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Brooklyn's MGMT were undoubtedly one of the success stories of 2008. Their first long player, Oracular Spectacular, was released to widespread critical acclaim and eventually shifted over a million copies worldwide, thanks in no small part to a batch of exciting, genre transgressing singles such as 'Time To Pretend', 'Electric Feel' and 'Kids'.
Late last year, MGMT's core songwriters Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser announced that their second record would involve a much less commercial sound, with former Spacemen 3 and current Spectrum frontman Pete Kember (Sonic Boom) handling production duties. Having debuted at least half the album's songs at various shows last summer, it seemed the record was inspired by a more psychedelic, groove related feel, not too far away from early b-side 'Destrokk'. Now, with said record (Congratulations) set to come out next month, DiS thought it was about time to catch up with the band and find out what made them change direction and acquire the assistance of the supremely talented, yet unpredictable, Kember throughout the process.
On this most surreal of days, DiS finds itself sharing a lift with the Juventus football team heading for a penthouse suite on the tenth floor of a swanky Kensington Hotel where we find VanWyngarden and bass player Matt Asti waiting patiently. Later tonight, MGMT will be playing their first UK headline show since the V Festival at London's Heaven niterie. Juventus on the other hand, will find themselves trudging back to Turin, tails between legs, courtesy of an unlikely drubbing by Fulham. Away we go...
DiS: You're playing your first UK show of the year this evening at Heaven. Excited?
Andrew: Yeah very excited. It's actually our first show where we're gonna be playing all of the new songs. I'm really interested to see how people react to things they haven't heard before.
DiS: Does this mean that a lot of the more familiar material from Oracular Spectacular won't feature in the current live set?
Andrew: I don't think we're gonna be playing 'Kids' that much, while some of those songs will be played differently as we'd originally intended them to sound with a full band.
Video: MGMT 'Kids'
DiS: In what way?
Andrew: 'Electric Feel' we've changed quite a bit. It now has a more controlled, precise sound to it. I'd even say its taken a prog rock direction, sort of like 1980s Queen style maybe.
DiS: Looking back at Oracular Spectacular, is there anything about that album you'd change or do differently if you could record it again at the present time?
Andrew: No, I wouldn't change a thing. We're proud of it, and the songs we've written for Congratulations are similar to the ones on that record. The only real difference for me is that the recordings sound more like how we'd want them to sound if we were playing those songs live.
DiS: Congratulations is a very different record to its predecessor though, particularly the way many of the songs are structured. Does it worry you that people who bought and really liked Oracular Spectacular could be alienated by the new record?
Andrew: We don't want to alienate anyone with this album. We're really happy with the record and we'd like to think that anyone whose seen us live will understand where we're going with Congratulations, as I really don't think it's that different to how we approach our shows. We try not to worry too much about whether people will be driven away...it wasn't like we deliberately intended to lose anyone that bought Oracular Spectacular. If anything, I honestly think those that understood what the first record was about will genuinely get this album too.
DiS: Songs like 'Siberian Breaks', 'Lady Dada's Nightmare' or 'Song For Dan Treacy' would have struggled to fit in with the bulk of Oracular Spectacular though, so from that perspective it could be considered a fairly drastic change.
Andrew: I don't think it is that much of a drastic change. People who know us or have read our interviews know what kind of bands and artists we've always talked about.
DiS: So which bands or artists did have a major influence in terms of making the new record?
Andrew: A mix of late sixties sunshine pop like Love and eighties underground British bands like the Television Personalities.
DiS: I guess that's where 'Song For Dan Treacy' comes from. What is your favourite record by the Television Personalities?
Andrew: I guess we're more casual fans of theirs than album buffs. There's a compilation of theirs entitled They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles which I heard a few years back and that got me into them, and then we played a few shows with the band and got to hang out with Dan (Treacy) and Texas Bob Juarez, and we've listened to more of their stuff ever since. To pick any one song or record of theirs out as a favourite would be difficult, as I consider their entire back catalogue to be timeless and in many ways, faultless too.
