L.A. Times: The Californication of M83
On the day after his new album leaked, The Skinny meets <b>M83</b>'s <b>Anthony Gonzalez</b> to talk space travel, stereotypes and the Hollywood Hills
Anthony Gonzalez is on the fifteenth floor of a plush hotel in London’s West End. It’s one of the last evenings of summer and the sun is making its leisurely way west, emblazoning the heavens and carving a diorama silhouette from the skyline. The Skinny finds him gazing out of one of the many huge windows that mark the bar’s perimeter. He looks relaxed, casual and boyish in his open shirt, t-shirt and jeans. The flecks of grey that pepper the side of his neatly coiffed hair are the only telltale signs of a man who has recently entered his thirties. One gets the impression that Gonzalez will only ever age with style.
He greets us with a warm, pearly white smile and a handshake. The Skinny compliments him on his freshness (he flew in from L.A. last night and leaves again in the morning), which draws a modest nod. Bubbling beneath the affable surface, though, are stormy undercurrents. The new album by M83, the guise under which Gonzalez has been making music for over a decade, has just leaked online, six weeks before its release. “I don’t feel good,” he admits. “I almost don’t want to fight anymore. The fight is lost.”
Pirates aside, though, Gonzalez is a happy man. He’s just swapped the Côte d'Azur for the Hollywood Hills. His English, which is word perfect, has acquired an American twang and he’s found new stimulus for his music, too. “It’s different,” he says excitedly of Los Angeles, “but there are more similarities with my home than you might expect. I think it’s the beach, the mountains, the palm trees and the sunshine. It’s like the South of France, except ten times bigger. The main difference is the culture, but that’s exactly why I went there, to experience something new.”
Confused, we suggest that two places couldn’t seem more different. The L.A. Gonzalez has fallen for, though, is not the L.A. we had in mind. “It’s like everywhere,” comes his measured reply. “Every city is clichéd and in Los Angeles, the cliché is “being superficial”: big boobs, white teeth, Hollywood, fame and movies. That’s not what inspires me about the place, though. I was very influenced by the Californian landscapes. I was often heading into the desert with my computer and keyboards. Most of the instrumental tracks on the album were recorded there. I would rent a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, smoke a big joint and make music for hours.”
At the mention of his recreational pursuits, he flashes another one of his winning smiles, suggesting the Hollywood ideal may not have been completely lost on him. Gonzalez comes from the Mediterranean port of Antibes, a sleepy Roman settlement that was once, briefly, home to Pablo Picasso. It was here that he learned how to play guitar as a ten year old. His upbringing, though, was anything but musical. “My parents didn’t listen to it very much,” he recalls. “They had three records and they played them all the time, but they weren’t inspiring.
“I was very lucky to have an older brother and he introduced me to a lot of great music. Being in France, culturally, we are very curious. We’re not afraid of foreign culture, like from America and England and through my brother, I became more and more interested in lots of different kinds of music. I think our generation, our age group, [The Skinny is too polite to mention that Anthony has a few years on us yet] had similar culture, despite being from different countries. We grew up listening to the same bands and watching the same movies. I barely ever listen to French music. Every time someone is singing in French, it kind of makes me sick!”
Unsurprisingly, then, M83’s lyrics are all in English. “It’s more natural for me,” he explains. We suggest that the UK should be ashamed of its poor linguistic record, citing our pidgin French as Exhibit A. “I learnt English in school, but I agree. How they teach languages in schools is not the best. But through music, I have travelled a lot and picked it up.”
There is one French artist, though, who has had a big influence Gonzalez’s music. “I will always remember being seven years old and watching this television show which featured a performance from Jean Michel Jarre. I have to say, it was a real shock. He looked so beautiful. He was surrounded by synths and lights and looked so picturesque; like a spaceship. This was the first time I realised that music could be so powerful and since then, I’ve had this love for synths and electronic music.”
Despite his polite protestations to the contrary, there is something decidedly Francophile about M83’s music. Along with Daft Punk, Justice and Cassius, to name but a few, they have been pivotal in establishing France as the planet’s primary breeding ground for indie – dance crossover acts par excellence. Over recent years, though, the band’s sound has incorporated more “rock” sounds into their oeuvre. Saturdays = Youth, the 2008 album that brought M83 to a wider audience and which reaped universal critical acclaim, drew heavily from the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins (with whom the album’s producer, Ken Thomas, worked extensively).
Gonzalez’s attitude towards the album is surprisingly aloof. “I was a little less proud of that one. Approaching the new album, I felt the pressure of Saturdays… and I didn’t like having that. I wasn’t scared to make another album; I just didn’t want people to think I wanted to make Saturdays… number two. I wanted to do something different and was a little afraid of the reaction.”
When speaking of the earlier entries to his back catalogue, though, he beams with pride. The recording of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming in Los Angeles ushered in a new era for M83. The previous records were all laid down in France. Most of them were made on a shoestring and Gonzalez recalls his early days in the band, alongside his former musical partner Nicolas Fromageau (who has sinced moved on to front the sublime Team Ghost), with misty-eyed nostalgia. “Ah!” he exclaims, with his head tossed back. “When you release your first album, you never know what’s going to happen. Are you going to find some people who like your music? It’s like jumping into a big black hole. You don’t know what to expect. Nicolas and I made the first two albums (M83 and Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts) on a shitty 8-track recorder in my bedroom. We were both at school and we did this for fun. It wasn’t a job, you know? It’s funny how, if you listen to the other albums, you can get this sense of fun from them. I am so proud of the first few records, but I’m probably most proud of the new one.”
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, the new double LP, is M83’s most ambitious album to date and Gonzalez views it as a culmination of his life’s work to date. You can forgive him, then, a little ire over the album’s leaking. “This is, for me, a statement of how I used to buy music back in the day. This is my version of growing up and buying music in record stores. I’ve been dreaming of making a double record since I was a teenager, listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”
It isn’t just the format that has been in his intentions since his youth. The album’s content and concept have been with Gonzalez for even longer, only to be evoked recently by his change of environment. “Well, it’s mainly about dreams,” he explains. “When I moved to LA, I was in a new environment, a new city and I was lonely. I was remembering a lot of memories from my childhood, you know things I used to dream about as a kid, and I felt like I should write about them. When I was young, I dreamed about space a lot. There was a Japanese animation called Galaxy Express and I was obsessed with it. It’s the story of a young kid travelling through space on a train. As a kid, I dreamed that I was the captain of my own spaceship; like a space pirate, driving from planet to planet. This album is like the story of these adventures, in a way. This is the soundtrack of a movie that doesn’t exist. I hope that people listening to it can provide their own images, in their heads.”
Gonzalez, for all his globetrotting, still greets the release of a new album with the glee of a debutante. A conversation with him is like a breath of fresh air. He is charming, honest, funny and, even if he doesn’t think so, very French. The Skinny departs the dimly lit ambience of his hotel into the bustling Regent Street twilight, thankful that the forces of chance led a seven-year-old French kid to the dazzling lights of a Jean Michel Jarre show all those years ago, and reflecting on the ten years of brilliance that it helped to spark.