M83 Welcomes the Unknown

On his ninth studio album, Fantasy, Anthony Gonzalez builds another universe that’s begging to be explored.

Music Features M83
M83 Welcomes the Unknown

The writer Rebecca Solnit, in an essay on Virginia Woolf, once described the beauty of the unknowable. Especially as adults, we’re afraid of “the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure.” But, as Solnit points out, “the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.” If something is unquantifiable, then maybe it’s not something to be rejected or feared, but rather embraced.

During the first few moments of “Amnesia,” one of the new tracks from M83’s forthcoming ninth album, Fantasy, frontman Anthony Gonzalez makes his ethos clear from the offset. “I believe in the darkness,” the French synth savant sings in the first verse. “It’s just a sound.” M83, Gonzalez’s long-running, cinematic indie-pop project, hinges itself on the unknowable. He achieves that on an uncanny level, discarding reality entirely in lieu of imagination and mythic world-building. That sense of yearning has never been clearer than on the fittingly titled Fantasy.

One of Gonzalez’s main goals with this new record was to create the sensation of “being in a bubble that protects you from all the bullshit that we get in society nowadays,” as he tells me via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “You only keep these small windows, and you only keep what makes you feel alive: music, good films, good books, fantasy worlds and crazy characters coming from your imagination. This is what I really want to absorb. And I want to keep everything else kind of dead.”

This has been a salient thread that runs through M83’s discography. On his previous LP, 2019’s DSVII (an acronym for Digital Shades, Vol. 2), Gonzalez drew inspiration from SNES video games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and JRPG series like Square Enix’s Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The album cover for 2016’s Junk was adorned with fuzzy monsters that recalled the psychological horror YouTube series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. His breakthrough album, 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, featured a trilogy of music videos with an interweaving narrative and children with laser eyes as the protagonists. Of course, “Midnight City” has that famous monster on the single artwork. Fantasy is no different; Gonzalez dons another eldritch monster costume for the album cover and the music video for lead single “Oceans Niagara.”

Gonzalez’s obsession with the ineffable is one of the defining characteristics of his art, and it’s how his close collaborator and Fantasy co-producer, Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Paramore, Deafheaven), distinguishes him from the many other artists he works with. “My work with Anthony is chasing down something hard to quantify, like more of a feeling, mood or impulse,” Meldal-Johnsen explains on a phone call. “We want to feel like we’re absolutely separate from the considerations of the world, the horrors of the world, and it’s the idea that we need to get lost.”

Fantasy marks Meldal-Johnsen’s fourth album with Gonzalez. They first worked together on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and have remained a steadfast creative duo ever since. Although he’s quick to gesture toward the fantastical nature of M83’s catalog, he also refuses to write it off as “just escapism.” But, when they’re in the studio together, “we see ourselves as travelers. There’s a little bit of roleplay when we create.”

Gonzalez brings these same quixotic concepts to his music videos, and, for “Oceans Niagara,” the first video that he worked on with his brother and filmmaker Yann Gonzalez, it further cements him as a dreamer in the best way possible. In the video, Gonzalez, playing a grotesque monster, sits in a control room, monitoring the journeys of three teenagers, who are presumably running toward the monster’s location. The song itself contains only two words, uttered with the profundity and grandiosity of a universal truth: “beyond adventure!” As if on cue, drums come crashing in, and seismic synths wash over the arrangements like a monsoon.

Yann, who also wrote some of the lyrics for M83’s third album, Before the Dawn Heals Us, describes his brother as “someone who is very secretive and has his own world.” Talking to me while on vacation in Mexico City, Yann beams with pride at the musical accomplishments of his younger sibling. As demanding and precise as Anthony was about his vision for the music video, Yann “took it as a challenge.” He continues: “Because I’m so emotionally touched by his music, it put some big pressure on me.” Above all, however, Yann underlies the emotionality that acts as M83’s gravitational pull. “It’s music about feelings,” he says. “His whole inner work is bursting into fireworks of emotions.”

The brothers grew up watching the same films, such as ’80s slasher flicks and the ’50s output of Japanese auteur Yasujirō Ozu. “Oceans Niagara” may be the first time the two have worked on an M83 music video, but they’ve bonded over their love of cinema before when Anthony composed the scores for Yann’s films You and the Night and Knife + Heart. Given the IMAX-sized synth-pop that Anthony often makes, it’s only sensible that he’d one day compose film scores. During the creative process of Fantasy, Anthony returned to those old films from his childhood for inspiration.

“I’m really attracted to old movies, old books, not so much modern things,” Gonzalez says. “I try to really stay open and stay current. But really what I’m attracted to is older, vintage art.” He cites disillusionment with the perpetual content mill that emphasizes commerce and capitalism over meaningful art, describing the phenomenon as “Netflix syndrome.” It’s a notion he rejects in his music as much as in his personal ideology. Fantasy is his first album with pro forma songs and vocals in nearly seven years. He’s an artist known to take his time and not rush out album after album. He looks at the greed of despotic technocrats like Elon Musk, who are always interested in “more, more, more,” and it disgusts him.

