For a while, MGMT were considered one of the most self-destructive bands in the music industry. Formed in 2002 by two college freshman at Weslyan University, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser would soon take the world by storm, releasing their first record Oracular Spectacular in 2007. Including infectious hits such as Time To Pretend, Kids and Electric Feel, the album would go on to sell millions of copies worldwide and would lead MGMT to the biggest stages around the world.
But this initial success did not come without criticism. For years, the band were constantly slated for not being able to translate their singles to the live stage. Then, in 2010, they would release ‘Congratulations’, their second album which seemingly had no singles on it. They had done a 180, releasing music more in line with psychedelic pop than anything from the hugely successful first album. Had they committed career suicide? Perhaps. Or as they would tell The Guardian in an interview in 2010, “that’s not where we (wanted) to be. We got a glimpse of (fame) and shrunk back”.
After Congratulations would come the band’s 2013 offering, the self-titled third record ‘MGMT‘ – another offering that did little to inspire even the most hardcore MGMT fans. That’s not to say that the music was bad, it was just different. Fast forward to late 2017 and after a little hiatus, the band announced their return on the scene last October with the release of the title track of their latest record Little Dark Age. Following this release was their second single When You Die in December. Immediately fans could sense a different energy coming from MGMT’s music – while it didn’t provide the joyous, synthy highs of Oracular Spectacular, there was still some sort of substance for fans to grab onto – something which was missing from the preceding 2 albums. Little Dark Age, released in February this year highlights an evolution of MGMT that many assumed would never come. It’s grandiose synth pop that somehow never feels like it’s over the top.
Ahead of their upcoming performance at Splendour In The Grass, as well as their 2 date co-headline tour with Franz Ferdinand, Stoney Roads was lucky enough to catch up with half of MGMT, Ben Goldwasser, to discuss the making and themes of Little Dark Age, as well as discuss the perils of touring in a live band for so many years.
Stoney Roads: Hey Ben, thanks for chatting to us today, how are you doing?
Ben Goldwasser: I’m really good how about you?
SR: Yeah really well thank you! Where abouts in the world are you right now?
BG: I just got home last night from the last leg of our U.S tour… We just finished off the West Coast and we’ve got a little bit of time to rest up now before we head back out again.
SR: Awesome! First off the bat, what have you found the reception like from fans to your latest record ‘Little Dark Age’?
BG: It’s been great. It’s actually been, of all of the records we’ve put out, the one that people have most immediately grabbed onto at the shows. I mean even touring for our first record (Oracular Spectacular) which had more popular songs on it… We noticed that when touring that one it took a little while before people really began engaging with all of the songs… It’s always felt like a bit of a struggle to perform some of our music live but with (Little Dark Age) it feels like people have been really ready to embrace the new music and fans are singing along and everything so it’s been really great.
SR: It definitely feels like it’s your most relatable album since ‘Oracular Spectacular’! Did you have the idea going into it that you wanted to write an album that was maybe a bit catchier than your more recent stuff?
BG: I don’t know… I mean I think it’s tough to talk about intentions because we always go in to writing an album with intentions and then the outcome is never what we were trying to achiever in the first place… I think we generally kind of go wherever the process takes us but maybe this time there was something about where our heads were at that we ended up wanting to make catchier music. I’m not sure… I think in some ways, emotionally we were in kind of darker places or maybe a bit upset about what was going on in the world… That could have somehow urged us to want to make music that was a bit more uplifting. To kind of get out of that place in some way.
SR: That’s interesting – I feel like MGMT’s music has always dealt with heavy themes in the lyrics that are glossed over with this shiny, synthetic sort of left-field pop over the top. You wrote this album at the time of the U.S election, didn’t you?
BG: A lot of it was written around then yeah.
SR: Do you think that had anything to do with the messages that are coming through?
BG: It’s definitely possible. I mean there might not be an overt political message in the music but it is informed by things that have been going on in the world the last few years and I think in some ways it’s more directly related to current events than our previous records. I think that the third record (self-titled ‘MGMT’) dealt with a lot of the same emotions but in different ways. I think in many ways that record was more like responding to anxiety by retreating into this kind of the internal world… And this one is more about responding to those feelings with a desire to connect with other people and kind of find others who were, and are, feeling the same way.
SR: MGMT has grown up in the music industry – you started the band while you were at college. Moving into an older period of your life do you feel you could use MGMT’s music as a platform to more overtly express these ideas and themes than perhaps in the past?
