Breakout band rejects fame and gets its freak on.
DOWN A LONG ALLEY, PAST A ROW OF million-dollar Brooklyn brownstones, an elegant 19-century carriage house has been converted into a playpen for the guys from MGMT. On the first floor, there's a hastily renovated home studio, with the band's gear stacked in the front and a comfy recording studio in the back. A few surfboards lean against a wall, along with a cue card from David Letterman, but none of the awards bequeathed them by their record label, magazines and global TV shows for their blockbuster album, Oracular Spectacular, seem to be in evidence. "Those are in the bathroom," says Andrew VanWyngarden, strickening before pointing near the toilet, where about a dozen plaques are lined up, some in the original bubble wrap. "We're going to leave them in there, like that," he says. "We're calling it our trophy room."
Becoming everyone's favorite band has weighed heavily on MGMT's minds for the past couple of years. This is their first day of practice for their new tour, and they're figuring out the best way to re-create their new album, Congratulations, with their five-man live outfit: guitarist James Richardson, bassist Matt Asti and drummer Will Berman. But it doesn't seem like they're having a lot of fun. VanWyngarden, the heartthrob, barely manages a greeting. Ben Goldwasser, the übernerd, is in the middle of an argument with his girlfriend on his cellphone. The tour, promotion and interviews are starting to make them feel like they're falling back into a nightmare. "You finish recording and you wish that you could just put the album out, but we're going to be in here every day for the next month." says Goldwasser, looking down with a grim set to his mouth. "Honestly, I'm beginning to get overwhelmed."
MGMT's feelings about success, and their first album, are complex and somewhat contradictory. "It's so weird for us to be in this position, because we don't understand why we got as popular as we did," says Goldwasser. "We're dorks. We feel like we tricked everybody." One of the monster singles from their first album, "Time to Pretend" (the one about shooting heroin and fucking with the stars, plus models), is a satire of rock stardom, a joke. The problem is that when their album became an inescapable radio, department store and mom -- friendly hit, they started to feel weird: guilty, tragic, like sellouts. They fell like the joke was on them.
So there was no way they were going to compromise on Congratulations, which sticks to their core influences, like Syd Barrett and Sixties psychedelic rock. "Our interest in the Sixties started with listening to our parents' records, and it grew when we were in college, when we began hanging out with a circle of friends that appreciated digging up old psychedelic music," says Goldwasser. For "Flash Delirium," one of the early songs that they worked on, VanWyngarden tried to channel an early-Sixties dance-hall vibe. "I was imagining a sock hop, and there's a bunch of kids at it, but then there's a terrorist attack," says VanWyngarden. "It's about partying but being paranoid about terrorism and the chaotic world we're in." Congratulations has a crispy, Grateful Dead-in-1967 vibe — the days when the Dead were still wearing tapered pants and nice boots, the Beatles were taking a lot of acid, and the Sixties were just starting to get really weird.
When the album leaked in March, the online response was mixed. Perez Hilton was outraged at the creative departure, while rock nerds adored the new tributes to Brian Eno and Television Personalities, Dan Treacy. VanWyngarden was deeply freaked out by even a hint of negativity: "Not that I give a shit what Perez Hilton thinks, but I was worried that his reaction may well be a glimpse into how a lot of people will react, brushing it off in a split second, dismissing it as old-sounding and not-danceable." he says. MGMT are confident they've made the right album. "Recording Congratulations was the first time in my life that I was able to make whatever music I wanted to make and know that at least a few people are going to hear it," says Goldwasser. "We wanted to make as sincere a statement as we could and not compromise our aesthetics. ''They began the process in upstate New York a year ago, at a friend of a friend's house, then moved to Malibu to finish the album without distractions."Sometimes, though, I'd say that 1 had to go to the store for a little while, and I'd sneak out to surf," says VanWyngarden. "I'd get in the water, eat a taco, and not feel too guilty."
