Blast from the Past

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    It’s hard to think of a more appropriate day to speak with M83’s Anthony Gonzalez than Halloween, that day of dressing up and nostalgia for the safe suburban trick-or-treats of yesteryear, E.T. and all the rest.

    The French group’s most recent album, Saturdays = Youth, offers an aural and visual mash-note to such touchstones of 1980s adolescence, with the singles “Graveyard Girl” and “Kim & Jessie” conjuring up the soundtracks to John Hughes films and their progeny, Donnie Darko.

    “Tears for Fears and Cocteau Twins are a big, big influence for me on this album,” Gonzalez says, in his thick French accent. With its nods to the era’s creamy synths and gated Phil Collins-style drums, “it’s a tribute to my teenage years as well, and a tribute to the movies of John Hughes from the ‘80s.”

    Gonzalez speaks from Madrid, where he’s preparing for a Halloween-night show. The current tour, which brings him to Webster Hall on Nov. 14, is a surprisingly stripped-down affair, he says. “This is a four-piece band, but with no lights and no live video and stuff like that—it’s just simply the songs played live,” he says. “A lot of people expect more from M83 for the light shows, but it’s difficult for us because we really don’t have a lot of money to try something more ambitious.”

    M83’s music, though, has never been anything less than ambitious, starting with the group’s 2001 debut as an experimental shoegaze-influenced synth duo. Since then, M83 has steadily moved towards a pop sensibility, with the 2003 breakthrough Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts marking the departure of collaborator Nicolas Fromageau, and Before the Dawn Heals Us introducing more accessible songs and airy vocals.

    Gonzalez took a cinematic side trip into ambient Eno territory with 2007’s Digital Shades, Vol. 1, but Saturdays = Youth aims straight for the hooks. “Kim & Jessie” is the most finger-snapping of the bunch, especially in the candy-coated music video comprising choreographed roller-skating teens in matching outfits. (Like many of M83’s videos, its fetishized young waifs are vaguely discomfiting, like a creepy American Apparel ad.)

    If M83 seems to have surgically removed the more esoteric, atmospheric elements that dominated earlier albums, Gonzalez’s penchant for long tracks—especially simple, endlessly repeated progressions—remains intact. “I’m a big fan of psychedelic music and I love long tracks. This is what I like the most in music,” he says, citing Kraftwerk and other German groups of the 1970s. “It’s definitely a part of myself.”

    “I think that some of my songs are like circles, so you’re getting in the circle and listening to the song that’s continued over and over,” he adds. “It’s hard to explain that in English, it’s very difficult for me at this time. But I like the way it’s like a drug: You’re getting in something, and it continues over and over. And after, you don’t really listen to the end of the song, because it’s already here, you know?”

    Although his nine-minute pop songs can initially frustrate, that circularity helps elevate Saturdays = Youth above its competitors in nostalgia. Instead of the cloying 1980s pastiches that have saturated music and fashion in recent years, M83 offers a more sonically adventurous and contemporary fever-dream of the past, thanks in part to the pairing of veteran producer Ken Thomas and Berlin-based dance producer Ewan Pearson.

    Even so, the album isn’t entirely successful: Some moments, such as a female voiceover that ends with “I’m only 15, and I already feel too old to live” are truly cringe worthy. And within the album’s poppier context, the lengthy minimalist instrumental closer “Midnight Souls Still Remain” seems unbearably masturbatory, even though the similar finale to Before the Dawn Heals Us can provoke an almost holy awe.

    Saturdays = Youth seems likely to alienate as many old fans as it gains in new ones. But listeners all along that spectrum will appreciate that Mute Records is reissuing M83’s entire back catalog on vinyl, due Nov. 25. “I think it’s a good idea, especially for this kind of music,” Gonzalez says with enthusiasm. “It sounds really good on vinyl. I think this is a good way to hear my records.”

    -- M83 Nov. 14, Webster Hall, 125 E. 11th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), 212-353-1600; 7, $20. --