BG: I think in some ways we are a little bit anti-message or you know we don’t want to be a band that is known for being political or having a message but I think at the same time there are some things that we really care about. We don’t want to be preachy but I guess I’m not really sure what our responsibility is or should be just because we have that platform. I feel like some people might say “oh well you have that platform you shouldn’t waste the opportunity to reach people” but on the other hand I think there’s something really nice about bringing people together and allowing them to form their own meaning behind the songs. I mean fans are always telling us “oh this song is definitely about this right” and generally we’re like not really but that’s a really cool interpretation of it so we don’t really want to tell people what the songs and the messages are about sometimes.
SR: Are we living in the “Little Dark Age” or is it a prophecy?
BG: (laughs) I don’t know… Honestly every day I’m getting more and more depressed when I look at the news so it’s hard to say but I mean I definitely hope that things get better soon.
SR: Please take no offence to this but early on MGMT live were not particularly crash hot. A lot of early reviews of your live shows criticised your shows for being more of a studio act than a live band. All the recent reviews of your latest tours however appear to be nothing but positive. Do you think that you’re finally hitting your straps as a live band?
BG: Yeah I think we are. And I don’t take any offence to that comment at all. I think in the past we have never really been quite where we’ve wanted to be as a live band. Now though we totally feel like we are… And I genuinely think we all feel like we’re getting better and better and we are really happy with the place we are at… I think also it’s taken a little bit of time for people to catch up with who we are as a live band because I think when our music first came out, a lot of people expected us to play more of an electronic performance, more in line with DJ’ing or something like that… We have always thought that our music comes across better in a 5 or 6-piece live format… What we have settled on now is a little bit of a hybrid of that – a rock band with electronic elements and we’re really, really happy with where it’s at.
SR: What can fans going to your upcoming Australian shows expect from the show?
BG: We’ve been doing most of the new record and then an even mix of songs from the older ones. And we have some really cool production on stage – all of the lighting and the visuals and everything… It definitely feels like a proper multimedia experience… I think it just keeps getting better with every show and to be honest, it’s really the first time that we’ve toured for a record that I feel like… I don’t see us ever getting sick of playing the way we are playing right now. Sometimes in the past we’ve gone out on a tour and after a month we’re like “oh man we have to do this for another year”, but I think we are all really feeling so excited about playing this record live right now.
SR: Is that strain of constant touring what lead to your little hiatus in 2015?
BG: I think yeah definitely it was part of it. I mean it was the stress of touring, but then also the stress of not feeling grounded in our home and personal lives and I think just taking that time to establish ourselves at home and kind of rediscover who we were individually gave us more of a launch-pad to go out on the road and feel good about touring this time… We’re not using all our energy while we’re on tour anymore which is really nice.
SR: This upcoming tour will be your 6th visit to Australia. Do you have any favourite memories of touring here?
BG: Oh man I love going to Byron Bay. It’s a very special, magical place! Oh, and I have a memory of hanging out with some of the Pond guys on tour, and we were staying… I can’t even remember where it was but it was on our last tour there on one of the stops (2014). So, it’s the middle of the night and my girlfriend at the time and I could here like holla’ing coming from somewhere. And mind you it’s like 2 or 3 in the morning so we were like “what on earth is going on”. So, we get up and of course some of the guys from Pond were down in the water and they had found like some sort of bio-luminescence where you could clap your hands and it would just make the entire ocean spark up. So, we all got in the water and we were going crazy in the middle of the night which was super fun.
SR: You’re touring with Franz Ferdinand. Have you met them before? Do you get on well?
BG: Yeah, we have! I don’t really know them well but they are sweet guys I think we’ll get along really well for the tour. It’s crazy we’re both bands that have been doing this music thing for a long time and been through so much but I think they’ll be a good musical match for us and yeah, I’m really looking forward to all the shows!
SR: Alright I think we might leave it there! Thanks so much for chatting today man, can’t wait to see you at your upcoming shows!
BG: Oh, thank you so much, we’re really excited to come and play there again!
Catch MGMT on their upcoming tour of Australia! They co-headline a couple of dates with Franz Ferdinand in Sydney and Melbourne, follow the link for ticket details and information!
MGMT 2018 National Tour
Sunday July 22 – Splendour In The Grass, Byron Bay NSW.
Tuesday July 24 – Festival Hall, Melbourne Vic.
Wednesday July 25 – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney NSW.