Nicolas Godin from AIR on the Gear Used in “Moon Safari”

Editor's note: This interview has been translated from the original French and edited for clarity and length.

It has now been 20 years since the 1998 release of Moon Safari, an album by the French band AIR that would come to define an entire generation. The masterminds behind this internationally acclaimed album are Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin—two musicians from Versailles.

Over two million copies of the album have been sold since its release, and in 2010, it ranked among the best of Rolling Stone’s top French albums.

Recently, we were lucky enough to get to talk with Nicolas Godin himself to learn more about the creative process behind the album. We asked him questions about the gear they chose back then and what recording techniques they used both at a home studio in the Parisian quarter of Montmartre and the legendary Studio Two at Abbey Road.

Where was Moon Safari recorded? How long did recording take?

Moon Safari - 1998

We recorded Moon Safari over the course of two years, I believe, from 1996 to 1997. We finished mixing in August of ‘97, and the album was then released in January of ‘98. We started out by using my home studio in my apartment in Montmarte, where I had recorded AIR’s first samples from 1995 on.

For the final phase, we rented an old abandoned studio at Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche for several months. It was in a beautiful century-old house, on the outskirts of some woods and a golf course, and we used it up until Virgin Suicide.

We then took about 15 days to add the finishing touches in the Gang studio on Boulevard de l’Hôpital in the 13th arrondissement, with Jean Pierre Janniaud as our guide—a true genius. After that, we mixed everything with Stéphane Briat at Studio Plus XXX on Rue des Annelets on a big SSL. But seeing as Moon Safari only had eight tracks, there were just the eight tiny faders up on the giant SSL, so that was a bit of a gag.

What kind of technology did you use? A multitrack tape recorder? A DAW?

We used an 8-track digital Fostex D80 (the one with the removable control panel) synced with an Akai S1000 and Cubase on an old Mac, even though I had started with an Atari 1040ST.

The album starts with an instrumental track that’s more than seven minutes long. Was that a risky move in 1998? What pushed you to make that choice?

"La femme d’argent" could only be at the beginning or the end of the record... except that it was too good of a track to be last, and so it was first. But I did need to fight for it... a lot of people wanted to put "Sexy Boy" first.

A sidenote, I’d add that I love records that start with a bang, like Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire.

Around the time of Moon Safari’s release, it was hailed as having a cool "retro-electro" feel. Of all the gear you used, which instrument was indispensable in creating this signature sound?

The alchemy behind Moon Safari is built on a mix of Fender Rhodes tones along with bass riffs and licks from Solina string ensemble. To pull everything together, smooth out transitions and give it some life, there are a few lines in there from monophonic synths like the MiniMoog or the Korg MS20, and Syrinx sent through analog delays or even the Ensoniq DP/4, tempo delay, not to mention the Korg DVP1.

Are some tracks on the album tied to one instrument in particular? The Fender Rhodes in "Talisman," for instance?

For "Talisman," it was actually a mix of Jean-Benoît playing on the Rhodes and me doubling the melody on the Wurlitzer 200A, so there were two electric pianos in the same track... not easy to mix.

"Talisman" - AIR

On the intro for "La Femme d’argent," you can hear an electric bass and a Rhodes. Was it your intent from the start to record both acoustic and electric instruments more-so than just "electronic" instruments?

The Rhodes is my favorite instrument. I spent my entire childhood wondering what that sound was that I heard everywhere on TV and on the radio…"

The Rhodes is my favorite instrument. I spent my entire childhood wondering what that sound was that I heard everywhere on TV and on the radio, but no one at that time pointed out the Rhodes. I could recognize a xylophone, a violin, a tuba, etc. but no one ever told me about Rhodes. One nice day in Pigalle, I saw an old, completely beat-up one in a store, and when I put my finger on it, I finally understood where that sound came from that had haunted me for years. It cost 3000 francs, I bought it on the spot, and that was at the very end of the ‘80s.

A lot of speculations been made on the bass sounds on the album in general, and I’ve love to make my own personal wager—is it an old Höfner with flatwound strings?

The tracks with really heavy bass like "All I Need" were recorded live with my Fender Precision that I also bought in Pigalle in ‘89. It’s a ‘77, but I’ve never changed the strings so they don’t have any edge to them, and that—even more-so than me setting the tone knob to zero on the bass—drove Stéphane Briat totally nuts during the mix.

For the ‘60s sounds, it was a ‘60s Höfner violin bass with flatwound strings in black plastic. It belonged to Nicolas Dufournet who was the bassist for Oui Oui—an old band from Versailles, with Michel Gondry as the drummer.

