Interview with MGMT: Synth-Pop Kingpins Congratulatory Return

Interview with MGMT: Synth-Pop Kingpins Congratulatory Return

—by , August 12, 2010

One of America’s newest musical sensations has been a humble East Coast quintet that grew out of an absurdist art project at a snootily unappreciative upscale college. It may have taken them a few months to catch on with the masses, but MGMT incredibly made the jump from interesting indie pop apprentices (with an addictive techno edge) to universal dance-pop champions (raised on a diet of Rhythm & Blues, prog-rock, new wave, disco, and, for good measure, ‘60s psychedelia). Theirs is a mind-bending admix of savory musical ingredients, caught in a perpetual quest for the golden chord.

And so it was. MGMT managed to slowly climb to the top and receive a Grammy nomination with the tantalizing Oracular Spectacular, a righteously titled entrée, perfectly in tune with current trends, at least on the vogue surface, but also halfway aspiring for hip cred amongst astute underground pundits. Either way, it was inarguably a mighty first step.

Invigorated by Malibu surf riding and related ‘60s surf culture, MGMT’s next project, Congratulations, doubled the ambition and tripled the compositional complexity. Simply put, it was a riskier pursuit built upon the final far-reaching ideas scattered across Oracular Spectacular’s most daring, least perused, fare.

Born in Columbia, Missouri, before moving to Arlington, Virginia, then Pittsburgh (for an eight-year stint), MGMT co-founder Andrew Van Wyngarden settled in the soulful confines of Memphis, Tennessee, before attending Connecticut’s haughty, Wesleyan University, where he met fellow gifted artisan, Ben Goldwasser. The two would concoct various keyboard-programmed laptop tracks before coming of age.

Growing up alongside New York’s Lake Champlain in nearby Wesport, Ben plays the nerdy, bespectacled brainiac to Andrew’s pretty-boy, rock star profile. Together, the adaptive duo, now living in Brooklyn, would soon become reluctant synth-pop kingpins, buttressing their buoyantly brightened neoteric psychedelic whimsy with a few likeminded pals that would determinedly help fill out the increasingly imaginative arrangements at hand.

MGMT became a full-fledged band when Andrew brought guitarist Hank Sullivant onboard. Hank had performed in various bands while they were both living in Memphis as youths. When he left to form Kuroma, Hank’s pal, Warwick, New York-based drummer, James Richardson, moved over to guitar. Meanwhile, stick-handler Will Berman, who went to Wesleyan with Ben and Andrew and played in a few local Connecticut combos (one which opened for indie rock faves, Of Montreal), joined the crew. Will then got bassist Matthew Asti to enter the fold.

Rounding up prodigal Flaming Lips/ Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann to advance their surrealistic enlightenment for impressive ’08 debut, Oracular Spectacular, MGMT initially caught fire when the ethereal flute-fluttered, percussion-thudded, dance-floor sparkler, “Electric Feel,” gained magnificent mainstream, club and rock approval. That opened the floodgates for two more completely accessible and undeniably charming cuts written and recorded prior to the albums’ release.

Firstly, spiffy ‘live fast/ die young’ anthem “Time To Pretend,” a sweepingly swaggering symphonic slam poking fun of self-destructive celebrity lifestyles, placed flatulent phase-shifting keyboard blurbs atop allusive techno-imbibed machinations with ample success. Better still, vivaciously dippy sing-along enchantment, “Kids,” lovingly imitated Eno’s bold avant-Industrial inventions (especially those consuming David Bowie’s monumental ’77 album, Low).

A recent co-headlining Bamboozle set, May ’10, became a cheery celebration, captivating an anxiously awaiting crowd at dusk (prior to Weezer’s proficient pro-pop pap). Utilizing swirling light schemes, oscillating keyboard swells, glossy guitar grooves, seismic beats, and galactic jaunts to get across their most popular songs, MGMT proved to be one of America’s latest and greatest modern rock finds. Everyone sang along to the pleadingly ascending ‘take only what you need’ chorus of “Kids.” A truly fuckin’ amazing, life affirming moment!

