As awe inspiringly beautiful, euphoric and masterful as their music was, Air France was more of a members club – open to all, 24/7 – than a band.
In seven blurry years, two friends – Joel Karlsson and Henrik Markstedt – encountered a world of (accidental) adventure and (often self inflicted) catastrophe that now, 12 months after the group split, is held as dear to the lucky few they touched as the music itself.
It was always so difficult for journalists and fans to understand the concept of the Swedish duo and the world they existed in unless you got to experience it first hand. Their live show was often talked about with as much fervour and anticipation as that of their elusive debut album – two elephants in the same room that became such a domineering topic in interviews during the band’s latter months but ultimately never saw the light of day.
“Me and Henrik met in 1997″ explains Joel Karlsson – “I was super shy, but tried at the same time to seem cool and urban. Henrik also seemed to struggle a lot with his social interactions with people and we realised that when we were together, we could communicate with people – we filled in where the other left off. When we found out this equation I think people started to believe that we were cool and, we actually became quite popular. We would write magazines and fanzines. Made radio shows… Start political riots in school and play practical jokes on teachers.”
After high school, the pair would drift apart as further education took its hold and Henrik began studying at the University of Uppsala – 50 minutes north of the pairs native Stockholm. It wasn’t until Joel started a fanzine with a close friend that the pair were eventually reunited, with Henrik brought into the fold to illustrate the ‘zine. Shortly after, and months apart, the pair upped roots and fled to Gothenburg where they’d found love with twin sisters Ida and Elin.
“Henrik and I listened to a lot of dance music this during this period and thought it would be cool to have a band with beats but one that didn’t sounded so cold like everything else that was coming out during that time.” Karlsson continues, “Our first song was called ‘Behind Cabin Curtains’. We worked on it every day for six months until one day our computer crashed and we lost everything…”
Never a pair to embrace modern technology by the balls, it was almost a miracle that the pair even finished the first EP – No Trade Winds. Yet, the company they were keeping in the small coastal City eventually made waves towards the influential ears of one Eric Berglund – founder of Sincerely Yours and member of Gothenburg underground pop upstarts The Tough Alliance. In an interview with Pitchfork, they explained of their initial reactions to the sudden label interest – “We panicked, turned off our cell phones, and stayed indoors for weeks. We wanted to keep Air France to ourselves and not have to fucking compromise with anyone.”
Before long the pair realised that their slow working ethic and borderline OCD approach to music making was something they had to make peace with – “we’re never going to feel finished. The song ‘Never Content’ was about that feeling of letting go.”
Although drenched in mid-summer hue, On Trade Winds was released on 14 December 2006 by Sincerely Yours to a modest amount of attention. Fuelled by Karlsson and Markstedt’s need of “escaping modern city life”, the 15 minute EP was awash with heavily layered samples of nature and beach-like atmospherics. Pure escapism in its most natural form, the pair aimed to “surround with all the things that everyday life shuts out”. It was a triumph, and one that would raise the ears of London-based owner of Something in Construction records and eventual manager David Laurie who – as much as he’d like to claim his first encounter with the duo was overhearing them ” giggling in a tree outside Gothenburg on a June evening” – would come to hear of Air France through one of their earliest flag bearers – Duncan Cooper of The FADER.
"I listened to On Trade Winds a lot when I was 20 and my girlfriend was living in Denmark. It was summer and we were about to break up. At that time, I was going to sleep when the sun came up, partly thanks to last gasps on Skype to tamp down the time/space gap that doomed the relationship.
“The afternoon after we called it quits, when I woke up, I put ‘Never Content’ on my headphones and went straight outside and I walked across the field in front of my apartment with the sun in my eyes. It was blinding, and it was one of the most peaceful moments of my life.”
The tale illustrates the effect that Air France’s music would eventually have on the unassuming listener. As Laurie explains, “They had passionate friends from LA to Moscow and while remaining very much a cult act, they had no casual fans. It was love. Always love at first sight.”
The personalities of the pair would soon become as adored as their music. Early interviews were be filled with made-up stories, fantasies and anecdotes of debauchery that would only add to their – perhaps accidental – myth. “They’re genuinely beautiful, humble, deranged, romantic and peerlessly entertaining people,” explains Laurie, “whose scabrous wit is beyond infectious, mainly unprintable, and always always worth opening another bottle for.”
The blog-fuelled success of On Trade Winds resulted in promoters eager to book the pair for live appearances, although sadly, trying to recreate the serenity of the recorded output live on stage was something they never got around to, albeit for a singular ‘live’ show at a small rural Swedish festival. “We were supposed to just play records, but that didn’t go too well. We’d forgotten to label our CD-Rs and blah blah blah. We thought we could compensate by playing a few songs on a borrowed bass. The Tough Alliance joined in with a drum, the crowd stormed the stage, and security kicked us out after a song and a half.”
