If you visited Cap d'Antibes last summer and found yourself wandering along the water at night, there's a decent chance you encountered 39-year-old Anthony Gonzalez beginning his day, staring at the moon bouncing off the sea. While spending the summer in his hometown, the M83 songwriter and bandleader (who splits his time between Los Angeles and France) started his days backwards, rising in the evening and beginning his day with a walk around the deserted resort town.
Gonzalez decamped to France in 2018 to escape the pressures of his career as M83. After the commercial and critical disappointment of Gonzalez's 2016 release—Junk—and its subsequent tour, the bandleader needed a break so he could figure out what exactly was next for M83. That turned out to be Digital Shades Vol. 2, a follow-up to a fairly ambient and textural 2007 release. Gonzalez relocated out of necessity, because after Junk and its tour, he felt empty, a bit broken, and disenchanted with the commercial aspects of music. In his eyes, DSVII is a no-stakes enterprise, a reset for an artist trying to rediscover why he likes making music, anyway.
"Working on Digital Shades is always a way to cleanse myself," Gonzalez explained to VICE. "I was just finishing up a big tour for Junk, a lot of work for Cirque du Soleil, and I needed to do something for myself. I needed to be a little selfish."
Making the album was a release for Gonzalez, and the results on DSVII and its accompanying film are staggering. It's a gorgeous record, blanketed in the lush synthesizers M83 is known for, but the theatrics are stripped and what's left is a window into what inspires and influences the artist. The pulsing harpsichord and haunted choir on "Hell Riders" recall the epic and audacious scores of big budget 80s cinema, while the love-weary piano and almost-saccharine harmonizing synthesizer on "Oh Yes You’re There, Everyday," are equal parts infomercial and bleeding-heart ballad.
Gonzalez spent the summer of 2018 writing every night for three months, before he demoed the subsequent tracks with M83 band member Joe Berry. He spent the following few months in the studio, completing DSVII in a low-pressure environment, the sort of space that inspired Gonzalez to feel comfortable enough to begin work on his next M83 pop album. Out September 20, DSVII is a quiet moment in M83's loud discography, but once in a while these breaks are necessary. The festival stages and tour buses can wait. We spoke to Gonzalez about why this album is both new ground for M83 and a return to its roots.
VICE: 'Vol. 1' is in the original Digital Shades release, but was the plan always to make a sequel?
Anthony Gonzalez: The first one, to be honest, was an album that I made simply to fulfill a record label deal. I was cheating a little bit, I guess. Life is getting really tough for everybody—artists, anyone, really. There's a lot of competition and you have to fight your way through the jungle. There are more and more releases every day—same thing for cinema, too. It's really hard to exist as an artist.
Instead of trying to exist with a proper album, doing promotion, and touring, I kind of wanted to just not exist with this album. I wanted to do something weird and strange that no one will probably like that much [laughs]. I just wanted to make an album and not deal with the pressure of answering too many questions in interviews, doing promotions, doing photos, all of that. I just wanted to do something simple that came from my heart that will maybe touch some people. I didn't want the pressure of releasing a pop album.
It's almost like I don't want to compete anymore. I'm 39 years old now. Being a musician is becoming really, really difficult. People don't really buy albums anymore. A lot of artists just release singles because it's a simple way to get around things. I don't want to play the game anymore—at least not yet.
Maybe I will when I put out another proper album, but these days, I kind of just want people to forget about me and my previous success—Hurry Up, We're Dreaming and "Midnight City." I still have the ambition of releasing a really good album that will take people on a journey, though. I think that's what I did here.
That's the tricky part. Trying to reset expectations while still engaging with your audience.
Yes! I'm so tired of expectations. I really had a hard time with Junk. I think it didn't live up to expectations from my fans, and maybe I'm wrong, but this is how I felt. I don't want to pressure myself too much with my music. When I first started, it was a pleasure. I'd always go into the studio with a smile on my face. If that's not the case anymore, I don't want to keep fighting for success.
