We’ve Got A File On You: MGMT

Jonah Freeman

We’ve Got A File On You: MGMT

Jonah Freeman

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

MGMT are one of the definitive bands of the late-aughts indie-pop boom. Their debut album, Oracular Spectacular, garnered them a lot of attention. It was the kind of fame that discomforted them so much that they made a deliberate left-turn pivot on the inscrutable (but still very good) Congratulations just a few years later. But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped making compelling music, as recent albums like 2018’s Little Dark Age and the brand-new Loss of Life demonstrate. Along the way, they’ve also experienced a lot of “wild things,” as vocalist Andrew VanWyngarden puts it.

Ahead of Loss of Life, VanWyngarden and multi-instrumentalist Ben Goldwasser hopped on Zoom to discuss their new record and a treasure trove of random, genuinely absurd stories. From soliciting fans to play a four-foot-wide cowbell on tour to how they feel about the term “psych rock” these days, MGMT reflected on their storied history as one of the seminal indie-pop duos of the new millennium.

Oh, and they finally talked about what happened to their planned collaboration with Jay-Z.

Loss Of Life (2024)

Something I noticed when I was listening to it is that it’s decidedly less synth-poppy than Little Dark Age. Was that a conscious decision to move away from that sound?

ANDREW VANWYNGARDEN: It wasn’t conscious in that we were like, “Let’s make an album that’s less synthy.” A lot of these songs were worked out on acoustic guitar first, and there’s definitely a lot of synths on the album, like a lot of synthetic, synthesized sound. But the start of the songs were usually on a piano or acoustic guitar. So it’s also in line with our goal of wanting to make something that was more emotionally direct and raw. I feel like acoustic instruments enhance that quality of it. With synthesizers, it’s like trickery.

BEN GOLDWASSER: Also, because we didn’t start a lot of the songs based on studio jams, we tend to have a bunch of synths and drum machines going as we’re writing. But this was more like sorting things independently and a bit more stripped down. It probably just stayed that way.

How was it working with Christine And The Queens on “Dancing In Babylon?”

VANWYNGARDEN: It was our first real collaboration, a real duet. That song took many forms and was an early idea in the making of the album. We had a family-style way of producing this album with Oneohtrix Point Never, Patrick Wimberly, and Ben, and songs would pass through people’s hands, and layers would be added and then stripped back. Eventually, the instrumental side of that song turned into this ‘80s power ballad for a lot of it. Then we were like, “Oh, this could be a good duet,” and Christine And The Queens is the voice that we thought of immediately. He’s someone that we have had a chance to collaborate with in the past, and it never worked out. It just seemed like a good fit.

This is your first album that’s not on Columbia Records. What was it like signing with Mom + Pop and possibly having a little more say in what you were making?

GOLDWASSER: It’s worth noting that after years of being labeled as an indie band, we finally are actually an indie band. [laughs]

It’s poetic!

GOLDWASSER: But yeah, it’s cool. There are a lot fewer layers of abstraction compared to dealing with a major label. We generally had a good working relationship with Columbia, but there are a lot of hoops you have to jump through to get anything done, and things tend to be slower. Mom + Pop is an indie label, but they have a lot of resources. They’re a nice combination of being light on their feet but also able to get a lot of things done.

We got along with them as people from the beginning. We met them and got a generally good gut feeling, which I think is important, like the actual people that you’re dealing with, probably even more so than the business aspect of it.

Kaiser Chiefs, The Kooks, And Weezer Covering MGMT (2008-9)

What was it like releasing your first album and then having three established artists covering your songs right from the get-go?

VANWYNGARDEN: Well, my first response in my head, which I’ll stupidly say, was “You can’t control who covers your music.” But that was really wild, especially the Weezer one, having grown up a pretty big fan of Pinkerton and the Blue Album, and whatever the green one’s called…

It’s called the Green Album.

