White-hot buzz act MGMT thumbed its nose at indie snobs by signing with a major label.
For reasons that are entirely understandable, surreal is a word that Andrew VanWyngarden uses repeatedly when he talks about where he finds himself at the moment with MGMT. A couple of years back, he was happily working odd jobs around New York City, his days of playing college keggers with his musical partner, Ben Goldwasser, nothing more than a Pabst Blue Ribbon–blurred memory. Today, thanks to a handful of demos they originally made for their own amusement, the men of MGMT find themselves a white-hot buzz act. If you happened to tune into the Late Show With David Letterman earlier this January, you might have seen VanWyngarden and Goldwasser making their network-television debut, clad in Count Dracula–issue black capes and singing about banging heroin in Paris, choking on their own vomit, and fucking supermodels in the dreamy rocker “Time to Pretend”. You just knew that somewhere in red-state America, Ma and Pa Kettle were sitting there staring at the boob tube muttering “Goddamn surreal.”
“The songs that we’ve written have taken on a new life,” says an awed-sounding VanWyngarden on his cellphone from MGMT’s tour van, winding its way through the Arizona desert. “We wrote them as a complete joke, and now we’re on David Letterman singing them. That’s really, really strange.”
The just-released debut album Oracular Spectacular has been MGMT’s official ticket to the twilight zone. VanWyngarden and Goldwasser make their goals for world conquest clear right off the top on the aforementioned “Time to Pretend”, which gives ’70s glam a microchip-jacked robo-rock make-over. The irony-obsessed turds of Chromeo would give up their vintage Rolands for “4th Dimensional Transition”, which sounds like Major Tom crashing into a planet Earth ruled by circa-’82 Duran Duran. And, proving that MGMT knows its rock history, based on the convincingly sleazy “Pieces of What” you can easily imagine VanWyngarden and Goldwasser hitting the Jack and the blow with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards backstage at Altamont.
The genre-jumping Oracular Spectacular finds VanWyngarden and Goldwasser recording for Sony, which, if you think about it, is at this point about 20 times as punk rock as toiling for Sub Pop, Merge, or Matador. At a time when everyone left of Nickelback has fled the majors, MGMT decided that signing to a floundering mega-corp seemed like rebel cool. If nothing else, they figured they’d be pissing off the kind of hipsters who abandon their favourite bands the second they get too big for house parties.
“We decided we’d try and go through the heart of the beast,” VanWyngarden notes. “It seemed like a good way to mess with people’s expectations.”
If signing with a multinational corporation didn’t do it, landing on a late-2007 Rolling Stone list of 10 bands to watch practically guaranteed a backlash.
“Things have been a bit awkward for us,” VanWyngarden admits. “There’s been this big hype thing because of Rolling Stone and the major-label thing. Some people maybe come to us with a bit of a bias, especially if they are indie-rock snobs. What’s weird is that we never really asked for all the attention that we’ve been getting.”
He’s not being falsely modest. MGMT surfaced on the Sony radar the way bands used to before MySpace created overnight success stories. A & R got ahold of a demo that had been passed along by a friend of the band, at which point VanWyngarden and Goldwasser found themselves fielding phone calls. It was evidently no big deal that they’d never played live outside of college parties or that they weren’t even sure they knew how to write a song. Once they got busy in the practice space, figuring out what was working and what wasn’t proved to be a challenge. Where most beginning acts fine-tune material by grinding it out on the club circuit for a couple of years, MGMT took a different route.
“We had months of super-intense self-doubting,” VanWyngarden says. “Everything that we did, we kept really close to our chests. We didn’t play things for anybody because we were convinced that it was terrible. Once we built up some confidence, we’d play stuff for our family and friends. Even though they told us it was good, it took a long time for us to be confident about the music we were making.”
Still, VanWyngarden obviously knew he was on to something with Oracular Spectacular. A year or so ago, he was all set to enlist with Of Montreal as a touring guitarist but he opted instead to take the road less-assured with MGMT.
Today, with the band’s shows selling out across North America, his only worry is that what he and Goldwasser are doing will somehow end up being taken the wrong way. Rolling Stone compared the band—which plays live as a five-piece—to a mixture of Satanic-era Rolling Stones and Ween, but synth-rockers like the Prince-tastic “Electric Feel” also suggest that the duo has more than a passing fondness for the 15-minute late-’90s electroclash phenomenon. Such tracks have led to charges that the two members of MGMT are more eager to play musical smart-asses than be taken seriously. If life wasn’t so surreal these days, that accusation might shock VanWyngarden more.
“We really like and respect Ween, but we don’t ever want to be grouped into this thing where people think we are making joke music,” he says. “We think our music is really sincere, even though some of it is tongue-in-cheek. We did this EP called We Care/We Don’t Care, which sort of sums us up. What we’ve always been about is contradictions.”
MGMT plays the Bourbon on Friday (February 1).