Because of the dreamy, pristine soundscapes they’ve been creating since 1998’s Moon Safari, it’s not that surprising that Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel were approached to record the score for the remastered, hand-painted print of Georges Méliès’s classic 1902 short film Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon), which showed at Cannes last summer. What’s more surprising is just how raw their score — and the album they expanded it into — turned out to be. Yes, it’s still Air, but the exacting — and sometimes antiseptic — production they’ve made their trademark has been ditched in favor of something more loose and free. Vulture got on the phone with Godin ahead of this week’s album release to talk about the project, the benefits of working with the dead, and keeping the dream of space travel alive.
How’d you get involved with the project in the first place?
We got a phone call from the foundation that financed the restoration of the movie. They also told us they had to take it to Cannes in one month. When we saw the movie, it was like, Oh my God, we have three weeks to write eight songs. They have to be very good because it’s going to be shown at Cannes and the cinema world is going to be there and if it’s not good we’ll look ridiculous. We were pretty scared.
What was the writing and recording process like?
We had the movie on the screen and we were testing ideas. You could see if it was good or bad, so we could move on very fast. There was no doubt: If a theme was no good, we’d throw it away; if it was good we’d keep it and make it better. We watched the movie 50 times a day for three weeks.
Were there scenes that were particularly difficult?
The famous scene, with the rocket in the eye of the moon. It was so intimidating. At some point, we were thinking of letting it be silent — for Georges Méliès and his memory. It was working quite well, but then we found this idea of the vocals and it worked even better.
What was it like working on a score for a film where the director has no input?
We were in such a rush that we had a complete blank slate. It was very positive, actually. The movie was finished, the editing was finished, so we could work on a perfect synchronization between sound and image. When you work on a normal movie, you make music for one scene and the next day the scene is longer or shorter, and all your work is gone. It’s falling apart, collapsing. With this, it was a unique occasion for us to show people what we can do when there’s perfect synchronization with the image. But at some point we felt the magic of Méliès in the studio. We felt his presence a little bit. It was very strange, it was very weird. Even if he’s dead, he was there.
When did you decide to expand the project to an album?
At the end of the movie, we had two surprises. The first was, Wow, we have an album. It’s completely coherent, it’s great, and works together. And the second was that we were frustrated because it stopped in a very abrupt way. We were frustrated and we wanted to perfect it, so we decided to go on and tell the story in 30 minutes; the movie is 16 minutes.
How are the score and album different?
Some of the songs in the album are not in the movie; some of the songs from the movie are not on the album. Also, the mixes. The first track, “Astronomic Club” — in the movie there’s a lot of reverb on the drums because they are in a big cathedral. We wanted people to feel that. But on the record you don’t see the cathedral, so you don’t need the reverb.
This album feels warmer and more organic than most of your recent work. Why is that?
We wanted to pay tribute to the way Méliès was working and doing everything himself. He was in his own studio, building the sets, writing the script, and playing in it. We wanted to do everything ourselves and do something very raw, something very organic and homemade.
Along with Moon Safari, this is your second album with moon in the title. Does the moon have a special meaning to Air?
I think our generation is obsessed with the moon. When we were children, we were told that in the year 2000 we’d be in spaceships and living on the moon. Nothing like that happened. We felt betrayed. Now people stay home in front of the screen. But when we were kids we were supposed to be out of our home, out in space. So I feel like when I make records, I keep the dream alive.
We’re going to do music for a video game, but we can’t talk about because it’s just beginning. But it’s going to be very cool and very crazy.