Carbon is Jean-Benoit “JB” Dunckel’s third electronic album under his own name, and his tenth since 2006, including a variety of scores for films like Summer, Swagger, and Capital In The Twenty-First Century. Since the late 1990s, however, Dunckel has been best known as one half of Air, the iconic French group that combined the sounds of Pierre Bachelet, Quincy Jones, Kraftwerk, and Martin Denny into a frothy, frisky, mesmerizing connection. Along with Daft Punk, Air confidently represented electronica’s French contingency for more than two and a half decades, and Dunckel continues to showcase an adventuresome, singular virtuosity that extends the duo’s legacy, even if his last outing with bandmate Nicolas Godin was 2014’s idiosyncratic Music For Museum.
For Air fans who’ve been getting impatient for a follow-up, Carbon vividly carries forward its torch while giving Dunckel opportunities to explore more of what he would call the “weird” impulses only hinted at during the band’s heyday. From the propulsive “Corporate Sunset” to the immediately recognizable, vintage Air-ish tones of “Space,” to “Sex UFO,” his cheeky tribute to Jeff Bezos’ phallic Blue Orbit rocket, Carbon could be one of the sleeper hits of summer 2022. Dunckel recently spoke to The A.V. Club from his home in France, where he revealed he’s listening to a newly remastered edition of Moon Safari, Air’s debut album, ahead of its 25th anniversary next January. In addition to talking about the differences—and similarities—between the band’s output and his solo work, he explored the pandemic mindset that led to the themes and music of Carbon, and offered an update on Air’s future, including how and why they won’t close the door on continuing to work together in the future.
The A.V. Club: What inspired this new record?
Jean-Benoit Dunckel: When I composed this music, I was doing a lot of soundtracks, and so I was not in a pop mood anymore. I said to myself that I wanted to mix and to keep all the music that was a little bit soundtrack-y, ambient and powerful, but not to go on the radio. I wanted to do an album that was really trippy and deep. So I just wanted to focus on something really artsy and deep, and I just noticed that the common subject was sort of a scientific philosophy about carbon and about nature and the sky, about space. And when we were locked down, I think that everybody was a little bit disturbed because it was very new and very hard sometimes, because you had to stay in your apartment. And I think that it was kind of a shock for people. And people realized that we didn’t need a lot of things to be happy. Like, if you have food, if you have a home, and if you have company, it’s enough. And so it helped me to restructure my brain, to focus on the important things in life, which is actually to be happy in nature. So this album is called Carbon because carbon is sort of the main stable element of organic molecules. It’s a molecule that travels through space and time and planets and cosmos. And it’s an element that is part of our body, the core of our body. And it never leaves. And it’s full of force and it’s like the main thing in yourself that helps you to live. And so this album is an intense, energetic travel into your mind and space and it’s something solid and deep.
AVC: Mirages, your previous album, came out right before the pandemic. That record also has a meditative, ambient sound. Do you feel like they’re part of a similar creative impulse, or do you see them as very different?
JBD: Yeah, there is a similar impulse actually. Mirage, I made with Jonathan Fitoussi, and the first track of Carbon is called “Spark,” and Jonathan was there when I composed the song. So yeah, Carbon follows Mirage, but it’s something maybe a bit more accessible, less ambient—but the same direction. It’s really research into the depths of my creation. And I just tried to do the best that I could to do some interesting music in general. And when there was no need of a voice, there was no voice. I feel like the format of the music is completely free—there is no chorus and verse. It just goes and it’s pure inspiration.
AVC: Do you see what’s happening around you and absorb it into your songwriting? Or do you tend to have a very insulated creative process?
JBD: I think music is not part of your logical brain. It’s an energy that floats around you and you capture it in the studio. Basically, all of the music and the tracks that I did are something that you just capture. It’s a mysterious expression of yourself that you capture and that you try to shape to make it more relevant and more powerful. And I think it’s more research work—an artistic research program, actually. I tried to follow a sort of mysterious sound wherein myself, I use all of the science of the studio and my instruments and what I know about music to make it as emotional as I can.
AVC: Do you feel like you work towards a theme for each album, or do you start recording songs and find that a common theme that emerges?
JBD: Yes. I start recording and then I trust that there is a common point, a sort of common energy, a mysterious theme behind the music that I try to gather into an album, basically. It’s a sort of psychological work—like you would go to a shrink, and the music explains what mood you are in on these days.
AVC: Having worked on soundtracks and these other creative excursions, what are the differences between your solo work and your work with Air, which is so well known?
