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Publication: The Face, 2000

Air: A heartbreaking work of staggering genius

Robot voices. Jokes. The ‘Greek’ element. Beck. How Air built ‘10,000hz Legend’ – the world’s first concept album without a concept

The tape begins to turn. The On Air sign door illumates in bright red. Pulsing analogue bass rolls across the audio spectrum like fog, a snare drum crackles in, and three years after the Moon Safari terminated, a detuned robot voice uploads the opening track from Air's 10,000 Hz Legend into the world. The group who articulated most acutely the subtelties of human emotion with through the diodes of redundant technology: "We are the sychronisers," the robot voice declares, "Sending messages through Midi timecode/Many chords ring in my mind/Machines give me some freedom/Syntheseisers give me some wings/The drop me through 12-bit samplers/We are electronic performers..." The lost-in-space sounds swirl on, the voice calmly finishes, "We are electronics."


A sunny day in Paris in Spring. Through the lobby of the Hotel Lutece in the 6ème arrondisement and into the sombre wood-pannelled bar where a clean-shaven man behing the bar polishes glasses and the old couple collapse after their lunch.

Here come the electronics, cunningly disguised as men. Nicholas Godin appears first, trailing a scarf suspended from his mop of dark ginger hair, down past his tight faded Levis to his beige All-Stars. One of France's bestselling music exports, he cuts an instantly forgettable figure, more man at busstop than multimillion-selling pop star. Then Jean-Benoit Dunckel arrives in an over-long white-leather biker jacket, shell-toes and a tricky fringe with a tendency to flick across his elfin features. JB sits down with a twinkly smile and promptly apologises for the sunshine and blue sky outside.

There is some disquiet in the Air today. JB and Nicholas haven't done an interview for two years, and as they emerge from creative hibernation of an album recording, an uncertainties of the exterior world replace the securities of the studio bubble. So… the new album: 'How Does It Makes Your Feel' - a lyrical declaration of massive love articulated in a husky computer voice so full feeling its only reasonable to respond with tears - is brilliant.

"C'est pas de la merde," JB judges, almost grudgingly. 'It's not a shit song.'


IN the space of an hour today three different people mention Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. Wherever they've visted in the past two years - Los Angeles, Versailles, and probabaly the furthest reaches of their imagination - the new installment of the voyage is, they enthusiatically and ceaslessly repeat, "a trip".

It's clear that their relationship with the capricious muse has matured considerably, and '10,000hz Legend' demonstrates the same deepening and broadening, not to mention off-into-the-audio-cosmos adventuring that makes Daft Punk's brain-scrubbing 'Discovery' an equally diverting 'trip'. Compared to '10,000hz...', much of 'Moon Safari' was just Air going through their Westlife phase: it is heavier, darker, sillier, more haunting; by turns it dips into an ocean of blues, rockets aways on celestial choirs, settles down into genteel guitar musings, shudders with rickety bassline generators and expresses an enormity of feeling in 56 varieties of robo-voice.

Two singles will be released fom the album: secondly 'People In The City', a rich, airborne suite of folksy chords bullit carrying a bird's-eye picture of the metropolis and her citizens, observed "moving, watching, working, sleeping/driving, walking, talking, smiling'.

But firstly, there's 'Radio Number One', a comment on/tribute to the power of Frequency Modulation rendered with the effusive hi-fi sheen of The Beatles "Revolution". It features the lyrics, "If you need some fun/some new stereo gum/Radio Number One/Brand new ears at once/eject musical trash," But it's a brilliant for another reason, the manner in which, two-thirds of the way through, the voice of a radio DJ descends from nowhere, and promprtly beings improvising around the melody, stopping just shy booming "Greeeaaatttt! The new single by Air..." and introducing the traffic report followed by the weather.

What do you define as 'musical trash', apart from just about everything?

"A lot of music is horrible," Nicholas offers diplomatically. "By making this music, we eject musical trash and make brand new music."

"This is a manifesto against the international karaoke. The music you hear everyday at the radio. The industrial phenomenon of music."

