MGMT: Just Kids

Mike Greenhaus on February 10, 2018

Andrew VanWyngarden was driving through Western New York when the reality of a Donald J. Trump presidency slowly came into focus. It was the night before the singer/guitarist and his MGMT partner, keyboardist Ben Goldwasser, were slated to start a session with their longtime producer Dave Fridmann and the returns had started to roll in. Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning looked bleak, to say the least. MGMT have never been the most outwardly political band, but VanWyngarden knew that a new dark age was upon him.

“We like to leave it up to the listener to interpret our songs, but we wrote and recorded this album in 2016 so certain things crept into the music,” he says just over a year after that surreal November evening, while preparing to roll out MGMT’s first full-length album since 2013, Little Dark Age. “Our emotions and moods changed with the news of the country.

It’s a mild autumn afternoon and VanWyngarden and Goldwasser are sitting on the same side of a wooden booth in a low-key Brooklyn pub. Though the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of their kaleidoscopic anthem “Time to Pretend” have served as the Brooklyn music scene’s unofficial mission statement for the better part of a decade, besides a festival set a few months earlier, it has been almost four years since MGMT have played a proper New York concert—and before this spring, they had spent over two years almost entirely off the grid. Especially in the age of instant social-media access, that break felt particularly worrisome, though MGMT never announced any sort of official hiatus and usually wait a few years between records.

MGMT are currently congregated in the area for a pair of all-star shows celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Velvet Underground’s first LP. VanWyngarden, who has lived in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens, N.Y. since before Superstorm Sandy ransacked the area in 2012, arrives first, sporting some Movember-approved facial hair; Goldwasser, who was near the forefront of the current pack of Kings County expats decamping to Los Angeles, walks in a few minutes later wearing a black leather jacket that conceals his otherwise visible tattoos. They’re both a little fried. The tribute’s opening night featured fellow art-rock trailblazers like TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Kurt Vile, and Avey Tare and Geologist of Animal Collective, and the after-party turned into something of an early-aughts family reunion. The MGMT duo weren’t sure what to expect—and, despite their prankster reputations, were uncharacteristically restrained onstage.

“We had to control ourselves,” VanWyngarden says with a smile. “During ‘Sister Ray,’ I really wanted to say, ‘sucking on a ding-dong’ over and over as a nod to Suicide.”

“Suicide did a cover of ‘Sister Ray’ and they just kept saying that over and over again,” Goldwasser explains, nodding to one of MGMT’s earliest post-punk influences, before shifting the focus back to the Velvets’ experimental heart-and-soul, John Cale, who used the shows to celebrate his 75th birthday. “It’s cool when you hear older musicians doing things that are forward-thinking and creative and not just rehashing.”

With a knowing grin, VanWyngarden admits that he first heard the Velvet Underground when Phish started covering “Rock and Roll” in the late-‘90s. (He tried to check out one of the Vermont Quartet’s Baker’s Dozen shows this past summer and couldn’t believe how hard it was to nab tickets.) Goldwasser’s dad introduced him to the seminal indie-rock group, but he really began getting into their music when he started crate-digging at his local record store and a clerk suggested White Light/White Heat.

“The first time I heard it, I had no idea what to make of it, but it infiltrated my brain,” Goldwasser says. “I thought, ‘This music is so badly recorded’ and now, to me, it sounds amazing and perfect. My brain had to realize that there were a lot more possibilities of how things could sound.”

Even when their 2007 Columbia debut Oracular Spectacular turned them into fashion icons and hipster heartthrobs seemingly overnight, MGMT never truly felt like part of the mainstream. Their songs were the product of a generation programmed to be skeptical of rock-star excess, yet powered by a sense of 21st-century narcissism and self-awareness. “That’s something our whole friend group, the guys in the live band, always bonded over,” Goldwasser says. “This irreverence for nostalgia. We respect the touchstones of pop culture, but we also don’t feel like anything is above being made fun of.”

Yet, recently, both VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have been thinking about their community of musicians, who are now indie-rock elder statesmen. Goldwasser loved the way Patti Smith described her small circle of friends in Just Kids, and both he and VanWyngarden point to the similarities in the communal settings that birthed both the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. “I love it in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when they pull into New York on the bus like, ‘Whaaat,’” VanWyngarden says before breaking into laughter.

