The band is composed of two French guys from Versailles who met when they were 15. As kids, they played rock and roll, but when their label insisted that they sing in French instead of English, they stopped. Singing rock songs in French just seemed wrong to them; besides, they knew deep down that they’d never be the Stooges. They were just too … French. So one guy decided to study architecture, and the other guy taught mathematics and physics at a university. Around them in Paris, however, there was a burgeoning electronic music scene just beginning to flourish, and it pointed a new way forward.
“Playing guitars loud through amps is great fun when you’re 15 and full of hormones, but French people are better at being chefs or fashion designers,” Nicolas Godin remarked decades later. “Rock music is not really in our culture. But electronic music is different. When we discovered it, suddenly we had an outlet.”
Godin and his musical partner, Jean Benoit-Dunckel, went on to form Air, and eventually released one of my favorite albums ever, the landmark Moon Safari, 20 years ago this month. At the time, Moon Safari stood in marked contrast to the other major crossover French electronic LP of the era, Daft Punk’s Homework, which dominated MTV and hip mixtapes everywhere with nu-disco bangers such as “Around The World” and “Da Funk.” While Daft Punk catered to Saturday night ragers, Air’s contemplative interstellar muzak was strictly for the Sunday morning brooders — or, perhaps, for those who didn’t go out on Saturday nights at all.
As Dunckel later admitted, the Air pair “didn’t get to go to all the parties” that were happening around them during the gestation of Moon Safari. Instead, they obsessed over writing pocket symphonies that melded Burt Bacharach, Serge Gainsbourg, Pink Floyd, and Herbie Hancock’s Thrust on what became (to quote fellow travelers in ’90s chill-out jams Stereolab) the ultimate in space-age bachelor pad music. “We were poor,” Dunckel explained to The Guardian in 2016. “I knew our livelihood depended on Air being successful.”
Honestly, I didn’t know any of this stuff until just a few days ago, when I decided to finally figure out why Moon Safari has resonated with me for so long. Even as a person who is professionally obligated to intellectualize everything he listens to, I’ve never felt compelled to dig past the music of Moon Safari. I knew virtually nothing about Godin or Dunckel, or how they hooked up with Beth Hirsch, an American singer-songwriter who sings and co-wrote the album’s two torchiest ballads, “All I Need” and “You Make It Easy.” (Apparently, she was Godin’s neighbor.) I didn’t bother to look up the meaning of “La Femme d’argent” (“The Silver Lady”) or “Ce matin-la” (“The Morning”), even with my rudimentary background in high-school francais. I didn’t even read the liner notes. I still listen to Moon Safari a couple of times per month — it’s my go-to writing album, along with Air’s 2004 masterpiece Talkie Walkie — but for the longest time I remained willfully ignorant of even the album’s most basic facts.
I think I liked the idea that Moon Safari only existed inside of the contours of my own head. The lightly strummed acoustic guitars, the gently bobbing congas, those perfect synth tones — Moon Safari has hummed as a warm and calming antidote to the feverish anxiousness of my interior monologue for years now, to the point where the music seems almost impossible to analyze. How do you articulate your feelings about something that has come to be an abstract part of your own inarticulate consciousness?