Air’s sensual, atmospheric sound may have made them outliers in the late-’90s electronica boom, but they became one of the most influential electronic acts of the 2000s and beyond. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel’s influences — Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, disco, synthesizer maestros like Tomita and Vangelis, new wave, and obscure Italian film soundtracks — distinguished them from their dancefloor-oriented contemporaries and helped make their 1998 debut album Moon Safari an instant classic. The duo continued to go against the grain with 2000′s 10,000 Hz Legend, which took Air’s astonishing powers of mood and texture in ambitious — and polarizing — directions. On their subsequent albums, Dunckel and Godin bridged the gap between their breezy pop and experimentalism, with efforts like 2004′s Talkie Walkie leaning towards the former and 2007′s Pocket Symphony tending toward the latter. Air’s style also suited soundtracks perfectly, and their music for 2000′s The Virgin Suicides and 2012′s Le Voyage Dans La Lune was as haunting as their own albums. In all of their work, Godin and Dunckel brought much-needed beauty, emotion, and glamor to electronic music.
Though Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel both grew up in Versailles, the two didn’t meet until they began studying at the same college. Dunckel, who had studied mathematics at the Conservatoire in Paris and whose musical taste ranged from Ravel to Joy Division to Grace Jones, played in an alternative band named Orange along with house music producer-to-be Étienne de Crécy. One of Dunckel’s other bandmates, Alex Gopher, introduced Godin into the lineup. An architecture student, Godin began playing in rock bands when he was a teenager, then dabbled in soul, hip-hop and other sounds. After Orange disbanded, Godin was asked by a longtime friend to contribute a track for a compilation for the label Source. He recorded “Modulor Mix,” a tribute to Le Corbusier created with an eight-track, drum loops, and a handful of vintage synths and keyboards. Following the track’s release on the 1995 collection Source Lab, Godin recruited Dunckel to help him further develop the music he was making, and Air was born. During 1996-1997, the duo released singles on Britain’s Mo' Wax (“Modular”) and Source (“Casanova 70,” “Le Soleil Est Prés de Moi”). Air also remixed Depeche Mode and Neneh Cherry and joined French musique concrète popster Jean-Jacques Perrey for a track on the Source compilation Sourcelab, Vol. 3. Arriving in July 1997, Air’s debut EP Premiers Symptômes collected their early singles and reached number 12 on the charts in the U.K., where it was ultimately certified gold.
Signed to Virgin, Air released their debut album, Moon Safari, in January 1998. Recorded at London’s Abbey Road as well as several studios in Paris, the album expanded on Air’s sound with a sumptuous blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentation. Certified platinum in several European countries (and a double platinum hit in the U.K.), Moon Safari’s international success was bolstered by the singles “Sexy Boy” and “Kelly Watch the Stars.” Later that year, Godin and Dunckel completed an ambitious tour throughout Europe and America.
After the 1999 rerelease of Premiers Symptômes with bonus tracks, Air’s soundtrack to the Sofia Coppola film The Virgin Suicides followed in February 2000. A fittingly dreamy set of pieces highlighted by vocals from Gordon Tracks (the pseudonym of Phoenix’s Thomas Mars), the album was a commercial and critical success, going gold in France and the U.K. and earning a Brit Award nomination for Best Soundtrack. For their second proper album, May 2001′s 10,000 Hz Legend, Air took a darker, more ambitious approach informed by prog-rock. Featuring cameos by Beck and Buffalo Daughter’s Sugar Yoshinaga, the album received mixed reviews but fared well commercially, reaching the top ten in the charts of several European countries, going gold in the U.K., and reaching number two on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart in the U.S. In 2003, Air contributed the track “Alone in Kyoto” to the soundtrack to Coppola’s film Lost in Translation and collaborated with Italian writer Alessandro Baricco on City Reading, the studio recording of a live performance that combined readings of his pieces with a score by the duo.
In January 2004, Godin and Dunckel returned with their third full-length Talkie Walkie. Co-produced by Nigel Godrich and including players such as Brian Reitzell, Joey Waronker, Jason Falkner, and Lisa Papineau, the album focused on the duo’s more accessible side. Like its predecessors, Talkie Walkie was certified gold in the U.K.; elsewhere, it was a top five hit in several other European countries and reached number two on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart in the U.S. Along with touring in support of that album, the pair remained busy making music in 2005 and 2006. With Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, Dunckel and Godin worked on Charlotte Gainsbourg’s album 5:55 and contributed a song to the soundtrack to Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette. During that time, Dunckel also released a solo album as Darkel. Cocker and Hannon also appeared on Air’s fourth album, March 2007′s Pocket Symphony. Once again co-produced with Godrich, the album’s moody songs showcased Japanese instruments such as the koto and the shamisen, both of which Godin spent years learning how to play. In the U.S., Pocket Symphony reached number one on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart and peaked at number 40 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, the duo’s highest placing on that chart during their career. On one leg of the band’s Pocket Symphony tour in 2008, the duo performed with only longtime collaborator and drummer Joey Waronker as their backing band. They kept this lineup for their next album, September 2009′s Love 2, which marked Air’s first self-produced work and featured a more streamlined sound than some of their previous releases. In June 2010, the duo celebrated the tenth anniversary of The Virgin Suicides soundtrack with a performance of the work in its entirety in Paris with the band Hot Rats.
For their next project, Dunckel and Godin composed an original score for the restored version of the 1902 classic silent film Le Voyage Dans la Lune. The pair created the score in less than a month, working with collaborators such as Au Revoir Simone and Beach House’s Victoria LeGrand, then expanded it into a full-length album that was released in February 2012. Two years later, Air issued Music for Museum, a limited-edition vinyl release of their commissioned music for the the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille. In the second half of the 2010s, the members of Air embarked on different projects. Dunckel further established himself as a composer for film, worked with New Young Pony Club’s Lou Hayter (as Tomorrow's World) and Bang Gang’s Bardi Jóhannsson (as Starwalker), and returned to his Darkel project with 2015′s lavish The Man of Sorrow EP. Godin’s 2015 album Contrepoint was inspired by pianist Glenn Gould’s interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard music as well as jazz, tropicalia, exotica, and left-field pop. Around this time, he also created the music to the French ’60s spy TV series A Very Secret Service, which paid homage to Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, and the era’s other great composers. The duo returned in 2016 with a career-spanning compilation album titled Twentyears. Their subsequent solo projects included Godin’s architecturally inspired 2020 album Concrete and Glass and Dunckel’s 2018 album H+ and score for the 2020 film Été 85 (Summer of 85). Late in 2021, Air celebrated the 20th anniversary of 10,000 Hz Legend with a deluxe edition that included rarities, demos, and live performances. ~ Heather Phares & John Bush