MGMT know exactly how the world feels about everything they've done since their breakthrough 2007 debut LP, Oracular Spectacular. The psychedelic synth-pop duo – who met at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and crafted their early hits "Kids," "Electric Feel" and "Time to Pretend" in their dorm rooms – became indie darlings in the late aughts. But they alienated fans, critics and even their record label by releasing two disappointing experimental albums, 2010's Congratulations and 2013's MGMT. "A lot of people wrote us off after the third record," says frontman Andrew VanWyngarden. "They were like, 'Oh, they have no pop juice left in them. It's not happening again.'"
The two briefly felt that way themselves, so they decided to take some time off. Keyboardist Ben Goldwasser moved to L.A. with his fiancee, and VanWyngarden bought a house in Rockaway Beach, Queens, where he created a home studio and surfed. The duo, who'd previously crafted songs out of extended jams, learned to work via e-mail. "The geographical separation was a big influence on the music," says Goldwasser. "We really had to focus when we actually got together."
When they finally got back in the same room to create their next album, producer Patrick Wimberly (Solange, Blood Orange) urged them to focus on the basics of songwriting. "It clicked back to the way we used to write in college, where we were thinking in terms of verses and choruses," says VanWyngarden. "We weren't trying to mask our pop influences like Talking Heads, Hall and Oates, and the 1980s music our parents would listen to and we still liked. It felt good to get back to that."
The result is Little Dark Age, by far their poppiest release since Oracular Spectacular, full of accessible hooks and often hilarious lyrics. Opening track “She Works Out Too Much” is a jab at someone who uses social media to create the illusion of a perfect life ("Sick of liking your selfies/Should’ve gone with my gut"), and "TSLAMP" is short for "Time Spent Looking at My Phone." "That one is me lamenting my entire existence," says VanWyngarden, "while combining a 1980s electro beat with Madonna's 'La Isla Bonita' and a Margo Guryan chorus. I hope somebody reviews the song like that."
Half of the album was written before Donald Trump's surprise victory in the 2016 election. "We were like, 'Wow, is it actually possible for the most impossible thing to happen?" recalls VanWyngarden "But it was actually our reality." In the immediate aftermath, bizarrely, they wrote some of the album's most chipper songs, including "Me and Michael" and "Little Dark Age. "Apparently," says VanWyngarden, "we were more inspired to write pop music after evil took over the world."
"James" is a tribute to their close friend James Richardson, the guitarist in their live band. "I’m always home," VanWyngarden sings, "walk on in I’ll make you tea and breakfast." "Me and Michael" also comes off as an ode to a buddy, but they aren't willing to get into any details about the inspiration. "That's for you to find out," says VanWyngarden. "And for me to find out."
The album wraps with "Hand It Over," and there's nothing remotely cryptic about the meaning of lines like "the joke's worn thin/the king stepped in." "That's pretty much directly about Donald Trump becoming president," says VanWyngarden. And despite the occasional sad joke or negative vibe, they insist the album is largely positive. "We called it Little Dark Age because that's hopeful," says VanWyngarden. "It's a little dark age. And we ended the album with 'Hand it Over' because it envisions an end to all of this."
At no point along the way did they think they were writing music that would play on Top 40 radio. "Radio never enters the equation for us," says Goldwasser. "It's so rare that I even turn on the radio and hear a run of new music that I like. I just know that everything I hear is going to suck. The label likes 'Me and Michael' the most. But I think the simplicity of that is what has pop appeal more than any intention we had while making it."
MGMT handed the album to Columbia Records last April, but they were told it wouldn't come out until February. Now, they have only one more record left in their contract, and are excited about the possibilities of label-less freedom. “I would love to just go straight from fucking around in my attic to putting something on YouTube,” says VanWyngarden. Goldwasser has an even bolder vision: "Maybe instead of putting out an album, we'll put out an immersive art installation where you go into a house and each room is a different musical landscape. We can enter the David Byrne era of our career."
Last year marked the ten-year anniversary of Oracular Spectacular, which they could have easily used as an excuse to release a deluxe version of the LP, and play it straight through on tour. "I wanted to do stuff like that," reveals VanWyngarden. "But our managers advised us against it for some reason." Goldwasser was relieved when it didn't happen. "I'm glad we didn't make a big deal out of it," he says. "I don't know how you're supposed to feel ten years after putting out a successful album. Maybe you are supposed to go on a ten year anniversary tour. I don't know.""
Right now, they are focusing their energies on their tour, which hits U.S. theaters in late March. They removed "Kids" from their setlist on the early legs of their 2013 tour, causing some fans to get the wrong idea about they feel about their breakthrough song. "That got blown out of proportion," says VanWyngarden. "I would say that at over 90 percent of our shows we have played 'Kids.' We'll always play our most popular songs. If I'm going to see a band, the last thing I want to hear is their newest thing."
That said, the constant focus on their early work can be irritating for a group so focused on moving forward. "There's no article or video or anything about us that doesn't mention the first album and those three songs," says VanWyngarden. "It's ridiculous. But ultimately, I feel like we're both grateful for it. Even though people mention that every time, they're still talking about us. Lots of bands, they just disappear or their label drops them. We're lucky in the sense that we still have a career ten years on after giving people all this experimental stuff."