MGMT: Dancing in Babylon

Mike Greenhaus on February 23, 2024
MGMT: Dancing in Babylon

photo: Jonah Freeman


According to Ben Goldwasser, reports of the global apocalypse have been greatly exaggerated. 

“I get frustrated with this zeitgeist right now, where everyone’s talking about how it’s the end of the world and that we’re screwed,” admits the keyboardist, who is one half of the long[1]running indie-rock duo MGMT. “Looking back, the world’s always been ending. There have been so many periods in history when it felt like, ‘Oh, man, humanity is done or society is crumbling.’ And then something comes out of that. It’s important, no matter how dark things get, to find something to celebrate or to be grateful for. As a musician, a big part of our job is to give people an escape or an outlet that is positive. People have really hard jobs. Imagine working in a hospital during the pandemic—you are not going to want to go home and listen to some really depressing music about how the world is terrible.” 

“That’s a big thematic shift from our last album, Little Dark Age, which was spawned right when Trump was becoming president,” his bandmate, singer/guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden, adds. “There was a lot of dark, absurdist, cynical, ironic energy in that because there was this feeling of, ‘There’s nothing you can do. Everything’s manipulated and out of your control and you don’t know what’s real. You don’t know what’s true.’ And our way of getting around that and subverting that was to go in the direction of being sincere and following love and lightheartedness.” 

As they are describing the genesis of their forthcoming release Loss of Life—their fifth full-length LP and first since 2018—the members of MGMT are Zooming from opposite coasts. Goldwasser is sitting in his home studio in Los Angeles while VanWyngarden is standing by a window overlooking a scenic landscape at his place in the New York area. After a few humorous technical difficulties getting everyone logged on and unmuted are worked out— which feels like the 2023 version of having subway delays en route to a bar for an interview—the duo provides a quick update on their extracurricular activities while they have been largely out of the public eye during the past four years. And while MGMT have always had a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe, reinforced by the Lord of the Flies imagery of their early years, they describe their current era with a newfound sense of hopefulness. 

“Loss of life—which is theme that we’ve dealt with before on other albums—doesn’t have to be just human death, like ‘I Love You Too, Death’ on our self-titled album,” VanWyngarden says, recalling MGMT’s artful-yet-devisive 2013 set. “We say, ‘All beginnings are an end.’ It can just be a major change. Every major change involves the death of—and the mourning of—a past existence in some ways.” 

MGMT started working on what would eventually become Loss of Life in the spring of 2021, when they reconvened with longtime collaborator Dave Fridmann at his studio during the depths of the pandemic. Still COVID cautious and uncertain about the state of the world, they started workshopping what became the Loss of Life track “People in the Streets” and toyed with a version of “Nothing Changes,” which grew out of a leftover idea from the Little Dark Age sessions.

“We had both been keeping busy with some projects during the lockdown,” VanWyngarden says. “I was doing some remixing and I started working on this radio show, Time Passage, which was a lot of fun and also improved my skills at editing and producing. It’s nice to start with an idea you already have. We were happy with those two sessions. We were having a lot of fun working with Fridmann, but they didn’t really manifest into full songs.” 

In 2022, the duo kicked into gear a little more, regrouping with their Little Dark Age co-pilots Patrick Wimberly and Miles A. Robinson to hone in on what would become their next batch of music. Adapting to the remote era, for many of the sessions, VanWyngarden would work with Wimberly in New York while Goldwasser would send over files from LA. At one point, electronic music producer Dan Lopatin got involved and, at times, the entire creative team would meet up at different studios for some in[1]person live tracking.

During one rendezvous at Sean Lennon’s Upstate New York studio, the duo took advantage of their proximity to Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and his wife Yuka Honda, their host’s close friends and one-time West Village housemates. “We were all just hanging out—Dan, Patrick, Miles, [engineer] Nathan Salon, Ben and our bandmate James [Richardson],” VanWyngarden says. “It was this jamboree where we had two different rooms with multiple songs being worked on and Nels ended up doing some really fun stuff on ‘Mother Nature.’”