“If that’s what success is, being one of those people, then I don’t want to be successful; just leave me out of the picture,” Gonzalez says. “I don’t want to be a successful guy. I don’t want to have followers on Instagram. I actually don’t care. I just want to keep doing what I love: connect with my fans playing live and make the best album I can make.

“Midnight City” was huge. It still is huge, not just in terms of its bombastic sonic landscape, but also in its sheer cultural ubiquity. It appeared in commercials from Gucci to Victoria’s Secret, countless television shows and movies, and peaked at No. 72 on the US Billboard Hot 100. It also went platinum in several countries. For a shy introvert like Anthony Gonzalez, the song’s overwhelming success scared him. Five years after the release of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he returned with the deliberately outré, schmaltzy Junk. The record featured ersatz, cheesy synths and a plethora of guests, including Beck and Steve Vai; it was an outright dismissal of the spotlight that Hurry Up awarded him.

DSVII was an opportunity for Gonzalez to regather himself, to return to the 16-bit Super Nintendo games that offered him so much comfort as a child while immersing himself in all his favorite analog synthesizers. Although he was incredibly nervous the day that Chapter One of Fantasy released (he was vomiting in his bathroom all day), he’s equipped to handle whatever comes his way after that reset. Now, he’s fully rejuvenated.

“I felt like maybe I wasn’t good enough, and maybe I wasn’t mentally strong enough to accept that success,” he says. “But now I’m over it, and I feel stronger than ever.” Fantasy is, to use a hackneyed yet nevertheless appropriate phrase, a return to form. The record brims with the grand, nostalgia-driven synths heard on records like Before the Dawn Heals Us and 2008’s dream-pop exercise Saturdays = Youth. Centerpiece “Radar, Far, Gone” recalls the heartfelt balladry of “Wait” and “Splendor.” He embraces his idiosyncratic vocal style once again, realizing that his voice truly sounds like no one else’s, and it’s an integral part of what makes M83 stand out.

Even though much of his early work, such as his two records with former M83 member Nicolas Fromageau, are largely instrumental, you can hear Gonzalez becoming more comfortable with his vocal presence on each installment. On his 2001 eponymous debut, all 14 tracks are vocal-free. For their sophomore effort, the digital shoegaze of 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, he lends his voice to one song only, “Run into Flowers,” repeating one line over and over toward the song’s denouement: “Give me peace and chemicals, I want to run into.”

Once Fromageau departed the group, Gonzalez was left to his own whims for the next M83 record, Before the Dawn Heals Us. He sings on plenty of tracks here, and it’s an album he returned to during the process of making Fantasy for its unbridled earnestness and its epic, galactic instrumentation. “I trapped myself on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming because I started to sing more on that album, and it became my most successful album,” he says with a laugh. “People really connected with the vocals I was proposing on that record. I have to embrace the fact that my voice is unique, no matter what I think about it. It’s my voice, and the combination of my voice and my music is going to make the project singular.” After all, one of Gonzalez’s ultimate goals on this new album was to be more vocally present than he ever has before.

Still, Fantasy isn’t completely devoid of guests. “Kool Nuit,” a late-album highlight, features Kaela Sinclair, who auditioned for M83 for the Junk tour when Gonzalez was searching for a female keyboardist and vocalist after Morgan Kibby, who makes music as White Sea, exited the group. The track abounds with lush, swelling strings and Sinclair’s mesmerizing alto, until the song disrupts halfway through its eight-minute runtime with sputtering synthesizers and slowly crescendos into a minor-key wash of noise; the notoriously quiet Gonzalez bursts into a near-scream. “When it finally came to putting down that vocal, it had developed into this really beautiful orchestral piece, which is very haunting and otherworldly,” Sinclair says. “My goal going into that was to capture that and bring this sort of haunting but nurturing voice.”

Like many of Gonzalez’s collaborators have pointed out, Sinclair mentions the heavy emotions of M83 as one of the project’s central tenets. “It’s very emotionally present,” she says. “It draws things up in you. It’s music that is not afraid to build and start from one place and take you somewhere else. There’s a grandness to it, an epicness that I feel every day when I’m grappling with my life. It’s really powerful music that takes me into the depths of what I’m feeling.”

This emotional presence is even mirrored in Gonzalez himself as we speak. Anytime I ask him a question, he forcefully closes his eyes, as if deeply pondering the weight of question and answer alike. He strikes me as someone who genuinely cares about his art and my interest in it. That care and passion is something he hopes to translate to his new record label, Other Suns, by promoting and championing the musicians he believes in (Fantasy is the label’s inaugural release), and to the stage in the ensuing months of Fantasy’s release. He frequently reiterates how this will be the best M83 live experience yet. Fresh out of rehearsals, he apologizes for any weariness in his voice when he sits down to speak with me.