VANWYNGARDEN: But anyway, I’ve always had a deep appreciation for Weezer and their craft of pop music. So that was wild. But that whole year, you could pick out five stupidly wild things that were happening at any moment for us. This shift from a year prior was so dramatic, that it’s all kind of like a wash, but that was definitely one of the things that cemented it.

GOLDWASSER: I remember when we were recording Congratulations in Malibu, and I got a call from a friend of a friend of mine, a college friend who had a connection to Weezer and told me that they were working on a cover of “Kids” and that they were trying to figure out how to get the synth melody sound. They couldn’t figure out what the sound was. They had him call me and ask how to get the sound.

Straight to the source!

VANWYNGARDEN: He just needed to download Reason. [laughs]

Nominated For Grammys (2010)

How did it feel to be up for Grammys on your debut album?

VANWYNGARDEN: It coincided in a time when we were being extra silly. When we went to the Grammys, it all had been so crazy that our way of dealing with it was to be like, “Let’s have fun and participate in a way that we’re really not taking it seriously so that we can mute our super self-conscious, insecure disbelief that we’re actually operating in this world.” So we were at the Grammys; my family had flown out to go, and we were pretty sure we weren’t going to win anything. But our friends styled us in these frilly, ridiculous mismatched plaid pattern suits, and we were being snarky on the red carpet. That was really fun and exciting. Then we got there, and we just sat in the seats, and I remember being like, “Get me out of here! I really just want to go home, please.” But yeah, this is all just throwing it on the pile of stupid, crazy stuff.

I know there’s one interview with Entertainment Tonight or something, and they asked us about our suits. I made the stupidest dad joke. He was like, “You guys look like you have a good tailor.” And I was like, “Yeah, his name is Swift.” It was so stupid. And then Taylor Swift won a lot of Grammys that night.

Almost Working With Jay-Z On The Blueprint 3 (2009)

I read that Jay-Z originally wanted to include you guys on The Blueprint 3. What happened there?

VANWYNGARDEN: Are we legally in the clear to tell the real version of the story now? It’s pretty juicy.

GOLDWASSER: I mean, I don’t want to talk shit.

VANWYNGARDEN: I think there’s a way to say just the facts. That’s not shit-talking. I can take a stab at it.

GOLDWASSER: Yeah, if you can do it, it’s a great story.

VANWYNGARDEN: So, we were set up in this house in Malibu, spending our label’s money and having a blast making Congratulations and inviting friends over. People came over to party, and it was right after the Grammys, so it was a time when a lot of attention was on us. Our managers connected us with Jay-Z’s manager and said that they wanted to collaborate, and they sent us a beat that Kanye West had made. We were like, “This is cool.” For over a week, we dropped everything. We’re like, “We’re gonna fucking make a Jay-Z song! This is insane.” We had our whole studio set up, and Ben and I ended up making this vampiric, horror-rap beat with this really strange chord progression. Then we fit chords over the chorus that was Kanye West’s disco beat, and we were just like, “This is sick.” It sounded awesome. We sent it and then had a conference call with Jay-Z. He was like, “This is cool, but I want you guys to do your MGMT thing.” And we’re like, “OK,” and at that point, we knew it wasn’t really in the cards, but we had this song. I still have it in my email. It’s really fun. Anyway, flash forward a few months, and they got Empire Of The Sun to sing the chorus over the chords that we had written. So, next story! [laughs]

So they got discount MGMT to do it.

GOLDWASSER: No comment!

Wow, that’s crazy!

VANWYNGARDEN: Our lawyer was pretty much like, [shrugs] “He’s Jay-Z!”

Participating In Pink Floyd Week On Fallon (2011)

Did you guys ask to participate? Or were you asked to participate?

GOLDWASSER: We were asked. We knew what song we wanted to play, but I can’t remember what the discussion was about, like, “Is the Syd Barrett era OK?”

