The psychedelic duo’s path has always been a little wonky, but after 10 years on the margins they’ve found their way back.
A decade ago, MGMT were the hottest of hot new acts when the world went nuts for their hit, Kids. But the duo weren’t interested in the pop star career path set out for them and instead embarked on a journey through psychedelia’s margins. Now landed back on terra firma, they’ve delivered their most commercial record since the start. But, writes Andrew Perry, MGMT’s road ahead remains wonky…
After five long years off the radar, MGMT are back with a career-rescuing fourth album, called Little Dark Age. The Brooklynite duo’s career path has always been a turbulent one, and now, two songs into an eagerly awaited week-of-release comeback show at the Brixton Electric, they appear to be salvaging defeat from victory’s jaws, in customary fashion. Taking the stage before an excitable sell-out crowd, Andrew VanWyngarden (vocals/guitar) and Ben Goldwasser (keyboards/programming) lead off with two already-fêted tunes from the new record – the sangfroid title track, and the breezy yet pungent When You Die, which in recent weeks have been rubber-stamped with a combined tally of 10 million YouTube views, and which, not coincidentally, each revisit the crisp synth-pop of their much-loved debut, 2007’ s Oracular Spectacular. Back then, MGMT’s Flaming Lips-ily skewed take on the ’ 80s “dodgy synth duo” format had put the world at their feet, after their breakthrough tune, Kids, an infectiously tootling meditation on innocence lost, became perhaps the left-field global smash of the mid- to late-noughties. Fresh out of college, the pair responded to their unforeseen popularity with two “success freak-out” albums, whose scathing abandonment of commercial imperatives seemed to have condemned them to a cult listenership forever more. There followed much seclusion and wound-licking, but their fortunes have now reversed dramatically. At the Electric, Little Dark Age and When You Die are greeted like prodigal sons – as if, in absentia, everyone’s realised that MGMT were important, and worthy of reappraisal, representing a crucial generational demographic within the mainstream. But then it wouldn’t be MGMT if there weren’t a hatful of spanners in the works. The Electric gig is being used as a worldwide unveiling of Little Dark Age, via a live audio-visual stream online, and – guess what? – there are technical problems. Amid the confusion, VanWyngarden, Goldwasser and their three-piece backing combo pace around the stage, and VanWyngarden is soon handed a piece of paper. “Need to reboot system,” he reads, giggling in the face of catastrophe, “takes three minutes – just play your guitar”. The problems persist, and as birdsong chirrups through the PA to fill the silence, the cherubic singer rather acidly notes, “Maybe we shouldn’t’ve sold our soul for this thing!” “Everything was breaking,” a bemused VanWyngarden informs Q afterwards. “The sound board shorted out. My guitar pedals stopped working. We were left standing around, like, ‘This is awkward!’” These were doubtless issues beyond their control, yet there’s still a nagging sense that this alt-hipster odd couple actually welcome the notion of a prestige gig going wrong, and that, ultimately, they’re just too cool for school (aka success). As Goldwasser freely admits, “We’re kind of contrarian people: ‘Oh, you want us to zig? Well, we’re gonna zag!’ We never really like to do what’s expected of us.” And that’s MGMT’s narrative thus far, in a nutshell.
In the posh Berners Tavern restaurant, located in the London Edition hotel, the duo are combatting jet lag with strong coffee, but they make more relaxed company than at any previous point in their career. Now in their mid- 30s, they met right around the time of 9-11, on arrival at Wesleyan College, a liberal further-educational facility in Upstate New York. “Ben and I have been friends since we were 18,” says VanWyngarden, “and the friendship dynamic is always changing, so it can be tense when we get into stuff with the band”. They formed MGMT – or, initially, Management – in their freshman year at Wesleyan, as an irritant pranksterist answer to their peers’ more straightforward rock bands. At their first gigs, they’d wear ridiculous Day-Glo costumes, get wasted and annoy people, but aimed simultaneously to seduce them with “the most ‘pop’ music we could make”. The first song they ever wrote was Kids. After graduating, they toured with psychedelic mavericks Of Montreal, but thereafter VanWyngarden and Goldwasser drifted apart for 18 months, as the latter contemplated a life outside of music. They were only reunited when an A&R at Columbia Records contacted them, enthusing about their