Can you speak a bit about the accompanying film? Your music is always cinematic, but what about this album in particular lends itself to the movie experience?
This album is full of dust. I wanted it to sound old, broken, and imperfect. I needed some kind of visual reference to go along with the old things I was feeling. Bertrand Mandico is a director I'm really fascinated by. He and my brother [Yann Gonzalez] are two of the artists in France trying to propose a different cinema to people. I like that they take risks.
In a way, I'm taking a lot of risks in releasing this album. There's no pop song, there's no single. It was important for me to find the right alter ego to work on the visuals. Bertrand was perfect, he loves risks. He's really underground but has grand ideas. His aesthetic is very pure and mystical. He's been able to tell a really strange story with imagery that doesn't really fit into our modern society, which I love.
You view DSVI and DSVII as a separate part of your discography. What makes them different from the rest of your albums and how do you still engage with them under the M83 moniker?
They're different because there's less pressure. When I'm releasing an album and I'm gonna go on tour, I wanna be able to make people dance and move. We play a lot of festivals because that's part of the game. I want people to feel that big weekend party when they hear my music. That's not going to be the case with Digital Shades. It's a way more selfish album. It's almost a different catalog.
But with this one, there was a different dimension to it. There was more ambition. I really wanted to please myself. I know that by pleasing myself I'll be able to please some of my fans.
It may also appeal to more of your pre-"Midnight City" fans.
I think so. But it's all fantastic. When we play at festivals and go into "Midnight City," the crowd reacts every time. It's really fantastic. I consider myself very lucky that I've been able to make an album that successful with a few very big songs. It's fantastic and I'm very, very grateful but I also don't want people to think that's the only thing I'm good at. Creating "Midnight City" was a fantastic and rewarding experience. I made really good money, too. It allowed me to work on more underground projects. But I also want people to forget about "Midnight City" a little bit, too. I don't want people expecting another one. I'm not ready for that. "Midnight City" was a fucking accident. It's luck.
Did you know when you made "Midnight City" that it would at the very least be something different for you?
It was really hard to predict. I knew it was a good song, but it just exceeded our expectations by a lot. We had a feeling about that album in general. We knew that it was a good album, sincerely. We put a lot of effort into it. But that's no different than Junk, which was not successful. That's the game you have to play when you make albums. Sometimes you release music at the right time and you're lucky. Other times, you're not. That's fair enough. For this album, I didn't want to care about being successful, I guess.
Since your last proper album wasn't particularly well received, are you itching at all to prove yourself all over again as a pop songwriter?
I'm currently working on a new album that's going to take me on tour. It's already in advanced stages and I hope we can release it pretty soon. But I'm still up to release pop albums. I don't want people thinking I'm too old for this [laughs]. No, I still want to play live, I still want to give people emotions and make them dance. I still want to feel something on stage. So, it's on the calendar.
What about the process are you happiest about now that you've completed DSVII?
There are a lot of mixed feelings. In a way, I feel like the younger generation (myself included) is always spending time on social media. Now, everything is accessible. There are 10 new albums coming out everyday! It's really hard to keep up. We forget about amazing songs all the time. For me, writing this album for three months, I was filling myself with the old art I still love. I was scared to forget about the past, scared of growing old, and this album was a way for me to reconnect with the older artists and more vintage sounds. People were really experimenting and innovating.
Everyone kind of sounds the same now, everyone is searching for the same sound. Everyone is using the same tools, and I despise that. Even if there are amazing artists these days, they get lost in the masses more often than not. I find it quite sad and scary, so instead of being open to the future, I like being open to the past.
How do you keep moving forward then?
I just do. I feed myself from old things but somehow stay current and modern. It may not be obvious with this album, but perhaps it will be with the next. I don't want to sound like an old guy that's upset about society, but I am a little bit. I think it's changing a little fast and it's unfair. The arts world is overpopulated.
But I also think it's great that you have access to everything. I just wish we'd be a little less selfish sometimes and try to use less things in our promotion, with Instagram and all of that. It's important to remember that there were artists making great things and we need to pay tribute to them.