M83 The Memoirist
Published Apr 20, 2016"Sometimes I wish I were an artist from the '70s or '80s, because at that time, there were so many opportunities to create something completely new. Nowadays it's impossible, because everything has been done before. What I'm doing has been done before — I absolutely don't think my sound is new. The only thing I can do to have something new is just mix different styles together. This is what I'm doing."
Anthony Gonzalez has been called an innovator, a futurist and a sonic visionary, but he's not buying claims that he is some kind of musical prophet. For the last 15 years, he's been operating as M83 to express the magnificent, wistful concepts that run through his head. As a songwriter, musician and producer, he is constantly stuck in the past, borrowing ideas, sounds and tricks from other sonic visionaries.
"It's funny because as a musician I am absolutely not interested in making the sound of the future," he asserts. "I don't want to sound like an old guy who lives through the past all the time, but this is truly how I feel. I am always looking backwards, to see what I can bring from my influences to the table."
For the seventh M83 album, Junk, Gonzalez chose to bypass his usual trademark sound of swelling, synth-phonic shoegaze and create what he calls an "'organized mess' — a collection of songs that aren't made to live with each other, yet somehow work together." Junk is a collection of capricious retro-pop that rolls out like some bizarre Technicolor fantasy. It goes from silly to schmaltzy as quick as a wink, and over the course of its 55 minutes, it's rather easy to forget that this was the same artist behind 2011's epic double album, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.
"When I listen to an artist, I like to be surprised, and I feel like I've always tried to do that with my albums and not repeat myself too much," he explains. "I've always tried to bring my fans on a different journey every time."
When M83 began 15 years ago in Antibes, France, there were two members. Gonzalez was playing in a post-rock-inspired band called My Violent Wish with his college friend Nicolas Fromageau. The two decided to swap guitars for synthesizers and changed their name to M83, in reference to the galaxy Messier 83. Fromageau was an equal contributor to the first two M83 albums — 2001's M83 and 2003's Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts — but when it came time to make a third, Gonzalez knew a change was in order. He informed Fromageau of his wish to make M83 his own, and the two split. (Fromageau went on to form the like-minded Team Ghost.)
But while Gonzalez has since become the leader, songwriter, producer and only true member of M83, he always works with a producer — Justin Meldal-Johnsen is back to co-produce Junk — and refuses to identify as a solo artist.
"For me, it's really important to start the process on my own," Gonzalez says. "It's been like this forever. Even when Nicolas left for the third album, I did it the same way. I'd work with a producer and mixer and guests. For me, M83 is more of a collective than a solo project."
The third M83 album, 2005's Before the Dawn Heals Us, was the first release to feature Gonzalez on his own, but also the first to truly encapsulate his vision: the programmed drums and imposing synthesizers from the first two LPs gave way to live drums, guitars and an intense cinematic feel stimulated by his unwavering nostalgia. With lyrics and melodies full of teenage lust, and the heavily layered production, M83 was heralded as the next wave of shoegaze and dream pop. He continued to use that template, but built that sound into a bolder vision with the next three albums: 2007's strictly ambient Digital Shades Vol. 1; 2008's teenage tribute Saturdays=Youth; and 2011's double album, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.
Hurry Up proved to be a major step forward for M83: it received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album, debuted at #15 on Billboard and spawned a global hit single in "Midnight City," which has become a regular anthem for sporting events, lingerie ads and countless films. Hurry Up's commercial success took Gonzalez to the top of the music world, and, at first, he relished the opportunity. But it didn't take long for him to realize that M83 isn't cut out for the masses.
"After two years of touring the last album, I was really confident that I would actually make a big pop album," he says. "I was full of confidence, coming out of an amazing tour, and I just wanted to go further. Now looking back, it was such a stupid thought, because that's not who I am. When I listen to Top 40, I just don't hear myself in there. There are so many artists that try to copy each other over and over on production values. And this is something I realized that I couldn't do. I would have felt terrible afterwards. I couldn't ride on the success of 'Midnight City' that way."
Instead of capitalizing on the momentum, Gonzalez opted to take a break — and even then, he came up with two new M83 albums, though neither was conventional. He took advantage of his proximity to the Hollywood studios, and accepted offers to score Tom Cruise's post-apocalyptic blockbuster Oblivion and his brother Yann's film, You and the Night.
