Live @ O2 Academy Birmingham
September 23, 2010
Interview & Photography: Steve Bateman

In 2008, the lunar soundscapes of Oracular Spectacular were like a glistening pop bazaar, or a shiny cosmic timewarp that was embroiled in ‘60s / ‘70s prog rock, then streaked with electropop, dance, hippie tie-dye and a collision of vibrant and varied ideas! Regarded at the time as something of a landmark debut album and turning the two-piece into the genre’s leading lights, it subsequently crash-landed into every important ‘Best Of 2008’ poll – procuring prominent positions in all of them! The general consensus being, that here was a stimulating long player which Uncut even went as far as to stamp with "A sugary feast for the senses" seal of approval!

Having struck musical gold, MGMT’s Official Biog noted, “Based in Brooklyn, New York City, this US band comprises Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. The duo met at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and formed MGMT (aka The Management) in 2002, initially as a vehicle for their experiments with synthesisers and drum machines. Over time, the experiments morphed into a full-blown project. The Time To Pretend EP was released on the independent Cantora Records label at the start of 2005, and revealed the duo's penchant for both early Flaming Lips-style psychedelic pop and retro new wave stylings. After graduating from Wesleyan, the duo toured in support of the EP and relocated to New York after signing a contract with Columbia Records. Their debut album was recorded with The Flaming Lips' producer David Fridmann, and released digitally in October 2007 (and via conventional means at the start of the following year). The playful Oracular Spectacular blended healthy doses of glam rock and new wave with psychedelia and acid folk, with Fridmann's superb production helping making sense of the duo's sometimes overreaching ambition.”

The world had very much taken note, with further auspicious praise coming from amongst others, Prefix, who called it "a confident debut, one that features two young musicians revelling in their abilities and perhaps discovering ones they didn't know they had." And Q, who declared, "Oracular Spectacular is a triumph of conceptual ambition, a series of fantastic voyages that avoids any of the navel-gazing such notions normally provoke." For many people though, Time To Pretend (a satirical snipe at the clichéd wantonness of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle), would have most likely been their first taste of the multi-instrumentalist’s unpredictable music, with Electric Feel now the pair’s most downloaded song on iTunes and Kids arguably their biggest crowd-pleaser. In the UK, Oracular Spectacular was actually rush-released 3 months early due to popular demand, as being a record that “invites you to open your mind to multi-dimensional vibrating Technicolor sounds,” meant that early US import copies sold like hot cakes! Not bad for a band who by their own admission, were originally conceived as “a college joke” and used to play hour-long cover versions of the Ghostbusters Theme!

Adding extra appeal to MGMT, was their strong sense of melody, twinned with ear-worming hooks and weed-fired “metaphysical moon-gazing lyrics,” which when sung with Andrew’s preternatural falsetto vocals, paint colourful quasi-mystical pictures. And of course, there are also the intergalactic flourishes, sunbeams and warm waves of sound present in every track. The group’s cynical sense of humour, is yet another endearing trait; case in point, when asked by their record label for a list of dream producers, with “low expectations they sarcastically replied: Prince, Nigel Godrich, Barrack Obama and not Sheryl Crow." Or how about, “Take that Katy Perry! You kissed a girl, but we took acid and kissed the stars and who's winning!?!'' Leaving listeners with a mind-expanding, hallucinogenic chemical buzz, understandably, expectations for the band’s follow-up to Oracular Spectacular were extremely high. But upon its release in April, the tongue-in-cheek titled Congratulations (which was produced by Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember), divided both critics and fans alike, due to a greater emphasis being placed on musical experimentation, rather than the pair writing out and out pop songs this time around.

However, a couple of reviews that I would agree with, include Drowned In Sound’s, “Congratulations is no more impenetrable than The Flaming Lips at their most commercial, with Sonic Boom offering a bright, upfront mix that keeps the baffling array of omnichords, guitars, sitars, synths, organs and FX percolating in dynamic, uncluttered fashion.” And Uncut’s, who wrote, “This is a wilful and lovably eccentric second album from a band who've had a sniff of being pop stars and decided they'd much rather be weird and esoteric, thanks all the same.” Of the two ‘psychic pilgrims’, Stereo Warning detected, “Goldwasser is unassuming but outgoing and garrulous, while VanWyngarden is flamboyant but calm and quiet. They’re the Yin to each other’s Yang.” As an intrigued fan who has enjoyed listening to both MGMT records equally, I spoke to Ben before showtime in Birmingham (with support coming from the beautiful and bedazzling Dum Dum Girls) in the aftermath of their ‘Summer Of Love’ and truckload of accolades. To quiz him about musical wanderlust, his inspirations, how the success of Oracular Spectacular changed the duo’s lives and how they now feel about having deliberately stepped off the path to superstardom…

Lucy: Your band have been quite quiet for the last few months. Are you looking forward to playing gigs again?
Katie Jane Garside: I think I give very obtuse ans

1.Did you have much time to reflect on the success of Oracular Spectacular, and are you pleased that you’ve taken the musical path you have with Congratulations?
“We definitely reflected on the success of Oracular Spectacular and I think the worst thing that we could have done, would have been to try and make the same album over and over again. I know that’s maybe what some people wanted us to do (laughing), but, I think if we had done that, then people might not have realised that creatively, there’s a lot more to us, do you know what I mean?”

