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Jean-BenoÎt Dunckel on the Rise of Air and Playing Moon Safari Live

08 May 2024

On January 16th, 1998, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air released their debut album, Moon Safari. The album quickly became a cult classic, known for its vintage synths, downtempo ambience, and dreamy tracks like 'Sexy Boy' and 'Kelly Watch The Stars'. Beyond Moon Safari, Godin and Dunckel have composed music for notable films, including Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides and a reimagined score for Georges Méliès' silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune.

From his studio in Paris, Jean-Benoît Dunckel reflected on the early days of Air, the instrumental music scene in the 1990s, his favourite film scores, his solo project Paranormal Musicality and his experience of reconfiguring Moon Safari to be performed in its entirety for the first time.

Jonah Orbach Air played a very big part in the French music scene of the 1990s and the early 2000s. What was the scene like at the time and why do you think Air left such an indelible mark?

Jean-BenoÎt Dunckel I think that this scene was a group of people interacting together. Not only music people, but graphic design artists, designers, painters, photographers and movie directors as well. It was a huge group of people who had confidence in themselves and shared an affinity for art, films and music. In the beginning, these people were really into electronic music because the home studio was very popular. It was revolutionary to be able to produce your own music at home. The French artists were really independent because they did not require record companies and could produce music by themselves, whenever they wanted and in whatever style they wanted. The music started to become known abroad, and the record companies were really pleased because it was a huge opportunity for them to disseminate French culture around the world. It was a magic thing because it was people working together to have a huge impact on an international audience. It was a new, electronic sound. It was really fun to be a part of because there were a lot of French DJs playing parties and clubs all around the world.

JO Do you think instrumental music played a big part in the success of the scene?

JBD Yes, I think so. It was because of the language barrier. In dance music, you can have a very short message with just two or three words as a title or as a slogan. The music became really instrumental because it was not a movement based on lyrics. It was about dancing and having a massive sound that would move people. But Air was totally different. We didn’t want to make people dance, but rather make them dream or calm down. It was really erotic too. It was music for seduction, I think. So, Air was very different to the other electronic artists.

JO When did music first come into your life?

JBD I started music when I was really young. I was classically trained and enjoyed playing the piano., I said to myself very early on that I would like to go on and compose songs because I loved the nice chords that I was doing on the piano. To make songs and to produce records was a dream of mine. The dream took a long time to become a reality but when I was 16 or 17 years old, I started to record some demos. It took a long time to get a record deal and to be able to record something seriously.

When I started seeing these new synths, I began dreaming of playing them because they were so attractive to me. They were full of buttons and knobs. I was really curious about listening to the sound they could make. And the fact that you could synchronise them and make them play all together by MIDI systems was very interesting. I was a big fan of Kraftwerk, and I was really into the analogue keyboard sound. Also, Jean-Michel Jarre was very influential. When I was a child, you could see him on TV playing these keyboards. He was surrounded by a keyboard, and I wanted to do that too.

JO What’s the most powerful musical experience that you’ve had?

JBD There have been a lot of special moments. On September 10, 2001, we played in Greece. I remember that the weather was very beautiful. We played in front of the Acropolis in Athens, and I think we could feel the Greek gods around us. The sky was really clear and there were some people who didn't want to pay for tickets, who were on some rocks in the back. So, it was full of people all around us and it was a magical moment. The day after, on the 11th, we went to Brussels in Belgium, and the towers tragically came down and it was a total nightmare. The dichotomy between those two days was quite powerful. That day was a turning point in history because there was one world before this and one world after. The world after is filled with paranoia, security, defence, and politics. The world before was something freer, about open borders celebrating cultural difference. The culture was more melted, and people were more open.

JO And this must’ve affected the music industry too.

JBD In a way, yes. I think it killed the happy atmosphere, the insouciance. It was also the end of CDs and the arrival of the internet, and so the music industry became a little bit stricter and more difficult to work within. It was a different atmosphere that probably had an influence on our music, but it’s okay.

JO Did you ever feel pressure to deliver music that didn’t feel 100% authentic?

JBD No, because we were just a band trying to make the best music we could. When Moon Safari worked, we thought that the level had to be pushed higher. We wanted to do better. It was not to sell more records. It was to make very strong, artistic music. We were totally conscious of being really lucky to be so successful and that the world was opening to us. It was a very rare opportunity. We had to take advantage of this opportunity and do the best that we could. To make the most stylish music that we could with the most emotional vibration that we could put into it.

JO Which records were most influential for you?

JBD I think Transformer by Lou Reed and produced by David Bowie. You have 'Walk on the Wild Side' and 'Perfect Days' with pianos and orchestras. We love the harmony of it. I think at that time, we were really big fans of Isaac Hayes, because he was mixing huge pads with black music, and it was funky. We were really big fans of the groove in black music, artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. We were also listening to a really rare record from Money Mark. At this time, he was making music with organs and analogue keyboards. He was working with the Beastie Boys, and he made an album that was experimental, crazy, and really free. We loved that record a lot.

JO What was the process of writing music as a band like?

JBD With Air, it was me and Nicolas (Godin) together in the studio and it was like an exchange. One is proposing something and the other is trying to make it happen. There was a lot of recording involved because whenever we’d work, we would record all of it. It was also a Darwinian process. We would just keep on recording and take the melodies that survived. Everything dies, except for the more adapted song or music that we liked. So, we’d make a lot of recordings and then try to find a mistake or a bug or a not normal thing within the music and develop it. That way, we could make it strong and original. We are both really attracted to slow music and slower tempos. We are not into dance and excitement. We are more into melancholy, dreams and audio beauty.

JO How does that experience differ from writing music for your own project?