Beyond this, Air are finding that encapsulating the essence of air is as easy as bottling fog. They'd hoped to a double playback session with labelmates Daft Punk, to compare notes and trade compliments, but busy schedules have thwarted this. So far, they have been likened its 11 tracks to "a tree".

In actual fact, it's a penetrating development of on Air's anti-gravity ementional maximalism. But now, Nicholas is saying, it's like the Millennium Dome's Body Zone, of all things. "You go in... it's all craziness," he decides, enthusiatically windmilling his arms across his torso to indicate humans passing through a body. It's also like "a book", adds JB, the more intense of the pair "with many well-built songs and we wanted to just have the impact on the people, we wanted that the listener to undertsand that the album is extreme, with no limit in imagination. The concept is unconscious," he stipulates. "I mean, it's in the word >10,000 Hz Legend<.'

What is the concept?

JB: "Aaah... We don't know yet."

N: "We are looking for it."

There is a pause.

Nicholas: "In fact there's is no explanation for a lot of things. It's just, go in the studio and record… you don't stop."

"For 10,000hz Legend we want to change the sound for two reasons, "explains JB. 'One, if you don't change, you will die as artists. Two, we consider that the music is a sort of god and a god who always knows what is your will and purpose. Music is an offering: if your always give the same thing, he won't protect you. We want to please the god. We can't lie."

That sounds a bit... Greek.

"The album is a little bit... Greek."

In fact Air's music has never needed much in the way of explaining. If Air never made another record, what they'd done so far would probably be enough: definitely sufficient to grant these 30-year-olds immortality, canonised alonside Burt Bacharach, Lennon & McCartney and Brian Wilson as writers who articulated the sound of love, loneliness, and longing; certainly enough to provided the world with one more instant Zen-on-a-CD classic to file next to Isaac Hayes' 'To Be Continued', Scott Walker's 'Scott Four' and the Beach Boys’ 'Pet Sounds'. With the ambition and talent to reach beyond the lazy strictures of trip hop, loungecore or any other mirco-genre they at first appeared to inhabit, Air always did have more in common with Brian Wison than Portishead's Geoff Barrow.

One of Air was an ex-architecture student and the other a ex-maths teacher, both adept in the study of form and forumula. When Air's debut album 'Moon Safari' was released in 1997, JB and Nicholas were already on the precipice of fatherhood, but still enchanted by the dreams a youth tuning in to the FM left them with. Back then, they formed bands, and got more girlfriends than their friends as a consequence. However, they were committed to the idea of music like most people are committed to the notion of breathing. JB took lessons at the Paris Conservatoire, and on a daily basis practised rigoruous études at the piano. It was, and remains, apparently, "a sexual need" of his.

In 1997, Moon Safari had become the apex of a slow-burn career which began two years earlier. Initially, Air were smuggled into Britain under the guise of trip-hop producers signed to France's Source records. The likes of James Lavelle tuned in early to 'Modulor Mix', an instrumental track built on woozy analogue washes, recalling the experimentalism of of Jean-Jacques Perrey, Pierre Henry and Claude Denjean that was dance music's in vogue sound at the time, as well heavy-kitsch incidental music from Star Trek. Then, 'Casanova 70' aroused attention beyond dancefloors by virtue of an arrestingly beautiful euphonium line seemingly plucked from between Burt Bacharach's own heartstrings.

While their countrymen were busily redefining dance music according to an aesthetic of their own, Air appeared to be moving futher from the dancefloor and into a nebulous zone characterised by the fusion of evocative cinematica, artisan songwriting and easy-listening, all appropriated without descending into a hell of irony. Once Daft Punk had opened dance's music Anglo-French dialogue with 1996's terse exposition of filter disco, 'Homework', Air's 'Moon Safari' opened for business in 1997.