THE TWO CORE MEMBERS of MGMT are very different, though not in exactly the way you would think. Goldwasser plays the square, hiding his asymmetrically handsome face behind chunky glasses. VanWyngarden is the slender, sickly Byronic hero with icy-white skin, rosy lips and chalkboard-green with pupils so consistent in color, they look almost two-dimensional. "With Andrew and Ben, where one's talent stops, the other's continues." says Simon O'Connor of Amazing Baby, who has roomed with both of them. "But it's a strange relationship. When I was living with them, there'd 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 but that's it."
On a deeper level, VanWyngarden is hyperaware, and it's hard to get much by him, whereas Goldwasser has a tendency to go into his own world and trust that whatever happened while he was off in space was good. VanWyngarden is much more spontaneous and naughty than Goldwasser, and they bicker a lot when they're recording. "We're both stubborn and neurotic about music, which is an interesting combination." says VanWyngarden. They're both introverts, and VanWyngarden doesn't even like live music. "Id rather listen to music in headphones or in a living room," he says. "1 don't like crowds." Musically, VanWyngarden acts as lyricist and structural thinker, and Goldwasser is the programming mind. Congratulations' producer, Sonic Boom (a.k.a. Pete Kember), a founding member of Spacemen 3, says, "As in all relationships, theirs is not always easy to define. Ben is the sound boffin, but nothing is clear-cut, and they both step up to whatever they're working on. They understand each other like twins."
Although the plaques in MGMT's bathroom are of recent vintage, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden have been writing songs together since 2001, when they met during their first week as freshmen at Wesleyan University, a 2,700-student liberal-arts school in Connecticut that caters to academically advanced students who may not have fit into their high schools. Both guys had signed up for rooms in the 'weird" dorm, a haven for jam-band lovers, ferret owners and kids who arrived at college very familiar with psychedelic drugs. The Twin Towers fell the second week of school. "I was so paranoid as a freshman, because everything at school was so different than home, and then September 11th happened," says VanWyngarden. "I became really scared about terrorism, to the point where I'd hear a low-flying plane and think everything was over." One night, he and Goldwasser took mushrooms and ran around the campus arts center, a collection of limestone buildings that resemble giant tombstones. It was a good bonding experience," says VanWyngarden. "Sometimes the realizations that 1 have when I come down on mushrooms make me feel that everything has its own place in the world, even trash. It all makes sense."
VanWyngarden, who says he was "born in an incubator" (he was six and a half weeks premature), grew up in Memphis, where his father runs an alternative newspaper. His parents listened to Bob Dylan and Neil Young, the same music VanWyngarden likes now, and he played hockey and collected baseball cards. "The whole global-unit-environmentalist thing of the late Eighties and early Nineties was really big at my school," he says. His older sister was into Phish, and he went to about 20 shows. He describes his high school bands as "hyperweird high school soul-funk rock." and declines to share their names. (One of them was called Glitter Penis.) "I'm glad there's not a lot of documentation from back then." he says.
As his friends reached puberty, VanWyngarden began to notice that he wasn't experiencing changes. Around age 15, he was prescribed human growth hormone to jump-start his transition to adulthood. "I don't think it was emotionally difficult, though my parents got divorced shortly afterward, and that was difficult," he says quietly. "But I've always had a complex that I wasn't as far along in my growth as my friends."
Goldwasser had a more sheltered upbringing, in a small town in upstate New York where his father practices veterinary medicine. He didn't even taste cow's milk until kindergarten because the family raised goats at home, but all was not as idyllic as it might sound: "From a very young age, I was convinced that the world was evil," says Goldwasser. His grandmother was a piano teacher, and Goldwasser was serious about the instrument, traveling up to two hours for lessons. "As a teenager, I became really lazy, so I never learned how to be a technically great piano player," says Goldwasser. "But I definitely knew more about formal music theory when I got to college than most people."
Wesleyan's politically correct culture was a turnoff for both men, who thought that the focus on identity politics was unimaginatively multiculti. "I think PC can border on a fascist mind-set, where discussion isn't allowed," says Goldwasser. They preferred to align themselves with the art students who were receiving the same indoctrination into the horrors of the patriarchal world but resisted participating in advocacy, and they would play parties at the Art House residence hall. "As soon as you walked into those partics, there would be a guys" or girls' changing room, and you had to take off your clothes and put on body paint," says VanWyngarden. "We played in a covers band there, performing songs like 'I Melt With You' and 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey' It was so weird to play drums naked."
