MGMT

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Hol­lie Fer­nando

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.

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