DiS: Funnily enough, Dan Treacy was at the Spectrum gig at the Luminaire last night, amidst rumours you guys were going to make a guest appearance! Did you get to see the show at all?
Andrew: No, we didn't make it in the end. Pete (Kember/Sonic Boom) wasn't very happy that we didn't show up, but we had so much to do sorting tonight's show that it would have been impossible to get there in time to see Spectrum. It's a shame because we had planned to duet with them on 'Suicide', so hopefully there'll be another chance in the future.
DiS: Going back to Congratulations, I saw you play some of the songs off the new record as far back as the V Festival in August of last year. Would you say any of those songs have changed between then and the final mix that appears on the album?
Andrew: I think Matt is the best person to answer that...
Matt: Some of the arrangements have been enriched for sure, fleshed out as much as possible. In the past MGMT were seen as being just Andrew and Ben (Goldwasser) but now we're operating more as a five-piece unit, and I think that shows on this record.
Andrew: At the same time, we weren't afraid to strip a few things down either such as the title track for example. Live, it becomes even more of an acoustic-based number, whereas the more upbeat songs take on a rockier persona. Another key aspect of course is that some of the pieces you'll have heard back then were instrumentals, whereas now they have lyrics.
Video: MGMT 'Flash Delirium'
DiS: One of the songs, 'Lady Dada's Nightmare' doesn't. What influenced that and were there any lyrical ideas initially?
Andrew: It's just a composition that the whole band came up with and we tried to write a melody over a few ideas I had but it just kept sounding stranger every time we played it back so the words were scrapped. In the end, it seemed to work better as an instrumental and we spent a lot of time in the studio adding bits of layers and loops over the song to make it sound even crazier. We gave it that title because it just seemed as way out as the music itself really...
DiS: There's also a song on the album called 'Brian Eno', which oddly enough sounds more like a Syd Barrett outtake than anything connected with Eno himself. What inspired the song, and in particular that title?
Andrew: That started with the song title. I always wanted to write a song called 'Brian Eno'.
Matt: Musically it's inspired by Love, The Buzzcocks and to a lesser extent The Wipers.
Andrew: It definitely wasn't planned to sound like an Eno rip-off in any way, shape or form, although his work is obviously something I'm particularly fond of.
DiS: Parts of Congratulations also remind me of the soundtrack to Head, The Monkees film from 1968 which was the point where they also appeared to turn their backs on commercial success. 'I Found A Whistle' in particular springs to mind. Are any of you fans of the film?
Andrew: I haven't seen it or heard the soundtrack, but a few people I know have told me to check it out so I guess I really should.
Matt: I've not seen it either but I can understand the comparison I guess, as I think Congratulations would make an ideal soundtrack to the right kind of motion picture.
DiS: Lyrically, parts of Congratulations actually seem quite downbeat and introspective. 'Someone's Missing' has "lost revelations that I'll never find" while the title track's opening line, "dead in the water, out with a whimper and not a blaze of glory", would both suggest Congratulations is actually quite a melancholy record.
Andrew: Yeah, for sure. Everybody gets depressed from time to time. I think I often find myself second guessing our band, what we're doing, and generally losing confidence all of the time. I think a lot of that comes from the success side of things. I often wonder what the hell's going on...it's all quite confusing to me.
DiS: So if Congratulations doesn't achieve the same success both critically and commercially that Oracular Spectacular achieved will that have a major impact on you as an individual?
Andrew: I'd like to think it won't. I try not to pay much attention to what other people are saying or writing about us. Even around the time of the first album's release, I tended to stop reading what was being written about us around about four weeks before it came out - which I guess in terms of Congratulations would be round about now. I have enough people that I really respect musically who've said many positive things about this album so that's always a bonus too.