After forming a band named the Management in 2002, they wrote "Kids" and "Time to Pretend" as a way of processing their collegiate experience. They fantasized that they would make it as a band — O'Connor recalls dinners with VanWyngarden where the conversation revolved around what life would be like when they became rich and famous -- but they were also interested in stopping time, in staying at college forever. The band wasn't a joke, the way Flight of the Conchords is a joke, but they injected a tongue-in-cheek quality into songs like "Pretend." "Those songs are a combination of being sincere and not sincere, caring and not caring," says VanWyngarden. "We were such different people back then.''
AFTER GRADUATION, GOLD-wasser stayed at Wesleyan to be with his girlfriend, at least until she decided to take a semester abroad. "That was pretty weird." he says. He moved back to upstate New York to build straw-bale houses with some friends, while VanWyngarden hoboed around Brooklyn. They toured some "bad Dad-rock songs" with their friends Of Montreal as well, "rinse guys were living off their girlfriends," says O'Connor. "Andrew was a genius bum. He'd be sitting on his ass eating tacos and come up with amazing songs but not have the drive to do anything with them." Goldwasser thought about enrolling in graduate school for engineering or psychology. "Ben doesn't realize he's a musical genius, and even today talks about going back to school," says O'Connor. "He thinks of the band as a phase."
VanWyngarden and Goldwasser hadn't played music together for six months -- or even seen each other much — when Ben moved to Brooklyn in the fall of 2006, and they reconnected. "Brooklyn is interesting and affordable for musicians, and there was a bit of a scene," says Chris Keating of Yeasayer, a friend of MGMT's and a touring partner on some early shows. "The music from Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, MGMT and our hand is very different, but the common thing was that no one was trying to become superstars. Everyone was trying to do their thing, and it just happened that people got psyched on it."
Then the EP they made in college fell into the hands of an A&R rep at Columbia. In six weeks, they were ordering $24 bellinis on the roof of a Midtown Manhattan hotel with Columbia to celebrate their deal, they also asked the label for fur coats, as a joke, and wrote a rider that requests puppies backstage at every show, because "puppies are awesome" — that part is for real). They tried hard to please the label with Oracular Spectacular, spending the next 12 months playing festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury, and opening for artists like M.I.A., Radiohead and Beck. The reaction from the crowd wasn't always positive. "People come to our shows thinking they're going to see Justice or halt Punk, but the live bands we're into are the Dead and Crazy Horse," says VanWyngarden. "We're not trying to be pretentious. We're just not entertainers."
This shouldve been the best time of their lives, but it didn't feel that way. I've always been slightly depressed and not good at dealing with new situations or meeting people, so touring was pretty much the worst thing in the world for me," says Goldwasser. Both of them were afraid of fying.'"If I fly from New York to LA., it takes me two days to recover," says VanWyngarden. "My skin will freak out, and 1 won't feel right. I feel like a goldfish being taken from the store.''
They also stopped speaking to each other for long stretches of time. "We were in a complete fantasy world when we were in college." says Goldwasser. "We didn't have to react to anything real, so we formed our own impression of life. Then we needed to figure out how to exist in the real world, but we had no idea how to do it. To have a record deal magically come along — well, we pretty much convinced ourselves that aliens had done it."
In 2008, VanWyngarden broke up with his girlfriend of three years, found himself homeless (he didn't want to get another apartment since he was touring all the time) and contracted pneumonia. "That was the most debaucherous time for me, in terms of drug use, and I feel like my body still hasn't recovered, he says. "1 think I took so much Ecstasy that I'm more prone to depression now." One night, during a phase when he was doing a lot of E and Valium (a combination of drugs that feels like heroin-lite), he found himself in Barcelona drinking a bottle of wine and sobbing. He took off for L.A. and started wearing sundresses to screw with his gender identity. "I drove to Joshua Tree, because I thought I was going to find something out there, but nothing happened." he says. His tour manager asked him where he wanted to go next. "I said. I don't know, man, just send me to Transylvania.'" He didn't speak to another person for a week. "I got a massage at the hotel, by a hairy Romanian guy in a white-tile room with fluorescent lights and no towels.'' he says. "That place felt like it was run by aliens."'
