M83 - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Dancing and Crying

Aug 19, 2016 Photography by Koury Angelo Issue # 57 - M83
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On March 1, 2015, Anthony Gonzalez released his first new M83 single in three years. It was a deliriously odd glam-dance track that sounded unlike anything in his catalog of music, titled "Do It, Try It." The reaction was swift and not entirely encouraging. "I understand the need to embrace new directions and sounds, but this thing is not M83," wrote one fan on M83's official Facebook page. "It's just the first song on the album...let's hope the rest isn't like this," wrote another. Some offered defenses of Gonzalez's right to explore different stylistic forms. Others unleashed their inner music critics, providing detailed critiques of the song's processed vocals and keyboard textures. Most just repeated how much they loved his other albums and lamented that this new song didn't sound like anything on any of them. No one seemed to have much enthusiasm for the idea of Gonzalez reinventing M83.

A few days later, and a few hours after the release of a high-profile interview that spent more time painting him as a brooding recluse holed up in an immaculately clean Los Angeles bungalow than it did discussing his new music, Gonzalez is in an engaging, if circumspect, mood. "I know that because of the success of the last album, a lot of people were expecting songs like 'Wait' and 'Outro' and 'Intro' and 'Midnight City,'" he says. "But for me, because I've done that in the past, I wanted to get away from it and try not to surf on the success of the last album. Also, I was trying to prove to myself and other people that I could do something else, I guess."

He has just announced the title of his seventh full-length release, Junk, and has revealed its artwork, a cartoony image of two brightly-colored blob-like creatures with a hamburger, hovering in space. This too was greeted with confusion and consternation, leading to speculation that Gonzalez was perhaps pranking his audience with such uncharacteristic choices.

If Gonzalez is stung by the polarized response to his latest creative choices, he doesn't show it in conversation. But the reaction must be unexpected at the very least, coming as it does on the heels of his most widely-acclaimed and commercially successful release, 2011's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. That albumarguably the culmination of 10 years spent perfecting a distinct brand of dramatically sweeping electro-popproduced "Midnight City," the irresistible synth-pop anthem that landed in a series of high-profile commercials, sold a million copies in the U.S., and ended up at the top spot on numerous "best tracks of 2011" lists. It's the sort of song that would define a career for most any artist, but Gonzalez seems eager to outrun its shadow. "Do It, Try It" is a declaration of creative independence.

"It's just a weird trip, and I like that about it," Gonzalez says of the song. "Especially coming off something very successful like 'Midnight City,' coming back with this is really random. And I like that this album is kind of random. I always felt like everything I was doing in the past was kind of contrived. Can you say that?" He asks this in a way that suggests that he might mean a less loaded word. "It was always the same kind of recipe. I just wanted to change the recipe a little bit. I was tired of eating the same thing over and over."

Though few listeners seem to mind, Gonzalez is correct that the ingredients in his sonic recipe have remained remarkably reliable for the past decade. Meticulously constructed out of layers of synths and guitar atmospherics, his albums follow a familiar arc, with slow-building soundscapes and bubbling synth-pop anthems that inevitably erupt into cathartic choruses. In this context, it's easy to understand the confused response to "Do It, Try It," as it is the opposite of "Midnight City" (and just about every other M83 song) in ways that will likely define the discussion surrounding Junk. If you didn't like "Do It, Try It," the good news is that there isn't another song on the album that sounds much like it. But there's nothing that sounds much like anything that has been on past M83 albums, either.

Borrowing heavily from the Top 40 pop sounds of the '70s and '80s, these are not tracks that sound like they are aimed Gonzalez's audience, and in many ways they probably aren't. The songs on Junk are playful and immediate, where M83's previous music was somber and deliberate, no less sophisticated in their design but far more obvious in their appeal. The writing is more openly sentimental, the hooks are sharper and tighter, the arrangements are more colorful. And while Gonzalez seems to have no apparent interest in expanding his audience by aiming for a wider appeal, he admits his recent success is enabling this shift. This too is unusual for an artist at this point in his career. Where many artists would respond to their breakthrough by attempting to experiment on the edges of familiar sounds to move forward cautiously, Gonzalez decided to use his success as creative license to tear up the blueprint altogether.