This bass is the best one I’ve ever played. After I had to give it back to Nicolas Dufournet, I bought a ‘61 Höfner Club with the same pickups and same luthier work to try and get the same feel but without the violin shape because I didn’t want to be copying McCartney if I took it to concert. It wasn’t as good in the end, even if I did record some great tracks with it.

"All I Need" - AIR

How did you record the bass part? Straight into the board or with a bass amp? Any memories on the brand, the model, or specific features?

Like I mentioned, the Precision bass went directly into the Fostex or the sampler. With the Höfner, I played that with a heavy pick while holding down the strings with my palm. Something a little out of the ordinary, I plugged it into the only amp I had at the time, which was a Peavey Classic 50 guitar amp—hence the typical medium sound.

I recorded everything with an AKG C414 mic that I bought in Pigalle a few years earlier on the advice of Étienne de Crecy (a friend from high school at Versailles who made the first mix for AIR’s first song, "Modular Mix," with Alex Gopher), while he was still just an assistant at Studio Plus XXX.

On the whole album, you hear a superb use of the wah effect on several guitars. What’s hiding behind it? A good old Vox or something a little more modern?

That’s kind of my secret sauce: on each first refrain, a bit of Clavinet in a wah wah. Everyone thinks it's a guitar, but it’s actually Jean-Benoît playing the chords on the Clavinet and occasionally inverting or augmenting them. On a guitar, I don’t think it would have been as good.

Nicolas Godin by Camille Vivier

The wah wah was bought in Versailles in ‘86 from Dany Versailles Musique at the same time as a Boss DR-110 drum machine. I bought it because of its little saturation option on the side, which, for me, was like getting two pedals in one. I was a teenager at the time, though, and a Prince fan, so I was looking for a "clean" wah wah like on "Kiss." That’s also why I didn’t get anything more vintage than a Cry Baby, which at the time wasn’t being reissued, I don’t think. In any case, I’ve always found the Cry Baby runs to be a bit too short for me. My Ibanez had a bigger range, so it was better suited to the Clavinet.

I got my first wah wah in '82 when I was 12. It was a used Schaller that my brother bought for me along with a Electro-Harmonix Small Stone that I still use.

You had the chance to work with composer Jean Jacques Perrey, who’s an unparalleled Ondioline player. A bit of background for our readers, the Ondioline was one of the first synths made in France and a very cool machine. Did you get to play with one for the album?

No, my experience as far as the Ondioline is concerned is limited to what I’ve seen on YouTube of Jean Jacques playing one. For us, he played a Moog Prodigy because he wanted to record the melodies on a tape. He had a great ear.

The track "Ce matin-là" makes me think of certain Michel Magne music, likely thanks to the brass and harmonica. What were your inspirations for this record?

Definitely Burt Bacharach and the theme song for Barbapapas [a popular French cartoon]. For a year or so around then—‘95, ‘96—there was a huge "easy listening" wave that I drew a lot of inspiration from for this track. I played the harmonica, and it was one of my friends from fine arts school who played the tuba. His name is Patrick Woodcock, and he went on to found the band Mellow. He also plays the acoustic guitar arpeggio in "All I Need" with my Guild that I got from Pigalle in ‘94. But he only played the couplet because we composed the refrain later with Jean-Benoît, and so I had to play the guitar myself for that refrain.

Talkie Walkie - 2004

I used that Guild on all the albums up until Talkie Walkie. The first time I played this guitar for a record was when recording the song "Les poèmes de Michelle" by Teri Moïse in 1995. That was a huge hit, and so I thought the guitar would bring me some joy. I used it on a good number of later classics like "How Does It Make You Feel" or "Playground Love."

While we were recording "Ce matin là" in my apartment in Montmartre, I spent a lot of time visualizing myself at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, and you can feel this ambiance in the track. That’s one of the big lessons to take away about recording: if you fantasize about something hard enough, that’ll pass through the cables and into the minds of people listening to the track.

After the success of Moon Safari, we were actually able to go to Capitol Studios in LA with a Fairchild for everything and natural reverb galore... pretty crazy.

Did you need to work with other musicians on certain instrumental parts, like strings?

"Whitaker was really a true gentleman—British class at its finest and believe me that, as a Frenchman telling you that, it speaks to the sincere admiration I have for the man he was."

Yes, the recording house had faith in our demos and offered us Abbey Road with David Whitaker on arrangements in the Beatles Studio 2. Whitaker was really a true gentleman—British class at its finest and believe me that, as a Frenchman telling you that, it speaks to the sincere admiration I have for the man he was. His wife made us a tart that we savored in the control room. We did the prep sessions at his home in Oxford.

Nicolas Godin by Camille Vivier

Now we have tools on the internet to help us, but at the end of the ‘90s, was it more difficult to find vintage gear, or was it just that old Moogs and others weren’t as sought-after?