Joel and Henrik had an unavoidable habit of getting themselves into all manner of trouble whilst on their many jaunts around Europe and America. They were as much accidental DJs as they were musicians, their sets gloriously eventful and chaotic. David Klag, a promoter in Budapest recounts one particular stage invasion during one of the pairs many Eastern European jaunts:
“The crowd went batshit crazy. People were jumping up on stage and dancing with them, everybody was hugging and I was grinning in the middle of the place like a fucking moron. When they finished, I immediately hugged them. I could see they were shocked, not because of the hug, but because their minds had just got blown by the positive reception they had.”
It was almost 18 months in between the release of On Trade Winds and its follow up – No Way Down. Again, released on Sincerely Yours the six track EP received the much lauded Best New Music award from Pitchfork and further cemented Air France as new pioneers a Balearic-influenced dance movement based in Gothenburg. Even though being part of such a scene was something they often objected to. Karlsson: “Some of the music that’s labelled Balearic is what we’ve searched for all our lives, and the music we make now is what I’ve wanted to make ever since I was old enough to know the importance of reaching higher than everyday life…but the current movement, or whatever you want to call it, is something I can’t relate to at all.”
Initially intended as a full length album that centred around the farewell of the four Swedish seasons, the duo were hit by financial crisis. “Bills weren’t being paid, grades dropped, and we were always calling in sick.” The pair eventually saw No Way Down as a relief – a burden they needed to get off their shoulders.
Its limited success was nevertheless spectacular and would see the six songs re-packaged and released in the UK and Europe as a deluxe edition (that included On Trade Winds) by Laurie’s label Something In Construction and on a highly sought after 10″ vinyl edition by boutique NYC label Acéphale.
The adoration it received would go on to spark an unquenchable thirst from fans and critics alike for a debut album proper. Unjaded, they continued to work at their own (snail-like) pace and in 2009 – almost 12 months after the release of No Way Down - came the single ‘GBG Belongs To Us’. Arguably the group’s finest moment, this love letter to their fair city was accompanied by a self-made video and hand-written tour guide dedicated to the song’s namesake. The tour guide took the form of a dedicated website, but in typical Air France fashion, they forgot to pay the domain hosting fee and it was lost forever.
Two years passed by and, aside for a couple of remixes for the likes of Saint Etienne and Friendly Fires, Air France continued to spend their free time in the studio. Never content with the recorded output, the pair would – apparently – go on to make roughly seven albums worth of material. None of it, however, sat right with their biggest critics: themselves.
“We have always dreamt of those last moments where we’re finishing the last changes of the last song of what could be our first full length record. I don’t know if I’ll ever live to see that day. We are restless people, always wanting to try different things, never able to let a song be.”
August 2011 saw a glimmer of hope with the sudden, internet-only release of ‘It Feels Good To Be Around You’, a song about looking at love from a distance and the nervous feeling that comes with wanting to get to know another person that you adore. Struggling with the finer details of the song, Joel and Henrik called in the help of one Darren Williams – aka DJ and producer Star Slinger – who would go on to mix and tweak the song. Here, he tells of how that collaboration came into fruition:
“I toured with Air France and Memory Tapes around the UK and got on really well with Henrik and Joel. They had a really dry wit and were just fun to be around. On the tour they were playing mainly other people’s music, but I really enjoyed the selection. They were inspired by a lot of the stuff I was into. So I began listening to their music and could see the genius. It was definitely a prototype for a lot of things that were happening in the States. They were very modest whenever talking about their own music, and it was apparent they were never taking the music thing that seriously.
“After the tour they hit me up to mix their new single. It was my first ever request to mix somebody’s work so it did flatter me. It meant they liked how my tracks sound, and felt comfortable with me mixing their record. The track stems were quite daunting, with over a 100 audio tracks. I spent quite a lot of time sending versions back and forth to the boys and eventually we they were happy with.
“The thing I loved most about Air France’s music is that it sounds like them. Half-head in the clouds, half-feet on the ground. Very utopian, yet very real. I hope to run into the boys the next time we’re in Sweden together. I am eager to know if Henrik has kicked his Snus addiction!”
Summer turned to winter and still there was no sign of further material. The duo were set to perform a DJ set for Korallreven who were performing their debut hometown concert at Stockholm venue Strand in December 2011. After the show, I met the band backstage and after leaning in to say goodbye to Joel, he whispered in my ear “Richie – I think we are going to break up the band.” Keeping in mind that 90% of the time anything that comes out of Joel’s mouth should be taken with a pinch of salt, I thought nothing more of it and shrugged it off, assuming he was kidding around.
March 26, 2012 – a post was submitted to the Air France tumblr. It was a letter from Joel that would be the only official word on the band’s subsequent split. There would be no album, no new songs; the search for perfection got the better of them.
We know nothing of the new record, aside from two handwritten lyric sheets featured in this article for the first time and some thoughts from their manage David Laurie: “What they did managed to record was wonderful. They took the ideas that they had previously – and let’s not forget they were a band with a fully formed aesthetic – and added more beauty and more bass and more ambition.