"There's always pressure when I'm making albums, because I'm very afraid of criticism and I want people to enjoy my music and my choices," he admits. "But the success of the last album was just so unexpected to me, and it was really surprising in an amazing way. I just told myself, 'What can happen now? Maybe it's time to just have fun and go explore more.' It kind of relieved the pressure a little bit."

And so Gonzalez explored. After over two years of touring and two soundtracks2013's Oblivion and You and the Nighthe set about dismantling the songwriting habits he'd accrued over the past 15 years. As he had done when he was a teenager, he spent hours alone, playing covers of his favorite songs on piano and guitar, unworried about whether or not any new songs would come out of it. When then songs did come, he went wherever they led, regardless of whether he'd be able to sing them. "I don't necessarily enjoy singing that much," he admits. "And the ideas that I had in mind for some of the songs were actually not something that I was able to sing."

As a result, Gonzalez sings on less than half of the album's 14 tracks, leaving him free to indulge his creative id. The first song he wrote for the album, a lovely traditional piano ballad titled "For the Kids," could have been a hit at just about any point in the last 75 years. Part Irving Berlin, part Carpenters, there was something special about the song's subtly creeping chord progression, Gonzalez thought, something he had never done on an M83 song before. But the achingly sincere vocal fell well outside of his range. Where he previously would have scrapped the song or radically retooled it, he now brought in Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfør to carry the song's melody. And with that song, the old rules about what could be an M83 song fell away.

When he couldn't imagine his vocals fitting the darkly sensual electro-pop of "Go!," he enlisted French vocalist Mai Lan, a virtually unknown musician he met at a Los Angeles songwriting camp. (He'd eventually enlist Lan for four songs on Junk.) When he wanted a different guitar solo for the song's bridge, he brought in legendary guitar virtuoso Steve Vai to do a typically pyrotechnic solo. When he needed a vocalist with a slightly more soulful range than his own to sing "Walkaway Blues," he turned to M83 bandmate Jordan Lawlor. There are lighthearted singalongs with pitch-shifted vocals ("Bibi the Dog"), muted space-age synth jams ("The Wizard"), and electro-acoustic anthems ("Laser Gun")and Gonzalez doesn't have an easily identifiable presence on any of them.

"When I think about Hurry Up and the past albums, I really felt that it was always about the big sound, always about the big ballads with the big outro at the end and something very immense and grand," he says. "And I kind of wanted to get away from that for a while. I wanted to come back with something more fun and fresh, but in the meantime still tainted with melancholy and nostalgia. And I think you can feel that on the album. I just wanted to make an album where you can dance to it and cry at the same time."

There is No Goodbye

Though he's not one to complain about the opportunities that have been given to him, Gonzalez admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he enjoys about five percent of the actual writing and recording process for his albums. Too many options to ponder, too many questions to answer, too many possible mistakes to make-it's simply not a pleasant experience for a perfectionistic studio auteur.

Touring, however, that's a different story. You're surrounded by friends, you visit a different city every day, and you spend every night bathing in the adoration of people who want nothing more than to share with you the craft you've spent your life perfecting. "After that, everything falls into a hole," he says. "You just stop touring and all of a sudden your life takes a different turn. You've been on the road for three years and meeting amazing people and going to crazy places, and now it's just a void that you feel in yourself. For a long time, it was hard to be happy, really."

The roots of Junk arguably stretch back to those days when Gonzalez was coming off the Hurry Up, We're Dreaming tour. Though he'd moved to Los Angeles five years earlier, once he was off the road he unexpectedly began to feel homesick for his native France. He thought about his family, his friends, the places he'd known as a kid and, perhaps most importantly, the music and TV shows he'd enjoyed back when life was innocent and "you didn't think about dark things." Now 35, Gonzalez is no stranger to nostalgiait's the single most dominant theme of his musicbut his compulsion reached a whole new level. He soon found himself doing what the rest of us do when we want to pump new blood through old memories: he fell down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos.

"I was really obsessed last summer with watching videos online of old theme parks, like amusement parks from the '80s," he says. "I liked watching old VHS videos of families sharing moments. I think this was a big influence on the album as well, watching old VHS of people you don't know anything about filming themselves in water parks. The images look almost perfect. The sound is all very noisy, and there's something so beautiful about this kind of atmosphere that I wanted to bring back to this record."

