M83's Anthony Gonzalez On Why And How He Took His Music In A Radical New Direction

Their new album, 'Junk,' comes out today

Photo by Andrew Arthur

M83’s 2011 release, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, debuted at number 15 on the Billboard charts, earned rave reviews, and catapulted the band to newfound popularity after five albums. It also placed founding member and M83 brainchild Anthony Gonzalez into the spotlight as a somewhat reluctant frontman. The French musician, however, has said that the double album featured an overabundance of his vocals, and so for M83's latest record, Gonzalez went in the opposite direction. On Junk, which comes out today, Gonzalez wrangled friends like Steve Vai, Beck, and Susanne Sundfør—whom he collaborated with on the soundtrack for the Tom Cruise sci-fi epic Oblivionto handle some of the vocal duties, while he focused on taking the band's trademark sound in a surprising new direction. We caught up with Gonzalez recently to discuss how '80s American sitcoms influenced the new album, why he's worried about humanity's future, and how for the first time since moving to the States, he's missing home. 

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was such a great record. You’ve joked, however, that there is too much of you on it. What’s the deal with that?
That’s not really a joke. That’s really how I felt. There was too much of me vocally. The album was musically very me, but that’s what I wanted. But I didn’t really cope with me being so present vocally on the last album. It was too powerful and I just didn’t feel confident by my vocals. So on this next album, I wanted to go back to something with less of me vocally, but also get more personal with the music. And also because there are a lot of collaborators on the album, it was amazing for me to just focus on the music for some of the songs, and let the other people do the job on the vocals. 

Did the limelight you achieved from your last release become too overwhelming? 
I just have a hard time listening to my voice when it’s on records, and being the front guy on stage on the last tour was just difficult. It gave me a lot of confidence, but that was not the direction I wanted to take this album. 

This is your first album in five years. What were you doing during the time between releases?
I’ve been on tour for two years for the last album, which was never-ending. And then I did two movie soundtracks, one for a big Hollywood film, and a smaller one for a French indie film. For me, those two soundtracks, I really consider them as albums.

What did you most enjoy about your detour into scoring films?
I like to be part of a project where I’m not the boss, where I just have to follow orders in a way and also please a director, a production company. I think it’s very interesting. I grew up listening to a lot of music soundtracks, and this really was a goal of mine to make some. It was almost like a natural process for me to be part of the movie scene. 

This new album is a follow-up to an album that really took the band to the next level. Is there a lot of pressure to live up to the hype? Do you feel like people have a lot of expectations for this next one?
Probably. This album was kind of a way for me to break the success of the last album, come up with something more fresh, and at the same time more old-sounding. There is a lot of the '70s and '80s influence on this album. I wanted to also break the serious image that I have from my older albums. I wanted to break all that and just come back with something that I felt I wanted to do and not what people told me what they wanted to hear. It’s always scary to put out a new album, especially because I really try to renew myself on every disc. It’s even more scary because I think that some people are going to reject this and some other people are going to like it. So you lose some people, but you gain new ones at the same time.

Walk us through what it’s like the week one of your albums drops, and those first reviews are coming in. Are you hibernating and not reading anything? Or are you openly looking to see what critics are saying?
It’s just hard to avoid reading some of the reviews. It’s what it is. I have a good life. I’m on the road all the time and making music, which is pretty amazing. When I started as a teenager making music, I would have dreamed of this life, and so waiting for the reviews is a bad part, but I take it because there are so many good things around this that I need to embrace more. I feel like all my albums, it’s either you love them or you hate them. There is no in-between. 

Is it true that this new project is inspired by American sitcoms like Punky Brewster and Who’s the Boss?
Yes, it’s true. Those are some of the influences of this album. There are many more, but it’s definitely one of the influences. The music of those TV shows was really something that I kept in my heart and really tried to bring back on this album. But also a lot of Japanese animation, stuff that was very mature for kids to watch. My parents would let me watch this all day without knowing what it was really about. But it was actually very deep and I feel like looking at what the kids are watching nowadays, it is completely different. Everything is about learning and being happy, and I feel like life is not really about that. For me to be introduced to this kind of violence and darker themes was a good thing. 

How hard is the process of coming up with a title and summing up an entire collection of songs with one word or phrase?
It’s very difficult. I really wanted to come up with a title that was more direct than the previous album titles. There was always something very poetic about my album titles in the past. And this one is not poetic at all. For me, it’s just a way of describing what music is nowadays. People don’t really listen to albums anymore. They just pick the track they like, and then they make playlists, and then they throw away all the other songs. For me, that’s what junk means. You make something but you know it’s going to end up being thrown away. I don’t really have faith in humanity either. And I feel like we are kind of destroying ourselves more and more every year. I have this image of lost records, lost art floating in space because humanity is bouncing things up there. I’m not coping with the way we listen to music or watch movies nowadays. Everything is going too fast and there is too much of everything. 

Junk is much more experimental than your other albums. How would you describe it stylistically?
I just really wanted to have a collection of songs and styles of songs that are not necessarily made to work with each other, but the challenge to me was to make them work together with some kind of unity behind it. I didn’t want to come up with just a ballad album or a pop album. I just wanted to have a group of songs. And I think it kind of described really well the society we are living in right now. It’s just a lot of different cultures mixed together. I like this idea of a different group of people, with a different state of mind, and different spirits merging together.

How do you unwind after a long day in the studio? What do you do to come back to normal life after you’ve been in there for hours?
I just try to relax. I try to do the things that I have been doing since I was a teenager—watch a lot of films and TV shows. I’m a very boring person. 

What TV shows are you watching now?
I’m going back to watching all The X-Files all over again, which is pretty amazing. I really enjoyed the new Fargo season. But just a lot of films. I just love to watch films. 

You live in L.A. but you’re from France. What do you enjoy about American culture that you don’t get back home?
I think it’s the wrong time for you to ask this question because this last year, it’s the first time in six years since I’ve been living in L.A. that I really miss France—so bad. I really miss the culture and my roots, and obviously family and friends. This year was a tough one. I feel like speaking English every day is becoming a struggle. So I really am thinking about living part-time in France and living here the rest of the time. I love California. I really love the fact that you can just take your car and escape for a weekend, and just go to the desert or the mountains. There is this feeling of freedom that I think is very interesting about living here. But otherwise, I feel like I’m still a French dude. It’s just hard for me to escape from the culture. 

You have a tour coming up. What can people expect?
I have a lot of albums now that I can play with. So that’s pretty interesting, and knowing that you can just manipulate the setlist every night with different songs is great. It’s also pretty scary because people are going to want to hear more of the first two albums and people are going to want to hear “Midnight City.” So it’s kind of a mixed feeling. But I really want them to have fun, dance, and cry at the same time.

Is being on the road as glamorous as it sounds? 
I think it’s amazing, really. Traveling to a different city every day, different territories, meeting people all the time, is, I think, probably the thing that I love the most. Playing live and communicating with the audiences is also amazing. But it’s also very difficult to be away from home, away from the people you love. People think it’s party all the time, but touring with M83 is actually boring. My group of people, we just don’t really party that much. We just like to focus on the job. We like to party on the bus but with just with all of us, selfishly.