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A Quietus Interview

Air On Soundtracking The Pioneering Voyage Dans La Lune
Jeremy Allen , January 25th, 2012 08:33

Jeremy Allen talks to the urbane French duo about making music for the classic Georges Méliès film Voyage Dans La Lune

What child hasn't ruined a Scotch VHS 360 with a biro and some felt tips trying to copy Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon), meticulously hand-painted to give it a colour effect? I know I did. And who hasn't stripped their Action Men naked and dressed them up as space aliens? Air certainly did.

I meet Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel at the Institut Français in South Kensington to discuss their soundtrack for the 1902 movie featuring the legendary iconic image of a space rocket crashing into the man in the moon's face. Even those who haven't seen the movie will undoubtedly be aware of the clip, and even more so in France, where Méliès is exalted and adored. The Quietus was originally supposed to make a trip across La Manche for a press day in Paris, though interest was so high there that the junket was junked. It bodes well for the record, despite our disappointment.

“Oh yeah? I didn't know," says Nicolas. “We'll have to see what happens. This project in France is big because of Georges Méliès you know, he's a national treasure."

Ironic considering the fact he fell out of fashion after wowing the world, and faced with the ignominy of no longer being loved, took to burning his films and working as a toy salesman (though he was awarded the Légion d'honneur a few years before he died). The 16 minute movie, loosely based on books by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, opened the Cannes Film Festival last year, after a complete copy of the film was found and restored in the 90s. It was said to be in a state of severe decomposition.

Enter Air, who at the 11th hour, were asked to provide a soundtrack for the premier...

So you've done soundtracks before. Presumably Sofia Coppola rings you up and says “Hi Air, I want you to soundtrack The Virgin Suicides". How is this project different to a normal film score?

Nicolas Godin: This is cooler. I mean Sofia is great, it's good to work with her, she's very easy and she's made some good movies, but a lot of directors are crazy. It's not our job to compose soundtracks, we did it for Sofia and it was a great experience... I don't think it's something I'd like to do as a job. It's interesting but it's crazy, too many people giving their opinion or whatever. The guys are crazy, but this guy is dead.

Jean-Benoît Dunckel: So for the first time we're going to do music on images and there'll be no editing after that because it's the final edit. Usually when you work on a movie, the next day all the images have changed and all the music is cut. It's a nightmare.

NG: So it was great. No edit, no producer on my back telling me what to do. And [in this case] such a short deadline. So basically once we delivered the music they couldn't change anything because there was no time. We had to go to the Cannes film festival. We gave them the music and right away we were at Cannes. I was scared of being booed or whatever, but Georges Méliès didn't care, he didn't indicate or give any instructions on how to compose music for his movie. So it was free, and it didn't feel like we were betraying someone or denying the work of a previous composer or something like that. It was a pretty good experience.

I interviewed Mike Patton about a soundtrack recently and he said the score is the last thing anyone on a movie thinks about. I get the impression it can be a very frustrating experience for a musician, though from the very early days the pianist was also the afterthought, and maybe it's a continuation of that tradition...

NG: Like Georges Méliès said to the [piano] guy at the time, he'd say ‘just play a la mode' - which meant playing the fashionable tunes of the time - so that would be the fashionable tunes in 1902 rather than 2012. So I think what we did was pretty respectful to his original thoughts. We are a band of nowadays and we make music for nowadays and that's what he wanted for his movie basically. Otherwise it would be betraying his idea, because Georges Méliès' concept was for modern music.

It's mind blowing that the film was made in 1902. There's a real sense of wonder, and you've captured that. Did you use mainly analogue instruments to give it that early sci-fi feel?

JBD: We have a studio and we can mix acoustic sounds with digital keyboards. We have everything in there, old and new instruments, we wanted to use everything... acoustic drums, and big boxes, and synths and guitar. We had only one week to get the music together. It was a lot of pressure but it was good for us. And when you said that people always think about the music last you are absolutely right. When they are making a film there is no time for musicians. But if the music is bad, the movie is bad.

NG: And also we wanted to be respectful of George Méliès' handmade spirit; he used to do everything himself in the studio. I think this is a good tribute because we come from that background where we used to do everything ourselves. It's good to not forget that, because really, when you have success with the band, at some point you don't even know how to change the strings on a guitar - there's always someone to do things for you. And I think the secret of keeping things fresh is to not forget where you come from. So we needed to do things ourselves and record ourselves. The process is more important than the composition I think.

Do you mean you don't delegate in the way, say, Jeff Koons delegates to artists working for him?

NG: Ahhh no, no, no, I wasn't thinking of that. You drive a car and you don't know how to work the engine, you know. And I think it's not good when someone just gives you the keys to the car and you just drive. It's good to be reminded how things work - the organic process. And George Méliès was really organic in his way of working so that's what we did. We always use analogue and new technology but back in 1998 we only had analogue - like the Moog and Rhodes - and we had the new technology of the day which was an Atari computer or something. These days you have new technology like the iPad or new programmes, but the Moog is still the Moog. We use new technology all the time, we have new toys and new gadgets and new programmes, and we use the Moog, and the bass and the analogue sounds and mix everything together, the Hammond organ, the bass and the drums...

He made over 500 films. Why did this one resonate so much with people?

