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The surreal success of MGMT: 'I assumed it would all go away. Like it was all a dream'

MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden.
New kids... MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. Photograph: Brad Elterman

MGMT were huge. The duo graced 2008 with three festival classics: Time to Pretend provided them with a manifesto, Kids an anthem and Electric Feel a floorfiller. Their synth-swathed astral indie seemed a logical progression from nu-rave’s MDMA epiphanies to tuning into the cosmos on LSD. They were part of a group of acts, which included Yeasayer, Passion Pit and Santogold, who went from Brooklyn warehouse infamy to suddenly proper on-David-Letterman famous. Along the way, they inspired a Gucci runway show and made hippy headbands a thing.

Behind the scenes, however, the relationship between the two members was of complementary opposites: the analytical Ben Goldwasser and the free-spirited Andrew VanWyngarden. “It’s strange,” Simon O’Connor of fellow Brooklynites Amazing Baby told Rolling Stone in 2010. “There would be weeks where they didn’t even speak to each other. Then they’d spend a whole day writing in Ben’s room, and then go their separate ways again. They’re like a married couple that has really good sex but that’s it.”

Despite the critical and commercial success of their debut, Oracular Spectacular, this odd couple didn’t want to play the rock star game. They refused to play Kids at their shows and followed that culture-shifting debut LP with two albums of purposefully oblique acid rock: Congratulations from 2010 featured a five-minute prog jam called Lady Dada’s Nightmare, while 2013’s MGMT was swiftly forgotten about.

MGMT in 2008
Back in the day... MGMT in 2008. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Now, after years of being out of sync, the oscillations of culture are again lining up with MGMT. On their new album, Little Dark Age, they have returned to the electro tinge of their debut at the moment the 00s are being revived (Electric Feel has endured a second life, being sampled by Frank Ocean and Beyoncé and covered by Katy Perry). And, crucially, the frosty relationship between band and audience has thawed.

“On the last album, there was much more of a sense of laughing at, rather than with,” VanWyngarden tells me about their self-titled 2013 album, filled with ear-splitting production and washed-out Syd Barrett-esque melodies. “But we even say it on this one: ‘I’ll be laughing with you when you die.’”

Exactly 10 years and one day since the release of Oracular Spectacular, we are sitting at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, the band’s favourite pie shop, a few blocks up from their Prospect Park rehearsal space. Goldwasser, who has arrived 15 minutes before his bandmate, adds shruggingly: “It wasn’t like we were in a bad mood making the [last album].” He lives in LA now and has flown into New York for rehearsals; VanWyngarden still lives in a house in Rockaway Beach, a far-off, terminally uncool quarter of the city, out near JFK. The pair don’t really greet each other. The body language is not overly moist. VanWyngarden, hunched on his stool, occasionally chews on a cuticle as he mulls over a question. He recommends the lemon chess pie (“It’s about half lemon and half chess”).

Do you two ever hang out?

“We’ve gone through different phases of hanging out and being, like, normal friends, and that’s not easy these days because Ben lives in LA,” says VanWyngarden. “He’s got a dog with a backyard, and I’m in Rockaway and so we’re not like staying together and walking through parking lots like we were at college. We’ve gone through times where we had disagreements or it’s been tense. But we rode it out and it seems good now.” If there’s one thing that unites them, they say, it’s a surreal sense of humour, “like, realising that some inanimate object looks like a face; I don’t know, something like that,” Goldwasser suggests, slightly mystifyingly.

Still, a decade on from their debut there has been a fundamental crack in their relationship: they’re living three time zones apart and making albums by email. “Which is why we call our band the Postal Service,” VanWyngarden quips. It’s left to Beyoncé and Solange collaborator and former Chairlift member Patrick Wimberly, who co-produced their new album, to decode their functional dysfunctionality. “They’re not attached to each other because of contracts or obligations,” he explains via email. “They’ve tapped into a connection that encourages them both to dig deep into their own ideas. At times it seems like they have their own language.”

In one way, their creative journey could be read as an ongoing attempt to get back to the Eden they shared as friends at Wesleyan, the famously liberal Connecticut college for brainiac artsy degenerates (also home to Vampire Weekend). They were both studying music and taking classes on esoteric sound design when an EP that included Kids and Time to Pretend made it into the hands of a label exec at Columbia. A month later, they were toasting their new contract with $24 bellinis in midtown Manhattan and demanding fur coats from their new bosses, and puppies on their rider, because “puppies are awesome”. Apt, given that Time to Pretend was a satirical yet wistful rubbishing of the rock star ideal (“Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives,” they sang in unison. “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars”).

“That was the whole shtick of the band when we started,” Goldwasser says. “That we’d be playing in someone’s living room, wearing fur coats and drinking champagne in front of, like, 15 people.” (Not long after this piece of cosmic ordering, VanWyngarden dated two world-class models: Camille Rowe and Andreea Diaconu). The horizons were vast, but their success was so accidental that it seemed like one big mirage. “I was happy doing what we were doing,” Goldwasser recalls. “But I just … kind of, I didn’t think that it was going to turn into anything at that point. I kind of assumed it would all go away. Like it was all a dream.”

Retreating to their own separate worlds on this new record seems to have helped creatively, carving a new comfort zone between pop and experimental. One song, TSLAMP, is a witty lament against “Time Spent Looking At My Phone”. VanWyngarden explains: “I’ve gotten so attached to my phone that it makes me really disappointed in myself. So it’s good to [not look at it].”

Has he tried un-attaching himself? “I recently purchased a little coffin that fits a cellphone on eBay. I’ve tried to use that.”

The state of the nation has also inspired their lyrics. “There’s a lot of stuff on the record relating to the last year,” VanWyngarden considers. “What Trump has done is just expose a whole lot of things that were there already. Like: is America bad? In When You Die, when we’re saying “I’m not that nice”, it’s owning up to existing in a modern United States of America: you’re kind of part of this evil whether you want to be or not.”

The only question left is whether they can still include each other in their lives. They head up the block, to rehearsals for their short European tour, still not talking directly to each other but keen on getting back to work on the new material. There’s a sense of redemption. They’ve had their lemon chess pie. Now they may get to eat it, too.

Little Dark Age is out now

This article titled "The surreal success of MGMT: 'I assumed it would all go away. Like it was all a dream'" was written by Gavin Haynes, for The Guardian on Saturday 10 February 2018 10.00am

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