“It was always easy to say if something was or wasn’t right for Air France and they set their quality control very high. The demand was and is at fever pitch for new Air France material and they were dead set on blowing people’s minds. If the EPs were two beautiful lakes on a summer day, the album would have been the whole Indian Ocean with miles and miles of perfect white sand.”
One year on, Joel Karlsson reflects on the decision: “I don’t regret our decision. I try, however difficult it may be sometimes, to accept that life does change. But sometimes I wake up and I feel sad that we no longer exist. For me, Air France was not only a band, but more of a context in which I felt that I could be sensitive and be okay with it. In retrospect, I think that we worked so hard with part-time jobs and the music to get it all together that our inner voices started to fade way.
“If I would make music today, I would probably hang out as little as possible indoors in a studio. I think there must be time for reading books, doing things you have never done before and socialise with people whether you like them or not. (When we broke up) It was like watching my own funeral, but to be honest, we where just a band – no-one died.”
Indeed, although mourning the loss of a band could never compare with that of losing a loved one, die-hard fan Jakob Dorof was just one of many that felt the need to express his sense of loss to the band:
“I was always as big an Air France fan as anybody with two ears and a heart, but I was blindsided by just how deeply and lastingly the news stung a year ago today. I remember keeping up with their infrequent interviews, and always feeling unsure whether they were joking when they’d say how talentless they were, how they didn’t understand harmony or basic song structure. The long gaps between releases were a troubling indication, but that farewell note confirmed their music had always been a real struggle for them. Yet they somehow found a way to make a small collection of some of the purest, sweetest music made since the Beach Boys were new to parenthood.
“That Henrik and Joel put in all those years trying to give their fans the album we expected after something like No Way Down, despite all the stress and tears, now seemed an act of tragic devotion.”
“I’ve never mourned a band like I did Air France. Two weeks of insomnia passed before finally, one 5am, I poached their email address off some old blog and wrote the most heartfelt missive I’ll ever send a stranger or two. My hope that they might still be reading saw unlikely gratification when Joel wrote back a letter every bit as thoughtful and genuine as his music would imply.
“We shared a dialogue from there, predictably lovely and fittingly brief, and he’s evidently kept me in his thoughts long enough to pass my name along for this article.”
Joel and Henrik left us with a simple, heartfelt note, posted on their Tumblr on March 26 2012.
We’ll make this brief, because it hurts too much.
During the first year of Air France, somewhere in the middle of the last decade, everything seemed to come so easily. At least it feels like that right now. We’d meet on friday nights to drink wine, listen to music and picture ourselves far off, somewhere on the outskirts on the big map Henrik had on his wall. The songs we made during those nights weren’t really supposed to ever leave the hard drive, but somehow they did, and somehow they took us to almost all the places on that big map we had dreamt about. We got to play records at the Rough Trade store in London, we went to the Red Square, we woke up on Iceland during a volcanic eruption, we drank beer at the cliffs of the Niagara, we spent a night in a freezing staircase in Warzaw (otherwise a fantastic weekend), we saw dolphins in the waters of LA, we got a smile from Larry David as he passed us on a street in Paris, watching us trying to open a bottle of wine, we played records for 4 hours under a blistering July sun in New York, we spent a day in the most beautiful spa in Budapest, we’ve heard our nervous voices on radio and TV, we’ve played records after two sold out Saint Etienne shows (but to be honest, only a handful stayed behind to see us), we’ve written a song together with our idol Clare Grogan (although we did managed to botch it) and we got sampled by Lil B. But it’s the little moments that has been the most dear to our hearts, like the days and nights in Brackenbury Village that we spent in our manager’s back yard with his wonderful wife and sons, who made us feel like part of the family, or being drunk on airplanes, just the two of us, and all the people we’ve been fortunate enough to get to know, if only for a night.
And we have probably produced 7 albums since No Way Down; a UK Garage record, a house record, an r ‘n’ b record… but we’ve never been able to finish anything, nothing was ever good enough. We have tried so hard, and we truly gave it all we had. And now we have decided to stop trying, even though it breaks our hearts. But for all the reasons mentioned above, and for a thousand more, we don’t regret a thing.
We wish we could thank all the people who has helped and inspired us, but we’d probably forget to mention half of you, so here’s just a big thank you to those who were involved in the making of the record: Teresa and Kajsa for singing so beautifully, Angelica of Body Language for lending her voice to a song that would have been called “I always think about you when I’m drunk”, our patron Kevin Campbell who helped us in giving this record one last chance (there are no words that can describe just how grateful we are), our Eric of Sincerely Yours, our manager David Laurie, our publisher XL, Joe for running our facebook page.
And much love to Rich Thane, families and girlfriends, sister Hanna, Henning Fürst, Marc Hogan, all of you who sent us letters, all of you who stuck around to watch us play, and all of you who opened your homes and hearts and cars and took us to water falls, big squares, beaches, record stores, monuments, valleys, mountains and zoos.
Goodbye for now. Who knows, maybe we’ll see you again in another shape. After all, we’re people that never stop dreaming.
Henrik and Joel