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Interview with MGMT

11 DEC 2010 | Posted By: TheVine

Interview with MGMT

When MGMT released their audacious second album Congratulations, the follow up to their bazillion selling debut Oracular Spectacular, critics and fans were polarised. The record appeared to be the antithesis of everything that had garnered them the kind of riches and universal fame most artists would kill – and do kill themselves – for.

TheVine once again catches up with MGMT on the eve of an Australian tour, their third. This time Ben Goldwasser analyses where and when things began snowballing, the frustration of having a personal album panned by critics, and, yeah, that thing 'fame'.

Nick Holt: The last time we chatted with you guys, you had just released Congratulations and you were about to go out on tour - something Andrew admitted to being pretty excited about. Five months down the track, where does that excitement sit now?
Ben Goldwasser: We're really excited. I mean, I think we're still kind of tired out from touring, but I think we know how to do this better than we did last time. We know how to enjoy ourselves. We're having a great time.

NH: In the same interview, our writer (Darryn King), who had been to your concert the night before, informed Andrew that the sound was "awful, sonically".
BG: I remember this… wait. Which show was it?

NH: It was in Sydney, in April this year.
BG: Ah yep. I kind of remember that. It didn't sound the best.

NH: I saw you at Coachella five days after that interview and the sound was good. So I'm thinking his comment must have really hit home with Andrew…
BG: [Laughs] I think that's one of those things that we just don't have control over sometimes. Sometimes we can be doing our best on stage and it just doesn't sound good in the room. Sometimes we can be playing on stage and it sounds terrible to us, but we kind of pray it sounds OK to someone out there….anyone.

NH: The MGMT live show is something which is brought up in the media a lot. It seems like you never really had the chance to perfect your live performance before you began being picked apart.
BG: Totally. At first we had no experience. None of us had really been in a band that was solidly touring before and there are a lot of things bands pick up on from playing years of shows that we kind of had to learn the hard way. I don't want to make any excuses - when you go to see a band you like, you expect them to put on a good show - but I don't know what people were really expecting from us. We'd basically assembled a band from scratch to support this record we'd written and all of a sudden people liked it. We weren't really a 'real' band before that. So I think at this point we've mostly caught up with ourselves and can actually put on a show.

NH: Do you feel there has been an expectation people have placed on MGMT since the start?
BG: Yeah, well…I guess it's sometimes good when people expect superhuman things from musicians, because it's cool to want to believe in that kind of stuff. But we're all just human beings.

NH: I was in New York around Christmas time in 2007. And I think you were still unsigned... I'd never heard of you before. But there was a ludicrous amount of chatter about your band around the scene over there. When did it all begin to start snowballing?
BG: Well it was when we got a record deal with Columbia. We put out that EP on our friend’s record label – they'd started the label and we were the first band on it – there was no promotion behind it or anything like that. We just made the record so we had something to sell. Things sat still for a year after that and then all of a sudden we got a call from an A&R girl at Columbia records who said she was interested in our music. We thought it was a joke. But even then, when they put it out there that some people at the label thought they had some potential hits on the record, I don't think anyone knew what was going to happen. I think it's easy to say in hindsight that everyone knew what was going on, but I don't think anyone did.

NH: How crucial was timing?
BG: That's a difficult question to answer because at that point 'Kids' was about six-years-old and 'Time To Pretend' was a few years old as well. So really by the time anyone heard that stuff it was old for us.

NH: It seemed you and Andrew were always quite conscious of the absurdity of the attention you were receiving.
BG: Yeah, I think absurdity is something that we're very familiar with – not that we're any better equipped to deal with it, but we certainly recognise it very well.

NH: You've mentioned that you made yourselves unaware of what was happening around you.
BG: I think we had to. I dunno, I feel like we see too many people getting caught up in that. The press surrounding something, generating so much hype, then the band conforming to the hype and trying to milk it for all that they can. I'm pretty annoyed by that kind of stuff, so I think we just tried to retreat into our caves and not really let that stuff affect us.

NH: Was there an addictive aspect to what was happening?
BG: Hmm. I dunno, I think maybe through a fault, we're the kind of people who can't really over-indulge in that kind of thing. Sometimes maybe we'd even benefit by letting some things go to our head a bit. But I don't think we can [do that], we're just too humble. I dunno, that sounds like a really douche thing to say... I've met some other musicians who really do indulge in that kind of stuff and really get into it. I just don't think we're that good at it. We really enjoy our job and appreciate that people are into our music, but we're still weirded out a little bit by it all.

NH: Congratulations is almost the antithesis of Oracular Spectacular, and for this it was slammed by a lot of people. How frustrating is that?
BG: I don't know. I don't think it would be fair of us to except anything different from what actually ended up happening. We don't really deserve any more attention than anyone else. We put out any album that didn't have any obvious hits on it and took a few listens to get into - but a lot of people put out music like that, and a lot of it's really good and there are a lot of people who never hear it. We're grateful that we got to make this album that we're really proud of and we're grateful that some people listened to it and enjoyed it. I think the initial reactions were from people who were blowing off steam, which people tend to do, and unfortunately that's all that most people initially heard. But people have been able to make up their own mind since then. It's also such a hard thing to ask someone to devote time to a piece of music, or any piece of art work, especially nowadays with so much stuff available on the internet and say, 'No, really, trust me, spend some time with this, you'll really like it.'

NH: It's kind of artistic totalitarianism, isn't it?
BG: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. And the thing about that is, with everyone being hit by so much information at once, the things which immediately affect people are the things that have the most effect – and that's not always the best case.

NH: There was a recent headline going around along the lines of "MGMT forced to change style after album flop".
BG: Ahh. I think that is a fine example of our self-deprecating humour which often get's taken out of context. We hope that won't be the case. But how to signify whether our album flopped or not? We didn't expect our first album to do as well as it did. I think we're pretty happy that we made this album, which we consider to be really good. We're not trying to be millionaires and when people write something like that it makes me realise how stupid people can be. It's not my job to point that out, but I'm sure someone else will.

NH: You're going to be back here next year to play the Future Music festival. Despite the polarising opinions of your second album, you're still being booked as a headline act around the world.
BG: Yeah man, that's the thing – the shows’ have been great. I think that's the most frustrating thing about a lot of those knee-jerk reactions in the media. Our shows have been really good and there's a real theme developing behind them. Kids are getting super excited to come out and see these shows and hear both the old hits and the new stuff and that's something which is real, that we see happening every day. Nobody's writing about that though; they're just writing about how they want to us to make another 'Time To Pretend'. It's just silly. There must be something else that's really thrilling and fun to write about? Not some band who's really pissing you off because you're not doing exactly what they want. There must be something else.

NH: What's next in terms of writing for you guys?
BG: I'm not really sure what direction it's going to take at this point, but I think we've gotten a lot better at recording ourselves since the first album. We have our own recording studio now and think it will be really cool because we have the techniques to do a lot of stuff on our own. It would be great to work with Dave Fridmann again. But I guess we'll just see.

Interview by Nick Holt. More at thevine.com.au.

MGMT will tour Australia with the Future Music Festival, 2011
Brisbane: Saturday March 5th
Perth: Sunday March 6th
Sydney: Saturday March 12rd
Melbourne: Sunday March 13rd
Adelaide: Monday March 14th
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