Welcome to Paris, now go home

Air says, 'Don't believe the hype.'

Despite what you may have heard, the French music scene isn’t really blossoming. At least, that’s what Nicolas Godin says. He should know, since he’s half of the flea-market-chic French duo Air. “France is a horrible country for pop music!” he exclaims. “We’re not a culture of pop music. We’re more like Jacques Brel or Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour, that kind of stuff. We don’t have a lot of good bands in France, so all the bands we know of come from England—the Beatles, Bowie, the Cure, Depeche Mode.”


ARO.space, Sunday, October 11

Evidently, the country’s dearth of creative young musicians results, literally, from a language barrier. French law requires that at least 40 percent of radio content be in the native tongue. “We’re considered foreigners because we sing in English,” Godin explains from an LA rehearsal studio. “There aren’t enough French-language bands, so the record companies are obliged to sign bad bands just to have this 40 percent on the radio. All day long you hear bad music.”

You might as well be in America—except Paris clubs will blow you away, right? Think again, says Godin. “Each time we go to London and go to a trendy club, if we come back two weeks later, this trendy club is awful, and now there’s a new trendy club—it’s very active. If you go to France, you can come one year and then come the next year, and you’ll go always to the same club.”

Godin and his musical partner, Jean Benoit (J.B.) Dunckel, have released various singles and EPs in the past couple of years, but it’s their debut full-length, Moon Safari, that made them a household world—outside their homeland, of course. “Nobody knows us in France,” Godin says in a bemused tone. “Nobody cares. [For this tour] We sold 200 tickets for the show in Paris—but we sold out in Seattle.”

Their compatriots are missing out. Cloaked in the cool retro-futurism of Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre, Air’s music is something like Portishead minus the sturm und drang or Stereolab minus the arch academics. Touches of Bacharach-style orchestral-pop embellish the languid, moody voice of guest Beth Hirsch or the legendary diva FranǼ/B>oise Hardy. Air’s instrumentation includes not only computers, a Vocoder, and samplers, but also horns, harmonica, and glockenspiel. To Godin’s dismay, however, what strikes many listeners first is the duo’s vintage synthesizer collection. “We use all kinds of instruments,” he points out. “We have three analog keyboards—a Moog, a Korg, and another synthesizer—and we have a Fender Rhodes. But we also have a piano and a drum, which are much older than a Moog. But nobody cares once they see the Moog.”

Part of his impatience stems from the new experience of lugging around this temperamental equipment. Now in their late twenties, Godin and Dunckel have been playing and recording music together since they were teenagers, but their Seattle show will be their live debut. “The old keyboards, you never have them in tune. The modern computers, they never work—always buzzing, all the time,” he says earnestly. “Really, it’s a nightmare. Talk to me about that and I feel bad.”

Having dispelled the hype about Hot Paris, Godin progresses to a more longstanding stereotype: the incredible French sense of style. “I was born in France, so I don’t have the distance to judge,” he says. “But the Americans that I work with, I can tell you that these people have a lot of style.” During US visits to film their videos, Godin and Dunckel met loads of American musicians, including the members of their new touring band, who’ve played with Moog Cookbook, Redd Kross, and Beck. So they were all ignorant American rock musicians, right? Well, no. “They know a lot about classical music and French culture like Serge Gainsbourg, so it was easy for us to find common ground,” Godin says. “Each time I brought in a record or a song, they knew it. It’s very hard to surprise them with music.”

The Air duo also share one of their American peers’ non-musical influences: They grew up watching TV shows like Charlie’s Angels, Starsky & Hutch, and Streets of San Francisco. “People in Europe, especially when you’re a kid, are very influenced by American TV,” says Godin. Which may be why the duo found “the graphic equivalent” of their music in an American artist, Mike Mills, who created their logo, designed their Web site and record covers, and also directs their videos. Godin, who studied architecture in college, does get enthusiastic over one French treasure: fashion designer Agn賠b. “I’m not like a model, and I don’t have a beautiful body, but each time I wear Agn賠b. clothes, I feel great.”

Not only does the duo wear her clothes, they also had her design a flexi-disc containing the original version of their single “Sexy Boy” to give away at her shops. If you were considering flying over to Paris to pick one up, forget it, they’re all gone. But the flexi-disc material will appear on a compilation of Air’s early material, due out in January. And it’s a good thing, too—who wants to go to boring old Paris anyway?