They also recruited electro-pop singer Christine and the Queens for the almost Yacht rock New Wave-banger “Dancing in Babylon,” marking the first time MGMT have released a track with a “featured” guest. VanWyngarden says that the cut fell into place while they were finishing Loss of Life, after the album’s “moods, theme and interests” had already fallen into place.

“Before that, it took all sorts of different shapes,” he says. “It was an up-tempo, Magnetic Fieldsy song. And then I did a version that was more Euro-house music. And somehow, when we switched it to halftime, the key opened up the door to this cheesy, ‘80s sincere music that is something that Ben and I originally bonded together over. It’s in our roots, but we don’t really access it all that much. But, on every album, we’ll dip into it a bit, and this was the moment for this one.”  

Like its predecessor, Loss of Life is more direct and easily digestible—and less dense and overtly psychedelic—than MGMT while still stopping short of feeling like commercial indie. (However, the title-track selections that bookend the record contain enough spoken-word passages, flute flourishes and righteous distortion to be properly described as heady.)

There are some not-so-ironic ‘70s soft-rock hooks in there too, and the band even promises, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, that “musically speaking, we are running at around 20% adult contemporary and no more than this, please” in their press materials. 

“There are a lot of parallels in my mind with our self-titled album, in the sense that we were trying to layer a lot of different sounds and audio worlds on top of each other,” VanWyngarden says. “But this time, we just figured out a way to do it where it wasn’t as cluttered and chaotic. It was more of a nice blend.” 

It’s also their first album for Mom + Pop, marking a return to their indie-label roots after a long partnership with Columbia that stretched back to their smash first LP, Oracular Spectacular in 2007. The members of MGMT say that they had recorded and fully mastered their new set before they even began the process of shopping it. As VanWyngarden explains, that means that “the whole creative process was totally without any consideration for a label or having to go through any sort of filters or different opinions that might differ from our own.” 

He adds, “It was liberating, and it led us to be in a more collaborative mood. We invited more people than we had before. We had our first true duet song, and we have multiple producers, and it felt more like a family-style album.” 


Even if they never released another note of music, MGMT would be remembered as a generationally defining, and at times genre-defying, band of the blogger era. A classic college-rock story, refracted through the lens of the modern digital era, the Memphis-bred VanWyngarden and Goldwasser, who grew up in upstate New York, famously met at Wesleyan University during the fall of 2001 and bonded against the backdrop of another turning point in American history, 9/11.

“There were so many firsts happening for me as an 18 year old, being away from home,” VanWyngarden says. “There were psychedelic firsts—I took mushrooms with Ben, and we had this profound trip where we really connected over this absurd, psychedelic humor. We were both energized in that period, and we ended up finding each other and were able to use music and silliness as an outlet during a very anxious time.”

They started writing together, initially as The Management, and had some regional success—especially in the North and Southeast where their social networks were strong—before briefly going their separate ways. Ultimately, though— through friends and early supporters who were also making inroads in the music industry right out of school—their music spread to Columbia, who signed them and fully reactivated the project. 

The label released the Fridmann-produced Oracular Spectacular during the indie-rock boom, which featured both reworkings of some of their early EP favorites and a new selection of electro[1]tinged, modern psychedelic-rock classics. Oracular Spectacular was an almost immediate smash, spawning hits like “Time to Pretend,” “Kids” and “Electric Feel,” and simultaneously helping usher in two separate strains of indie-rock that remain prevalent to this day—dance-ready indie-pop and punky, post-jam psych-rock. Recalling the playfulness of the Beastie Boys during their never-quite-straight interviews, MGMT also helped define a very modern type of rock star—one that was raised during an alternative-era when the idea of the over[1]the-top guitar god had long been deflated and against the backdrop of a modern jamband world where community building and fan engagement remain paramount. 

