“The artists that I used to love when I was a teenager, I wanted them to surprise me,” M83 leader Anthony Gonzalez told Rolling Stone via Skype, during a recent break from tour rehearsals. In April, the French electro-rock mastermind released Junk, the follow-up to his most commercially successful album to date, 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. In the interim, he scored two films, the Tom Cruise sci-fi epic Oblivion and his brother Yann Gonzalez’s erotic drama You and the Night. When he finally sat down to make Junk, he wanted to do something different. “I feel like it’s boring to just put out the same record over and over,” he says. “I’m trying to experiment.”
Ever the nostalgist, Gonzalez looked to the music he loved as a kid for inspiration, acquiring a Korg M1 (the synth responsible for the bass in the Seinfeld theme) and even enlisting Eighties guitar god Steve Vai for a solo. It’s a level of dedication to a bygone sound that has drawn some criticism, to which Gonzalez isn’t immune. “You feel like you’re at school again,” he explains. “I feel like I’m going back to college, with the stress of getting a bad grade.”
As with most experiments, the outcome of Junk was unpredictable for its maker. But as Gonzalez notes, that’s kind of the point. “That’s the beauty of it, in a way,” he says. “There’s a lot of hit-and-miss. That’s what music is. For me, it’s important to keep moving, to keep trying stuff. I can be happy because I tried something.”
Currently touring Asia and Australia, M83 returns to the States May 28th for a run of shows. Gonzalez spoke to RS about his attraction to the “broken” sound of Seventies and Eighties music, how writing French lyrics helped him combat homesickness and how old home movies inspire him.
You stepped back from lead vocals a bit on this album, sharing the role with artists like Beck and Mai Lan. Why?
I just find it quite intense. I hate my voice. I can enjoy it on some songs, but on Hurry Up, it was just way too much. It didn’t sit well for me. Especially when you’re singing the same songs for two years of touring. Getting other people to sing on my record was kind of like fresh air.
You wrote some lyrics in French on this album, which you haven’t done before.
It’s something that I’ve always been reluctant to do, because it’s really difficult for me. There’s something very poetic about the French language, something very deep about the words we use, about the way we make them work together. It’s a very difficult exercise and I never was confident enough to do it, but with this last five years being in Los Angeles, I really started to feel homesick. In a way, writing in French was a way to connect to my roots again. It may sound a little cliché, but that’s really what it was. I was feeling really sad in the studio, far away from my family and friends, and I just wanted to get closer to them.
The piano also seems more prominent on this record than your previous albums.
When I stopped touring, I stopped making music for maybe one year. Well, I didn’t stop making music, but I stopped composing music. I was playing piano every day. Playing other people’s songs and having fun without the stress of writing songs. I had a lot of fun, so I just wanted to put a lot of piano on the record. It’s also kind of a way to pay tribute to some of the French artists from the Eighties. Piano was everywhere, on every song on the radio. It was an instrument that we overused.
What is it about the music of the Seventies and Eighties that attracts you?
For me it’s the way it was recorded, the instruments, the arrival of analogue synths, the sound of tape, of early pedal effects. There’s something broken about the music, and I feel like we lost that in the Nineties. We started to go digital and I think that was the wrong move. Everything started to sound more clean, but with less grit, with less impact.
There seem to be some sounds from the past that artists feel comfortable referencing, and then there are others that were sort of left behind. You don’t really abide by those rules. I’m thinking specifically of the harmonica in “Sunday Night 1987.”
I’m trying to use sound that has a meaning to me. The harmonica definitely has a meaning to me. It takes me back in time. These sounds are my time machine, in a way. Same thing for the guitar solo of Steve Vai. I would love to hear a super-Eighties, over-the-top solo on a Miley Cyrus song. I think that would be dope. But I feel like people are scared of the concept. They think it’s passé or kitsch, but that’s the reason why it’s powerful to me. You bring something from the past and make it more modern, and all of a sudden it makes sense. This is the stuff that I love to experiment with.
What is it about the past?
I think it’s because I keep such a good memory about my child years. Thinking about the fact that it’s over, it makes me really sad because I’m scared of dying, I’m scared of losing my friends, the people I love. Remembering the past, it’s the happy place for me. It’s funny, I was at home for Christmas and one night I couldn’t fall asleep and I started to watch these homemade videos from an Italian family that was spending the day at an amusement park in, I think, 1988. I was moved by the video in a weird way. There was something about the picture. It was terrible, but it was amazing at the same time. It was beautiful. The image was broken, the sound was broken, but the light was perfect. It was sunny. For me it was like a piece of art.
I’m curious if the focus will move with you. Do you think in 30 years you’ll be writing about now?
I hope so, because I think I’m slowly starting to annoy people [laughs]. So I better find a new concept for the next album.