In France, it was really easy to find used vintage Japanese gear like Roland, Korg, etc—even more-so because we were buying gear in the age when stuff the Yamaha DX7 and Korg M1 were popular. So at the end of the day, having vintage gear didn’t mean much. I think that Jean-Benoît got his MS20 with only 1500 francs and the Sequencer SQ10 at La Caverne des particuliers in Versailles. In contrast, though, it was practically impossible at the time to find American gear, like Sequential Circuit, Linn, Oberheim, Moog, etc.

Once per week, I used to make the rounds at the shops in Pigalle, a couple in Montparnasse, and that’s how I found these things. I was able to buy my TR-909 for 2000 francs in a shop on Rue Mansart, like new in the box with the K7 demo from the drummer for Starsky and Hutch.

Once a month, I would buy Keyboard Magazine the first day that it hit the stands, and I would check out the "for sale" ads. After leaving the bookstore, I’d head straight to the phone booth to snatch up gear before anyone else could. It was a miracle that I found a Minimoog for sale in Colombes. I couldn’t believe it, especially because of how, like I mentioned, you pretty much only found Japanese gear in Paris.

"Once a month, I would buy Keyboard Magazine the first day that it hit the stands, and I would check out the "for sale" ads. After leaving the bookstore, I’d head straight to the phone booth to snatch up gear before anyone else could."
Pochette de l'album Moon Safari

I also found my own MS 20 close to Chartres. I had an Austin Mini at the time and would frequently use it to wander and explore. The guy I bought it from, it was clear that it was absolutely killing him to have to sell it, and it broke my heart to break up the two of them... but apparently he really needed the money because I saw his wife and a newborn in the corner. When he showed me how to use it, I could sense that he knew it was the last time he’d be playing it, and I swore to myself that in buying it from him, I’d do everything in my power to use it wisely in honor of his sacrifice. And seeing as how we recorded all of our AIR albums with it, I kept my word.

Soon after Moon Safari, we spent some time in Los Angeles, and it was there that we bought a huge amount of gear from Black Market Music on La Cienega Boulevard. Of note was a Memory Moog (that belonged to the band Mötley Crüe, who had painted it black), LinnDrums, and all the American gear we could only dream about in Paris. Today, we just use the internet. We also found some things on the US tour in pawn shops and other places.

You found a ‘63 Bison bass by Burns on Reverb. How does it sound? Were you looking for this specific model, or was it just a lucky find?

In fact, it was after years of trying to popularize the kind of bass sound that Melody Nelson has that I decided instead to just get the bass Melody Nelson used, because I told myself that’d be simpler.

I talked about it with Fred Palem who assured me, in showing me the album booklet and the photos of recording, that the bassist on the record is Dave Richmond who’s playing on a white ‘62 Burns Bison. So I got it into my head to find one, and that’s when Fred actually introduced me to Reverb by showing me one for sale on the site.

Burns Bison Bass de 1963

It was in Melbourne—a town I like a lot and also where I met my wife, Iracema Trevisan who's also a bassist of the Brazilian band CSS. I took that as a sign and bought it straight away. Everything went very smoothly. But then when I was talking to Jean Claude Vannier, who composed and recorded Melody Nelson, he insisted that the bassist on the album is Herbie Flowers on his Jazz bass. Well, I have so much admiration for Jean Claude that it became difficult to doubt his word…

That said, I don’t really recognize the Herbie Flowers style on the record. Moreover, when Herbie plays Melody Nelson live, I find it a little clumsy, which corroborates the thesis that it’s Dave Richmond on the record.

One last remark though—the cool thing about the bass riff on Melody Nelson is that interval, a 10th, between the first two notes. For me, the other legendary bass intro in music history is "Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed that’s based on this same interval and is also a stroke of genius. And who’s the bassist on "Walk on the Wild Side"? Bingo, it’s Herbie Flowers. Okay, I know, I’m losing it a little.

"Melody" - Serge Gainsbourg

I’m not familiar with this model of English bass. Three single pickups, is that it? As for electronics, does it use a particular circuit? Do you have a favorite amp to go with it?

There are three single pickups and a 4-way switch—although you’d expect to have a 5-way switch: three mains and two intermediates. There’s a label on the nameplate for each position. The second one’s called "jazz," and that’s the exact sound of Melody Nelson. I think that’s the one that connects both the neck and middle pickup, sort of like the second position on a Stratocaster. The last position, which belongs to the high pickup, is called "wild dog." I love that one.

As for the amp, and according to all the great bassists I know, the best of the best for this kind of bass is still the old Ampeg B15... I personally don’t have one and I’m looking for one, but for now I’m recording with a Music Man Sabre through a DI.

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