Plain big is not so hard to pull off. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”, Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park”, Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine”…rock history is landmarked with preposterously massive songs that are often bloated and overwrought, songs that stand as giant signposts to feeling, but communicate little actual emotion. Grand-scale songs may be impressive, but filling tunes of a synapse short-circuiting enormity with real emotional resonance – making them memorable for reasons other than size – is much more difficult.
It’s a talent Anthony Gonzalez has clearly mastered with ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’, a double album that brokers a brilliantly effective accord between the ostensibly conflicting demands of commercial pop and experimental rock, and packs some truly giant tunes. The Antibes native has been steadily working to perfect the art of the megalithic alt.pop song since founding M83 in 2001. His self-titled debut from that year and sophomore release two years later, ‘Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts’ established him as a heavy hitter in the post-rock/bliss pop/cosmic electronica league, a skilled producer of hazy, lusciously layered, irresistibly narcotized, epic dreamscapes crafted (essentially solo) from treated electronics, plush synths, murmured vocals and fx-heavy guitar. Third album, ‘Before the Dawn Heals Us’ (2005) upped the cinematic, star-spangled ante but added a dark strangeness, while in 2007 M83 released the entirely ambient ‘Digital Shades Vol 1’. It was 2008’s ‘Saturdays = Youth’, a nostalgia-soaked paean to Gonzalez’s teenage years – and an unashamed celebration of artists such as Kate Bush and Jean-Michel Jarre – that paved the way for the monumental ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’.
Co-produced by bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen (best known for his work with Beck) and mixed by Tony Hoffer (Air, Kooks) it took just 13 months to complete and features guest vocalists Zola Jesus (on ‘Intro’) and Brad Laner (‘Splendor’), plus contributions from Gonzalez’s long-term collaborator, his brother Yann. Gonzalez’s decision to record a 22-track double LP was the result of a youth impressed by The Beatles’ white album, Ummagumma by Pink Floyd and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. “Artists that tried to do something as big as a double album were always inspiring to me,” he explains. “It’s a lot of work, but I always wanted to achieve something like that one day, and I just felt that the time was right for me to make one.”
The wryly contradictory title is a reference to a loose theme of dreaming and remembering, which Gonzalez found himself doing a lot more of after he moved to LA to live in January 2010. “The initial three months were very tough,” he reveals. “I was feeling lonely in my apartment, working on the album and I don’t really know why, but I started to have memories from my childhood. It made me nostalgic in a good way, and I started to remember some of my dreams from being a kid – nothing very precise, but more the feeling. So, I thought that was a good concept for the album. It’s a retrospective of my life, from childhood to being a teenager and then an adult.” These recollections surface most explicitly in ‘Raconte-Moi Une Histoire’ (when he was five, his mother used to buy him a kids’ magazine with the same title, which had a cassette of narrated stories mounted on the cover) and ‘OK Pal’, which reminds Gonzalez of episodes in his teens, “like when you first meet someone who really understands you.”
The album title is also a neat summary of the record’s twin tempers – urgent and introspective – and of Gonzalez’s dual identity as dancefloor enthusiast and solipsistic muser. So, ‘Midnight City’ is a huge chunk of glittering and euphoric nu-disco that somehow joins that dots between Peter Gabriel and Underworld, and features not only that big no-no of contemporary pop – a saxophone solo – but also a fade-out. ‘Reunion’, too, is built on a triumphantly massive scale, its layer-cake vocals suggesting Toto as produced by My Bloody Valentine, while ‘Claudia Lewis’ ramps up M83’s feelings for ’80s music from affection to passionate love, even sneaking in the slap bass.
Conversely, ‘Where the Boats Go’ wraps woozy pop soundscapes around a sombre piano coda, the aptly titled ‘Splendor’ summons a divinely doomed, synth-centric romanticism and the album’s wild card, ‘Soon, My Friend’, drops all things electronic in favour of acoustic guitar, strings, brass and a choir. “I like the fact that the album is like a rollercoaster,” Gonzalez says. “Sometimes it goes fast, and then it will slow down for a while. You can’t stay at the same tempo all the time.”
