air’s nicolas godin takes on bach in new album
One half of the band that soundtracked your teens is reinterpreting classical masterpieces for modern audiences.
Cinematic tunes are Nicolas Godin's specialty. As one half of Air, the French electro outfit who soundtracked The Virgin Suicides and the flyer scene in 10 Things I Hate About You, there's a fair chance you imagined yourself strutting into a party to one of his songs at some point between the ages of 13 to 17.
It isn't really surprising, then, that his just-released solo debut Contrepoint sounds both perfect for, and larger than, pretty much any film. Mixing sweeping instrumentals with buzzing electronic sequences, the album started as an accidental side-project, morphing into to a seven-year labour of love that saw Godin take up classical piano. Inspired by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's renditions of Bach's Goldberg Variations—each of the album's tracks responds to a piece from the suite in a genre-bending exploration of the evolution of music. We caught up with Nicolas the day before Contrepoint's release to talk about how taking a break from Air forced him to be a better musician.
What made you want to make the album as a solo project?
That's the funny thing, I didn't want to do a solo album, I was just at home and I was hearing classical music and, little by little, I created the songs—it caught me by surprise—suddenly I realised that I was actually making a solo record. I was very happy about it, but it's new to me; it wasn't my plan. Personally I don't like it when members of bands do solo records, I think there's an alchemy in the bands, which is more magic than lonely people.
Where did the name 'Contrepoint' come from?
It's half a tribute, half a joke about the technique of Bach because it's a new way of creating music that we don't know anything about in pop. Basically, when you do a pop song you put down some chords and you sing a melody on top of them, the counterpoint is something completely different. It's just melodies between them, which create a song by mixing them together -- there's not a chord. It was the origin of the project, when I recorded it went much further than that but because it was in the beginning, the first step, I just decided to call the album like that.
Do you feel like the album caters for a different audience than Air?
I'm curious, the album is released tomorrow and I'm really curious to see what kind of audience it's going to strike. I wonder if classical music lovers will like it, or if the audience of Air will like it. I really did (the album) for the love of music and never thought of any commercial value to it, I just did it as a personal challenge. Now it's curious that the album is going away from me and I wonder if people will like it or not—it's a strange moment for me.
So you're in a position where you just have to wait and see who picks it up?
Yeah, also artistically I need some distance because I don't even know if it's good or bad. I need one or two more years—it's like white noise now, I need to get rid of it.
Are you sick of listening to it?
Yeah, sometimes I had to be brave because I thought it was great and then the next morning it wasn't good. I had a lot of doubts and I was by myself, you know when you're in a band and you can share the process with someone? When you're alone you never know if you're going in the right direction or not, because there's no one to tell you.
You've said that Contrepoint was inspired by Glenn Gould's renditions of Bach, what made you start looking into him?
I was on tour and one of the musicians showed me a documentary about Glenn Gould and I was surprised by the guy—I thought he had the charisma of all the rockstars that we like. The music he was doing has got so much energy in it. When you're young you listen to rock music, but when you look at Glenn Gould playing piano, there's so much life in it. As I get more mature in my life I keep on discovering new music without giving up the idea of someone young and charismatic doing something with some energy. I think Gould was the best of both worlds—the energy of rock `n` roll and the knowledge of the classics; it was a great discovery for me.
Was there a moment when you first listened to his music, when you realised you were hearing something that was going to be really influential to you?
It caught me by surprise, after one minute I said —'That's it, I have to change something in my life, what I'm doing is not where I'm meant to be as a human being.' It was good when I started my career but right now with the experience and with all of my knowledge I understood that I was not making the music that I should considering all that I did in the past—it was time for me to move on and turn the page, I understood that right away when I saw the documentary.
Glenn Gould is such an interesting character, he's known for being so eccentric, is that something that fascinates you?
Yes, I started becoming almost maniacal thinking about him. I listened to all his recordings and met the guy who did the documentary—his name is Bruno Monsaingeon, he's very old now, he's one of the last living people who really actually met Glenn Gould, we talked a lot about him and his technique and his vision of doing something new from something from the past. That's basically the concept of the whole record—how to invent the music of the future based on the music of the past—that was my mantra when I was doing the record.
