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Some Kind of Wonderful - EMusician

Some Kind of Wonderful

M83'S ANTHONY GONZALEZ AND HIS PRODUCER FRIENDS PAY HOMAGE TO JOHN HUGHES AND THE BEST OF THE '80S
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Photo: Anouck Bertin

The phrase “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” is usually sound advice for any musician who has achieved a modicum of success in today's tumultuous music industry. It's hard enough to get noticed out there, so why tinker with a winning formula? M83 (aka Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez) has made a career out of going against the grain and by defying logic. Much like Radiohead's evolution throughout the years, Gonzalez has changed his style with each successive album while retaining a certain zeitgeist that makes M83 unique.

In its original incarnation, M83 was a two-man team and included Nicolas Fromageau as Gonzalez's production partner. However, after the success of M83's critically acclaimed sophomore album, the psychedelic rock/electronic Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (Mute, 2004), Fromageau departed M83, making the project a one-man entity. (M83's self-titled debut album was released in 2001.) “I think it was great for me to have Nicolas around for the first two records,” Gonzalez says. “The problem was I didn't like to share what I considered to be my child. Even when Nicolas was around, I behaved like I was alone. I'd never let anyone compose for the band because I guess that would have felt like some kind of betrayal. M83 is everything to me. When I write, it is also a part of myself that I reveal. It is how I express my feelings, my fears, my thoughts, myself. Somehow, I think I need to control everything; it makes me feel like I'm alive. It might sound a little selfish, but that's the way it is. I like that feeling of loneliness — just me and my world.”

M83's third album, 2005's Before the Dawn Heals Us (Mute), progressed from the shoegazer style of its predecessors into a more complete melding of electronic, pop and rock. However, the fallout from an extensive world tour in support of the album was substantial. Faced with some personal issues after the tour, Gonzalez found it difficult to write music and stopped altogether for several months. Fortunately, Gonzalez awoke from his malaise and garnered up enough inspiration to create what some may consider M83's finest and most complete effort to date, Saturdays = Youth (Mute, 2008).

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL

M83's music has evolved into something that can now be enjoyed by fans of many different musical genres, no longer just a small niche market. Musically, Gonzalez knew he wanted to make something far different from previous records and used his teenage experiences and '80s pop culture as the primary influence. “One of my biggest influences was John Hughes and all the '80s teen movies, such as Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. When I was a teenager, I watched all these Hughes movies and was really influenced by them,” Gonzalez says. “As for the title, Saturday is the day of the week that means a lot to me, and it's certainly the most important day for every teenager. The album is a tribute to my teenage years, which are certainly the most important and beautiful years of my life. I learned so much during this period and had such a good time discovering things like drugs, new music and new movies. This was an experimental period in my life. It was like I was discovering something new and great each day. We can say this is a tribute to our teenage years.”

To achieve his goal of creating an album with an '80s vibe, Gonzalez was finicky about the type of the production gear used. While there are a few sounds generated through the computer, a majority of what you hear on Saturdays = Youth was created using real instruments and analog gear. His favorite piece of studio gear is by far the Roland Juno-2, which provides Gonzalez with the “John Carpenter” sounds he's looking for. While a vast array of keyboards was on hand to record the album, Gonzalez is also famous for being picky about the sounds he uses from each keyboard. He'll often take the same one or two sounds per synth and recycle them throughout the production. “It's really just specific for this record that I didn't want to use digital stuff,” Gonzalez says. “Sometimes I use [Propellerhead] Reason for sounds, but I wanted to have something different for this album. I'm sure for the next one I'll use a lot of digital stuff. I like to change with each record. Some artists think it's easy to just make music with a computer and that you can release a record by only using the computer. It's not so easy, actually; if you are not talented, it's really hard to work with computers. Software can't make everything, and I'm not good enough to work [only] with computers on this record.”

