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Nicolas Godin

by D. House

February 13, 2010


Nicolas Godin (along with Jean-Benoît Dunckel) is best know as one half of the French duo, AIR (AIR is a backronym for Amour, Imagination, Rêve which translates in English to Love, Imagination, Dream). Their latest record, Love 2, is the sixth full-length from the band, whose influences range from Pink Floyd psychedelia, to Krautrock, to electronic pop pioneers like Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre, and Vangelis. AIR kick off their 2010 North American tour in support of the record on March 13th.

You’ve been releasing records now for over a decade. Most bands end up coming to some sort of creative impasse before then, but you and Jean-Benoît continue to push your creativity and exploration with your records.

Nicolas Godin:

It’s a fear that something like that might happen. I was actually surprised when we did this album that it was made in such a spontaneous way. Everything was fresh and spontaneous, and I couldn’t believe it because, like you said, it’s been ten years. It’s very bizarre because it didn’t happen on the last album, which was more conceptual, deep and serious. I think it’s important to be aware of this danger when you’re a musician because most of them, after a decade, they start to decrease. Even the musicians I admire, they still reach a point where their records are boring. That was one more reason for me to be scared. I think the fact that we are isolated here and far from any music business, or anything like that, makes us still fresh. I think we are outsiders, and it’s a good position to make records. Of course, we all want to have as much success as possible, but maybe when you have too much success you become a prisoner and are not free to make a record that you like anymore. Maybe we are at the perfect level, I don’t know. I don’t try to explain, that’s just my feeling.

Do you think that’s a part of why you tend to have long periods between your records?

Nico:

I think that’s a shame. When you finish a record, it’s really 6 months later that you go on tour for one year, so basically there’s a year and a half that goes bam. That’s it, that’s over. You do 100 shows, and then you realize you got older by one year. I think I’m ready right now to make a new record since it’s been a while since we stopped the recording of this one. I have to go on tour, which is cool, but I’m not going to be free until October, and then we’re going to start. It will take us three months, then the six-month period, and that’s it. It will be two years.

Do you tend to compose the songs on your albums ahead of recording them, or do you compose in the studio? Has that process changed with recording in your own studio vs. working with budget constraints and producers and schedules?

Nico:

No, it’s all in the recording studio. We come from the home studio world, so we’re not used to doing demos. When we record it’s usually what’s going to be on the record. The fact that we have a real record studio now, this album may be the most classic album recording we’ve ever done. We just took the instruments and played. We weren’t very experimental. On the next album we’re going to experiment more.

This record seems very layered and textured, and sonically varied. Was that due to your having more freedom in your home-built studio and doing away with producers?

Nico:

Yes. I think it’s not the problem of a producer; it’s more the fact that we wanted it to be just the two of us. That’s why there’s no arranger, there’s no producer, there’s no musicians, there’s no extra vocalist, and there’s only a drummer because that’s the only thing we needed. After 10 years we’ve met so many people, we’ve traveled all over the world. We’ve collaborated with so many people: musicians, writers, directors, producers, arrangers, and singers. We finally said we should take a break and have it be just the two of us. I had the nostalgia of doing something like before Moon Safari, the first album we did, where it was just the two of us. It was a good time. There was nothing to take care of, no people to deal with, and no people to talk to. Everything was done with keyboards and that’s it. At the end of the day your record is done. That allows us to be very free and fresh. The songs don’t cook very long. They are ready to eat very fast.

How long did you take working on this record?

Nico:

About three months. But you know, we have a French schedule, which means we don’t work weekends, we don’t work at night, and we don’t work holidays. We have holidays every six weeks. We have a lot of ideas while we eat during lunchtime or dinnertime. That’s considered work for us.

How do you go about deciding on people who you want to collaborate with you on your various records, people like Beck, Françoise Hardy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Thomas Mars [from Phoenix]?

Nico:

It’s life. We are really trusting to the luck of life. We have no plan, we don’t decide anything, it just happens.

Do they usually come to you?

Nico:

It’s more like we bump into each other. We need to have a good feeling with the people, like if you have a love story with a girl. We need to be on the same level. It’s very much a matter of something to do with the heart. We like to meet people who we admire, and when we meet them there’s some kind of a current that’s going on which is good. It’s also complicated by chance like the singer on Moon Safari. She was my neighbor in Paris. When we met Nigel Godrich, we met other people through him. We have a lucky star.

Why “Love2” and not just “Love”? What does the “2” reference?

