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Were there any justice in pop culture, turn-of-the-century French artists, writers, musicians and poets would be able to return from their graves and proclaim, "Apportez-moi la tête du Baz Luhrmann!" The Australian director's kitchen-sink musical Moulin Rouge takes more than a little liberty with its subject matter, turning a time of French Romanticism into a pop nervous breakdown of too-much style over too-little substance. It's a fantasy realization of the 1899 Montmartre District in France where the Moulin Rouge is located as a PG-13 Disney World dreamland amusement park.
Today, Montmartre retains its fertile creative history even if it's no longer Paris' red-light district. It's the home of French landmarks--such as Sacre Coeur--as well as lesser known pockets of wonder. The foundation dedicated to the life and works of Boris Vian--the World War II-era jazzman, novelist, songwriter, translator, friend to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Bouvier, porn fan and all around bon vivant--lies in an alley behind the Moulin Rouge at 6bis Cité Véron.
It's also the area of Paris that Jean-Benoit Dunckel, one half of the French electronic duo Air, calls home. "I live in the north, you know the Rue Montmartre?" asks Dunckel, who prefers to be called by the diminutive JB. Though he apologizes for his English at the start of the interview, like many Parisians, his is more than adequate--certainly better than his interviewer's French. His speech does drip with Gallic idiosyncrasies--elided sounds, stresses on final syllables in polysyllabic words rather than the first and a playful mix of hard and soft consonants that gives his English a summery, sing-song cadence that you don't encounter with its native speakers. "It's very good because there's this laid-back atmosphere, there are a lot of families, a lot of artists here. It's very cool."
It certainly sounds idyllic over the transatlantic connection. In the background, you can hear his kids scurrying about his home as daddy the pop musician conducts interview after interview and Paris' sea of lights twinkles through the window. (Air as family men is a lesser publicized aspect of the band. His Air partner, Nicolas Godin, welcomed his daughter Adele into the world quite recently as well.) And it's yet another trait that lends Air the sort of quaint, picturesque image that bolsters Godin and Dunckel's reputation as born romantics. It's a quality that was primarily inspired by its first two albums, Moon Safari and the Virgin Suicides soundtrack. American and British press enthusiastically portrayed Godin and Dunckel as the latest instance of the romantic French artist that's held worldwide weight from Charles Baudelaire to Robert Doisneau to François Truffaut.
But it's exactly that stereotype that Air's latest album, 10,000 Hz Legend, hopes to dispel. "I think that for we wanted to do, our first real experiment was Virgin Suicides," Dunckel says. "And with Virgin Suicides we wanted to explore the sort of dark attitude of Virgin Suicides [the novel and the movie]. And we found a new attitude and we wanted to escape from misery and the nice aspect of Moon Safari. So for 10,000 Hz Legend, we got fed up with the romantic idea, the easy listening, lounge idea that was associated with Moon Safari and Virgin Suicides, and we wanted to do something more--how do you say?--heavy."
Where both Safari and Suicides were atmospheric excursions into different ambiences, Legend is more song-oriented and dense. It's resulted in the band's most diverse release to date. The straight-up keyboard pop of "Radio #1" nuzzles up against the hazy Lee Hazlewood-inspired country dalliance "The Vagabond," with vocals provided by Beck. Other tracks abandon Air's retro associations altogether, such as "Lucky and Unhappy," which marries the synth dressing of Kraftwerk's Trans World Express with the cyborg attitude of Trans Am's Futureworld.
A bit of Air's laissez-faire nonchalance remains--that ladies and gentlemen we are codeine in space sort of vibe. The almost spoken-word "How Does it Make You Feel" exudes an ephemeral mien that's pure dream. But on Legend, Air has taken the trance-like reveries of its sound to a different thematic level.
"When we first started our new album, we searched into our dreams about ourselves," Dunckel says. "Some of the tracks are--how do you say?--autobiographic? We wanted to express and confess to the people further. In these songs we confess to our girlfriends, because we are shy, we cannot express these things in person, so that's why we are doing it in song."
It's a move that gives Air's ethereal compositions a better bite. "In your dreams, you have different expressions and experiences, and we like the way it makes you feel when you dream, and that was what we wanted these songs to feel like it," Dunckel says. "We are not very confident in English, when we write the lyrics. But we play with that in some way. We write what we think we know, and we try to use humor, and we use a dictionary. And I know that some of our English is not grammatically correct, but we hope the expression transcends that."
That quality runs throughout Legend. "Sex Born Poison" drifts cloud-like through Godin and Dunckel's intimate dialogue "Shoot, use your gun of life/I'm not afraid to die in your arms," before rising into a surreal female chorus provided by Sugar and Yumiko of Buffalo Daughter. And "Wonder Milky Bitch"--besides being a title that Tristan Tzara would be proud of--is a slippery story about a country girl that dips unabashedly into sexual fantasy, moments of pure Freudian wish fulfillment.
"Yes, it's part of the wet dream, no?" Dunckel admits with a laugh. "But the British press was glad when we talked about sex, when we said we were into sex and we were into pornography. For the British, that's very important to sell the papers."
But Legend also discards Air's previous fascination with retro chic. Where Moogs gave Safari a Pet Sounds-meets-Serge Gainsbourg '60s tint and Suicides the appropriate mix of feathery, '70s anxiety, Legend's sophisticated combination of scattershot beats and guitar punctuation feels distinctively contemporary. And that move toward the now was the main reason Air recruited Sugar and Yumiko for this project.
"We met them in Paris when we did a few shows and we liked their music," Dunckel says. "So we know them a little bit. And when we were working on this album, we wanted to make it very modern. And we were thinking that Japanese music has a very modern, electronic attitude. So we felt that Japanese vocals would give ["Sex Born Poison"] a very modern feel to the very high-tech sound."
Air as latter-day modernists shouldn't come as that big of a surprise to its fans. It's always lurked beneath the band's time-capsule pop throughout its career. Godin and Dunckel met while attending the University in Paris. Dunckel was already involved with Orange, a more indie-rock type outfit that he formed with Alex Gopher. Godin joined, Gopher left, and Godin and Dunckel eventually became Air in 1995. After a few singles on the British label Mo' Wax and the French label Source, the band unleashed Moon Safari in 1998, catapulting the band into the limelight.
Their success has enabled the band to share its accomplishments with their countrymen. Dunckel and Godin recently formed their own label, Record Makers, and its first release is L'Incroyable Vérité by French musician Sebastien Tellier, who is opening for Air on its U.S. tour.
And Dunckel, for one, is excited to see how American audiences respond to him. "Sebastien Tellier is a sort of giant Jesus Christ," he says. "He's like a prophet. He's taking his life like a piece of art. He's doing a sort of very strange soundtrack music, very minimal, there is no drums. He's very involved with a new process of composition. He's trying to do something that's very involved with beauty, he's trying to reach beauty. He's attracted by a very certain kind of art, trash aesthetic in his music. He's very--how do you say?--It's like a strange, dark novel. Very dramatic. We like that."