MGMT: No time to pretend
Seated in the library of an upmarket hotel, MGMT's Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden are anxious to talk. The Grammy-nominated duo not only single-handedly raised sales of fluoro body paint worldwide, they also brought a whole new genre to pop music -- Space Rock. And they're about to throw it all away.
Their upcoming record, Congratulations, will either garner them a diverse new fan base, or lose them all the support that they've had to date. To use the band's own phrase, it's "challenging". A nine-piece suite (for want of a better word), Congratulations sees MGMT move away from the electro-psych-pop of debut Oracular Spectacular and into pure psych. Think 80s Neil Young, or the farther reaches of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Put it this way, it's not very hummable. We'll let them explain.
"One of mine and Andrew's catchphrases is that it's not a concept album, it's an album concept," begins Goldwasser, before handing the baton over. "It's certainly not easy listening," continues VanWyngarden. "I think that for us, it's not a big deal to make a record that you have to listen to four or five times before you 'get it'. That's the way that we listen to music."
So far, so 'difficult second album'. However, they're not being wilfully obtuse. Goldwasser stresses that "it wasn't as if, when we were recording, that we went 'we're making an album you have to dig deep into', it's what came out of the session. So I figure it's pretty natural that this is what we've ended up with. It wasn't until afterwards that we realised that it's not what people are necessarily expecting from us, and it's not something that kind of blends in inconspicuously with what's going on with pop music at the moment. We're really excited about it, though."
To understand why MGMT have made an incredible volte-face, we need to go back eight years, when they first began to make music together. The pair met while studying at the prestigious Wesleyan University, aged just 19. "Back then we were in college and we had no responsibilities," remembers Goldwasser. "It was just like go to class, party on the weekend, do whatever you want in your spare time. It was definitely a much easier environment to deal with. We felt free." MGMT demoed Kids and Time to Pretend, got signed on the basis of those two tracks, and then released them as part of their debut album. And then toured that album solidly for two years. Understandably enough, they've reached a stage where they've outgrown the singles.
"I can't imagine writing songs like Kids now, it's not how I feel," says Goldwasser. VanWyngarden agrees, "It's difficult sometimes because the general attitude of Kids and Electric Feel and Time to Pretend is from that time when we were in college and everything we were doing was super-ironic and mocking music in a way. And at the time, that represented who we were as a band, sarcastically. It's hard to go and do that for two years, it's hard to play shows where you're singing a song that you're not sincere about."
Do they resent the success of the singles? Goldwasser takes his time, before cautiously answering, "We don't resent how big the singles got, but those are old songs to us. They're old songs that we wrote and still play. For us, it's been a natural progression. We've come a long way and are excited about doing something new. And I think it's been difficult to come to terms with the fact that there are people still discovering our band based on the songs we wrote many years ago.
"It's a little bit like someone finding a photo of you when you were 16, and saying, 'I really like how you looked then' and you going, 'But I'm 28 now. This is what I look like now'. Sometimes we joke about that, how we're past our prime and how someone should have 'found' us eight years ago."
The two years on tour were intense. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden encountered musical heroes and scenes that they're not sure they wanted to encounter. "I don't know if we were douchebags, but we were in self-destruct mode, not taking anything seriously to the point of not caring, and I think we got into that a little bit too much," says Goldwasser. He admits that, for a moment, they became the ridiculous rock stars that they mocked on Time to Pretend. "It was the kind of thing where we were joking about it the whole time, and then all of a sudden, we were like 'Oh, wow, we are living this life, and it's not funny. We've totally lost track of who we are. We need to get a grip.'"
In a way, though, the 'lost' year, was a catalyst. "For this album to be made though, I think that we had to go there to come back. This album feels far more like a statement about who we are now than the last album did when we made it."
On Congratulations, sincerity is the order of the day. Despite hosting both a 12 minute-long song (it's called Siberian Lake and it's mental) and a paean to Television Personalities lead singer Dan Treacy, it's not inscrutable. In fact, argues VanWyngarden, it's the most open record they've made so far.
"It's hard for us to be kind of naked at times on the record, and not try to like cover it up with 2,000 things. We tried to leave some open moments. Lyrically, it's more direct, and some of it is talking about real people. I don't think we're taking ourselves more seriously, but we're not 19-year-olds constantly taking mushrooms and spraying ourselves with fluorescent paint and running around in the woods."
The new direction is not a self-indulgent mission, or one aimed entirely at the music press. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden want to use this new record to reach past the scenesters and hacks who jumped on the bandwagon, and instead go to heartland America, and find new fans.
"I think that kind of early on, for some reason, we got tagged by the fashion world," says Goldwasser. "Most of the shows we play are in big cities, but I hope we reach more people in the middle of nowhere.
"I remember growing up in the country and hearing some college radio station play some really weird music, and I was like, 'What the fuck, how can anybody be doing that?' It's so important to reach people who are isolated and wishing that there was something else out there." VanWyngarden interrupts, "we feel a responsibility towards our fans. For me, I feel like I want to show them what's cool and what they can do. I like the fans that are like the weirdos in their school, that are kind of like the freaky kids. Making the album, Congratulations, after the first record, hopefully will kind of -- I don't want to sound egotistical -- blow some kids' minds in a way. I want them to be like 'what the fuck am I hearing? I didn't know you were allowed do that'."
VanWyngarden leans in, conspiratorially, "we've had this goal from the beginning -- maybe it was more of a joke then because we never thought it would be possible -- but it was to get as famous, as into the mainstream as we could, because we weren't going to sell our souls, somehow do that honestly, and once we had people's attention, expose them to bizarreness, in a way. That's our goal."
Congratulations is out on April 9