That the French duo Air find themselves so comfortable in the dialectical confines of Austin, Texas — a place where SXSW-loving indie punks share the sidewalk with ten-gallon hat-doffin’ oilmen — hardly seems surprising. Over the course of three albums and a sound track, Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin have embraced the hypothetical meetings of numerous disparate ideas and have practically built themselves and their sound while straddling the lines between old and new, French and English, and pop and experimentalism.
Talkie Walkie, the band’s latest excursion into spacey retro-futurism, might be miles away from the dust-swept streets of central Texas, but Dunckel and Godin hold a special place for it — and much of weird America’s history — in their hearts. Actually, they’re as much astral travelers as they are urban cowboys. “We are big fans of Lee ’azlewood,” proclaims Dunckel when baited for an obligatory influential point of reference. He’s in Texas. What did you expect? Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra “are like Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg ... the American version,” he adds.
Perhaps the rest of the state wouldn’t sleep so easily knowing just how closely the United States and the French commune when it comes to classic pop music. Suffice to say that Gainsbourg has been a steady influence on just about every pop record that’s made its way here from France in the past 30 years. And Air’s 1998 debut, Moon Safari, was, to many, the record Gainsbourg might have made had he not given up music — and subsequently passed away — a number of years earlier. To honor (and draw from) Gainsbourg’s legacy, Air sought out the singer/composer’s chief arranger, Michel Colombier, to lend Talkie Walkie the similar touch of charm and simplicity that adorned the classics “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Requiem pour un C …”
“We wanted to have some really simple string arrangements but we wanted to have something really warm and sensitive, with a lot of emotion. We knew that Colombier could do that. … He did all the classic arrangements of the coolest ’60s songs. He doesn’t know that he’s a cult figure in France because he left there in ’72, but he’s a genius,” says Dunckel, the band’s somewhat reluctant de facto lead singer.
Air’s first few records, including their sound track to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, relied heavily on female guest vocalists, but at the urging of Talkie Walkie producer Nigel Godrich (known lately for his work with Radiohead), Dunckel got the ever-so-slight push he needed to jump into the spotlight. And while he hasn’t quite followed in Gainsbourg’s playboy crooner footsteps or taken on any edgy characteristics of a rock and roll frontman, Dunckel’s newfound affinity for his vocal talents is serving the band well. “[Godrich] insisted for me to sing the songs because he said my voice is strange and unique. … I think by doing more shows we had more confidence in ourselves and I think that the timbre of our voices gives a special touch to the pop songs of Air,” he says, noting the band’s refocused decidedly pop direction.
Their last record, an angular, electronic experiment entitled 10,000 Hz Legend, received a rather lukewarm response, and since then Air has looked back to the pop formula for a bit of inspiration and a challenge. “We arrived at a point where we said to ourselves, ‘OK, we want to do some art but it’s really easy to break the songs and to format them in a very weird way to sound original.’ So we decided to respect the formatted structure of pop songs to do something interesting,” says Dunckel.
What resulted was — yet again — a heady concoction of experiments, this time rendered in the verse-chorus-verse form. Talkie Walkie is “a collection of pop songs,” as opposed to a conceptual album that only runs in one direction from start to finish. “We wanted to improve on the pop structure and to do something unique and catchy, but we wanted to be more friendly and emotive because in this format people understand more, our style, in a way.”
And while the public has no doubt grasped Air’s nuanced style, it’s probably helped that they’ve repeatedly opted to sing in English rather than their native tongue. Their extended stays in this country, both playing and recording, have afforded them many an English lesson and they’re at the stage where language is more a compositional tool than a vehicle for direct communication. In fact, the title of the record itself is a simple English-French translation of our “walkie-talkie.”
“After one month in the USA we begin to think in English, even if we don’t speak it very well. Sometimes it’s so much more easy to say ‘I love you’ in English than in French because English words are much more switchable and it’s easy to play with them,” he comments. “English is a sort of mask for us. I think that Oscar Wilde said that when you have a mask you are more able to say the truth. And that’s the same for us when we speak English; we are more able to say the truth.”
See Air at Clutch Cargo’s (65 E. Huron, Pontiac). Call 248-645-6666 for ticket information. Sunday, April 18; doors at 8 p.m.E-mail Ken Taylor at email@example.com.