JBD: I like to play with someone else, because you can push yourself into some unique directions, and it’s something that you can’t expect. And I think I’m good in a duo. I think that when I work with someone, I go out of my comfort zone, and it makes me do things that I wouldn’t do usually. And that’s what I like. And basically I think that music is better when it’s played with several persons—like bands and orchestras are more powerful than a solo guy. But when I’m in a solo mood, I’m not really alone, because I study other compositions, like the ones that I discovered from the classical music world. So listening to other records and paying attention to other artists’ music, I try to incorporate all of this behavior and all of this science into what I do.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that Kraftwerk has been an influence, and listening to tracks like “Spark” and “Corporate Sunset,” you definitely can detect those influences. And then “Space” feels much more like a classic Air track. Is there a challenge to do something different, or do you work intuitively and let the chips fall as they may?
JBD: I think I try to escape as much as I can from the band [I was a part of] in the past. I try to escape from Air, and when it’s too much like Air, I think my sound is not original because I did it before. So most of the time I reject these new “Air tracks.” But on another hand, I was a part of Air, so Air has a lot of me in it too. So I can’t escape from that, too. But basically, I try to do something new each time. And I know that when it’s too “old,” or it’s too unoriginal, I just put it in the trash.
AVC: You’ve always had such a remarkable ability to draw out a beautiful, melancholy romanticism in your music. Does that come from the music or composers that influenced you? Or from life experience? What has drawn you to that tone or that mood that you’ve been able to refine it so beautifully?
JBD: I think it’s emotional. I think that there are some chords that are really moving to me, and then some textures of sounds that are really emotional to me and they put me into a special mood, where I leave Earth, I feel like I’m dreaming while I’m awake. And it’s a sort of medicine that helps me to stand the pains in life that we all [experience]. And so it’s a medicine when I play this chord or make these melodies. It brings me a lot of pleasure, and also a lot of melancholy. And I think that when you feel melancholic, if you play some melancholic music, it feels alright because they console each other.
AVC: Are there records that you go back to often for inspiration? Even if you’re trying not to copy yourself, perhaps you find new influences where you’re like, Oh wow, I never noticed this element of this record, and I really feel like that can take me in a different direction?
JBD: When I listen to music, like putting Spotify on, there are two different attitudes, with the possibility to discover new things. So it’s a sort of work. I listen, and I work, because I carefully listen to a new artist and I try to understand how they did their music. I try to incorporate in my memory all their tricks with new production [techniques] and what they do with music and how they compose, how they make some textures of sounds and what the melodies are exactly—and so I’m trying to study it. And the second manner is just for pleasure. I put on some records that I know are going to be really emotional to me, and it can be some classic record that I knew in the past, or it can be some music that I heard somewhere, and I said to myself, oh yeah, I should listen to this again because it’s so wonderful.
AVC: What are the things that are influencing or inspiring you now that maybe didn’t when you first started making music?
JBD: New artists, big artists. I always listen to big, big mainstream things, like, for example, the last album by Kendrick Lamar. I listen to it because of what he talks about, and it’s interesting to study it. Or I listen to The Weeknd’s album because it’s very successful, and the production is amazing. And so it’s always good to know what they do. And I like, for example, alternative creative artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, because I listen to the music and I think it’s really interesting. It’s really new. The way it’s edited is very original. The textures and sounds are kind of electronic but they’re so well put together. It’s very clever, and emotional, and digital even sometimes, and I like it. And so I listen to new artists—I have to listen to them, because I have to update my way of creating music.
AVC: There’s only a handful of tracks in the Air discography I would characterize as uptempo or dance-y. In such a fertile community of dance-oriented French electronic artists, is there a reason you stayed away from that end of the musical spectrum?
JBD: Doing uptempo music is not natural to me, but it can happen. And I did! For example, “Corporate Sunset” on this last album is more uptempo. But I think that Air’s music, and what I did solo, is not exactly for clubs. It’s not made for dancing. It’s more for dreaming. And back in the 2000s, house music was very big in England and in Europe, and I always said to myself, I don’t make house music, because I make home music—what you listen to when you get back from a party. When it’s midnight or 2 a.m. and you want to relax and chill out, and you want to maybe caress someone that you brought back from the party. You need to have good ambiance and something warm and not aggressive, something that helps you to fall into your dreams. And I think that I’m more naturally attracted by that.
AVC: You mentioned The Weeknd, who obviously worked with Daft Punk, and you’ve produced and worked with a lot of different artists. Have you had the opportunities to work more in that pop sphere?