Nico:

There’s not really a concept behind it. We thought “Love” was too simple by itself, too obvious. Too many people have done that already. If you think about it, what’s good about love is that it starts again over and over. Each time you have a new girlfriend everything starts again and it’s great. They’re the best moments.

Sometimes perhaps even with the same person.

Nico:

You’re a hypocrite if you say that because it may change into something else but you can’t stay fresh for the rest of your life.

You’re probably tired on answering this question, but the music that you composed for the Virgin Suicides pretty much brought you to prominence in the U.S. Your music has always been – in my mind – very cinematic. You’ve also contributed tracks to Lost In Translation and Marie Antoinette. Would you want to score another movie or do you prefer the process of writing records…or is there really much of a difference for you?

Nico:

We are scoring a movie right now. It’s a very important movie because it is from a comic book in Japan called Distant Neighborhood. J.B. and me, we were very moved by this Manga when it was released. It was a very important book for both of us. Then one day, we learned that someone bought the rights and decided to put it to screen, and he called us to make the music. We could not refuse. Right now, I’m in the middle of a tune I’m doing. I was working on it before you called. It’s a very sentimental story, and I wouldn’t let anyone else do this music.

Can you say who’s directing it or who’s writing it?

Nico:

It’s a Belgium guy, his name is Sam Garbarski. The book takes place in Japan in the ‘80s, and he transposed the story to the south of France in the ‘60s.

When’s that going to come out?

Nico:

I think it’s going to come out for the Cannes Film Festival. I’m not certain of the release date.

So that will be your next record?

Nico:

We did very atmospheric music, as it’s a fantastic story, so I don’t know if it’s interesting to listen to without the movie. I’m doing it right now, so I’m still looking for the good vibe. Everything can change.

Is it a very different process for you, writing music for a movie score as opposed to writing a record?

Nico:

Oh yes, because you just look at the pictures and suddenly the music comes into your mind. But when you make a record, you have to start from scratch, so it’s longer. I think the soundtrack goes very fast because you translate what you see into music. It’s like if you consider music to be language, you just describe what you see on the screen with the language and your imagination goes very fast.

So as you’re writing this, the film is already shot?

Nico:

Yes.

AIR is often referred to as an electronica band, or as electronic pop but your influences seem to range traditional electronic artists like Tangerine Dream and Ryuichi Sakamoto to Krautrock bands and more psychedelic/prog bands like Pink Floyd.  I’m wondering how you feel about genre classifications? Is it fair to lump you into one little box?

Nico:

It’s hard because I think we have created a whole new position on the map. If you go to see us live I don’t think there’s another band that plays this kind of music on stage. We have a unique style.

I think the live performance has a very different feeling than the record.

Nico:

Yes, there are two things: on the record you do what you want, and live you just do what you can. But also you’re a different person because you have a show one year after the record and already you’re different. You don’t want to play the same music. Any show we try a different style, hiring different musicians. We’ve never had the same setup twice; we change the arrangements all the time. It works for us because if you do the same thing it gets boring. I think if you look bored on stage you’re going to communicate that to the audience.

Do you find doing that keeps it fresh?

Nico:

Yes, except maybe sometimes on the last chorus of “Sexy Boy.” After ten years, I can’t be that excited about it. You know, when we recorded that, something magical happened. I can remember that day, everything took shape. Then you play it live and you just play the song but without the magic moment we had, so it’s disappointing that it’s not there. “Kelly Watch the Stars” is the opposite. When we recorded it we said, ‘oh my god, we can’t record it in a good way.’ When we play it live every night, it gets better and better.

So you often have a long period of time between records. Do you continue together as a band playing and writing, or do you and Jean-Benoît take breaks from each other to keep your creativity fresh?

Nico:

I continue to work every day with my piano. I do a couple of hours of piano every morning, mainly Bach. The older I get, the less I want to produce music, but I want to feel myself more. As I’m getting in the second part of my life, I want to go further in music, into what I actually have to learn and not just what I have to give.

In the event that AIR every stops being a band, if or when that were to happen, it won’t stop the fact that you will continue to create new music?

Nico:

No, I think actually that would be a good moment for me. I could spend more time studying music. As a musician there’s a lot of pleasure to do that. You learn and discover new things every day. Imagine the world of music as a big forest, and every day you go deeper into it and discover new things. It’s very interesting.

D. House

Daniel House was bass player in proto-grunge band, Skin Yard, and spent fifteen years as the president and owner of Seattle based C/Z records, where he worked in every capacity including A&R and marketing. He moved to L.A. in 2003 and was responsible for the launch of one of the first genre-specific digital music download sites, DownloadPunk.com. In 2008 he launched RocknRollDating.