I interviewed New York band MGMT right before they blew up and became a household name, for issue 2 of NO Magazine, a glossy quarterly arts magazine based in Auckland, New Zealand.
The biggest band in the world right now is schooled on freaky ‘70s cult movies, “disgusting” prehistoric web design and Mystic Paganism. Delving into their imaginations to seek respite from the trashy Hollywood pop that pervades many of our minds, MGMT don’t want to incite shocked reactions, gain attention or change the course of music – they just want to have fun. The other things
are pleasant side effects.
MGMT need no introduction, their song Time To Pretend has been all over our TVs and radios like a rash, downloadable ring tones of that all-too-familiar synth intro busting out on the street. But talking with one half of the duo, Ben Goldwasser, as he reclined with what sounded like a score of giggling groupies, one finds they’re actually left in the dark about a lot of what propelled MGMT into such mega stardom.
Quizzed on their hyper colour, highly cultivated image, Ben, honest and rebellious like a young Kurt Cobain, says, “I think the mystique kind of happens on its own. We contradict ourselves all the time, we’ll say things then deny them later, or generally present ourselves in abstracted ways, because we don’t actually know what’s going on.” But somehow that makes it seem like they do know what’s going on. “As long as we keep that up we don’t have to invent any kind of persona,” he laughs.
The persona they’ve gained – as psychedelic prophets for a musical future
that places emphasis on personal exploration of the past/present/future, experimentation with image, drugs and perception, and the touting of an
avant-garde industrial romanticism has gained them popularity.
This was cultivated at university. Ben met Andrew VanWyngarden, the other half of MGMT, while they were studying music at Wesleyan University. After hanging out and showing each other music they liked, they started playing a lot of “obnoxious, noisy live electronic shows” together. These shows gained them a following so strong that their fans formed their own label, Cantorra Records, in order to release the band’s debut EP, Time To Pretend.
Taking a break, (Ben says “I definitely think we’re not musically disciplined at all”) Andrew moved to Brooklyn citing “existential crisis” and Ben went upstate to work in woodland construction. They had many crappy day jobs they hated, but studied their workmates for entertainment. This studiousness of the inane human condition lent itself to their next recordings, produced on an Mbox computer set-up. These would eventually become the bare bones for Oracular Spectacular, their debut LP.
Signing to a six figure, four-album deal with Sony/Columbia in 2006 saw the band catapult to the world’s attention and reignite the mass’s imagination. Surprisingly though, the band has little to do with their image. The labels have cultivated a psychedelic image for MGMT that rivals Japanese anime in imagination, bending the barometer for perceptibility so that one can only bask semi-consciously in the swathes of technicolour that amasses in their freaky, out-there videos. In Time To Pretend, kittens strut on rainbows, compete in laser-archery and battle pirates that jive through space and time in one high-octane acid trip. A recent awakening to the infamously freaky retro cult film The Holy Mountain was a significant influence.
Maybe the boys just see themselves as kids having fun? “Yeah I think in a way we do, but we also have a lot more on our minds than we did when we started the band.” Like recording with Flaming Lips’ producer Dave Fridmann, debuting at number 12 on the UK album chart, and hitting number one on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart. All this unprecedented attention has been a bit shocking, particularly as some of the audience has been unfairly critical.
On playing The Late Show with David Letterman, Ben said “It was really weird because we hadn’t played that many shows with our live band; it was a relatively new thing and we felt really unprepared to go on live TV. But considering that, it went really well. I think that with all the shows we were playing around that time we were really not that confident. I don’t know, that’s the way that I felt, and I know that like, people talked about how much our live band sucked, and really exaggerated that, like said we can’t play at all. But it was so unfair because we had just started playing with a live band. I guess people were expecting something a little more polished.”
“It was really the best way for us to get ourselves into shape, to go out and play for our crowds, and we’re expecting to have to get better. We found ourselves standing in front of a large group of people and just having to do it. But we’re feeling a lot better about our shows now; we’ve had a lot more experience now and everything’s getting really tight.”
Though there are no harboured ambitions to improve their game. When asked how they push themselves musically, Ben cracks up laughing. “We don’t! We’re actually incredibly lazy in terms of writing material,” he admits. “Like when we were writing stuff for the album, we basically had to lock ourselves in a room to get anywhere, because everything was too distracting and it’s impossible to concentrate on song writing!” he laughs again, embarrassed.
Their one song/one show ethos has served them well, though. “We would write some really bad music, and play it over and over again for like 20 minutes, and that was the show,” he reminisces on the early days of the band. “It was the kind of thing it was easy to get away with in college, but I didn’t think anybody would wanna watch what we’re doing now,” he laughs again. Oh, but they do.