VANWYNGARDEN: They were excited about that because none of the other artists was representing that era. But that was fun. We dressed like crab fishermen, and then Bradford Cox was dressed as Joey Ramone playing an Akai quarter-inch tape reel machine that we had found on the street. It was actually the one that’s all over Oracular Spectacular.

Is there a reason you guys went with “Lucifer Sam” in particular?

GOLDWASSER: It just seemed like it’d be fun. I think it fit in well with the kind of stuff we were doing as a live band at the time. It was a style that influenced us a lot, so it was a good time.

VANWYNGARDEN: It’s also a pretty poppy song, like “See Emily Play.” But like Ben said, it was kind of what we were wanting to do with our music at the time.

How do you feel about the term “psych rock” these days and being described as such? In the early days, I know you rejected that term.

GOLDWASSER: It’s such a diluted term now. I feel like a lot of people’s impression of psych rock is probably like, some guitar with a phaser effect over a dance beat. [laughs]

VANWYNGARDEN: I like being labeled.

You like being labeled in general?

VANWYNGARDEN: Yeah, I think it’s fun. I’ve always wondered about a cool nickname I want to be labeled as.

Getting Mocked By Beavis And Butt-Head (2011)

So you guys have actually been mocked by Beavis and Butt-Head multiple times.

GOLDWASSER: That was a real badge of honor. We’ve had several moments when we probably should have felt like, “Oh, we’ve really made it.” But I feel like that was one of the first times that we were actually like, “Wow, we really made it. Beavis and Butt-Head made fun of our music.”

VANWYNGARDEN: And recently when the Smashing Pumpkins commented on the “Bubblegum Dog” video where we were referencing a Smashing Pumpkins video. I was just like, “Yes, my life is over. We’re getting closer to being complete now.”

Having Fans Take Over Cowbell Duties At Their Shows (2013)

How’d you come up with this idea?

GOLDWASSER: I’m not sure exactly how, but it was an example of something that tended to happen a lot, where we would say something really dumb and then somebody would actually make it happen. We’re like, “Whoa, you actually made this happen!” It was a really big thing, just finding the right person in each place we played to do it. We wanted to make sure that it was somebody who was really a fan but also not a total creep. Also, that cowbell was four feet wide. It was a giant cowbell, and we actually found giant drum sticks that whoever won would use.

VANWYNGARDEN: It was a serious piece of equipment that had to be loaded onto a truck every day.

GOLDWASSER: That NFL player [Andrew Luck] played it at that show in Indiana.

VANWYNGARDEN: Yeah, and Gibby Haynes played it when we played at Barclays Center. Henry Winkler played it in Los Angeles. “The Fonz,” he’s a sweet guy.

Will the cowbell ever come back?

VANWYNGARDEN: No, we have a storage space of shit that, like Ben said, we’d have fabricated off of a joke, and then it would actually be made and we would tour with it. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. But isn’t there a Frank Black song about how stressful it is to have a storage space? That’s how I feel about it. It’s such a waste of money. [laughs]

GOLDWASSER: Especially these days, I get more and more afraid to even think about it because we haven’t toured since 2019.

I guess it’s tucked away in storage for all time then.

VANWYNGARDEN: We should find a giant cow, and they could wear it. We’ll just find a really big cow.

GOLDWASSER: Be careful what you wish for.

Recording A Beatles Cover With Miley Cyrus And Wayne Coyne (2014)

VANWYNGARDEN: Did I do that, or did I just attend the recording session?

I read online that you’d done “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”

VANWYNGARDEN: We’d done it in a way where I went into a studio on the Sunset Strip with my mom. I took my mom there. I don’t remember when, but Wayne Coyne was there. I don’t think Miley Cyrus was there; maybe she was. But there was a producer sitting on the couch. And there were a couple of men on either side of him smoking blunts and looking at their laptops. Wayne Coyne was just doing this thing, like “Yeah, that’s gonna be great! Oh, yeah! Can you sing the Beatles? Just whatever you want to do!” I got in there, and I was like, “I can’t cover the Beatles. I don’t want to. I’m not a singer. I can’t do this.” But my mom had a really awesome time. She was very excited. I can’t remember the name of the producer, but he was really cool. I think my mom may have even smoked some of his blunt.