STUDIO SESSIONS

Contributors who played a vital role in shaping Saturdays = Youth include producer/engineer Ken Thomas, producer Ewan Pearson, singer Morgan Kibby and drummer Loïc Maurin. Thomas famously worked in a producer/engineer role with some of the biggest names in music, including Queen, David Bowie, Public Image Ltd., the Cocteau Twins, Dave Gahan and Sigur Ros, among many others. Meanwhile, Pearson is often most associated in the dance-music genre as a DJ and for his popular original productions and remixes. He's currently stepping out from the dancefloor and picking up production credit on albums for artists such as Tracey Thorn, Ladytron and Gwen Stefani. As for Kibby, she's an actress and musician from Los Angeles who Gonzalez met through a mutual acquaintance. In addition to providing the female vocals for every track on the album, she also assisted in writing some of the lyrics and played various piano parts. And Maurin has been collaborating with Gonzalez for several years and provided production assistance in many areas throughout the recording. Although he had never worked with a producer on earlier albums, Gonzalez was eager to share ideas with both Pearson and Thomas. “I chose to work with the both of them because I wanted this '80s sound,” Gonzalez says. “Ken Thomas has worked in the studio for, like, 40 years, and he's so huge. He worked with all these big bands from the '80s. I also wanted a modern sound, which is why I chose Ewan. The combination of the two seemed perfect.”

When Gonzalez first approached Thomas and Pearson, he already had fully developed demos for half of the album (recorded in his hometown of Antibes, France). After several meetings and exchanges of ideas, both producers signed on for the production. “I see my job as a producer to help the artist make the record they want to make,” Pearson says. “We always talk a lot and play each other records and references, and I try to listen carefully to what they're doing and make certain suggestions but not to change things too much. Not that I really could; Anthony has very strong ideas about what he wants to do — he produced his first two albums himself, remember. Everything he does has a very recognizable signature, and everything on this record is there because he wants it to be.”

Gonzalez initially took his demos into Pearson's Berlin studio for preproduction before traveling to Rockfield Studios in South Wales for production and mixing with Thomas. “I did mostly sound-design stuff and a bit of arranging,” Pearson says. “‘Couleurs,'' for example, was pretty much just an eight-bar chord loop when Anthony arrived in Berlin, and he wanted to make a dance track, although it ended up as something else. Maybe I helped open up the sound palette a bit, added some wonkier analog-synth sound elements and effects treatments and things. I was a little bewildered at first that Anthony does all his work with just a couple of keyboards and uses the same patches repeatedly, but after awhile it made sense. The signature sounds that he uses are part of his identity as an artist, and if you change them too much, you change what makes him so distinctive and appealing.”

With preproduction complete, Gonzalez met with the team at Rockfield Studios to produce and mix the album. A highly recognizable name, Rockfield Studios has been the birthing place of albums from the likes of Queen, Black Sabbath, Oasis and New Order. The recording took approximately three weeks and ran smoothly, thanks to clearly defined roles. For example, having worked with Gonzalez in the past, Maurin knew exactly what type of drum fills he was looking for. Pearson's primary role in the final production stages was dedicated to working on “Couleurs” and cutting stuff up with his laptop. “During the actual production stage, I did more editing and programming and added a few other ideas along the way,” Pearson says. “We wanted to have a percussion battery [aka marching drumline] on ‘Couleurs,'' but our drummer, Loïc, didn't have any percussion and there was none at the studio. So I wandered off for a couple of hours, had a look around the farm where Rockfield Studios is located and came back with a roof slate; a rusty metal cog, which I suspended from a string; some jars; and a metal gravy boat from the kitchen, which made a decent-sounding cowbell. I think they thought I was insane as I brought this stuff into the studio, but we miked it up and it sounded great.”

LEGO MANIA

Gonzalez often compares his production style to that of Lego blocks, where instruments and vocals are layered on top of one another to get the signature M83 sound. “We put the vocals into a lot of choruses and reverbs so that it feels distorted, but it's not,” Gonzalez says. “I don't like the sound of my voice when it's all alone, so I just record a lot of layers. It's just the same voice over itself numerous times.”

