“Everything is not OK”: An interview with MGMT
In the cover story from our new Fall 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, A.J. Samuels finds out if psych-songsmiths MGMT have burned the bridge back to sanity—and pop—by entering a world of darkness and electronics with their third, self-titled LP. All photos by Miguel Villalobos. Above left to right: Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser
Working-class clout has appeared at the heart of the Anglo-American conception of authenticity ever since the late seventies, when narratives of pop music’s blue-collar roots became a kind of common knowledge and the terms “middle class” and “suburban” became epithets. And while a far greater number of American bands have emerged from the ’burbs, most have immortalized their upbringings as boring, dysfunctional, or authoritarian. Not so MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. Thrust into the limelight in 2008 with their debut LP Oracular Spectacular, the duo’s retrospective soundtrack to an unburdened childhood reserved its few dark moments to describe the approaching specter of adulthood. Five years and one commercial failure later, their self-titled third LP initially picks up where their last album—the Sonic Boom-produced Congratulations—left off. Which is not a bad thing. However, MGMT’s marked Side B moves beyond clever forays into psychedelic pop to a place more disorienting. There, amidst radical deconstructions and Teo Macero-like edits, lurks an experimental spirit that was once fodder for the band’s jokes as prankster students of Anthony Braxton, Ron Kuivila and Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University. The tables have turned, and now the past is as dark as the future. Or in the words of Ben Goldwasser, “Everything is not OK.”
One of the strangest MGMT interviews I’ve seen was Andrew talking to Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre in a fifty-minute ramble-a-thon in Newcombe’s living room in Berlin. Newcombe did most of the talking.
Ben Goldwasser: Whoa, when was that from?
It was the night before your show in Berlin in 2010. It’s like a long, awkward chess match of non sequiturs. You can watch it on YouTube.
BG: I’ve never seen that! We were hanging out with Will Carruthers from Spectrum and Spacemen 3, and I know he’s a friend of Anton’s, but I had no idea that took place.
Andrew VanWyngarden: Yeah, well, Anton’s a pretty far out dude. His girlfriend was in the 8mm Bar, which we happened to pass by, and she came over and was like, “You want to come upstairs to meet Anton?” and so I followed her. His apartment is pretty crazy—I guess you can see it in the video. A lot of cigarette butts everywhere, and guitars too. I’d seen Dig!, and I had met him already at the Accelerator Festival in Stockholm and was aware of his demeanor that’s kind of shape shifting and a little bit wild or something. I had been out to dinner with my ex-girlfriend and then we went to that bar. I actually kind of forgot it happened.
I was at the show the night after and that was the first time I’d seen you live. I remember having the impression that you somehow wanted to break free from the crowd’s expectations but you couldn’t. You seemed almost despondent onstage…
AVW: I broke up with my ex-girlfriend the day of that show. It was very dramatic and awful. I literally bought her a ticket home and then walked onstage, so I think there was some weird emotional stuff happening. But also touring for Congratulations was totally draining because in interviews we had to defend ourselves and justify our music for some reason. Live it made us feel self-conscious, and we closed up a little bit. Berlin was the tail end of that. The shows this year, however, have been completely different. I still feel anxious onstage, and I wish I could just open up and be free, but I think the lyrics and music for the new album is just so personal and writing it was, well, let’s just say that I find the best thing about the music that Ben and I make is that it’s a result of a very special combination of our two personalities. We’re not prolific. We don’t produce a lot. So whatever comes out are like the little, condensed versions of our lives at that time. It means that the music is very personal and watching crowds who aren’t connecting with it or feeding off of it can be strange.
The crowd at the show was incredibly young. What do you think of the youthfulness of your audience?
AVW: We get handwritten notes and fan art, and it’s very clear that people have gone as deep into it as one could go and found their own meaning in it, and that’s really satisfying for us—especially when it’s teenagers and young kids in high school going through whatever they’re going through. I did that a lot with bands in high school—Talking Heads was one, The Grateful Dead . . . I actually never got to see a Dead show, but they played in ’94 in Memphis where I grew up, which was a year before Jerry died. I was only eleven, but I had gotten into them because of my sister. I was also very into Phish in high school, and what was cool about that was finding a lot of music and other bands in listening to them and their covers. I actually got into the Velvet Underground through Phish, believe it or not. The same goes for The Pixies and Pavement. All these bands they would randomly cover. But when I got to college and I met Ben and we were exchanging music, there was this exponential growth of different music we were listening to.
