MGMT Cover Story Bonus Q&A with Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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MGMT Cover Story Bonus Q&A with Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser

Rumors and Lies

Nov 15, 2013 MGMT Photography by Ray Lego Bookmark and Share

In the fall of 2010, an article came out in the U.K. announcing that MGMT‘s creative license had expired. Columbia Records, it was reported, was frustrated by the artistic extravagances and resulting commercial struggles the band had encountered after releasing their Congratulations album, and had decided that songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser needed some oversight from the folks footing the bill for all of the band’s fun. Though it turns out that VanWyngarden was apparently misquotedsomething that is hardly out of the realm of possibility for someone who laces his conversations with more than a few half-serious asidesthe reason the rumor stuck was obvious: even if it wasn’t true, it fit the growing narrative of a band that didn’t know when to rein in their own ideas.

Whatever, if Columbia was bent on forcing MGMT to produce another album of synthpop smashes and psychedelia-tinged anthems, their third full-length release is certainly not that record. In fact, MGMT sounds like the album people thought Congratulations wasan unflinchingly experimental, uncompromisingly strange, and boldly idiosyncratic release that has little chance of putting any singles on Top 40 radio. Here, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden talk about their creative process, the newfound existential bent in the songwriting, and why they aren’t a psychedelic band. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with MGMT, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on the band.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Since this new album is quite a bit more abstract than your previous ones, did you have a clear idea of what kind of record you wanted to make when you went into the studio?

Ben Goldwasser: Nope. [Laughs] I think we talked about a lot of possible directions that it could have taken, and we like so many different kinds of music. But once we started making it, we realized that the best things that were happening were the things that we hadn’t planned or really talked that much about. I think in a lot of ways we were getting back to the feeling we had when we first started the band, when we never even said, “Hey, let’s start a band together.” We just enjoyed playing music together and writing songs and there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about what the band meant or what kind of band we were or what kind of direction we were taking.

Which song came first?

Andrew VanWyngarden: “Alien Days” was the first song. Although it stands on its own, I think it’s the song that’s most in line with some of the sounds we’ve gotten on the first two albums, and the way we wrote it was very similar to the way we wrote “Weekend Wars” or “The Youth”those songs on the first album where I’d come up with the verse chord progression and the melody that I’m singing, and then Ben and I sat down and said, “Okay, what is the section that comes after this?” and we’d come up with the section that we would call the chorus and then we’d come up with a little solo bridge. That’s the kind of way, since we were in college, that we’d think about things when we’d write songs, just having things that we know and call the chorus or the verse or the bridge or the second verse or the intro or the outro. I’m sure when people listen to it, they don’t hear it like that, but I think that “Alien Days” was most in line with that kind of method of writing. And then the second song we recorded was completely different from that. It was “I Love You Too, Death.” All we were doing for that song was basing it on this little really simple chord progression that had come out in the middle of this three-hour long jam at some point at the end of 2011 that we thought was pretty and simple but had something nice to it. For it being only based on four chords and a very basic progression, we built this whole song on it and a more…not to sound pretentious, but like musique concrète, however you pronounce it. It was nice. We were in the studio with Dave Fridmann and we would run down the hallway, like, “Let’s hold this ebow magnetic resonator kind of thing over the grand piano strings and record that as a drone!” And then we’d run back to the other room and be like, “Okay, let’s record this loop of shakers and flutes!” and we’re laughing and letting ourselves run wild in the studio. So the results of that song are of this crazy smorgasbord approach. But what was fun for us was that we had never made a song like that. The first two songs that we made for the album, they were from two very different styles of writing.

At that point, when those more deconstructed songs emerged, did you start to get a sense that this album was going to be quite a bit different from Congratulations?

Ben: I think we were still trying to figure it out. We had these different things going on, and we had some things that were more composed. “I Love You Too, Death” was the first song that we finished that had tons of things going on at once that at first maybe didn’t seem to make sense. But then some order came out of it on its own. We were really excited about that, and it seemed like this really neat thing that was happening with the music, where there was a lot of dissonance but all this pretty stuff was emerging from it. That was something we felt was really special, and it was coming out of all these improvised, chance moments. That was when we started to get a sense of what the record was going to be, embracing that more.