By the time it arrived, 'Moon Safari' was unanimously voted a classic, an album for everyone for all time. The Seventies retro sophistication in which Air came packed - Mike Mills' dreamlike video for 'Kelly Watch The Stars' and the album cover's Camper van with wings - was just the start of the let's-just-lounge epiphany. 'Moon Safari opened a portal to sowmehere sunnier, happier and less cynical: their own youth, to be specific. With the faint homoeroticism of the gurgly "Sexy Boy" to one side, the taut, opiated "All I Need" to the other, 'Moon Safari' was nebulously cinematic and instant all at once; unconstrained by the pop song format, but irresistibly poppy; derived from the same root as dance music, yet more apt to elicit tears than any urge to get down. Exhibiting Air's anti-gravity cool like a gyropscope centered amid the chaos of twentieth-century sound, 'Moon Safari' soundtracked a thousand fashion shows, a million dinner parties and an unquanitifiable number of private psychedelic salvations.

The name, furthermore, seemed so ergonomically correct for the bluesy, full-of-wonder sweep they conjured from oboslete synths, rudely basic acoustic guitars and crackly old studio technology. While Daft Punk's earthbound oblivion disco stomped its way further into the dancefloor, Air took the opposing direction and bid the world come the float among the cirrus clouds, the stars and somewhere beyond.


UNDERSTANDABLY, Air now have no clue how they managed it. In it's construction as in its final incarnation Air's second album proper differs significantly from the first. In the interim, the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's 'Virgin Suicides' - which was less an indicator of a developing sound than a barometer reading of the esteem in which US style brokers viewed this European exotic twosome - was 'a try; a chance to try things," says Nicholas. "For a film you look at the images and it tells you what to do. For an album, you start from nothing."

The Nothing commenced early last year and lasted for six months. Tarcks were made without the standard procedure of demoing, whereby artists make rough audio sketches to be fleshed out into songs later. They spend time in LA and located a new studio in Paris, away from their native Versailles. "We just need a place to be," Nicholas asserts. "We can record anywhere, in any studio." There were five months of recording, and then a final month, they explain, just to spend a few more the record company's francs.

Much of the time was spent in company. Evidently Enchanted by a Sixties aesthetic of the creative process, key to achieving the correct "vibe" was an assembly of players marshalled around a sole conceptual starting block: that they didn't want to make 'Seventies kitsch music". Joining drummer Brian Retzel, Beck's bassist Justin Meldal Johnston and guitarist Roger Manning, then, were the "crazy people" - Beck among them - instsructed to dance, sing, hit things and generally makes a fuss awaiting the arrival of The Music.

"We wanted to make a sort of big band on the album, like a crazy people being all together," Nicholas explains. "We wanted to increase the family of Air. And Air is more some soul and spirit, a concept of music. It's not about the people who were on the album."

It transpires that all this was engineered in expectation of a creative constipation which never arrived. They had been terrified in case they weren't able to repeat Moon Safari, since Air share the magical dreamer's unswerving conviction that music is lightning, and themselves merely the conduit - which can be enormously frustrating when they are relesase schedules to be met. "Since the beginning, we are manipulated by strange force in everything that we do," says JB, with total certitude. "We don't know where it comes from. That's why it's very scary..."

"We arrived in the studio to do some improvisation and this is what came out," says Nicholas. "It scares me sometimes. I scare myself. Because we are are just the transfer," mulls Nicholas. "Just a box to receive the idea."

And when the music spoke, they became electronic performers, diversifying the vocoded voices on 'Moon Safari' into a new cast of robo-dialects. For an album packed with songs, JB and Nicholas's voices are scarcely ever there to hear, instead buried in deep-pile harmonic arrangements percolated through modulating effects.