long-lost Time To Pretend EP, and offered them a five-album deal. Even then, they were understandably wrong- footed when Kids went supernova. “We never had that luxury of playing in front of bar crowds,” says Goldwasser, “and being a shabby, unrehearsed live band that nobody saw, and having time to build it up from there”. The humungous success of Kids – a piss-take first-time composition, which went platinum in the UK, US, Australia and more – has always been a conflicted issue for its authors. As we broach the subject, the atmosphere is suddenly overtaken by a terrible fart smell, presumably from the neighbouring table of rowdy suits – which seems symbolic, and prompts gales of pointed laughter. “Yeah,” says VanWyngarden, “people have always been saying we have a repulsion at Kids – I mean, the song, not at children in general.” Cue more laughter, and a not-arsed shrug. Perhaps the more spiritually revealing song was Time To Pretend, where VanWyngarden lays out the clichéd rock-star life path – to wit: money, models, heroin, recluse, divorce, early death – with withering distaste. As such, he emerged as a post-millennial refusenik cut of the Bob Dylan/Kurt Cobain cloth – a caustic, out-there, and highly gifted lyricist who nails his subject with corrosive irony. In person, he’s warmer and more engaging than you’d imagine, and, Time To Pretend notwithstanding, he’d make a Grade-A rock star. His disavowal of that eventuality was soon underlined in the title track of their follow-up, 2010’ s Congratulations, which mocked the futility of the success they initially enjoyed. For the album, they enlisted not a man-of-themoment producer who might further their upward trajectory, but Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom, who partnered Jason Pierce in ’ 80s psych-rockers Spacemen 3, before sinking into wilful obscurity and hard drug use. When this writer called Kember about MGMT, pre-release, he actually vomited mid-sentence, then hung up. Under this guru’s tutelage, Congratulations was a mind-bending exercise in underground psychedelia, referencing early-indie outsiders Television Personalities, and Syd Barrett. It certainly wasn’t the stuff of post-millennial radio airplay, and it was duly afforded none. By 2013’ s MGMT, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser co-produced themselves alongside Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), and became yet more insular and oblique. “We didn’t get much guidance from Dave,” says VanWyngarden, “and you can hear the tension in it. We were trying to appeal to a more deep-listening, avant-garde audience – like Animal Collective, or even late-period Radiohead, but people weren’t ready to accept that as being MGMT”. The lyrics, he says, “contemplate the death of the band, and it ends up being OK that it’s dying. I definitely got to a point in 2014-15, where I was like, ‘Maybe that was the last chapter of the band’, and I was OK with that”. While Tame Impala, who’d supported them on an early tour, went to the bank with a not dissimilar aesthetic, MGMT fell into limbo, and to judge from the words to Little Dark Age (the song), their frontman may well have plummeted into something resembling depression. VanWyngarden, who’d been living in what he calls an “acid castle” in trendy
Brooklyn Heights, obviously needed space to rethink. He bought a new place out by Rockaway Beach, Queens – “on the fringe of the city, and you can see the skyline, but it’s totally not New York” – and developed a sideline as an EDM DJ. Goldwasser, meanwhile, by his own admission, had resided in a succession of undesirable neighbourhoods: for three years, he occupied an 18th- floor apartment in Manhattan’s financial district, before moving out to Newark, as his then-girlfriend had a job in New Jersey, and thereafter relocating to the ungentrified Gowanus canal area of Brooklyn. “There was a lot of assisted living there,” he recalls. “On the street, there was a sign on one of the windows saying, ‘My mother has dementia – please stop calling the cops on her!’ I never really wanted to live in New York,” he concludes, “so I think I intentionally made my New York experience depressing”. Always cast as MGMT’s geeky techno boffin, but possessed of a strong refusenik energy of his own, Goldwasser finally broke his un-salubrious habit and moved to Glassell Park, a sleepy suburban area in East Los Angeles, and spent his sunny days refurbishing a 1970s Mercedes and, true to his nature, building a home studio. “We basically put life first, ahead of the music and the band,” summarises VanWyngarden, in a rare moment of flat-out sincerity. “Yeah, so this new one is our pro-life album!” roars Goldwasser, and the two are off giggling once more.
