“When we started our careers, we were at the party for a French singer who was celebrating his 40th birthday,” remembers Nicolas Godin, sat in a sun-drenched garden opposite Air’s swanky hotel in Barcelona. “I said, my God, how can he be celebrating that? How can it be funny, how can he laugh and dance? I would be so depressed! I was there at the bar, 26, drinking some champagne and then…” He clicks his fingers. “It goes so fast, you don’t even know it.”
Sat alongside the rakishly handsome Godin, now 46 years old but auburn locks still flowing, and his baby-faced bandmate Jean-Benoît Dunckel, a collective mid-life crisis for Air seems premature. But it’s true that the band have been a going concern for over 20 years now, ever since that party in Paris. In that time the pair have done much to shape how the English-speaking world conceives of French music; a gateway to Gallic insouciance and cool from Jean Michel Jarre to Serge Gainsbourg.
Released back in 1998, debut LP ‘Moon Safari’ set the template and benchmark for all that would follow: sophisticated, downbeat electronic pop with a playful, sexual frisson. It’s a landmark record that at once epitomised the Air concept (the band’s name stems from an acronym, “Amour, Imagination, Rêve,” or “love, imagination, dream”) and one that perhaps even Godin and Dunckel would argue that they’ve never bettered. ‘Moon Safari’ also made an indelible impression on thousands of teenagers like yours truly, growing up and clumsily navigating the opposite sex.
Since then, the two have released eight further albums that have oscillated between pop-minded accessibility (‘Talkie Walkie’) and ambitious experimentalism (‘10,000 Hz Legend’). The duo have also carved out solo careers for themselves. Less than a year ago, I was over in Paris speaking to Godin for Loud And Quiet about his own first album, the superb, Bach-inspired ‘Contrepoint’ (I’d like to consider Godin and I are best friends now but I’m afraid it might be a one-sided arrangement).
In celebration of reaching the 20-year milestone as a band, last month Air released the sensibly-titled compilation ‘Twentyears’ on Parlophone. “We wanted to go back on tour and to play live,” Godin says. “We didn’t want to make an album because if you do, it’ll postpone the tour. So I think the compilation was a compromise.”
To that end, ‘Twentyears’ has served its purpose. As we speak, Air are in Barcelona for a big stage, sundown slot at Primavera Sound and are touring Europe and beyond over the summer. Of course, there’s a broader, almost philosophical question of whether so-called “greatest hits” LPs serve any purpose in the modern world of Spotify and self-curated playlists. All the same, the release takes in a smattering of the band’s most popular tracks throughout their two-decade career that should satisfy casual fans, even if a bit more adventurism might have done better at showcasing their ambition.
“It was horrible,” Godin says of putting the collection together. “We have different tastes, then there’s the audience, there’s the record company. I’ll never do that again in my life!” He lets out what sounds like a genuinely pained sigh. “Making a compilation, you can’t decide; it’s like picking between your children. There are amazing songs that aren’t on there. I mean, it would be like that for any band.”
Still, the opportunity to tour their back catalogue is one that Godin and Dunckel aren’t taking for granted. “It’s kind of an achievement to be on stage and to be able to play a classic piece of music that you actually wrote,” marvels the former. “It’s a great feeling, truly. As soon as we picked up our instruments to practice [for the current tour], we said, wow, what good chords, what good melodies. The production of the records, the sound, the orchestrations…” He pauses for a moment to reflect, the sun glinting in his shades. “We did such a good job, you know. It’s incredible to play.”