On a grimly grey afternoon earlier this week, the artist born Hugo Pierre Leclercq bounds into the oak-clad surroundings of Kensington's bizarrely named Copthorne Tara hotel in Central London. A young-looking 20-year-old, he is at once, sprightly, upright, immediately polite and courteous. He reveals himself to be a charming and inquisitive companion as he discusses the excitement around his forthcoming debut album, Adventure, due in March on Columbia Records.
"Up until this point, I always felt like I could go back and change things," he confesses. "I mean, it's in the iTunes system already so I can't, but you know what I mean. I have to commit to it now. I have to start justifying it, explaining it, and that's a very big step."
By now, one would think Madeon would be used to taking big steps. In 2010, when he was just 15, Madeon introduced himself to the world with his breakthrough track "For You" and a competition-winning remix of Pendulum's "The Island." Soon after came a live mash-up YouTube video aptly titled "Pop Culture" that crammed 39 of his favorite records (including Gorillaz's "Dare," Kylie's "Wow," and The Gossip's "Heavy Cross" into a three-and-a-half minute adrenaline rush. In attempting to recreate the feeling he had as a young Daft Punk fan, the teenage producer showed his innate ability to craft musical structure through the fractures of sampling. He also inadvertently made the best filter-house record since Alan Braxe and Fred Falke's. The clip has has 27 million views to-date.
"Pop Culture" happened to hit the blogosphere at the precise moment the EDM movement began sweeping over the world's teenagers who were relieved to know that not all DJs were middle-aged men. Someone their own age could do this too. It didn't hurt Madeon's credibility that he had established internet friendships with other young producers Mat Zo and Porter Robinson. With only a handful of releases, including singles "Icarus" and "The City," the title cut from a three-track EP, along with scant remixes for Yelle, Deadmau5 and fellow Frenchman Martin Solveig, Madeon became an unlikely hero for the new rave generation. Diminutive and fresh-faced, he was the opposite of the superstar DJ. Fans could see themselves in him.
He responded to the seemingly endless supply of fan tweets and Tumblr questions thrown at him, maintaining his accessibility and likeability along the way. Naturally, he was featured in fan-created memes, his presence on festival lineups could prompt a sell-out and by 2013, he was producing records for Lady Gaga and Ellie Goulding. Last year, he produced two tracks on Coldplay's Ghost Stories and was rumored to have been in the studio with Madonna (he sampled her hit "Hung Up" on "Pop Culture").
Still, the early acclaim came with some cost. "I was a chaotic, slipping student," Leclercq admits. "I basically failed on purpose because I didn't want any other choice than to have to succeed at music. In a way, I sabotaged a lot of things for myself, but it was necessary."
"At first this desire, this clear objective that I had, made things more difficult," he continues. "But when [success] started happening I felt very liberated. The world tells you that these things can't happen. You wanna be a musician? Sure. You wanna be an astronaut? Sure."
Like his friends Robinson and Zo, Madeon is equally invested in the process of how his music is presented as he is in producing it. From the logistics of marketing campaigns and management strategies to the nuances of live performance, he is intensely conscious of guarding both his artistic vision and his audience.
"I could have become a YouTube celebrity," Leclercq says. "I didn't want to do the same thing twice, didn't want to be a gimmick, didn't want to be 'that guy.' It's key that you remember who you want to be and that the decisions you make reflect that."
His desire to reach a bigger and wider audience is reflected in his thoughtful and considered appreciation of pop music. "I feel like its intention is very, very beautiful," Leclercq explains. "Some people see it as cynical, as pandering, as trying to appeal to everyone, as if it isn't art. Pop music is a pure study of us as human beings. It tries to examine what it is that brings human beings together on a very essential level. It works out what we all relate to is the human experience. It's beautiful. A hit record that works for millions of people is a beautiful thing; it's inclusive."
Despite Madeon's uncommon position as both product and creator of this decade's dance music zeitgeist, he's ambivalent about electronic music being analysed as part of a larger societal statement. "When I started out, dance music was shameful or at least uncool," Leclercq says. "I'm sure there are a lot of socio-economic analyses you can perform that might explain its surge in popularity, but sometimes these things happen organically. Let's just be grateful it has. This kind of dance music feels like it… appeared. People like Skrillex emerged and everything changed. Though, I'm sure you can find a timeline of hit records becoming increasingly more electronic. I'm sure you can apply an external logic to that."
"You know what," he pauses and then posits aloud in a quintessentially Madeon exposition that recalls equal parts Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson as it does Tintin or The Little Prince. "I wish we had control over the universe and had access to parameters that allowed us to live in a parallel world where we could assess things like that. It'd be great. It might be pertinent, this idea of attaching music to wider [issues in] society… but let's not overthink things too much."
Madeon's sense of wonder courses through the veins of Adventure. Peppered with guest stars like Bastille's Dan Smith and Foster the People's Mark Foster, the album is unequivocally the young producer's statement made in his own voice, one intended to transcend trends while keeping an ear to the ground. "It worked on two axes," he explains. "I was thinking about why making an album was important and I reasoned that it was a perfect encapsulation of a period in time. Taste and sensibility come in and out of view. Albums let you compartmentalize them and the person you were then lives forever in an album. I'm changing as a musician and I want to move on different things so I wanted to crystalize who I was for a while."
"The second was a bit more conceptual," Leclercq goes on. "I had a visual image in my head of an exciting, social feeling and I wanted that kind of party feeling reflected in the music before reaching a kind of solitary wandering in a desert, which is also reflected in music. It's like being at a party with friends and then you come home and everything's quiet and that contrast is really powerful."
While he upholds the work of his earliest musical loves—a unique combination of Daft Punk, the Beatles, and Wolfgang Gartner (the latter introduced to him by Robinson)—the influence of these artists isn't readily obvious in Madeon's work. In many ways, they serve more as conceptual inspiration than anything else.
"When I started making music I was so impressed by the width and breadth of it, of its possibilities for creativity, for allowing me to express genuine feeling, the way it combined artistic freedom with a scientific and technical limit," Leclercq gushes. "I felt like it was so wide and beautiful and fascinating and I knew that it was what I had to focus on."
While he is keen to stress that he is "somewhat removed" from the dance music scene (he still lives in his hometown of Nantes, France, far from the bustle of the music industry in Paris, London, Berlin or Los Angeles), he's an avid watcher of the storm he's about to throw himself into the eye of, albeit with an outsider's perspective. Through that lens, he sees this moment in time as a pivotal one.
"The most meaningful thing that has happened with dance music isn't that it's huge, because that's not everlasting," says Leclercq. "It's that it broke through and is part of the culture. That's forever. It's going to be there. It doesn't always have to be the biggest thing, but now it's understood by everyone. Previously, a lot of people would be repulsed by the four/four kick but now it's free of stigma."
As if issuing a prophecy or a royal decree he adds: "This feeling will last."