So, to Paris then, as I accept an invitation for an audience with a member of French pop music royalty on a sweltering August afternoon in the City of Light. Photographer in-tow, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a morning surveying the spooky crypts of Cimetiere Montmartre and strolling by the iconic red windmill of the Moulin Rouge, all courtesy of record company largesse. Across to Paris for breakfast and back for last orders? I could get used to this.
It’s a charmed life but it’s one that our globe-trotting interviewee evidently takes in his stride, judging by how immaculately he’s turned out emerging from a cab to meet Sonny and I at a secluded backstreet hotel less than 24 hours after getting back from his holidays. Skinny white jeans, a box-fresh grey cashmere pullover and a Burberry trench coat that’s easily worth more than all of our clothes put together. Quelle surprise, Nicolas Godin’s wiry frame is a vision of Parisian elegance and élan.
For two decades, the Parisian-born, Versaille-raised musician and producer has spent life as one-half of celebrated downtempo electronica duo Air. Along with bandmate Jean-Benoît “JB” Dunckel, Godin rode the crest of the French Touch wave throughout the mid-to-late-nineties with albums like retro-kitsch classic debut ‘Moon Safari’ and its moody follow-up, the ‘Virgin Suicides’ soundtrack. In the process, the duo inspired legion imitators (think Röyksopp, Zero 7, Lemon Jelly) equally in paean to chilled-out rhythms pared with vintage synthesisers.
Since then, Air have released other big hitters like ‘Talkie Walkie’ as well as more esoteric fare (‘10,000 Hz Legend’, ‘Music for Museum’). For people of a certain age though, those first couple of records are hard to beat. Air’s early output has found itself in near-constant phased rotation on my own turntable since my teenage years. I oscillate between unbridled adoration for songs like ‘Sexy Boy’ and ‘Kelly Watch the Stars’ and a gnawing sense that they belong on the soundtrack to a Monkey Dust dinner party scene. But then I’ve just bought the ‘Virgin Suicides’ on vinyl, so…
If Air’s music occasionally sounds like a product of its time, Godin certainly looks good in the present face-to-face, his freckled features and willowy mass of auburn hair belying his 45 years. We take a seat on the street terrace, seeking solace from the europop blaring away inside the hotel restaurant. “It’s funny,” says Godin as he sips from his sparkling water (Perrier, bien sûr) with just the right level of panache. “I started just around the corner from here – I had a flat over the hill in Montmartre – and I starting making music here 20 years ago. It’s… crazy.” Perhaps even crazier is that it’s taken all of those 20 years for Godin to get around to releasing a solo album (‘Contrepoint’) out on Because Music this month. Dunckel released his first (‘Darkel’) back in 2006.
For all their experimentation across albums, Air operate within a fairly specific part of the electronic music spectrum. I ask Godin if there was never a desire to release anything outside of the band up until now.
“Personally, I don’t think people should do solo records,” he says. “I think it’s a bad idea, you know?
“Because I think there’s a magic and a chemistry between opposite people. Unfortunately, to make a cool band you need people with different personalities, so there are always egos [competing]. When I do festivals, I go backstage and see all these bands that hate each other. I saw the Strokes fighting. They were literally fighting! But I like that, I like the energy. People say they think they can do it on their own better but I don’t think so. The first two [Air] singles I did by myself. But I hate it, I don’t like to be by myself.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Godin originally had no intention of ever releasing ‘Contrepoint’ as an album. The project originated with a couple of documentaries on legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould that he was shown by a friend. Gould was a masterful interpreter of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and the exposure had a profound impact on Godin. Soon, he was studying Bach’s music. “I didn’t plan to do [a solo album],” he says. “My idea was just to get new inspiration from a personal point of view, not to make a record. Just because I felt I needed some fresh influences. I was bored. So I decided to study classical music to go more deep in my knowledge, and just for me to be excited and be a better man; a better composer. And then, little by little it became a record. I didn’t have a goal, I didn’t wake up one morning saying, now I have to make a recording. It didn’t happen like that at all.”
Each of the eight pieces on the album sees Godin employ one of Bach’s melodies at its core, although most then veer off sharply into unexpected avenues. ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ is a case in point, starting off with an introduction from a long-lost concerto (“One of the most bad-ass chords that I’ve ever played on a keyboard,” notes Godin) before morphing into a multi-faceted modern symphony. On paper, ‘Contrepoint’ is a high-minded, almost academic exercise, but as an album, it’s exhilarating. No straightforward accomplishment, says Godin.
