The name of the electronic act M83 may refer to a galaxy some 15 million light years away, but from the sound of their latest release, Saturdays = Youth, you'd be forgiven for thinking the number in the group's name refers to year 1983.
"I think that the '80s was certainly one of the most important periods of music so far. I love so many bands from this period that I thought it was a good idea to treat it with respect," said French musician Anthony Gonzalez, who effectively is M83. Gonzalez spoke to MTV News near the end of his recent U.S. tour, and made no bones about the fact that the album, released in April, was meant as an homage to that decade when hair was bigger and life — and synthesizers — were simpler. "To do that, we tried to work only with instruments from the '80s," he said. "We worked only with analog keyboards, analog synths; we didn't use any computers. The idea was to have a very '80s sound, but modern as well."
And not just any '80s sound, mind you. While previous M83 records, like 2003's Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, invited descriptions like "electro-shoegaze" and comparisons to the recently reunited My Bloody Valentine, with Saturdays = Youth, Gonzalez veered headlong into the synth-pop realm of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and music from the films of that master of Reagan-era teen travails, John Hughes. Gonzalez, who has long drawn musical inspiration from cinema, admits he's "always been nostalgic," and although he spent his own adolescence in the 1990s, those quintessentially '80s exercises in coming-of-age like "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink" proved hugely inspirational to him. "I have so many good memories of when I was a kid, watching those movies. When you are 13 or 14 it's like you are discovering a new world. There is something about being a teenager that I really love."
No kidding: Until now, M83's best known song was probably "Teen Angst" from 2005's Before the Dawn Heals Us, while the new record, awash in swirling synths, features such dreamy odes to adolescence as "Highway of Endless Dreams" and "We Own the Sky," and tells the tale of a "Graveyard Girl," one of those goth chicks who Gonzalez, like many of us, knew and loved — a girl who "worships Satan" but "dreams of a sister like Molly Ringwald." There's also a Ringwald look-alike among the pretty young things on the album cover, along with, in Gonzalez's words, "a boy who looks like Kurt Cobain" and a kid in a skeleton suit "like Donnie Darko."
But surely he realizes the teen years are, in fact, painful ones for many people? "Yeah, some people tell me that," he conceded. "But it was one of the best periods of my life. You experience so many things for the first time — your first sex, so many things. It can be scary, but for me it was just about fun. So that's the reason I did this album. I just wanted to re-create the feeling of my teenage years."
Gonzalez also says he wanted to challenge himself on this — his "shiniest" record to date — to write pop songs, something he calls "really difficult," and likens to a filmmaker trying his hand at comedy. He also hoped to get more confident vocally, singing more than on past M83 records, which were mostly instrumental affairs. Lending a hand in the latter department was Morgan Kibby, singer with the Los Angeles band the Romanovs and a part-time actress; she has what Gonzalez calls "a Kate Bush-type voice."
Despite the fact that this pop path (which follows a full-on ambient record, last year's Digital Shades Vol. 1) may have initially thrown longtime fans, Gonzalez says he doesn't consider the new sound a "betrayal" — instead, it's a new direction, one that is still true to himself. "And I think if you are always doing the same thing over and over, it's going to get boring. Repetition is death for me." And he just may be picking up new fans: The album's sales are outpacing M83's previous releases.
So let's score another one for France! For many years, the French have been about as successful exporting pop music to America as they have been exporting cars here (when was the last time you saw a Renault or Citroen dealership?). But in the past year alone, we've seen breakthroughs for Justice, the Teenagers, and now another success for M83.
All Gonzalez needs now is a little recognition in his homeland. "It's always been more difficult in France," he explains. "But with bands like Daft Punk or Air, they were first really famous in America and then after that they came back to France and had lots of success. So, maybe it will be the same thing for me."
See more of my interview with Anthony Gonzalez of M83 right here.