The songs he was writing then became comfort food, an impulse that translated into diving even deeper into the sounds of the '70s and '80sthe two decades that loom largest over his recorded catalog. This time, however, he wouldn't be using those influences as colors on his textural palette as much as he'd be borrowing them as the templates upon which he built his own versions. Where previous records were forward-looking hybrids that represented the full consummation of prog-electronica structures and synth-pop hooks, this album would be unrepentantly rooted in the sounds of his youth.

"When I think about it, all of my influences are backwards," he says. "It's always coming from the past. I'm not really influenced by any of the new music, really. I'm not saying that I don't like what's happening right now in the music industry, but I don't feel close to that. It's almost like I don't want to try to find the sound of the future. I'm always looking backwards and trying to bring influences from my past."

Junk, he says, is the culmination of all of those influences, from Krautrock and King Crimson to Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins. (Lionel Ritchie, Hall & Oates, and Wham! seem like more obvious references.) In what would become a reverse engineering project, he had a worthy partner in Justin Meldal-Johnsen, the multi-instrumentalist and producer who was a key player on Hurry Up, We're Dreaming and to whom Gonzalez brought his early demos. Unlike his previous albums, where he entered the studio not quite knowing what kind of album he wanted to make, Gonzalez began the recording process for Junk with a vision already in mind. He didn't even need to explain it. Meldal-Johnsen, 10 years Gonzalez's senior, already spoke the language.

A veteran of both Nine Inch Nails and Beck's touring bands, Meldal-Johnsen brought extra benefits. When Gonzalez wanted a different guitar solo for "Go!," Meldal-Johnsen went into his rolodex and pulled out Stevie Vai's number. When Gonzalez wrote a moody mid-tempo New Wave ballad titled "Time Wind," Meldal-Johnsen called on Beck to do the lead vocal. With the aforementioned Mai Lan being dispatched on four different songs because of her shape-shifting ability to sound playful, sultry, and tender depending on the stylistic setting, Gonzalez began to think of the album as a variety show, with different artists singing each song. In "Moon Crystal," an uncanny reimagining of the TV sitcom themes of the 1980s, complete with bittersweet electric piano melodies and a swirling string section, he pulled off his most convincing recreation. If you grew up in the '80s, just hearing it will cause a title sequence to flash in front of your eyes: "Junk... starring Anthony Gonzalez... as M83."

"'Moon Crystal' is a tribute to the kind of music I fell in love with watching TV when I was a kid," he explains. "I grew up in the '80s, and this is when in France there was a phenomenon of TV from the U.S. becoming very bigshows like Hill Street Blues or Who's the Boss. When I was a kid, I'd play the songs on vinyl and play them over and over, because there was something very American about it, like jazzy but with an amazing string arrangement and cool synth sounds. Thinking about it now, the music we were listening to in the TV shows of the '80s was very smartexceptionally brilliant musicians and composers that had a love for music. If you think about it, there was always so much melody in the TV shows of the '80s, and the melodies are kind of sad. For shows that are supposed to make you feel good, that's kind of weird."

When I tell him that hearing the song stirred memories in me that had lain dormant for years, that hearing it seemed like being visited by an old friend, he seems excited. "How old are you, Matt?" he asks, and when he learns that I'm also 35, his tone shifts and he seems to relax. "We probably grew up watching the same things, so I take that as a big compliment! But also what scares me is that maybe people who aren't from our generation will have a harder time getting it. It's not that I'm scared or worried about it, but I feel like it's going to talk more to people of my generation."

After half a decade of '80s pop influences dominating indie music, one would think that Gonzalez's fears are unfounded. But the way in which he uses those influences on Junk feels fundamentally different, less like a millennial fetish and more like someone who lived through the era and is genuinely obsessed with its music. Listen to the way he applies bobbing and weaving brass instruments to the percolating synths of "Road Blaster" (apparently named after the '80s video game). Or take the retro-futuristic vocoder backing vocals on "Walkaway Blues," a track that ends up sounding like George Michael fronting Electric Light Orchestra. Best of all is "Sunday Night 1987," a gentle piano ballad with sweeping strings and a Stevie Wonder-esque harmonica solo that closes the album. As so much of the album is Gonzalez's attempt to recreate a soundtrack to his youth, this song is a fitting conclusion, drawn as it is from a specific memory.

