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The Past, Present, and Future of M83

After nearly seven years between proper albums, Anthony Gonzalez returns this week with ‘Fantasy,’ his immersive ninth album that hits his nostalgic sweet spot but doesn’t wallow in his history

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Anthony Gonzalez admits he hasn’t seen a lot of new movies in the past year, but the M83 mastermind probably still thinks the Oscars got it all wrong this past Sunday. A few weeks before the release of his ninth album, Fantasy, he reveals The Fabelmans as his favorite movie of 2022 and quickly realizes it’s the most painfully on-brand thing he could say. “It’s all about nostalgia!” he says with a laugh, and “nostalgic” is right up there with “epic” and “cinematic” as the most commonly used adjectives to describe M83’s music. Yet he also sees something aspirational in Steven Spielberg’s recent work—for the master’s ability to find nuance and resonance in his origin story decades into his career, and for his habit of splitting the difference between “one for the studio and one for me,” retreating from the zeitgeist for populism with an art-house heart.

After finishing the vocals for his first proper pop album in seven years, Gonzalez tells me, “I felt like I gave so much energy and heart that I ended up crying a lot.” While this man has written a song called “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea,” M83 fans never think about Anthony Gonzalez himself crying an entire body of water. Similarly, for a project so often connected with outsized, hyperbolic emotions, the most surprising sound I’ve ever heard on an M83 song is a commonplace vocal affectation, popping up about 45 minutes into Fantasy.

On the albums he’s made over the past 22 years as M83, you might hear distorted synthesizers that sound like guitars or distorted guitars that sound like synthesizers. Beck could show up, but so might a toddler telling a story about magic frogs. There may be slap bass, sax riffs, and Ron Burgundy jazz flutes that imply a deep love for ’80s shlock, with an uncredited Steve Vai guitar solo to confirm it. But toward the end of new song “Kool Nuit”—a prog rock–Italo disco odyssey that can sound normal only within the context of M83—a man lets out an anguished scream, something we hadn’t even heard on songs titled “Car Chase Terror” or “Teen Angst.” A straightforward expression of pent-up anger is so out of character for M83 that Gonzalez, himself, isn’t even actually sure he did it. “Screaming was almost as sufficient as crying, to let it all out,” he says. “It feels like I’m alive.”

I love this little moment of trad rage for him, in part because it proves that M83 is still capable of surprise on an album that has largely—and accurately—been played up as a course correction after a solid decade of struggling with the pressure and obligations that come with achieving just about everything he’s ever set out to do. And knowing this eruption came directly from Gonzalez, it opens up a conversation about whether I can believe the PR boilerplate that Fantasy is “his most personal album yet.” “I feel like I say that on every album. I’m not sure that means anything really,” he jokes. And indeed, having to explain a PR boilerplate stands as one of the many reasons he prefers to recuse The Life of Anthony Gonzalez from M83’s music. 2016’s Junk was also quite personal, a result of his own fame-induced freak-out and the desire to freak out the squares who stumbled into the tent. “It was strange to enter a new world that I didn’t have access to before, and I don’t think I liked it that much,” he says.

To the degree that the lyrics of Fantasy invite deeper analysis—“Beyond adventure!” “I believe in the darkness!”—none are intended to provide a window into Gonzalez’s politics or his feelings about fame or whether he wants to have kids. (On that note, he flatly does not—when I ask about a Game Boy Advance marooned in his bathroom, he claims that “all the toys here are mine.”) But he’s correct in that every M83 project is personal. Not “personal” as we’ve come to expect from indie musicians at M83’s level in 2023, the result of a massive shift toward singer-songwriters and “feeling stuff” music where artists inspire frightening parasocial relationships based on personal disclosure, on and off the record. Rather, Gonzalez is “personal” like a movie director, expressing his artistic and philosophical sensibilities through an immediately identifiable house style: neons and pastels, soft-focus reverb, blinding synths, gated drums. Gonzalez admits that he spent most of the pandemic watching older movies and reiterates that Fantasy connects him to his teenage years, which creates an odd tension; when I talk to him, he’s 42 years old, meaning that his teenage years do not all coincide with the majority of his sonic palette. As we speak, he is wearing a T-shirt from the Matthew Broderick–Michelle Pfeiffer film Ladyhawke, which came out when he was 5.

