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M83's Anthony Gonzalez Makes Soundtracks, Without the Movie 

Thursday, Oct 13 2011
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As the mastermind behind M83's electronic dream-pop, Anthony Gonzalez constantly seeks to create a more fantastical substitute for the humdrum grind of the real world. And when I first step into his discerningly decorated condo — on a stretch of Melrose pockmarked by gas stations and Scientology centers — it really is something of an escape hatch.

There's vinyl and sophisticated art strewn about, and the upstairs room is neatly arranged with gigantic synthesizers — those, and a random exercise ball, owing to his girlfriend having moved in about six months ago. Gonzalez himself is 30 years old, slight of build and dressed in a slim-fitting polo and tasteful denim shorts today; it's almost like he's the most cosmopolitan, Euro version of your regular-dude friends.

The Champions League game is on and he offers me a Pellegrino. I ask if he's rooting for one team or the other, and he defers, speaking with a very French accent. "Oh, not really. I root for [French team] Nice. They're not in the Champions League, maybe one day."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANOUCK BERTIN - Anthony Gonzalez will see you in his dreams.
  • PHOTO BY ANOUCK BERTIN
  • Anthony Gonzalez will see you in his dreams.

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He laughs, perhaps out of identification more than anything. Because while Gonzalez has achieved an enviable amount of success with M83 — touring the world, topping year-end best lists, nabbing a few car commercials — he bristles with the ambition of someone who wants to be in electronic rock's proverbial Champions League, composed of, roughly, Depeche Mode, New Order and Daft Punk.

Two years ago Gonzalez gave up the comforts of his hometown in the South of France and came to Los Angeles in the hopes of taking advantage of Hollywood's infrastructure and landing some big-time soundtrack work (in addition to furthering M83's stateside recognition). But a year and a half later, he finds himself distraught and confused by his inability to make the progress he envisioned. Too many face-offs with clueless executives, pointless meetings in Century City high-rises, and less talented peers taking jobs that should have been his. So even though the transplant worries about whether he's acclimated to the pace and tenor of L.A. in such a short amount of time, he's actually become an assimilated Angeleno the way thousands have before him. He just doesn't quite realize it.

And while he's dreamed of soundtracking major films, he's become increasingly revered for M83's aesthetic, having created some of the most boldly cinematic rock music of the past decade. Vividly rendered tracks like "Car Crash Terror" and "Graveyard Girl" all but beg for Luc Besson's and Sofia Coppola's ears.

Whether astounding double LP Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, due out Oct. 18 on Mute, turns Disney or Terrence Malick on their ears remains to be seen (Gonzalez feels he really could have done Malick's The Tree of Life justice), but it's an exclamation point on a decadelong run of acclaimed and increasingly successful records. Though he considers M83 a "project," as well as a band, Gonzalez is the sole constant voice. He switches up personnel almost every album, though, he says, it's due more to a need to challenge himself than to interpersonal acrimony. He adds that he tries to stay in touch with everyone who's played with him throughout the years. "I feel they are as much a part of M83 as I am, everyone who's been on the records or onstage."

Following M83's exploratory self-titled 2001 album of ambient drones, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts was an out-of-nowhere hit two years later. Originally released on the tiny Gooom label in France, it features brittle, heavily synthetic tones that made many consider it the successor to My Bloody Valentine's shoegaze masterwork Loveless. 2005's Before the Dawn Heals Us, his first record for Mute and as a solo artist, ratcheted things up further, evoking Vangelis' colossal Blade Runner score with an exaggerated, neon urbanity.

Hurry Up, meanwhile, is a double album consciously modeled after Smashing Pumpkins' chart-conquering opus Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness; it's a 74-minute exploration of arena-ready synth-pop, Eno-inspired meditations and hormonal rock that speaks to the incredible power of the human mind to dream and remember. The record takes his nostalgic artistic sympathies to their highest levels, with much of its artwork and sonic texture taken straight from Pretty in Pink. His current fascination with rebooting '80s franchises? Exactly what Hollywood does.

This sort of ambition explains why Gonzalez is in Los Angeles in the first place, as well as why he agreed to open for the Killers and Kings of Leon in the past year. Though he admits not owning a single one of their records, he absorbed their knack for showmanship and vocal projection. A demure singer on previous albums, Gonzalez belts it out on Hurry Up like never before.

But does all of this justify leaving a cozy Gallic lifestyle and jettisoning an aesthetic he developed over the years and all but owns? "I was in a little bubble with my friends and family. It was almost too easy after a while," he says.

When he arrived here in 2009, one of his few chums was Morgan Kibby, lead singer of dance-rock band White Sea and a major vocal contributor to M83's 2008 album Saturdays=Youth. She served as something of a muse for Saturdays, lending her vocals to tracks "Skin of the Night," "Kim & Jessie" and "We Own the Sky," and the two quickly became friends. She even became his cultural attaché of sorts. "We went to the movies, skateboarded, hung out with many of my close friends," she says. "It was a real pleasure to share the things I love about L.A. with someone who was genuinely excited to discover the city."

Though a voracious consumer of what L.A. has to offer, Gonzalez is faintly apologetic about where he lives. Some of the interstitial tracks on Hurry Up go by the evocative, wondrous names of "Where the Boats Go" and "Train to Pluton," but the view from one window in his condo is of a Yum Yum Donuts. Though most of the songs featuring Gonzalez's vocals were composed on tour and in the city, Hurry Up also is filled with meditative instrumental interludes, mostly written by Gonzalez during stays in Joshua Tree. "I know it's cliché, but being alone in the desert just feels so inspiring," he says. "But I'm not really into all that hippie shit." (It's even more convincing when it's pronounced "hee-pee.")

It's about the only time you ever get any sort of rise out of Gonzalez, since while he often traffics in the emotions of teenagers, anger is one that seems strangely absent from his music (not even on 2005's misleadingly titled "Teen Angst"). Then again, he came to this city looking to have a fire lit under him, and it appears to be working. Hurry Up is evidence enough, the sort of wildly ambitious and arena-ready album he's been straining to make since his modest beginnings, and now has the resources and know-how to accomplish. You get the feeling it's his way of saying, "You think this is big? Just imagine what I could do with DreamWorks' budget."

Reach the writer at icohen017@gmail.com

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