"I knew that every Sunday I would be there, watching TV with my grandfather, knowing that school is tomorrow," he recalls, his tone lightening. "It's just a very strong memory, something I can almost touch and feel. The smell of my grandparents' apartment, the food I was eating, the shows we were watchingit's still something I can feel very strongly. That's definitely what it's about: old memories."

Music, perhaps more than any other art form, has the ability to transport listeners back to moments in their lives. Hear a song that played every day for a month when you were riding home on the school bus, and you are suddenly taken back to a time when you were, on some level, a fundamentally different person, before the pressures and anxieties of adulthood washed away the innocence of youth. It's why nostalgia is such big businessin superhero movie franchises, in revamped TV show revivals, in reunion toursand it's why Gonzalez made Junk. He wanted to go home one more time.

"Making these songs was a way for me to remember, and I just want to keep remembering," he says. "I think it's importantremembering where I come from, remembering the way that I've been educated, with a very close family and spending Sunday nights at my grandparents' for one night and sharing memories with them. All of these memories from when I was a kid, it's something I miss a lot. And I feel sad about it, because it's something that is gone, and the only way to experience it again is to remember it."

Invisible Even to the Night

When Gonzalez was writing the songs that would become Junk, one image kept repeating in his mind, that of an "old radio playing tunes from different eras of humanity." The radio was floating in space, broadcasting into an endless vacuum, with no one around to hear the songs or care about them. Understanding this image is essential for grasping the thesis of Junk. What on the surface seems like a celebration of nostalgia doubles as a protest against the increasingly ephemeral role art plays in modern life.

"I'm just having a hard time understanding how music works nowadays and what the newer generation is listening to and watching and how they consume music and art in general," he says. "I feel like people from our generation, we had to fight for it in a way. You had to be there at the right time in front of TV to watch your TV show. You had to wait for an album release and go to the store to get it. Everything is so accessible nowadays that I feel like there's a lot of things that are being lost in the process. This is what the title of the album is about, really. It's about the fact that there is so much good music that is never going to be discovered, because things are just going too fast."

In other words, despite how much meaning and effort he puts into it, his music is just more future space debris, transitory pieces of self-expression that will be fodder for today's iPhones and tomorrow's recycling bins. He laments a culture where everything is available and nothing is really appreciated, where people watch 10 minutes of a show on Netflix and then abandon it in search of something better. This is related, he believes, to society's obsession with social media, where every person is potentially a few keystrokes away from their 15 minutes of fame and art is just another lifestyle accessory. In a world where everything-even your persona-is reduced to a product to consume, music is just another disposable resource. The album cover, as baffling as it is to his fans with its '80s McDonaldland-like characters, is this concept writ large.

"I made the album coverat least the idea of itin 30 minutes, on the couch with my girlfriend, just having fun and trying to make an album cover with our terrible knowledge of Photoshop," he says. "I just wanted to have something that was cool and fun and kind of fucked up and random. All of my covers are kind of serious and poetic. I just imagined [the characters] floating in space with just a burger, saying 'What the fuck?' It's fun but it's also kind of deep in a way. 'What are we doing here?' If you think about it, it's the same thing for us. We're on a tiny planet in an ocean of galaxies and something infinite, and why are we here? What is this about? These two characters feel the same way."

A Dance on Repeat

On March 18th, nearly three weeks after "Do It, Try It" caused a cosmic disturbance in the M83 solar system, Gonzalez released Junk's second single, "Solitude." Darkly throbbing piano chords, swooning strings, wounded vocals sung in Gonzalez's own voicethis is the sound that people identify with M83, and this time around the response was much more welcoming. "To me, THIS is M83....EPIC," wrote one fan on M83's Facebook page. "And finally you're back to your primal sound!" wrote another, as if Gonzalez had been in the creative wilderness for years, instead of having released one track that rubbed some people wrong.

