MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden opens up about insidious technology, the long shadow of 9/11, and becoming famous for ironic songs
"The deals we made to shake things up / And the rights that they abuse / Might just f--- us over," MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden sings on "Hand It Over," a thinly veiled rejection of the current administration and one of the best songs on the band's latest album, "Little Dark Age."
With its mix of velvety and haunting synth-pop, the band's contemplative fourth release sees founders Ben Goldwasser and VanWyngarden at their finest again after a couple of mixed-reviewed albums and their uniquely popular psychedelic-pop debut, 2008's "Oracular Spectacular," whose entrancing global hits "Kids," "Time to Pretend," and "Electric Feel" were written in their college dorm very much tongue-in-cheek in a dig at vapid rock-star celebrity.
MGMT, who one critic has called "the millennial version of Steely Dan," wrote the core of "Little Dark Age" (Columbia) around the time of the 2016 election, and while it's imbued with a sense of foreboding, even horror, there is enough counterbalancing levity and gorgeous melody to carry the record through.
Yet it's more complex than just a political essay, delving into themes as varied as mistrust online and technological crises stemming from data harvesting. And there are flashes of giddy optimism. Which is to say, it's a quintessential MGMT production.
We recently caught up with VanWyngarden to talk about "Little Dark Age."
Daniel McMahon: So it's the early 2000s, and you and Ben are music undergrads playing gigs for friends at Wesleyan. Did you ever imagine you'd end up a rock star touring the world?
Andrew VanWyngarden: Well, that's the whole narrative of our band, kind of cosmically funny and ridiculous in some ways, just being these two guys at a small liberal-arts college. We had this sort of inside-joke, karaoke electro-pop act, and the lyrics were about - and the performance was about - this ironic rock-star thing.
We were in a dorm playing a little show for people, wearing fake-fur jackets and having bottles of Champagne with maybe 15 people. The whole thing was the absurdity of it. And then those very songs that we wrote, with those ironic lyrics ["Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives"], are what got us signed to a major label and ended up putting us on David Letterman and playing Coachella. [Laughs]
Then a few years later, we're on those platforms, singing those same songs, but kind of not wanting to wear fur coats and drink Champagne, because then we're going to be fully doing that not as a joke, but actually living that. We had to figure out how to be a real band but sing these songs that were sort of jokes to us, knowing that those are the songs that are going to sustain us.
It's kind of a crazy storyline.
Noam Galai/Getty Images
But I'm not really surprised that we went out and did big things. I think that was always inside of us, even though it was a joke on a small college campus. We both had an inkling that that was possible. But I never would have suspected or guessed that we'd be able to sustain a longer career, and we definitely never, ever would have guessed that the three songs on our first album would be the meat and potatoes of the band for all eternity. [Laughs] But it's like, hey, you know, it's a blessing and a curse in some ways.
As an artist you want to do different things and experiment and push yourself. You know a large percentage of people who come to your concert just want to hear, like, two songs. But I totally understand that, because I've been that person many times going to concerts and I only want to hear two songs. And so we go out and we try to put on a show that will please the deeper-listening fans as well as the more casual fans. That's been way more pleasurable of an experience than when we were touring for our second album and feeling a little - I don't know what - feeling like, "We're artists, and you guys don't even realize it!" [Laughs] So we've gone through all sorts of phases.
McMahon: Was there a moment when you and Ben felt like you had really "made it"?
VanWyngarden: I mean, the things that made that sink in were maybe the less appealing, kind of more negative associations with that, like being treated differently by friends and family. That's not really fun. There was definitely a period of adjustment, but it was during that period where I felt weird.
Ben and I never wanted to blow up. We were never really shooting for fame and that kind of celebrity success. So when people approach you expecting that or wanting that, it makes you feel weird. So I don't know.
There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I think the dip after we finished our tour for our third album, that's kind of what led into "Little Dark Age."
We toured until the end of 2014, and I was sort of going out with a bang or something. We were touring, and I was partying, and I was 31, and I was like, "This might be the last hurrah for the band." Like, "It's been a good run!" [Laughs] That kind of thing.
But then in 2015, Ben and I took off completely, and we were focusing on things like, for me, I was finishing a house renovation, and Ben was moving to LA. And so it was like MGMT was on the back burner for a while. So I was pleasantly surprised when got back working together to see that strong creative connection. Like, that flame never went out. We were able to get back together and put out songs that I think are some of the best songs we've ever done.
McMahon: So yeah, on tour you're putting on brilliant shows with a balance between new and older songs. And you've created a vibrant visual presentation with all this powerful imagery.
