Not long ago, something funny started to happen inside the tawny, shaggy head of MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden. He was in upstate New York with bandmate Ben Goldwasser, recording their third album (MGMT, due out September 17th) in a rustic room surrounded by keyboards, drum machines and sequencers – working 12-hour days for weeks on end. "Weird things would happen to me up there," says the singer, sitting in a trendy Italian restaurant in New York's East Village. "I had total mental breakdowns sometimes." His solution: "I was like, 'I'm gonna go in the grocery store, and if there's a flier up that says FREE KITTENS, I'm gonna get one.'" He shows me a photo of his new cat on his phone.
Since their earliest dorm-room jam sessions at Wesleyan University, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have reveled in a quirky, subversive approach to rock stardom. They took weeks to decide whether to sign with Columbia Records when the label made an offer in 2006. "We kind of treated it like a joke, the way we were treating most things at that point," says Goldwasser, who had been working construction. "We were a little scared," VanWyngarden admits. When they did sign, it took them a while to get used to being part of the music industry. "So many musicians have this really commercial sensibility about everything," says Goldwasser. "That made me really disgusted. Looking at music as a product, talking about what we were doing like a brand? We had never thought about music that way."
Then came the lackluster public response to their weird, arty second LP, 2010's Congratulations. "If you want to see the most uncomfortable people in the world," says VanWyngarden, "watch our red-carpet interviews at the Grammys in 2010." Some blamed drugs for the duo's majorly psychedelic detour; while they have nothing against drugs per se (VanWyngarden has fond memories of tripping in a hotel room during a New England sleet storm), the criticism got under their skin. "It got out of control," says VanWyngarden. Goldwasser says their European tour for Congratulations is the worst memory of his life with the band: "I was thinking, like, 'What am I actually doing right now?'"
That the label still trusted them enough to leave them to their own devices for the follow-up came as a relief. MGMT is their most experimental LP yet – electronic music that's definitely not meant for dancing. "I don't even know if it's music we would want to listen to," VanWyngarden says proudly. "It's just what's coming out of us. We didn't make a single compromise."
This story is from the September 12th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.