Can you imagine exploring a contemporary artist to the extent you did Glenn Gould or Bach?
Right now, I'm going to take a break from this kind of concept and get my mind into new fields of investigation, otherwise I'm going to go crazy. I need to change my sense of interests, it's been a while—I studied classical piano for, like, three years then I recorded the album for two years so it's time for me to get an interest in something else.
Is it exhausting considering the evolution of music?
It's exhausting both ways: the creative work never stops, you can't switch off. When you go to bed you think about it all night, when you wake up in the middle of the night you have the melodies in your head all the time and when you wake up in the morning you sit on the piano and realise you didn't have a shower or have breakfast. It's very demanding, your brain is always focused on something and it's a lot of stress when you're in the studio and you try to record something and don't really get it. There's nothing to tell you what to do, you just have to feel it—you have to guess because there's no rules. I think a passion for music is something that never leaves you quiet.
It sounds like when you start pulling a thread on something, you can't stop unravelling it...
You talked about this a bit before, I've heard you describe the approach you took on Contrepoint as wanting to 'go back to a classical world' did you feel like you needed to re-skill or readapt your understanding of music to make the sounds you wanted to make?
Yeah, I was really proud of my career with Air because, in some ways, I was a very limited musician, so I had to use my imagination to make music and hide the fact that I didn't know that much. At some point, after seven albums, I understood that I used all my tricks to hide that fact. I realised that the only way for me to go further was to know about music and theory, that's why the only way for me to make good albums again was to study classical music—I couldn't lie any more. I know so many good musicians that don't make great albums. At some point in your life you can make a great album if you're not that great a musician. You use other ways, that's when you make something original, you can replace your technique with personality and I think it's great, but it can't stay forever—that's why bands are making less and less good albums, that's what happens. I didn't want to fall into that trap. I wanted to become a new person and to be able to make good records again.
The videos for Orca and Widerstehe are both incredible but so different, how do you go about translating musical moods and themes into visuals?
It was interesting to give the music to people and see what they'd come up with. For each song I had four or five projects and the one I chose for Orca and Widerstehe were so close to the idea of each song. I remember when I studied my first Bach song I had some coloured pens and I'd make notes on the score, the video for Orca is really visual and it explained the dynamic of the melodies, I was sure I would choose it. Then, for Widerstehe, the whole video was about temptation. I like the idea that when you're a human being, you're always attracted to a little danger, that's why when you're a teenager you smoke cigarettes when obviously it's horrible. In the video, surfing among sharks was the perfect example of this.
You don't physically feature in either video or on Contrepoint's artwork, was that something you did on purpose?
Yeah, I don't consider myself to be an artist, I'm more like a producer. I started my career in the 90s and all the music was made by producers like the Prodigy, Massive Attack and Chemical Brothers; there was a window in the history of music where great albums weren't made by charismatic people like David Bowie but by people in a recording studio. I think I really belong to the family, I never felt comfortable taking pictures or acting in videos. After that, rock 'n' roll came back with the Strokes and suddenly we came back to the band and the rockstar artists. But there was six or seven years where great music was made by producers. Companies started to sell these records like artist's albums, but we weren't artists, we were just producers in the studio.
Is there an added benefit to that in that it opens the door for you to collaborate with other artists?
Yeah, it's exactly what I liked about Air at the beginning because I was a producer so I could collaborate with anyone I wanted. When you're in a band, the bass player has to play bass, the singer must sing and the drummer should play drums— you can't change things. When you see yourself as a producer you have complete freedom to do everything—if you need a female singer, you hire a female singer; if you need a percussionist instead of your drummer you hire a percussionist—you don't have to be prisoner to a band. I think that's exactly what I like about music.
Where do you think is the best place for someone to listen to Contrepoint?
In the car, it's the best alignment to listen to music, I have no idea why but when you're in the car and you're driving I never thought of something better. So it's not Contrepoint specifically, but music in general. Especially in Australia where you have those big roads. In Paris we have a lot of traffic jams, but when you can drive in a car and put music loud and you're all a by yourself or you can share when you're with someone else. In the `70s Kraftwerk would invite journalists to drive on the Autobahn to listen to the Autobahn album. I thought it was a great idea, just to discover the record.
Text Ellen Rule
Photography Mathieu Cesar