Continental drift

Flying the friendly skies of Air
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  March 16, 2010

CALM TOGETHER: “The original concept of Air was to have no aggressivity at all,” says Jean-Benoît Dunckel (right, with Nicolas Godin). “Aggressivity is a bit too vulgar for us.”

It's fitting that when I finally get Jean-Benoît Dunckel on the phone, he's just stepped off a plane. After all, the whole idea behind Air is to create the musical equivalent of jet-setting — vanishing into the clouds and leaving the real world behind. Dunckel and Nicolas Godin hit the world with their strange creation in 1995, and amid the de rigueur Day-Glo grunge and gangster rap of the time, Air's music glided along with a frictionless whoosh. The duo have since continued to create a prolific œuvre while cruising at an altitude altogether different from where the rest of pop culture is at.

"The original concept of Air was to have no aggressivity at all, because aggressivity is a bit too vulgar for us" is how J.-B. puts it in his inimitable French lilt. "Instead, we saw our music as being a sort of external place for people to rest, a lounge sound that's dreamy and interesting and emotional. In a sense, it's almost a medicinal process."

Air's music does go to lush places where few popular bands dare tread, and their newest is perhaps their most far-out trek to the deepest reaches of Smooth Island. Recorded entirely in their own Atlas Studios, Love 2 is the sound of a band lost in their own hermetically sealed world, where vintage synths and soft beats glisten and treated vocals echo till they vaporize on the horizon. It's all present in the centerpiece, "Tropical Disease," from rippling piano flourishes to almost comical pan flutes to the song's extended coda of otherworldly leisure.

"In some ways," J.-B. continues, "it's surprising that we are able to have a career in America at all. First of all, in America, hip-hop is huge, and hip-hop is the opposite of Air. And then, it's all rock and roll and pop, which have nothing to do with Air either. So we are, you know, a band for people that don't like so much rock and hip-hop and pop." Most bands would paint themselves into a corner defining themselves by what they aren't, but Air have painted their own musical world — one that doesn't seem to have genres.

The easiest way to understand Air is to picture their music as the soundtrack to films both real and imagined. Each song is almost like a scene, n'est-ce pas? "Oh yes, because for every song there is a story behind it, a vision, a dream, a subject. When you write a song, it's a slice of your life. All of your energy, your disappointments, your wishes, your dreams go into the song, and that's what people hear. In some ways, it's quite miraculous." If every Air song is indeed a film scene, it makes for a pretty artsy flick. The songs keep their distance from clarity — but to J.-B., they're quite simple. "Most of our songs are love songs. They are about how we have been misunderstood, and how we would like to find the woman of our life."

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