“I will do the best I can to sound clever.”
That’s a strange thing for a rock star to promise at the start of an interview, but then again, J.B. Dunckel’s group, the French pop duo Air, could never be accused of being particularly ordinary.
Concocting a seemingly dichotomous blend of electronic and organic sounds, Dunckel and bandmate Nicolas Godin have crafted a worldly, chilled-out potpourri of new-wave synths, Burt Bacharach-style trumpets, and influences ranging from French film composers to obscure Japanese keyboard maestros (Tomita, anyone?) over the course of 14 extraordinary years.
The two Versailles-raised musicians met at the Conservatoire in Paris, and played in various configurations until settling on the Air moniker in 1995. The group first burst into the popular consciousness with 1998’s Moon Safari, which, with its warmly cinematic Moog-lounge, had a radio-ready yet hipster-approved pop sheen that lent itself to a unquenchable cultural ubiquity.
In an era when “electronica” meant computer-created club tracks, and “rock” meant live drums and guitars, Air served as the jovial French ambassadors innocently staking their territory in between the two, blazing trails for a spate of knob-twiddling, indie-friendly acts — Zero 7, Lemon Jelly, Thievery Corporation, and the like — who flooded soundtracks and after-party mixes in the years to come.
Instead of resting on its laurels and pushing out a decade’s worth of music for Nissan commercials, Air has followed the popular success of Moon Safari with a collection of albums that have consistently built on its legacy and challenged listeners’ expectations.
The group’s sophomore effort, 2001’s moody, experimental 10,000 Hz Legend, alienated many fans and critics with its dark textures and strange robot voices. The more instrumentally-minded 2004 release Talkie Walkie struck a happy medium between the poles of the first two records, while the group’s fourth effort — 2007’s Pocket Symphony — was a quiet, meditative affair that found the band collaborating with acclaimed producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck).
Air’s long-anticipated fifth album — simply titled Love 2 — was by some accounts not intended as an album at all. During press for Pocket Symphony, Godin lamented how the concept of the start-to-finish LP had been tarnished by music-downloading services like iTunes, and proclaimed that “Pocket Symphony” would be the group’s last album to have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
When recording began on Love 2, however, Duckel and Godin couldn’t help but again spend their time thinking about the big picture and painstakingly mapping out the album’s flow, track-by-track.
“We couldn’t do it any other way,” Dunckel says. “It’s simply not our nature.”
Since Moon Safari, Air has become perhaps most famous for its well-documented soundtrack work, from scoring Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” to contributing tracks to “Lost in Translation.”
The most striking cinematic excursion on Love 2, however, concerns the handful of upbeat instrumentals that skew closer to spy-movie theme music than Air’s usual ambient-pop. “Be the Bee” boasts a rollicking rhythm section of thumping bass and chugging drums, while “Eat My Beat” propels forward thanks to fuzzed-out surf guitar and whirring, siren-like synths. Is there a new espionage film in the group’s future?
“We are big fans of Daniel Craig,” Dunckel says with a laugh. “Our entire plan was to be in line for the next soundtrack. I hope (the producers) will suddenly realize how ‘James Bond’ we are.”
Love 2 also marks the duo’s return to producing after enlisting Godrich for Pocket Symphony. While Dunckel describes the experience with Godrich as a rewarding musical lesson, he says the band felt an urgency with the new album to take matters back into its own hands.
“People think there is always someone (from the record company) coming to the studio, saying, ‘you should add a snare to make it more commercial,'” says Dunckel. “But it’s not like that at all. There’s no pressure.”
Indeed, the group seems more or less content with whatever fate is destined for its latest effort, satisfied with taking things one day at a time. Besides a fall international tour that spans such countries as Australia, China, and Russia, Air’s upcoming plans are, well, up in the air.
“Next year we might be a big stars again, or we might become an underground band,” says Dunckel, sounding mildly bemused by the prospect of either scenario. “When you throw a stone, you never know where it’s going to land.”