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Anthony Gonzalez of M83 is finding his place

When Anthony Gonzalez moved to Los Angeles two years ago, his to-do list had one big item at the top: Drive alone to the desert, write some music and ponder his place in the universe.

The French producer, who records electronic rock as M83, knew that the trek to Joshua Tree for inspiration was kind of a cliché. But as a newly minted Angeleno who had named his band after the Messier 83 galaxy, he couldn’t miss a chance for some indigenous star-gazing.

“You just drive for an hour, and it’s like being in a sci-fi movie out there, which was perfect for the kind of music I make,” Gonzalez said, leaning back in a chair in his airy Hollywood apartment. His living room window overlooks a gas station and a wan doughnut shop, but for the moment, his mind wandered back to those arid moonscapes. “Coming here, I felt like I was born for the second time.”

That sojourn yielded many of the moody instrumental interludes that connect the singles on M83’s newest album, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” In 2011, Gonzalez’s decade-long career had a stunning rebirth, one that’s dramatically changed his place in the pop stratosphere. In the last year, he’s become a major international artist, selling out two dates at the 2,300-capacity Club Nokia on Thursday and Friday, landing a top billing at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival, and seeing his single, “Midnight City,” deemed the best of 2011 by the king-making music site Pitchfork.

For a producer long entranced by the stars, now he has to grapple with becoming one himself.

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The slight, sweetly deferrent 31-year-old composes his foggy synth-rock in a loft full of Nerf machine guns, stacks of Japanese manga and a skate ramp in the garage (which, he confirmed, he avails himself of regularly). Upstairs is a trophy room of vintage keyboards hooked to a computer rig. His coffee table is barely visible beneath books on the avant-garde restaurant elBulli and the history of krautrock, and his walls are decked in framed posters of beloved ‘80s movies “Say Anything” and “The Breakfast Club.”

It’s a space representative of his sound. M83’s music is a mix of Brian Eno’s wandering synth experiments (in 2009, Gonzalez performed at Disney Hall with members of the L.A. Phil), druggy Pink Floyd-ian rock and unabashedly emotional melodies. Gonzalez’s music is technically fussy but openly sentimental and difficult to place in dance-heavy, contemporary electronica or guitar-based rock.

M83 released its first album as a duo in 2001, and after its second album in 2003, Gonzalez took sole control of the band.

He had made five full-length albums in his hometown of Antibes, and even though he toured extensively, the south of France felt stifling and unchallenging. After plenty of tours through L.A. (M83’s touring keyboardist Morgan Kibby, of the band White Sea, had long lived here), he packed and decamped to Hollywood.

“I was stuck in a certain way of life and wanted to do something for myself,” he said. “I needed to put myself in a bit of danger. I’m already feeling very stupid from not speaking much French anymore. I have to read French books to remember it.”

But the move served him well professionally, allowing him to work with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (who has produced and performed with Beck, Air and Nine Inch Nails) and record “Hurry Up” in acclaimed local studios like Sound Factory and Sunset Sound. The album, 23 tracks (replete with a precocious child’s spoken-word monologue about a magic frog) that fills two LPs, was an unlikely indie hit out of the gate. It sold nearly 60,000 copies in the U.S. on the independent Mute label, propelled largely by the single “Midnight City,” a keyboard vamp that’s fist pumping and dreamily ruminative.

L.A.'s car culture proved a ready metaphor for the song’s prominent vocal hook. “Waiting for a ride in the dark / Drinking in the lights” purposefully evokes pealing through downtown L.A.'s freeways, surrounded by glassy skyscrapers in the dead of night. “When I was 18, the first thing I did was go and get my license. My friends and I would just drive and drive all over the south of France, listening to music and talking,” he said. "[Driving] is the best way to listen to music. The songs move at the same speed as the scenery. ‘Midnight City’ is a tribute to that.” The song’s video has more than 3 million views on YouTube.

Now that Gonzalez has something of a hit single, he’s had to learn how to become something of a rock star. For most of his career, he’s performed behind a huge synthesizer bank or whispering vocals through a fog of effects. Even after touring with arena acts like the Killers and Depeche Mode, and as his own shows escalated into large theaters, he’s still learning how to be a frontman.

On the eve of his Nokia shows, the prospect terrified him. “Even talking about it is freaking me out,” he said. “When we toured with Depeche Mode, I’d watch Dave Gahan sing perfectly every night. I’ll never be a real singer, I’m always pitchy and never comfortable. But I love it so much, and I guessed that if I felt emotional while doing it, other people would feel the same way.”

M83’s sound has certainly moved those looking for an epic soundtrack for their work. Its early single “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” was used in a popular Pontiac campaign (the song’s rushing synths were a natural fit, even if its lyrics about burning to death in a car crash were less so), and he’s been widely licensed in television and video games. Gonzalez recently landed an agent for booking film scores.

For now, his life is exactly what his teenage self might have fantasized about while cruising along the Mediterranean coast taking in Kraftwerk or My Bloody Valentine. Gonzalez confesses that he’s obsessed with evoking that youth through his music.

But now he has the responsibilities of maintaining an escalating career, and no indoor skate ramps or sold-out theater shows will ever fully recapture his teen idyll that’s inspired so much of his writing.

But then, those are the kind of things you go out to the empty desert to think about.

“It’s so scary to grow up. I’m really scared of dying, and I’ve found it more innocent and sincere to talk about my teenage years,” he said. “It’s easiest for me to fall asleep remembering memories of being a kid. But I have to try and be less nostalgic. I have to be myself now.”

august.brown@latimes.com


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