This is the fifth time I’ve had the privilege to interview Gonzalez since 2011; I don’t say “privilege” because Gonzalez is an open book or a legendary raconteur. Quite the opposite: “I just want the world to forget about me,” he told NME earlier this year, a prime example of how his pull quotes are typically about how much he’d rather avoid press altogether. Our original plans to catch up were dashed when a historic snowfall hit Southern California; rather than conduct an interview over Zoom, he insisted we still meet in person. “To be on TV, to be filmed, even showing my face on a webcam talking to my family on Sundays is something I can’t do,” he admits.

When we first met a few weeks before the release of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez had taken a number of massive, irreparable steps toward establishing M83 as a player in the mainstream. He had made the permanent move from his native France to Los Angeles and, in the wake of 2008’s Saturdays = Youth, opened for Kings of Leon and the Killers—despite owning none of their records. “I was in a little bubble with my friends and family. It was almost too easy after a while,” he said at the time. “Midnight City” had been out for a few months by that point and was already M83’s biggest hit. By the end of the year, it had made the late-night rounds and was named Pitchfork’s no. 1 song of 2011. But it wasn’t “Midnight City” yet, a song that will be used in future period pieces to signify “early 2010s” the way “Fortunate Son” does for the Vietnam era. The Victoria’s Secret and Gucci commercials were yet to come, as was its usage in France’s UEFA Euro 2012 broadcasts, and its appearance in French erotic dramas, a Katy Perry docudrama, and 22 Jump Street. It’s very likely to reach a billion streams on Spotify by the end of this year.

“When I moved here 12 years ago, I made [Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming] and I didn’t expect anything from it,” Gonzalez says, though his ambitions feel like revisionist history, given how he once likened the album to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. “All of a sudden, I was not an indie artist anymore.” Most of the co-headliners on this spring’s Just Like Heaven festival can relate: acts like MGMT, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Empire of the Sun, and Future Islands that happened upon a few massive hits during the late aughts and early 2010s, before the total conflation of “indie” and “pop” and the dominance of streaming.

Gonzalez’s first project after Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was the least indie thing imaginable, scoring the soundtrack for Tom Cruise’s 2013 sci-fi brainteaser Oblivion. This was an overt attempt by director Joseph Kosinski to replicate a previously synergistic French connection, as he also helmed the 2010 Tron reboot that featured the first original music from Daft Punk in five years. Hollywood Reporter described Oblivion as “dramatically caught between its aspirations for poetic romanticism and the demands of heavy sci-fi action,” which is about as astute of an M83 assessment as I’ve ever read.

But when I caught up with Gonzalez right before its wide release, he could barely conceal his disillusion. “I started to work on this project with a lot of hope, saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to do something super special and original,’” he groused in 2013. “But you can’t really, because there are so many people involved and so much money in the game that it’s hard to change things. Hollywood kind of sucks the life out of you very quickly.” Despite about $300 million in box office earnings, Oblivion was considered a flop. At a time when similarly revered electronic artists like Dan Deacon and Oneohtrix Point Never are frequently called upon to score major motion pictures, Gonzalez is content to work exclusively with his filmmaker brother Yann. “I have a film agent that didn’t call me in 12 years,” he flatly states.

Gonzalez has copped to being “scared” of “Midnight City” due to both its popularity and how it would be used as a comparative point for anything he could do next. “I’m already stressed about the reviews of my next album, and it’s not even done yet”—this was two years prior to Junk. Every M83 album to that point was a moon launch; what happens when you finally get there? It’s a question that just about every artist who makes a game-changing double album has to face. Sign O’ the Times begat Lovesexy, a small and strange record that somehow failed to break the top 10. Roger Waters plumbed the depths of his psychosexual neuroses with The Wall and followed it with The Final Cut, an impenetrable concept record about post-war Europe. Right this moment, Billy Corgan is likely still grumbling about how the reception of Adore effectively ended his imperial phase.

