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The Air Variations: How Glenn Gould broke up one of France's most acclaimed electronic acts

Jon Dekel

Nicolas Godin, the talkative half of French electronica duo Air, can more or less pinpoint the exact moment he knew the fire to create dreamy pop went out.

The evening in question occurred during the group's fourth world tour, when the bassist and bandleader discovered he was simply going through the motions.

"I think I was fed up with my world," Godin recalls. "I wanted to have new horizons."

To alleviate his frustration, a friend suggested he look up Hereafter and The Alchemist, two Bruno Monsaingeon documentaries about a Canadian madcap pianist whose wild interpretations of Bach and outlandish personality made him a cult musical hero.

Godin tracked down the docs upon his return to Paris. "Suddenly I saw this video about Glenn Gould and thought, 'wow, there's another music world somewhere which is more interesting; where I don't have to play 'Sexy Boy' every night.'"

For anyone who's followed Air's two decade long career, that simply hearing Gould's reinterpretations of Bach could alter the course of Godin's career seems suspicious. After all, classical influences germinate several of the band's recordings, going all the way back to their initial 12" singles. But Godin counters that he came by those reference points in a circuitous manner, through soundtracks by eminent composers Ennio Morricone and Michel LeGrand.

"Everything I know about classical I learned second hand," he admits. "When I saw Glenn Gould I knew I had to find the real shit; the real source material.

"I went home, stopped touring, took a course [on playing Bach] and study, study, study for like two or three years."

And just like that one of the biggest groups to ever come out of France (Air, along with their childhood friends Daft Punk and Phoenix, shepharded a musical scene which dominated dance culture for most of the '00s) was on indefinite hiatus. All thanks to Glenn Gould.

Just over five years later, Godin is sitting in a makeshift studio at the Paris edition of the Red Bull Music Academy, preparing for the initial performance of his solo album, Contrepoint. Inspired by Gould, it's an exploration of Bach's work, reinterpreted through the lens of Godin's personal musical fascinations including bossa nova, jazz, early video game soundtracks and, of course, Air's signature retro-future electro-pop.

He's nervous, he admits, but the good kind of nervous. Something Godin hasn't felt since his first show with Air in late '90s Seattle. The band was hungry and dazed then, riding the wave of its debut album, Moon Safari, which owed as much to Pink Floyd as Giorgio Moroder. It's that feeling he'd  lost with his old group. But one which, through Gould's inspiration, he's come to terms with.

"It was so good man," he says of his studious break from the group. "I was at home, I was relaxing and I was going deep, deep, deep in the music. I could put a name on everything I was feeling, I could understand the real language of music. It's like you know how to speak and then suddenly you learn how to read."

With this calm upon him, Godin reunited with his musical partner Jean-Benoît Dunckel for a few shows in 2014, and they're once again playing festivals this summer as well as releasing a new double disc greatest hits anthology titled Twentyears this month.

"At some point I needed a break because I was playing 'Sexy Boy' every day for 10 years. And now that the break is done I'm ready to play again." he smiles. "It's like, if you're Glenn Gould, you play the Goldberg Variations. We're Air, we play Moon Safari."