Little Dark Age isn’t so much a full-circle return to form as it is a reboot after the longest period of dormancy in MGMT’s career. After two highly experimental albums that scared away some of the fairweather fans drawn to their breakthrough hits—and proved to another subset of their audience that their swirl of indie, electronica and jam could sound pretty ‘oracular spectacular’—MGMT have reclaimed some of the hooks and synth-happy energy that ignited their fan base a decade ago. But, instead of simply trying to rewrite their biggest anthems, they’ve managed to come out the other side of the psych-rock rabbit hole—offering a set of more straightforward, catchy tunes that still feel sinister at a time when hip-hop and radio-pop have overtaken the festival underground.

“Younger people are growing up in a world where that’s normal,” Goldwasser says. “The level of consumer culture is so high—and I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. That’s the way the world is. But kids are still really smart. They’re figuring out ways to cut this stuff up and make their own thing out of it. It sounds more commercial.” He pauses and adds, “I’m just realizing those two worlds weren’t as far apart as we thought.”

“I definitely feel like the older I get and the more time that [passes] between us playing shows or putting out music, the less in touch I feel with what’s happening in the world and what people like,” VanWyngarden admits. “But that has its benefits, too. When we’re in our own bubble making music, we’re not overthinking if it’s gonna fit into whatever world. I like that.”

When they truly arrived a decade ago, MGMT were the defining millennial band. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden met as freshman at Middleton, Conn.’s Wesleyan University and officially formed The Management in 2002. Their early gigs were a mix of performance art and college fun—covering the Ghostbusters theme for a prolonged period of time and riffing on Talking Heads. Goldwasser, who grew up in a small town in Upstate New York, spent a summer with VanWyngarden in his native Memphis, Tenn., playing with his old high-school band; they had seminal moments as fans at the first two Bonnaroos, where VanWyngarden danced onstage with The Flaming Lips in an animal costume.

The Management started writing original songs and recording music too, including future classics like “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” that brilliantly used a number of then-current touchstones—jam-rock, pre-mainstream indie, electronica, noise experiments, post-punk, psych—as both satirical reference points and rallying calls. At the time, their music was relatively direct, but still subversive—masking some pointed cultural criticisms with youthful exuberance and Goldwasser’s catchy keyboard parts. After graduation, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden went their separate ways for a while—Goldwasser considered a career in social work and planned to leave the East Coast—but in the most social-media way possible, their music continued to spread virally. Through an A&R intern’s recommendation, The Management reached Columbia and, after shortening their name to MGMT, they signed a major label deal.

Mixing new songs with reworked older material, their opus, Oracular Spectacular, was an instant success—everyone from Weezer to Phish to Kid Cudi nodded to their music—and set the groundwork for both electro-pop groups like Passion Pit and Foster the People, as well as heady warriors like Tame Impala and Foxygen. But VanWyngarden and Goldwasser pushed back on the pop buzz almost from the beginning. MGMT’s live shows felt more in line with a late-night festival set than a SXSW showcase, and they turned heads with their 13-plus minute experimental non-album single, “Metanoia.” Oracular Spectacular’s proper follow-up, 2010’s Congratulations, was a prog-rock jab at the mainstream music industry, full of unique time changes and featuring lyrics like, “But I’ve got someone to make reports/ That tell me how my money’s spent/ To book my stays and draw my blinds/ So I can’t tell what’s really there/ And all I need’s a great big congratulations.” Though “Flash Delirium” and “Congratulations” were meticulous and still pretty catchy, and the 12-minute “Siberian Breaks” was eye-opening, they alienated the party crowd who still play Oracular Spectacular’s songs at sports bars. 2013’s MGMT was even more dense and acid-rock indebted—a true sonic journey that VanWyngarden and Goldwasser culled from improvisational experiments with Fridmann. The group’s newfound fame had strained Goldwasser and VanWyngarden’s friendship, and the duo used the MGMT sessions to reconnect as pals.

“It’s funny, I remember we talked about how we really wanted to write simple pop songs going into that session after Congratulations,” Goldwasser says. “And that’s totally not what happened.”