“After the success of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, I could’ve stopped everything—how am I gonna beat that, it’s impossible,” Gonzalez says, and it took about five years for him to offer an answer. I don’t see M83 as a one-hit wonder and I don’t think he does either, despite making a joke or two about his reception as a festival headliner: “People are expecting the hits ... one, in my case.” It’s just that his subsequent hits took a far more circuitous path. “Wait” was the fifth and final single from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, arriving nearly a year and half after “Midnight City.” It didn’t really catch on until two years later, when director Josh Boone demanded its inclusion in the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars. A year after that, “Wait” was used to great effect in a 2015 Bose commercial that starred a teenager about to experience her first kiss ... until her father interrupts and turns on “Skidamarink” instead. “Outro,” the third M83 track to clock streaming numbers in the hundred millions, inspired so many sync licenses that a Huffington Post article demanded, “Dear Hollywood: Please Never Use This Song Again.” That was nearly nine years ago.

This is the sort of fame that Gonzalez could live with—to be both ubiquitous and totally anonymous at the same time. The success of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming didn’t jeopardize Gonzalez’s privacy. It’s likely that most M83 fans still don’t know what he looks like, as he never appears in his own videos. Living in Los Angeles, Gonzalez says, “If you’re not a model or musician, you don’t exist.” But the opposite is somehow also true—it’s a lot easier for these people to blend in while in Los Angeles, a sort of “industry town” where most residents know not to bother you.

But “Midnight City” was a hit, a meme, the first thing Gonzalez made that escaped his quality control. As an electronic band that played danceable music, M83 was destined to be lumped into the thriving EDM festival economy. And in 2012 they were booked as a top-line act at Ultra Music Festival in Miami—“the world’s premier electronic music festival”—alongside Skrillex, David Guetta, Tiësto, Justice, and Fatboy Slim. After about a half hour of technical difficulties—remember, they’re largely a band amongst DJs—M83 played “Midnight City” and an abridged version of “Couleurs,” that was it. The Miami New Times ran two separate articles on this disaster (“M83 at Ultra Music Festival 2012: Technical Issues Ruin Live Performance,” “M83 on Ruined Ultra Performance: ‘Our Deepest Apologies’”) and a third when the band returned several months later. Worse yet, “Midnight City” soon became a staple of EDM DJ sets, its indelible opening riff just another drop in a Serato bank. “It makes me cringe. I hope these people are not gonna come and see my show,” Gonzalez sniffs. “It’s that way with society, there’s a lot of people I see online following me that I absolutely don’t want to have anything to do with.”

Now, there isn’t a trace of punk rock in M83’s music. Still, Gonzalez describes 2016’s Junk as the outcry of a “cocky little rebel” within. The cover art was not compared to McDonald’s Fry Guys, nor a Michael Mann or John Hughes still. Whereas past albums were likened to Tangerine Dream meets Mineral or Smashing Pumpkins via Brian Eno, Junk touted Punky Brewster and Who’s the Boss? as primary influences. The importance of M83’s presumptive sincerity is best exemplified by 2008’s “Graveyard Girl.” Here’s a sample lyric—“She worships Satan like a father / But dreams of a sister like Molly Ringwald.” During the bridge, said Graveyard Girl takes the mic and whispers, “I’m 15 years old, and I feel it’s already too late to live. Don’t you?” To be clear, this song rules and would obviously be fucking ridiculous if Gonzalez hadn’t spent the past seven years committing to the bit. But whereas M83 was always serious—even at their sweetest—Junk dared to be silly, which caused the entire foundation to collapse in the eyes of critics. It’s a little difficult to tell whether Gonzalez is disappointed with the reception of Junk or his own performance, but it also ensured that M83 wasn’t going to get any bigger than it already was, which was sort of the whole point.