Andrew: It was the first moment where we realized we could take something from these improvisations, and even if it’s just one small element, it’s something that’s kind of special because it felt like you didn’t know where it came from. It was like this little seed, this alien seed of a song. And you can build on it, even if it’s just four chords or something. I know some of them sound pretty rudimentary, but it was really good for us to realize that. Then when we would say, “Let’s start working on another song,” we’d find another section from another jam that was maybe a chord progression. Even if it’s just one sound, like a keyboard sound that we like, and we’d start building off of it like that. So then you get songs like “An Orphan of Fortune” or “A Good Sadness,” which are like little vignettes from really long jams. And then we’d add vocals and put a melody over [it]. Most of the instrumentation in most of those songs was made live by the two of us.These songs provide a pretty unusual listening experience, since you can pick your own entry and exit points. It seems like you’re giving your listeners a lot of freedom to figure them out on their own.

Andrew: I hope that most people can see the songs that way. You can hear it in a lot of different ways. I haven’t listened to it all that much, but if I go back and listen to it, I might listen to a song and only focus on the hi-hat pattern or something. It’s kind of like looking through a different crack in the wall and seeing the song in a different way. I think that’s what we want. Ben and I shy away from using the word “psychedelic,” mostly because, for me, when I hear that word I think of a guy in a furry collar playing a fuzz guitar, laying down in a field of poppies. That’s what I think of as psychedelic. I think it has a very specific musical connotation. But in terms of psychedelic, like the drugs, where it’s altering your reality, that’s what we really want from the songs. It’s like another world that you can enter into in a lot of different ways, but hopefully once you’re in there you can get completely enveloped and choose your own path through the songs. I think in that sense it’s psychedelic.

That open-ended structure really creates this feeling that, as a listener, you can just jump in at any point and focus on whatever you want. The songs often don’t seem to have a clear focal point. Was that your intent?

Andrew: That’s something that was even perplexing to us, and also something that Dave Fridmann kept bringing up as something that he couldn’t really figure out. We’d have these songs that would have, at times, four different modes or four different chords happening at once. And Dave Fridmann has classical music training and a really good knowledge of music theory stuff, but he’s also totally into experimenting and creating a mess. What he really liked was that from a theory standpoint it didn’t make any sense at all. A lot of moments in these songs, like in “A Good Sadness” or something, but somehow he’d be at home and humming the melody or singing the song, and that’s really what we want. You don’t know why, but somehow it’s coming into your head. That’s fulfilling for me and Ben. That’s what we want for our songs.

Lyrically, the album seems pretty existentialist at times, with songs about death and paranoia and pulling back the curtain on life. Do you think there’s a connecting thread between the songs?

Andrew: It’s one of those things where it takes a little while after we’ve finished it to step back from it and see that there is definitely a theme or something that links all of the songs. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to put it, and I don’t think I have yet. But I think it’s something that sounds very hippie-dippy in a way, but it’s very simple. It’s just consciousness. [Laughs] By that I mean if you take the first record and the lyrics on that and the spirit of it, it was very much this escapist, utopian, very youthful and idealist and naïve approach. Sure, there are moments like “The Handshake” or “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” that had the more conspiratorial paranoid twinge to itthere was that side. But as a whole, I think it was bright and bushy and ready for the world. And the second album was much more the comedown, the bubble or the cloud dissipating. It was more like the real type thing, but it was also like withdrawing and looking in and finding the more melancholic side of things, but also finding comfort there and channeling these musicians. Most of the inspiration on Congratulations was coming from artists or musicians who were in fairly successful bands, like psychedelic bands or whatever. And then they had their moment and then they went and did their solo records, and a lot of them went too far out there and never came back. And touching on that spirit was dangerous in itself, because it’s kind of scary that some of these people’s lives that were influencing the music that we were listening to for the second album were people that never came back to reality. Kind of like perma-fried or permanently paranoid. People like Skip Spence or Syd Barrett or Dan Treacy, because these were all people we were thinking about for the second album, so it has that loony feel to it. Then I think the new record is coming after having a break and some down time from touring and being able to take everything in and accept it and go over it and learn from our experiences. So when I say “consciousness” I think it’s in that Alan Watts-type sense, where it’s like learning how to handle the more testing side of life. Accepting darkness and anguish and despair as much as happiness and love and lightness and also letting it happen and letting it flow. That’s why I said “hippie-dippy.” That’s the perspective on the record. And, as always, there’s some good high weirdness conspiracy thrown in for good measure.

