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MGMT: Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

By Nevin Martell, photos by Josh Cheuse on May 11, 2010


MGMT: Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

The two years since the release of the universally heralded Oracular Spectacular have been a long, strange trip for Brooklyn’s psychedelic indie poppers MGMT. Core duo Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, along with guitarist James Richardson, bassist Matt Asti and drummer Will Berman, went from underground darlings to magazine cover stars who experienced a heavy dose of surrealistic success. One of their tunes nabbed a Grammy nomination, they opened for a Beatle, and they won a lawsuit against French president Nicolas Sarkozy, for the unauthorized use of their song “Kids” in online advertisements. They collaborated with their heroes: Flaming Lips, Beck and Kid Cudi. Even Jay-Z wanted them to work on a track for The Blueprint 3, but their efforts, which Goldwasser describes as “vampire organ music,” ultimately went unrewarded on the album.

MGMT come out of this mind-fucking madness with a bold, head-spinning new album, Congratulations, which promises to exhilarate, challenge, inspire and confound listeners. The nine songs find the N.Y. fivesome exploring fresh sonic soundscapes—from surf rock licks and Syd Barrett’s experimentalism to ’60s garage rock and neo-psychedelica. If you’re looking for another “Time to Pretend” or “Electric Feel,” you should look elsewhere. Congratulations is an ambitious, adventurous and sprawling record that revels in its weirdness and love of esoterica. The band luxuriates in their influences, oftentimes including them in the song titles. There are tunes referencing Television Personalities (“Song for Dan Treacy”), Eno (the bluntly titled “Brian Eno”) and Lady Gaga (the instrumental track “Lady Dada’s Nightmare”)—though the Fame Monster doesn’t seem to have left her sonic stamp anywhere on the album.
To get their latest adventure on tape, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden first spent a couple of months holed up recording in the Catskills. They then rejoined their bandmates at a rented house in Malibu, California, near the beach, where they set up a recording studio in the living room. When they weren’t sunning and surfing, (referenced in the album’s trippy cover art created by lowbrow pop surrealist Anthony Ausgang), the group worked with former Spacemen 3 member Sonic Boom, who added his formidable producing skills to the quintet’s heady concoctions. MGMT further recorded at their newly built Brooklyn studio before finally mixing the album with Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) at his Tarbox Road Studios in western New York. 

Whereas the first album had been the lovechild of Goldwasser and VanWyngarden, Congratulations is a collaborative effort between all five band members. This newfound scope shines through on songs like the haunting “Someone’s Missing” and the beyond-epic “Siberian Breaks,” which promises to accompany more than a few acid tabs and peyote buttons. In toto, the new album is the sound of MGMT taking one big step forward into the great unknown. The only question is: Are we ready for the trip?

Congratulations is a left turn for MGMT. Was that something you purposefully orchestrated?
Ben Goldwasser: We knew that we were going to take this album in less of a pop direction and more of a psychedelic rock direction, but it was definitely an organic thing. We weren’t trying to intentionally mess with anybody by making this album.

Andrew VanWyngarden: We’re not trying to be reactionary to our success and make something difficult and challenging. We told the label the day we signed with them that we weren’t going to be writing “Kids” again, because we wrote that when we were 20 years old and in a completely different mindset. Congratulations is pop music. We just didn’t want to do the same thing again. Sure, we could have made more synthy dance-pop songs, but that’s not who we are.

Are you concerned that people who may have come along for the ride on the last album won’t be able to follow you down this rabbit hole?
Goldwasser: No, not at all. Our main concern is making music that we like. We understand that some people who only like a few of our songs aren’t going to get this and aren’t going to really give it a chance. 
But we’re more concerned with showing people that we’re capable of doing a lot of different things. We don’t just want to do the same thing over and over again for the same people.

You called it Congratulations, which is a laudatory title for an album, but one gets the sense that there’s a huge wink going along with it.
VanWyngarden: Ben and I came up with the title when we were writing songs for Oracular Spectacular. That was when we really didn’t know what was going to happen with our first album. We know a lot of people are going to see that title and think we are gratuitously patting ourselves on the back, but it’s actually rather cynical.

How did Sonic Boom come to produce the album?
Goldwasser: We were huge Spacemen 3 fans in college and they had a big influence on us. We were originally going to produce this album ourselves, but then we met Sonic Boom in London through a friend. We went to see his band Spectrum play and ended up on stage doing a song with them. So, we sent him demos of some songs we were working on—not really expecting him to think anything of it. He wrote back and said it reminded him of all these bands that he liked. He was really into it, so we asked him to produce the album with us. The whole thing ended up surprising everyone, but we’re really glad we did it.

How did you end up writing a song for Dan Treacy of the Television Personalities?
VanWyngarden: We played some shows with him and became good friends. When you hang out with Dan Treacy, it’s pretty obvious in the way he talks about his music and songwriting that he wanted more than anything to be successful and have millions of people hear his songs. It’s weird who ends up reaching people and for what reasons. “Song for Dan Treacy” is sad, but the song really is about hope.

Goldwasser: It started by thinking about [David Bowie’s] “Song for Bob Dylan” and the tradition of musicians writing songs for other musicians. Dan Treacy has been a big influence on music that’s popular now, whether or not people know it, and we want people to know more about him.

The name-checking doesn’t stop there. Can we assume “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” is a reference to Lady Gaga?
Goldwasser: It’s a vague reference but it’s more commentary. We’re really intrigued by Lady Gaga’s approach to fame and the way she treats her career as a performer. It’s so different from our attitude. Being famous is her art. That’s what she concerns herself with, and I think it’s a bit crazy. We think all the trappings of fame are weird. We just think it’s weird when Jay-Z wants to work with us.

VanWyngarden: She set out to be as famous as possible and then complains about it. She’s a good pop artist but I don’t think her music necessarily comes first. It’s more about the image and people’s perception of her as a larger-than-life pop sensation. That’s the opposite of our approach. F