2.Some music critics have argued that “a band’s value is measured in terms of both their reach and their artistic qualities” and that “important acts are driven by a desire to change things.” Would you agree with this and has there ever been an artist / band that has changed the way you think about music?
“Oh yeah, there are tons for sure, and I think that everything that I really like the most now, took me a little bit of time to get into and when I first heard it, I didn’t really like it or I didn’t quite get it. Like when I first heard Spacemen 3, I could tell that there was something about it that I was supposed to like, but I didn’t quite get it and it took me a year or two to fully appreciate it. The same thing goes for Royal Trux I think.”

3.Does creating give you a sense of purpose + do you subscribe to the philosophy, ‘Never let a good idea go’?
“Creating does give me a sense of purpose, yes (laughing)! With ideas, it can get more complicated if you’re in the moment and you’re trying to write a song and get an idea out, because you can convince yourself that that one idea is the most important thing. But sometimes, you have to actually take a step back and realise just what it is that a song needs, to make it the best that it can be.”

4.Would you say that you think of the studio as an instrument / that the ambience of a room can add something special to a song?

“Yeah, I think that is really important and it’s something that is a little bit underrated. You know, so much of our recording is done on a laptop, but it is nice to go into a room and do a live recording. When you hear a recording and it really sounds like a band are playing in a room together, I think that’s great! But, we weren’t able to do as much of that as we wanted to (laughing)! We recorded a lot of stuff in this giant house and we realised that there were something’s that sounded really good, but then other things would sound terrible.”

5.How long will you work on a track until you know that you have something, and have you ever pieced a song together from several different ideas?
“I don’t know. We’ve had a couple of moments where we’ve been writing a song and trying to figure out what to do next with it, and then we’ll realise that some of the ideas that we’ve had floating around for a while could work really well with one part of it.”

6.As Congratulations features an instrumental track, do you have any favourite instrumentals?

“Yeah, there are lots, but I think Suicide by Spacemen 3 would be one of my favourites… Lady Dada’s Nightmare was kind of based on, or inspired by, the instrumental track on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.”

7.Have you always felt that artwork should frame a record, in that its content is matched by its appearance?

“Oh yeah (without any hesitation)! But it’s tough, because when I listen to music now, I’m not really at home, so I’m not looking at the cover of a record while I have my headphones on. But yeah, I do think that artwork should frame a record.”

8.REM’s album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi, was recorded in soundchecks and on the road in unusual places. But would you ever consider recording in this way, or perhaps like some musicians do, even relocating to another country to seek inspiration?

“Yeah, but it’s been difficult for us to figure out how to manage our time – like trying to find time when we’re on the road, because we don’t have a lot of downtime, and when we do, we tend to use that time to kind of relax. But, I want to get to the point where we do more writing on the road. As for relocating to another country to seek inspiration, I think Berlin would be a really good place to go, and it seems like it has worked out for a lot of other people!”

9.Have you had any personal highlights / spine-tingling moments during your career so far?

“Oh man, I don’t know, there’s too many (laughing)!”

10.Do you have a mantra that you live by + if you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
“A mantra that I live by – or one of them anyway – is that ‘I shouldn’t expect anything to make sense!’ If I could change one thing about the world, it would be to stop floods.”

11.Music often has a revisionist history, with a number of records that were under-appreciated upon their initial release, later being considered as overlooked classics. But are there any LPs that you feel are deserving of being re-appraised?
“Um, yeah, I’m trying to think (long pause + thinking)… Maybe Accelerator by Royal Trux.”

12.Of all your songs to date, which one evolved the most and do you ever think about how your music will translate live?
“Um (thinking), man, I’m not sure… I think Kids is the song that we recorded the most times, but I don’t know – I guess its just changed a lot since we recorded it. Generally, when we record though, most of the songs are kind of freeform before we finish them – like we don’t do rough demos – and there are some other songs that we’ve changed a little bit when we play them live, like The Handshake.”

13.Peter Hook once spoke of how when he looks at Ian Curtis’ “songwriting techniques and the imagery in his lyrics,” it still fascinates him to this day. Is this same for you with Andrew’s words?
“I mean, one of the things that I like about Andrew’s lyrics, is that there aren’t too many moments where you know exactly what he means by it – they can be applied to a lot of different situations and that’s intentional. I think it’s far cooler when you can find lyrics that you can apply to a lot of situations in your life, rather than knowing the specific meaning behind them.”

14.Can you reveal any details about new MGMT material – musical direction, song titles etc. – and would you ever like to start a side-project under a pseudonym a la The Fireman (Paul McCartney & Youth)?

“We’ve been thinking about our next record, but we haven’t really found a direction yet. I think a side-project under a pseudonym would be really fun (excitedly), maybe to have the chance to be able to explore your guilty musical pleasures or something like that (laughing)!”

15.Lastly, chips or cream buns?
“Cup cakes, but I don’t know, it’s so hard to pick between sweet and savoury (laughing)!”

A very special thanks to Ben, to Nina + Christian @ Sony Music, and to MGMT’s Manager Dave, for all of their time and help.

“I’ve got someone to make reports
And tell me how my money’s spent
To book my stays and draw my blinds
So I can’t tell what’s really there
And all I need’s a great big congratulations”

wers to questions...It's never about looking forward to it. Actually maybe I should change the
script, maybe we are looeir musicm the 3rd album?