Champagne pairs perfectly with AIR’s music, according to keyboardist Jean-Benoît Dunckel. Like the sparkling wine that goes right to your head, the French electronic duo’s sound is “light and resonating, with melodies going higher and higher,” Dunckel says. You can even hear the fizzy sound of bubbles popping, if you listen closely to “La femme d’argent,” the lead track off AIR’s retro-futuristic debut album Moon Safari.
Unfortunately, after seven albums together, Dunckel says he and his musical collaborator for the last 20 years, guitarist Nicolas Godin, no longer creatively complement each other. That’s why AIR, best known stateside for producing the haunting soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s cult classic The Virgin Suicides, is planning on splitting up, Dunckel says, so each member can pursue solo projects.
But before they put a cork on their two-decade career, the duo are popping off on a short U.S. tour — their first in seven years — during which they’ll play hits off twentyyears, their new best-of anthology album.
SF Weekly caught up with Dunckel ahead of AIR’s Friday, June 23 show at the Masonic to chat about the anthology and tour, the challenges of keeping the band afloat in recent years and the seductive qualities shared by champagne and AIR.
SF Weekly: How does it feel to return to the U.S. for your first headlining tour in seven years?
Jean-Benoît Dunckel: We know the U.S. has been really important in our career, because of the Sofia Coppola movie, so I really love to go there. Also, the American audience is really expressive. They really show that they love the band when we are onstage.
SFW: How will this tour be different from previous outings?
JBD: We play better, we have a better band, and we have more experience. So we’re really solid onstage. It’s a best-of tour, so we play the best songs that arrived at the peak of our fans’ lives. Also, the songs have become more solid and expressive than before, because now we understand them better than before.
SFW: This tour and the double-album, twentyyears, celebrates two decades of AIR. How did you two decide which songs made it onto the anthology?
JBD: I think it was obvious to choose the songs, because they were the most played, the most appreciated from AIR — the ones from movies and advertisements. We only adjusted that with songs that we thought were interesting for the audience to know — rare and unreleased material and some remixes we’ve done.
SFW: According to legend, when you and Godin were recording Moon Safari, he started playing his guitar, spurring you to say, “Sexy Boy,” which later became the title of one of your most indelible tracks. What inspired you to say those two words?
JBD: There was a fashion show on TV, so I just took a piece of paper and thought about seduction and how I could put the name sex in the song. So sexy…what? I’m not a sexy animal, I’m not a sexy girl, and it was really normal to say, “Sexy Girl.” Saying “Sexy Boy” was much more interesting. It was taboo, also, because I’m the man who talks about men’s seduction without being gay. I thought that was interesting.
SFW: How has your relationship with Godin changed over the past two decades?
JBD: I think it became more and more intense, and as it became more intense, it became impossible to work together. Onstage we do, but I think it’s like an old couple offstage. It’s really weird. Now it’s more impossible to do music together, but maybe it will change. Maybe we need more time and have to do solo experiences. But I feel deeply that I get what I want with my solo stuff. I have control.
SFW: Are you moving in different musical directions?
JBD: Yes, because to be established as a band is bad for the creation process. We arrived at a point where the tracks were just not as good as they should be. Like five years ago, I lost the voice. But maybe it’s that the voice of AIR has disappeared.
SFW: You have another solo album coming out. Are you considering going solo indefinitely?
JBD: Maybe. I’m a satellite and was turning around AIR. But the satellite is going to space now, away from AIR. Technically, I’m going solo now with my solo projects. I’m doing soundtracks right now. I’ve done three already.
SFW: So, after this tour, there are no more plans for AIR?
SFW: Going back, what are your recollections of your first U.S. tour, when you were promoting Moon Safari?
JBD: I was really impressed by the size and power of the United States. I was very charmed and seduced by the country and the quality of the musicians, because in America you have amazing rock bands that play at a high level. We met the Beastie Boys and Beck’s musicians. We played festivals with Rage Against the Machine. I also discovered that there’s a strong American culture. People in Europe think that America doesn’t have a huge culture, but there is a specific, deep American culture in music.
SFW: Do you feel the same about touring the U.S. today?
JBD: When you’re a foreigner and cross the border, you really feel high pressure, especially today. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, America changed drastically and a new U.S. appeared. Suddenly, the U.S. wasn’t the most relaxed country in the world. You now see a lot of police and feel like there’s a line, and if you cross it, you’re going to be destroyed. This intensity is everywhere in the U.S., a sort of fear. Everywhere a threat, and people are not confident in themselves. So it makes it hard to relax.
SFW: How has AIR revolutionized music?
JBD: It’s proven that strange music can be successful. It’s given a lot of confidence to French bands that a French band could be successful all around the world. Also, AIR is not indie, but it’s for music nerds, so it gives self-confidence to French artists to focus on their own unique ways of doing music. It shows that you can focus on personal stuff and still be successful all around the world.
SFW: Why is AIR more popular abroad than in France?
JBD: Not a lot of French fans listen to our music. In France, we are more normal, because we speak French and have a French accent, so people don’t see it as an original thing. But when we are abroad, we’re more mysterious, in a way.
SFW: How did you come to the conclusion that AIR’s music is champagne-like?
JBD: I was thinking of champagne because of the bubbles and the way that champagne is essential to the fashion parties in Paris — how people socialize and come into a conversation. I think about charm, seduction, sex, and fashion, and champagne is the alcohol of that world. AIR is a bit like that seduction.We search for elegance and nice musical textures. Champagne goes well with that.
AIR plays at 8 p.m., on Friday, June 23, at SF Masonic. $45-$59.50.