Late, on a mid-week evening, Nicolas Godin joined Charles Curtin and Anna Tonkin to discuss his new album Concrete and Glass. Godin, an architect by training, is better known as one half of French electronic duo Air. In the conversation that follows, he reflects upon his way of thinking about architecture, music and life.
Anna Tonkin (AT), Charles Curtin (CC), Nicolas Godin (NG)
(AT) How does architecture inform and influence your music?
(NG) I grew up with an architectural background - my dad was an architect - but I always wanted to be a musician. When I was 18 years old, I couldn’t find any positions with record companies, and studying architecture seemed like a natural pathway for me. Ever since - even from the beginning with Air - I feel like I'm recording more as an architect rather than a musician.
I don't consider myself a musician. My main goal is to create songs. The only reason I play music is because I have to know how to play to create the songs. I have learnt to play keyboard, and bass, and create melodies and chords, but the final idea was to produce this kind of object. The song is an object to me. I’ve always understood music as three dimensional, never as notes on a score. I think it’s a spatial experience.
(CC) Do you feel similarities in the process of creating music and creating architecture?
(NG) Yeah. I think there are a lot of common elements. As a child, my dad would tell me that space is defined by two walls; you use architecture to cut and define space, and I think music is exactly the same. A note by itself is meaningless, but if you put two notes next to each other it creates a chord. It can be a happy chord, a sad chord, a stressful chord. The distance between two notes - you can play with it as you would walls.Also I like to find links between materials (concrete, wood, glass, bricks, marble) and sounds. I sculpt sounds, using synthesisers to create them from scratch. Sound is a malleable material. The physicality of music is very important to me. I could never use an instrument that has original presets. I need to create a sound from a wave - the same way a sculptor creates shapes from stone.
(AT) The latest album, Concrete and Glass, draws its inspiration from a collection of modernist houses. Could you tell us about this process?
(NG) We began by visiting all the houses. When my friend (artist) Xavier Veilhan had his exhibition Architectones I was with him and performed an accompanying soundtrack. These houses have a lot of information; the location, the materials, the landscape, the era, the country and culture, its significance in human history. I try to draw from all of this as inspiration from my music.
You can make a soundtrack for anything in the world; for a painting, for a street you see in Paris, an object, a person - anything can serve as inspiration. And so, these houses with all this information created the music itself. I didn’t have to work a lot because the message was already in the house.
Each song involves a different creative process. The last track of the album, Cité Radieuse, is just Le Corbusier’s principle of modules transposed, and I did the same with small musical phrases that I have lumped together. This was a pure transposition of an architectural principle to a musical principle.
In contrast, when I looked at Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion in Barcelona, for me it was the tone of a new era in human history and I wanted to express that idea. I could have music for the house, there is enough content - it’s hard, very open, and you never know what's inside and what’s outside. But I was more interested in what it represented to me, so basically I also could have made the music for a sunrise after the human apocalypse of a nuclear war. The song is more an extrapolation of the idea of something new in history.
More than writing about the house, it gives me an idea and I let my imagination work. I close my eyes, try to meditate, and suddenly you have all these things and ideas that originate from the house in your mind. Eventually you forget the house and find inspiration from other unknown sources. You end up going in a different direction. The origin is important, but once you start, the music takes over and you let it lead you astray. Then you have a song. That’s why you can listen to the album without knowing anything about the original concept and just treat it like a normal pop song - I don't want to do conceptual, intellectual art. I want to make something more sensual.
(AT) The album was originally inspired by a series of live performances in these houses. Most of the houses referenced are constructed from concrete and glass - as the album title suggests. As these materials have infamously difficult acoustic properties, did that affect how you made the songs?
(NG) Yes. There were some songs that were performed live, and because of the reverb in the concrete I could only use one instrument. Basically, in terms of acoustics, it is very difficult to perform and record in these houses. Most of them are open on one side, so the sound was like air. There were a couple of buildings such as the projects by Claude Parent which are mostly concrete and resemble bunkers. They had about 10 seconds of reverb. It’s difficult, but I also think it makes really interesting and unique sounds.
At the beginning of the Architectones project, I never thought of making a record. It was just a way to have fun, to travel, to meet architects, to see some amazing artists. But when I was in Los Angeles, in John Lautner’s house, I didn’t want to go back home… In Paris we have very few houses - there are mainly old buildings - and there’s this freedom that you have in California, or in Australia, with the space and the sun. You can create a phantasm of architecture; in Paris it’s impossible. There’s no more space in Paris. All the architecture has been finished. I don’t think there will be anything new.
(CC) It’s interesting you mention John Lautner’s houses. They’re the backdrop to many films, television shows and music videos. I’m wondering how much the wider cultural understanding of the houses on the album have influenced your process?