Cagey producer Peter Kember (a.ka. Sonic Boom) of former psych-futurists, Spaceman 3 and active garage-prog plodders, Spectrum, provides the proper rococo, echo-drenched atmospherics to experimental sophomore endeavor, Congratulations. Heady lead track, “It’s Working,” takes mystical adventurers on an enigmatic journey back in time to the Summer Of Love with its radiant, Epicurean flights of fancy, reaching several euphoric climaxes. Crossbreeding Arthur Lee’s Love and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes with Pink Floyd’s Saucerful Of Secrets in an elliptical fashion, the opium-laced magnum opus extensively re-creates the valiant prog-rock scurry of the happily abstruse “4th Dimensional Transition” (from the debut).

Recorded in a Brooklyn apartment, the equally ebullient hook-filled ode to exploratory art-pop brainiac, “Brian Eno,” goes bonkers as a sharp-witted ditty ready to please bubblegum pop admirers as well as fussy avant-rock aficionados. Another wonderful, though less known, British artist gets glorified on carnival organ-doused “Song For Dan Treacy,” an espionage-like whirlwind lauding the Television Personalities guiding light with early REM-styled 6-string jangling. Reminiscent of early Flaming Lips, grandiose three-part opus, “Siberian Breaks,” galvanizes into a mammoth Arctic surf-riding symphony, one step beyond the kaleidoscopic, multi-harmonized illuminations igniting “Flash Delirium” (influenced by the Beach Boys’ Big Sur number, “All I Wanna Do”). Finally, the serenely salutary title track, an entrancing balladic dirge engaging synthesized Eastern mysticism, facetiously sums up the overall contentedness the band found gaining unexpectedly expeditious fame.

Just as Radiohead’s colossal 2000 masterpiece, Kid A, expanded and compounded the bands’ electro-rock abstractions, these clever musical designers have transcended the inceptive investigations bracing Oracular Spectacular by risking it all creating a fascinatingly perplexing follow-up, the recondite Congratulations. Enriching the lavish exuberance of their earliest recordings with curiously elaborate twists and turns, MGMT slyly disguise the juicy melodic intrigue drawing in the incipient pop crowd while handily elevating each broadened arrangement in a meritoriously uncalculated manner that requires careful listening.

MGMT may be overreaching at this point in time, but by overstepping their boundaries a bit, these altruistic spirits have proven to have an uncompromising commitment to the betterment of imminent mimickers. Let’s face it: instant fame leads to immediate imitation. Though MGMT may have lost a couple nascent “Kids” fans in the process of getting headier, they’ve undoubtedly gained the respect of more diligent audiophiles. And that may seem ideal for a band whose future directions are still uncertain to them.

I got to speak to MGMT in person @ High Times Magazine in June. Happily, I spent 3-plus hours with MGMT, acquiring enough cool info for two completely separate articles. Here’s a snippet of our conversation for The Aquarian Weekly.

Both of your albums lead off with sarcastic tracks, snubbing drug-fueled celebrities. Why?

Ben Goldwasser: It’s nice to see the sad human side. We love pop culture. I was raised on it. Maybe we mock out media culture because it’s more productive than getting blatantly pissed off about it and easier to rail against it.

Distinguished cartoon surrealist Anthony Ausgang’s gorgeous front cover artwork for Congratulations depicts a two-headed, piano-eyed, purple feline surfing out of a blue cat’s tongue. Did Malibu surfboarding inspire the CD’s colorful design?

Andrew VanWyngarden: Even when we were writing for the first album, I had a psychedelic surf movie, Morning Of The Earth, in mind. Its soundtrack was soft rock-inspired. That film gave me a look at the ‘60s psychedelic culture and the images that matched up with the psychedelic music of that period. We were imagining ourselves as the cat on the surfboard and the wave is about to crash down. It caused a bit of a stir. Many people thought it was a computer graphic. But it’s really a hand-drawn thing painted into the image. I’m not saying our music is perfect like the art, but we like music that may be deemed awful and cannot be understood. But if you listen a few times, you’ll hopefully start to realize what the musicians are all about.