You both went to Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college in Connecticut, which has a reputation for fostering an eclectic musical community including people like Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier, André Vida, Le1f, Das Racist and Amanda Palmer. How important was that for your musical development?
BG: Very important. The thing is, we’re not “cool” people. I grew up in the country and had no real sense of pop culture in the way that the kids I met at college did. I met all these kids who grew up in New York City and who knew about cool underground bands and all that. I didn’t know a ton of stuff, but there was a college radio station I would listen to from Burlington, Vermont, and I had a couple of relatives who would send me mixtapes. But that’s about all I got as for exposure to cool music. A lot of it was just figuring it out on my own, and once the Internet became a place where you could actually find things, it opened up all sorts of doors. At that time it was before a lot of music blogs even existed, so it was always about going on allmusic.com and reading about a band and clicking on the links. That was pretty much how I found out about everything that I knew. There was never a scene I ever belonged to. On the other hand when I got to Wesleyan, my focus soon became experimental music. Ron Kuivila was my adviser, and he does a lot with computer music, programming and synthesis. There’s quite a rich history of that at Wesleyan. John Cage was involved there; David Tudor had his collection of electronic instruments there. I would say that both Andrew and I have learned quite a bit about that approach, although it’s not something that really gets discussed by the press at all. I think we got a lot out of just trying to understand how varied people’s approaches to music have been, many of which are by some people’s standards totally unlistenable, but still really interesting. That’s stuck with us.
There’s a long history of middle-class suburban rockers in America, but when it comes to singing about suburbia it mostly gets shit on as being uncool, inauthentic, or neurotic. But you guys seem in contrast to have embraced it. For better or worse, there was no pretending about who you were or where you’re from.
AVW: We’ve never denied any part of our upbringing to further any concept of authenticity. Our group of friends at Wesleyan were really into drinking milkshakes and going to the mall and exploring roadside attractions in Connecticut. It was a very American, not big-city style of living. And those were experiences that made life at college special. In terms of music at Wesleyan, I actually took Anthony Braxton’s “Large Ensemble” course twice without really being able to read music, but it didn’t really matter. I remember his scores were interesting because he actually couldn’t even read a lot of them because the time signatures would be like 9/16 or something extremely hard to play on the fly. But the class was amazing because a lot of the time he would go off on these incredible tangents channeling some other stuff. Often he’d end up just talking about pop culture or Alien vs. Predator or Britney Spears. And then he’d interrupt himself and go, “What am I saying? What am I saying?” It was amazing just to observe him, even if I wasn’t properly playing music. But we did play a few of his experimental operas, together with Daniela Gesundheit. who has a really amazing voice. Sam Hillmer of Zs was also there, as was Mary Halverson, who is an incredible guitarist.
So experimental music has been an important influence for you both?
AVG: Yeah, the scene at Wesleyan was pretty big, and it certainly influenced us, but in a way where we would be in these classes and, well, sometimes it would be really cool and other times it would just get really painful about how academic the approach would be. It was so much more of the concept over anything else. That’s why our early shows and approaches to live performance were drawing on experimentation in sort of a tongue-in-cheek way—a parody almost. We would go to concerts that were stuffy and pretentious, and our way of handling that was to be as stupid as possible. But at the same time it was formative to go through that experience with Ben, taking classes on Well Tempered Clavier or with Alvin Lucier.
BG: Experimental music for us is about throwing good taste out the window and seeing how taste is a construction. Music can be all these other things. Right now I personally am fascinated by the idea of taste and playing around with that, poking fun at it or challenging what good taste is. You have to get wet, you can’t just say, “I am above taste. It doesn’t affect me.” I’m sure it affected John Cage, too.
That kind of reminds me of the schizophrenic song shifts in “Siberian Breaks” off Congratulations, a good chunk of which sounds like a recontextualized Carly Simon. It’s interesting how something that’s been relegated to adult contemporary limbo can regain relevance through someone else’s filter—like you guys or even through Ariel Pink, or the reemergence of new-age influences over the past six or seven years. It seems that music doesn’t have to appear “important” to contribute to some kind of evolution.