This is an album that’s epic not only in terms of scale, but also of structure, with both an intro and an outro, and brief tracks like ‘Train to Pluton’ and ‘Fountains’ functioning as interludes. M83’s music has long been acknowledged as cinematic, not least of all by Gonzalez himself, who’s a huge film fan (Terrence Malick’s ‘Days of Heaven’, ‘Nowhere’ by Gregg Araki, Werner Herzog’s ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ and Todd Haynes’ ‘Safe’ are some of his favourites). “The whole album is like a movie, with opening and closing credits,” he explains. “It’s a journey, you know?”
This love of cinema even helped Gonzalez ratchet up his vocal power levels for the new record. When writing in the studio, he often plays films in the background with the sound on mute and, while working on “Wait”, he watched ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’, “with Klaus Kinski and all his anger. And so I decided to try something where I was almost screaming, alone in my studio in LA. That inspired me to go forward in my vocals. Morgan [Kibby, vocalist and keyboardist] came into the studio and I played her the vocal as a work in process. She told me I should start singing like that, so it was a kind of discovery. A good one, I hope!”
Kings Of Leon, The Killers and Depeche Mode – all of whom M83 toured with in 2010 – can also take some credit for Gonzalez’s newly beefy vocals. As he says: “When you see all those frontmen onstage who are very confident in front of a large audience, it gives you confidence to try the same thing and that’s what I wanted to do with this album. I said to myself, ‘Okay, Anthony; you just turned 30. It’s time for you to be less shy in front of a microphone.’ I’ve never sung as loud before as I have on this album.”
The widescreen, gee-wow monumentality and seductive mirror-ball dazzle of songs like ‘Midnight City’ provided Gonzalez with a songwriting and production challenge “because [my] history is very indie, very post- rock and ambient and cinematic. But I’ve also always been fascinated by pop artists, especially during the ’80s – Tears For Fears, Prefab Sprout, The Thompson Twins – all these bands are a huge influence on this album. It’s my first record where the musical spectrum is so wide and that’s very important to me. Most of the time, people only remember my more cinematic and melancholic songs, but I also want them to remember my pop songs.”
One thing you won’t hear alongside the synths, slap bass, Sindrums and sax solo on ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ is Gonzalez apologizing for romanticizing the ’80s. He’s hopelessly hooked. “I’m in love with the sound of the ’80s,” he enthuses. “I always thought the production then was stunning. It’s very clear and very powerful, with not a lot of elements. Commercial music was better in those days. I’m not saying music is bad nowadays – on the contrary, music is very interesting and a lot of it is very innovative – but if you listen to the radio now, it sounds like shit. If you were listening to radio, you were hearing acts like Blondie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tears For Fears, Talk Talk… there were great songs that were also fantastic and meaningful pieces of art.”
Fantastic songs that are also meaningful pieces of art – for M83, that means instruments played live in the studio, not by a computer, apart from the Pro Tools software he uses for actual recording. He may have been smitten by the impossibly lush, futuristic synths of Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ when he saw him on TV as a kid, but replicating those thrillingly futuristic sounds was never Gonzalez’s aim. “The main idea with this album was to make something in the way that people used to make albums, before computers. Going into a proper studio, taking time to find the right sounds for the guitars…it’s more about crafting.
“Mine is the story of any artist,’ reckons Gonzalez. “I have more experience now, I’m more mature and I have more confidence in my music. This is the first time in my career when, if I have an idea in my head, I can create it in music. It’s something I was never able to do before. I’m a big romantic, especially about music,” he adds. “There’s nothing more beautiful than something well recorded that you can listen to on a good sound system.” Something meaningful – and massive –he might well add.