Andrew VanWyngarden On The Reinvention Of MGMT

13 February 2018 | 4:00 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"We really didn't cut ourselves off as much in the process - like we didn't isolate ourselves and make it so that writing music was this torturous process filled with anguish and despair, like some guy in a castle tower."


Have MGMT reinvented themselves as a goth band? That's what some wondered when, late last year, the US electro-popsters aired their Little Dark Age video - frontman Andrew VanWyngarden singing, "I grieve in stereo" with bird-nest hair. But, with MGMT, nothing is ever straightforward. "We like confusing people, I guess!" VanWyngarden quips from his London hotel, following an earlier gig at Electric Brixton.

After venturing off into deep psychedelia, MGMT have resurfaced with their poppiest album since 2007's fabled debut Oracular Spectacular - also titled Little Dark Age. And, finally, they're balancing their affinities with the collective and the contrary.

VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser formed MGMT in 2002 as music students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The buzz duo scored a deal with Columbia Records. Settling in New York, they cut Oracular Spectacular with ex-Mercury Rev bassist (and The Flaming Lips associate) Dave Fridmann. MGMT became a zeitgeist act with the anthem Kids. They were nominated for a "Best New Artist" Grammy. And they contributed to KiD CuDi's cult single Pursuit Of Happiness. However, MGMT discarded any magical crossover formula on 2010's acid-prog second album Congratulations, prompting an epic media backlash. Alas, 2013's equally experimental eponymous outing was overlooked.

Finishing tour commitments the next year, MGMT went on hiatus. Goldwasser relocated to Los Angeles, leaving VanWyngarden in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Today, VanWyngarden maintains that this bicoastal separation was "not that big of a hurdle," even as the pair partially worked on Little Dark Age over email. "I think Ben is a lot happier where he lives in LA and having this new life and this new world and a little studio room… It made it so that, when we did meet up, we were more appreciative of the time that we had together."

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Above all, MGMT's members yearned "to behave like normal people again" after years of grinding. "Ben and I both focussed on our own home life and cooking and listening to music and just doing boring normal stuff, but also really refocussing on friends. It's easy to tour and do this whole thing and be in your own bubble. Sometimes friendships go to the wayside - and I include me and Ben in that group, too. We kind of had to work on our friendship again." It transpires that VanWyngarden, rock star, is more of the cook. "I got really into making risotto 'cause it's really meditative - like the stirring and the adding of the broth and stuff," he laughs.

As MGMT began composing Little Dark Age concertedly in 2016, they faced a dilemma. "Every time we get together, or we start thinking about a new record, there's usually a long period of us just figuring out what kind of sounds are appealing to us at the time. This time, when we first started getting together, we were just doing long, extended electronic studio jams. It was kind of similar to how we made our third album - and it ended up not being the most inspiring thing to us. So we pushed ourselves to figure out a different way to make music this time."

MGMT resolved to record a collaborative project. They brought in Patrick Wimberly, from the now-defunct Chairlift, to co-produce (alongside Fridmann). Plus, they wrote with artists such as California's punk chillwaver Ariel Pink (the trippy When You Die) and eccentric New Zealander Connan Mockasin. "That really opened us up," VanWyngarden reveals. MGMT rediscovered a healthier dynamic, too. "We really didn't cut ourselves off as much in the process - like we didn't isolate ourselves and make it so that writing music was this torturous process filled with anguish and despair, like some guy in a castle tower. I think we've done that before, [but] this time was just way more fun and playful and social. We really needed to get back to that - 'cause that's how it used to be in college. There were moments before we started making our new album where I was doubtful, or uncertain, if we still had that side to us."

MGMT dig the niche. In recent shows, they've covered Kiwi Zaine Griff's lost (Tony Visconti-helmed) '80s classic Ashes & Diamonds. ("He was really trying to do the Bowie thing," VanWyngarden notes.) With Little Dark Age, MGMT tapped into darker electronic influences. Indeed, the title-track evokes the brooding Visage - the New Romantic aesthetic otherwise neglected despite that prevailing '80s nostalgia. "Me and Ben always have had roots in synth-pop music since we met in college - you know, mostly less dark synth-pop. Especially in the beginning, it was more of the stuff you would expect, like OMD [Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark] and Depeche Mode and Talking Heads and Madonna and Prince and all this stuff. But, since graduating from college, we'd both gotten into exploring more obscure worlds of music from the '80s - especially early '80s." In fact, MGMT's reference for the arch Little Dark Age clip, with its "over-the-top, ridiculous goth kind of vibe," was the UK group The Sisters Of Mercy - hence VanWyngarden's wig. "We definitely got a kick out of doing that as the first thing people saw from us in four years, because I think some people actually thought we were a goth band now."

Little Dark Age has been positioned as MGMT's album for the Trump era. Nonetheless, VanWyngarden suggests that it "isn't overtly political," but rather their response to the anxiety and dread engendered when compulsively consuming digital news in a volatile setting - "this cycle of negativity that feeds back on itself." Yet, being MGMT, Little Dark Age ripples with black humour. VanWyngarden has even penned an existentialist jam called TSLAMP ("Time Spent Looking At My Phone"). "At some point, we realised that we have the ability to make music that breaks out of that [cycle] by having fun or laughing or dancing - these things that are really important to remember and to practise. So, in some ways, the playfulness is a direct reaction to just the super-serious and sometimes sombre mood of the United States in 2016/2017." Mind, MGMT do poke fun at themselves - the phantasmagoric video to the banger Me And Michael, VanWyngarden says, "satirises our career and the critics."

Intriguingly, MGMT are rumoured to be returning to Australia mid-year for Splendour In The Grass, where they headlined in 2009. "There is something in the pipeline," VanWyngarden chuckles. "I'm not sure when things are announced. But, yeah, we'll be setting foot on Australian soil this year, for sure."