15 years ago French duo Air followed up a breakthrough debut LP Moon Safari with the soundtrack to a Sofia Coppola movie, The Virgin Suicides. While Moon Safari ’s biggest criticism was that it too often sounded like all the French nouveau pop of the time, The Virgin Suicides built their signature sound that has since become one of the less discussed influences of modern music.
Take the psychedelia of Pink Floyd, mix it with the haunted pop of Portishead peppered with the expansive electronica of Underworld and you’ve got the French duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benot Dunckel.
Their debut Moon Safari was good, dreamstate pop but it did little to differentiate them from other indie-pop acts of the same cloth. As they progressed, their flair for innovation carved them their own musical identity which became apparent on The Virgin Suicides soundtrack and culminated in their hallmark LP Talkie Walkie. Talkie Walkie, their third studio album, is weird and intricate yet it floats with ease on a bed of windy synths and subtle organic instrumentation. That still remains the biggest challenge for many in modern music how to use synthetic instrumentation and make it sound like it was made by a human.
Before Talkie Walkie, however, they proved their cinematic worth. “People thought we were white trash before, but when they heard the soundtrack it was so deep and magical that we gained more respect,” Dunckel told Dazed looking back on The Virgin Suicides in hindsight. The soundtrack was a dark, mind-distorting listen, one that soundtracked Coppola’s masterpiece to perfection but also stood as its own body of work. It’s richly melodic, yet it never hands anything to you for free, delivering most things in a haze of reverb-soaked synths and liquid percussion. 2000 was the year that Cat Power released The Covers Record, Eminem dropped The Marshall Mathers LP and Bjork soundtracked Dancer In The Dark - they’re all great records but very obviously timestamped unlike Air’s work which still has an air of timelessness.
It’s a testament to Air’s beyond-their-years innovation and also a depiction of the state of music in 2015 that their music sounds as relevant as ever. It should take just 30 minutes of listening to triple j to pinpoint the current sound du jour. It’s electronic mixed with psychedelic rock elements and hazy pop. The percentage of that formula differs but the influences are there. While The Virgin Suicides soundtrack and Air’s most prolific releases Talkie Walkie
and Moon Safari were released when most of Australia’s brightest new talent were in nappies, the dreamy electronica prevalent in their music can be traced back to Air within a few steps.
Here are the Australian artists breathing in… Air.
Looking back through Air’s back catalogue you’ll find two modes - the electronic and the organic. While Talkie Walkie and Moon Safari relied more on the latter, The Virgin Suicides and 10 000 Hz Legend saw the band with their feet firmly planted in the former. While their organic work is quirky and funky, their electronic dabbles are luscious and less immediate. 18 year-old producer Japanese Wallpaper takes cues from Air’s electronic elements.
While a little more accessible than Air, Japanese Wallpaper’s debut EP was full of the sort of wafting synth work that makes Air’s Bathroom Girl or Caramel Prisoner so beautiful. It’s scientific, nerdy and yet it really hits at the heart. Japanese Wallpaper’s production has the same insular, sci-fi feel to it. It’s as if Between Friends was made in a bedroom of astrology posters and figurines. That nerdiness in both Air and JW’s tracks is complimented by this feeling of wonder. Air mastered the twinkling, flourishing instrumental on The Virgin Suicides and the young Aussie producer has adopted it into his electronica-cross-pop songs. The only thing that stops it from being outright cinematic are the vocals of Wafia, Airling, Pepa Knight and Jesse Davidson who inject his songs with a poppy warmth.
Japanese Wallpaper - Between Friends (Feat. Jesse Davidson)
Air - Bathroom Girl
Some of the best electronic pop is swelling and grandiose (see M83) but there’s a real beauty in the more intimate corners of the genres. Klo’s debut EP Cusp is one of those intimate electro-pop moments, barely letting any light in and most of the time sounding reminiscent of a flickering candle in a dark room. There’s a tendency to call this kind of music dreamstate but this feels like it’s made for those moments just before you go to bed - after-dark music.
Air’s Moon Safari was undeniably dreamstate but with each release they entered more and more into that after-dark phase. Take Electric Performers off their sophomore record, 10 000 Hz Legend. It’s built upon a thumping beat that’s something Orbital would froth off. It’s experimental but the beat is too crisp to soundtrack a dream. It’s electronic pop that’s atmospheric but made to soundtrack the early hours of the morning when you’re drunk with seduction and still plagued by haunted thoughts.
