Monday, April 04, 2005

M83; Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Here's the M83 interview I just did. Hooray for positive feedback.

I want to swoon. I want to run around, color marker in hand, and have the biggest, bestest rock band sign my sweaty copy of Tiger Beat. Would I—could I even—do this for Anthony Gonzalez of M83?

Alas! the cult of the rock star has diminished. The best bands are not the biggest, nor are they in Tiger Beat.

In March 29’s underwhelming “Noise from Underground: Pop Criticism and Cred in the Era of MP3s, Zines, and Blogs,” the panel discussed the effects of technology on music journalism, addressing the field’s “democratization” (often mispronounced by the esteemed panelists). Anyone, regardless of talent or experience, has a voice, and often the untainted voice is the one most appealing.

Musicianship has been similarly democratized: anyone with the proper software can make music. And the results are striking, with Fennesz’s Endless Summer and Manitoba’s Up in Flames consistently besting traditional rock albums in style and personality. M83’s recent Before the Dawn Heals Us is such a work.

Anthony Gonzalez of M83 is by no means an anonymous laptop artist. Although his band’s instrumentation and texture puts M83 alongside the aforementioned bands, in fact, as Gonzalez notes, “For myself, I prefer acoustic instruments. I don’t like to work on laptop music.”

Yet M83, like a laptop artist, deconstructs the rock star image. Gonzalez notes the relative technical simplicity of producing an album: “You just need to have an 8 track recorder and a computer and a keyboard. You don’t need a lot of things,” And when asked of his musical training, Gonzalez replied defiantly, “No, no, no, no. I learned to play guitar, and after that I learned by myself. I don’t need to be a very good musician to make the music I make.”

Even without musicianship, M83 has released two outstanding albums and an above-average EP, the most recent of which is January’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. That album felt like falling, with alternating moments of weightlessness and self-consciousness, of fear, of ecstasy, and of pain. And although Gonzalez hardly skimps on the synthesizers, there is a marked emphasis on live guitar.

Most strikingly, M83’s music has extreme visual dimensions and suggests intensely melodramatic self-created stories. Gonzalez explains, “When I’m composing music, I’ve got a lot of pictures in my head. Like landscapes or whatever you want.”

Specifically for Before the Dawn Heals Us, Gonzlaez explains, “I wanted to create a record which maybe tells a story, with a beginning a middle and an end. Something like a movie. You can imagine all the pictures you want and all the stories you want.”

But for all its worth, Before the Dawn Heals Us sounded like the nighttime continuation of 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. This is hardly surprising: take the Strokes for an example. The difference for M83 is that between albums it lost half of its membership.

Anthony Gonzalez met Nicholas Fromageau in high school. As Gonzalez recalls, “I started making music maybe when I was 13. I learned to play guitar, and so when I was 14 I started 2 of my own rock and roll bands. I met Nicholas when I was 15 and we started to play together and after I began to buy electronic [music], I started the project M83.”

After about a decade of collaboration, Fromageau left M83, because as Gonzalez explains, “He wanted to create his own project and write his own music. And for myself, I wanted to work alone too. It’s not because of a musical misunderstanding.”

But from the sound of the two albums, it’s almost impossible to notice the loss of Fromageau. And although Gonzalez justifies the consistency, saying, “I composed the music, and Nicholas gave me advice,” a line-up change of such magnitude should produce honest change. No matter how much Van Halen was Eddie’s project, it wasn’t the same without David Lee Roth.

Herein lies a current limitation of the genre. If we can’t even trust the identities of our musical heroes, how can we put faith in their good works?

M83 is now testing another limitation of electronic music: the live show. Last month, samplers/soul guitarists Ratatat demonstrated this difficulty at the Knitting Factory. Despite stunning guitar work, it was hard to ignore the fact that most of the work was being done by tapes.

Conscious of this hurdle, Gonzalez transforms M83 into a full-out rock band, playing guitar with a live backup. He has been doing so since February, when he embarked on French and then British tours. Now, M83 is coming to the United States, with two shows at the Bowery Ballroom.
To date, lineup and technical limitations have failed to significantly hurt M83. And why should they? Even without a hero’s welcome, Anthony Gonzalez writes a great epic. New Yorkers line up, and keep your fanzines handy.


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