Air’s Nicolas Godin on why his solo album is a bad idea
One of France’s great electronic innovators has ignored his own advice and made a solo record. ‘When you’re in band, there’s always a sense of frustration’
“You can have a great song, but if it has no magic in it, it’s just boring” : Nicolas Godin at the Red Bull Music Academy
It’s not the greatest start to an interview when your subject admits that the topic up for discussion is probably not the best idea he has ever had.
“I never wanted to do a solo album,” says Nicolas Godin, shrugging with that particular nonchalance only the French can pull off. We are in a relatively quiet area of La Gaîté Lyrique as the Red Bull Music Academy buzzes and throbs on the floors above us.
“I don’t think it’s a great idea,” he continues. “I love bands and I love the magic between bands. But I was at home and I was writing for myself, and there were some things that I couldn’t play. I wanted to go to the studio to record them, to see if it would be better.
“Suddenly I understood that I was making a record, but it came little by little. I never woke up in the morning and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to make a solo album’.”
Godin has spent two decades as one half of electronic duo Air and is arguably one of France’s most famous international musicians. But apart from a few raised eyebrows and subtle nods, nobody bothers him. He is a phlegmatic character, silk scarf draped around his neck, chic sports jacket around his shoulders.
Despite his own amusing reservations, Godin is here to talk about his debut album, Contrepoint, which subconsciously took root with the desire for a new challenge.
“With Air, we got into our comfort zone. Some of our more recent albums have been good; I really like the one with the film, La Voyage dans la Lune . But I think there’s a fatality when you have a band and you make a few great records. You can go on forever, but there’s no point really. When I see other bands as an audience member, I prefer when they play old songs. I think with Air, we were entering that zone, and I think if we did a show you’d probably prefer us to play the old material.”
In a way, it’s remarkable there has been no solo album from Godin before now, particularly since his bandmate, Jean-Benoît Dunckel, released his own under the pseudonym Darkel in 2006.
“I could understand why he did it,” says Godin. “When you’re in band, there’s always a sense of frustration because you have some ideas that end up being thrown away. It doesn’t bother me if my ideas are not kept at the end. But for him, apparently, there were some songs he wanted to record. It was important to him, but it’s not my style.”
Instead, Godin started from scratch. Kind of. Contrepoint began as an electronic album inspired by the compositions of JS Bach. As it progressed, however, he realised it was morphing into something else.
“I noticed when I listened to the record at the end, it sounds more like a tribute to soundtrack composers than it does a tribute to Bach. I think the reason is because all the composers that I liked, they admire Bach. I was not into Bach when I was young, but the people that I admired – Michel Legrand, Ennio Morricone – were.
“The few things I knew about classical music I learned from soundtrack composers. In fact, everything I know, I learned through TV shows and soundtracks; cowboy movies with Ennio Morricone, TV shows like Mission: Impossible and stuff. That’s why I say, ‘Don’t worry if your children watch TV all the time, because look at me’,” he says, flashing a grin. “That’s what I did, and it’s not so bad.”
Perhaps a more specific reference point for the album is pianist Glenn Gould’s interpretations of Bach’s canon. The French man’s eyes light up when the Canadian’s name is mentioned, labelling him “as charismatic as a rock star”.
“I was on tour with Air in 2007, and one of the musicians took a DVD of Glenn Gould on the tour bus,” he says. “When I discovered him, it was like a big flash for me. He showed me that you can do something new from something old, and I really liked that idea.
“I was looking for a way to renew myself, and I couldn’t find it. The last thing I was thinking was to look in the past. But by watching Glenn Gould, I thought, wow, you can actually create something new.
“I never thought I had the musical level to give my opinion on Bach’s music, or Glenn Gould’s music. These people are way up there. Then I decided, no, I’ll do it. I had this big oxygen rush. I thought, wow, maybe I’m crazy, but it was really risky for me. I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes, I thought, this is the worst idea. But then I’d listen back to something and think, no, it’s great.”
Godin (45) has spent almost half his life making music with Air. He says he is very happy that Moon Safari, their full-length debut from 1998, still sounds box-fresh. Still, there is a disadvantage to being labelled influential.
“I feel very good about that, but I feel old,” he says, laughing. “That’s the only downside about it.”
The duo worked together last year on Music for Museum, a series of ambient compositions inspired by Lille’s Palais des Beaux-Arts. But there will only be another Air album if they can find something decent to write about.
Throughout Air’s history, whether it was the soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides, the museum piece, or even Godin’s solo album, it has often seemed necessary for them to have a brief to write to rather than starting with a blank slate.
“I think we will need a mission,” Godin says. “That’s the only way we will do another album. I don’t have anything in mind, but if someone has a great idea I’ll be excited to do it.”
For now, Godin is happy to play the songs from Contrepoint live. After more than 20 years, he says he has no regrets about not pursuing an architectural career. The biggest lesson that he has imparted to the Red Bull participants during his time here is simple: follow your instincts.
“If you want to make good music . . . the best things that I’ve done, I could hear there was magic in it, you know?” Godin shrugs in that way of his. “If you don’t have that, the record is not charismatic. You can have a great song, but if it has no magic in it, it’s just boring. But I know in this album, the magic happened. This time, I’m convinced it was there.”
Contrepoint is out now on Because Music
Nicolas Godin’s wisdom: Five quotes from RBMA
On tackling Bach: “Bach is a genius, but he’s not a scary genius.”
On French musicians: “French rock is like English wine: it just shouldn’t be there.”
On using what you have: “Your limitations create your talent. When you have nothing, you just have to use your brain.”
On wine: “For me, good wine is always stronger than my records.”
On playing the hits: “Whatever I do, people always want me to play Sexy Boy or Kelly Watch the Stars. As an artist, it’s your destiny.”