M83's Anthony Gonzalez: Inside the 'Junk' Studio Sessions

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French musician/producer Anthony Gonzalez released five albums as M83 before reaching his commercial breakthrough with 2011’s double LP Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Over the decade documented on those albums, he and various collaborators filtered influences — from Sonic Youth and Blonde Redhead to Italodisco and Elton John — and crafted iridescent hymnals to coming of age. An analog synthesizer enthusiast since seeing a Jean-Michel Jarre broadcast as a young child, Gonzalez uses keyboards to cast both saturated melodies and eerily colored shade, drawing on a love of krautrock’s tensile drones and dream-pop’s sensual fluidity.

On his seventh studio album, Junk (Mute), which he describes as an “organized mess,” Gonzalez has further progressed how he looks back, combining retrofuturistic tones and nostalgic cues into a collage of flushed synth-pop, progged-out soft rock and hybrid production. “You must be creative at one point, whether it’s at the mastering, mixing or how you record the take,” he explains. “If you know what you’re doing and pick your point carefully, you can operate with no rules and at the end everything will still be coherent.”

Speaking from the road, Gonzalez took a few minutes to discuss his many nights in the studio, Dario Argento and John Carpenter films looping in the background on mute as he plays cinematographer to capturing his own light.

Many interviews you’ve done for Junk discuss how making music makes you feel, but I want to know how making music makes you think, how synthesizers have rewired your creative process throughout your life.

I think I was seven or eight and I watched this TV live show from Jean-Michel Jarre with my parents. He came up on stage with this amazingly designed band, multiple analog synthesizers, modular synthesizers, and it looked more like a spaceship than a music stage and that’s what I loved about it. The music he was creating with all these machines was something I couldn’t understand, because to me it sounded like music coming from the future.

I think I was 12 when my parents got me my first cheap Casio, because I was playing piano already and it was a great way to start, and I remember they got me music charts with songs from Jean-Michel Jarre and different electronic musicians. So I learned the main melodies from some of those songs I encountered as a kid then slowly did more research to find what sounds my favorite artists used on my favorite albums. You start to realize the world of analog synths is big and expensive, so you start cheap before you get to the ARP 2600 or the [Oberheim] Matrix 12, big modular synthesizers and that. And what you find is there is a uniqueness of each instrument, a different purpose of each instrument.

I’ve never been amazingly technical. I had a musical background that is different than other singers and musicians, because once I had a few chords I would stop worrying about mastering my instrument because that was enough to create. So the time that I didn’t spend being technical at the piano, at guitar, I spent it listening to eclectic music, listening to German music from the ’70s, Italian soundtracks, Brian Eno — trying to research it not as a musician but as a listener, and I think that helped me be a better musician. Then the synthesizers gave me the voices to design my own band, to create sounds that connect my brain and heart to my past and the future. With synthesizers you can create rhythms, leads, basslines, melodies, pads, string sounds … it’s endless. For that it’s the perfect tool for me in the studio.

So, for Junk what synth was your rhythm section, your back-up singers, your lead soloist?

For the drum machines we used a lot of Oberheim DMX, the LinnDrum a lot as well, and Sequential Circuits DrumTraks, Roland TR-808, the Korg Rhythm 55B. For the leads and arpeggios we used a lot of ARP 2600. Roland Jupiter 8 and 6 for the pads. A lot of Matrix 12 for big pads and more brass sounds. A lot of Dave Smith stuff as well. I think Dave Smith’s new stuff is maybe a better version of the old ones because it’s more accessible and solid, but as pure as the original … even purer for me. I didn’t have a chance to use their new OB6, so I’m using that live at the moment and I find it really amazing, their best synth yet. Bass we used a lot of Moog sub, Korg MS-20 … Multimoog, the usual stuff really. It’s not very new, but it’s like my go-to.

What makes a component a go-to?

For me it’s important for me to fall in love with the sound of the VCO and the filter. Even with no reverb, delay, effects on top of it, I just like to hear the tone of the waveform of the VCO and just listen to the filter on top. And if I like the combination I know I’ll have a lot of fun. That’s one of the reasons I love the ARP 2600 so much because for me it’s the sound of my childhood. It was so popular in the late ’70s so a lot of people were using it to create TV music, movie soundtracks for the synth, so when I play with it it takes me back in time.

