The French chill-out duo build a new concept album from a silent sci-fi classic
By Kathy Iandoli
Special to MSN Music
French electro-ambient pop duo Air fuse futurism and film history in an ambitious new album project inspired by a cinematic pioneer, countryman Georges Méliès, whose 1902 film "Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon)" is widely regarded as the first sci-fi film.
Coincidentally a central figure in "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated 3-D fable, Méliès used ingenious visual effects and fanciful design to create the original silent film depicting a group of elder statesmen attempting to reach the moon. Drawing from early classics by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells for the 16-minute feature, Méliès released the film in black and white as well as in hand-tinted color prints.
His creative ingenuity was not matched by business acumen, however: Within a decade, the prolific filmmaker was financially ruined, and hundreds of his films were destroyed, first when the French army confiscated prints to melt down for their celluloid and silver content during World War I, and later when an enraged Méliès burned remaining negatives after losing final control of his studio.
The 1993 discovery of a lone surviving tinted print of "Le Voyage dans la Lune" ultimately rescued the lost classic but required nearly two decades to complete a restoration. Enter Air's Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, who were approached to add a score - but given less than a month to complete it.
Opting to zone in on abstract interpretation rather than a literal approach (the film is a slight comedy, while Air's music crafts a dark soundscape), Air enhanced the masterpiece. After all, having scored Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," the duo are no strangers to pairing music with film. As for their lunar adventures, the new project echoes their breakout debut full-length, "Moon Safari."
This project now arrives as Air's seventh studio album, "Le Voyage dans la Lune." Nicolas Godin and Jean- Benoit Dunckel of Air sat down to elaborate on the project with MSN Music, discuss their fascination with the moon, and how living in France keeps them grounded.
MSN Music: With basically a month to complete the scoring of this film, what was the first thing you did to start it?
Nicolas Godin: We started with the first scene, and it was pretty difficult because the first scene is not representative of the rest of the movie. Nothing really happens, because it was made for a storyteller to tell, to present and introduce all of the characters. So musically, it was pretty bizarre to start with that, but after this scene was done, the rest was pretty smooth because the movie is so happening after that. The scenes are so exciting by themselves, but this one was kind of - three or four minutes, nothing happens on-screen. It was kind of strange. We don't understand what they're doing; it's bizarre. We shouldn't have started with this one, but it was our first experience and we had no clue of the process. It was pretty new for us.
Bing: Listen to Air
With a silent film, you have no words to determine what music should surround it. How did you go about interpreting musically what these scenes meant?
Jean-Benoit Dunckel: We didn't try to understand what was going on. We took the decision to tell a story and to show something that we had in mind to drive the emotion in another way. The movie is really amusing, actually, to make people laugh and to surprise them. With our music, we tried to give a different angle. Sometimes it's sad or dark or crazy and much more extreme than it should be, but we wanted to do it that way to make something emotional. We knew that it could be an album at the end, so we wanted to have something quite sophisticated with different kinds of moods for the album to be listenable.
At what point during this process did you decide to go from a little over 15 minutes to a full-length album?
Nicolas Godin: When the film was finished, we were like, "Oh my God, we have an album." The personality of the songs, the vibe, the energy, it was a surprise for us. All of the songs made sense; everything made sense. So we said, "My God, we have to make an album out of this," because it's a great opportunity. Everything had big strength and big energy between all of the songs. We wanted people to enjoy the music without the movie, so we did the length of an album. We had to make it a trip sonically on the length of an album. Fourteen minutes is too short. I think you can make a trip even on one song on one album, but between these two formats, something's not right. If you make more than one song, you need to make a whole album.
It was almost like coming full circle, considering your first album was "Moon Safari" and now "Le Voyage dans la Lune." Do you have a fascination with the moon or astronomy?
Jean-Benoit Dunckel: Yes, the moon somehow follows us. For the first one we used the moon, but this time we had no choice. I think that with everything that happens in our music, we want to give our audience the feeling of floating in space without drugs.
Do you think this film will change the way you approach your music videos? This could really be one long music video in a way.
Jean-Benoit Dunckel: Yes, because that is exactly what I thought when I saw the movie. I thought, "This is an incredibly good video for free of 20 minutes, and we're going to have a bunch of our tracks synchronized with it." It's a fantastic movie; the expression is incredibly interesting. There are so many ways to make videos; like with music, you can sample many different things.
The way Georges Méliès attempted to burn every copy of this film, was there ever a project of yours that you wanted to throw into a fire?
Nicolas Godin: Yes, sometimes [laughs]. You try a lot of things when you make albums, some songs you like; some you're like, "Oh my God, that's not what I wanted to do." I will not say which songs, because a lot of songs I don't like and some fans love them.
Recently, many artists have tried adopting a sound you've been doing for well over a decade. Do you see it as flattering or annoying?
Nicolas Godin: It's flattering because I don't feel that a lot, I wish it could be more. I remember with Daft Punk, after "Homework," every song would sound like Daft Punk. Because we change sounds on every album, I think it's hard to follow us. Each album has its own personality, but as soon as the song starts it sounds like Air. It's very bizarre. I don't know where our sound came from. It's just the spirit, you know?
At the film premiere [for the reconstructed version, recently screened in New York], you seemed so unaware of how many people are truly obsessed with your music.
Nicolas Godin: We live in Paris, so we live in a bubble; we have no clue about the way people see us, really. Paris is so isolated from show business. It's like a city more important for fashion design or food. In London or New York, there's this big show business industry. At some point we were wondering "Should we move to L.A. or London?" and we were scared to do it. We didn't want to lose our originality. In New York I wouldn't dare to ask for a meeting with someone important in music, because I'm in my own little world in Paris. Even in Paris itself we are very isolated; a lot of people don't like what we do. French people have a horrible taste in music, so we're pretty alone everywhere we go [laughs]. That's why we stay humble.
Hip-hop has started sampling electronic music a lot lately ...
Nicolas Godin: Yes! It's my dream to be sampled by a hip-hop producer. As an electronic background musician, I think in the States the real adventurous music is in the hip-hop music and not the electronic scene. When I hear hip-hop production, it's so ballsy sometimes; they go so much further than any electronic musician in America. They use the new technology in such a crazy cool way.
Nicolas Godin: Yes, a lot. They're great composers.
Nicolas Godin: "Sgt. Pepper's" I think.
Jean-Benoit Dunckel: I think "Pet Sounds."
MSN Music: The colors in the film looked like the same colors in the uniforms on the "Sgt. Pepper's" cover.
Nicolas Godin: Yes, exactly! That was the first thing I thought when I saw the movie. I was thinking, "Oh my God this is like Swinging London during the '60s."
Meanwhile, the film was made 60 years earlier.
Nicolas Godin: Yes, [Méliès] was a visionary. He was more of a visionary about the '60s than he was about the future [laughs].
Kathy Iandoli has written for publications including The Source, YRB, BUST, XXL,VIBE, RIME and Vapors, and her work has appeared online at MTV, AOL and MSN Music sites. She is the former Alternatives editor of AllHipHop.com and the current music editor of HipHopDX.com.