JBD: Oh, yes, I would do it, definitely. I have nothing against mainstream music, and I think what we call mainstream is not due only to musical reasons. It’s also a way to present yourself. It’s also a network, it’s a way to sell your music. But the thing is, I’m into a mood right now where my network is not well developed. I follow this path of creating music and doing musical research in my studio, and so I’m in a process of re-creation and getting born again. But I would do it, definitely, because it’s always interesting to work with someone. And I think that The Weeknd has a lot of talent, the melodies and the voice, but also the texture and the production is really good, I think.
AVC: Your music has always been very cinematic, and you and Nicolas Godin did the score to The Virgin Suicides early in your career. What itch does doing film scores scratch for you, and how does that change your creativity when you come back to something that’s more pop oriented?
JBD: I think that doing soundtracks gives you a lot of freedom, because when you do a soundtrack for someone, you are out of your comfort zone and you have to respect the energy of the picture. So the format of the music is totally free, and it gives you a lot of freedom. You understand that if you want to get something creative, you have to dare to record weird and different things. And so it gives you a lot of creativity, and it helps you to dare to record anything and to put it together in maybe a more artistic way.
AVC: Not to put the cart before the horse here, but Celine Sciamma and Lea Seydoux are making a new version of Emmanuelle. I’ve always had this mental connection between your music and Pierre Bachelet’s score to Emmanuelle 2. If there’s anybody who could do an amazing score to an Emmanuelle movie in 2023, I think it would be you.
JBD: Oh yeah! Yes, definitely. I like eroticism, and definitely, my music is a message for love. It’s a music that helps to put you in the mood of making love, definitely.
AVC: Recently you released a deluxe version of 10,000 Hz. Are there any plans to release any other older albums in deluxe editions?
JBD: Yes, there will be Moon Safari, because it’s going to be the 25-year anniversary of Moon Safari. I just got the new mastering. It’s going to be released, I don’t know how, and I don’t know when—probably at the end of the year, maybe January, because Moon Safari was released in January 1998.
AVC: How much more material from that era is there to explore that fans maybe haven’t heard?
JBD: There are not a lot of unknown tracks of Air, very few. I mean, I have a lot of demos, and a lot of mixes, but there must be like two or three really good songs that nobody has heard. But there is no hidden treasure, because when we would do a track, we would work on it so much that we didn’t really spend time doing other tracks only to shelve them and forget them. I just know that one day I formatted a hard drive and there were some original tracks of Air on it, and one was incredibly good—and I lost it. I was mad it happened.
AVC: For people who don’t know your your solo work as well as they know your work with Air, is there something that distinguishes the new record from your earlier work?
JBD: There definitely is an Air vibration to this record, and in a way, Air is still existing because we’re still thinking and still evaluating because we are doing solo work. And definitely there is something very deep in this album, but more arty, and it’s not made to be on the radio and to be mainstream. It’s made to make people have a sort of emotional shock. I think that some tracks are really powerful and emotional, but you need to have this opportunity. And sometimes, with Air we did some really weird, not mainstream tracks, some weird tracks on some albums. And because it was named Air, it has been accepted. But I’m sure that if one of us would have done that on a solo album, people would have thought it was kind of weird. So I don’t know.
AVC: Music For Museum technically was your last album as a member of Air. That’s such a great record, but it wasn’t a traditional sound for the band. How much collaboration do you see in the future for the two of you?
JBD: I don’t know. I don’t know if we are going to collaborate anymore. I think we have a difficult emotional relationship when we are together, and so it doesn’t help our music. So I don’t know that it can happen. But it depends on the evolution, the mental evolution of each other [Laughs]. It’s a pity, because I remember that when I was a fan of bands, I didn’t understand why the bands were splitting up. I said to myself, this is so stupid—these guys are doing solo work, but we don’t care about the solo work! They should be together and do the band again, because it was really good, what they were doing. It was more creative, more successful, and I didn’t understand. But now I understand now why that happens [Laughs].
AVC: Last year Daft Punk officially announced that they had called it quits. Do you feel like there’s a moment when you announce Air’s future? Or do you want to keep the door open?
JBD: I think the door is still open, especially for live tours, because I think it’s so great to play our music live. It’s so great to travel. And when you travel for a tour, you don’t see each other so much. You can be not always together, and you both contribute to the energy of the tour, and you see your friends around you, and you see your audience. So a tour is different. But the thing is, music has to be fun. Because music is not like a profession, actually. It’s a sort of entertainment, a sort of activity that gives you pleasure and you have fun with your partner. And if you don’t have fun anymore, you don’t get the best of you. And if you don’t get the best of you, when the relationship is too toxic, the music is not deep any more. It’s not good anymore. It doesn’t have good energy anymore because it’s based on compromising. And so it’s not very frank, and it’s not really creative. And you can damage the image of the band by trying to pretend to make it fun and entertaining.