But while they seemed to enjoy certain aspects of their newfound fame, and were still signed to a major label, MGMT leaned into their psychedelic, anti-hero side on 2010’s Congratulations and the more experimental MGMT, even as the rock world seemed to move closer to the sound on their debut. Both albums were smart, artful statements that continued to move the needle—bringing an underground, DIY ethos into the mainstream—though the bottle-service crowds seemed to turn their attention toward some of artists MGMT originally help shine a light on, like Tame Impala. However, while not a full return to their early hits, they did start circling back to some simpler, catchier anthems on Little Dark Age, which provided a bit of a release in the wake of the 2016 election.  

“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do—to be able to strip things down a bit more and leave some space,” Goldwasser says. “Some of that maybe comes with just having more confidence. And I’d also say a big part of that comes with being able to be less precious about things and the ability to let some things go, even if they sound cool in the studio.”

When COVID initially touched down in the U.S., VanWyngarden decided to go off the radar for a bit. In 2019, he had started a relationship with someone in LA and began spending more time out West. He remained in contact with Goldwasser and says that the longtime collaborators would jam a bit when he was in California, though nothing concrete came out of their hangs. 

“The day before, or the morning of, the LA lockdown, where it got really intense, we drove to New Mexico and I ended up spending like three months out in Santa Fe at my mother’s house,” VanWyngarden says. “She wasn’t there, but her dog was. So it was just me and my partner taking the dog out on hikes.” 

VanWyngarden stayed active, working on some remixes and even capturing sounds in the woods while he sheltered in place in New Mexico. Some of those field recordings are embedded on Loss of Life—including the birds he taped for “Nothing Changes”—helping highlight the album’s earthy undertones. Later on, when he was in Paris, he also witnessed a march from below his window and recorded the activity on his phone, which became the end of “People in the Streets.”  

“It was fun to be spontaneous and be in that creative mood where anything can go,” he says. “In my life, I’ve gone through a bunch of these intense global or world-changing events, whether it was being a freshman in college during 9/11 or [Superstorm] Sandy. And I’ve always gotten a burst of energy and have been able to turn it into this creative energy. But then I have a lot of friends that went totally the other way and they got really dark and down and depressed.”

For his part, Goldwasser spent a good chunk of the pandemic working with Karen O on a soundtrack for the animated film Where Is Anne Frank

“It was very much outside of my comfort zone and was a really cool way of thinking about music, where it was more like specific assignments,” he admits. “Everything had to fit exactly with what was happening on the screen. It helped me realize that I could be less precious in my music making. We might spend a longtime perfecting some emotional transition or something that was supposed to happen at a very specific moment. And then they would come back with a new edit of it and be like, ‘You have to condense this to this many seconds and it has to end right at this timecode.’ At first, it was really frustrating but then it ended up being liberating to just stop being in my own head too much.”

Goldwasser admits that he “fell into this state” of not really going out and socializing much during the pandemic, even when things started to open up a bit more. 

“It’s pretty typical of a lot of people who live in LA,” says the musician, who has long enjoyed hunkering down with his wife. “It’s a city where people tend to look for an excuse to just kick it at home or not drive all the way across the city to see somebody or something. So I ended up just being more of a self-imposed homebody, which I love.” 

However, he did contribute to Lil Yachty’s genre-bending psych-rock album, Let’s Start Here, on which the rapper recruited Wimberly, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jacob Portrait, Mac Demarco, Alex G and many others to work up a record that many have described as his version of MGMT. 

“Patrick looped me into it—there were constantly tons of people rolling in and hanging out,” he says of the sessions, which still had a modern hip-hop approach. “It was very chaotic but really cool. Yachty was good about making it feel open. There was never a moment where somebody would be doing something and he would be like, ‘This sucks.’ He would just sit and absorb what was going on in the room.”

Yet, for a time, Goldwasser wasn’t totally sure what his role was on Let’s Start Here. “I knew there were some cool things happening, but then I was talking with Patrick on the phone after, and he was like, ‘You co-wrote a song on the Yachty record,’” he says with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘I did? That’s amazing.’” 

Once things opened up, VanWyngarden returned to DJing around New York; he hosted a residency at the Brooklyn dance club Schimanski and even enlisted Goldwasser for some special club-night appearances. And, during all this, Little Dark Age’s title track somehow turned into an unexpected TikTok meme. 