“I want to make it great and spectacular and loud and emotional,” he says, listing off each adjective with an undeniable fervor. Gonzalez mentions that he wants this tour to represent the wide gamut of M83’s oeuvre, specifically bringing up Dead Cities as a point of reference. “When was the last time we played something from it,” he asks rhetorically. Now, with nine studio albums under his belt, he has a treasure trove of material to draw from. For a band literally named after a galaxy, it seems inevitable that the Fantasy tour will adopt sufficiently galactic proportions, taking fans on yet another interstellar odyssey.

M83’s music places great emphasis on feeling. Some of the group’s best songs add layer upon layer upon layer, like the Saturdays = Youth centerpiece, “Couleurs,” or the Before the Dawn Heals Us closer, “Lower Your Eyelids to Die with the Sun.” Like the three teenagers in the “Oceans Niagara” music video, listening to M83 makes you want to run alongside the space-time continuum, blasting off into another dimension, to put it lightly. Gonzalez himself feels the same way; when he makes music, “I want to feel like I want to drive fast, I want to run fast, I want to feel like the sound is actually taking over my whole body.” It’s no small feat by any means, but, with each album, M83 transports you to faraway worlds. Fantasy is no anomaly.

When Anthony Gonzalez pops up on my laptop screen, sporting a pink Before the Dawn Heals Us sweatshirt, I’m eager to show him my forearm tattoo of that very same logo. “It looks like we’re matching,” I say, to which he immediately smiles and laughs, giving me his approval (“Nice! Nice!”) before we launch into a discussion of Fantasy. Not to delve into the messy, heavily dangerous parasocial relationships that plague many artist-to-fan interactions these days, but Gonzalez feels like something of a kindred spirit, one whose music has followed me throughout my major life milestones. The first time I heard M83, I was 15 years old, unequivocally the prime age demographic for Gonzalez’s strain of intensely emotional, sentimental art. He penned a song called “Teen Angst,” for example. His song “Graveyard Girl” features a spoken-word bridge, during which the narrator explicitly states her age (“I’m 15 years old, and I already feel it’s too late to live / Don’t you?”), that feels lifted straight out of a John Hughes film.

As a freshman in high school, M83’s work felt like a refuge, a haven where I could escape the daily travails of my teenage years and let the density of the music engulf me in its enormity. Even while I played video games, especially Zelda titles like The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, Gonzalez’s music perfectly complemented the scale of adventure those games proffered. While Link rode across the sprawling Hyrule Field on his trusty steed, Epona, the epic, gargantuan stylings of M83 played in the background, setting the tone just as well as series composer Koji Kondo does. Every now and then, I’ll indulge this same habit today. When DSVII released the same day as the Nintendo Switch remake of Link’s Awakening, I let M83’s Zelda-inspired album spin as I traversed the amorphous dreamworld of Koholint.

Often, when I was 15, I would fall asleep to an album at night. My record of choice was Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, partially for its hour-plus runtime as a double album, but also for the myriad instrumental interludes and the impressive songwriting craftsmanship on display. As an aspiring songwriter myself, Gonzalez was and still is my biggest inspiration. M83 is my favorite band for more reasons than I could possibly name. Each time I hit play on Hurry Up, the dueling synth stabs on the aptly titled “Intro” would lull me into a restorative sleep, to another place where I didn’t have to deal with the quotidian miseries of being a freshman in high school. Its opening lines enchanted me, as I tried to decipher its poetry night after night:

“We didn’t need a story, we didn’t need a real world
We just had to keep walking
And we became the stories, we became the places
We were the lights, the deserts, the faraway worlds
We were you before you even existed.”

In 2021, when I was asked to submit an entry to the fourth volume of the literary journal Lyrics as Poetry, the theme for that edition was “Awakening.” In each version of this journal, songwriters explain their thought processes behind certain lyrics, and music journalists submit short essays on a song that fits within the respective theme. Without a second thought, the opening lines of “Intro” came to mind. Their sense of intrigue and mysticism are partially why “Intro” still contains some of my favorite lyrics put to paper.

When I read that aforementioned Rebecca Solnit essay for the first time last year, Solnit’s infatuation with the unknowable struck a chord within me. Uncertainty has always fascinated me far more than certainty; subjectivity more than objectivity; experience and perspective more than unfeeling positivism. Gonzalez understands the importance of the unknown; of relishing the idea that we’ll never completely understand our place in the world; of the search for meaning itself as more significant than the end result. His art has resonated with me in that way as I move about various life phases. It has provided solace for me when I was still determining who I was at 15. It was there for me the night before I drove off to college, listening to Before the Dawn Heals Us on repeat while drifting off into a somnolent haze. It was there for me as my wife and I danced to “Wait” at our wedding, away from our reception in the building directly below us, the nocturnal Kansas City skyline blanketing us in its luminescent glow.

For me, M83 has always symbolized the mysteries of life itself, reaching for the unreachable, describing the indescribable, dreaming the undreamable. That’s precisely what Gonzalez wants Fantasy to accomplish, as well. When people listen to this album for the first time, he has several hopes for what they experience. “I just want them to feel alive,” he says. “We have a tendency to forget how good it is to feel. Being overwhelmed by what’s around us, it’s stopped us from dreaming, stopped us from feeling emotion. That’s what music should be: It’s all about emotion.”

Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.

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