JBD Most of the time, for my own project, there is a goal for the music to be a soundtrack. It's different because I have some constraints to work within, like with a movie, for example. Nowadays, I'm also working on some music for choreography and modern dance. I have to find the soul of the dance. I have to find the soul of the image that people give me. It's another world. For my pure solo project, I try to collaborate with other musicians, but I must admit that it's more difficult because, when you don't have a partner, sometimes you can doubt more easily. When you're two guys, there is no time for doubt. You just keep on working and keep on recording and the energy is there. Also, you go faster and further too.

JO You've always got someone to tag in, add something new and then swap again.

JBD Totally. When the duo is working, yes. But also, sometimes when you work with someone, they can also put you down and slow you down. But with Nico, especially at the beginning, it worked really well. We were very different, but together, we were complete.

JO Congratulations on the release of your album, Paranormal Musicality. It's beautiful.

JBD Thank you. I really appreciate that.

JO What inspired you to do a piano-based record?

JBD I always played the piano, but I never dared to record anything because I was a little bit embarrassed by the fact that I was admiring some amazing pianists and musicians who were at a very high level. I always felt as if I was not at this level. But I gained confidence in my piano playing after years and years, and I felt that it was the moment to go and do it. I put the mic on my pianos every morning, and I just played. I recorded maybe 200 songs and then just chose the best moments.

JO When you're laying out initial ideas, do you tend to gravitate towards harmony, melody, or even texture?

JBD It can be everything at the same time. The sound, the melody, the meaning, and the soul of it. There are no laws or rules. It's just about vibrations. I think music is not something in your mind; it's something in your heart and in your body. So it's just about feelings, and the good thing with music is that you have to cut yourself off from thoughts. It's not about logic or ideas. The magic thing with music is that everybody can feel it. You don't need to have a strong initiation to be able to feel music. This is what I like about music. It's very, as you said, spontaneous.

JO What have you been listening to recently?

JBD Recently, we've been listening to new artists like Tame Impala, or electronic bands that are even using digital plugins. We really like Aphex Twin, but he is from our time. I really pay attention to film soundtracks, and I think that it has a huge influence on my music. I think that film soundtracks have changed a lot in the last few years because more often than not, you have electronics mixed with acoustic recordings, like string orchestras mixed with synths. You can hear that in the music of Dune, the Star Wars series, and even Oppenheimer. People like Johan Johansson and the guys that made the music of Oppenheimer mix all of that together. A bit of classical music mixed with plugins, with orchestras, and with electronic music. Everything fuses together and it is really interesting.

JO Favourite films of all time?

JBD I think it was the first Blade Runner. I was also really impressed by the first Jaws from Spielberg. And I was traumatised because I couldn’t swim into the sea after that. And I’m still traumatised. And I think that when I come to Australia, I won't be able to I put one foot into the sea because of that. Because I know that in Australia, you have big, big, big sharks everywhere.

JO Maybe just a dip at a main beach?

JBD Yeah, the main beach, not an experimental beach. And the last film? I really liked the latest Dune. I love both Dune 1 and Dune 2 because the design and style are amazing. It's a high level of fashion in terms of colours, outfits, and architecture. The music is so powerful, so strong, and so well-produced. I really like it.

JO For the 25th anniversary of Moon Safari you released 'Moon Safari Rarities'. What was the process of converting some of these demos into the final studio recording like?

JBD In the beginning, they were recorded on digital audio tapes. We were also recording on samplers, especially for rhythm loops, and we were playing instruments on some hard drive recorders. It was not on computers but on a specific machine's hard drive which doesn't exist anymore and that don't work anymore, so it was a mess. That's why we lost some things. The mix of Moon Safari is really, really important because it was mixed on a big board, like an SSL by an engineer. It was in a big studio on a really big console, with analogue delays, and analogue reverbs, and analogue compressors. In a way, everything was channelling old fashion recording and mixing.

JO Yeah, those SSL boards are magical. The sound is so deep and rich.

JBD Yeah, I mean, everything was going through the board. I mean, not for recordings, but for mixing. We had recorded most of the tracks at home on a digital hard drive. But the console has elevated it. He added some trebles, some bass and some delays and the right reverbs. He really made it big and spacey and exciting.

JO This year, you’re performing Moon Safari in Sydney for Vivid Festival, which is the first time the album will be played live in its entirety. Was there a reason for this?

JBD It was never played like this only because it was impossible to find a way to play tracks like 'All I Need' or 'You Make It Easy' as they were sung by another singer. But we found a way to make it happen anyway by using our voices and vocoders. We found new instrumentation for these tracks. I think that a big part of our audience was attracted to listening to Moon Safari live, so we’ve tried our best to make it happen and I think that it's working now.

JO When you play that record now, does it feel like you made it just yesterday?

JBD Yes. I think that when I play it, I’m not even listening to the music; I just feel the atmosphere of that time. I recall some scenes with my friends and my family. I could even smell the Nicolas Studio when we recorded it. All these clear souvenirs are coming back to me. Each time I play, I really travel into the past because I remember my children when they were young, my girlfriend at the time, and everything in between.

JO The musical landscape is very different compared to when Air started. Is there any advice you could give to young musicians trying to make a career out of their art?

JBD I think that the most important thing in music is determination, which is the will that you can feel in your stomach to have some success and to be able to present your music to the audience. You have to dare to go on, to never stop, and to not listen to others too much. Also not listening and looking at your data or the streaming numbers too much, because they are not a reflection of your success. I think it's just a feeling that you have to follow. You have to try and find your own sound—the really deep part of yourself that makes you unique. It's really important to develop that. I think that to become someone, you have to not do things like the others.

Air will be performing Moon Safari live at Vivid LIVE at Sydney Opera House from May 25 –26th. Learn more about Vivid LIVE.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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