“If anything, it accented how absurd the [media] landscape is in general,” Goldwasser says. “It was this totally unplanned thing, and we didn’t really do anything to promote that. And the freedom that came from that was the ability to say to ourselves, ‘We just make music.’ We’re not marketing geniuses. We’re not trying to sell ourselves and we’re not good at branding or anything like that. We’re good at making music. And so it was better to not think about any of that stuff and try to make something that feels honest and hope that it finds an audience.”


For well over a decade, MGMT have taken their time between releases. But, given the pandemic and just how instantaneous the media landscape has become, the gap between Little Dark Age and Loss of Life felt even longer than usual. The pair winked at the gradual pace they work at when they teased their fifth LP, replacing their website with the image of a turtle inching toward the finish line.

They also tested out the live music waters again in mid-2023, making a one-off appearance at California’s Just Like Heaven, where they performed Oracular Spectacular in its entirety for the first time. The gig featured their only take on “4th Dimensional Transition” since 2013, and they capped things off by busting out their primal jam “Love Always Remains.” Of course, never ones to completely give into their Big Indie moment, they rode on wagon wheels decorated like a boat at one point.    

“Because we didn’t have any other more traditional shows booked, we put months of work into this one show—rehearsing and rewriting all the songs,” VanWyngarden says. “We played with the recordings from 2006, from our Logic sessions. We were re-sampling ourselves and just having so much fun. It was great, but it also put Ben and I both in a headspace where we don’t really want to return to the type of touring that we were doing.”

In fact, even with a new record slated for release on February 23, both musicians hope to avoid jumping back onto the traditional touring circuit. 

“The COVID lockdown also added to that,” the guitarist says. “I was like, ‘I am home with nothing to do and I’m actually more creative.’ I could stare out the window—it takes a lot out of you to get on the road and fly around and do all this stuff. I found myself doing things that I hadn’t done in so long during the pandemic, like finding a guitar on Craigslist or getting totally inspired by a new instrument. It just takes a different kind of mindset to be able to do that. Ben and I want to try to figure out a way where we can do some sort of live performances, but also remain really creatively open and keep things flowing.” 

“We were able to put a lot of energy and focus into this one thing,” Goldwasser adds. “That excited us a lot. When you tour, you are able to hone in on playing and it becomes really fluid and that is exciting. But then there’s the other side of that. I think we both get a little bit burnt out by the end of a long tour.”  

Goldwasser says that most of the live performances he’s seen recently have been by comedians, a relatively new development for him. 

“Coming out of the pandemic, there is something I really enjoyed about the awkwardness of live comedy,” he says. “In some ways, to me, it’s the opposite of going to a live-music performance, where there’s this expectation that everything should be a perfect experience. And that even applies sometimes to shows where there’s a lot of improvisation. There’s still this expectation about it being polished in some way. Comedy is messy and there are so many uncomfortable moments when you’re not sure how to feel or you’re not sure if the joke landed right.” 

While they have no plans to tour in the immediate future, the members of MGMT are focusing their energy on rolling out a series of creative music videos, which both showcase their humor and represent their new songs in a more complete way. They have also settled into a slower-paced life as 40-somethings. 

“I’d love to be going out, seeing shows and doing all sorts of stuff, but I haven’t really been able to for a while,” VanWyngarden says. “I still stumble onto a lot of new music that I love, but it’s in the way that a boomer might. I’ll come upon some Spotify algorithm and be like, ‘This is nice.’ But I would not say I’m in the loop. I’m pretty out of touch with what is hip and happening right now. As far as I can tell, it seems like there has been a lot of ‘90s club music that’s seeped in and there’s a lot more artists that are ditching guitars and going more toward an R&B and electronic[1]inspired sound. And so, in that sense, I’m glad that we’re a little out of touch and we’re coming out with an album that was mostly written on a classic guitar.” 

“People care less about where something comes from,” Goldwasser chimes in, finishing his bandmate’s thought. “They are more willing to just take it at face value and not judge it too much, which is cool.”