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Conversation Pit Music for a Better Future

On ‘Moon Safari,’ the revelatory debut record from French electronic duo AIR

On January 19, 2023
Photo by Will Huvey

Before it was bastardized by Instagram, a conversation pit was synonymous with bachelors looking for a good time. Picture this: a serpentine, neutral-colored couch in the center of a sunken living room. There’s a table (preferably marble, Danish teak will also do), and on the table, an ashtray, a cocktail, a tube of lipstick. Maybe some blow on a hand mirror. AIR, the project of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, started off making the kind of music that would soundtrack one of those rooms. You know: legs up on the table, swirling your drink around and listening to something easy.

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Don’t write the duo’s 1998 debut, Moon Safari, off as easy-listening. It might go down like a third martini, and you wouldn’t be wrong to put a song like “Sexy Boy” on a sex playlist. In its rambling Rhodes piano riffs and flickers of smooth bass, Moon Safari contains a universe. It is a beginning: The story of two young people finally making the art they knew they were capable of making, the story of using what you have to create a mood. A sensation, a prick on the back of your neck, a kiss with a stranger in a smoky bar. 

That’s the sensation Dunckel and Godin were going for. As AIR, the duo fermented bachelor pad music and made something far stranger. Like, bachelor pad music you’d hear from the International Space Station. Bachelor pad music to listen to when you are thoroughly wigged out. At the time, blending the ’60s with the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s was a rarefied act. For AIR, it was intuitive. It was a sound the two naturally gravitated toward. They weren’t about to make rock ’n’ roll. “French culture and rock do not go well together,” Godin has said. “It’s like English wine.” They also weren’t about to make capital-P pop. They had to do something weirder; they needed to subvert the expectations people had about what kind of music came from France. 

AIR’s Frenchness is pretty essential to their whole thing. Moon Safari is the product of Paris in the ’90s. The last gasps of Britpop were on the radio. Electronic music was starting to dominate the scene, and the president at the time, the Gaullist conservative Jacques Chirac, hated all of this, tried to make raving illegal, which just made people party harder. “Daft Punk were down the street from us in Paris and we could almost hear the music they were making when we opened the window during band sessions,” Dunckel once said, “Paris suddenly had this incredible electronic music scene: all these clubs were opening up … We came along with this alien, psychedelic, loungecore music you’d listen to on a Sunday morning after you’d been out clubbing the night before.” 

When Godin and Dunckel met, it was Versailles and it was the mid-1980s. Teenagers at the time, they formed a band called Orange, and it did not take off. The two went their separate ways. Godin went to architecture school, Dunckel went to study and teach physics. AIR began as Godin’s project, something to do on the side while in school. He got asked to write a song for a comp tape, so he penned “Modular Mix.”  Not long after, Dunckel joined. Broke and young, the duo sourced their synthesizers from flea markets. Analog was cheaper. “We had no money in this time, so we bought the most affordable instruments available: analogue synths from the ’70s. We completely missed the ’80s/’90s digital synth period, in fact. So it’s true we had a very personal sound, but it was by default,” the duo has saidMoon Safari then sounds warm, homespun, both because that palette of sounds appealed to AIR, and because it was just way cheaper to buy a busted Rhodes piano at a flea market than to shell out on an ’80s era digital synth like, say, a Yamaha DX7. 

To make Moon Safari, the duo left Paris and retreated to an abandoned studio in Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche, near their native Versailles. “We start each day by drinking a lot of coffee, then we talk a lot and before you know it is time for lunch,” said Dunckel of the recording process in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “After lunch, we make maybe something for an hour or two, then we make a break and try to find the idea in it. Then, dinner. After dinner, we get down to work.” They worked that way for a while, scrapping a lot of songs, reimaging others. 

Some of the songs came from something as magical and urgent as hearing the right sounds at the right time. Godin was lent a ’60s-era Höfner bass — the same model Paul McCartney played — and he put it through his guitar amp. What he heard was transformative: a sound that was cool and dry. He noodled around with it, and one day he played a riff that turned out to be the one in “Sexy Boy.” It changed everything. “The song was what we wanted to be,” said Godin.

Around this time, they met Beth Hirsch, an American expat who was Godin’s neighbor in Montmartre. Hirsch had a great voice, so the band invited her to sing on the record, which she does in several memorable performances. “Beth made us sound like a space-age Carpenters,” said Godin of her work on the record. On “All I Need,” her warm alto is sweet like plum wine. It’s saccharine, verging on corny, the kind of thing you’d hear at a neighborhood sushi spot on a weekday night. But that’s the point, that’s what AIR aimed for on Moon Safari. They made music that was supposed to be chintzy, languorous for the sake of being languorous. They took the kind of plush, sweet rhythms you’d hear on a Burt Bacharach song and made it into something distinctive and fresh. AIR made anachronistic lounge pop into something cool. And so did Hirsch. There is no Moon Safari without Hirsch. 

