The duo that make up MGMT explain why whey are in no rush to revisit the pop hits of their debut album
On the in-car swimming-pool-excursion mixtape, the track of the moment is Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and the improbable fave oldie is Mouldy Old Dough by Lieutenant Pigeon – but the kids still shout for Kids. Indeed, only last weekend my six-year-old son inquired from the back seat: “What’s MGMT’s third album like, Dad? Is it a return to the delirious rush of great pop singles that was their debut – or more of the wilful perversity of the follow-up in which they seemed to hate fame, themselves and their fans to equal degrees?”
Okay, that was me. But not just me, a few others too. Lots of people loved Oracular Spectacular – it sold a million – and were then left confused by Congratulations’ disavowal of sunshiney melodies for a psychedelic exploration. Album No 3 is indeed here, and once again Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden have chosen not to rewrite Kids or Time To Pretend or Electric Feel. They’ve ventured even further into their trippy burrow and they’re loving it down there.
“I’m sure some people are going to make a big deal out of this record,” says Goldwasser when I catch up with the American duo on the tour bus en route to Colorado. “Either they’re going to say we’ve made a brilliant record or we’ve completely ruined our careers. Whatever it is, this time we’ll be prepared.” Last time they weren’t. Not for the acclaim, which was significant, or the backlash, the biggest suffered by any act in recent times.
Now both 30, the pair met at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which the US likes to call “the coolest college ever”. Time To Pretend was written there, a little brother to Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good, itemising the rock star’s rococo lifestyle, but from the perspective of fantasy. As VanWyngarden said at the time: “We were these little guys at a private school talking about owning islands and dating models, and all of a sudden we were playing the song on David Letterman. It started out as a joke and then it wasn’t – or it became this cosmic ironic joke. A year and a half later we were still playing Time To Pretend every night. We had no idea what we were getting into.”
“These songs were happy accidents,” says Goldwasser now. Time To Pretend and the others became summer-festival anthems. He admits, though, that their fantasy included a second act. “We joked about how it would be really funny to achieve that kind of fame and then ruin it in the most spectacular way possible.” The pair didn’t end up hating their monster hits, only that they became monsters.
“We still love those songs and love the reaction they get,” adds Goldwasser, “but if we’d tried to capitalise on their success, to copy them, we’d almost certainly have failed. People wouldn’t have liked that. We’d have got forgotten about.” Some would argue MGMT are set to achieve this anyway, but at least it’ll be on their terms.
Goldwasser recalls them being left “shellshocked” by appearances at awards ceremonies. “People thought we were this thing. We didn’t really feel like that at all.” The duo didn’t approach the second album in the best frame of mind. “We’d never toured on that scale before and struggled to cope with all the attention. We were confused, paranoid and completely overwhelmed. Congratulations wasn’t a happy record, although I still really like it.”
It did, though, reflect who MGMT were; their changing tastes. They’d outgrown the wonky, cheapo, junior keyboard riffs of the hits and started to demand more adventurous sounds from their synths. “Our tastes started to move away from rock ’n’ roll,” says Goldwasser. That music got a little tired for us.” To emphasise the point, when I ask what influences helped in the creation of the third, self-titled album, he mentions films first. “Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, about a jazz-loving surveillance expert, which is a whole movie about sound, and also some Terrence Malick films like Days Of Heaven. But I was listening to some music, mostly punk rock. I got pretty obsessed with the Stranglers.”
Goldwasser says people wrong-footed by the music that’s come after Oracular Spectacular possibly didn’t listen to the second half of the debut, or the 14-minute track on Time To Pretend’s flipside. But he concedes the third album is another kettle of spaced-out fish altogether. “One of the things we tried to do on this album was let ideas have their moment and room to develop. That’s really challenging because it’s very easy to think something isn’t working and put it away. In a way this was like going back to how Andrew and I first played together at Wesleyan, where we’d jam and jam for hours. A lot of my favourite moments on this album came out of us playing these long jams and we’d get to the point where they became a little bit transcendent. Five or six songs developed out of tiny portions of improvisation, although we really didn’t know where the music had come from. In a way it felt alien.”
So: over-indulgence by eternal students or genuine sonic questing? The debate rages. They’re not kids any more and there’s nothing as good as Kids here, but MGMT stay on the mixtape. n
MGMT play Glasgow’s O2 ABC on Saturday. The album MGMT (Columbia) is out now