The Story Behind Every Song On Air’s Moon Safari

The Story Behind Every Song On Air’s Moon Safari

Last year, Air’s landmark 1998 album Moon Safari turned 25 — and, very fittingly for a band who have never been quite in step with the order of time, Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are just getting around to celebrating the occasion. In addition to the deluxe edition of Moon Safari out today, which features an extra disc of rarities, the pair — who have been largely defunct as a musical unit for a decade-plus — are currently in the middle of playing the album in full for a series of European tour dates, which are part of a larger outing that will stretch well into the fall and across North America. After plenty of solo projects and scoring excursions, it really does seem like Air are actually back, although for how long remains to be seen.

Of all the albums in Air’s varied catalog, it does make the most sense to revisit Moon Safari in such a fashion: Even though it’s barely representative of what followed in their careers, the record’s lush and uncannily pristine melding of multiple styles — record-collector lounge, soft-focus ’70s psychedelic rock, the optimistic glow of early electronic music, the wistful fromage of vintage TV and film themes — proved highly influential when it came to the wave of downtempo electronic music that followed in its wake. Amidst their French contemporaries, Air were simply different right from the beginning, even as their music so exuded the same Gallic je ne sais quoi that was noticeable amidst the work of acts like Etienne De Crecy and Daft Punk.

Stereogum caught up with Dunckel and Godin over Zoom to revisit the album’s track-by-track composition and legacy, as well as what might be in store for Air’s future.

1. “La femme d’argent”

JB DUNCKEL: This song is like an adventure. The music is like a loop of chords where we’re improvising and turning around. The track is a progression to a peak, to an orgasm. It’s a bit like an Andy Warhol painting, where you have the same motifs repeating all the time. It creates a feeling of absurdity. We wanted to have that in a loop that was constantly repeating — becoming psychedelic and orgasmic at the end.

Tell me about how sexuality and sensuality plays into your work with Nicolas, as well as your solo work.

DUNCKEL: There’s a little bit of erotism in all music. Music has basically been made for seduction since the beginning of humanity. The good thing about Moon Safari is that it’s an album where it helps if you’re around someone — to invite them to a restaurant or your home. It creates a nice, casual, comfortable atmosphere. It’s the sound of what I want to get, and what Air wants to get, which is something soft, comfortable, sensual, and a little bit erotic — but always with a sort of elegance. The music has to make you float in a sort of ether or parallel dimension to make you feel good. That’s why our music is softly psychedelic. You feel like you’re in a dream, or like you’re a bit high — not too much, but in a happy way. It’s a feeling that was in our mind when we were doing Moon Safari, and it’s a feeling that carries into my solo projects too. There’s a lot of atmosphere, but a lot of melancholia too. I think that melancholia is the most shared feeling on Earth. People are much more melancholic than they are happy in their lives. [Laughs] It’s a feeling that’s understood by all people.

When I think of instantly memorable album openers, this one is up there for me. What makes the perfect opening track for a record? Are there any opening tracks you’ve particularly revered?

DUNCKEL: I think about the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first track, it’s like an anthem — a declaration of what the album is about. You have the main theme at the beginning, and it comes back at the end. It gives it a concept album feeling, and “La femme d’argent” is a statement. It starts softly and brings you into a soft fire. It’s an invitation, and it says to the listeners, “Now we’re gonna trip hard and put you in another dream. We want to get high with you.”

2. “Sexy Boy”

NICOLAS GODIN: The funny thing about “Sexy Boy” is that it almost didn’t make it to the album. It’s not like the rest of the tracks — it has a verse and chorus. We didn’t know what to do with it, because we didn’t know how to include it inside the rest of the music, which is more mellow and atmospheric. This track is more upbeat. It didn’t sound like the rest of the album. At the end, it was the biggest track on the record, which is very strange.

In the years after Moon Safari came out, I felt like I was hearing “Sexy Boy” as a needle drop quite a bit. It was in 10 Things I Hate About You, too. As someone who’s very familiar with your music, it’s funny to hear it in that context. Tell me about the life this song took on, and what happens when your music gets folded into a different context.

