Purple Magazine
— Purple #31 The Paris issue

nicolas godin

nicolas godin

interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

a musician’s apartment in the 7th arrondissement, redesigned by mathias kiss, with soft acoustic comfort,
moody bourgeois interiors, 
and a tenebrous elegance

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your second solo album is about to be released. What’s the story behind that?
NICOLAS GODIN — To begin with, it was a commission linked to contemporary art. Something the artist Xavier Veilhan put to me three years ago. He asked me to produce music for the different exhibitions he was doing in famous houses designed by modernist architects all around the world. There are three of them in Los Angeles (by Pierre Koenig, John Lautner, and Richard Neutra), one in Russia by Konstantin Melnikov, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, and the church by Claude Parent in Nevers. I love architecture. I studied architecture for six years, between 1989 and 1995. I brought these pieces together to make this album.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you study architecture before you started making music with Air?
NICOLAS GODIN — No. Before I studied architecture, I already had a rock band with Jean-Benoît [Dunckel] in Versailles. We sent demos to record companies and got rejections. I found that demoralizing, so I gave up music and did architecture, thinking that the music would never go anywhere. Marc Teissier du Cros got me started again in 1995 when he was working at Source with Philippe Ascoli. My first piece, called “Modular Mix,” was on one of their compilations. That was already a tribute to Le Corbusier. It struck me that when he created his Modulor system, Le Corbusier had failed to think of acoustics, of sound. He was a Protestant and kind of austere. That really shocked me because in my view, when you enter a place, the sound is super important. The sound of the place, its specific aural space. So, as I saw it, this first piece was made to be listened to in Le Corbusier’s house.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you thinking of the aural ambience in your apartment when you conceived it with Mathias Kiss?
NICOLAS GODIN — Like me, Mathias Kiss, who did the decoration, is obsessed with the acoustic comfort of an interior. That’s why we put lots of carpet in my apartment, so as to have that very muffled, very soft sound that is never aggressive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, soft lighting and sound, which you don’t get with parquet floors.
NICOLAS GODIN — Right. Carpet tiles are part of the culture of traditional French interior designers. Carpet tiles by Codimat are hand sewn on the sides and come in rolls 70 cm wide. The carpet is stretched on a frame, it’s not glued down. There is no damage to the apartment or to the wooden floorboards underneath. You get this only in France. There are several specialists in Paris. We have an industrial vision of carpet, a very 1970s vision, whereas in fact carpeting can be an art form. It’s like cashmere or made-to-measure suits: it lasts a lifetime. They had that at Saint Laurent’s place in the Rue de Babylone. It’s really old school.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How does architecture inspire you when you’re composing?
NICOLAS GODIN — I don’t know what role music plays for architects, but for me as a musician, in any case, architecture is really important. When you ask musicians about their influences, they talk to you about other musicians or the groups they love. But for me, the biggest musical influence is architecture. I really do conceive my pieces in three dimensions. In fact, Air’s music is very spatial. With a line and a point, you can create an infinite space. What interests me is the spatialization of music, arranging elements to fit together.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What connection do you see between architecture and music?
NICOLAS GODIN — What is important in architecture are not the walls and forms, but the space between two walls: that is what creates the architecture, the emptiness between the walls. It’s the same thing between two notes. A note on its own is nothing. Two notes together make a chord. That creates a space, a color. It’s the same principle as in architecture; it’s the emptiness between things that defines the thing in question. We often tend to see architecture as a structure, but what is beautiful is the emptiness between things. Architecture cuts up empty space and time, just like music.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s your Japanese side. You remind me more of Tadao Ando than of the Château de Versailles, which you grew up beside.
NICOLAS GODIN — Well, in fact, there’s a real connection between Japan and André Le Nôtre’s gardens in Versailles. It’s something completely Zen. As a child, I came to them from the side, by the Porte Saint-Antoine, via the Grand Trianon. I could see the canal stretching out into the distance, with the trees pruned to make points. These are powerful childhood memories. It’s an unreal place, but I had everyday access. I had access to a dream. After Sofia Coppola’s film, they started charging for entry to Marie-Antoinette’s Domain and the Châteaux de Trianon, but in those days it was free and abandoned. Nobody really went there. You would arrive at Le Petit Trianon; there was dust all over the place. It was empty, not even open. There was just us! Tourists went to the château, but that was all. It was crazy. After Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette’s Domain and the Chateaux de Trianon became fashionable.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know that Air’s music had been influenced by the Château de Versailles.