As they continued touring, he really started to dislike Goldwasser. "I'm not all that comfortable with the energy from the crowd, but Ben began not to even say a word throughout the whole show." says VanWyngarden. "That made me more uncomfortable, and then I wasn't saying anything either. And when it felt like the audience wasn't getting into the music, it would spiral and just get worse and worse."
They are both nice kids, so they felt like they should follow the label's directives — but VanWyngarden was taking enough drugs that he made everything more difficult than it had to he (he says in this interview that his mom has told him to stop talking about drugs to reporters, but his stories nevertheless often involve drug use). "One night in London, I took acid and then I freaked out at a club and had to be rescued by someone at the label," he says. "I slept for an hour. Then we went to Amsterdam. We got right into a water taxi, and we did press right there in the taxi.Then they took us into a store in the red -- light district, and we sat in the window to do press for six hours while everyone looked at us from the street. Then we played a show that night that was filmed."
Both of them are staunch environmentalists, and VanWyngarden says that he thinks about the plastics in our oceans every today — they're not apathetic at all. But they have chosen to sideline themselves, in a way. "I wouldn't want to be political. because I don't want to trick people into doing things they wouldn't do otherwise." says Goldwasser. Even if he was a force for good? He shrugs. "Even then." he says.
VanWyngarden isn't sure which party to support anyway. "Obama is a lizard person. Manchurian Candidate puppet simulacrum," he says. "You can't trust anybody." He looks down and giggles. "Ah. I don't know, he seems like a nice guy, Obama. Maybe it's all a farce. Life's a farce, isn't it? One big, smelly farce."
In some ways, MGMTs evolution has traced the changes of their generation, which was a lot more idealistic until the last couple of years of political and financial turmoil. "Maybe a few years ago we were the most optimistic generation." says Goldwasser. "But I think once we realized what we've inherited from our culture and the fact that it's now our responsibility to deal with it. We've realized that we're relatively unequipped to do that. We've become really cynical."
AFTER PRACTICE, THE BAND WALKS to an ale house for dinner, and then to a bar to hang out with Kember until about 4 a.m. Goldwasser's girlfriend has to get up a couple of hours later because she's in dental school — she couldn't even go to the Grammys with them earlier this year because she had to study. VanWyngarden's girlfriend, a model, has just left for New Zealand for work, so he's alone now. He lives on the top floor of the carriage house, over their recording studio — it's a beautiful place, with the original tin ceilings from the 1890s and a tiny romm that he calls the "psychedelic room," with a black-and-white-striped cabinet and a zebra skin on the floor. "We played a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, and my cousin's friend asked me if I wanted a zebra skin he had lying around, and I was like, 'Yes!'" he says, then giggles. "I don't know if he knew how adamant I was going to be about it."
The next morning, after putting a coat over his candy-red T-shirt, VanWyngarden merges on the street with Wall Street bankers on their way to work. His neighborhood — a bedroom community for Manhattan — is a haven of yuppies and $40,000-a-year private schools, very far from the Brooklyn of hipsterdom, which is the way MGMT like it. VanWyngarden won't use any sort of social-networking technology; he thinks it's evil ("It's such a shallow way of bringing people together") and that it could be screwing up the process of greater human thought. "I swore I would never live in New York, because everyone from school comes here, but I like this neighborhood," he says. "I'd rather hang with a bunch of geeky a-cappella weirdos than a bunch of indie-rock kids."
At a breakfast patisserie around the corner, he orders a chicken-salad sandwich, a salad and red-velvet cake, then goes about digging in. He says the one thing he feels good about these days is that he and Goldwasser have started to talk to each other more, that they're more than just musical partners. "The last few years took over the friendship side of things, which was there when we first met a long time ago," he says. "We're getting back to where it used to be now."
Then Goldwasser enters the cafe, wearing the same color T-shirt. "Nice shirt, says VanWyngarden, and smiles.