French sonic adventurer Anthony Gonzalez muses on the lush escapism of the new M83 album, ‘Fantasy’, reflecting on the wonder of teenage dreams, the influence of cinema and suffering for his art

They say that life begins at 40. Anthony Gonzalez might take some convincing of that, though.

The M83 man’s music has always glorified the cult of youth, idealising adolescence with a powerful nostalgic reverie. The further away from teenhood Gonzalez gets – and the further the world slips into a semi-dystopian quagmire – the more he finds it necessary to submerge himself in the fantastical. M83’s ninth studio album, ‘Fantasy’, is doubling down on the need for escapism.

“What I wanted to talk about on this record is actually not about real life,” says Gonzalez, speaking from his native Antibes, in southern France. “I wanted to try and open doors to a fantasy world, where the only thing you talk about is love and dreams, magical creatures and forgotten worlds – where you can lose yourself and forget about the society we live in.”

Clocking in at over an hour, ‘Fantasy’ is a sumptuous feast for the imagination, a dense, layered and daunting record he calls “dangerous” because of its lack of initial concessions to the listener. Be prepared to play it several times before you properly attune.

Usually, by the time artists reach Gonzalez’ age, they’re expected to make “mature” music – whatever that means – but he repudiates such expectations.

“More mature? I don’t feel like I’m more mature,” he laughs. “But then, in a way, maybe this record is a little darker. Maybe it’s more adult, but a very immature adult.”

OK, so if he doesn’t feel more grown-up, then perhaps after all this time, he’s started to feel more comfortable in his own skin?

“Not really,” he replies. “Being in front of a camera is terrifying for me. And this is why I picked a monster mask to represent the album.”

For the uninitiated, Gonzalez appears on the cover of ‘Fantasy’ in a grotesque latex disguise, a confounding presence with extra eyes set into its cheeks and forehead, which are all the better for seeing you with.

“It’s just because I see this side of me that I don’t want to show,” he laments. “To succeed nowadays, you have to be a little bit of an actor and play the game.”

How so? He disdainfully lists the imaginary itinerary of a musician’s day.

“You have to record stories in your living room,” he demurs, referring to updates other bands upload on a regular basis to platforms like TikTok. “I don’t like to be the centre of the world or to feel like I have something interesting to say. I feel like it’s very pretentious, you know? To me, it’s just bullshit. If I could live hidden in a cave, I would do that.”

Gonzalez appears in the video for the lead single, ‘Oceans Niagara’, wearing the mask and a long wig.

Directed by his older brother, film director Yann Gonzalez, he’s seen creepily observing a trio of teenagers who are moving indubitably along to the monster of a track, with its multilayered guitars over a motorik rhythm and the words “beyond adventure” repeated buoyantly throughout. It could have been lifted from a show like ‘Stranger Things’, except for the fact that these young people appear less assured than their actorly counterparts.

“All the kids ever talk about is ‘Stranger Things’,” mutters Gonzalez. “It’s like they think it’s the best thing in the world. I say you can just go and fuck yourself. Just watch some old John Carpenter movies and you’ll understand where it’s coming from.”

If Gonzalez sounds a little negative, it’s possibly because he’s been unwell and is obviously still struggling. He comes across as an emotionally honest and affable chap, even when he’s putting the world to rights, but he’d clearly rather be horizontal with a mug of Lemsip next to the bed, drifting in and out of psychedelic teenage dreams. Aren’t those juvenile years a little overrated?

“I loved every minute,” he counters with enthusiasm. “It was the best time for me, but I probably wouldn’t say the same thing if I was a teenager now. It’s really hard for kids, and I feel truly lucky I was a teenager in the 90s when there weren’t as many options. And, in a way, not having options is fantastic! It was the motor for your imagination.”

For the first time, he’s becoming animated.

“Nowadays, AI computers are making music and videos themselves – no human has to be present for this stuff to be created. How crazy is that? Today, it’s just sad.”

He checks himself for a moment.

“I feel old talking of my hatred of the new world, but that’s kind of what it is.”

Gonzalez splits his time between Antibes and Los Angeles, where he’s had a place for the last decade or so.

‘Fantasy’ was mostly conceived in France and executed in the US, with some inevitable downtime during periods when the pandemic was raging. He sees the record as a gift to fans during a difficult era.

“I cried a lot making it,” he admits. “Recording vocals was such a difficult process. And I think I put a lot of myself into ‘Fantasy’, probably more than ever. I hope people will feel that, but if that’s not the case, then that’s OK.”

Photo: Anouck Bertin

‘Fantasy’ might wear its escapism on its sleeve, but for M83 it was always this way. Formed at the end of the 20th century in Antibes with his school friend Nicolas Fromageau, the band took their name from a spiral galaxy and set out to emulate the post-rock ambitions of groups like Sigur Rós and the sounds of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Perhaps counterintuitively, they started using synthesisers and more or less invented a genre of their own, where synthpop meets shoegaze.

“There’s some kind of innocence that was very pleasing at the time,” says Gonzalez. “Not knowing anything about harmony, about notes, about mixing. Just like, ‘OK, we’re gonna do our best with a few chords on the guitar… let’s record the synths, let’s make an album!’. And maybe with ‘Fantasy’ I wanted to get back to that innocence, but with the skills I have now.”

Gonzalez recently listened to M83’s self-titled debut long-player after years of giving it a wide berth.

