For most of us, our teenage years were an awkward time full of embarrassing moments we'd rather forget. For M83's chief star-gazer Anthony Gonzalez, however, his adolescence turned out to be the most important period of his life, one he looks back upon with great affection. Now, he's made it the defining theme of his enchanting new album, Saturdays=Youth.
"I loved being a teenager," says Gonzalez, who, at 26, only stopped being one seven years ago. "That's when I discovered music and started to take drugs and make parties with my friends. I really started to discover new things. Nowadays I would like to be a teenager again."
The idea of youth – wasted, gilded or otherwise – has featured prominently in M83's music. From early fumblings like "At The Party" on 2001's self-titled debut to the bliss-fuzz of "Teen Angst" from 2005's breakthrough album Before The Dawn Heals Us, the French producer's dramatic space-rock tends to evoke the innocence and wonder of this hormonally charged time. But Saturdays=Youth is his most explicit celebration yet of how it feels to be dazed, confused and 15 years old. "Saturday is definitely the coolest day of the week for a teenager and that's the reason Saturday is in the title," he says, as if it needed explaining. "Saturday always reminds everyone of their youth."
The record marks a change in a friendlier, pop-shaped direction for M83. After touring Before The Dawn Heals Us around the US with his band for much of 2005, Gonzalez decided to give the noisy rock side of things a rest. "Those live shows were heavily electronic and electric at the same time, so it was intense," he says from his home in Antibes in the south of France. "I wanted to do something soft and quiet that was quite different from my previous record."
In 2006, Gonzalez started work in his home studio on material that would become Digital Shades Volume 1 and Saturdays=Youth. The former, a collection of ornate ambient pieces, was released with little fanfare to critical acclaim last October, whetting appetites for M83's fifth album. But fans expecting more of the same would be disappointed – Gonzalez already knew what he wanted to do with Saturdays=Youth: "I wanted to make the record sound really Eighties."
He succeeded, of course. If the doomy synthetic romance of his earlier work hinted at a fetish for Eighties goth staples such as Sisters of Mercy and the Cure, this album's chiming astro-pop finds Gonzalez taking a stroll on the sunnier side of the decade. Serene numbers such as "Kim and Jessie", "Graveyard Girl" and "Up!" are haunted by Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins. The dulcet female voice on the album belongs to Morgan Kibby, singer in an LA band called the Romanovs. Gonzalez was introduced to Kibby by his film-director friend Eva Husson, for whose forthcoming feature, Tiny Dancer, he has composed the soundtrack. "I went to Morgan's MySpace page and I got a crush on her voice – it's very soft and clear. So I asked her to sing on my record," he says. "You can hear that she has Eighties influences as well – this record is all about Eighties influences."
He's serious, too. The red-haired Molly Ringwald lookalike on the sleeve? That's intentional. Gonzalez says his main influences for the album are English bands like Tears For Fears and Cocteau Twins, as well as classic John Hughes teen movies such as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. "On this record I wanted to have the feeling of a teenager mixed with this period of the Eighties," he says. "I also wanted 11 different-sounding songs on the record – none of the songs sound the same."
That might be true, but they each sound distinctly, unmistakeably M83. With its jagged
Simple Minds riffs and punk-funk breakdown, nine-minute slow-burner "Couleurs", the first single, is an epic slab of emotional Balearic disco. Sombre closer "Midnight Souls Still Remain" could have slipped off Angelo Badalamenti's score for David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Dream-drone stunner "Highway Of Endless Dreams" should give Kevin Shields cause for concern, while digital kiss "We Own the Sky" distils the essence of Slowdive into five minutes. Best of all is "Kim and Jessie", the first proper M83 pop song. "A lot of people always tell me that M83 is always about melancholy music, so I wanted to write something happy with hooks, a bit kitsch," he says. "The lyrics are about two teenage girls having a drug experience."
Producers Ken Thomas and Ewan Pearson assisted Gonzalez with the sound of Saturdays=Youth. He'd not worked with a producer before but, wanting to explore new techniques, chose the veteran Thomas for his ability to give the music that particular, 'big’ sound: "I just told him that I wanted it to sound like an Eighties band with a lot of reverb." Thomas has produced albums by Sigur Ros and Clinic, and cut his teeth on outré acts like Psychic TV and Alien Sex Fiend more than 20 years ago. For this album, Gonzalez recorded away from home for the first time, setting up base in Rockfield Studios in south Wales for a week or so. Making music under pressure proved to be a rewarding experience. "It was the perfect place to work, so peaceful in the country."
Meanwhile, Berlin-based British dance producer Ewan Pearson, who's overseen recent LPs by Tracey Thorn and the Rapture, gave M83 a smooth, modern edge. "The idea was to have the sound of the Eighties and at the same time have the sound of nowadays," says Gonzalez. "But what I really like about this album is that it sounds like nothing that's around now. Nothing has the same ambience." Having taken a couple of years off from touring, Gonzalez is looking forward to getting M83 back on the road and playing these new songs live. "What's cool now is that with all the M83 records there are a lot of different kinds of songs and atmospheres. I can't wait to play everything live, especially the new record." That promises to be quite a show. In the meantime, we have Saturdays=Youth to savour.