NG: I think it was the first blockbuster. It's his masterpiece. It's like when you have a band, they make their masterpiece, nobody knows why, it's just the way.

He was an interesting character. Wasn't he a shoemaker?

JBD: Yeah, his parents were making shoes.

NG: It was a good business and he could have pursued that.

JBD: It was sad what happened towards the end of his life because he was the first one to make movies like that, but cinema improved. Méliès had this concept of cinema through theatre acts, and when cinema changed he didn't change and he got left behind. 10 or 15 years after he made all these films he became old fashioned and he couldn't adapt. And he declined and stopped cinema, which is so sad.

He went bankrupt and became a shoe salesman in Montparnasse didn't he?

JBD: Toys. And he burned all his films. And he also sold his house and the new owner asked him to get rid of all his films so many disappeared without a trace. So he burnt all his movies, all his pieces of art. For him it was like revenge, revenge against the cinema world. He was saying, ‘Ah, so you don't like my movies anymore... I'm going to disappear.'

They'd be priceless now. Apparently some films were melted down for boots and artillery for the First World War. Well according to Wikipedia, so a citation might be needed. Méliès also came from a magic background didn't he?

NG: It was big around Paris with all the magic theatres on the boulevard, it was a great time for doing make believe and stuff like that. He was very good at it, he had all these tricks as we know. There was a guy who came before him, Robert Houdin, he was a genius and the guy Houdini took his name from.

In that sense, wasn't he more of a showman than an auteur, the Spielberg of his day?

NG: He was a showman because he came from the theatre and he used the camera to make illusions. Initially he wasn't thinking about making movies as much as using the camera to make illusions on the screen, you know. He wanted to do everything though. Acting, writing the stories, building the set, it was too much you know. He was a control freak. When you do that you just go crazy.

So the film is 16 minutes long, but there's a whole albums worth of material...

JBD: Yeah, that's all our mistakes. We thought we'd keep them somewhere.

NG: The film was too short.

JBD: Yeah, and when we were finished we were frustrated. I was frustrated, and I wanted to make more music.

Are you both big fans of sci-fi?

Both: Yes

JBD: That's the dream. That's all we've ever done I think.

NG: When we were children we were thinking about new worlds all the time. We would buy toys and there'd be a soldier or whatever, but we'd take their clothes off and imagine they were space aliens, guys from the future you know, that's what I like. My mum used to buy me fabrics and I would make new clothes so they looked like they came from some other planet. I don't know, I was scared of reality. That might sound like a cliche, but I think when you make music and you make records you still keep that dream alive. When we were young we were told we'd live in a colony on some planet somewhere and it didn't happen, so I think making this music is just keeping the dream alive.

It's interesting watching the film and noting the pervasive colonial attitude. These characters essentially fly to the moon and start attacking aliens as though it's an entirely natural thing to do.

NG: It's horrible!

JBD: It was the French colonial way. You went somewhere for a fight.

NG: It captures the European spirit of 1900. It shows how at the time we were so violent when we went anywhere. It's good that it's there. It's a testimony to how we were. It's funny to watch it when he hits that guy, it's horrible to watch. It's supposed to be funny as well, that they were beating them, like guys from Africa, pretending it was normal in some way. It's just terrible.

JBD: I read today that between 1914 and 1945, not a long time, there were 80 million dead in the world because of all our wars. So this was the next thing that would happen in a way.

NG: So we saved some lives in the Second World War when we didn't fight. Ha ha.

Did you read any Jules Verne to get into the spirit of things?

NG: In a way we didn't need to because we grew up with Jules Verne, it's part of our universe and it's everywhere, in other movies and videos and posters. Even the artist who redesigned the Metro stations in Paris took inspiration from Jules Verne's writing.

So are you working on something new?

NG: No, we did this soundtrack for 40 minutes and we put this out as the album. When you make an album you need a strong concept so this was like a gift from the sky.

Speaking of concepts, did you name your album Talkie Walkie after Gainsbourg's Le Talkie Walkie?

NG: Ahhh, I never thought... it is like that, you're right.

It's an early Serge composition.

NG: Yeah, back when he was a jazz musician.

Did it maybe slip in there somewhere from the back of your mind?

NG: Maybe, I don't know...

I've recently been getting into Serge's soundtrack work.

NG: Cannabis. It's very good.

JBD: With Jean Claude Vannier. It's tough for him.

NG: He gave so much to Histoire de Melody Nelson, and all the credit went to Serge Gainsbourg.

JBD: Jean Claude Vannier did so many things, and all people want to talk about is that all the time. There's this amazing record Brigitte Fontaine made with Jean Claude Vannier and you can really hear the spirit of Melody Nelson in it.

NG: It's called Brigitte Fontaine Est... and it's pretty bad ass.

JBD: The strings are so wild. They go out from the arrangements and the chords and they go somewhere else, and they make it very emotional. He has these sequences where it's very wild and the pressure builds until the entire music is breathing this new energy.

L'Enfant Assassin Des Mouches is mind-blowing.

N: Yes, L'Enfant Assassin Des Mouches! It's a little too much... like pudding.

How did you describe it? Pudding?

N: Yes. It's heavy.

Voyage Dans La Lune is released on February 6. More details at Aircheology.com

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