DiS: What about your record label, Sony/Colombia? Were they concerned that Congratulations had no obvious singles compared to its predecessor?
Andrew: No, they weren't at all. They trusted us to make the best possible record we could, and the response we've had from them has been positive. They realise that we've spent a lot of time and effort making this record and even though there aren't any obvious singles on the album they understand that as a collective piece Congratulations works just fine.
Matt: I think at first they had trouble figuring out how they could make this record work in a traditional major label way in terms of marketing and promotion, but at the same time they've worked with us long enough to know that we're not a conventional band, and I think they appreciate our ambitious nature for what it is.
DiS: Do you feel under any pressure to match the sales figures of its predecessor?
Andrew: They haven't implied that at all. They seem pretty confident that it's going to sell a lot of copies. If the worst came to the worst and they decided to drop us, at least we could hold our heads up and say we got dropped doing something that we could be proud of as being ours.
Video: MGMT 'Destrokk'
DiS: What about your decision to work with Pete Kember (Sonic Boom) on Congratulations? What did he bring to the recording sessions and how was he to work with?
Matt: He was great at setting the vibe in the studio for starters. It was like having a film director around at times, laying the studio out in a certain way and setting a kind of ambience...
Andrew: He did much more than that. I think his general enthusiasm for creating new levels of sound and encouraging us to go all the way were paramount to how Congratulations ended up sounding. He didn't write any parts or anything but he was directing us to push boundaries all the time and try and take every song that one step further. At the same time he would filter out anything that he considered superfluous or unnecessary.
Matt: 'Siberian Breaks' was one song which just evolved under the watchful eye of Pete.
Andrew: It started off as just this one verse and then just grew and grew until we all decided after twelve minutes that it was probably long enough!
DiS: Would you work with him again if the opportunity presented itself in the future?
Andrew: Of course. We've become really good friends and hung out together a lot since we made this record, so I'd like to think we'll definitely collaborate again in time.
DiS: How much of an inspiration has Pete Kember been on you as musicians and your band in general?
Andrew: He's my main inspiration for being in a band. Spacemen 3 are my all time favourite band and Playing With Fire was the first record I really got into as a teenager. As a result I got more into Recurring and Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To and I was thinking just yesterday about how crazy it is that having spent years obsessing over his music and kind of imagining what he would be like to spend time around, I'm now working with him and getting to know him on a personal level. It makes listening to those records an even more unbelievable experience.
DiS: Is he what you expected him to be like, based on how he's perceived in interviews or other people's recollections of him?
Andrew: He's generally a really nice, courteous guy. He can be fiery at times if something isn't working but I think he means well in every situation and he's been extremely supportive of us and the record.
DiS: You've also got Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux singing on the album. How did that collaboration come about?
Andrew: Royal Trux are another band that Ben and I really bonded over and we played a show with RTX a few years ago and became friends with Jennifer, so when we asked her if she wanted to sing on the record she came over from LA and added a few parts. It was always a dream of mine to meet her so again to actually work with her was just...surreal!
DiS: Where do you see MGMT's music heading in the future?
Andrew: Well, let's just say if this record is a flop and we do get dropped then we're gonna have to find another label that will put up with us first but...I don't honestly know what will happen in the future. I'm just pretty anxious about the reception for Congratulations, you know.
DiS: What are your plans for touring the album and this summer's festival circuit?
Andrew: We're definitely playing several festivals, although some haven't been officially confirmed yet. We're definitely at Coachella next month, and there will be a full tour later in the year but again, nothing's been confirmed.
DiS: Finally, Paul McCartney is reportedly a fan, and you supported him in concert a couple of times last year. Did you get to meet him and how did it feel to know possibly the most famous living musician was a fan of MGMT?
Andrew: It was pretty weird actually, and brief too. I guess he's a busy man and just to get the invite to play on the same stage as him was a pretty big deal to us.
The album Congratulations is out on Monday 12th April.
Click below to stream the album courtesy of we7.
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