Take it up with the MGMT
The "overlooked one" takes on critics of the bonkers Congratulations.
We reach Ben Goldwasser of MGMT, fittingly, in San Francisco, birthplace of hippies and the Summer of Love. In Buddy Holly spectacles and blazers, the 28-year-old is not so much the quiet one in the neo-psychedelic band—as he is often labeled—as the studious one. Both Goldwasser and his frontman, Andrew VanWyngarden, are surprisingly introverted for trippy-dippy merrymakers. Onstage, the two principal MGMT men tend to sing in a whisper while keeping their eyes, veiled in headbands, on their loose-fitting neon pants. After global success (their 2008 major-label debut, Oracular Spectacular, sold in the seven figures), the modest weirdos retreated into the baroquely batty Congratulations, an album borne of exhaustion, C.S. Lewis, substance abuse and an allergy to the spotlight. Goldwasser chats with us on the day of the divisive album’s release.
Are you aware of the Urban Dictionary entry on Ben Goldwasser?
Really? No! What does it say?
“The other half of brilliant psych-pop band MGMT. He is totally overlooked.” Then there’s a usage example: “OMG. ANDREW VANWYNGARDEN IS SO HOT. Ben Goldwasser is pretty sexy himself.”
Wow. That’s good. It’s kind of nice being overlooked. I’m totally fine with that.
You had to know people would either adore this record or rip it.
We weren’t trying to make an album that was polarizing. We were really surprised at how strongly people reacted to it either positive or negative. The spin on what we’re doing now is that it’s this 180-degree shift. But we put out [14-minute single] “Metanoia” a couple years ago. That was a clear indication where we were going. For whoever heard it. I guess most people only heard our dancey pop stuff.
The 12-minute “Siberian Breaks” is the centerpiece of the new album. Is it truly about surfing?
Well, the song is about a lot of things. But the title came from the notion of surfing in the Arctic Circle.
What made you think of that?
We did a lot of recording in New York in the winter, then we went out to Malibu for a couple months. We wanted to juxtapose those two different feelings.
How did you kill time in Malibu?
I went to the beach a lot. There was a cool trail behind the house we were staying in. You could walk up to an isolated waterfall with red salamanders swimming around in it. We didn’t want to be in L.A., or any city for that matter. We wanted to be really isolated and not have friends stopping by all the time, to get lost in a little world.
“Siberian Breaks” has a definite early-’70s soft-rock vibe.
That era of the Beach Boys was a really big inspiration for this album, records like Surf’s Up. People get confused with that song because it’s so long, and people immediately associate it with prog rock. The new album is more influenced by the Mamas and the Papas.
I’m going to read you some user comments that went up today on iTunes. My favorite: “This will be a huge hit with retirement homes.”
[Laughs] That’s like… That’d be amazing, though, if this became a huge album with everyone in retirement homes. We listen to so much older slow music, to us it sounds totally normal. To a lot of people maybe it sounds boring.
“MGMT are the Soulja Boy of indie rock.”
I wish I could say I understood that.
“MGMT dropped their balls like the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers.”
Is that good or bad?
I don’t know. It could mean maturation, like saying your testicles have finally descended.
Yeah, like our balls dropped from our bodies. Or it could be that we dropped the ball. It could go either way.
MGMT play Riviera Theatre June 18 and Lollapalooza in August.