February 17, 2012

Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, more commonly known as French electronica duo Air, weren’t exactly raised in a hotbed of sonic experimentation. Their hometown of Versailles, the southwestern Parisian suburb, though stunning, is steeped in stagnant, age-old classicism. “With my musical background, I felt pretty alone,” admits the 42-year-old Godin, who’d been playing rock music on an out-of-tune guitar when he befriended Dunckel, also 42, as a teenager. “We were attracted to what we saw on television, to the world of Paris, and to the music that we had on vinyl,” Dunckel adds. “It gave us the energy and the envy we needed to make music.”

Growing up, Dunckel and Godin were hooked on new wave bands like the Cure and Depeche Mode, but they also listened to disco, funk, and rock songs—a scant few of them recorded by French artists. “I think French rock is like English wine—it shouldn’t exist,” Godin says. “The music we were making was a reaction to, and a rejection of, our French musical backgrounds. It was like, Okay, we live in this country and the music sucks, but we’re going to do something cool. It was pretty ballsy because I should have gone to fashion school or opened a restaurant, something more specific to France.”

Their luck changed in the mid ’90s with the explosion of house music when, almost overnight, French musicians were partout. “Suddenly the world was listening to what we were doing,” says Godin of the 1998 release of their debut album, Moon Safari. But it was their beautifully melancholic soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s moody directorial debut, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, which would come to define adolescence for a generation of teenagers, not only enveloping the mythology of the beautifully tortured Lisbon sisters, but also resonating with audiences wading through their own formative years.

Air’s most recent project is equally cinematic, albeit in an entirely different genre. One month before the 2011 Cannes film festival, Dunckel and Godin were approached by The Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage to create the soundtrack to the newly restored 1902 Georges Méliès’ short film, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), a science fiction–fantasy hybrid that depicts a surrealistic lunar voyage. The long-lost color version was rediscovered in 1993 in wretched condition, at which point the two film foundations, in conjunction with Lobster Films, painstakingly rescued the hand-colored film classic. Being a silent movie, “the music is the dialogue itself,” says Godin, who admits that he was anxious about adding their music to Méliès’ images in a way that would feel resolutely modern, but still worthy of the original.

Invigorated by the challenge, Air decided to expand on the initial exercise, turning it into a stirring and otherworldly full-length album. Le Voyage dans la Lune, out now on Astralwerks, builds on the music created for the film, and features new collaborations with Au Revoir Simone and Beach House’s Victoria Legrand. In a press release, Godin said that their intention was to make the project sound homemade, “a bit like Méliès’ special effects,” an endeavor that had them recording the instrumentation live while standing in front of a projection of the film to ensure the synchronicity between image and sound.

From Moon Safari to Le Voyage dans la Lune, Dunckel and Godin have long demonstrated a keen interest in lunar landings, but lately they’ve got their sights set even deeper into the great unknown. “Oh my god, we’d love to make the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Godin says. “That would be so cool! The only problem is that Stanley Kubrick was the biggest control freak in the world. Everything is locked.”

Photography by Simon Procter.

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