MGMT: ‘It’s More About Feeling Like An Alien’

It’s all a cat and dog tale for Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser.

MGMT are back, and they have completely refreshed their approach. This time around they’ve written “a cat album,” apparently.

“First of all, let me say, I don’t discriminate between any animals,” says Andrew VanWyngarden, earnestly. “I love all animals but I used to fancy myself more as a dog person. Then I got a kitten while we were recording up near the studio – there was a free kittens flyer at the grocery store,” he giggles. “She started off called Batman, cos’ she’s all black and has the big ears. That’s kind of morphed now, and we call her Baggy. She’s totally taken over my brain.”

“I’m a dog person,” says Ben Goldwasser with typical deadpan. “I love cats, but I’m allergic to them.”

The band’s last album, ‘Congratulations’, Andrew says, is “more of a dog album” – whatever the hell that means. If he’s implying that it is has a different tone to MGMT’s debut, and to this new album, then he’s correct. ‘Congratulations’ was somewhat challenging, and required loyalty, patience. Rather than springing from fences with seven lives and a brazen exuberance, everything seemed to change. MGMT’s tongue-in-cheek irony became loaded with a darkly charged cynicism instead, and the response was varied. Some critics used descriptors like ‘brave’ and ‘artistic’. Others dug straight in there with the knife, and opted for ‘alienating’.

“It’s not like it was altogether shocking or out of the blue,” says Andrew, looking somewhat uneasy with the fact that he’s currently sat in an ornate golden throne. “We were pushing ourselves to do something different, and create this more inward, introspective record – I suppose you could say darker. Of course people are going to react like that. We’re not behaving in the way that they are expecting us to.” It seems both Andrew and Ben feel frustrated by being lambasted for trying to do something new creatively. “I think that became the tagline of ‘Congratulations’,” says Ben, “as being a departure. For us it really wasn’t. We just made an album!” He pauses. “It’s not like we thought, ok, now we’re going to alienate these people. We love our fans.” Did accusations that suggested otherwise annoy the band? “You can’t let it wind you up,” says Ben, “because that’s what they want.” “The annoying part was being portrayed as doing it intentionally; I think they called it ‘career suicide’,” says Andrew with a deadpan chuckle.

Still, it seems like ‘Congratulations’ was an album MGMT desperately needed to make, and the accompanying difficulties have made them a more confident band today. “The reward of that struggle was where we are now,” says Andrew, “a point where we feel really comfortable making whatever song comes into our head and not second guessing it, or worrying about how it’s going to be perceived. I think we’ve established ourselves as a band that can do lots of different things.”

There’s a definite shift in Ben and Andrew’s mindset, and ‘MGMT’ feels like their most honest record yet. The band have visited every shade of irony since their debut single ‘Time To Pretend’ - even morphing into their own parody. Truthfulness feels like a logical progression beyond that. “That song was slightly prophetic,” says Andrew. “Not, like, the hard drug habits, or buying islands, or whatever, but just considering that I never had the drive or ambition to become some mega band – other than in a very ironic sense…” He speaks carefully, pausing, before letting loose fragmentary chunks of sentences at a time. “We were like, 25, so we were enjoying it, partying, having a good time. I think, for me, it’s a pretty clear progression in the three albums, a reflection of our age and insights at the time. Now I feel like we’re both 30, and we’re more at ease. It feels like coming out and not worrying about it too much.” That’s not to say MGMT have turned all sensible and conventional, despite ditching their headbands and tie-dye. “I don’t think we’re making ‘Adult Contemporary Music’,” Ben says with a grin.

Now MGMT seem more concerned now with writing from a more grounded place. “[Debut, ‘Oracular Spectacular’] was very sarcastic and ironic, and written in college – it was naïve and fantastical, very wide-eyed. This is supposed to be empowering, it’s trying to be real and it’s not a hidden message,” Ben agrees. “I think it’s a different form of cynicism. With this album it’s more playful, in a way, and not trying to be ironic. It’s really just acknowledging that the world we’re living in right now is a pretty ridiculous place, and that in a way we have to accept it, but we also have to have a sense of humour about it. We have to be able to go on with our lives.”

If anything, ‘MGMT’ is a return to the spontaneity that made the band so magical and appealing in the first place. Written from improvised jams, spanning hours, it feels more alive, less refined. “I think we’ve learnt from the past,” agrees Ben, “that a lot of the time when you do that, [overthink], you’re ruining the original thing that made it cool.” Lyrically, Andrew cites Philip Lamentia, the beat poet who wrote about dream sequences, and their link to everyday life, as a major influence on the record. Using phonetics to write lyrics sometimes – “I make lyrics that sound like the sounds I’m making, even if it’s just gibberish. A lot of the times meaning will come later,” he laughs – the approach is geared towards experimentation rather than perfectionism. MGMT sound all the more exciting for it. To use Andrew’s words, it seems to “rekindle the spirit that was around when we were first making music.”

MGMT Album Trailer from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

Part of that spirit, they divulge, is a little paranormal. “When we’re writing music, and we don’t know where it came from, that must’ve been aliens,” laughs Ben. “You’re going through the day,” continuse Andrew, intently, ”and maybe you’re eating lunch and staring at your food, and things all seem too bizarre. Everyday reality seems too strange, and you somehow justify it by saying there’s some sort of alien in your head. We’ve done that since we met.” ‘Alien Days’ references that same joke than began when the pair were both 18. “I think that we felt it was a good opening, because lyrically it reflects on our experiences together as a band, on the first and second album, and also in college. I think it moves us to where we are now.”

Did any alien encounters happen during the recording of ‘MGMT’? “I think Andrew has more alien experiences than I do, people see more aliens in the desert,” laughs Ben. “The song ‘Astromancy’ came from this wild experience I had when I was in Iceland last fall,” begins Andrew. “My friends and I had driven up to this little peninsula in the middle of nowhere, and I woke up at, like, four in the morning, and lay in a field by myself. I was watching the aurora borealis. There was this light show happening, and then there was this bizarre moment with these two lights that started converging on where I was.” He stops mid-narrative. “I don’t want to go into too much detail and sound like a freak or something, but that was a weird moment!

“I think for the first record there were a couple of moments where I felt alien contact, and Ben and I would laugh about it, saying the aliens were writing the songs. This record is less like that. It’s more about feeling like an alien yourself.”

MGMT’s self-titled new album will be released on 16th September via Columbia Records.

Read the full interview in the new edition of DIY Weekly, available from iTunes now.