How’d the West Coast beach culture affect Congratulations in a way that couldn’t be captured had MGMT recorded the album back East in the woodsy upstate New York cabin where the compositions were spawned?

BG: I think it’s funny. When we were talking about writing the album, we mentioned trying to get a surf feel. But we were trying to write in upstate New York. We had some real good stuff. But when we finally got out West, it took away the irony of writing West Coast-inspired rock.

The lyrical twists seem more emotionally compelling on Congratulations.

AVW: It’s a little melancholic. We began right after we got off tour in England. It was wintertime – a post-tour comedown in a way. And there’s all this pressure (to follow up a gold selling debut). We didn’t know what would happen dealing with pressure. We weren’t in an entirely serious mood, but we had uncertainties.

BG: The more simply arranged songs on the first LP, like “Kids,” were our earliest songs. It felt natural to move forward. There was a 14-minute B-side, “Mennanoya,” on the back of “Kind Of Pretending.” But that doesn’t mean it’ll affect our future works.

Mystical balladic venture, “Someone’s Missing,” shrewdly settles into an early ‘70s soul groove.

AVW: That’s an Isley Brothers/ Shuggie Otis-influenced thing. And studio wiz Todd Rundgren. Todd’s production and instrumentation were magical.

BG: Flaming Lips’ Dave Fridmann (Oracular Spectacular’s producer) was a big fan of Todd Rundgren. I think a lot of the cool stuff he does is mixing something that sounds unconventional. The levels are all wrong. And some of the instruments are weird. But he leaves all this stuff in the mix you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to hear. Phil Spector did that.

Was ‘70s Krautrock inspirational for the more proggish instrumental maneuvers?

AVW: We like obvious Krautrock bands like Can, Neu, Cluster. The drummer from Ash Ra Temple – his synthesizer LP’s are really good.

Why was the Television Personalities front man evoked for the carnival organ-doused, guitar-jangled, espionage-like tune, “Song For Dan Treacy”?

AVW: That song was very much inspired by this band, Deep Freeze Mice – an obscure bizarro band from the early ‘80s. That’s where the chromatic chord changes and time signatures were inspired by. But we are now friends with Dan Treacy. We met him at a Spectrum show in Norwich, England. One of the things he said onstage was, ‘Hello London!’ All these people yelled at him so he countered with ‘I’m not in London? What the fuck am I doing in Norwich?’ People were throwing shit at him so that’s the first impression we got of him.

Where’d the quirky ode to genius studio manipulator, “Brian Eno,” come from?

AVW: Musically, I don’t know what that’s inspired by. It was a song that started with a few chords and watered down to ‘Brian Eno.’ He was this wizard living in an Eastern European castle and we go there to find him at this mystical magical place and eventually we try to run away and he chases us off. The song isn’t aping him. It’s taking the piss out of him.

“It’s Working” came across quite good live on Jimmy Fallon’s show in June. On top of what I said about that tune beforehand, it also reminded me of ‘67-era Beatles via Tears For Fear.

BG: That’s fun to play live. The harmonies… Maybe in some way it’s the toughest to do live because we have to get tough vocal harmonies down.

AVW: Jimmy Fallon was a real cool talk show host. He compared the new album to Syd Barrett. He even mentioned the Zombies’ Odyssey & Auricle. He came by the dressing room and made sure we had the mixes in the control room right.

MGMT headline Radio City Music Hall, Aug. 17 and 18. They play Atlantic City’s Borgata Event Center, Aug. 21.

    reader responses
  1. ^Haha That sure as hell was a good laugh “Kind of Pretending”. I’m sure it was intentional on the writers behalf.

    Tea-Time on 8/12/2010 at 07:37 PM 

  2. Hmmm… I don’t know if the interview was recorded and then transcribed or if Ben & Andrew were having a good laugh but it’s ‘Metanoia’ not ‘Mennanoya’ and ‘Time to Pretend ‘ not ‘Kind of Pretending’. Also the Zombies album is actually called ‘Odyssey & Oracle’ not ‘Odyssey & Auricle’, it was a good laugh though. :)

    Anon on 8/12/2010 at 03:45 PM 

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