MGMT For Dummies – An Interview With MGMT

The year 2008 has been good to Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, aka MGMT. I met them before a show in Glasgow at the beginning of 2008, just before their trajectory was changed to super-stardom and they were timid, confused and slightly nervous. The results are below.

 

Remember those AOL advertisements that ran just a short while ago? “Is the Internet a good or a bad thing?” they asked us in rather one-dimensional fashion. Up until recently, this trusting scribe thought the campaign was a no-brainer… surely such an endless source of information could only be a good thing?

When catching up with Yankee trailblazers MGMT in Glasgow before their debut Scottish gig recently, gleefully armed to the back teeth with a Google-mined lowdown on the band, my head was turned: “So I read somewhere that you guys were both pretty heavy acid users?” It is enthusiastically put to the duo. The responding hoots of disbelief suggest otherwise. “Who the hell said that?”

In their mercurial ascendancy, a great deal has been written about MGMT; we now know that much of it is false. And having had our fingers burned, it seems prudent to give MGMT some chance to set the record straight. So let’s take it from the top.

MGMT (formerly pronounced Management, but not anymore) are Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, both 25, both music graduates of Wesleyan College, Connecticut. It’s a place they describe as “a great little hippy school. There were a lot of cool kids making a lot of cool art.” Encountering them for the first time in the deserted upstairs bar of the Beat Club, the bearded Goldwasser, more aesthetically introverted, is donning a new jumper, the front of which is boldly dominated by some sort of woodland creature. “I picked it up in a charity store in London”, he beams, “you like it?” VanWyngarden on the other hand, is every inch the art student. Rake thin, big glam hair and draped in trinkets, he could be the love child of Marc Bolan and Mystic Meg. Certainly, neither of their appearances betrays nerves, but when the questions start coming, the awkward sideways glances and embarrassed laughter suggest otherwise.

“You start,” says VanWyngarden.

“No, it’s your turn,” is the comeback from Goldwasser.

After meeting in 2001, the pair bonded over a love of Sonic Youth and began making electronic music together shortly after. “We started playing really short little shows of loops of music that we made – 15 minute loops. They were weird. Not exactly performance art, but messy antagonistic shows,” recalls Goldwasser, after the band finally settles on who should talk us through their early days. Compared to the flamboyance and confidence their music now exudes, their earlier efforts were meeker and their live shows shambolic. “We had less faith in our musical abilities,” VanWyngarden picks up: “We tried to entertain people in non-musical ways.”

It was through one of these shambolic early performances, though, that the band made a useful acquaintance in Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes. VanWyngarden takes up the story, “We met them at a bar in Athens, Georgia. I was being a drunken ass and I went up and told him I wanted to be in Of Montreal. I said I was gonna drop out of school, but I didn’t even know them. Then they came to one of our shows… we were playing in a kitchen. Me and Ben were doing a karaoke style gig and they really liked it. So they let us come and open up a couple of shows for them, and that’s where the friendship started.” A bold move by VanWyngarden, and one that seems totally at odds with our initial nervy introductory exchanges, seems to have led to a lucky break MGMT have not looked back from. Hence the slightly apologetic admission that the band “never really went through the ‘paying your dues period’ of being in a band, like playing in front of 6 people every night.”

Despite MGMT acknowledging their early good fortune, it would be wrong giving Lady Luck all of the credit for the band’s ascent. The song that brought the band to the public eye, and perhaps more importantly, to the attention of their monolithic bankrollers Columbia Records, is Time To Pretend, a sardonic tale of rockstar overkill and burnout. The band, slowly finding their conversational rhythm and perhaps finding comfort in the fact that this particular hack has come blissfully ill-informed, refute any suggestion that the song is autobiographical, or indeed, that the band are unholy acid heads. “I don’t think we’d be this coherent if we were,” retorts Andrew. “The song is quite tongue in cheek lyrically. When we wrote it, we weren’t expecting to be signed to a label or anything; we were just these goofy college boys singing about being rockstars.”

Goldwasser continues the conversation, “I guess listening to us for the first time we can come across as a little cocky. Sort of like “Hey! Look at us, we’re rock stars!” But when we wrote it we were totally goofing off.”

For better or for worse though, rock stars they now are and apparently, it’s not just journalists who are mistaking them for a stereotype. VanWyngarden’s father, it seems, has been perusing similar sites: “I got this email from my dad when we were in France saying ‘don’t shoot heroin!’ I’m like ‘get off my back, dad, I’m not gonna shoot up!’” Whilst not ostensibly stressed, there’s a clear sense that the band are concerned with the perception their misleadingly projected image may portray at home.

“We like to party as much as anyone,” Ben admits gingerly, “but we’re not speed freaks or anything. I don’t want a person saying anything that’s untrue or misleading about us, it just makes me feel bad. I shouldn’t be offended because that’s what people do. They manipulate the facts to make their own end. So if they want to make us out bad and say we are druggy freaks, well there’s not much we can do.”

Ballyhoo aside, once you peel back the layers of hype, there is the small matter of a debut album to deal with. Oracular Spectacular (the title being the result of an Internet search for ‘mystical bullshit’) is a matter MGMT seem much more pleased to discuss. “Anyone who’s listened to our album is not going to pigeonhole us easily stylistically,” Goldwasser boasts. It’s fair to say the band cover substantial musical ground over the course of the LP (VanWyngarden lists their collective influences as anything from The Legendary Pink Dots to Spaceman 3), which is without doubt a fantastic fusion of pomp, funk and electro-kitsch. And once the cyber-dust has settled and the rumour mill moves on, Oracular Spectacular will still be here, testament to two mummy’s boys from Brooklyn, who just happen to be rockstars.

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