The conflicted response to "Do It, Try It" exposes a recurring contradiction among music fans. Had the track been released by Daft Punka band that likely turns up on many of the iPods of the same people who love M83it would have been hailed as another masterpiece in dance-pop perfection. But since that same track was released by an artist who generally resides in a stylistic neighborhood located a few blocks away, those same fans see his relocation as an act of betrayal. For all the talk of how modern listeners are so open-minded that all of the old genre distinctions no longer matter, the response to "Do It, Try It" provides a compelling counterpoint. As much as we measure artists against the standards set by constantly-evolving songwriters such as Bob Dylan and David Bowie, we're just as eager to tear them down when they dare to go electric or fill the second half of an album with avant-garde instrumentals.

"This is the kind of artist that I really enjoy listening to," Gonzalez says. "Artists who, with every album, are going to take me on a different journey. I always thought that was really brave, not trying to repeat themselves and getting stuck in one sound. I was thinking about Brian Eno and Beck and David Bowie. This is a kind of career that I'm trying to pursuein my own way, of course. My influences are making my sound, really. I don't have the pretension to say that I've created a sound, because that's absolutely not true. For me, it's just a mix of influences and there's nothing new about it."

Gonzalez is both right and wrong. Though he is unlikely to be remembered as one of the great innovators in Western pop music, he has undeniably ended up with a body of work that is identifiably his own. For as much as Junk is an intentionally retrofitted set of songs, the previous M83 albums represent the marriage of the indie rock and modern pop aesthetics as much as any music made in the last 10 years. If Gonzalez recognizes that fact, he's not terribly impressed with himself. In fact, he sometimes doubts he wants to keep making music at all.

"I'm a musician, and people are thinking that's the best job in the world," he says. "But in the end, it's really not that amazing. I enjoy it and I think there's something very rewarding [about it]. But there's also so many things I'd like to do that I think are as amazing, if maybe not as cool in a way. Sometimes even when I'm in the studio and I'm doing an amazing job, I say, 'Well, maybe I'm not doing the right thing in my life. Maybe this doesn't make me so happy.' Thinking about this idea of space junk really makes me think about things in a different way. I'm asking a lot of questions about my life and myself, and turning 35 is scary. I'm growing older."

Gonzalez says this idea of space junk isn't all negative. As disturbed as he is by the notion that everything that he does is ultimately destined for history's dustbin, he's enough of a romantic to see the doomed beauty in it all. If his music is destined to become more space junk, why not enjoy the making of it as much as possible, regardless of what anyone thinks? Why not use your short life to satisfy yourself?

"Also, as a musician there's more danger [doing that] in a way, and I think danger is a good thing to keep in mind," he says. "There's a lot of artists who do something very well, and if they keep repeating the same recipe it's because they're good at it. And some people are expecting that from us. But I'm expecting diversity and danger."

Gonzalez's tone sharpens with defiance for the first time with those words, providing the only moment in the conversation where his disappointment leaks through his otherwise stoic demeanor. His frustration is easy to understand. After erecting a bridge between pop's past and future better than almost any other contemporary act, the safest choice available to him would be to continue driving over that bridge, to and from the same destination points. Junk might be destined to baffle even his most devoted listeners, but he's never made a more audacious album in scope or design. For now, he's embracing danger.

"It's very dangerous," he says of Junk, then laughs, puncturing the seriousness of the moment. "Don't listen to it too much."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's May/June 2016 Issue. This is its debut online.]

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Thimithimi
September 18th 2016
3:38pm

I’m huge M83 fan. For me it is not just Music, it’s Art in it’s highest form. Art that helped me go through difficult times, that was with me during the most important events of my life and to which I go when I have to make a life-changing decisions.

I love Anthony and his work. I read all interviews and patiently wait for news about his upcoming project (he hinted at few months ago). But I will be honest, I don’t understand him now. Anthony of 2016 is different than he was before. Go see what a rockman he was 13 years ago. He was shy, yeah. Insecure. But his music was deep and fucking amazing. It was true. True space-electro, post-rock. Now… it is just… bad pop. Junk and singles (I Need You, Glory, Holes in the Sky) Anthony released after HUWD are just terrible. This pop is closer to Midnight City than Anthony admits. Junk has nothing fresh, new or interesting in it. It was the most disappointing album I ever heard.

I feel sorry for that guy, but at least you can rest a bit during Junk songs inbetween older stuff during live gigs.