It’s late afternoon on a Friday, and M83’s Anthony Gonzalez is sitting in his dressing room at Terminal 5 in New York. The 35-year-old electronic pioneer offers me a drink from the mini-fridge before grabbing a bottle of juice for himself, and we sit facing each other on a pair of marshmallowy black sofas, listening as his opening act, Shura, sound-checks a few floors down. As we make small talk (how’s the road treating you? What do you plan to do when you get back to Los Angeles?), the conversation naturally shifts to the mixed feedback he received from his most recent record, the one he’s been touring for months: Junk.
It’s a reasonable place for our talk to go, especially since Junk, released just last spring, pivoted so sharply from its enormously successful predecessor, 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and its ubiquitous lead single, “Midnight City.” Where Hurry Up reveled in ‘80s influence (flashy synths, oxycotin-releasing melodies, tight and furious electronic drum fills), Junk comes off as a more scattered affair, still enmeshed in slick synths and purposefully retro flair, but sounding more like the unrestful comedown from a night at the disco and less like the music you hear at one. Reviewers were left nonplussed—T. Cole Rachel described it as “flummoxing” in Pitchfork, and Suzy Exposito at Rolling Stone called its potpourri of guests “self-indulgent.” So now that Gonzalez has had time to digest some measure of critical abandonment, it’s fair for questions to arise: When you’ve spent 15 years in the game but strike gold on your sixth album (Hurry Up was Gonzalez’s highest-charting record to date), how do you top that? Do you even try?
Gonzalez didn’t. For him, it just came down to feeling overplayed. (Music from Hurry Up popped up in Bose and Red Bull ads, countless movie trailers and TV shows.) “It’s funny because I was hearing my music on the radio for the first time,” he says. “It was obviously amazing. I was turning on the TV and I would see movie trailers and commercials with my music. It was kind of amazing, but so scary at the same time. I felt like, ‘Oh, people are not fed up already with this song?’ I felt very blessed, but also I felt like I was put in a corner. I was the guy who was making big-sounding music that you use for commercials and movie trailers. And that’s exactly why I didn’t want to do the same thing with Junk, because I had too much of, like, hearing myself on TV, and I wanted people to get a break from it.”
He also didn’t want to feel pigeonholed into being an artist who relies on churning out a series of bombastic, arena-pleasing hits. “I wanted to take a different direction and experiment and also please myself as a musician,” he says. “[I wanted] to say to people that I’m not only the guy who makes that big music—this is not only what I want to do in life. I want to achieve more and keep experimenting.
“You can’t always please your fans.” he continues. “It’s really hard. And especially my fans, because all my albums are different, so all my fans are different. They love one album, they like the next one less, or the opposite—if I start thinking about my fans, then it’s gonna be hard for me to write. I really need to focus on myself and try to follow my heart.”
Gonzalez doesn’t put much—or any, really—energy into reading his album reviews, which he compares to being graded like a high school student. It’s a process he feels has no place in a “subjective” arena like music. “I really wanted to be a musician because I wanted to be free,” he says. “I didn’t want people to judge my work. But this is actually what happens now in the music industry—you get grades. Isn’t the goal of music to be a free thing, a free spirit, with no judging? And either you like it or you don’t like it, or you don’t listen to it, but…. You can’t really judge band’s works. For me, I don’t really understand the concept. Music is something that you feel. If you don’t feel it, just don’t write about it.”
The real reason behind Hurry Up’s success, he thinks, has to do with timing. Gonzalez had just moved from his native France to Los Angeles to try his hand at film scoring (which he did, writing the music to 2013’s Tom Cruise film, Oblivion). The way he tells it, Hurry Up’s wide-eyed pomp had to do with the fact that he was a “French guy in California for the first time, and I was blown away.”
“Still, I feel like there’s something about luck,” he says. “Like releasing the right album at the right time. This album could go out today and it wouldn’t have the same success. It’s dependent on the time it’s released. I really consider myself very lucky; I worked also very hard to make this album at least good enough for me to release it. So it’s not an accident.”
And just like it wasn’t an accident that Hurry Up found such success, it’s likewise not an accident that its follow-up didn’t—at least not to the same extent. (Pieces of Junk may not be cherry-picked for commercial value, but the number of people coming to hear it live would suggest that Gonzalez can still draw an enormous audience.) Whether or not every new album or project he tackles matches the monetary success of his most well-known one is simply not his concern. His only real priority is to keep developing himself, learning new things, experimenting. That’s what he’s currently doing, working on an unnamed project that’s “not a movie, not an album, but something completely different.”
“This is actually what I’m excited about, is going to places where nobody expects me to be in,” he says. “That’s what I find very rewarding. Because I’ve done albums, and I’ve done movie soundtracks, and yeah, I’m just curious. And as a musician, curiosity is very important. I want to keep being curious, you know? Because otherwise you just start slowly dying.”