Congratulations, MGMT. You guys have been chosen to headline this year's Rock the Garden, the must-attend festival for Twin Cities indie-rock hipsters.
However, many of the Pitchfork-reading, Current-listening, Rock the Garden-ticket-holding music lovers are wondering how MGMT ended up with top billing. Because the conventional wisdom is that although MGMT's 2008 debut, "Oracular Spectacular," was pretty darn spectacular (spawning the hits "Kids" and "Time to Pretend" and leading to a Grammy nomination for best new artist), the Brooklyn band's live act was disappointing. Then MGMT's 2010 sophomore CD, "Congratulations," has been described as everything from different to weird, even by the band itself. It's a psychedelic smorgasbord, a dizzing mashup of Syd Barrett, Phil Spector and Flaming Lips, that requires multiple listenings to be fully digested. And who knows what to expect from MGMT in concert now?
To sort out these issues, we chatted with MGMT's Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, both 27, who have been making music together since they met at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. They were calling the other day from Portland, Ore., on separate phones.
Q: On this tour, you are playing everything from huge festivals (Coachella, Lollapalooza) to small clubs to theaters to a festival in Minneapolis for maybe 8,000 to 10,000 people. How do you shift gears from venue to venue?
Ben: I think we're mostly comfortable playing in smaller clubs. We feel like we're best in that environment. We like playing festivals, too. We like to have a mixture of different kinds of venues.
Q: How are you different at festivals?
Ben: We're getting more comfortable playing to the festival crowd. I really like playing outdoors. I think 10,000 is a good amount of people. We just played at Sasquatch [a festival outside Seattle], and there was like 30,000 people watching us and I was in awe. It was pretty amazing.
Q: What do you think of the reaction to "Congratulations"?
Andrew: Some of the initial press was kind of annoying. It's OK if people don't like the album. But a lot of articles that came out had their minds made up before they were even written. They were just looking for something to say we fucked up, we don't know what we're doing, that we committed commercial suicide.
Ben and I take a much simpler approach to the whole thing. When we started making this record, we said, "Let's just make the album and put it out. It's just going to be the music we feel like making now." It's not like we were trying to lose fans or be experimental.
Q: You guys did try to warn fans ahead of time that "Congratulations" was going to be different.
Ben: Maybe in a way it was wrong of us to even say anything. But it made us very self-conscious when people were already talking about how we had to follow up our blockbuster hit songs or whatever. We don't think of our music in those terms. We never really thought we had hit songs in the first place. We didn't really change our approach to any of it. We'd rather not have to think about having to top a hit single and write music for those reasons.
Andrew: Our self-deprecating, sarcastic approach to interviews did not come across well. There were some headlines earlier on like "The new album is going to be terrible." Of course, our new album is going to be different. Do people want something exactly the same? It was kind of like damned if you do, damned if you don't in that situation.
Q: In an interview, Andrew said that MGMT wanted to test the limits of what's bearable. Was that self-deprecating and taken out of context or is that what you really meant?
Ben: We talk about that a lot. It's not as extreme as that sounds. I think we enjoy pushing the boundaries of good taste and not thinking of the music in terms of what will sound pleasing to the most people. It's more like we like to play with people's expectations and do something that we know is generally going against good taste but we do it anyway.
Andrew: I think a lot of the music we listen to does that. Ben and I like moments where music makes you feel simultaneously disgusted and also really happy and wanting to listen to it again. We're not going to serve music on a platter that's easy to take in. But we're also not going to be making a drone record anytime soon, or experimental piano pieces. It's not like we're avant-garde musicians. We're making pop music with a little different thinking.
Q: I saw a comment from you guys that suggested that maybe the success you had with your first album was a fluke. Do you feel that way?
Andrew: For us to get picked up by a major label for some songs we'd written for fun and hadn't played in front of a lot of people, it was kind of like a fluke. It happened at a time when it was uncertain if we were going to be in this band or go our separate ways and get jobs.
Q: In the Twin Cities, the fans' take on MGMT is that people loved the first album but your concerts here were disappointing. And now they're saying, "The new album is confusing; you have to listen to it many times before you get it. And what's the show going to be like?" How do you react to that?
Andrew: We have definitely improved as a live band. This is the first time that we've really felt confident in our live show. Completely. Also, I think when we put out our first album, people didn't come to the shows expecting to see a rock band that was more influenced by the Grateful Dead than a lot of other things. Maybe it threw people for a loop. Hopefully this time around people will kind of know what to expect. What we're playing live kind of sounds a lot like the album.
Q: I get the impression that it's more of a five-piece band now rather than a duo.
Andrew: It's been that way for two years now, but it's been hard to get that across.
Q: Let's talk about a couple of the songs on "Congratulations." What is your single "Flash Delirium" about?
Ben: It's about mental breakdowns and being around and being friends with people who are actually legitimately schizophrenic or crazy, and thinking about the process of when does that person stop realizing what's happening instead of going all the way. It's a scary thought.
Q: Why do you love Brian Eno so much?
Andrew: The song ["Brian Eno"] isn't necessarily all about worshipping Brian Eno. We started it as a joke as poking fun of this image that he has as this kind of master of musical alchemy. We do love Brian Eno -- from Talking Heads albums he worked on to his own solo albums to stuff with Cluster, Roxy Music, Devo. We heard from his manager that he likes the song.
Q: What did the Grammy nomination this year for best new artist mean to you?
Ben: It's confirmation that we had some mainstream recognition, which we weren't shooting for necessarily. It was a weird experience, the whole Grammy thing. Of course, it was a big deal growing up, artists getting Grammys. I don't think we felt that comfortable in the Staples Center [where the Grammys were held]. I don't think we felt we belonged there. I don't think the Grammys were a highlight for us.
Q: Andrew, please give me five adjectives that describe Ben.
Andrew: I'm going to say "kittens," which can be used as an adjective. Then I would say he's very nice. He's humble, he's talented. And stylish.
Q: Now tell me one thing about Ben that might surprise people.
Andrew: His pinkie on his left hand -- right hand? -- is permanently at an angle.
Ben: Ring finger.
Q: Now, Ben, you give me five adjectives to describe Andrew and then something people would be surprised to learn about him.
Ben: Andrew is colorful. He has good hair. [Andrew laughs.] I don't know an adjective to describe that. Spontaneous, gifted and charismatic.
Andrew: What about puppies? I thought you might describe me as puppies.
Ben: Sure, if you'd like that. The one thing that would surprise people is he's growing a mustache.
Andrew: No, I shaved it this morning.
Ben: You did? Oh, darn it.