This is what I think of when I listen to M83.
M83 is a French band -- two guys, Anthony Gonzalez and his friend Nicolas Fromageau -- that makes huge, holy soundscapes out of guitars, synthesizers, drum machines, and voices. Like the group's namesake, a distant spiral galaxy otherwise referred to as the "Southern Pinwheel," its sound is gigantic and complex and stupefying.
Gonzalez and Fromageau are from a little town called Antibes, which is located on the coast in the South of France, not too far from Nice, which is where I spent Thanksgiving 2001, in a diner near the train station, eating greasy pizza with prawns on it -- but never mind that. Apparently Antibes has about 70,000 people in it, and, at least from the photos I've seen on the Internet, it looks like a pretty swell burg, filled with red-roofed houses built into hills that slope up from the Mediterranean. The problem, though, as anyone who's hung out in the South of France and seen the leather-skinned sunbathers, the gaudy tourists, etc., will attest, is that Antibes ain't exactly hip headquarters.
"It's great place," says Gonzalez, speaking by phone in his cute, rough-around-the-edges English. "There's sun all the time, it's always shining, there's a lot of beautiful landscapes, you know? But it's really dead, you know what I mean? There is no concerts, no shows, there is nothing."
When Gonzalez and Fromageau met nearly a decade ago and discovered that they both shared a taste for more than the reggae and pop their neighbors listened to, they formed a fast friendship. The two started a straightforward rock band, with Gonzalez on guitar, Fromageau on drums, and played local pubs. But then, around 2000, the duo started moving toward the sound of krautrock bands like Can and Tangerine Dream, as well as classic shoegazer acts like Spacemen 3 and Mogwai. They bought synthesizers, changed the band's name, and in 2001 recorded their eponymous debut as M83 on an eight-track. Early on, Gonzalez knew there wasn't much point in trying to find an audience for M83's more cerebral music in Antibes. "I was not interested in making myself known in the South of France," he explains. "I was interested in being famous -- not famous, but to be known in Paris."
This happened rather quickly, as Paris' forward-thinking Gooom label signed the act and released its demo shortly after hearing it. A round of European festival appearances followed, culminating in a gig that year at Barcelona's famed electronic music circus, Sonar. Still, the band had yet to reach fans in the United States. In 2002 Gonzalez and Fromageau went back into the studio to record their follow-up.
"The music I love is music with a lot of ambience," Gonzalez explains. "I like to put psychedelic and atmospheric and melancholy together, and maybe turn it into an M83 sound. I like to mix a lot of different points of view, different kinds of music, mix ambient music with rock music. I really can't explain it. I try to be the most original I can."
Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts came out as an import in 2003. I think it was one of last year's best albums, and I'm not alone. The notoriously fickle online music magazine Pitchfork.com gave the record a rare rating of 9.2 out of 10, noting, "[Y]ou don't listen to Dead Cities ..., you inhabit it." This more or less summed up the global critical response. Two guys from a small vacation spot in the South of France famous for its rose gardens and not much else had created a galaxy of an album, something intricate and mysterious, as well suited to meticulous contemplation as it was to simple, lie-back-and-look-up-at-the-stars enjoyment. It took about a year for the virus to spread, but spread it did. Mute Records finally released the record domestically last month, and the band has embarked upon its first-ever U.S. tour.
"I'm a little bit nervous," says the soft-spoken Gonzalez, "but I'm so excited because it's our first time in the United States, it's our first time in big cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles -- it's like a dream. It's really rough for French bands to play in America, so it's a really big chance for us."
One of the things about Dead Cities that makes me think of hang gliding is the way it opens. "Birds" begins with the chatter and chirps of, well, birds, but as the prickly static and warm chords of a synth envelop the sounds, you start to wonder whether the chirps are organic samples of real avian life or just another synth noise. As a computer voice repeats the mantra "Sun is shining, birds are singing, flowers are growing, flowers are looming, and I am flying" amid swirling keyboards, the song crescendos (this is the running-toward-the-edge-of-the-cliff part), falls off, and is quickly swept up by the soaring strings of "Unrecorded." From here on in it's: Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space.
The record undulates, moving like weather between tension and release, chaos and calm. "Run Into Flowers" is a choir of urgent arpeggios singing over swelling drums that push the song toward its climactic buildup, which recedes into the majestically layered organs of the aptly named "Church." "America" is all fireworks, exploding with staccato synth stabs, nervous, frenzied drums, and the refrain "You can buy some chemicals/ I wanna run to you," but the tumult eventually melts into the grand "On a White Lake, Near a Green Mountain," a serene collage of lazy chords and languid beats.
If you're put off by all this talk of synthesizers and drum machines -- instruments often associated with a mechanical, nonhuman aesthetic -- take a deep breath and trust me: This record conveys so much depth it's scary. Throughout, melodies embed themselves within the noise, struggling inside the storms like heartfelt emotions lost in the whiteout of an overclocked brain. The music is challenging at times, and far from anything you might consider pop, but the rewards are worth the effort. My advice is that you get some good headphones and find a cozy place to lie down, then listen: Get a running start and jump right off that cliff; catch a gust of wind and float up; look around; see the ocean from a few thousand feet up, the trees, the beach, the buildings, all of it specks in your field of vision. Float down. Look around. Relax.