Anthony Gonzalez doesn't play around when it comes to emotions. His are direct, unfiltered and raw, pouring forth from stereo speakers with an urgency and gravity not commonly exhibited by music made from a tangle of machines and cables. As M83, Gonzalez (minus Nicolas Fromageau, his collaborator on the previous two M83 efforts) composes epic sonic tales and far-flung soundscapes from an unexpectedly simple, scaled-down studio setup. With his third release, Before the Dawn Heals Us (Mute, 2005), Gonzalez is no less earnest than he was with Fromageau on last summer's Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (Mute, 2004), nor does he relax his grip on primal, gut-level feeling. Before the Dawn is freer and looser, bringing the focus ever closer to musicianship and command of melody.
Armed with a Roland KR-375 digital piano, an acoustic guitar and a variety of Boss guitar pedals, Gonzalez works in an admittedly free-form manner that befits the pace of life in southern France (he lives in Antibes). Be it strumming tunes on the beach or plucking notes just before bed, Gonzalez tries his best to form his melodies naturally, without stress. “I just work when I want,” he says with a grin. However, true to the spacious, celestial and dreamlike quality of his music, he does have a fondness for working at night. “It's more quiet,” Gonzalez continues. “I like that everybody's sleeping but not me. I'm just alone and making my music.”
As a mere 23-year-old, Gonzalez has a finely developed ear for drama — not surprising, given that his first band leaned more toward the ca-cophonous, louder-the-better side of rock and his musical heroes include the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. When he was 17, Gonzalez produced his first electronically based song (“horrible,” he admits), and the rest — well, the past six years, at least — is history. These days, Gonzalez nails down a melody after a bit of tinkering on his Roland or his guitar, then heads to the studio to flesh out his ideas with a session drummer, a bassist and the help of sound engineer Antoine Gaillet. “I try to be just me and to make original music — but it's hard!” Gonzalez says. “It's really hard to hear that you sound like another band when you are trying to make something original.”
Gonzalez's keyboard setup hasn't changed since Dead Cities, and he still uses his favorite Film Octaves string patch sounds from his Roland JX-305 synth. First takes of the JX-305 and other synths typically go down in MIDI before the winners are selected, imported as audio and tweaked in Digidesign Pro Tools. To build up that trademark otherworldly ambience, Gonzalez and Gaillet play around with different keyboards and distortion pedals. For guitar distortion, they look to a Fender Vibroverb amp and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedal.
Where Dead Cities relied on synths to create tension between retro instruments and postmodern angst, Before the Dawn compounds that effect with a healthy dose of live drums. With “Moonshine,” a track that brings to mind images of lush-locked, shirtless drummers banging the way to musical climax, Gonzalez and Gaillet recorded the rhythm live with a classic miked kit that was treated during mixing. “It's a really strong compression on the whole kit, [with] two distressors linked,” Gaillet explains. “And we put on a big reverb [using the] Lexicon 480L; that gives the epic sensation. The crash cymbal was recorded separately from the rest of the kit, so the compression wouldn't affect the cymbal.
“We tried to do something with a large stereo, and sometimes it's so stereo that we [were] at the limit of being out of phase,” he continues. “But it's what we wanted to do — something massive with a big stereo image.”
Massive is right. Before the Dawn marks a big change for M83, not the least of which has Gonzalez facing his stage fright to take the mic on several tracks. Whereas Dead Cities plumbed the depths of digitized, android angst with an almost superhuman intensity that was, at moments, just as restrained as it was self-indulgently brash and aggressive, his latest effort is markedly different. Powerful, self-indulgent (and gloriously so, with the album's closing track stopping just shy of 11 minutes long), sweeping and bold, Gonzalez has cut himself a wide swath of musical territory to explore.