BG: It’s funny that there are these standards of what is pop music and what isn’t. I actually almost got into an argument with a journalist over it because he was trying to get me to talk about why MGMT suddenly decided not to make pop music anymore. No! We’re making pop music! Who gets to decide who’s making pop music and who’s not? I also think it’s funny, the whole idea of really pretentious people reading blogs and finding these things that nobody knows about and then as soon as people find out about it, it suddenly becomes not cool anymore. That’s just ridiculous to me. I think it’s important to stay above it in a way, but still not to be too good for it.
You never felt possessive about music that you were one of the few who liked or knew about and that then blew up?
BG: I felt like that when I was younger, but I grew out of it. Now I get excited if there’s a band I knew about five years ago who I thought nobody cared about and I felt like a dork for listening to. Then I go to some bar in Brooklyn and hear it on a stereo and people get really excited about it. It’s great that people are listening to this great music. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. But New York is a place that can be kind of unforgiving and saturated with bands, and I understand where the cynicism comes from. There are so many things I don’t give a chance just because they’re hyped up. I think a lot of musicians I talk to these days are way too concerned with the commercial side of things and how to market themselves when they should just be making music and not be worrying about outside influences and what people think of what they’re doing. Especially since Congratulations and all the backlash from people who thought we were one thing and they were wrong, we’ve just kind of learned to not try to explain ourselves too much or to correct people. It’s pop music. It’s pop culture. It’s a stupid world in a lot of ways but it’s still fun to be a part of and deconstruct.
How did your beginnings as a DIY Karaoke band covering other people’s music shape the way you understand how to compose—or how to deconstruct?
AV: I think covering other bands has been extremely important and actually kind of the main theme of the second record, too. Congratulations was in large part an attempt to get into the heads of some of our favorite artists and musicians. And a lot of those people who were the main influences were the guys who were in groups who had some recognition in the sixties and then went off and made their own loner, weirdo solo records, like Skip Spence and Mayo Thompson. I’ve always been drawn to one-off solo ventures. And that’s the side of music we were trying to empathize with on the last record. But it was a really good idea covering-wise to just make music and not think too much about it.
During the making of Congratulations you did a whole joke series of Eno’s Oblique Strategies—his aphorism card deck meant to help artists to get beyond creative block. You titled your faux version Obtuse Strategies and supposedly the first one was “Go fuck yourself”—you’ve also named a song after him.
BG: If anything, “Brian Eno” is a friendly song. We love Brian Eno, but it’s fun to have a joke song about him just because so many people consider him untouchable. He seems like a guy with a good sense of humor.
AVW: Actually, Pete [Kember aka Sonic Boom] was totally into it; he got a big kick out of making different obtuse strategies. We had a whole notebook full of them and a lot were actually a direct take on Eno’s originals. Someone told us that Brian Eno had heard of Obtuse Strategies and thought it was amazing.
Maybe he’ll try to claim it for himself. Anyhow, Congratulations made people pay attention to MGMT who otherwise probably would never have given you a chance. The album sounded almost triply refracted, with you channeling Kember’s eighties vision of sixties psychedelia.
AVW: I think it’s even further refracted because you look at the bands from the sixties looking at the blues and folk stuff. Pete, being into the Rolling Stones, Electric Prunes and Yardbirds, knew that the bands from the sixties were incorporating a lot of American folk and blues in their heyday. We’d actually never even met him before we started Congratulations, but we were both big Spacemen 3 and Spectrum fans. The first few days he was at the studio in Malibu, he’d put on his iPod at dinner and the songs he’d play for us would just blow our minds.
BW: He did a lot of suggesting—playing something in a certain way, recommending music that our playing reminded him of. It wasn’t so much handing the controls over and telling him: “Make some of your cool Spacemen 3 sounds.” We’re pretty comfortable in the studio. Making sounds on our own is what we do. It was a cool collaboration but maybe different from how he’s worked with a lot of people—maybe less hands on, less giving him a really raw thing so he can then determine how it sounds. I think at times we frustrated him because he thought something should sound a certain way and we didn’t. With Oracular Spectacular we were also reluctant to give up any sort of control and wanted to retain as much of the original intention as possible. Actually, I think that there’s something really limiting to that—getting too far inside your own head and losing the ability to censor yourself. On the new record we let producer Dave Fridmann in more than ever before. He can be very neutral, and the last time around we didn’t really ask for his criticism. But this time we did. He ended up kind of reassuring us in the whole process.