DUNCKEL: We like when people use our music a lot, but we’re careful about context, because it can be a bit vulgar. In the past, we refused a lot of synchronizations because they were misunderstanding songs like “Sexy Boy.” “Sexy Boy” is a seduction song, and it’s about how heterosexual men can be happy to look at other men because they want to check they are dressed. It’s more about a fashion thing. “OK, we are men, and we want to look sexy for the girls, and anybody else.” It’s about this taboo idea that men can be erotic too. It’s not about homosexuality or heterosexuality — it’s about looking good. Men, too, like to be well-dressed. They like to be looked at, and to be paid attention to the way they look when it comes to the clothing that they wear. In 1998, it was taboo to speak about men’s sexuality. “Sexy Boy” is not a very male-attitude song, it’s a bit borderline, and it creates a strange feeling. We liked that. It was disturbing, and we like disturbed. [Laughs]

GODIN: Movies, TV shows, commercials — when I was young, I discovered a lot of music through that. I think it’s a good thing, in the end.

Mike Mills did the video for this song as well as the other songs on the album, and he also handled creative design for Moon Safari.

GODIN: The idea was to work with him on everything visual — album covers, single covers, videos, merchandising. I think a part of us was very attracted to the USA, and a part of him was very attracted to France and Europe. We met in the middle of the bridge, and it was the perfect combination. We were both magnets to each others’ culture. It was the right mixture.

3. “All I Need”

DUNCKEL: We did this song with Beth Hirsch. She’s American, and she had a very folk sound because she was used to playing acoustic guitar and singing. We liked that American attitude a lot, so when we met her we fused the track with her voice. That was perfect, because the song was really mellow. We wanted a conclusion at the end that was mellow and a little bit dark — melancholic. In the song, she talks about the planets and being behind the sun — the fact that you float around the planets — and we talked about that for Moon Safari a lot.

This song makes me think a lot about chillout.


That dark melancholia at the end of the song is what sets this song apart from a lot of chillout, in my opinion — but you can hear the roots of the subgenre, what other artists would eventually lift from, all over this one.

GODIN: After the success of Moon Safari, a lot of people put us in that box. At some point, we felt a little bit annoyed by that. We felt more like composers than musicians. So right after Moon Safari, we decided to get out of that box and change our production style into something with a darker energy. We did Virgin Suicides and 10 000 Hz Legend because we were getting eaten by the vibe of Moon Safari. It was taking over us. Moon Safari was just the mood we were in the late ’90s. There was that vibe in the air. We didn’t want to get stuck with that image or that type of music, so I thought, “This is too limiting for us. I don’t want to become a one-vibe band.”

Listening to those records, it’s very obvious that you are a group that wanted to do way more than just Moon Safari.

GODIN: Talkie Walkie, too. Each time people think we’re doing something…as a child, I would get very bored, very fast, while playing games. I wanted to change games all the time. I feel the same about making records.

4. “Kelly Watch The Stars”

DUNCKEL: Kelly is this character in Charlie’s Angels, and at the time we said she was the most beautiful girl in the world. So that’s why we sung about Kelly. There was always this idea for us to get high and float in space — to feel good — so that’s the message of “Kelly Watch The Stars.” Don’t lose your feeling, don’t forget who you are and what you want to achieve in your life. It sat well with the Moon Safari concept. It’s very simple. [Laughs]

JB, you’ve mentioned getting high several times in association with this record. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people who listen to Air also like to do drugs. What role has drugs played in your lives?

GODIN: We did the typical drugs as teenagers, but when we were doing Moon Safari, we were doing less drugs. When we were going out at night or mixing the album, maybe, but during the conception — the big work sessions — we were clean. We like to get high naturally. [Laughs] We were the average suburban teenagers. Smoking pot and that’s it, like everybody else. Nothing less, nothing more.

DUNCKEL: We are so clean compared to the rest of the people we knew around that time. [Laughs]

5. “Talisman”

This song represents a big, sumptuous turn on the record.

GODIN: Yeah, it’s a pivot track — a turning point. It’s one of the fastest tracks we did, along with “Le voyage de Pénélope.” We were working on another track and we couldn’t get inspired, so we decided to change our minds and jam a little bit. This track was done in four hours. It was a little riff, and we gave it to David Whittaker, who did a beautiful arrangement. For some reason, the strings give something very luxurious and soundtrack-y — Hollywood-style, like the great soundtracks. It’s very abstract, it began with almost nothing and ended up with the most gorgeous track on the album.

DUNCKEL: We have an attraction to Black music in general, and we were really fascinated by Isaac Hayes at that time.

GODIN: Yeah.