“Anthony's clever and not frightened to do things like repeat vocals,” Thomas adds. “He's not shy of repetition and using the same vocal over and over again.” The layering effect lends itself to the shoegazer sound often associated with M83, but it also helps with making just about anyone's voice sound good. The album's background vocalists also include Pearson, Maurin and Thomas' studio assistant.

One of the main reasons Saturdays = Youth sounds so polished is because of Thomas' work behind the desk. The album was recorded on a vintage MCI desk and mixed using Genelec 1031 monitors. “The whole thing about mixing with me is that most of it is feeling. You just put stuff on it until it sounds and feels right,” Thomas says. “Because Anthony wanted to have an '80s feel, I was using the Roland Dimension D quite a lot because I didn't want to use too much chorus at the beginning. I put Dimension D across a lot of stuff to glue it all together. When I cross the mic, I always have EQ and always have some compression. I'm normally boosting some really high frequencies (16 kHz) through a GML preamp, and it gives it the kind of air that makes it feel open. It also seems to tighten up the bass end.”

Oddly enough, despite Gonzalez's desire to hire Thomas because of his experience with '80s music, it's far from being the veteran producer's music of choice. “‘Kim & Jessie'' was a hard song to do,” Thomas confesses. “Anthony loves it, but I wasn't really happy with it. It was hard for me to do that stuff because I never connected much with '80s music. I connect most with something that sounds new and it hasn't been done before, which is really hard to find. Sometimes you just say, ‘Bloody hell.'' [Laughs.]”

Blood and Guts

When it comes to explaining his songwriting and recording process, Anthony Gonzalez is a deep person. Here, he discusses the nuts, bolts and meanings of each track, from beginning to end, on Saturdays = Youth.

"You, Appearing"

The first song of a record is really important to me. It's a way to introduce the whole atmosphere of the album, to throw the basis of it. I wanted to create something soft but with a real strength to it. I wanted a track that could have come from outer space — something wide open. The best way to create this was to build the song with a soft piano base. The rest is just layers of analog synths, repetitive reverb vocals and a lost, clean-chorused guitar. I love the feeling of vacuum to this track.

"Kim & Jessie"

“Kim & Jessie” is certainly the most pop-oriented track of the record: first, because of its really simple song structure (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus) and second, because the chorus is really catchy. It was a tricky track for me and I had to be careful with it. I like its '80s atmosphere, but I also wanted to make it personal, not just another tribute to the '80s!

This track is about two teen girls lost in the forest and getting high on drugs. To me, its atmosphere is very similar to that of Charles Burns' comics [series], Black Hole. “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears was also a great influence for this song.

"Skin of the Night"

This is the “goth” track of the album. One of the darkest, even though I think there's also a rather bright side to it, despite the omnipresence of minor chords. This track makes me think of a slow, hypererotic and kind of sleazy striptease. I picture the scene in a sordid bar lost in the Californian desert. Once undressed, the girl would tear her skin apart, her hair, her eyes — literally like a full strip. For the production, I wanted something very cold, kind of Sisters of Mercy-like. I was also very much influenced by Bauhaus' gig at Coachella 2005, which I thought was fascinating.

"Graveyard Girl"

This track is a tribute to John Hughes' movies. Since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with teenage love and social cliques in the American high schools of the '80s. The lead character of the song is a 15-year-old new-wave girl who is in total rebellion against the system. She was mainly inspired by Molly Ringwald (aka Andie Walsh) in Pretty in Pink. The aim was to get some saturated noise melting with the chorus, and some reverb, like synth-rock bands back in the new-wave era.

