MGMT are one of the many “Breaking Out” success stories that have found their prosperity to be both a blessing and an inevitable curse. Plagued with radio-friendly expectations that were attached to a ’70s art rock twist, the Wesleyan University duo have proved themselves to be more than just another label casualty that would eventually crack under the pressures to conform and produce. With a familiar and unassuming dorm room beginning, the psych rockers have traded pop superstardom for longevity, casually flipping the bird to those hoping for low expectations.
Call them pretentious or just “weird as f**k”, but having written audacious recordings that stretched beyond the 10 to 12 minute mark (remember “Ghostbusters”?), you sure as hell can’t call them sell-outs. On the cusp of their third studio LP, succinctly titled MGMT, we caught up Ben Goldwasser (who makes up one half of the abstract pair) and picked his brain about optimism, five-hour jam sessions, and how to handle life as a musician in a messed up world.
Oracular Spectacular served as an introduction and Congratulations showed you guys could evolve and experiment; why did you decide to make your new record self-titled?
I don’t know…. I don’t know if we have a really good reason for it. I think it just seems like a funny thing to do – I mean we already have a few albums out and for a band to have a self-titled two or three records out always seemed funny to me. I think that if anything we’re just continuing to experiment and be more confident, and not feel like we have to prove something to somebody. We’re just enjoying the music we’re making and that’s a really good feeling.
As this is your third album, have you settled into your songwriting niche or do you still find yourself looking for new ways to communicate?
One of the fundamental traits of this band is that we kind of always want to keep experimenting and finding new sounds. It’s really important to us to keep changing. We’re not really set on finding a whole new genre or anything, I think just changing to a certain point is good.
What would you say has shaped your outlook in the years following Congratulations and all of the hype and controversy it entailed?
I think at this point we’re really optimistic. I mean, in a lot of ways Congratulations was a difficult album for us to put out because there were a lot expectations about what we were going to do next, and a lot of people were expecting another pop hit from us, and we didn’t really care about that. We weren’t really trying to write a pop single, we were just trying to evolve as a band and at this point, we’re under a lot less pressure in a lot of ways. We can kind of put out whatever we want as long as it’s good music and I don’t think we’re going to have too tough of a time feeling accepted by people. I don’t feel a terrible amount of pressure this time around.
“In terms of our minds, we felt like kids who were in a big scary world and were coming to terms with the music industry and how sleazy it can be sometimes. We just feel like we’re more in control of ourselves… and more confident.”
In your new song “I Love You Too, Death”, there’s a lot of light and dark imagery which I found spoke well for the tone of the album as a whole. Even when songs lyrically may come off as bleak, aurally there’s a tone of hope and vice versa.
The album as a whole is optimistic in a lot of ways, and not falsely saying that everything’s okay and we’re all going to be fine. It’s kind of acknowledging that there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world and it’s a pretty confusing place to be in right now (laughs). But it’s also saying that we as human beings have a certain amount of power to rise above and see things a little better. I don’t think it’s like a political album or anything like that. Things are pretty messed up right now, but it can get better. We just have to be a little more aware of what’s going on right now. That’s something that really annoys me a lot, especially in music or movies coming out. There’s just too much of a demand for art to be a diversion and not enough art that’s about helping people re-enter the world and cope with it.
You once described feeling a lack of control with Congratulations and I found the track “Alien Days” to evoke those emotions. Is it important to you as an artist to maintain a certain amount of control over your work or is there a kind of freedom in letting your art transform itself?
I think the lack of control at that point – when we were making Congratulations - wasn’t so much over the music we were making because we made exactly what we wanted to make. But you can feel a lack of control when everything is up in the air. In terms of our minds, we sort of felt like kids who were in a big scary world and were coming to terms with the music industry and how sleazy it can be sometimes. We just feel like we’re more in control of ourselves right now, and we’re calmer and more confident.
What is inspired the video for “Your Life is a Lie”?
A lot of the inspiration came from thinking about thugs or political hippie movements and art that was goofy and crazy but at the core had a message. We liked the idea of there being so much different imagery. Tom (Kuntz) really nailed it as far as what we were envisioning for that song.
Kid Cudi tweeted his support of your video the other day. Do you think your relationship with him or his outspoken support has influenced your fan base?
I don’t know, I mean it’d be really cool if it did! We run into him at shows every now and again, he’s a super nice guy. We’d love to work with him again.
How has challenging the typical notions of writing a pop song affected the production of MGMT – specifically tracks like “Mystery Disease” and “An Orphan Of Fortune”?
A lot of the songs on the album came from us just playing music for a really long time, like five or six hours. Like we’d record a lot of instrumental music and then put it together in a song later, and if a cool moment happened while we were improvising, then it would become part of a song. We allowed the material to kind of write itself in a lot of ways and didn’t really worry too much about following any set rules or structure.
So you didn’t have any specific intentions in terms of shaping a song?
No, not too much. We had a lot of ideas on how we wanted them to play out – like the title “Plenty Of Girls In The Sea” came before the music. “Alien Days” was also written a little more conventionally, but a lot of the stuff we were excited about kind of came out of a repetitive structure that evolved into something new over time.
What do you hope listeners take from your experiments?
I don’t know… I think the music we’ve made really does have the potential to take you somewhere and reward you when you’re listening to it over again. There’s a lot of little things buried in it that you might not get the first time, but it’s really exceptional music that’s not crazy experimental music or hard to get – I mean it has a pretty easy entry point that if you spend some time with it, it’ll take you somewhere.