M83, aka Anthony Gonzalez, has announced additional North American tour dates, in addition to his very special festival performances across the globe.
“On the last album, there was too much of me.” That’s how Anthony Gonzalez – the sonic auteur behind the sublime sound of M83 – describes the primary inspiration for his forthcoming album JUNK, to be released on April 8, 2016 by Mute. Highly anticipated, JUNK is not just M83’s first studio album in half a decade; it’s also the follow-up to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – which, upon release in 2011, placed M83 in the direct current of the mainstream. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming gained acclaim as Gonzalez’s masterpiece summation of all the elements and influences of his epic space-age future pop. It would also become the record that cemented M83’s mainstream breakout, driven by the global hit single “Midnight City.” Other standout tracks like “Outro” and “Wait” from Hurry Up… also became pop-culturally ubiquitous, taking on a life of their own as musical accompaniment for numerous TV shows and Hollywood blockbuster trailers. So why would Gonzalez try to remove himself from the follow-up to such a creative and commercial success? And furthermore supplant himself on JUNK with the surprising likes of Beck and Steve Vai. Wait, Steve Vai? The legendary virtuoso guitar hero who defined an era? On an M83 album? in 2016? With Beck, too? Read on…
On both Hurry Up… and the two years of triumphant world touring that followed it, Gonzalez served as M83’s musical architect and songwriter, but also its front man and primary vocalist – a role which he grew to find limiting. Gonzalez began thinking about the iconoclastic wizards behind the curtain that initially inspired him to make music. Suddenly he felt a renewed kinship to mysterious tinkerers like Boards of Canada, Tangerine Dream, and Aphex Twin; curator/musician magicians à la Brian Eno; and genre-expanding visionaries like Brian Wilson, Kevin Shields and Todd Rundgren. “Like them, I found I really prefer to stay behind the scenes,” Gonzalez notes. These were the role models for him to start making eccentric yet widescreen bedroom electronica in his own image, starting as a teenager in the late ‘90s in his not-exactly-music-hotspot hometown of Antibes on the French Riviera coastline. As a result, JUNK represents both a return to Gonzalez’s roots, and also a bold yet logical leap forward in M83’s artistic evolution. “I wanted to show different sides of me on this album,” he explains. “I wanted to come back with something more intimate, yet somehow with … less me!”
In fact, Gonzalez has frequently utilized different collaborators at each stage in the career span of M83 (whose astronomical moniker comes from the abbreviated name of “Messier 83” – a spiral galaxy fifteen million light years away in the Hydra constellation). The first two M83 album releases – the group’s self-titled 2001 debut and 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts – both featured Gonzalez’s childhood friend Nicolas Fromageau, now of Parisian “cold gaze” outfit Team Ghost (whom Gonzalez also hired to do an official remix of “Midnight City”). Keeping it all in the family, Gonzalez’s brother Yann contributed significantly to M83’s 2005 soaring prog-shoegaze-ambient magnum opus, Before the Dawn Heals Us. Singer-songwriter and actor Morgan Kibby, meanwhile, proved a vital creative foil as well as an ethereal, female Greek Chorus vocal counterpoint on M83’s breakthrough albums, 2008’s Saturdays=Youth and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (which also featured an astral cameo from Zola Jesus). And in the immediate years preceding JUNK, Gonzalez became in demand as a soundtrack composer for hire, clarifying the promise of M83’s already cinematic sweep in actual movie theaters with scores for 2013’s Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion and his brother Yann’s 2014 directorial debut You and the Night. New original M83 tracks also received prominent placement in the soundtracks to the hit film series Divergent.