How does working with a library of vintage equipment impact how you record?

The way I used to make music 15 years ago was 100-percent sequence. There was no space for live music. And I just got older and started to get into different styles and now there’s a lot of live music. A song like ‘For the Kids’ or ‘Sunday Night 1987’ or “Moon Crystal’ is all tracked live, no sequencing. Then on the other end a song like ‘Do It, Try It’ is 100-percent sequenced. So it’s about trying to find the best recipe for each song. I like to say there are no rules in music and on my album. Everything can be live, sequenced, it doesn’t really matter as long as you do it with sincerity and to stay true to your sound, ideas and influences.

How much do you use studio space and external components to impact the character of your synths?

A lot, actually. If I want to get like the sound of a nice Neve console or a nice API, I know I will go to Sunset Sound. If I like the sound of the room reverb, I’ll go to a different studio. Now I start to know what I want and need for my recordings, so going to a different studio is another tool.

We recorded all the ballad drums in my home studio, where I have a very dry room where I can get a ’70s tone. I have an amazing 16-channel Tree Audio console that is completely analog. And to just play with the drum and bass sound was a good start for me. I get something that sounds very dry, almost like it’s right next to you, barely reverb, almost no compression. Songs like ‘Moon Crystal’ we reamped brass, strings and synth to get a more vintage feel. We printed it to tape, ‘Sunday Night’ to tape, ‘Solitude’ to tape to get a wavy feel with the tracks. And on the other hand there is stuff we only did on Pro Tools, like ‘Do It, Try It’ that is very digital, a more modern way of thinking and working. This album is a mix of different ways you can do things, and that’s what I like about it.

With the vintage gear and the ‘wavy’ sound, would you say you embrace audio junk, so to speak?

For me, there are a lot of good things about new EFX racks, even in-the-box reverb. Sometimes the Valhalla [DSP plug-in] is going to do the job, but sometimes you want to get more dirty and this is where you start using maybe an Eventide H3000 or a Demeter RV-1 Spring Reverb or a Roland Dimension D chorus. We used a lot of the Publison reverb, the Infernal Machine, that gives an amazing bendy feeling to the strings and drums. The Ursa Major Space Station delay as well. the Roland RE-501 Chorus. There are so many different tools between my studio and Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] my producer’s studio, so it was rare we used the same recipe for any two songs.

How important is it to do sound design first, or do a lot of these tools get applied in post-production?

Sometimes I just start with sounds from my computer, working on the structure of the song — that the rhythm, the tempo is right — then I start to rerecord all the songs using analog synths. Then sometimes I don’t have to do anything because it’s all played live, with maybe a couple overdubs on more ballady stuff. It’s hard to explain the process because every track is a different baby that you dress differently. Really that’s what I’m trying to give to the songs of my album: I’m the parent of 10 children and I don’t want them to wear the same thing, have the same haircut. I love to layer on layers, so some of the children may look like they clash, but I feel sometimes clashing is good, having something that is unclear will make the mix interesting and new. As long as you understand the vision of the song and talk well to the guy who will mix the song then you’re in a good spot. You just find the right balance by muting a lot of stuff, stuff that isn’t necessary, but it only comes when you record as much as you can, more than less — more to play with. That’s a motivation for me.

What part does touring play in revealing the capabilities and limitations of a piece of gear?

You learn a lot from trying to play songs that are too hard to play live, for instance. This is why there are some more minimalistic songs on the new album, because I wanted live to be able to play without more tracks and with more musicians. We definitely don’t play the whole album [Junk]. Some songs, like ‘Moon Crystal,’ it’s really hard to recreate live because of string sections and analog synths that are hard to travel with. But we have the DSI OB6 and a DOTCOM [synthesizers .com] big modular synth that I play with, and then songs from the box. There are some things you have to be careful with live, especially when you play big festivals with little time to set up. And especially if you travel with old gear, you know it will break at some point so you have to be mindful. Obviously, I would love to have on stage every day 20 analog synthesizers perfectly tuned and performing efficiently, but it’s never going to happen.