songs, they all break all the time. But we still cherish this record.

STEREOGUM: It’s just kind of like a painful thing you had to go through.

GODIN: It was painful thing, yeah. For me, I mean. I don’t know for him. It was for me. It was exciting to do it, I was very mixed up in my mind at the time.

STEREOGUM: Was part of the problem just dealing with fame? It didn’t seem like you were super famous back then, but I’m sure it had to be strange compared to where you were.

GODIN: Well, we never had any problems. We lived in the cool neighborhood where you could walk around and nobody recognized you. We were in France, where we don’t have rock stars all the time. We have chefs, we have great fashion designers, we have directors and great writers. But rock stars are an English and American thing, and we don’t have this culture. We never acted like celebrities and we are very normal.

STEREOGUM: I interviewed Thomas from Phoenix once, and he said that when they were coming up, French people would look at them funny because they sang in English and they didn’t sing in French. They got a lot of backlash from that. You’ve always mainly sung in English. Do you ever kind of get pushback from that?

GODIN: I think since the Roman times, English is the international language.

DUNCKEL: It’s going to space you know — it’s the language astronauts use. It’s the international language, so that’s why we use it. It’s accessible to the most people. It’s not an aesthetic choice.

STEREOGUM: Did anyone in France ever get on your case about it?

GODIN: Yeah, but the French have horrible taste in music, so they don’t like us. I always think to myself, OK, this country sucks for making music. When we started making music, lots of the country think what we were doing was horrible, because they’ve got horrible taste. In music, I mean.

STEREOGUM: What do they normally like?

GODIN: French mainstream pop [makes gagging sound] that sucks. Even now. It’s like English wine, you know? It’s not our style. We are much more soundtrack people, or classical. Then rock arrived, and it’s not our style.

STEREOGUM: Why do you think they have such bad taste?

GODIN: You cannot be good at everything. Each country you go to, people are very good at something, but there’s not enough abilities in human beings to be good at everything. There are plenty of things that Frenchmen are amazingly good at, but there’s plenty of things we are amazingly bad at as well. When I travel around the world, each country has got its own feel. And definitely, rock is not our feel.

STEREOGUM: When you were growing up, what sort of music did you listen to, and did you listen to stuff way different than the kids in your school?

DUNCKEL: Yeah, I mean we were listening to classic rock stuff, like the Beatles and David Bowie, and electronic bands like Kraftwerk, the Cure, Depeche Mode. Though the Cure is not especially electronic. Joy Division.

GODIN: The big bands when we were young were the Cure and Depeche Mode. But I was watching TV all the time. A lot of music in France was from soundtracks and television. I was watching TV before I was buying records. When I was a child, I was watching TV all day long. So I think when I do music, it has a soundtrack vibe.

STEREOGUM: Is there any artist you two don’t agree on? Like you like them, and you don’t?

DUNCKEL: Probably, yeah. I think we have guilty pleasures, some French stuff. Bad taste stuff, but I still like it. It’s on the edge of being bad taste, but I like the strangeness of it.

GODIN: But that’s our style. Air is always a band that’s on the edge of being cheesy.

STEREOGUM: Really? I wouldn’t say that.

GODIN: I think we’re on a thin line, and we try to stay on that line.

STEREOGUM: How do you make sure you don’t dip into cheese?

GODIN: It’s instincts, you know. But sometimes you do.

STEREOGUM: Like when?

GODIN: I don’t know, sometimes, you know. We go too far.

STEREOGUM: Any particular songs?

GODIN: Oh yeah. There are some that I don’t like.

DUNCKEL: When you are an artist, and you are recording something, you have to be extra expressive. Overdoing it. But when you listen to it on a song, it’s kind of cool. It gives the music something. You have to overexpress the melody for people to really listen to it and hear the emotion. You have to drive to the edge.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel you have to push it that far and risk getting cheesy in order to get anywhere really special?

DUNCKEL: Yeah, yeah.

GODIN: We are instinctive people. We don’t think too much, we just produce.

STEREOGUM: Last year you released the compilation Twentyears, and you’re doing the hits on this tour. Do you have any plans to do a new album soon?

DUNCKEL: No, we have no plans for albums. We’re going to do solo albums, but not as Air.

STEREOGUM: You’re going to do a solo album?

DUNCKEL: Yeah.

STEREOGUM: What can you say about that?

DUNCKEL: I work on it for a long time, and it will be released next year.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel you need to take a break from making new stuff?

GODIN: I think no, it’s just… I feel we could go into a studio and record 10 songs, but would that be as good as the old Air albums? That is the question.

STEREOGUM: When a band’s been around as long as you have, the great thing is that when you play your songs, people show up, but when you make a new album there’s always going to be somebody who’s like, “Yeah but it’s not as good as Moon Safari was.” Do you feel like you’re always competing with the past?

GODIN: When we were recording those records, you can feel when the magic is there. So we know when it’s there, but when it’s not there… we could make a record, but we need to find a way to make it magic again, so that’s the issue. Most bands lie to themselves. They keep on releasing albums, and they are not magic. But they see it as a job. We never saw it as a job to release albums. There’s enough pollution in the world to not release a bad album.

STEREOGUM: Now you mentioned David Bowie was someone you both loved. Did you ever get a chance to meet him?

GODIN: He was very charismatic, I think he was the most charismatic person I ever met in my life.

STEREOGUM: You’d hope for that.

GODIN: When he looks at you, it’s very intimidating. The problem with people you admire is that you don’t find interesting things to say to them. When you talk to David Bowie or Stevie Wonder, there’s no way you’re going to say something great, and you come back home and think, “Why did I say that?” But he has a pretty clear memory of what equipment he used to use to record with. Which is pretty strange, when you think about the amount of drugs he took. The first time I met him, I asked him about the drum machine he used on “Nightclubbing” with Iggy Pop, and he told me right away what it was. He looks amazing, and he’s such an iconic person that sometimes you forget how good he is as a composer.

STEREOGUM: The band’s been around for almost 20 years officially. Have you ever met any children that were conceived to your music?

GODIN: Yeah.

STEREOGUM: You have?

GODIN: Yeah, people come up to us. With Moon Safari and stuff like that, people say they had their first date with their wife to our music, stuff like that. Actually, that’s the whole purpose of doing a show. You get up on stage and play music, and you remind people of moments of their life. It’s like you sell them a piece of a time capsule. And so they go back in time. It’s a beautiful human being experience between you and the audience. You play something from the past and they see their life.