While Gonzalez played the majority of the instruments on JUNK along with contributions from Meldal-Johnsen, longtime M83 drummer Loïc Maurin, and pianist Jeff Babko, the album’s collaborations would prove crucial – and even more wonderfully unexpected – than anything we’ve heard from M83 before. Just as “Midnight City” featured perhaps the most epic reimagining of an ‘80s-style saxophone solos, the new song “Go!” – an exultant synth-pop charmer featuring vocals from another new M83 collaborator, edgy French chanteuse Mai Lan – features possibly the most orgasmic ‘80s-style guitar solo ever, from one who knows that terrain better than anyone: superstar virtuoso Steve Vai. Famed for his fleet six-string heroics for everyone from David Lee Roth to Frank Zappa, Vai entered the M83 ecosystem courtesy one of Gonzalez’s closest creative partners, Justin Meldal-Johnsen – the acclaimed producer/multi-instrumentalist who played on and co-produced Hurry Up… and JUNK with Gonzalez. “I thought, ‘What if I ask one of my guitar heroes I used to listen to as a teen to do a solo?” Gonzalez says. “Justin knew how to get in contact with Steve, and he was super responsive. We asked for the craziest space solo possible, which wasn’t hard for him. He sent us three different takes, and we blended two to make the ultimate Steve Vai solo. It was amazing to work with him.” Another of JUNK’s boldface guests, Beck, also came about via Meldal-Johnsen, who has worked with the genre-bending alt-rock legend since the late ‘90s. Beck appears on the smooth new wave-meets-electro-funk workout “Time Wind.” “The song was already starting to sound ‘super Beck’ to me,” Gonzalez says. “I wanted the super ‘80s vibe of the chorus mixed with something sensitive, cool, and a little sad – and he took it well beyond even what I’d imagined.”
As well, JUNK features key contributions from past Gonzalez associates like M83’s touring guitarist Jordan Lawlor, who gets in touch with his inner George Michael in his vocal on the artfully soulful “Walkway Blues.” Elsewhere, Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør – who sang M83’s closing-credit song for Oblivion – lends her gossamer voice to the eerily nostalgic ‘70s soft-rock piano ballad “For the Kids.” M83 songs don’t usually feature soul vocals or prominent, jazzy piano parts. However, as Gonzalez and Meldal-Johnsen began sessions for JUNK in earnest in 2014 at Gonzalez’s home recording setup and studios like Los Angeles’ legendary Sunset Sound Recorders (where classics from the Rolling Stones and The Doors were created), Gonzalez found himself pushing away from sounds and styles he’d already explored in the past. While M83 albums have always combined genres in a nostalgic and provocative way – from shoegaze and ambient to synth-pop and ’90s alt-rock – for JUNK, Gonzalez began experimenting adventurously with sounds and styles he’d never previously attempted in his music. “All my albums have layers of eclecticism to them, but with this album I wanted to take that even further,” he says.
Gonzalez admits the new aesthetic restlessness permeating JUNK was in part a reaction to the pressure to follow-up the staggering success of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Itself the most pop-oriented effort of M83’s career, Hurry Up… would debut on the Billboard Top 200 at #15; “Midnight City” would go on to become an unlikely radio hit and receive platinum certification – quite an achievement for an avant-garde indie artist from France. Indeed, in addition to receiving a Grammy nomination for “Best Alternative Album,” Hurry Up… would receive a rare 9.1 album rating from Pitchfork – who also made “Midnight City” its top song of 2011 and later called Hurry Up… one of the “100 Best Albums of the Decade So Far.” “People might expect a new ‘Midnight City,’ or a big ballad like ‘Outro,’ but I didn’t want to give in to that,” Gonzalez says. “I’m just not going to reprise the most successful song I’ve done. Instead, I wanted to make something that would unsettle the listener in a good way.”
Album opener “Do It Try It” – a fractured yet catchy mélange of old-school house music pianos, synthesized vocals, prog excess, and pop-art bubblegum hooks – does just that, with the command inherent in its titular refrain quickly becoming the mantra for JUNK’s diverse fifteen-song cycle. “I wanted to make what I call an ‘organized mess’ – a collection of songs that aren’t made to live with each other, yet somehow work together,” Gonzalez says. “We weren’t precious with the sounds.” That’s clear in the mutant retro-futurist grooves of songs like “Moon Crystal,” an instrumental that evokes Genesis doing a prog-disco remix of the Love Boat theme. Gonzalez notes that vintage TV soundtracks from classic shows of yesteryear like Hill St. Blues and Punky Brewster proved a crucial influence – for “Do It Try It,” he even rented the exact model of Korg M1 synthesizer to recreate the exact bass patch that made the Seinfeld theme so distinct.
