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Jean-Benoît Dunckel: 'the English are a hard audience to win over'

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Ten years since the release of Air's first album 'Moon Safari', one half of the French duo, 38, talks Czech audiences, being a vanguard of the European electronic scene and why Air are not like Radiohead

Chaos reigns backstage at the famous La Riviera music venue in Madrid. Three police cars, two ambulances, the incessant sound of sirens - all of the hoo-ha that you would associate with the scene of an accident. The reason for all of this commotion is that Nicolas Godin, the guitarist of French music duo AIR, has just lost a bit of his finger during the sound check. Whether he was trying to slice up some Serrano ham or whether it was a case of his guitar strings being too sharp remains to be seen. They pop him in an ambulance to sort him out and although it doesn’t look serious, tonight’s concert is ‘up in the air’, for want of a better saying.

Jean-Benoit Dunckel is still alive though. There’s nowhere more squalid to do an interview than an anonymous dressing room. Yet his words manage to bring warmth to a room occupied with just a couple of old chairs and a wooden table that has seen better days. Karma bounces off the cracked walls as he talks in an unassuming but decisive manner.

Versailles to Japan

Dunkel and Godin grew up in a typically French bourgeois neighbourhood in Versailles. The seventies music-obsessed adolescents, both 39, first met at high school. During the eighties, both tried to find success as solo artists. Godin would send his compositions without any real success to major labels like Virgin and studied architecture. Dunckel was a maths teacher-cum-piano player in clubs, earning him the critics’ plaudit for being ‘responsible’ for Air’s melodic touch. Their twelve-year effort has spawned three albums, film soundtracks and collaborations with fellow French artist Charlotte Gainsbourg.

After talking to Dunckel for just a little while, it’s easy to see that the music that AIR make is a true representation of the personalities of the duo behind it. A permanent state of nirvana reigns as Dunckel talks about his music and its influences. ‘We love going to Japan because it’s so clean. We’re always struck by how modern it is.’ Their second album Talkie Walky (2004) is probably the one that’s most closely tied to the land of the rising sun. So much so that their magical song Alone in Tokyo, which features on the soundtrack of the famous film Lost in Translation (2003) by Sofia Coppola, almost takes on the role of an extra character in the film.


Dunckel tells us that they already knew Miss Coppola well from when they recorded the entire soundtrack for her debut film, The Virgin Suicides (1999). ‘The only problem with cinema,’ Dunckel comments, ‘is that you can work really hard and then suddenly, when the film is finished and about to be released, they tell you that the song hasn’t made the final cut. That’s the world of cinema for you,’ he adds with a sly grin.

Air: 'The Virgin Suicides'

AIR have also worked with Italian writer Alessandro Baricco, where they mixed their music with a reading of his novel City Reading. ‘Nobody understands why we did it,' laughs Dunckel. 'They all told us we were crazy.’ Of his international experiences and the different members of the public that he’s met along the way, Dunckel provides an unexpected response. ‘Of course audiences vary greatly but what I like to focus on most when I’m travelling are the similarities. We all share the same goal in life which is to be happy. When I became aware of this, it made me happy too.’

Ever serene, he finds the Czechs and Slavs to be the most open because they’re ‘only just starting’ to discover the western world. ‘The English on the other hand are a harder audience to win over which is probably because they have so many of their own bands compared to other countries,’ he says. ‘The Czechs are the easiest to win over, and the Spanish are always up for a party.’ With their latest album 'Pocket Symphony' (2007) hailed as being their best release yet, surely there won't be anymore audiences left to win over.

No businessmen

We leave the interview on a business note: what does Dunckel think about illegal downloads? He appears a little resigned - although he still remains approachable, for the first time he stumbles a little for his words. ‘It isn’t the public’s fault. There’s nothing that can be done about it,’ he says, before changing tack. ‘The European Union should do something to change the situation. They’re the ones who have the power to do something. Bands like Radiohead are taking the task into their own hands, trying to find other ways to fight against illegal downloads,' says Dunckel, who collaborated with their producer Nigel Godrich on Pocket Symphony. 'It’s a very good idea, but in that case the artist also needs to act as a ‘businessman’. And we’re just not like that.’

Air are currently touring Australia until April 2008

Watch Jean-Benoît Dunckel's solo effort Darkel (2006)

Translated from Jean-Benoit Dunckel: no business, electrónica y respuestas universales