Two days after the Brixton debacle, MGMT are huddled in a small rowboat on the river at Kingston upon Thames, for Q’s photoshoot. They’re due to play their only other UK show on this visit at nearby Kingston College, as an eve-of-release party laid on by local indie store, Banquet Records. Given the freezing temperatures, one might expect the odd hissy fit or long face, but there’s mirth aplenty, as the scraps of pitta we’re using as bait to make the surrounding birds fly soon attract every winged creature for miles around. “No more bread!” cries a joking VanWyngarden, as the duo bail and run, with a herd of swans and geese in pursuit. Stateside circa ’ 16, after spending much-needed time apart, they found that their new bi-coastal geography, far from driving a continent-wide wedge into the band’s core, actually forced them to be organised – even (whisper it!) professional – about scheduling time to work together. For the singer, it was almost vacation-like jetting off to California to work at Goldwasser’s place; for their keyboard wiz, it was good to revisit old haunts back East, during sessions with Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly at his studio inside an old pharmaceutical factory in Williamsburg. Says VanWyngarden, “We realised we needed somebody to be a strong middle man between us, and Patrick did that this time.” Wimberly’s CV includes a credit on 2013’ s Beyoncé and was thus an “easy sell” to their label, who’d been somewhat stand-offish since MGMT tanked. However, any sense that Wimberly was some kind of corporate stooge is scuppered by the fact that he and VanWyngarden often experimented with microdosing LSD, to stimulate creativity. “It felt a lot like the early days at college,” the singer reveals, “working quickly, not over-thinking stuff, taking really simple ideas and going with them – instead of putting all this pressure on the music, that it had to ‘be something’, and that our self-worth was wrapped up in it”. Adds his partner, “We came back round to the idea that it can be rewarding to write songs that are fun and make you wanna dance. We realised that we were the only ones making the rule that says you can’t do that.” Goldwasser had been bingeing on primetime ELO, but they soon found themselves bonding again over extra-obscure ’ 80s synth-pop from the former Eastern Bloc, as well as Japanese proto-techno collective, Yellow Magic Orchestra – enthuses VanWyngarden, “they did these amazing electronic pop songs about modern businessmen, in this sardonic way”. Following YMO’s lead, MGMT’s re-engagement with the
“We’re contrarian people: ‘Oh, you want us to zig? Well, we’re gonna zag!’” Ben Goldwasser
synthesized sound-world comes with apposite lyrical themes, as their ever-thoughtful singer satirises the dominance of contemporary technology in our lives. The album’s opening track, She Works Out Too Much, is, he says, “about feeling old and out of touch talking about social media, and laughing at how awful things have gotten with all that.” In the song, the male character rails at his body-conscious ex’s obsessive online image-tailoring, moaning how he “could never keep up/Sick of liking your selfies”. VanWyngarden says he’s been slow on the uptake with social media himself, rarely visiting the band’s Facebook page, and only recently logging into Instagram. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is what people are doing all the time?’ Then it was like, ‘Oh my god, this is what I’m doing all the time?’ I was like, [ mimes manic smartphone fingerwork]. It’s like a cesspool, a void of meaningless bullshit, but we’re caught up with it like everyone else.” Another key track, TSLAMP – short for “time spent looking at my phone” – shines a light on the emotional repercussions of touch-screen addiction. “Also,” the lyricist worriedly notes, “you’re voluntarily carrying a GPS tracking device and government recorder with you, like taking Big Brother around in your back pocket. It’s kind of nuts.” He pauses disbelievingly. “I guess it’s the most universal thing you could talk about right now.” The reaction at Columbia was ecstatic when their wayward signatories finally delivered a representative successor to Oracular Spectacular. “We’d been like the forgotten children there for a while,” says VanWyngarden, “and they were the parents, going, ‘We’ll support you – just stay up in your room, OK?’ Then we came down, and we’d combed our hair, and we were wearing a decent looking sweatshirt, and they were like, ‘No way! Is that really you?’” Goldwasser warms to the analogy: “We were like, [ bullish tone] ‘Yeah, I’m going out to get a job!’ I’ve got an interview today!” With considerable momentum building, the newly scrubbed-up MGMT may be on the cusp of scoring their biggest hit to date. Faced with another open goal, will these perennial under-achievers finally stick one away?
Onstage at Kingston College, everything is going right for once at an MGMT live show – it’s just a shame there’s only 400- odd people crammed in to witness it. With the gremlins on a night off, you can see so much diversity and colour in MGMT. VanWyngarden sings She Works Out Too Much atop an exercise bike, while TSLAMP is lit up by his flamenco-guitar flourishes, and a rare outing for Flash Delirium off Congratulations conjures a fabulous early-Floydian racket. Fielding encore requests, VanWyngarden smirks: “Did someone say, ‘Anything but Kids’?” They do it anyway, beefing it up into a Blue Monday-style epic. As a live proposition, MGMT have always seemed withdrawn, but they’ve started to emerge from their shell. “We used to just really concentrate on trying to play really tightly together,” reveals VanWyngarden afterwards, “like a depressed Grateful Dead. Now we’re doing it more like an absurd pop performance – like we did when we first started.” Suddenly, the MGMT narrative is characterised by full circles and resolved problems, by a grown-up life balance and fresh impetus. This spring, Ben Goldwasser is getting married to a “grounding influence” outside of music and, for his part, the ever-enigmatic VanWyngarden says that something has “flipped in his brain” where he might even entertain the notion of kids – as in, actual children. As the revitalised duo hit the road supporting an album preoccupied with the detrimental effects of smartphones, you wonder whether they’ll follow the lead of Jack White and Kendrick Lamar in banning their use at MGMT shows. The pair erupt into laughter once more. “I think we want people to acknowledge that it can be a waste of their time, but you’re still allowed to do it,” says VanWyngarden. “If somebody’s spending $ 70 to come see us play, they can do whatever the fuck they want – I don’t care!” With such compromised attitudes, MGMT could go far at last.
“Our friendship dynamic is always changing.” Goldwasser and VanWyngarden (right) face the future.
Stepping out: Ben & Andrew’s excellent adventure begins, 2007.