MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden let Rolling Stone‘s Vanessa Grigoriadis into their private Brooklyn world in our new issue, where the band appears on our list of 40 Reasons to Get Excited About Music. Their second disc Congratulations has listeners split, but after the overwhelming success of their debut Oracular Spectacular tested their friendship, the duo are once again very united. Here’s more from Grigoriadis’ interview with MGMT: Goldwasser and VanWyndgarden on aliens, generation lazy and Congratulations‘ early leak.
Did your parents introduce you to music?
Goldwasser: They both play a little piano. They listened to a lot of music, a lot of the stuff they grew up with, like the Stones and Beatles and Incredible String Band and Traffic. Incredible String Band was basically the children’s music I listened to. People think of them as a psychedelic folk band, and when I was younger, I had no idea what “psychedelic” was at all, I just thought they were cool songs to sing, songs about caterpillars and whatever, weird shit.
What kind of music were you into in college?
VanWyngarden: Sophomore year, I was really getting into vinyl and took this record player my great aunt had given me and had that in my room and had a ton of records, a lot of my mom and dad’s records, and things I’d find at thrift stores and stuff. I was listening to T. Rex a lot, Murray Street by Sonic Youth, and more recent stuff from back then, like Blonde Redhead, and Black Sabbath. I was really into Black Sabbath.
What are people are taking from your music and your ethos that’s jarring to you?
Goldwasser: I don’t want to be seen as a band that’s just another messenger of a generation that doesn’t really care about what’s going on in the world and just wants to party, which I think we sort of belong to. There are definitely a lot of people who care, but it’s almost like it’s enough just to care about it, and you don’t really have to change your life to do anything about it. I’m not a political activist, but it’s just funny to see how many people there are who are like, “Yeah, I would buy organic food and I would buy American-made products, but it’s just too expensive so I’m not going to do it.”
Were there aliens around when you were doing this record?
VanWyngarden: Yeah, I don’t know. I had some dreams, and in the January before we started recording, I was out in New Mexico and I first saw… I don’t want to call it a UFO, but a very strange phenomenon in the sky, and had some dreams after that about some interesting things. I don’t think it’s Martian alien dudes in UFOs with laser guns, it’s just that there’s something out there, or even if it’s just a change in our view of the world or the way we use our brains, I think that can be an alien force, too. It’s more of a universal knowledge, a universal kind of spiritual presence that’s there that we’re not really getting to.
Is “It’s Working” about drugs working in your system?
Goldwasser: In some ways. It’s also about surfing in some ways. It’s pretty vague, but I think we were pretty self-conscious about there not being a traditional structure to the song. It’s definitely a pop song, but as our A&R pointed out, it takes two minutes for anything resembling a chorus to come in, which is not what radio stations are looking for. That’s OK with us. So it’s weird, it’s a super poppy song, but it’s not a pop single, I guess.
Was the label like, “Where are the singles?”
Goldwasser: They were kind of like, “You know this is what you did, you get it, you know that it would be a lot easier to do this if you made a traditional album front-loaded with singles, but that’s part of why we signed you.” I think people have this attitude that something’s either pop or it’s pretentious art, or it’s mainstream or it’s indie, there’s no middle ground, and I think we’re trying to go somewhere in between that. We feel like it should be taken as an album and not a collection of singles. We don’t want to be associated with concept albums and art rock or any of that, it’s bullshit to us.
People wonder if this album is a reaction to the success of the first one.
Goldwasser: I don’t think it was completely reactionary, like, “Oh, we had these unexpected hits on our last album, so let’s make a completely uncommercial album.” I don’t think it was like that, and I don’t think this album’s uncommercial. I think our next album could have 10 electro dance songs on it. We’re not going to buy into any sort of spin, like we’ve turned from an electro-pop duo into a psychedelic rock band, because we feel like we always were a psychedelic rock band and we never were an electro-pop duo. It’s all labels, anyway.
What did you think about the album leaking?
Goldwasser: I think that in some ways, it’s great, and in some ways it’s unfortunate. It’s really exciting for us to have people excited about the new stuff, but I think that it’s too bad that they weren’t able to experience the album for the first time with the whole artwork and packaging together, which is the way it’s meant to be.
VanWyngarden: I was expecting it to leak, and in a way, it’s good — the anticipation was turning into people thinking it was going to be a shit album, and that every song was going to be like “Flash Delirium” with too much going on and too many ideas. That’s really what that song was supposed to be about, is about being delirious and overwhelmed. It’s helped, in a way, that people can see it as a whole and get where we’re going to.
I still think that there’s a lot of people that jumped on it and dismissed it right away as shit. I can understand people not liking it, but we put in so much work into it and we’re very proud of it and we feel like it represents who we are musically, and for people to just dismiss it as some shit on one listen is stupid. I was expecting that to happen. I really just try to rely on being confident from talking to people like Kevin Shields [of My Bloody Valentine], people that I really respect musically, and hearing them say that they like our music and they like our new album and the new songs.
What have you thought about some of the reaction, like the weird thing about people saying you were sorry about the album?
Goldwasser: What I was saying was sarcastic, “If you’re expecting ‘Kids’ or ‘Time to Pretend’ or whatever, sorry, you’re not going to get that on this album,” and to interpret that as a genuine apology is really stupid. We are absolutely dead serious about music-making, and that’s what we want people to understand, that there’s no joke in it. We’re not intentionally trying to fuck with people, we’re actually making this music that we love and we want people to hear it.