(NG) Ah, yes, that's very important to me. The John Lautner house, and also Richard Neutra’s VDL House in Silver Lake remind me of Robert Altman movies from the early 70’s. I grew up watching TV a lot and these soundtracks have had a big influence on me. These two houses, and the fact that they are in Los Angeles and feature in so many movies, meant the music came easily because it was a fantasy. The art was just the element of a bigger picture; an element of this gigantic city with its film industry and all these great movies and TV shows that I grew up with. My musical expression feels more like soundtracks. I never bought a record until the age of 14, and before 14 my only musical experience was through movies and TV. So when I created a band, I did soundtracks, because this is what I learnt from. These houses were excuses to let these influences open to me again.
(AT) What fascinates you about modernist architecture?
(NG) I think it is the idea of creating your own future. I grew up in Versailles, a town from the 18th Century built under Louis XIV, in his architectural style. It’s good but very heavy. I think modern architecture is a way to erase the past and for a creator or artist to start something new which is quite exciting. In Paris, you’re just here passing through. There was someone who lived in my apartment before me, and someone will live in it after me. I think modernist architecture was the promise of a future instead of squatting in the past.
(AT) It’s interesting to think about how these modernist houses are now also having a new life. Even you and Xavier are giving them another life through your performances. I wonder, is that a form of transitioning, or passing through in a way?
(NG) I'm thinking about that a lot nowadays. I'm 50 years old, and I’m really questioning these things right now… I'm kind of dizzy, and I feel kind of lost… The fact that my future is limited now. I feel like I have to redefine my philosophy of life now just to fit what's going to be my life from now on. So, I think I need to reconfigure my life to give an answer to this question. Right now I don't have an answer. I’m kind of lost between two philosophies of life; the one I’ve held up until now, and the one I need to have for the future.
(AT) With the release of Concrete and Glass, are you thinking about where people are when they listen to the album? Where do you think is the best place to listen to your music?
(NG) Actually the first track I ever recorded was the Modulor Mix in ‘95 - it was to create some sounds to be listened to in a Le Corbusier space. The sound design was made specifically for that function. It’s very funny, because for me, the best place to listen to music is in a car at night on the highway, rather than any particular house.
(CC) We’ve talked about the spaces of ideation, and the spaces of performance, but what about the space of production. Where do the sounds become the songs that go on the album? Is there anything that you can tell us about what that space is for you and why it is the way it is?
(NG) The space where I create? It’s very funny; I’m from a generation where we started in the home studio, but I had this big success with Air. We started to record in big studios all over the world, and we created our dream space in Paris - we bought this huge warehouse and built this amazing recording studio, we started to have assistants… And then after a while, I said: fuck it, I hate that. It's not what I like, and when you reach the point where someone changes the strings of your guitar for you, you say I’m fucked, this is not working. And so with this album I sold the big recording studio, moved into a tiny room, and put all my synthesisers into a space smaller than my bedroom. It was really crazy. I took a picture of it and it'll be inside the album. I think this is the smallest space I’ve ever used for recording in my entire life.
(AT) It is very interesting that Modular Mix and Concrete and Glass are both about modernist architecture which typically feature open spaces and blur the boundary between inside and outside, yet you’re creating that music within a highly controlled and confined space. The tension there seems intriguing.
(NG) Yeah, it’s funny to record something so wide in such a small space. It’s just really mind blowing, really really small - the space is about 9m2.
(CC) That’s really small! As this began in collaboration with Xavier Veilhan, was there something about performing alongside exhibitions in your album notes? Or, how do you see this album being performed?
(NG) I thought I had made my point with Air, I made the album I needed to. I thought that’s it, I said what I had to say. Now I think other people have to say something new, but me, I’ve said what I had to say. So when Xavier approached me, I didn’t expect it - I was not even thinking of making a new record and he gave me the desire to do another album. I’m really thankful to him, because with his energy and direction he gave me the strength to make a record. I was thinking more about just going on tour with Air or something like that. The record was an accident. I don't have a plan for a career, I don't have an agenda. I don't need to make records, I’m very happy with who I am. If I made this record it's because of that, it’s an accident and I’m very happy about that.
(AT) How are you imagining people will listen to this? Whilst driving in their car, with you performing live, in modern houses, or tight spaces…?
(NG) The most important thing to me is that people can listen to the album without knowing anything about the original content. I want the music to be pure without any context. If you’re interested in it you can find out it’s inspired by houses. What I like most about music is that it is an art that speaks to your heart directly - you don't need someone to explain the theory. People have no fear if they don't like a song, or if they do. But sometimes when you see contemporary art, we are scared to give opinions. The same way with wine… I like that music isn’t like that. Everyone feels comfortable to say a song is great, or it’s not cool, or I don't like it, or this song makes me feel good or not. So I really wanted the album to be like that for most of the people that listen to it. You can decide if you like it without knowing anything about the inspiration or the architecture. Otherwise I would have released the song tracks of the exhibits as they were - I have the tapes at home and I could have put them on the album directly but I really wanted to transform the music into independent songs.