Klo’s beats are crisp and yet the vocals swirl with mixed emotions. Vocalist Chloe Kaul is seductive yet also haunting. At the heart of Cusp is five great pop songs but their mood is informed by Klo’s desire to push the tracks further, experiment a little and thus make them twisted and darker. Air had their lighter indie-pop moments but every time they went straight for the electronic, they entered the darkness the proof is in 10 000 Hz Legend.
Klo - False Calls
Air - Electronic Performers
Brisbane teen, Olivia McCarthy, was only three when Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides came out, so it’s likely any influence she’s inherited was passed to her through other bands with that Air feel - Radiohead’s later work for instance.
There’s a moment in Air’s Playground Love when brass lightly impacts among a swell of synths. It’s not obvious but it’s enough to bring an element of warmth to the track and it seems JOY. has found the same thing. JOY.’s cover of Drake’s Marvin’s Room brings together two of this generation’s biggest influences - ‘90s RnB and atmospheric electronica. Like Air, brass lightly textures the track. It doesn’t take over like pop music has so often let it (the saxophone is more exciting than Katy Perry in Last Friday Night), instead it wafts in and out. It appears once again on Stone where it’s sleek and sexy.
In case you haven’t seen Marion Collitard - the French are also sexy. Sexiness usually isn’t obnoxious, it’s subtle. Joy’s vocals blend into everything she does, moving with the instrumental rather than standing above it. On the rare occasion that vocals do appear on The Virgin Suicides soundtrack, it’s another instrument rather than the protagonist. It’s seductive just like the brass. Seduction ties these two together.
JOY. - Marvin’s Room
Air - Playground Love
It’s rare that you find an artist who’s able to make synths just as powerful a melodic tool as the vocals. It’s the type of synthline that punters sing live just as loudly as the chorus. It’s the mark of a perfect electronic pop song and The Kite String Tangle’s Given The Chance may just be that. The twinkling synths are just as memorable as the euphoric chorus in the kind of way that the whistle in Peter, Bjorn and John’s Young Folks is.
Air rarely rely on vocals to convey their central message. On Mike Mills it’s the dialup synth that whittles it up into the atmosphere, on Alpha Beta Gaga it’s the whistle that acts as the main vocal. The Kite String Tangle may present a far more bolstered, bold electronic sound than Air ever did but he still creates the sonic atmosphere that he desires through layering and carefully choosing the sounds that will stand atop everything else. Illuminate, his collaboration with Dustin Tebutt, sees the vocals effortlessly blend into a twinkling synth. It’s as if the electronic spectrum of Air’s Electronic Performers has been blended with the organic expansiveness of Bon Iver’s Holocene. While Bon Iver rarely errs on the side of electronic, Justin Vernon is a master of creating a feeling by allowing his vocal to tangle amongst the instruments, like Air and TKST.
The point here is a voice doesn’t have to be a separate entity when it comes to music. It’s something Air mastered early on and have since passed down.
The Kite String Tangle - Given The Chance
Air - Mike Mills
In 2013 upon the release of the band’s second LP Lonerism, Kevin Parker named Air’s Talkie Walkie as one of the soundtracks to his life. “That opened my eyes to new studio possibilities, because it was just two guys but they were making a world of sounds,” Parker said. Lonerism was the most expansive-sounding rock album of its year and yet it was made largely by one man tinkering away in the studio. Like Air, it’s richly melodic yet it sits behind a wall of layered vocals and and distorted synths. The crunching, psych-guitars are just about the only thing on that record that aren’t in some way influenced by the French duo.
Talkie Walkie is a delicate, crisper listen compared to the gritty roughness of Lonerism, but strip the record back and the two of them were made with the same bones. In fact you may not even have to imagine it. ‘Cause I’m A Man, off the Perth band’s forthcoming third album Currents, does it for you. It floats with more clarity - the airy synth giving off the same crispness as the whistle of Air’s Alpha Beta Gaga.
Tame Impala - ‘Cause I’m A Man
Air - Alpha Beta Gaga
-Sam (words) & Bianca (illustrations) aka the interns for Cool Accidents