“I think it’s super-easy to do an experimental record that can be boring,” he says. “I think it’s much harder to do something that’s mainstream. Like, I remember so many bands that make a cool album with a lot of hits, then next thing they try to be artistic and people don’t mind and say: ‘Wow they took some risk, they did something artistically experimental.’ I say to myself, it’s so much harder to write music that’s on the radio than experimental music.
“So my challenge was how to do something with a high level of musicality in it but not something boring or deductive. [Now] I’m in a tiny place and if I move left or right, I’m going to fall into a horrible world, you know? So I have to stay in the middle and it’s pretty exhausting, actually. It’s like walking on a rope and you can fall!”
Godin was also conscious of past experimental missteps. For some, ‘10,000 Hz Legend’ was a bridge too far beyond the sultry bedroom-friendly music of the first two Air albums. The sentiment seems to have weighed heavily on his mind in recording the new record.
“[‘10,000 Hz’] is much too complicated for me,” he admits. “It’s like – I don’t compare myself to Brian Wilson – but when I read in interviews from him, he said he was not a big fan of ‘Good Vibrations’. He said the song was too complicated. He liked to write catchy, hit singles and he thought ‘Good Vibrations’ was too much stopping all the time. I remember that when we did ‘10,000 Hz’ the songs stop all the time and you don’t have time to get into it, except ‘How Does It Make You Feel?’ which is very simple. The structures of the other tracks are way too complicated.”
Another element of complexity in recording ‘Contrepoint’ was that Godin needed to be able to play Bach’s work on piano. Bandmate Dunckel is a classically trained pianist but Godin is a bassist by trade, necessitating some serious practice. He managed to master some pieces but others were simply too complex. It’s for that reason that we’re able to look forward to the release of an album instead of a mere concert.
“I could hear in my mind how [the songs] should be played but some of them I was not good enough, as a pianist, to play them,” he acknowledges. “So that’s why I did the record – that’s the only reason why. My fingers couldn’t do things that I could hear in my mind. When I see Glenn Gould’s playing I can see that it’s absolutely not a problem for him. His fingers, he can do whatever he wants. With me, I know some parts of the music and how it should be played but actually I couldn’t do it.”
Godin began the record by using a computer to sequence the piano melodies that he was unable to play by hand. Little by little, though, the producer was unable to resist the urge to contort Bach’s melodies into entirely new songs. Soon additional harmonies were layered atop one another, new melodies were written and an entirely new set of songs began to emerge from the studio.
Ever-wary of going it alone, Godin was keen to ensure the process of recording ‘Contrepoint’ was ultimately a collaborative experience, what with his self-confessed limitations in the classical field. The services of co-songwriter, keyboardist and Bach specialist Vincent Taurelle were soon employed, along with a supporting cast of artists including French vocalist Gordon Tracks, Brazilian singer Marcelo Camelo and – perhaps slightly incongruously – Connan Mockasin. “I think even solo artists need to be with somebody, he says. “Great solo artists like Bowie always had a great producer. I think it’s stupid to make ‘solo’ solo records – I just don’t think it’s interesting because you need to fill yourself with the energy of someone else.”
From the way that Godin speaks about his new album – and the fact that he mentions having another “concept” up his sleeve – I’m fairly sure that he sees ‘Contrepoint’ as the start of a series of solo records that reflect personal interests, albeit probably in constant collaboration with trusted friends. I’m slightly less sure what all this means for Air, though. Throughout our time together the subject of Dunckel and the future of the band barely comes up. In fact, lost in translation or otherwise, when Godin does speak about Air he sometimes seems to refer to the band in the past tense, as though a previous chapter of his life. “I’ve been there and done that, you know?” he says. “I reached that point where every night I was playing the same songs. So I was like, okay what should I do now, you know? Because this is done.
“I think also with the kind of music we were doing, we had hit the maximum audience that we could reach,” he continues, “because otherwise we would have to become more commercial. I think I couldn’t go higher than I was reaching, so that was it. We played some amazing places like the Royal Albert Hall, the Sydney Opera House… we did so many tours around the world. It’s like after 15, 20 years, that’s it – we reach our cruise control. I think we accomplished everything that was technically doable with Air.”
The last widely-released record from Air was 2012’s ‘Le Voyage Dans la Lune’ – the duo’s soundtrack to Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent picture. A totemic piece of French culture, a newly-discovered print of the film was remastered from scratch, with Air given the honour of recording an aural accompaniment. It was a project in which Godin was proud to take part but crucially also a signifier of where the future of Air might lie – operating within the projects and commissions of others.