Writing A Dance Song About COVID (2020)

Andrew, in March 2020, as the pandemic was really starting to take hold of the United States, you wrote a song called “Oh No Corona.”

VANWYNGARDEN: Yeah, it could have been my major break, and, for some reason, I listened to our manager. I love our managers, but at that moment, I listened to him advising against it because it was too serious of a topic to make a hyper, Eurohouse pop song about. But I think it could have been great.

I couldn’t find any snippets to listen to online, but I did see headlines that said it’s pretty Eurodancey.

VANWYNGARDEN: I wonder if it’s in my email.

GOLDWASSER: Eurodance is kind of trendy now, right?

VANWYNGARDEN: Once again, we’re on the forefront. [laughs]

What do you think about art that directly addresses COVID?

GOLDWASSER: Anytime something references things that are so current, whoever’s making it has to know that it’s going to be instantly dated. There’s something cool about the intention of that, like, “Well, I’m just going to do it anyway. I know this isn’t going to be this timeless, abstract thing where the meaning can always shift. No, it’s just about this one thing.” We didn’t want to make a COVID record, even though I guess we did in a way. We made an album influenced by the fact that we canceled our tour, and we’re focusing on being at home more, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Yeah, so inadvertently, I guess.

Making Music With Karen O For The Animated Film Where Is Anne Frank (2021)

How’d you guys get linked up for that?

GOLDWASSER: We got linked up through Chris Coady, who’s a mutual friend. It was cool. I’d actually never hung out with Karen before, even though we both came up in the New York scene. But we never met each other. It was right when people were trying to start getting back to work and do things, even though, during COVID, people were doing tentative studio sessions wearing masks. We were both super cautious. It ended up being a really cool thing to do, to just focus a bunch of energy on this one thing that was very emotional, obviously, because it was an animated movie about the Holocaust. So, it was pretty intense. We got to go to Cannes, where it premiered. It was pretty surreal.

What are the differences between making music for an album versus a film?

GOLDWASSER: The cool thing for me about making music for film was that it was entirely in the service of somebody else’s vision. It was also the frustrating thing about it because you could work on a piece of music, and then it doesn’t fit within a specific timeframe. Something has to get chopped up, or you have to change the speed of it. But the cool thing was that you’ve got a job to do, and the job is just to make somebody happy and do whatever they feel like they need to have in the film. It’s less of an existential struggle than working on your own thing.

Playing Oracular Spectacular In Full At Just Like Heaven (2023)

Why did you guys decide to play it from front to back?

VANWYNGARDEN: [The festival] booked us to do it. They asked us to do that. And we were like, “Sure.” Immediately, we started thinking of all the different ways we could do something that would be very different from every other show we played, and I loved it. I loved the experience. We kept thinking of outlandish things to do with our live performance, except now we had a budget to do it on this huge scale. It was really satisfying and affirming of our creative bond and friendship. That was great.

Also, we both really enjoyed the fact that it was this one show; we knew we’d only booked one show. Because we had a pretty healthy budget, we could actually just do a lot of things like pre-production and rehearsal and not worry about it too much. We knew that it was only happening one time. So there was something cathartic about pouring way too much energy into one performance, and none of the props on the stage needed to get loaded into a truck every day for a month.

There are a lot of anniversary tours going on right now. Would you ever do that? Or would you prefer to keep full-album playthroughs for special occasions?

GOLDWASSER: It’s weird to us because it’s the kind of thing that often happens when an artist isn’t making current material that people consider to be relevant. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it feels like a bit of a signifier of like, “Oh, you’re at that point in your career when you’re looking back more than you’re looking ahead.” That part of it isn’t very exciting to us.

Loss Of Life is out 2/23 on Mom+Pop.

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