What's wrong with your own voices? 'Nothing. It's just... pudeur,' Nicholas shrugs, meaning 'modesty’. "Since the beginning we used electronic voice in a emotional way, not in a cold way," say Nicholas. "This is the trademark of Air. When we started using vocoder, four years ago, it was like angels' voices, not robot voices. We use machines to play human voices. Because we prefer to go out dressed than naked,"

Humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans... During the recording of '10,000hz Legend', Air listened to lots of Serge Gainsbourg alongside Radiohead's 'Kid A', Mr Oizo's 'Analogue Worms Attack', Phoenix's 'Untitled' and finally, tons of Kraftwerk. It shows. Concurrent with Daft Punk's full-time morphosis into space invaders, it's only as electronic perfomers that Air now feel able to operate, as silicon intermediaries between the music God and his or her people. It works best that way, JB explains, because, "when you play the keyboard, you can feel the currents going into the keyboard and all the message its sends through MIDI cables..." JB muses, vision fixed in the middle distance, thoughts somewhere else entirely. "It's coming into your mind and you are part of the machine and and the studio and you feel good and it's all about that, and love, and how it's cool to feel all these messages that you send to the machine.'

'Now, my favourite musical instrument is electricity," says Nicholas, with, appearing for a moment as if he means it.


SO here is the Brand New Music. JB describes 'Radio Number One' as "a sort of pop song; you can play it on a guitar and sing the melody - that's very pop. We wanted to do simple thing: to make the emotion get in the ear of the people." On the 'The Vagabond', co-written with arch psuedo-profundist Beck, that translates as a loosely funky meditation from the porhcfront of loneliness. On 'Don't Be Light', it means a pounding space-rock odyssey that could be Hawkind if it weren't so polite. Sounding like nothing less dramatic than Zeus descending to earth through parted clouds, the 70-piece choir and string section which kicks the track off is so magnificently pompous it's practically comical. The song, apparently, is a stinging critique on featherweight modern culture:

"We don't know exactly what it means," JB mulls, all quizzical and unsure.  'It's a sort of criticism on the consumer, because they buy everthing light: the food is light, you have to be light in relationships.'

'People eat light chips,' Nicholas helpfully nods.

'Just... don't be light, you know?' says JB

Getting in the ear of the wider public this time around evidently involves a decidedly un-Air jokes and surrealist larks deployed across the album, notably on "Wonder Milky Bitch" (random line "she came to me with her muddy boots/she destroyed all my carpets"). A twangy, Jew's harp-led "cowboy song", it is meant to evoke tumbleweed-strewn emptiness. With a title closely reminsicent of Chef's 'Chocolate Salty Balls', it's possibly more suitable for a ditty about confectionery. However:

"It's about bitches," smirks JB.

'Sex,' Nicholas beams. 'Blow jobs!'

"We have discovered a lot Lee Hazlewood,' explains Nicholas, 'and this is like a Lee Hazlewood fantasme of whores and whisky." As for the 'milky' part, JB mirthfully explains 'It's a very obvious image. You will understand when you know it is about blowjobs.'

Considering they articulated weighty emotions more fluently than for ages, Air new's peurility comes as a surprise. A shock even, when "How Does It Make feel" achieves its final, soulwrenching climax and gets truncated by a female voice chirping "I think I should quit smoking", a propopos of nothing. While 10,000hz Legend is informed by a kind of non-philosophy - it relied on the some nebulous force from above guidance - JB and Nicholas are filling gaps by cracking gags. This time around, you suspect are not taking their own seriouness very seriously.

But there's good reason for this. Distance learning being the principal skill of France's brightest sparks - Daft Punk and then reinvented Chicago house without ever leaving Montmarte, Phoenix willed themsleves into the bodies and minds of Hall & Oates, - Air's current Serge Gainsbourg-meets-Rolf Harris and his Stylophone incarnation owes as much to their as their assiduous appraisal of Cleese, Palin et al as to their careful study of music's 'greats'. In the space of a 60-minute album, Air become electronic performers, space travellers, chronic sentimentalists, lysergic dreamers and existential cowboys, an experiengce that's divinely comic and the thrillingly tragic all at once. '10,000hz Legend': it's just a greek phase they're going through.

'Really, I think, most of the band here don't take themselves too seriously. Music is more fun,' grins Nicholas. 'You know, we have always been Monty Python fans.' •

© Kevin Braddock 2000

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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