The duo behind MGMT insist they’re not trying to downsize their audience after the surprising success of their highly acclaimed debut, Oracular Spectacular. But if Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden are hoping to sell themselves — and their sophomore album, Congratulations — to a larger audience, they could do better — lots better.
During an interview in VanWyngarden’s apartment in downtown Brooklyn, while explaining their new CD, they let it drop that the new album will probably be a disappointment to some people. It won’t be a big seller, and plenty of people won’t get it, they said.
“I don’t want to say that I don’t have any faith in the Internet generation, but I think that I get scared,” said VanWyngarden.
“This album to me is something that needs to be listened to kind of carefully and a couple of times to really get into it, and I think there’s a good chance that a lot of people will kind of immediately brush it off ... like, ‘This is bad.’ I hope they don’t, but I feel a lot of people might do that.’’
While reviews of Congratulations have been good so far, critics called their Grammy-nominated 2008 album one of the best in years. With a wry humor that parodied the rock lifestyle and music that recalled rock greats, MGMT, which also includes bassist Mat Asti, drummer Will Berman and guitarist James Richardson, seemed poised for superstardom.
But after gaining fame with Oracular Spectacular, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden found they were spot on in their skewed look at the lifestyles of the pop world.
“We’ve seen it on the inside, what mainstream music [does] and what it evolves like with live shows and with marketing and promotion, and it just kind of grosses us out, and no matter what benefits, like financially or otherwise we could get from it, it’s just not what we want to do,” said VanWyngarden.
“We’ve turned down a lot of opening spots for kind of these huge world bands in arenas and we’ve turned down a lot of commercial licensing, and I think we’ve done a good job in trying to preserve our career, because this is what we want to do,” he said. “It’s really just about music.”
Though Congratulations isn’t a gloomy album, it’s clear from the bittersweet title track and other songs that the effervescence of youth has somewhat faded.
“Oracular Spectacular, [is] of its time, it’s pretty peerless, it’s just an amazing record,’’ said Peter Kember, better known as the musician Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3. Kember helped guide the pair on MGMT’s latest album.
“This is just a very different thing. They are a very talented commercial band not trying to be commercial, but still having artistic designs ... They’re really astonishingly talented songwriters. I don’t think they’ll ever be contained by any particular format.”
Much of Oracular Spectacular was written when Goldwasser and VanWyngarden were students at Wesleyan College. They didn’t expect a label deal, especially not at a major label like Columbia Records.
Though they’re not yet 30 (both are 27), they have matured, and, they say, so has their music. They weren’t interested in making Oracular Spectacular 2.
“If we had gone back and done that, it wouldn’t have come across as genuine,” said Goldwasser. “Our older songs, part of what made them great is because when we made them, we had a kind of innocent attitude about everything, and in a lot of ways we could afford that attitude because we were younger and didn’t have a lot of responsibilities and were in school.”
He adds: “We kind of have a responsibility to see the world as it is in more ways, and be able to reflect on our position in the world, because otherwise, we’d come across as pretty arrogant.”
While the likes of Jay-Z have requested their services, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser come off as self-deprecating introverts who would rather be classified as geeks than rock stars. It’s the kind of outsider feeling they had when they attended this year’s Grammy Awards, where they were nominated for in two categories, including best new artist.
“We felt honored to have been nominated, but the whole event and that kind of experience itself, we felt really uncomfortable the whole time,” said VanWyngarden. “It almost feels like it’s a giant marketing kind of campaign for five or six bands ... We just kind of felt like, ‘What are we doing here?’ ... like, ‘Wow, we’ve infiltrated this kind of upper-level mainstream and we’re so weird.’”
Still, Goldwasser said, they’re not opposed to a wider audience discovering their music.
“We do think that it can have mainstream appeal,” he said.
“What maybe we’re trying to say is ... this album may not be what a lot of people are expecting from us.” But it’s enough if the album only meets their expectations.
“It took me the last two years to realize I should be confident in who I am and not be wishing I was somebody else,” says Goldwasser. “Once we started getting mainstream recognition, it was hard just feeling, ‘Wow I’m a huge dork and wow I’m not cool at all,’ and now feel that that’s OK, and I don’t care ... I’m just happy to be in a band making music I like.”
On the Net: www.whoismgmt.com
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