Live, the group mixed high-profile headlining appearances with more off-the-wall installations at the Guggenheim Museum and alongside the Joshua Light Show. MGMT continued to draw big crowds, building up to a December 2013 arena show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center that featured cameos from 1960s cult hero Faine Jade and Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes, as well as their new Krautrock version of “Kids.” They supported their self-titled LP through late 2014 and, then, quietly disappeared.

“We took a little bit of time after we finished touring,” Goldwasser says. “I moved to LA two weeks later—I had things in boxes and just drove out across the country—and we both took some time to be domestic and have normal lives for a little while. And then we started trying to figure out how to do the bicoastal recording thing, which was new for us.”

VanWyngarden, who had recently broken up with his model girlfriend, hunkered down at home. He DJ’d on occasion and became increasingly involved in his Rockaway community. “I finished my house and set up a nice stereo system and listened to a lot of vinyl,” he says. “I’ve been rediscovering all sorts of music instead of looking for new music.”

Goldwasser adds, “We got a puppy a couple of years ago and ended up hanging out at home with the dog most of the time. It’s so much work to leave the house. It’s a dumb excuse but we just stayed home a lot.”

Eventually, the duo decided to test the songwriting waters and regrouped at the end of 2015. VanWyngarden went out to Goldwasser’s LA studio a few times and Goldwasser came back East to lay down some tracks at VanWyngarden’s attic recording space. At first, they had a little trouble getting into a proper flow, but things settled into a groove after Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly signed on.

“I was engineering all of the sessions and it was a left-brain, right-brain thing—it was hard to take my mind off the screen and be creative,” Goldwasser says. “Having someone else in there who could do more of the technical stuff was really helpful. And Patrick has a really good critical, creative brain, too. So it was nice to have someone else in the room that could be like, ‘Oh, you guys should work on that more’ and, ‘That was a cool thing you just did,’ so the two of us didn’t pass on a good idea.”

With Wimberly’s help, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser ended up with about 40 song ideas and a few complete compositions before they decamped to Fridmann’s studio in 2016. A sonic wiz best known for his collaborations with The Flaming Lips, Fridmann helped tighten and mold Oracular Spectacular and also worked with the band on both Congratulations and MGMT. For Little Dark Age, he pushed VanWyngarden and Goldwasser to hone both their songs and the album’s overall sound. “He has a new console in his studio. Whereas before he would go for distortion on a whole mix, this time we left a lot more room in the mix and everything’s not maxed out all the time,” VanWyngarden says. “And that helped achieve something that’s less abrasive.”

Goldwasser says that they had hoped to link up with Fridmann much earlier, but everything kept getting pushed back. “Finally, we were like, ‘Alright, we have a few songs; we have to get in and see what happens,’” he says. “It was a good moment to realize that we were further along in the process than we thought—it gave us an idea of how the finished record would sound and what would sound weird going forward. It really came together at the last minute, which is not uncommon for us. We’ll work on something for a long time at like a snail’s pace, and then, at some point, we’ll have an epiphany—or we’ll set a deadline for ourselves like, ‘We really just need to finish this thing.’”

VanWyngarden can’t pinpoint exactly what caused the delay, but notes that it is “just the nature of being on a major label—it takes nine months before they’ll put an album out after we deliver it.”

They worked on the loop at the core of the album’s first single, “Little Dark Age” in New York, with VanWyngarden providing the track’s infectious bass line, and then finished the lyrics and keyboard parts during follow-up sessions in LA and at Fridmann’s studio. “When You Die” is a post-apocalyptic slice of pop, with a catchy beat, groovy breakdown and some quirky themes. Lyrically, the album teeters between dark comedy and introspective, often isolated thoughts—“When You’re Small” looks back at a time before “Kids” from a more removed perspective and the album’s deeper cuts prove that MGMT haven’t lost their knack for a good sound collage.

There’s some jazzy organ work on tunes like “James” and a newfound appreciation of the funky, ‘80’s sounds that scored their DIY dance-parties early on; the cartoonish “Me and Michael,” MGMT’s most bright-eyed, outwardly nostalgic banger since “Electric Feel,” started out as “Me and My Girl” but Goldwasser pushed VanWyngarden to change the lyrics to something less obvious.