NICOLAS GODIN — Not by the château. We were on the Marie-Antoinette side… Old Versailles is a very dreary town, a garrison town. We were really at the other end, in a different world. If you walk in the empty gardens at the end of the day or in the morning with music by Air in your headphones, you have the impression you’re listening to the place’s soundtrack. It’s a dreamlike place. There’s the town of Versailles, then the château, and you walk through the château and come to the unknown. You walk through space-time, and it’s completely cut off from life, outside everything else. And what’s more, because, for Le Nôtre’s perspective not to be spoiled, there had to be nothing, then nothing is what there is, as far as the eye can see.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the link between architecture and music is also this idea of the aural landscape.
NICOLAS GODIN — Of course: garden, nature, space. The houses chosen by Xavier [Veilhan], which he exhibited in, are often like belvedere houses overlooking a landscape. I’m thinking of the house by Lautner, the Chemosphere, which is a circular viewing platform. Very often, architects conceive a house as a kind of promontory for observing the landscape, the sky. The observation of nature and the cosmos is written into the history of architecture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you reflect each house in your compositions?
NICOLAS GODIN — The pieces of music were composed in response to the history of each house because each house belongs to the period when it was built. The vibrations are different every time. As a musician, whenever I arrived in a place, in a house, I had to transcribe what I felt as music. The location, the architecture, the view, the life of the architecture, etc. These were the elements that I tried to transform into aural space. What I then had to do was sum up the music I’d created for these exhibitions in pieces that are four or five minutes long, so that people could listen to them at home.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And to transform them into songs?
NICOLAS GODIN — Yes. I invited lots of singers. Each time, I explained the origins of the project to them so that they’d be aware of it when doing their text.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s not you singing?
NICOLAS GODIN — In the first song about the Sheats Goldstein Residence by John Lautner, I’m singing on a vocoder: “I’m looking for a house in glass and concrete.” It’s kind of hard to find. You take these winding roads up in the heights of Beverly Hills, come to this little dead end, then have to go back down again. That was the first piece I wrote the text for.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s a vocoder?
NICOLAS GODIN — It’s a synthesizer on which you put the sound through a mic. It’s your mouth that does the morphing: the synthesizer talks with your mouth. It morphs vowels and consonants. It transforms your pronunciation into synthesizer sounds. Kraftwerk used one on some of their tracks.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How many pieces are there?
NICOLAS GODIN — Nine. There’s John Lautner, Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, two for Le Corbusier, Claude Parent, Konstantin Melnikov, Mies van der Rohe… Later on, I developed a concept for each house. With Le Corbusier having two pieces, there was one for Le Corbusier himself and one for La Cité Radieuse. La Cité Radieuse has a very clever system of interlocking modules. In cross section, each apartment is like a little L which fits into the L of the apartment next door, like in Tetris. This makes it possible to have two floors, an indoor street down the middle and a duplex on every floor. In the same way, I created musical modules that I nested together. Music is like architecture, elements interlocking together. And when they fit together well, it’s great.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you title the songs using the architects’ names?
NICOLAS GODIN — To begin with, yes. Now, though, the John Lautner piece, for example, is called “Concrete and Glass.” I gave them titles that are a bit more evocative because I didn’t want the music to be too intellectual. I like it to have an intellectual starting point, but after that I want it to be popular, so that anyone can get into it without having to explain the concepts.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The concept must disappear.
NICOLAS GODIN — I have always used a concept to start work. You have a  blank page, and you’re getting started, but after that you’re no longer making decisions, it’s the music. You go where the music takes you. I believe in letting go; I like to be guided by the sounds, the chords. The music shows you another path. It’s like a third person coming in, and you’re under their power. There comes a moment when the music tells you what you have to do. If you’re a good craftsman, it’s like surfing: you wait for the wave, and when it comes, you have to catch it. The music indicates what you must do, and there are no other solutions, unless you really are a dictatorial musician who wants to bend the elements to his will. That’s not my thing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The starting point for this album is architecture, which was how you went back to music before Air. So, it’s like a loop?
NICOLAS GODIN — Exactly, it’s a loop. I wanted to get back into the state I was in when I started out. I made my whole career out of this piece on the Modulor. Afterward, we did Air and made all those tours, all those records. I wanted to come back to a pristine state, to something very personal.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does the album have a name?