There is a lot more of Fridmann’s touch on MGMT. He’s known best for his work with the Flaming Lips and MGMT sounds very much in the vein of The Soft Bulletin, with the monumental pumping drums and the jungle of synths. Actually, it doesn’t sound so far away from the last Flaming Lips album, The Terror, either.
AVW: I can say as Flaming Lips fans and Dave Fridmann fans long before we worked with either, it’s really hard to go into Tar Box Road Studios and play a drumbeat that doesn’t sound like something off Soft Bulletin…
BG: Andrew and I had set up all of this equipment, a lot of analogue synths and sequencers and drum machines hooked up together. We would just hit record and end up with literally hours of music, mostly improvised without a set idea of what we were going to do. We built up so much material, and then we got really intimidated by what to do with it for the next step. We knew there were some really good moments in it, but we didn’t know what to do with it. Dave stepped up, which allowed us to be much more editors than composers because for me a lot of compositional stuff is kind of boring. I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but I hear so much music where I just wonder, “Who do you want to impress with your compositional prowess? Great, your songs have a bunch of complicated parts, but who cares?” We just made this stuff, and we didn’t know what it is or where it came from, but we thought why don’t we just take the best parts and fit them together?
When you worked with Fridmann on Oracular Spectacular you brought a lot of the really lo-fi tracks you recorded on your own, and he managed to combine them with all of his hi-fi studio wizardry. It’s as if that very particular sound—copied and coveted the world over—was born out of this unlikely pairing of amateurism and expertise.
BG: The funny thing is that back then we’d sometimes complain like, “We’re in this fancy studio—aren’t you going to take what we did and make it sound better? Aren’t you going to rerecord everything using all these nice microphones?” I don’t know if we really got the point across then, but at the time for him it was much more exciting to use our crappy demos and the idiosyncrasies inherent in our initial recordings and transform them instead of making a real slick sounding recording. He did kind of a similar thing with Kevin Parker from Tame Impala, who is totally self-taught in terms of recording. Dave used his uniqueness as an important part of their sound, too. On the other hand, I’m just so excited that anyone can make a record these days. Plug-ins are getting so good now. Everybody talks about how analogue is better, and maybe it is for some things, but I don’t know . . . I think it’s way cooler that anybody can make a good sounding record in their bedroom. My friend Carolyn [Polachek] from Chairlift is recording an entire album using the mics from her MacBook.
Molly Nilsson has recorded every single album like that.
BG: I think it’s something in hindsight people will recognize more. People think it’s an internal mic on a laptop so it must be crappy. But these days people fetishize four-track recordings and attach all this mojo to it that in the past nobody would have ever done.
Getting back to the new album, MGMT, I think really seems to have two sides, like tape or vinyl. Side A is more classically song oriented, while Side B has the darker, deconstructive, more experimental edits where song structures or harmonic structures emerge in quite unexpected ways.
BG: Actually, a lot of the music on the second half of this album has no harmonic structure at all. It’s just so many layers on top of each other and a lot of things tonally that won’t fit together in a traditional sense. But that’s been done before. I suppose “Astromancy” has ended up being my favorite song, which is the one we finished last. It’s a song where nothing fits together and there’s all sorts of space in between the sounds, which disallows you to concentrate on a single thing. All of the sonic elements appear to be trying to divert your attention. I think it invites a different way of listening.
AVW: Everything changes on the second half of the album. On certain tracks like “I Love You Too, Death” we both were interested in the simplicity of something like “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide or stuff by Disco Inferno, and we were trying to attain a song shape that we’ve never crafted before—pretty much like a rising line, a train which accelerates and then just cuts off. No verse, no chorus. Just building momentum.
On the first half of the album I was intrigued by the contrast between the poppier arrangements on the one hand and much darker lyrics on the other. It reminded me of a specific kind of pop song, like VU’s “Who Loves The Sun?” or The Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored”—that’s how I hear the single “Life Is a Lie”, for example.