DUNCKEL: We wanted to have something really groovy with some strings and keyboards in the background, so that’s why the track is like that.

So much of Moon Safari is fun to pick through when it comes to eras of time that the music recalls. Tell me about the function of nostalgia across your careers.

GODIN: This is our nostalgic album, really. It’s when we were dreamers in terms of the future. We had a dream of the future which became quite different when we were finishing Moon Safari. When we were children, we were thinking of something really amazing — like in the cartoons, or the science fiction movies. We were dreamers, and in 2000, nothing really happened. We wanted to go back to that time, which is the definition of retrofuturism. That’s what Moon Safari is. It’s pre-2001, pre-9/11. We were in a state of mind where we weren’t so pessimistic about the future.

6. “Remember”

DUNCKEL: Like Nicolas said, “Remember” is written to the past, but it’s also about love — maybe girls that we would think of. Wouldn’t it be great to be with her? It’s melancholic, about the love that you lost, and your memories about that love. We did this track with Jean-Jacques Perrey, who we’d done musical sessions with — an old musician with the ’50s. He found the word “remember” to be fitting really well with vocoders, so we made that around it. I wanted to have something melancholic with strings and minor and major chords mixing together, so we gave that to the track at the end of the day.

GODIN: This track was made very fast as well.

Was that something that took place a lot across this record?

GODIN: Some tracks were done in a few hours, some took months. Sometimes you can write a great verse and you don’t find the chorus, and it can stay like that for a couple of months. Sometimes, you make a song that’s not great, and you work on it a long time to make it better. But the songs that are already great, you don’t work on them very long because they’re great. [Laughs] The paradox of this process is that you spend a lot of time on bad songs and not a lot of time on good songs, which can be very depressing in the end. [Laughs]

JB, you mentioned the vocoder on this track. I think about the vocoder a lot when it comes to the French pop music made by you guys and your contemporaries. Talk to me about the vocoder — the utility, the sounds you can produce. What makes it such a beautiful instrument to use?

GODIN: We used a talkbox for the verse and a vocoder for the chorus. One of our favorite bands is Kraftwerk, and we wanted to use vocoder in a way to be like them, but also different from them. I think we found a new sound of vocoder — angel-style. Kraftwerk was more into robot-style. We wanted something more ethereal, like paradise, and I think that’s a trademark of Moon Safari.

7. “You Make It Easy”

Tell me about this song in the context of collaborative work. What makes a good collaboration for you guys?

GODIN: In this era of music, collaboration was new — there was Massive Attack, the Chemical Brothers. It was a new way of making music. In the late ’90s, all these trip-hop bands were inviting guest vocalists. When we did Talkie Walkie, we said, “We should try to make a record with no guests at all.” We turned the page. The more we went through collaborative paths, we wanted to do that less, and Talkie Walkie was the first album we did with no guests like that.

DUNCKEL: This song is more like bossa nova. We made an instrumental, and we were thinking this song would be better with a singer. When we got Beth, it definitely sounded much better. There’s a little bit of a bend on the chorus, and we had some strings to make it even more full in the production. Because of this work with Beth, and the arrangements of the strings, the song was turned into something else, and we were very happy about it.

8. “Ce matin là”

GODIN: This is the most childish song for us. It’s a reference to an old French TV show we used to watch when we were children, Barbapapa. We tried to do a cover of the theme in our high school band. It was a tribute to all the children’s TV shows we used to watch in the ’70s. It’s a very personal song for children who grew up in the ’70s watching TV. The cool thing is that we did much of the track in a very small space, with a sampler, in an old home. When we did the strings with David Whittaker, we heard it and were like, “OK, that’s it.” We were patient, and we nailed exactly how we wanted it. It was a good ending.

Even without the personal context you two have, the song very clearly sounds like an imaginary theme of sorts. You’ve done plenty of score work across your careers too. What goes into that creatively? What makes a good theme, or a great score?

DUNCKEL: When there’s a main theme or big melody that takes you, and when you can sing or whistle it, there’s something nice or positive to that. We were listening to a lot of soundtracks around this time — we were passionate about Ennio Morricone. When we were small, the Westerns, the American movies with cowboys, were all over the TV, and we liked a lot of them in the ’70s. [Laughs] We looked at a lot of movies like that.

