Q&A: Air’s Jean-Benoît Dunckel On The Future Of The Band, Working With Sofia Coppola, And Inspiring The Name “Stereogum”
Things that make me feel surprisingly and suddenly old: (1) the fact that Air’s soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides was released 15 years ago; and (2) the fact that it’s been nearly six years since Air released their last proper studio album, 2009’s Love 2. These are not likely things I would be brewing over were it not for the fact that Air’s entire back catalog has recently been given a nice once-over in the form of some new reissues (their first five studio albums have been pressed on 180-gram vinyl for the first time), including a deliciously remastered and pumped-up “15th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” of The Virgin Suicides soundtrack (complete with outtakes and some pretty exceptional-sounding live performances). It’s not as if Air haven’t been busy — Jean-Benoît Dunckel continues to work solo under his Darkel moniker, recently releasing a soundtrack to Alanté Kavaïté’s new film, The Summer Of Sangaile, while Nicolas Godin will release his first solo album, Contrepoint, this fall — but revisiting all of the band’s catalog over the past few weeks in one fell swoop certainly makes one hope that the duo will see fit to make some new music together in the not-so-distant future. I called up Dunckel at home in Paris to discuss these reissues, what happens next for the iconic French band, and Air’s inextricable connection to Sophia Coppola. Dunckel (pictured on the left in the above photo) managed to chat with me and give his child a bath at the same time, which I found very impressive.
STEREOGUM: Stereogum is actually named after an Air song. Did you know this?
DUNCKEL: Yes. “Radio Number 1″ from 10,000 Hz Legend. I had this idea … how to explain this? It had something to do with our hands reaching for some untouchable waves, and these waves were in the air, and it’s a kind of gum, you know? Something sweet. Stereogum.
STEREOGUM: I love that. I’m currently listening to the 15th anniversary reissue of The Virgin Suicides soundtrack. How was it to go back and revisit this material? It’s hard to believe that was 15 years ago.
DUNCKEL: I know! Well, the past is not really not that interesting to me, because I mostly care about the future and the present. I know that Virgin Suicides has been a sort of cult album, and like so many of the best things we do in life, it was something we made really fast and really quick. We didn’t think about. We didn’t think about the impact of some of the tracks. We just did it really quickly, and it worked really well. It changed everything for Air. We were just coming from the success of Moon Safari and everything was really working for us. Wait … can you hold on? I just need like 10 seconds, because my son wants to have some shampoo. I am giving him some shampoo right now. He’s in the bath. Just one minute. Sorry. [Sounds of splashing] Yeah, so we made the soundtrack really quick, but it created this great relationship between Air and Sofia Coppola and movies. I think that we wrote the spirit — the musical spirit — that she had needed for her movie. Sofia bought the rights to the Jeffrey Eugenides book, and the first idea was to closely reproduce the book in a movie. And the book is really trashy. It’s about sex, it’s about drugs, and it’s about depression. The first rushes we saw were really dark and deep, so we began by making very moody stuff, music that was like stepping out between light into something quite dark. But more and more, Sofia cut the movie into a love story — a teenager-style movie. So we made “Playground Love.” The movie became more about love, and a love story between teenagers, and suicide, actually.
STEREOGUM: When you finally saw the finished film, were you surprised by how it turned out? And how well the music worked within the context of the movie?
DUNCKEL: Yes, we were surprised. We knew in advance that Sofia would choose what she wanted from what we had done, so it’s her own way of seeing the movie. She’s the artist, so she chooses what she wants. We knew that, and that’s why we made a deal with Sofia saying that we were going to do a movie soundtrack, but also a real record — like an album around the Virgin Suicides movie. She was okay with that, so we were not afraid about the movie cut, because we knew that the record would be released separately the way we wanted it, and that was the most important thing for us.
STEREOGUM: So the whole time you were working on it, you had a pretty clear sense that you wanted this to work as an album separate from the movie?
DUNCKEL: Yes, but we were inspired by the movie. At the beginning, we really were watching the movie and we were trying to synchronize the music with the movie, all the scenes. At the end, during the mixing, we forgot about the movie, and we turned the thing into songs, thinking of music that you could listen to by yourself, alone.
STEREOGUM: The record really took on a life of its own.
