Not Fade Away: Air’s ‘Talkie Walkie’ Turns 10
By Scott T. Sterling
With Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Air’s 2004 full-length Talkie Walkie which turned 10 this month, with a special anniversary reissue package due later this year.
When the band Air emerged from Versailles, France, in 1998 with their debut album Moon Safari, the group’s dreamy sound swept over the music world like a cool summer breeze. From the opening instrumental, “La Femme d’Argent,” to the album’s appropriately cheeky left field hit, “Sexy Boy,” the duo’s mélange of lounge-intensive ‘60s sounds with the whimsy of fellow countryman Serge Gainsbourg was an immediate hit in hip, dimly-lit bedrooms around the world.
Following Moon Safari, Air released the highly successful film score for Sofia Coppola’s gauzy 1999 movie, The Virgin Suicides. The duo’s upward trajectory stalled a bit with the release of the experimental 10,000 Hz Legend (2001). Heavy with Daft Punk-like vocoder and a dizzying variety of sounds, the relatively muted response to the record gave the duo a renewed sense of purpose when approaching its’ follow-up full-length.
“We were kind of pretentious going into 10,000 Hz Legend,” admitted Air’s Nicolas Godin during a recent phone call from France to discuss Talkie Walkie, now 10 years old (it was released on Jan. 27, 2004). “We were kind of full of ourselves after Moon Safari, so there was a lot of ambition on [10,000 Hz Legend]. I think we tried too hard with it. So for Talkie Walkie, we didn’t have any expectations or particular ambitions. It was just JB and I, no collaborators,” he said in regards to the band’s other half, Jean-Benoit Dunckel. “We just wanted to make something simple.”
Over the course of two interviews, both Godin and Dunckel looked back on Talkie Walkie with palpable fondness, placing it high in their personal rankings of the band’s discography. They answered questions honestly and frankly, particularly Dunckel, whose personal recollections of the time bordered on the TMI (more on that later).
Both members agree that Air is taking 2014 off to work on individual projects, including the first solo release from Godin (“all I can say is that it sounds nothing at all like anything I’ve ever done”) and Dunckel releasing the second album by Tomorrow’s World, a collaboration with vocalist Lou Hayter) but plan to reconvene for a new Air album and tour in 2015. In the meantime, they’re sifting through outtakes and live tracks from the era for a special 10th anniversary Talkie Walkie reissue.
Did you have any other concepts in mind for Talkie Walkie, other than it just being the two of you?
Nicolas Godin: I also wanted to have no bass lines on the album, even though I’m known as a pretty good bass player. The only bass line is on ‘Biological,’ and that’s because the song was recorded before I decided to make an album with no bass lines. So we kept it in anyway.
Jean-Benoit Dunckel: We were not in our big studio. We were in a small place in Bastille that we rented from a guy that used to have a music store. It looked a bit like a ski lodge, with wood on the walls. We wanted to make pop songs, but with a lounge, dreamy vibe. 10,000 Hz Legend was more experimental, trying to be more crazy. We were really trying to find the perfect pop song with Talkie Walkie.
What was it like working with Nigel Godrich on the album?
NG: Nigel was great. He is one of the best producers in the world, and he helped us a lot on TW. He was able to show us little things that would make the songs that much better. The songs were already quite simple and straightforward, and he gave it them that special touch.
JBD: I like to think of Nigel as the guardian of the mood on Talkie Walkie. Like on “Cherry Blossom Girl,” I wanted to redo some of the vocals. So I went into the studio and recorded more vocals for it, but Nigel didn’t like them. He preferred the original take, even though there were some minor mistakes. He really helped us maintain the spirit throughout the whole album. It was kind of difficult in that he was working with other artists, like Radiohead at the time and wasn’t always around. We had a lot of fun, actually.
Talkie Walkie includes the song ‘Alone in Kyoto,’ which was originally featured in the movie Lost in Translation. How did working with Sofia Coppola on Virgin Suicides and then again on Lost in Translation affect the band and your approach to making music?
NG: Working with her was fantastic. It’s like working with a friend. I have nothing but fond memories of Sofia. Being the director, she was often busy with filming, but (music supervisor) Brian Reitzell was right there with us along the way. We put “Alone in Kyoto” on TW because when we finished recording the album, we didn’t have enough songs (laughs). We thought to just put it on there to fill out the album, and it’s gone on to become a fan favorite that always gets a great response when we perform it live.
JBD: The success of The Virgin Suicides was very important for us in France, where we have a very special relationship with cinema. We were much more respected in our country after the success of that film score. Before that, I think we were seen (by the French) as just a couple of guys doing light, easy music that was kind of clever.
Is there a track on Talkie Walkie that stands out for you?
NG: I love the song “Venus.” As a child, I was very taken with John Lennon’s first solo album, which was mostly just his voice and piano. With ‘Venus,” I wanted to make my version of something from that first Lennon solo album. I also quite like the song ‘Run.’ ‘Cherry Blossom Girl’ is also a favorite, as it was our second big hit after “Sexy Boy.” We’re not the kind of band to have very many hit songs, so when we do manage to create one, it’s a big deal for us.
JBD: “Cherry Blossom Girl” and “Alone in Kyoto” both worked really well. I think that Talkie Walkie is maybe the most important album for Air, because it was very successful commercially, and in a lot of ways legitimized us as a band.
NG: We’d seen Mazzy Star play in France, and the experience was just so slow and beautiful. We were quite moved by the show, and inspired to write the slowest Air song ever, so we wrote “Cherry Blossom Girl” with her in mind, and she was kind enough to sing it for us. It didn’t work for the album, since it ended up just being JB and I on the record, but that version is very special to me.
Lyrically, it feels like a very personal album
NG: Yes, after a couple of albums, artists tend to get kind of narrow-minded and just focus on themselves. JB and I aren’t any different (laughs). The album definitely captures a special moment in time for the band. It was just JB and I in a small home studio, with a little drum machine writing these very simple songs. It’s a very cute album. I love Talkie Walkie. It’s a very special record to me. As a kid, I dreamed of making a classic album, and I think we achieved that with Talkie Walkie. It’s such a great feeling to realize that dream. To me, Moon Safari, Talkie Walkie and The Virgin Suicides are classic albums that I’m very proud of creating.
JBD: It was extremely personal for me. That year I ended a 15-year relationship, so I opened myself to a world of sex (laughs). It was kind of like becoming a teenager again, or in my case, for the first time. I really had no experience with the opposite sex. I could express myself with a keyboard, but not with a woman. I think a lot of those emotions definitely made their way onto Talkie Walkie. It was a time of sexual hope!