GODIN: We used to watch TV and then buy records. Soundtracks were stronger than rock and pop to me. Rock and pop I started to listen to as a teenager, but all my childhood was watching TV. In terms of scoring style, for me it’s very natural because it’s the music I grew up with. It’s the most simple music for me to do, really — without even thinking about it, with my eyes closed. The ’70s style is a very specific style of scoring — John Barry, Morricone, Henry Mancini, all these guys. When the melody was important. Nowadays, with TV shows, each time you watch them you get an indication of melody. It’s gone in movies, though. With Succession, you have a strong melody — but in the movies, there’s no more melodies. In the ’70s, once the movie was out of the cinemas, the only way to remind people of it was the melody. Now, everybody sees a movie only once and the melody isn’t that important.

9. “New Star In The Sky”

DUNCKEL: This track had a lot of production. It’s one of the tracks we worked most on. We had a different verse, and it was a very long process. At the beginning, it was more uptempo, and we slowed it down so much that it became a very slow song. It came from this idea that, when a baby is born, there’s a new star in the sky, because I had a child one year before Moon Safari. It’s a really deep song about being alive and getting born.

You mentioned the production on this song, and I personally have a headphones music association with this album. I’m excited to hear how this record sounds on this tour. Tell me about translating this really detailed, intricate music to a live setting, and what that experience is like while returning to this record right now.

GODIN: When we started playing this album live many years ago, we were in a different creative process. Each time we’d change the vibe of Moon Safari according to whatever new album we were working on. Now, we don’t record a new album during this tour, so after all these years we’re keeping Moon Safari as it is. We’re not rewriting it in a different direction, and I think that’s very good. For the first time, the audience gets to hear it live how it would sound on record. We are at peace with ourselves now. We accept the album as it is, and for what it isn’t. Maybe the reason we’re doing this now and we never did it before is because we didn’t have the distance from the record — we had the desire to change things. Now, we don’t have that desire. Moon Safari doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to the audience, and to those who tripped on it at the time. I feel a lot of respect for the community around this record, and we should play it as faithfully as possible.

DUNCKEL: We put a lot of naïvete into this music. We were in between making something sophisticated and naïve. We were some sort of beginners, but we were playing music for a long time and knew a lot about music, so we made it simple and accessible. That’s why Moon Safari worked a lot. People could get it instantly.

10. “Le voyage de Pénélope”

GODIN: It was a way of saying goodbye to the recording process, which was very simple for this one. We did a jam session at night. We were cruising, and it was a way for us to say, “The job is done, let’s finish peacefully and relaxingly.” The way we did it was so simple. We just pressed record and everything came naturally. It was a nice moment — just two guys jamming on music. It’s the last song on the album because it’s the last song we did.

Nicolas, I read an interview with you last year where you expressed uncertainty regarding Air’s overall future. Do you think you guys are going to work on a new record after this?

DUNCKEL: We don’t know. We’re so busy with the tour. But it’s a huge step to come from nothing to doing this tour. We don’t know about the future, but it’s true that Air is alive again. We don’t know, it depends on true inspiration. Sometimes it’s about meeting other people or having new ideas, new concepts. We’re gonna see. It’s life.

Nicolas, anything to add?

GODIN: No. If we do make another album, it can’t be disappointing for the audience. It’s a lot of pressure.

Manuel Obadia-Wills

09/25 – Vancouver, BC @ Queen Elizabeth Theatre
09/27 – Seattle, WA @ Benaroya Hall
09/29 – Los Angeles, CA @ Orpheum
09/30 – Los Angeles, CA @ Orpheum
10/02 – San Francisco, CA @ The Masonic
10/04 – Denver, CO @ Bellco Theater
10/06 – Minneapolis, MN @ State Theatre
10/08 – Chicago, IL @ Auditorium Theatre
10/10 – Detroit, MI @ Fox Theatre
10/12 – Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall
10/13 – Montreal, QC @ Place Bell
10/15 – Boston, MA @ MGM Music Hall at Fenway
10/17 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Met
10/18 – Washington DC @ The Anthem*
10/21 – New York, NY @ Beacon Theatre
10/24 – Atlanta, GA @ Tabernacle
10/26 – Miami Beach, FL @ Fillmore Miami Beach
10/29 – Dallas, TX @ Music Hall at Fair Park
10/30 – Austin, TX @ Moody Amphitheatre

The 25th anniversary edition of Moon Safari is out now. Get tickets for Air’s Moon Safari tour here.

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