“Yeah, I think it’s cool,” he says. “It’s funny to listen to these older records and think about where we were at the time. We were so young and we made everything in my bedroom without knowing exactly what music was. Those first two albums sound fresh. They sound kind of modern.”

The extent of the duo’s collective ambition at the time was to be reviewed by the French music weekly Les Inrockuptibles. Music journalist Bernard Lenoir hosted a radio show affiliated with the publication, which Gonzalez listened to religiously, and which was where he would pick up the sounds that turned him on, mostly from Anglophonic artists such as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Jeff Buckley.

“When Nicolas and I started this group, all we cared about was getting a review in that magazine and winning their approval.”

The band picked up a positive review very quickly, and a driven Gonzalez set his sights higher and higher as he achieved each objective with ease.

“I was just very confident, which does seem crazy to me now,” he says. “How do you get that confidence when you don’t know shit about anything? But that’s what made M83.”

Both M83’s debut album and 2003’s ‘Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts’ are imbued with the haunting quality of Eduard Artemyev’s soundtracks for the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. In a sense, these early M83 records are like negatives of ‘Fantasy’, in that they project a dystopian future while the latter delves back into an idealised past. The process has remained the same though, except that Gonzalez used to work with a partner and now he’s the reluctant cynosure of the project.

Gonzalez’ collaborators on ‘Fantasy’ are all personnel he’s worked with before – singer and keyboardist Kaela Sinclair and multi-instrumentalist Joe Berry, with Justin Meldal-Johnsen producing and Tony Hoffer mixing. He describes the piece as an “indie album” and a “band album”.

“We jammed for a year, just making music every day, and we created an album out of that.”

Covid stalled production for around eight months, with Gonzalez isolating himself during the recording sessions.

“It’s really hard for me to listen to music while I’m making an album,” he says. “The only tracks I listen to are mine – for a long period – because I only want to be influenced by my own imagination. It’s a time when I don’t have any connection with the world. I try to stay away from socials and the white noise – that’s important.”

His almost ascetic approach to making music has undoubtedly paid dividends over the years, culminating a decade ago with a hit – ‘Midnight City’, from 2011’s hugely popular ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ LP. But it wasn’t just the charts that M83 encroached on – the whole hyperreal aesthetic seemed to seep into the wider culture as the 1980s and 90s influence came around again.

Not uncharacteristically, Gonzalez baulked and decided to do something entirely different with 2016’s follow-up album ‘Junk’, inviting an eclectic list of contributors along for the ride, including Beck, Steve Vai and Susanne Sundfør.

“I think when I did ‘Junk’ I was trying to be someone else,” he admits. “But it was intentional, if that makes sense. I wanted to show a different side to myself. I wanted to try new things. I didn’t want to make ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ part two. The goal this time was to stop kidding myself.”

Then, as if admonishing himself for getting ideas above his station, he hisses, “You’re just a fucking indie artist, so just make an indie album”.

Gonzalez admits to a sense of pride that ‘Fantasy’ has no autotune, a device he adds to the litany of things that are wrong with the modern world. I mention ‘Kool Nuit’, an eight-minute sonic epic from the new record that takes in flutes and strings and settles into an electronic groove after a period of Gainsbourg-like eroticism. It might be the best thing he’s ever done. I also suggest the track doesn’t sound much like an indie record.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, backtracking slightly. “It’s very produced. And that’s always the case with my music. I’m just very thorough and I pay so much attention to the details. Probably one of my weaknesses is to overproduce everything I do, but it’s also one of my strengths.”

With M83 always being very visual, does Anthony Gonzalez ever see himself making films?

“No,” he answers emphatically.

He doesn’t need to make films, though. As well as his brother Yann being a writer and director, Gonzalez is friends with Bertrand Mandico, maverick director of 2018’s visually sumptuous ‘The Wild Boys’ and, more pertinently, ‘Temple Of Sorrow’, the 2019 short which features videos from M83’s ‘DSVII’ album in story form.

Both his brother and Mandico have a similar dreamlike aesthetic and a propensity for challenging the mores of France and beyond.

“I’m a big movie lover,” says Gonzalez. “And Yann was a complete freak for film in his teenage years.”

He recalls having his eyes opened as a 12-year-old after seeing the films of Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini – rich with homoerotic imagery – borrowed from the video library by his older brother. These days, the younger Gonzalez says his personal fantasy is to fill his time with guitar and piano playing, improving incrementally, regardless of his success as M83.

When he’s not practising, he watches films by the likes of Yasujirō Ozu, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and David Lynch. And as he’s making music in his studio, he projects silent movies onto the wall – a world away from the supermarket consumerism of streaming.

“I feel extremely lucky to be able to work with Bertrand and my brother,” he says. “To me, they represent a generation of filmmakers who are paying tribute to older 35mm movies. I think we need these kinds of people to fight the Netflix epidemic! If we don’t have warriors like them, then we’re going to start losing track of what made cinema great – the nice colours and film textures, a little bit of passion. To me, film nowadays is very clinical, very sharp and lacking in emotion. You watch the first 10 minutes of the movie and then you switch over.

“When we were renting films from the video club as teenagers, you had to stick with the movie until the end because that was the only option,” he continues. “Maybe if you don’t like it at first, it’ll start to grow on you, and you’ll get this feeling of ‘suffering’. That really interests me about art. Sometimes, it doesn’t come right away and you have to fight for it. You have to suffer a little bit, and it’s the same with music.”

‘Fantasy’ is released by Other Suns

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