Gonzalez’s amour for all things ‘80s is well known, and that aesthetic still recurs throughout JUNK – especially the lushly technological productions of Trevor Horn for artists like Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Grace Jones. But Gonzalez also found himself looking to earlier decades – ‘60s film soundtracks, groovy ‘70s radio hits – for fresh, timeless inspiration. “Everyone’s trying to be modern and fit into radio formats, but I find that boring,” Gonzalez says. “Those songs were moving and sentimental. They had something to say.” To that end, the ballad “Sunday Night 1987” that closes JUNK showcases another M83 first: an expansive chromatic harmonica solo. Played by legendary session musician Tollak Ollestad, the harmonica here nostalgically evokes Stevie Wonder’s trademark mouth-harp tone, as well as John Barry’s beloved score for Midnight Cowboy and Ennio Morricone’s “Spaghetti Western” soundtracks. Gonzalez found that sound captured the specific melancholy that the inspiration behind “Sunday Night 1987” made him feel. The song is a tribute to the late Julia Brightly, an expert and beloved “front of house” concert sound mixer who’d worked with the likes of Mogwai, Slint, Wire, and The Knife. As well, Brightly had gone on numerous tours with M83 before passing away from cancer in 2014. “That sound triggers something very personal for me, so I wanted it in this song about saying goodbye,” Gonzalez says. “Julia was amazing. I know I’ll never be as comfortable onstage without her there; I truly lost both a musical partner and friend.”
Despite its adventurousness, JUNK still remains very much an M83 album, with clear threads showing the evolution from Gonzalez’s past work. The pure ambient soundscape “Ludivine” proves as cosmically lush as anything on M83’s vanguard early records. And while Gonzalez claims that JUNK was designed as a full-album listening experience, with zero consideration for potential singles, don’t be shocked if you hear a song like “Road Blaster” on the radio. An infectious new-wave earworm, “Road Blaster” suggests the forlorn love child of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” and Hall and Oates’ “Maneater” in its undeniable hooks. JUNK also features Gonzalez’s first-ever recorded lyrical attempts in his native French. In Mai Lan’s spoken-word-style flow on tracks like “Bibi the Dog” and the duet “Atlantique Sud,” Gonzalez found himself exploring exotic, erotic vibes evocative of seductive ‘80s hits that feature “a sexy girl talking on the beat in French and being herself – that’s what we tried to recreate.”
About the album title, Gonzalez says, “For me it really means that anything we create today is going to end up being space junk at one point. I find it really fascinating and scary at the same time, and beautiful too in a way. I have this image of pieces of humanity floating in space, lost forever. Nowadays, everything goes so fast and everybody is kind of throwing away art in a certain manner. They’re going to listen to an album for instance and just pick a track they like to put it on a playlist cause this is how it works. They’re not going to take the time to listen to an album anymore because they have to jump onto the next thing.”
A resident of Los Angeles for over half a decade and an avid consumer of American pop culture, Gonzalez attributes the new Euro atmosphere permeating JUNK to longing for his homeland. “I love where I live, but I found myself terribly missing the culture and language I grew up with,” he says. “Being away from family and friends isn’t easy. Having French words on the album took me home a little bit, and that felt good.” As such, in trying to “remove” his identifiable musical presence, ironically Gonzalez may have made one of his most personal efforts yet with JUNK – and with no compromise, despite the stakes of following up a commercial triumph like Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. “Every time I make an M83 album, I’m trying to do it on my own terms – and it’s the same for this one,” Gonzalez says. “Whatever I do, whatever influences I have, it ends up sounding like me. I’ve learned a lot since making my first albums in my bedroom, but those recordings had their own character, and that’s always what I am trying to achieve: to create something with grit and soul, that puts you a little off balance. As a musician, I’m just trying to take you somewhere else, beyond your world.”