VanWyngarden: You know, we've finally gotten to a point where we're putting more energy and coordinated production into the show. It went from, like, 2008, to reluctantly touring and almost not knowing how to and not wanting to, to really taking our live show to the next level. And unfortunately, that's also the period where the most eyes were on us. So I think we got a reputation as a shitty live band for a while. And now I think we're incorporating songs from all our albums in a really fluid way, and I'm happy it's where we got to.
McMahon: For the first part of your current North America tour, you had Cola Boyy open for you, and he was quite the surprise hit. How did you find him?
VanWyngarden: I was just on Instagram, and I went through a little hole. I saw that someone I knew had toured with this guy called Cola Boyy, so it was purely on the internet. I found his music and listened to it. I was into it. We were looking for a solo act as an opening act for our tour, so it kind of worked out.
He was really psyched to come out and join us. He just signed to a label and is working on an album, so it was good timing for him. We've become pretty good friends. He's on our same wavelength, and we had a really fun time. I'm kind of into that random internet find.
McMahon: Is that how you find a lot of new music?
VanWyngarden: You know, I'm shamefully unaware of new music, like what's happening and smashing and what's the latest thing. But I am a voracious record collector. When we're on tour, I go to record shops in every town. In terms of finding music that's new to me, that's how I like to do it: find stuff at shops that I've never heard of. And then of course I go into deep internet holes where I'll be on Discogs and YouTube and just go that way too.
McMahon: There are several really great songs on the new album, and some are quite dark. What was going on when you were writing this album?
VanWyngarden: MGMT has always been - thematically and with all its lyrics, as with the first album - this sort of postapocalyptic youth gang living by the beach and surviving in this scrappy way. And I think there's been a thread of "The world is ending" and "What are we going to do as humanity?" It's forced a shift, and it's been there since the start of the band.
I honestly I think a lot of that can be traced back to September 11 and the attacks happening during what was for me and Ben our second week of college. That was just, like, a complete life-changing shock, where it totally cracked this feeling of "The world is a safe place." And that happened at the time when it usually happens anyway, when you're 18 or 19 and you start gaining a new perspective of the world and a new perspective of who you are. And so I think that happening during our formative years sort of led to this vein of paranoia and suspicion of the government that's in our music.
And then there's been this hesitance to fully embrace technology, and a wariness to fully embrace technology, this sort of savior that's supposed to raise your consciousness, when I feel it's more like an isolating and dangerous thing. That all came to a head and was exposed in 2016, and that's right when we were making "Little Dark Age." So considering who we are as a band and the stuff I like to sing about, of course the election is going to make it into the lyrics and into the moods, as with September 11, this mass-level shock that happened.
Have you seen "HyperNormalisation"? I really think everybody should watch it. I think there was an article in The New Yorker about how that movie, which came out in October 2016, about how much that movie influenced artists and kind of seeped into the music, because he really, in a beautiful, artistic way, with the collage of archival footage, kind of explains what happens, and things like Cambridge Analytica and all the data harvesting and how people are just, like, speaking into mirrors - and all this stuff is sort of predicted by this guy in this movie. That was also something that influenced the lyrics on the album.
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Sony Hall
McMahon: In part, "Little Dark Age" delves into even darker matter, like dying. What are your views there, and do you believe in the afterlife?
VanWyngarden: Well, I wish that I were as eloquent and fluid as some of my favorite writers who speak about death, but I go all over the place with it. I obviously don't believe in heaven and hell and that whole thing. But I feel, through the experiences I've had, through the psychedelic realm, that everything is happening at once at the same time, like infinite worlds are happening at the same time. Everybody's dying all the time and being born all the time. I actually believe the entire universe is being destroyed and reborn every nanosecond.
So I don't know. It makes it unclear how I feel about human death. Or if I believe in the soul or what lasts. But I do believe that there is a never-dying, eternal sort of energy that exists and is in everybody and everything.
McMahon: Are you already working on new stuff, or are you always working on new songs?
VanWyngarden: Ben and I have our little home-studio setups. I go up there and try to mix stuff regularly, but it's not really a focus like MGMT writing, because Ben just got married and that's been taking up most of his energy. We have always wanted to figure out a way to work and write when we're on tour, but it ends up being hard because of the different rhythm you have to get into when touring. You never really end up having a quiet space that's conducive to creative activities - you're in kind of in these windowless backstage rooms with a bag of Cheetos.
The second half of MGMT's world tour kicks off in North America on May 7. "Little Dark Age" and tour dates available at whoismgmt.com.
Here's a sample of some of MGMT's best songs, old and new: