Passion, Place and Purpose: Nicolas Godin’s Concrete and Glass
Nicolas Godin is a stalwart of French electronica, and though his new record, Concrete and Glass, is named for his architectural passions, it’s really exploring so much more.
“Where are you calling from? What city?”
It catches me a little off guard. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m far from a seasoned veteran, but in my experience, I’m usually the one asking the questions. I tell him – “I’m in Melbourne,” I say, probably a little awkwardly – and we’re suddenly discussing the fires that have ravaged the nation, burning millions of hectares, displacing hundreds of at-risk residents, and miring millions of people in thick, dangerous smoke. We talk about the smoke. I mention the rain, the last puddles just drying out on the deck. He seems earnestly glad, and I’m touched. He’s eager to talk, so we get right to it
Nicolas Godin was twenty-five when he formed AIR with Jean-Benoit Dunckel. The Versailles pair were academics – architecture and mathematics, respectively – and they preserved that scholastic edge in their music, delicately sensual and intellectually intricate. Jean-Benoit brought a fascination with astrophysics, and Godin a passion for structure, but it was their mysterious creative rapport that helped parse those subjects in new-age lounge ballads on their debut, 1998’s Moon Safari.
The prog and psych elements of La Femme d’Argent, the cascading groove that opens the album, sets a spacious downtempo tone on which the record delivers. Elsewhere, the soft-spoken sensitivity of tracks like All I Need and You Make It Easy channelled the classic pop sensibilities of Burt Bacharach, the synth-laden grooves of Gorgio Moroder and the spacious preoccupations of Jean-Michel Jarre. Critics pointed to far-flung acts – ELO, Everything But The Girl, Garbage and Beth Orton, to name a few – but those many influences spoke more to their inspired approach than any true analogs.
A 1998 Pitchfork review called their debut both “the perfect background music for minimalist architecture design [and] shagging up against a tree in a field of sunflowers.” It’s a strange middle ground to occupy, but Moon Safari was an undeniable slice of space-age sensuality; a record as heady as it was horny – reader, if you’re a late-’90s kid who’s seen this sitting in your parents’ vinyl stack, I have some news. Don’t take us at out word: “play this on Valentine's Day for your sweetie,” suggested Pitchfork, “and go to work Monday with band-aids on your back.”
More than two decades on, both Moon Safari and AIR themselves retain that powerful poise. The group, never truly done, have splintered into their own lanes, and whilst Jean-Benoit has moved as a solo artist for the better part of 15 years, Nicolas Godin – the progenitor of the band itself – has taken his time with it. He and Dunckel scored Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, expanded their horizons with 10,000 Hz Legend, dug deeper into world music with Talkie Walkie, rescored and revitalised George Méliès ever-influential Le Voyage dans la Lune, and composed for spaces, taking their lofty electronica from Versaille bedrooms to Parisian museums. AIR has been a whirlwind tour through time and space, a project spanning genre, convention and intent, exploring an uncommon breadth of mediums.
Godin’s solo debut, 2015’s Contrepoint, explored the malleability of Bach, a compositional hero preserved in sheets alone, and the vision of Glenn Gould, a pianist who memorably invigorated those pages. His new record, Concrete and Glass, explores another two of his greatest inspirations, reiterating his relationship with both “minimalist architecture design” and passionate love. It’s been a long time coming.
“Oh, very long, actually,” he admits outright. “I understand that I was very slow, and so I promised myself to be faster for the next album because this one was just too long to create.” It’s a hard record to measure in conventional stretches, owing to the unconventional nature of how it all came together. “The first time I did this art exhibit with my friend, Xavier Veilhan, who is the origin of the project because he did some exhibits in famous houses around the world.” Architectones, Veilhan’s series of spacious installations, was an involved process for Godin, who composed for some of the most innovative and distinctive designs of the last century: his composition for Richard Neutra’s VDL Research House, perched on Los Angeles’ Silver Lake Boulevard, was pressed to an octagonal record and centred with a nut-and-bolt pinwheel, and Lautner’s Theme, inspired by the nearby Sheats-Goldstein Residence, was pressed to a striking triangle. “When I went to California to discover all the architects, I realized there was sensuality,” he recalled, contrasting the embrace of nature with the proto-brutalist edge of his schooling.
“This took one and a half years,” he continued, “and then when this was finished, I tried to transform this music into an album and it took me another year – but I was not happy. I asked a producer, Pierre Rousseau, to help me to do it again, and so we did it a third time. It really added another year, so it'd been like… three and a half years.” He sounds a little worn even regaling it. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I'm kind of lazy maybe!”
That hardly seems the case, and to his credit, it took at least a year and a half for Godin to realise he was piecing together an album. It wasn’t the first time, either. “It sounds like it's the way I do records now, because it's true, the first solo album was kind of an accident,” he explains, with 2015’s Contrepoint the result of some in-studio experimentation that snowballed into a bold and unexpected debut. “This one is the same – I didn't plan to do it. It was not in my agenda, and then my friend asked me to do this exhibit. I had all this music at the end, and I didn't know what to do with it!”
It’s in the wake of Architectones that Concrete and Glass started to take shape, but it was a shape far different from the original incarnation, divorced from both the spaces for which he wrote and the ideas from which he initially pulled. “It's more than a concept,” he says of his happenstance approach, “it's more that I need an excuse to do it… I don't see myself going into the studio one morning and saying ‘okay, I have to make a record because I am an artist, and that's what I do,’ you know?”
“I needed something, to have a reason to record, but once I'm recording, I'm guided by the melodies and the inspiration,” he said, distancing himself from the ‘concept album’ label. “I really don't care about the vision of the project. I really want the audience not to be bothered by this conceptual thing, you know? I just need a reason to make another, but once I'm working, I really don't want to bother people with it.” It’s an approach he extended to his collaborators, each one given the freedom to interpret Godin’s music beyond the confines of his starting point.
If Concrete and Glass seems a strictly themed affair, Nicolas made sure to defuse those preconceptions. “I told them look, to be honest, the origin of the song was this house, but honestly, I really don't care. Just follow you feeling when you listen to the melody or the production of the track, just feel inspired and you can write about anything!” It’s a liberty taken across the entire record, with guests offering up their own distinctive takes atop his electronic foundations. Cola Boyy, who graces second single The Foundation, ponders salvation, despair and the hope of a brighter future, those lofty existential ideas a far cry from the steel-and-sunlight inspiration of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #21. Godin gave the context and Cola Boyy, armed with and unencumbered by that knowledge, projected his own ideas and emotions onto the instrumental. It took him to new and unfamiliar places. “I sing differently on this song,” said Cola Boyy in discussion with Godin. “My own music is usually pretty, like, in your face, so I had to adjust in a way.”
The same can be said for Kirin J. Callinan – an “Australian character,” as Godin so eagerly puts it – who appears on Time On My Hands. “Kirin is a strong personality and we've got some mutual friends, and he is basically the opposite of me – basically the opposite of anyone – because he's kind of unique.” That doesn’t make their musical rapport any less compelling, and Kirin’s restrained and poetic performance, delivered through a thin mechanical veil, works well alongside the gently tinkering instrumental. “I suppose it was strange that me and him get along so well to do music together, because I'm kind of this traditional French person, and he's got this exuberant character... but the thing is that what I like about him is the panache. You do something for the beauty of the gesture, you know? Kirin is like that.”
“He's a fucking good musician, like the melody, the harmonies, his ear, the guitar playing... the sounds that he produces, it's very unique… he's part of the group of people that you can really rely on, he's a range of abilities that are really endless.” Those endless abilities pair well with Godin’s freewheeling collaborative method, one that pulls so wholly from featured artists. “It is really cool that it can still be interpreted in so many ways,” said Cola Boyy, bouncing off Godin’s dismissal of a highfalutin concept record. If Concrete and Glass had its beginnings in the physical, it found a new identity in Godin’s curiously open-minded approach, one that even extended to the record’s visual elements: “it's a terrible thing for an artist because you write your music, you imagine a whole fantasy world. You especially do music because you don't want to do precise stuff,” he argues, nonetheless happy with The Border and The Foundation, both engrossing extensions of his sounds. “I don't really have an input – I just choose the right people, and once I've made that choice, I let them completely free”
Egoless though his approach to collaboration might be, it’s an exchange that’s essential to his art. “I don't like to do music by myself, you know? Because I used to do music with [Jean-Benoit Dunckel of AIR] in the past, I can't be by myself in the studio... it doesn't work, really. I need the input of other people so it's interesting, and also, the other people reveal the good that is in you,” he posits. “You're the worst person to judge if what you do is good or bad… for me, I always need other people. I'm not a dictator like you who wants everything to be my way, I really need the freshness and spontaneity of other people's personalities.”
If that approach sounds challenging, then that’s precisely the point. The to-and-fro of the creative process “is the core of music system since fifty years ago,” he explains, spotlighting the power of interpersonal tension in artistic relationships. “You put people in a room that are opposites, and that creates magical music… when you think of the early great bands of history, like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones; or all the bands that I knew from my generation, like The Chemical Brothers or Massive Attack, they're all people that are so different!”
“You always make music to someone that's so different from you that at some point, it creates some tension and that's the life of the band! That's one of the secrets!” It certainly calls to mind a swathe of era-defining acts, and AIR – at times, a quietly divided outfit – fit well within the mould. “That's my only advice I give to all the bands: don't split up, because that tension between you guys is part of the job… I need other people. I need other backgrounds. That's salt and pepper, you know?”
The tension at play is far removed from the tensile strength of his university days: it’s ineffable, an abstract thought but an undeniable presence all the same. That kind of intangible aura isn’t the only one that Godin’s looking to channel in the studio: he’s long spoken of ‘the magic,’ an undefined quality that makes the excellent extraordinary. “This magic needs two elements: it needs you to be completely free,” he begins, the lessons imparted over two decades of sessions. “Don't make the song thinking ‘okay, I'm going to be on the radio,’ just to be completely open, like your mind needs to be really empty so everything can get in, you know? The more you have success, then you have to go in the studio as it was the first day of the first song ever recorded. Have a big willpower to have no willpower! It's a very strange thing…”
“The other thing is that you're not responsible for the magic,” he says, the time bringing him no closer to understanding it. “Sometimes you work and nothing happens, and you don't understand why, because the song is good, the melody is good, the chords are great, but there's nothing in it and you don't know why! You're in the studio and these things come to visit you. You cannot decide to have it, it's not in your hands. When this thing is gone, then you're really fucked, you know, and that's terrible!” Your creative friends can attest to that much.
“I don't know the way to get that, you know?” There’s no regret in that admission, and it feels as though the uncertainty is a blessing. If the first principles of music were plain to see, then Godin mightn’t be writing – he crunched his fair share of numbers at university, and it’s the unknowable nature of the craft that stokes his passion. If there was some kind of formula, it just wouldn’t be the same: you can distill it to mathematics, frame it in scientific studies, but music defies categorisation. It’s one thing to understand the science of a song, but it’s another to experience those same melodies as they underwrite moments or score summers; speak to relationships or enshrine memories; evoke emotions or harden resolve. It’s the dressing of day-to-day life, taken with the mindset and shaped by the setting.
“I think decoration and making records is the same thing,” says Nicolas, speaking on his vibrant ‘60s-inspired Paris loft. “I would've loved being a decorator because you create universes, you create worlds; you guide the people into another era, another geographical place, and all of that without leaving the room.” The passion that drives his dense decor is the same one that pushes him to the studio, perhaps less a result of unintended consequence and more a strong personal truth. “When you create a song, as soon as the song starts, suddenly you’re projected in another world… that's what I like to do. I think decoration and composing and producing records is the same job, really.”
There’s really nothing left to prove and, a long process though it may have been, we’re fortunate to have seen another record at all. “It feels like with AIR I did the music that I was dreaming of, and I nailed it,” he says, the elusive ego mounting a modest claim. “I did exactly what I had to do – what my role on Earth was to do – and now I'm getting older and it's like I do music by accident now, and my records will be on the consequences of others, you know?” The man’s making records for none but himself, and if his 2015 reimagining of Glenn Gould’s Bach spoke to personal heroes, his new sophomore effort speaks to the places he’s been and the lessons he’s learned. It’s a welcome surprise that the final track, Cité radieuse, circles back to Modular Mix, the 1995 Le Cobusier dedication that started his journey. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“I hope everything will go back to normal in Australia,” he adds, unprompted, as we near the end. “It was terrible from the outside to see what happened, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like.” It’s a lot less surprising at the close: Godin’s work has always straddled the intersection between design and desire, but with Concrete and Glass, he returns to his architectural roots in pursuit of another old friend – relationships.
The spaces throughout are reflected through meditations, taken on by collaborators and reinvented as melodies. In some cases, they’re ignorant of those schematics, and in others, they’re well aware, but in pairing their visions with Godin’s, each bring something new to the initially architectural compositions. They’re imbued with memories and coloured by values, shaped by artists as they were in the very beginning. There’s nothing on Concrete and Glass, bar the title, that squarely places you within four walls, and that’s exactly the point – these structures are refracted through our minds, as much an indescribable feeling as a time and place.
You needn’t know a thing about architecture to enjoy the record, just as you needn’t have a degree to be awed by a building. In many ways, architecture is a conduit for the most human feelings of all – love, fear, aspirations, nostalgia – and those qualities, abstract and ineffable, are as central to the telling as the foundations themselves.
Nicolas Godin's new album, Concrete and Glass, is out now via Because Music / Caroline Australia.
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