"I just needed to jump on different projects and leave the M83 bubble," he says. "This is one of the reasons why I moved to Los Angeles, to achieve that. Since I was a kid I've always watched a lot of films and listened to a lot of soundtracks, and it was always a wish of mine to just work on soundtracks."
In a press release for Junk, Gonzalez admitted that the goal was to make something that "would unsettle the listener in a good way." In its own peculiar way, Junk is that big pop album Gonzalez once considered making. It is also undoubtedly his most divisive work yet. There is a track called "Go!" that features a raging, climactic guitar solo from the Little Italian Virtuoso, Steve Vai, another called "Bibi the Dog" that sounds like the true heir to Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "Moon Crystal," which he describes as "really some kind of tribute to the Who's the Boss? and Punky Brewster era of TV."
Junk exercises the same freedom as an album like U2's Zooropa, a wildly eccentric successor to the massive Achtung Baby that is still regularly misunderstood for its wacky creative leaps 23 years later. The departure from Hurry Up's glowing hooks and epic arrangements might prove to be unsettling for some fans, but Gonzalez's fingerprints are unmistakably all over these songs. Junk isn't the logical next step many of his fans, both new and old, would have imagined for M83. But that was one of the main objectives: to defy expectations and avoid writing an album of singles that sound like "Midnight City."
"I feel like 'Midnight City' was a bit of an accident, and I'm not the kind of artist that is going to focus on singles," he explains. "I consider myself extremely lucky that I had a huge hit that was very successful. I think that is something that happens once in a lifetime for most indie artists. But I've been doing this for 15 years now, and I've always worked on my albums, not just songs. I am just evolving as a human being, and my music evolves at the same time. Now I'm just going to do what I want and what I feel is right. I feel like there were no restrictions on this album. I absolutely have no problem with doing this, because I had such a good time with Hurry Up. If it were to all stop tomorrow, I would still be very happy to have that one successful album."
One restriction Gonzalez sought to eliminate was his role as the primary vocalist. Giving that up wasn't too hard because "I felt like on the last album my vocals were very present and I had a hard time with that," he admits. So in the absence of Morgan Kibby, his go-to vocalist for the last two M83 releases (who left to pursue her White Sea project), he invited Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør, French singer Mai Lan, and his own bandmate Jordan Lawlor to help carry the load. But getting one of his musical idols, Beck, to provide lead vocals on the slow disco number "Time Wind" fulfilled a dream of his. It helped that Junk co-producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen has been Beck's collaborator and touring band member for the last 20 years.
"When I first started to work on the music and shared it with Justin, it almost felt obvious that it was a song for [Beck]," he says. "That was also a common wish, to explore the idea of adding Beck because, to be honest, I'm trying to follow the kind of career that he's had. He can work on a pop album and then come back with a ballad album, something completely different, but still with his sound. I like how he always puts out these different styles with each album. Having him on this album was as simple as him being an artist that I really care about."
Junk is a loaded album title. For Gonzalez, it's a metaphor for the impending doom of humanity: "I'm kind of pessimistic about human beings and how we handle things. We are quickly destroying ourselves and our destiny is that we're going to become space junk." But more appropriately, Junk is also a title that feeds Gonzalez's undying retrospective outlook. Dissatisfied by the recent trends in how music is being consumed — playlists, streaming services and singles downloads — he chose the simple title as a way to criticize an industry that has made music disposable.
"It's kind of a statement to what I think the music industry has become," he admits. "The fact that you can go listen to the record on Spotify and take one or two tracks and make a playlist with all of the songs from different artists. And then the rest of the album is just gonna be trashed. I grew up buying albums and listening to all of them. I understand that nowadays it's really hard to keep track because there are so many new artists and new releases. But I just wanted to say that I don't like how the music industry works."
Gonzalez is fully aware of the reputation he holds as a wide-eyed nostalgic. Whether it's a longing for listeners to enjoy music the way it was originally intended or to capture the magic of "Brand New Life" from Who's The Boss? in his own original composition, he is always attempting to integrate the way he remembers things as the impetus for M83.
"No matter what I do there is always a feeling of memory," he says. "I think that nowadays the way our society works, we have a tendency to forget. That makes me sad. I feel like there is something beautiful about having memories and remembering that no matter what I'm doing or the songs I'm working on, I'm always trying to remember."
Junk is available on iTunes.