#TBT Mixtape: French Duo Air On 20th Anniversary Tour, 'Virgin Suicides' Score & Longtime Bond With Sofia Coppola (Exclusive)
"We make music that doesn’t touch the ground."
Welcome to #TBT Mixtape, Billboard's new series that showcases artists' very own throwback-themed playlists exclusive to Billboard's Spotify account. The curated set features the artists' favorite tracks from their youth and childhood mixed with current go-to's.
This week's spin is from French electronic duo Air (comprised of Nicolas Godin and JB Dunckel) who are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year wth a new compilation album Twentyears and a tour -- their first since 2010 to hit America, with stops at New York City's Governors Ball (June 4), San Francisco's The Masonic (June 23) and L.A.'s Greek Theatre (June 25).
After forming in the mid-'90s, Air built a global fanbase on the strength of now-classic downtempo electronic albums such as Moon Safari (1998), The Virgin Suicides (2000), Talkie Walkie (2004), 10 000 Hz Legend (2001) and more, that served up the perfect retro-futuristic cocktail for a generation of teenagers' trips to the stars.
The group's influence isn't only felt in music but also in film, with their seminal album The Virgin Suicides serving as the score of Sofia Coppola's cult classic of the same name (2000). Other tracks from the duo's discography have appeared in Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006), and the duo even produced a dreamlike score for a restored version of famed silent sci-fi film Le Voyage dans la Lune by Georges Méliès (1902).
In honor of their 20-year anniversary, Air put together a playlist of youthful inspiration and current favorites for Billboard's weekly #TBT Mixtape series. Give it a spin below.
To celebrate their milestone year, Billboard spoke with Air about their longevity, iconic Virgin Suicides score, longtime connection with pal Sofia Coppola and more.
You've played music together since you were teenagers. Why do you think you've had such a deep and long-lasting bond?
Nicolas: It’s so complicated, because I started making music when I was 4 or 5 years old. It’s been a whole life, you know, and with JB, we started the band in high school as teenagers and it’s really strange when I think about it. Our dream at the time was to make a classic album, and I can tell today that we achieved that, it’s such a great feeling.
JB: It’s interesting, I think it’s because we’ve done so many projects in between albums, so Air was a sort of musical research in a way. We had access to interesting things, there was all of the licensing going on, and no time to think about it. The continuum of energy is part of the process, and because we are complementary -- we are different, but we match well because we don’t have the same qualities. It’s like a couple: The more you’re different, the more you have a chance to last.
What are your biggest aesthetical differences?
JB: I think the background is the same, but Nicolas is more like an architect. It’s supervising the totality of the song, and the chords and the soul and the melody, more concrete things.
Since the '90s, the industry has changed in so many ways. How do you feel about how it's evolved?
Nicolas: When I was starting in this business, it was scary to go into a record company and you were waiting and maybe they didn’t write you back, but what was cool about that was you could be a less commercial band and you could still have the life of the successful band. Now you really have to be a superstar to enjoy that. Air, we were never big but we could have this amazing rock star lifestyle, because even if you weren’t big, you could make some money, but now you have to be a bigger hip-hop guy or big star to earn all of the cool things in the music business.
Your music has been featured in many Sofia Coppola projects, with the most famous being your Virgin Suicides score. Why do you think your music was such a perfect fit for her films?
JB: I think that our music has no density. It’s very romantic and sometimes there is not rhythm, so it goes really well with the pictures. And of course our music is really soundtrack-y, because there is room for something else. It’s sort of moody, ambiance music, and it goes really well with pictures in general.
Nicolas: We had a chance to do something sophisticated but innocent at the same time, and I was really moved by the movie because of that. It was our first movie so we were all new, we didn’t know what we were doing.
How did you meet her?
Nicolas: We met in L.A. through all of the people we knew there, because we were doing our "All I Need" video with director Mike Mills (20th Century Women), and Mike MIlls had a production company called The Directors Bureau with Roman Coppola, who is Sofia's brother, so it was the same group of people. When we arrived in L.A. to work with Mike, we met all of these people and we still see them all of the time. It’s a very longtime relationship.
Are you in the same circle still?
JB: Yes in a way we are in the same circle of friends and the same network, but I think that Sofia has other artistic goals. I think she wants and works with different music supervisors, so I think it’s another thing.
The film had such a cultural impact. What was the period like immediately following its release for you? What was it like to be a part of such a phenomenon?
JB: It helped us a lot, especially in France. In this country, cinema and the name Coppola is really well-known. It’s like an incredible brand, you know, so as we started to do the Sofia Coppola movies, we started to be respected in France and the world because the French audience did not believe in Air before that. The media thought we were a strange band, stealing the culture of France and exploiting it abroad to make money. With the soundtrack, we wanted to prove to our fans, and specifically our French fans, that we were real artists that were able to do some deep music that was really touching and moving. It was not about doing some easy listening music, it was about doing something really meaningful, with a very dark mood -- really sad and romantic and powerful at the same time. I think we reached our goal.