"Couleurs"

“Couleurs” is my idea of what a dance track should be. It's a pretty long track, divided into three main parts that, to me, act conceptually like a journey through time. It starts with an '80s dance piece combining electronic as well as electric instruments and drums in the style of Liquid Liquid. The track then moves on to a second part that is more transitory and introduces a last, much more modern part that sounds a bit like R&B with its split rhythm. Here we really focused on the drums, which are of primary importance to this track. The presence of Ewan Pearson was really precious, and we couldn't have done it without him.

"Up!"

I like Morgan's voice a lot on this track — she has a Kate Bush style that I really like. I'd always wanted to make that kind of track that stays soft from beginning to end. One of my main influences for this song was “Twist in My Sobriety” by Tanita Tikaram. “Up!” is one of the few tracks on this album for which the drums didn't receive much studio processing. The idea was to keep them as authentic as possible.

"We Own the Sky"

This is one of the most electro tracks of the album. One of my favorite moments in the song is the chorus. Its somewhat dreamy side kind of reminds me of “Farewell/Goodbye” on Before the Dawn Heals Us. I wanted the guitars to be processed in a special way, a bit like in “Heaven or Las Vegas” by the Cocteau Twins, which is one of my favorite bands ever. I also like the last part of the song, which features more acoustic instruments, like rototoms. Peculiar attention was brought to the vocals, which have an African voices style that I totally assume! Overall, it creates a rather strange mix between ethnic music and electro-pop, which I find pretty cool.

"Highway of Endless Dreams"

I really wanted this album to feature a song with no real structure, only based on a psychedelic build-up. I love the tension that emerges from this track. The picture that comes to mind is that of desperately driving through the desert at [a million] miles an hour. This track is probably the closest to the previous album in terms of production. My recipe: analog sounds, guitars and reverb.

"Too Late"

My favorite track of the record. I like the sadness and melancholy to it.

"Dark Moves of Love"/"Midnight Souls Still Remain"

Even though these are two different tracks, they are one and the same song to me. “Dark Moves of Love” is certainly the most epic track. I always like to end an album this way: with something highly orchestrated and melodramatic. My main influence for this track was Slowdive, which I think is one of the best bands in the world. “Midnight Souls Still Remain” is the only ambient track of the record, which is rather uncommon for an M83 album. It draws the album to a close. Goodnight, dreamers!

M83 Ammo

Computer, DAW, recording hardware

Apple Power Mac G5
Digidesign Pro Tools LE 7.1 with Digi 002 interface

Console, mixer

MCI console
Mackie 12-channel mic/line mixer

Samplers

Boss SP-202 Dr. Sample
Roland JS-30 sampling workstation

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments, amps

Arturia ARP 2600V, CS-80V, Minimoog V soft synths
Clavia Nord Rack 2 synth
Crumar Multiman synth
Edirol PCR-500 USB MIDI keyboard controller
1962 American Fender Jaguar guitar, Mexican Jazz Bass, Japanese Telecaster guitar
1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb guitar amp
Korg microKORG, MS-20, Poly-61M, Sigma synths
Native Instruments Absynth 3, Battery 2, Kontakt 2 software
Propellerhead Reason 4 software
Roland Juno-2, Juno-106, JX-3P, JX-305, MKS-10 Planet-P synth/rack modules
Taylor Big Baby acoustic guitar
Vox AC30 CC2X 2×12 with Celestion Alnico Blue speakers
Yamaha CS-5 and Motif 6 keyboards, TX-7 FM synth module

Mics, preamps, effects

Boss PS-2 digital pitch-shifter/delay, MT-2 Metal Zone, RC-50 Loop Station pedals
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedal
GML preamp
Ibanez TS9DX Tuber Tube Screamer pedal
Pro Co Sound Rat (vintage)
Roger Mayer Octavia pedal
Roland SDD-320 Dimension D chorus
Shure SM48, SM57 mics
Sony ECM23F3PR mic
Vox Valvetronix ToneLab SE pedalboard

Monitors

Alesis Monitor One MK2s
Genelec 1031s
TAPCO Mackie S8 active studio monitors