Certainly the band seem prolific in this respect. Last year saw a limited, vinyl-only release of ‘Music for Museum’, a commission for the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille as part of their Open Museum project, while previous art collaborations have included film soundtracks (‘Virgin Suicides’) and more besides. If Air are to have any kind of long-term future, it might be in this capacity.
There are no plans for a new Air record, says Godin. “I think if something happens it will happen; I’ve got nothing against it and nothing for it. I just wait for a sign of the gods or something. ‘Le Voyage Dans la Lune’ was a good record because we had a reason to do it; we had this film, which had been restored and is a monument of French culture. We said okay, wow, that’s a good project. So if another good project happens, I’m completely open to do something but I need a good reason because I think otherwise I’ll not do it. I don’t care, really.”
One of the reasons for Godin’s reticence is his controversial, long-stated aversion to older people making music. I remind him that he once said anybody over the age of 40 makes shit records. Cue uproarious laughter.
“It’s true! It’s fucking true!” he guffaws over his dwindling mineral water. “All the people we admire, that happens. I think in the best case, you do maybe 4-5 good albums but most of the bands make maybe 2-3 great albums and that’s it. You have to have a vision of music, you make a statement, make a record and then when it’s done, you just need new bands. You don’t need old bands making new records – I think what the world needs is interesting records, we don’t need old bands making records.
“Once in a lifetime, it’s your window and we did that; we were in the right place, with the right equipment. All the planets are in the same line, you know? Suddenly it’s your turn and you have to not fuck up, you have to make records when it’s good for you. And then after a while, when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
On one level it’s a bit of a shame to hear somebody like Godin talk like this – to be so candid about the ephemeral nature of the true manifestation and apotheosis of an artist’s talent. You’d like to think people like him could go on making classic albums forever.
Of course, he’s entirely right. Are Radiohead really still making good records? What about U2? When was the last good Rolling Stones album you heard? “Like 1971 or something,” Godin proffers in response to the latter with a snigger. Still, I venture that it’s a bit of a pity to write off artists after a certain point in their life but Godin says that it’s only natural.
In fact, it turns out he has a fairly comprehensive theory as to why older musicians are rarely responsible for classic albums – especially electronic ones. “As a musician and as a producer, at some point in your lifetime you are accurate with technology and you can see that the technology that they produce is fit for you,” he begins. “Then you need to make a good record with this technology because it’s your turn. After that, even if you know how to use the modern technology, it’s not your style.
“Look at the Moog synthesisers – they had them a few years too soon and they didn’t know what to do with it. Then Stevie Wonder had Moogs and he made these great albums, but the new technology took over – samplers and digital synthesisers. He kept making albums but it wasn’t his time; he was right with the Moogs and the Rhodes keyboards. But then there was Depeche Mode, who did great things with the Fairlight synthesisers etc.
“Then us [Air], in ’98, ’99 with all this new gear, that was for us. So that’s when I did a lot of electronic music, because I knew I was accurate with this equipment. Nowadays I use new technology, new programs and plugins, but I can feel it’s not my strength. I use them because I like it but I know that it will not be my asset. My asset is my knowledge and my experience that the new guy will not have. But I will not [prioritise] the technologies of nowadays, because I had my time where I was accurate with it but I know I’m not anymore.”
Godin’s solo album rather de-emphasises its creator’s roots in electronica; a development that it now seems was no coincidence. “You need to be in phase, as a creator, with the technology,” he says. “When it’s your turn, you make a great album with it. So there’s a great analogue synthesiser album, there’s a great digital synthesiser album, there’s a great drum machine album, there’s a great rock guitar album. There’s always someone who’s accurate with the technology.”
In some respects then, Godin’s pivot into the world of classical music with ‘Contrepoint’ represents something of an abrogation of his responsibility to be at the bleeding edge of popular music; a passing of the torch. For some people this might represent a disappointing retreat from the horizon of the zeitgeist. To my ears though, it seems like a pretty pragmatic response to any maturing musician’s changing position within the artistic landscape from the vanguard to the exploratory.
“You know, you’re only a newcomer once in your life,” say Godin, “and I think after a while, I see a lot of artists scared to be not fashionable anymore. They always check what’s new but just end up seeming like an old person with plastic surgery, you know? [Laughs] You still look old but you obviously look like you’ve had plastic surgery! So I say [to myself], let’s do classical music because this is at my age; I can do that, it’s natural and it’s my performing desire.”