Multidisciplinary French artist Xavier Veilhan has known Air’s Nicolas Godin for nearly a quarter of a century, stretching back to 1997 when they met at New York City’s Gramercy Park Hotel. Sharing a passion for architecture, the two remained in touch, and several decades later, the sculptor-painter-photographer is both a friend and collaborator of the celebrated electronic musician. Recently, Veilhan added a new title to his résumé – that of muse, having provided the spark that eventually led to Godin’s second solo album, 2020’s Concrete and Glass.
“Xavier had the amazing idea to do an exhibit [Architectones] in some of his favorite buildings around the world. We took that opportunity to travel and visit amazing buildings in Los Angeles, in Moscow, in Spain, France, and I had to do a song for each building,” Godin explains, chatting with Veilhan and Billboard on a Zoom call from his Paris studio. “Each building had a lot of information I could use to create a soundtrack: The era it was built, the story of the architect, the furniture, the materials — everything transported me into a special place. I just had to make the music in my mind when I was visiting these buildings. I’m always looking for inspiration, and because of that I did my last album. It was a great gift from Xavier to give me that inspiration – it’s a problem for musicians, finding inspiration.”
“It was a gift to me,” Veilhan adds. “For me, it was a privilege. Music is a mystery to me, like visual art is to some musicians. I know the process, I know the way it happens, but it’s still something marvelous, from another world.”
Veilhan’s infatuation with music is obvious, even via a video call. An extensive vinyl collection, which runs the gamut from electronica to funk, peppers his bright, spacious studio to the east of Paris, where he’s finishing up work on Autofocus, a new exhibition that runs from Nov. 3-Dec. 23 at Perrotin‘s Lower East Side gallery in New York City. The enigmatic pieces he’s created for Autofocus play with ideas of perception and transference. “When you see something blur, it’s not that the object is blurred, it’s that your focus is bad,” he explains. “[In Autofocus], I want to include this blurriness in the object you’re looking at.”
Coincidentally, Veilhan notes, Godin had also considered “Autofocus” as the title of an album, totally unrelated to his exhibit. The two French artists clearly have a lot in common, including the aforementioned love of architecture – “Nicolas’ father was an architect, and quite a good architect,” Veilhan points out – and, of course, music. Though Veilhan isn’t a musician himself, Godin is quick to mention that “it’s a big list” of artists who have worked with his friend over the years, and an impressive one at that: Daft Punk, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno, to name a few. “I think you’ve worked with more musicians than I’ve worked with [visual] artists,” Godin muses.
Similarly, Veilhan is an enthusiastic supporter of his friend’s work. When Pocket Symphony – the 2007 Air album which features Veilhan’s artwork on the cover – is mentioned, Veilhan lights up. “It’s a great Air album,” he raves. “It’s very fresh for me.”
Godin, on the other hand, is less keen about his own music as a rule. “It’s a torture because I want to fix things that I think I should have done differently,” he admits. “I like making (an album), but it’s not something I want to (revisit). It’s like looking at old pictures – it’s too hard.”
He does, however, return to Air’s discography when preparing to go tour – an experience Godin sorely misses. “I thought touring was hard sometimes but now I’d give anything to get back on tour,” Godin admits. “When you hear the audience and the first chord of the music, it’s such a good moment.” Although the COVID-19 vaccines have permitted live music to return in some capacity, Godin says the complications of “taking planes with 20 people every day” amidst the lingering pandemic means that Air’s return to the stage isn’t exactly around the corner.
Still, Air’s return to the stage is significantly more likely to happen before the duo logs any studio time. While Air delivered some of the most celebrated electronic LPs of the late ’90s and early ’00s, Godin is skeptical about following them up. “For any band, it’s hard to do magic albums for 30 years,” he says. “When we play live, we can escape from this problem because the songs we did in the past are still cool and people enjoy listening to them. But if we went back in the studio, we could do great songs — but would they be magic songs? It needs something more than being ‘good.’ All my favorite bands have like three to four great albums, max. I thought because I knew about that problem, I’d be able to avoid it,” he sighs. “But it’s more like a fatality or a curse — it’s hard to avoid.”
If Godin is worried about Air growing stale, it’s certainly not a sentiment Veilhan shares. After Godin waved off the idea of giving Pocket Symphony a spin, Veilhan — like a true friend — gently insisted: “You should try. It’s a great album.”