DUNCKEL: We were thinking about the second album of Air, 10,000 Hz Legend, at that point, and we were surprised. We were quite surprised by the success of Moon Safari already, and the Virgin Suicides came right after that.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny to think about how different the musical landscape was back in 1998, when Moon Safari came out. People didn’t know what to make of you guys, especially here in the States. Did you feel as if people were confused by what you were trying to do?
DUNCKEL: I think it depends on the country. In France, people thought that we were an unusual band, or they thought that we were DJs. We were associated with the Chemical Brothers a lot — I don’t know why — so people thought that we were DJs, and they thought there were a lot of samples on Moon Safari. I saw a site where they tried to pick out all of the samples in the songs, and they actually picked out some samples that they thought were on the record, which is totally wrong. There are no samples; it’s all played live. So it’s true that people didn’t really know what we were, but we are musicians. We were really playing, and we were playing with other people, too; other musicians. We didn’t care about other people’s reactions. We started touring a lot, and when people saw us on stage, it became more obvious and clear.
STEREOGUM: In addition to the Virgin Suicides anniversary, all five of your albums were recently reissued on vinyl. How involved were you in that process?
DUNCKEL: We had to go back and search for the original masters and all the original artwork. Lots of little details. But when you’re a band, you don’t really return to your music, and you don’t look back at yourself. In my home, I don’t have any Air pictures, and I don’t listen to Air. Sometimes on the radio I hear something, or on the TV I hear some Air songs, and I say, “Ah, yes, we’ve done that!” I just remember it all in my head; it all comes back. It’s just about a lot of souvenirs, you know? Life souvenirs. But I think it’s really important to take care of your back catalog as a band. So many times, these catalogs are falling into the hands of companies who don’t really keep track of things. They have thousands and thousands of tracks, and thousands and thousands of bands, and things get lost. It’s kind of scary, so that’s why it’s really important to be independent, to take care of yourself and take care of your art.
STEREOGUM: You and Nicolas have both done a lot of interesting work outside of the band. Are there other things you’re working on now that you can talk about?
DUNCKEL: I think the vinyl thing is working quite well at the moment. My project is to release EPs on vinyl, even if there is no promo. Even if I don’t have any record company, I want to release them. I’m interested in the digital arts and combining technology and performance. Computers have an amazing power now, and you have all of these young artists that can develop amazing images, amazing builds, and things that have never been done before. That’s what I want to do. I want to do some live shows and use electronics that are improvised on stage. I want to try to do something that has never been done before, something that happens in a live setting that sort of creates a new form of music. Music and video. I’m still trying to figure it out.
STEREOGUM: That is exciting. I know it’s easy for people to be cynical about things, but I think this is a really exciting time in music right now.
DUNCKEL: I think so, too. In Paris, there are so many good bands coming up that are really interesting. I find it exciting.
STEREOGUM: What’s next for Air? Will the two of you be doing anything together soon?
DUNCKEL: I think that in terms of recordings, maybe we don’t plan to do an album now, but maybe we are waiting for like an exciting thing, you know? Like it can be anything, like it can be like the next Tron movie or just something random we get asked to do. There will be probably be some Air live shows, too. But right now, we are taking care of our back catalog and we are setting up things in our studio. We’re working toward an eventual Air tour soon.
STEREOGUM: Air have had such an interesting working relationship with Sofia Coppola over the years. What do you think it is that makes that such a good pairing? Is it just that you have sort of similar aesthetics?
DUNCKEL: I think that’s because the cinema of Sofia is about contemplation. It’s [like] when you look at something intently, and you admire it. In Sofia’s movies, it’s like a lot of the density is kind of low. You have beautiful pictures, it’s really poetic, it’s calm, and you don’t have a lot of information. Everything is soft, like in a soft wave. And our music is the same. So there’s not this rigid storytelling. It’s about suggestions. And I think that our music does that, too. There is a sort of floating spirit there — the music is stretching out. It is always like something about love, something romantic, or something with a sort of soft intensity of emotion, and in Sofia’s movies this is the same. The emotions are kind of hidden in the back, but they are kind of strong, you know? We go well together.
The Virgin Suicides 15th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, along with Air’s complete studio discography, is now available on 180-gram vinyl from Rhino. Summer — a soundtrack by JB Dunckel — is available now on iTunes.