Do you think you'll collaborate again in the future?
Nicolas: At the time, Brian Reitzell was the music supervisor for Sofia Coppola, and we used to play music with him because he was the drummer for Air. It was also through him that we were getting songs into her films, but I don’t like to repeat myself that much. I always love her movies so whenever she needs something we will do it, of course.
Your music is incredibly cinematic. Were you always inspired by film?
JB: Yes, I always thought about music for films. Naturally, I was made for that, I think, but now I’m doing more soundtracks by myself, and it’s really rare to find the right movie. In movies, sometimes there is no room for real music, because the story and the pictures and the scenario doesn't permit any expression from music. Also in big productions, it’s less and less about melody and creating a powerful mood, [which is why] I’m more into independent cinema.
Each of your albums has been described as being its own “planet." What did you mean by that?
Nicolas: When we finish an album, we make sure not to use the same equipment, none of the same synthesizers or sounds -- we change everything. So each of them has its own universe as a sound piece, you know? For each album, I try to find a different concept, and I think it’s very important to put some boundaries on it, so it forces you not to repeat yourself.
You both are very versed in all different types of synths, from the Fender Rhodes to the Japanese koto. What's your current or all-time favorite?
Nicolas: The Fender Rhodes is still fascinating to me. When I was listening to some records as a child, I was hearing that sound but I was wondering what the sound was, because I didn't learn it at school. I learned what a cello, a trumpet, an organ was, but Fender Rhodes doesn't exist in the books. One day, I put my fingers on the Rhodes and suddenly all of the sounds that I was wondering about, I understood, and it was one of the most important [moments] as a musician, when I discovered the Rhodes for the first time.
JB: I like the Waterphone plug-in. It’s a sort of percussion instrument made for movie soundtracks. It’s everywhere, it’s used in our movies a lot.
The moon and celestial bodies in general are a repeated symbol and trope in your work. Why the fascination with space?
Nicolas: I grew up in the '70s, and the marketing thing then was a lot about the year 2000. When I was a kid, I thought that in 2000 we would be living in spaceships and we would all have laser guns and stuff like that, and obviously that didn't happen. [Laughs] The only thing that’s close to the concept is Skype, talking to someone through a screen, but that’s the only vision of the future that actually happened. It was everywhere in Star Trek and Space: 1999 and stuff like that. But I was really disappointed. Instead of going out in a spaceship, I was staying at home and the opposite happened with the Internet. Since I grew up in the '70s, space is part of my dream environment, and my generation of musicians, we have this thing with space, because that’s what we were dreaming of as children.
JB: We make music that doesn't touch the ground. Our music is made to forget reality and to space out, and we were always into this kind of mood. Also I‘m fascinated by space because I think it’s the most important thing. We are living on this small planet and there is something else around us and realizing that we are lost in distance and time, it helps you to be better as a human being. This concept goes really well with the music, so we are always coming back to space.
Do you believe in aliens or life outside of Earth?
JB: [Laughs] Yes. I am more into aliens than gods and that kind of thing. I am more like a scientist.
You released your first anthology twentyears. Is this a final lap for you as a band, or do you see more LPs in your future?
Nicolas: For now, we are doing some lives shows, but I really hope we are going to find an idea to make a great record. I don’t want to make a less-good record than we used to, but I’m so scared to make people disappointed with a record that’s not as good as we used to do.
What song are you most looking forward to playing again onstage?
JB: “La Femme D’Argent” -- it was the first track on Moon Safari -- because it’s a trippy song, and it’s also a trance. As a musician, we are searching for the right mood and it’s not easy sometimes, but searching for a trance, a sort of yoga music.
Give twentyears a spin here, and catch Air on tour through the summer.
Twentyears Tour Dates
05.27 - SINGAPORE, SG @ ESPLANADE THEATRE
05.30 - SYDNEY, AUS @ OPERA
05.31 - SYDNEY, AUS @ OPERA
06.04 - NEW YORK CITY, NY @ THE GOVERNORS BALL
06.05 - BOSTON, MA @ ROYALE
06.06 - WASHINGTON, DC @ STRATHMORE
06.20 - CHICAGO, IL @ AUDITORIUM THEATRE
06.23 - SAN FRANCISCO, CA @ THE MASONIC
06.24 - SANTA BARBARA, CA @ SANTA BARBARA BOWL
06.25 - LOS ANGELES, CA @ THE GREEK THEATRE
07.01 - DÜSSELDORF, DE @ TOUR DE FRANCE START with KRAFTWERK
07.08 - PARIS, FR @ DAYS OFF FESTIVAL
08.08 - DUBLIN, IRL @ BEATYARD FESTIVAL