Composer Nicolas Godin is part of the creative team responsible for “Fire of Love,” the Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Sara Dosa about volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. As one half of the electronic group Air, he’s no stranger to collaboration: between 1995 and 2016, he and partner Jean-Benoit Dunckel released six albums and two soundtracks that sold millions of copies and earned them worldwide accolades as the downtempo counterparts of French contemporaries like Daft Punk. But even if he and Dunckel haven’t recorded anything completely new together since “Music for Museum,” their work for a 2014 art project at France’s Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, the sound they created lives on just as vividly in their solo work, echoing the lush cinematic aesthetic they first premiered on their debut LP “Moon Safari.”
Just weeks after the 25th anniversary of “Moon Safari,” and ahead of the BAFTAs, where “Fire of Love” competed for the best documentary prize, Godin spoke to Variety about the joys — and necessities — of collaboration, including what that means for the future of Air after an almost 10-year hiatus.
Congratulations on the nomination for best documentary. Have you had an opportunity to celebrate with the rest of the team?
I’m going to meet the team in London next weekend, because we’re going there for the BAFTAs, the British Film awards. I met them last summer because I did a concert with the movie for a screening in the Louvre. But I didn’t see them in real life since we got the nomination, so I can’t wait to congratulate everyone — it will be a nice moment together.
When you were first asked to compose the score, what direction did they give you?
We talked with Sara [Dosa] which kind of idea would be behind music and because Katia and Maurice Krafft were science lab inventors, and they have all these labs in France, and so I said, maybe they would have a room in the lab full of old antique synthesizers like I have here so they would make that music themselves. Because they were a very DIY, and they were controlling and processing everything themselves, so I thought it was a natural thing to imagine I was part of the team at the time back then. I would be the musician of the group — and I pictured myself like that when I was working… 20 years ago, talking with them. But I like period movies because it gives me a direction, and you don’t have a blank page.
The music invokes nature documentaries from the ’70s, and it also reminded me of the music that David Holmes did for the “Ocean’s” movies where there’s this heist element. Was there a mental or musical frame of reference to aim for?
I did the soundtrack for “Au Service De La France,” a French TV show about the Secret Service in the ’60s, where they asked me to do a parody of Lalo Schifrin and stuff like that. Sara told me she really likes that, so it was very easy for me because it’s my own roots, it’s the music I grew up with, when I was in the ’70s, when I was watching TV. When I do my own albums or albums with Air, I try to restrain myself from letting that pastiche be so present in the music. And I like this kind of soundtrack. You are completely free to be over the top, so it’s very fun, and you can feel the fun in the soundtrack.
In general, in film composing, where do you tend to start? Do you try to come up with a leitmotif that you want to weave through the tracks, or do you just start improvising and discover them?
I just look at the images on the screen, and I improvise on them, and suddenly, you can feel something is going well. [But] even when you think an idea would be good, you can have some surprises. It’s very hard to imagine what the director likes, because for example, if “Orca” was not in the temp track, I would have never thought of proposing something like that. I think 60 or 70% of the talent you need to be a soundtrack composer is to be able to communicate with the mind of the director.
“Team Vulcan” very much reminds me of Brigitte Bardot’s “Contact,” and “Zaire 73” definitely has Tony Allen-style drumming in it. How much of that pastiche is intentional and how much of it is just filtering your influences?
Those were exactly my references on those tracks. I worked with Tony, because Tony was living in Paris, and the drummer on “Zaire” was the disciple of Tony, and they worked together in the studio, and we did a concert to pay tribute to him. Tony was one of the greatest musicians I’ve played with. But I really like to mix [influences], because I really wanted any track, even if it’s [inspired by] Tony Allen or Brigitte Bardot, to have these little antique synthesizers. That was part of the image I had of Katia and Maurice… this science lab feeling on top of it to just have a unity between most of the songs.
You guys just celebrated the 25th anniversary of “Moon Safari,” and from the first time that I listened to “New Star in the Sky,” all I could think of was Toots Thielemans. How much is this kind if “borrowing” invisible to you — or is it intentional?
I think there’s two types of artists. Some artists that completely original, like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd — they just take instruments and do their own thing out of the blue. And then there’s another type of artist like me, where I’ll try to do a track “like Ennio Morricone,” where I need an inspiration to start. But after a while it sounds like me. But I need to borrow stuff, and I know [Jean-Benoit’s] more of an original guy. He shows up in the studio and he brings ideas I don’t know where he’s taking them from. For me, I need a reference.