After the sessions near Versailles, the duo went to Abbey Road Studios and worked with the string arranger David Whitaker, who had previously worked with everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to the Rolling Stones. Again with the retro recording equipment. They recorded the rest of the album to an 8-track, because it was a challenge. Also probably because it was cheaper. “I knew our livelihood depended on AIR being successful. So I poured everything into it,” said Dunckel to a reporter for The Guardian in 2016.

When Moon Safari was released, it became very big very fast, but not necessarily in the duo’s home country. It was more of a success in the U.K., where it peaked in the album charts at No. 6 and eventually went double Platinum. In France, it peaked in the low 20s, moving around 100,000 units out of a total of two million. Part of this, as people have argued over the years, has to do with Beth Hirsch singing in English. You can also argue that AIR’s sound didn’t musically mesh with what was going on in Paris at the time. Daft Punk, who had released Homework in 1997, was more in line with the dominant culture. They made rave music. Listen to a song like Homework’s “Rollin’ & Scratchin’,” and you’ll want to grind your jaw and break the window of a Parisian government building. Listen to a song like Moon Safari’s “La Femme D’Argent,” and the vibe is more like taking a sip of an herbal liqueur in the summer sun. 

One moment you’re walking through a room drenched in pink light while dressed in a tuxedo, the next you’re diving into the neighbor’s pool butt-naked with your high school crush. It’s a mood you want to live inside of forever. It’s a revelation. It’s conversation pit music for a better future.

Early AIR was constantly pitted against early Daft Punk, even though the two bands made completely different music. Look no further than a review of Moon Safari in Entertainment Weekly upon its release: “Less irksomely disco-centric than its countrymen in Daft Punk, this French duo works the territory between sleazy blaxploitation grooves, naïve rave-culture idealism, and pop songcraft,” wrote the critic Ethan Smith.

A band like Portishead is a much more fitting point of reference for what AIR was doing. 1994’s Dummy was also a record of downtempo kissing songs. It also operated in a similar way in a similar scene. Dummy was throttled into existence during the U.K.’s own electronic music-based rave renaissance. It’s also comedown music, pull-the-pacifier-out-of-your-mouth slow jams. Also, Hirsch sounds like Beth Gibbons (sort of). Stereolab, too, were making similar music at the time. While AIR and Portishead were making snuff playlist fodder, the French and British band was making spooky Marxist motorik music featuring a Moog Opus 3. All three bands were ultimately getting at similar ideas. They believed that lounge pop had some sort of untapped, radical potential. 

Downtempo pop really did feel like the intersection of past and future. A song like “Remember” glows in mid-century BBC Radiophonic Music aesthetics, coated with a ’90s sensibility. It moves like a tiny, chromatic UFO hovering over a nude beach in the Mediterranean. “Kelly Watch the Stars,” a song inspired by Kelly from Charlie’s Angels, is all vocoders and fat bass grooves. It’s music for getting stoned and going to a planetarium light show — pretty colors, look at the lights, woah! Do you get my drift? AIR made brilliant pop songs that combined some of the most outré music trends from the ’60s and updated them. 

On the Hirsch-led “You Make It Easy,” bossa nova rhythms flicker and click, and aqueous synthesizers bubble up quietly and effortlessly. “Ce Matin Là” is especially indebted to Bacharachian pop and silky Ennio Morricone soundtracks of yore. It has strings from the Abbey Road sessions and a synthesizer that sounds a lot like radar. It’s mood music, where the operative mood is feeling like an Adonis stretched out on a velvet couch. Or on the bow of a yacht.

Mood music, now, is a bit of a dirty idea. Not because it implies that the mood might be sexual, but because listening to mood-based music can be equated with Spotify vibes playlists. There is nothing sadder, if you care about music, than to go to a party and find out that your host is playing an algorithm-generated playlist called “Chill Dinner Party Vibezzzz,” or “Orange Wine,” or something else that’s really bad and embarrassing. But not all mood music is created equally, and what AIR was doing in the mid ’90s changed the pop landscape. AIR made pop music that was cool, full stop. It wasn’t dance music but it could only exist because of rave culture. It was influenced by the repetitiveness of 15-minute acid workouts, albeit indirectly. It was also deeply French, a natural progression from something like Gainsbourg’s wet lounge rock opus Histoire de Melody Nelson

After the release of Moon Safari, AIR immediately got to work on Sofia Coppola’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides. Coppola, who was 24 at the time, was listening to Moon Safari when she was adapting Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel into her first feature-length film. The soundtrack was as iconic as the movie. It also felt like another AIR album that just happened to have a theme. Their next proper release was 2001’s 10 000 Hz Legend, a far weirder and less accessible proposition than Moon Safari. It was excellent. It showed AIR’s ability to reinvent themselves, to be transformative with their art. 

Moon Safari, though, will always be a perfect debut. It feels like a dream sequence. One moment you’re walking through a room drenched in pink light while dressed in a tuxedo, the next you’re diving into the neighbor’s pool butt-naked with your high school crush. It’s a mood you want to live inside of forever. It’s a revelation. It’s conversation pit music for a better future. 

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Sophie Kemp

Sophie Frances Kemp is a Brooklyn-based writer, originally from Schenectady, New York. Her work has previously appeared in American Vogue, Pitchfork, GARAGE and NPR.

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