Though Junk could have been seen as a preemptive strike against his own backlash, the title was also Gonzalez’s first attempt at social critique—alluding to the disposability of art and, when he reflects upon it today, artists themselves. Gonzalez was relieved at the positive reception of “Oceans Niagara” in January, especially as he spent the night before its release in terrible gastric distress after stress-eating a giant hamburger. “What shocked me was all these comments like, ‘Oh, M83 is finally back!’” he says. “If you don’t release an album every year or play a festival every summer, you don’t exist anymore.”

M83 didn’t stop making new music after Junk, at least if you count the ambient collection Digital Shades Vol. 2 or Knife + Heart, a low-stakes soundtrack for Yann’s ’70s Paris period piece. Yet if Gonzalez himself longed to be forgotten, the influence of M83 still loomed large in his absence. For the rest of the 2010s, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming set the course for synth-pop, and therefore, pop music at large—it’s easy to hear the influence of “Midnight City” in the 1975’s more arena-ready moments, or Taylor Swift’s 1989, or even the last War on Drugs album; but his earlier, more abrasive work is likewise notable in the cutting-edge electronic pop of Porter Robinson and Jane Remover. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming also created a cottage industry for its coproducer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who was tapped to steward synthy sonic pivots for Paramore, Tegan and Sara, Jimmy Eat World, and even blackgaze titans Deafheaven.

Gonzalez demurs when I ask whether he’s noticed the long-tail influence of M83 on 2020s pop culture—“I’m extremely shy and don’t hang out with other musicians, so I don’t get this sense of my music influencing others.” But if there’s a component of “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s” to M83’s music, his most popular work imagines a universe similar to the one in which we now live. Junk predates the entire Stranger Things franchise, and also Wednesday, which is essentially a longform version of “Graveyard Girl.”

Understandably, in a time of unabashed ’80s boosterism and reboots, content creators have gone directly to the source. Gonzalez says he received a few Netflix offers that were “absolutely insulting,” and spent the last year working on a video game that will never see the light of day. Perhaps in the past, these experiences would’ve pushed Gonzalez even further away from his signature sound. “But there’s always something [in these projects] that tells you, ‘Why did you get into this?’” he explains. “You should be writing a new album or being on the road with your own project, because I know that I’m in control of things and I feel maybe more sane working on a new M83 album.”

In a roundabout way, Fantasy truly does speak on where Gonzalez sees himself as a 40-something artist; he speaks of a “new chapter” and even a “new career” beginning with Fantasy, intertwined with a quite literal desire to return to his roots. Though he’s very deep into the process of rehearsing for M83’s upcoming tour, he spent the previous eight months back in France swimming, hanging with old friends, and playing guitar without any pressure to create new music. He hasn’t put a timetable on anything, but Gonzalez suggests his sights are set on living back in Antibes, having exhausted everything Los Angeles had to offer his more achievement-oriented former self. “In France, it’s a way more simple way of living—less about looks, more about your spirit,” he explains. “And my parents are getting older and I want to spend more time with them. Musically, L.A. doesn’t bring me anything I need anymore.”

Yet, for all the times Gonzalez has described M83’s music as a tribute to his adolescence, one in which he played in both blues and Sonic Youth–inspired indie rock bands, he’s never been asked ... would teenaged Anthony Gonzalez actually like Fantasy? “If I was 16 or 17, I’d probably like to listen in my car and run fast,” which immediately brings to mind the second-most surprising thing I’ve heard on an M83 album. Toward the end of “Earth to Sea,” an immediate laser-lit highlight, I hear not the voice of Kim or Jessie or Graveyard Girl or any of the stand-ins for Anthony Gonzalez’s teen dreams. As with “Kool Nuit,” I hear the reckless, joyous youth he speaks of so fondly and to which he’s dedicated this entire project—“the deeper end ... I FUCKING LOVE IT!” “I still want to grab that feeling and not let it go because truly I don’t—” he responds, “I don’t feel like I’m 42.”

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.