You mentioned JB. After so many years of working together as partners, what distinguishes your contributions or your creativity from his?
It’s the same thing as with the director — he does something I was never thinking of making, and I’ll say, “Wow, it’s amazing!” I think the secret of a team is when the other guy suddenly says, “Oh, that’s amazing,” because if you’re alone you’re just testing some ideas. That’s why bands are cool — when you’re a solo artist, or when you work alone like nowadays as everybody does with computers, you have nobody that tells you when you do something great.
Does it feel like 25 years has elapsed for you if you go back and listen to “Moon Safari”?
Yeah, I think “Moon Safari’s” a pretty cool achievement. To do a classic album in the history of music, that was my dream when I was a teenager — but you don’t decide to do it. So I’m happy that happened. I think “Moon Safari,” “Virgin Suicides” and “Talkie Walkie” can be considered classic albums. At least I did three, which is not bad.
When you started, was there some record that you hoped to live up to or maybe pay tribute to in the quality of the record that you guys were trying to make?
At the time we were making “Moon Safari,” I was very into Burt Bacharach, and you can hear that in “Ce Matin La,” where we have this little French horn. I got a friend of mine who was a student in my school in the orchestra, a band with only horns, and I asked him to bring his French horn, and I said, “Can you do something like Burt Bacharach with this?” But Bacharach had the best musicians and the best recording studio in Los Angeles with the best microphones, and we were in my tiny room in Monmartre, in Paris, and we had this little French horn he bought at a flea market. And when we pictured it in our minds, we said, “OK, let’s imagine we are in L.A. at Capitol Records and we are working with a band of Burt Bacharach musicians.” That’s the magic of recording, that you can capture some magic vibrations like that, and then when people buy the record, the vibration goes in the speakers and goes in the room very far away from where you live. And that’s the power of the recording process.
The record came out at a time when other French electronic artists were leaning more heavily into dance music—
It was crazy. They were all our friends, like Daft Punk and all these guys, and we were going out every night going to nightclubs, like the “Respect” parties at The Queen. At the time, every guy was doing a song in his bedroom and then they’d print a white label, and then the same night, they were going to nightclubs to test it to see if people dance. I don’t know why our music was so slow when all of my friends were doing house music, but I think it’s because in ’94, I think, there was the Portishead album “Dummy,” and I said, “Oh, my God. This is everything I like.” They had all these soundtrack [samples] from films, and I grew up watching TV, and I loved listening to the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and John Barry and all of these guys. And when I heard this artist, I said, OK, I can do slow music. And that was a great help to give me self-confidence. And then I remember when I did “Modular Mix” and “Casanova 70,” I was in [Daft Punk member] Thomas Bangalter’s bedroom because we were friends. I made him listen to my demo, and he said, “My God, this is a whole universe. You have to do that, because people will like your own style.” And it was good advice.
You released a 10th anniversary edition of “Moon Safari” that had a bunch of demos and remixes. Is there anything else from those early days that you would be interested in releasing?
I think we don’t have a lot, because even when we were making albums, it was really hard to find extra tracks. I think all the best things have been released already, and I wish there were more. But I was always surprised when I read about these bands and they would say, “Oh, we composed 50 songs for the album and we picked the 10 best.” How did you do that, because I was composing 10 and there was not one left after that!
The complexity of the tracks that you composed, both as a solo artist and as part of Air, are beautifully balanced. Do you have just an intuitive sense of knowing when a track is done, or is there someone or some process that tells you what’s enough elements to feel complete?
I grew up in an architectural environment. My dad was an architect, so balance was the key word, because if you don’t have balance, you cannot make a building. It could crash down. And also, I grew up in Versailles, and I was spending a lot of times in the gardens of the palace, this completely empty space with geometric lines and very few elements. It feels very empty — and the music of Air is very empty. And I learned that because the guy who designed the gardens, André Le Nôtre, he’s a genius. He did something perfectly balanced — it’s perfect, the perspective, the parallels, it’s so well-balanced. It’s a miracle, and I’ve been obsessed by that, and I think it’s in our music. And if you listen to the master tapes of “Moon Safari,” there’s no more than eight tracks per song. There’s one bass, one Rhodes, one drum pad, one with a crazy sound, and of course the orchestra. But it’s very empty.