NICOLAS GODIN — Concrete and Glass, like one of the pieces. Xavier’s project was called “Architectones,” which is a very fine name. It’s a work by Malevich. But I wanted something a bit more removed from the world of contemporary art.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you choose the other participants and singers?
NICOLAS GODIN — I know a lot of musicians in my generation, but the idea wasn’t to go back in time. I wanted to work with new people. There are a lot of young people out there. They’re all 25 years old. There’s a Russian singer called Kate NV, an American singer from Los Angeles called Kadhja Bonnet, an Australian singer, Kirin J. Callinan.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And how did you get to meet these singers?
NICOLAS GODIN — Instagram, concerts, the LA scene. It was all very spontaneous.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Could you imagine doing a concert with all these people?
NICOLAS GODIN — I don’t know how easy it would be to get all those people onstage, given that that they all have their own worlds and careers.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very composite.
NICOLAS GODIN — Yes, very. But these are fresh, new voices.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that important for you, the voice?
NICOLAS GODIN — Yes. As someone who conceives pieces of music, I like to be in control of things, but the voice, well, it’s something that totally escapes me. Someone comes along and bares their soul, and I don’t know what to do with that. It’s fascinating. As a composer, when I listen to what I’ve done, I can get tired of it, whereas when someone’s singing over my music, it’s just mysterious. That’s why I enjoyed making music with Jean-Benoît [Dunckel], with Air: he brought something that wasn’t me. As a result of that, I could listen to the pieces we did for hours and hours. There was something I couldn’t put my finger on, I didn’t understand where it was coming from, and it fascinated me. I get that with singers, too. When they sing over my music, it’s something I simply wasn’t expecting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you sometimes find yourself rejecting propositions?
NICOLAS GODIN — No. Usually, I choose the people carefully beforehand. And what really interests me is when the voice arrives. It knocks me off balance, it takes me somewhere, and I create other sounds to go with that. Which means that even the sounds I made myself are strange to me because I didn’t create them in and for themselves: I created them when listening to the voice. It’s the voice that decides that this or that sound is needed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The sounds have changed a lot since the early days with Air. What do you do to keep your sound up to date?
NICOLAS GODIN — Groups work with new programs, new plug-ins, guitar sounds, etc. There’s a new way of looking at music. I wasn’t trying to “get down with the kids.” I don’t want to be some old guy who has aural aesthetic surgery like an old lady in Beverly Hills [laughter]. The challenge, therefore, was to rejuvenate my sound without being like an oldie getting a facelift. For example, I’m a huge fan of Bowie, but when he does jungle he does look a bit dumb. You shouldn’t do that. Another thing for me is that every record should be a reaction to the one before. And Contrepoint, my Bach album, was a very acoustic album: no computers. This time, I wanted to do something very quantified. An architectural plan is calculated to the nearest millimeter. I really wanted it to be the opposite of Contrepoint, for everything to fit together in perfect timing. I wanted to get the most out of the computers, the plug-ins, the recalls — that’s when you make settings that you can recreate the next day. They are still there. You have exactly the same settings as the day before. I really wanted to do an architectural piece of work.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The possibilities offered by these new machines are endless, right? It’s vertiginous.
NICOLAS GODIN — Yes, it is kind of weird. When I was starting out, if you were mixing an album, you had to do it all on the same day because the next day it would be gone. You had to take decisions immediately. Today, you can go back to it. You can erase things. Start afresh. Keep a trace of everything. For example, if you’re mixing a piece, and you find the voice too loud, you call the mixer back a week later and ask him to put the voice down two dB, and he’ll do it. Before, that would have been impossible because the piece would have disappeared from the mixing console. But I don’t think that we should really hanker for the past. For example, when you see how people painted in the 17th century, you have to accept that people no longer paint like that. We have had the Beatles and Pink Floyd, but that’s all over, and that’s the way it is. If you want to listen to a record from the ’60s, you listen the same way you look at a 17th-century painting, knowing that it will never happen again in the history of humanity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I can sense that these days you feel very free to invent.
NICOLAS GODIN — Yes, absolutely. Especially as I’ve been lucky enough to live out my musical fantasies. I’ve worked in the best studios, with the greatest music producers. I’ve made the records I wanted to make, so now I’m completely free. Anything can happen. And if nothing happens, that’s okay, too.

END

NICOLAS GODIN AT HOME, DESK BY WILLY RIZZO, MIRROR PIECE BY MATHIAS KISS, COPYRIGHT ADAGP, PARIS 2019 DETAIL OF MIRROR PIECE BY MATHIAS KISS COPYRIGHT ADAGP, PARIS, 2019 VINTAGE MCINTOSH STEREO AMPLIFIER BLUE CANOPY WITH IVORY CRUCIFIX PALLADIUM LEAF DINING-ROOM CEILING NICOLAS SCULPTURE BY XAVIER VEILHAN WATERCOLOR BY SEMPÉ FOR THE NEW YORKER, WURLITZER 200A ELECTRIC PIANO

[Table of contents]

Purple #31 The Paris issue

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