“The last album was so over-flowing with sounds—chaotic, intentionally anxiety-inducing at times,” VanWyngarden says. “We wanted to have more space [in the songs] this time. We were also writing the lyrics more quickly—that was a small change that felt different.”

While the core duo of VanWyngarden and Goldwasser still recorded much of the album themselves, they brought in a few friends to help along the way, including avant-garde mainstay Ariel Pink, drummer Josh Da Costa and James Richardson, a longtime member of the MGMT live band. MGMT hosted a two-week jam session, with various players stopping by and laying down tracks, and then edited and sorted through the recordings later. “It’s a pretty electronic record, but not in the same way as the last one—this one has a little more of a band sound,” Goldwasser says. “It’s more like how our first record was. That was also an electronic record, but like referencing rock music.”

More than anything, Little Dark Age shares a cosmic, and sonic, connection with MGMT’s pre-Columbia EP, 2005’s Time to Pretend, which boasted bouncier versions of “Kids” and “Time to Pretend,” as well as edgy, infectious nuggets like “Destrokk” and “Indie Rokkers.”

“The way we wrote [Little Dark Age] was a lot more like how we used to write in college,” VanWyngarden says. “One of us would have an idea, or just send over chords, bass and drums, and then the other person would add another part or the next section. We built the songs like that.”

“We finally allowed ourselves to let something be simple and stripped down and leave space around things,” Goldwasser affirms.

They both agree that enough time had passed since their breakthrough that they could start playing with those signature sounds again. “It was fun to get back to some things that we felt like we couldn’t touch because there were so many bands doing that same synth-pop,” Goldwasser says. “We never felt ownership over it in the first place—it ran away with itself. And, now, we just don’t care as much. We’re in our thirties and don’t care what people think. It’s like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll make synth-pop if we feel like it.’”

MGMT finally returned to the stage in May of 2017. Their comeback appearance was in VanWyngarden’s hometown at the Beale Street Music Festival and featured the live debuts of “Little Dark Age,” “When You Die,” “James” and “Me and Michael,” as well as a new, glossy-eyed stage show. They settled back into life on the road by focusing mostly on festivals at first. “I started using just wedge monitors, instead of in-ear monitors,” VanWyngarden says. “And it made a huge difference for me. I feel much more connected to the audience, and just the world of the concert.”

Despite their initial hesitation to embrace their fame, both Goldwasser and VanWyngarden realize that their music has been the soundtrack for fans’ lives and plan to offer fresh, but faithful song renditions—they promise you won’t hear any banjo solos during “Kids.” “I definitely want to avoid completely re-styling songs that are popular,” VanWyngarden says.

Goldwasser’s the first to admit that other forces played into their current, more upbeat sound and new, positive outlook. “Just being in a happier place—finding more happiness in my personal life, making a home—that’s been really nice,” he says. “New York wasn’t ever the best city for me to live in. I grew up in the country so I was used to having more space and less people around me. I used to define my happiness by the music that I made because that was best thing I had going on, but I don’t have to anymore. Now, it’s something that I get to do instead of something that I stress over that has to be perfect. It feels looser, in a way.”

MGMT’s current goals are natural for a mid-career band of thirtysomethings. They hope to schedule out more time for collaborations and special projects—they both nod to Trent Reznor’s career path as a current inspiration and want to figure out different ways to use pop music in the film world. VanWyngarden has a list of new venues he’d like to play and hopes to dig a little deeper into the catalog when he plays for hardcore MGMT fans later in the year. Goldwasser helmed Kuroma’s 2015 album Kuromarama, a project led by former MGMT touring member Hank Sullivant, but isn’t sure if he could see a future as a producer. “I can’t decide if producing is something that I would like to really do as a job,” Goldwasser says. “I start to lose interest if it becomes more work. At least for now we’re trying not to go at it too hard on the road. We’ve learned that we burn out on tour if we do it too much.”

And, more than anything, VanWyngarden seems to have come to terms with the fact that sometimes you can’t choose what you’re remembered for.

“I’m grateful that we’ve been able to sustain a long career—a lot of bands just come and go,” he says. “But it’ll always be strange, and never not be crazy to me, that it’s because of songs we wrote when we were 19 years old.”

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.