M83: Wasted on the Youth

Coming off of the biggest record of his career, Anthony Gonzalez regroups and looks to the past for inspiration.
M83: Wasted on the Youth

Coming off of the biggest record of his career, Anthony Gonzalez regroups and looks to the past for inspiration.

Words: Laura Studarus

photo by Andrew Arthur

April 04, 2016

Anthony Gonzalez is probably anticipating your jokes. No, the title of the new M83 album Junk is not a self-evaluation. Nor is its cover art—which features characters eerily reminiscent of those that might have dotted your Happy Meal as a kid—some kind of indication that the French musician has entered his kitsch phase. To hear him tell it, the idea goes much deeper than a throwaway phrase.

“It has different meanings,” he laughs nervously. “I feel like maybe the first meaning is that the music industry has changed so much. Instead of sending albums now, we’re just going to pick songs that we like, put them on a playlist, and throw away all the other songs. For me, I have this image of songs being lost in the process and becoming junk all of a sudden. It makes me very insecure. So with this title, I had the image in my head of a broken record floating in space with these lost songs. A little touch of humanity floating around.”

That last bit he feels more comfortable with. Humanity, that is. For someone who confesses that shyness prevents him from doing many interviews, Gonzalez is certainly adept at sharing the banal bits of life. The living room of his Echo Park home bares witness to his interests, from the keyboard in the corner (the rest of his impressive collection is housed in his studio on the lower floor) to the taxidermied rodents lining his walls. A Kate Moss compilation book rests on one of the shelves, an open MacBook sits on his white couch, and discreetly placed on the coffee table between books and magazines is his vape.

The open-plan house is a recent acquisition, a refuge acquired shortly after the two years Gonzalez spent on the road behind previous M83 album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. (His nose wrinkles slightly as he recalls the seemingly endless string of airports.) The lengthy album promotion experience offered him several bucket-list musical experiences. Katy Perry was spotted dancing to his set at Coachella. (In response, Gonzalez offered his assistance on her next album—an invitation she has yet to take him up on.) Lead single “Midnight City” proved to be a juggernaut of its own, soundtracking a Victoria’s Secret commercial and making several rounds on late-night television. The single’s momentum would earn Hurry Up M83’s first Grammy nod. (The award would go to Gotye.) It seemed appropriate that the era closed out with a headlining show at the Hollywood Bowl. (“It was a good night to remember all the fun we had on tour,” Gonzalez notes emphatically.)

So time off was needed. Naturally. Gonzalez describes his downtime as a mixture of skateboarding, movie watching, and trips out into the Joshua Tree desert; he also scored his brother Yann’s film You and the Night during his time off. It was only after returning to his keyboard a year and a half later that he began considering his follow-up. Or, more correctly, how much he wanted to flip the script.

“The idea is to make people dance and make people cry at the same time.”

“I really wanted, with Junk, to break the serious image I have [of] the last album,” he says. “I have seven albums behind me. It can be frustrating, because people want to hear more of the first two or three albums. And some of the people just want to hear ‘Midnight City.’ It’s going to be fun and frustrating at the same time to [try and] please everyone. The idea is to make people dance and make people cry at the same time.”

M83 is ostensibly a solo project, but you’d never know that speaking with Gonzalez, who is quick to praise his collaborators; community building has always been a huge part of his ethos. Returning to the project was producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (who helmed Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming). With Morgan Kibby having left shortly before recording to focus on her solo project White Sea, Gonzalez filled the release with new female voices, from the siren call of Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfør to French musician Mai Lan (who Gonzalez invited to appear on four tracks after meeting her at a songwriting camp). Zelly Meldal-Johnsen, Justin’s daughter, is also featured, delivering a spoken word follow-up to her appearance on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.

Their work resulted in one of the most eclectic M83 albums to date. Gonzalez’s ambitious range of synth sounds is met with an array of new sonic additions, including cheerleading chants (“Laser Gun”), house piano and baroque synths (“Do It, Try It”), and—as is the case with “Moon Crystal”—the finest 1970s theme song to not actually appear on television during the decade. There are also moments that step even further out of line from the established canon. “Atlantique Sud” is an unabashed acoustic ballad, with Lan and Gonzalez dueting in French over a single piano and live strings. Meanwhile, the Sundfør-featuring torch song “For the Kids” feels like M83’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” moment. (It doesn’t hurt that era-reminiscent sax is featured heavily across the majority of Junk’s tracks.)

Gonzalez is forthright about the nostalgic influences that drive the mix. Yes, they sound like postcards from the past—because that is exactly the vibe he was going for. He can speak at length about the depiction of death in anime and the joys Punky Brewster—both sides of the pop culture coin that he says played a role in his work.

“I think knowing what the kids are watching nowadays, it’s so different,” he muses. “I feel like it’s not the same culture. Everything is clean and happy: learning with happy things. I feel like it’s kind of wrong. Even the aesthetic of it doesn’t really appeal to me; it’s very 3D. I don’t really feel the art behind it. I really tried with this album to remember what I was moved by when I was a teen and tried to contribute to the sound that I loved when I was a young kid.”

He pauses to collect his thoughts, considering how to best articulate his relationship with the ideas he began collecting during childhood.

“I think knowing what the kids are watching nowadays, it’s so different… Everything is clean and happy: learning with happy things. I feel like it’s kind of wrong.”

“It’s always interesting because I always feel that I’m not really looking toward the future,” he continues. “I’m always looking back and trying to remember good things about the ’80s and the ’70s. Modern music scares me so much. I just don’t feel like it’s very appealing to me,” he says. “There’s a lack of identity. Everyone is trying to copy each other on the sounds and everyone is trying to go toward the same style of music. I don’t really like to think that way… I barely listen to new music or modern music. I feel like it would be silly for me to try to look up new music when there’s still a lot to discover in the past.”

Gonzalez is self aware enough to realize that, yes, his needle is stuck in his youth, and to some, statements like this make him sound uncomfortably like an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. But he’s unapologetic. In the end, he still feels like the same kid who worshiped at the altar of Brian Eno. Why hide it?

“I don’t really feel like an adult at all,” he laughs. “I’m still doing the things that I was doing as a teenager: playing video games and making music and watching films. That’s just what I do all day. A lot of adults would find that a little childish. But this is how I roll. I feel like it’s so weird because everything goes so fast. I feel like my teenage years were just yesterday.” FL