Float On

M83's gorgeous, synthesized soundscapes arrive from a vacation town in the South of France

I've never hang glided before, but I think I have an idea what it's like. When I was in kindergarten my family lived in Hawaii, on Oahu. Behind our house there was a tall hill, almost a mountain, and on the weekends my folks and I would hike to the top and admire our surroundings: In addition to the sprawling, verdant island and the shiny blue Pacific, we could, from atop this hill, see the house where Magnum, P.I., a show I quite enjoyed, was shot. We could also see hang gliders, lots of 'em. And so, when I took a break from trying to spot Tom Selleck or that guy who played Higgins, I'd turn and watch those loons. I remember they wore funny spandex suits and had to hump their clunky gear up a fair stretch of trail, like superhero ants. But when they finally reached the apex, and waited their turn, and got all hitched up and attached to their big fake wings, they'd get this long running start, sprinting about a hundred feet or so, hurtling toward the edge of the mountain, and then jump -- whoooossshhhh -- and float and float and float.

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.

Great Outdoorsmen: Anthony Gonzalez and 
Nicolas Fromageau are all natural.
Gif Sur Yvette
Great Outdoorsmen: Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau are all natural.

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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.

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