In your career, did you have a moment of success when you decided to go full Brian Wilson, to indulge your creativity without restraint?
After “Moon Safari,” I told JB and I told my manager, this is a tremendous success. We can have whatever we want from the record company, and who knows when will this happen again? So it’s now or never. So on “10,000 Mhz,” we took all the money we could, we spent everything. We went to LA, to Capitol Records. We hired the best orchestras. We even hired the harpist from “Pet Sounds.” We were living in Chateau Marmont. We were traveling first class. We just pimped out the whole thing to do this extreme experimental album, which was … it was not a failure, but it was not a success. But I was right, because that was the only moment where we could afford all these things — because you always live by the record before. It’s like in Hollywood with movies: your only value is what your last movie did. And then after that, we went back in Paris, and we did “Talkie Walkie,” which just us and a drum machine with no other musicians. And then “Talkie Walkie” had a lot of success. So I think limitation is good for creating.
Speaking to JB last year when his solo album came out, he was very clear about refusing to close the door on future collaborations between the two of you. Do you feel similarly?
We saw each other last week, because we’re thinking of going back on tour. And the problem is if we go into the studio and try to make a new songs, I am scared that it would not be good enough for what did in the past. Because it would be great to work together again, but it’s been so long, I’m so scared people would be disappointed. I imagine them on Spotify, listening to the track and saying, “Well, it’s OK, but it’s not amazing.” So the key is we need to do something amazing. But if it’s not good, we cannot lie to ourselves — and that’s very hard as an artist. A lot of French fashion designers and all the bands that I love, have like 10 years of amazing creativity, and after they are a shadow of themselves. And so [once] we were making simple things as Air, but if we were making simple things again, it would not be great. It would just be the same thing in the past, but less good. We have to come up with something new. But artists, we have ten years of creativity, and we were very good between ’95 and 2005. So, I wonder if we are better now or not. But we will try, and if we don’t succeed, we will do concerts. I would hate if people thought less about us.
Is it a matter of tapping into a new source of inspiration?
That’s what I mean. Air should be coming back with something new. But the problem is that I did that music because I could do nothing else. For example, the Bee Gees suddenly did disco, and before that they were a pop group. But I don’t feel like doing disco with Air — well, not disco, but that kind of move like Serge Gainsbourg, who did a reggae album. But he’s a solo artist, so there’s not a band dynamic — or like David Bowie doing drum-and-bass. When you’re alone, you can change everything. And when you’re a band, you have to be a dictator to say to the other guys, “OK, now we’re going to do reggae.” So the dynamic is not the same. When you are alone, you’re free, and you can change it. But I wish we could arrive with something we never did before.
What’s on the horizon for you? You obviously have been able to develop a successful solo career both as a music artist and as a film composer. Which of those avenues right now seems more exciting, more challenging?
I don’t know. I don’t see my future in a professional way. It’s more I’m trying to get better in my art — and it’s harder and harder every year. The more I grow, the harder it is to improve. I try to improve myself as a musician, as a composer, and as a song designer. I love making sounds with keyboards, and I try to test new equipment all the time, new plug-ins, and new hardware and stuff. But you need to be getting better as a musician all the time. If this brings me some success, I will be very happy, because I’ve had a lot of success with Air, so I know what it is. And it’s a good feeling. But I’m not able to seek success on purpose. I never knew even with Air when I did a single like “Sexy Boy” or “Cherry Blossom Girl.” Thomas [Bangalter] knows how to make a big single, it’s one of his skills. I don’t have that skill. When I had big singles, it was really by chance. It just was luck.
Do you have anything in the works?
I just finished a solo record that we started mastering two weeks ago. And also I will enjoy these few weeks, because I’ve learned from everything I’ve been through for the last 30 years that you have to enjoy the moment because you never know when things could end. Right now, we have this great movie, we’re going to the Oscars and the BAFTAs, and I think it’s important to enjoy that. Because with Air, I had a lot of success, and sometimes I was too focused on something else and I couldn’t be in the moment. I remember when I played at the Hollywood Bowl, and I was so obsessed with perfection that I forgot to be in the moment. So right now, these few weeks, I’m going to enjoy them a lot.