AVW: “I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me…”
BG: In some ways I would say this album is more optimistic than Congratulations because it’s more about empowerment. It’s about saying we’re all strong enough to look all these scary things in the face and deal with them. I’m so sick of all this indie rock that’s coming out that’s about finding a space where everything is OK and telling everyone they’re safe and sound. Everything is not OK and everyone should know that. But we can deal with it. I don’t think this album is dark or depressing. It’s reality. It’s about freaking yourself out in a good way and getting more real. It’s not about “Everything sucks.” We’re all going to make things better and become better people if we confront those lies.
AVW: It’s weird because for all three albums the music has come first for pretty much every song. So when it comes to writing lyrics, I’m not sure if I somehow want there to be a big disparity between the feeling of the music and the tone of the lyrics. I do think, consciously or not, that disparity has been part of the spirit of the band from the beginning. We had a little EP that we made as seniors in college called We Care/We Don’t Care. To me, it was a sign that we always wanted two opposing things happening at once. But like Ben said, I think there were much darker moments on Congratulations, though MGMT has more of what you’re talking about. An hour and a half into improvising, with twelve different things going at once, we would look at each other and not know where the sounds were coming from or who was making what. There, an otherworldly thing that happens. A lot of the new songs are about a relationship to some intangible enlightenment, an inherent drive to attain a deeper answer—and the frustration of not being able to pay attention long enough to start down that road.
BG: I think Andrew is way more into the mystical side of things, and I’m way more into rational science and math stuff. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for the mystical and superstition, whereas he really loves getting into that. Every now and again we’ll have an argument about it, but we still love each other.
That’s funny, Ben, because I had the impression that you were religious, based on a quote I found online in the Jewish Chronicle: “I am unavoidably, ineradicably, Jewish. It’s in my heart, my head and my blood.”
BG: I didn’t say that! They totally took my quote out of context—or rather they entirely made it up. But you can’t really do anything about it. I don’t even think that many people read it, but it sucks when people feel like they have to make up something to make their story better. I don’t identify with any religion at all but I’m really interested in all religions. I would never want to associate myself with just one of them.
So you’re agnostics when it comes to religion—and equally as cagey when it comes to politics? You’ve described the new album as “prismatically post-political”. What does that mean?
BG: Andrew writes the lyrics, but I can say that things are approaching the point of becoming completely ridiculous in terms of some of what America is doing. It’s getting to the point where I really can’t say that I trust the government to do what’s best for me at all. But at the same time it doesn’t have anything to do with political parties. I just don’t feel safe at this point. I don’t have complete confidence that people in this country can just take their freedom for granted the way they have been for a long time.
In what sense?
BG: There are some basic freedoms that people should have that are being systematically violated, and that’s scary. But a lot of overtly political music annoys me. Music is a higher art and not just about topical songs. For me, it’s about sound and having a transcendental experience through sound, and I think words can sometimes get in the way of that if they’re too literal…
AVW: You know, our music isn’t topical in the sense of having an obvious connection to any political movement or current event. The music is more addressing the feelings we get when we ask ourselves if and how we want to address that stuff. It’s more connecting to a current consciousness or feeling that, having played shows all over the world and meeting lots of people, seems common everywhere. Like Ben said, it’s way bigger than political parties, but it’s also very hard to define or talk about it. However, I know it exists. I think of it as a sensation where everything appears OK but with an underlying sense that it’s all wrong. It’s hard to say why and even when you try to say why it’s like that, something cuts you off. I’m not good at describing or defining it. It’s fear. Without being totally aware of it, I’ve been living my life since high school assuming that everything I type or write or every website I go to, somebody else is seeing it. I think a lot of other people feel the same way, but it wasn’t until more recently that most people stopped thinking just casually about it and started thinking that it was fucked up. Ben and I stay pretty up to date with the news, but we never really want to put it in our music unless it’s in an encrypted manner. I don’t know if that’s about a fear of directly addressing it, but if someone were to come out and go full Bob Dylan, I don’t know if it would even fit in this day and age.
It’s strange, but one of the most fitting lyrics on the new album that describes you as a band comes in your Faine Jade cover…
AVW: I know what you mean: “Striving for perfection / hiding when it comes.” ~
MGMT’s new album MGMT is out tomorrow via Columbia Records. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Published September 16, 2013. Words by A.J. Samuels.