Something like “Your Life is a Lie” is a bit confrontational. Do you see it as a dark song, one that has some negative energy?

Andrew: I don’t think it’s negative. It was written in a very ecstatic kind of moment, just laughing. I think it’s its own beast that we made to be used as a weapon or used as an empowering tool for people to take and aim and direct at whoever they want. If it’s at themselves, maybe they need that. But what I think is more likely is that people will hear it and just have the general sensation of feeling the weight of life and existence and then knowing that there’s some people who, in terms of the way I see living and what is most important in life, their whole lives are based around this awful lie. People that are really only existing for greed or moneyit’s terrible, and it’s the worst thing that you could ever say to somebody, that their life is a lie. But the worst part of it is it’s true for some people. It’s harsh and brutal, but it’s not supposed to be a negative message. It’s supposed to be a revolutionary-type thing. [Laughs]

How about “I Love You Too, Death”? It seems that that’s more of an acceptance of death than a celebration of it?

Andrew: That’s what it’s supposed to be. Not in a negative way but in a way that I feel is foreign to me and to the way I grew up. I think in a lot of places around the world, death is celebrated and accepted and, in some cases, is more important than life and gets more attention and reverence. It’s not like this taboo thing that makes you feel like the ground drops out underneath you if you think about it. It’s supposed to be like accepting of it and welcoming it in a way. Not in a suicidal sense but just addressing it.

How about “Mystery Disease”? What is that song about?

Andrew: I’d read a couple of books, like this book Opium Fiend, by this guy Steven Martin. It’s a newer book that I picked up at a bookstore. I have a bad habit of picking up books about drugs, but that’s better than having a drug habit, I think. But it’s the story of this guy who fetishized the classic Oriental opium world, and he got so obsessed with it that he himself got addicted to opium, and it tells of his struggles with it and the wild adventures that he had in Thailand. It’s a funny book. So I was reading that and Opium, The Diary of a Cure by Cocteau, and for some reason I was reading about opium. I think it kind of intrigued me because it has been used for so long as a medicine, and it’s this naturally occurring thing that’s a plant, but at the same time it’s such a powerful and potentially dangerous kind of thing. So I was trying to capture the parasitic kind of spirit of opium that maybe I’d picked up on in a few of these books, where it slips in and can take over without you really realizing it, and then you’re trying not to be a slave to it. There’s also a little bit of lyrics coming from my friend’s crazy experience. He had contracted this lung infection that they couldn’t figure out what it was from, and he nearly died and was in the hospital for a long time. So it was some of the things that he told me about his experience, as well.

Overall, what would be a gratifying response to this record?

Ben: I hope people will be pleasantly surprised by it. I don’t think it’s a difficult record or will be a shock that we made a record like this. But I think we’ve taken a different direction than we took on Congratulations. It really annoyed me when people would speculate that by making Congratulations that we were trying to alienate certain fans or something like that, which was totally not the case. I think we’re just a band that enjoys doing something different every time around. And I think, hopefully, people will come to expect that from us and it won’t be that much of a surprise if we shift directions again.

At this point, do you care at all about chart success?

Ben: I think it would be really cool to have another hit single. That’s really exciting. But that’s not really the main goal for me. I think there are people whose job it is to write songs. They’re hired to come up with a Top 40 song, and there are formulas that people probably use to write that kind of music. I feel like it’s not rocket science, but I’m not really interested in that at all. If I happen to write a song that I really like that I felt was honest and something new and it happened to become a hitthat would be really exciting to me.

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October Digital 2013 issue.]


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November 17th 2013

The first song from the album has a video now!

Alex A
November 17th 2013

love love love them, and the new album.