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MGMT back on their terms
7:00am Saturday 24th August 2013 in Music
After mystifying fans with their last album, New York duo MGMT have gone back to their roots for their latest - but they couldn't care less if it's not a hit, they tell Andy Welch.
There was a time five years ago when you couldn't move for hearing MGMT's Time To Pretend. Bloggers loved it, radio stations both niche and mainstream played it on a loop and TV channels used it as background music on various shows.
It was a good old-fashioned hit, closely followed by Kids, the second single from the New York band's debut album.
And with the help of those two songs, that album, Oracular Spectacular, has since sold well over a million copies around the world.
When the eccentric duo - college friends Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden - released the follow-up, Congratulations, fans and critics alike scratched their heads at the challenging nature of the music and lack of radio-friendly singles, and wondered what had happened.
Today, three years on from the release of that album and just weeks before they unveil their self-titled third, the pair have had a chance to reflect on the reaction back in 2010.
"We weren't disappointed," says Goldwasser, the quieter of the two. "We might have fantasised about some of those songs becoming hits, but it's not surprising that they didn't. None of those songs sound like anything that's been a hit in the past 10 years. But then that's not something we care about either."
VanWyngarden is similarly laidback, adding that in the three years since they released Congratulations, there's been a change in the way it's viewed by critics.
"I think people are now more accepting of our second album, because there are that many bands that have gone in that direction," he says, listing the likes of Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala and Pond, as well as Brits such as The Horrors, as bands who have made a similar shift.
But didn't they want to write an album full of songs as successful as Time To Pretend?
"Well, yeah," says VanWyngarden, "that would've been awesome. But we're really not self-consciously trying to make hit songs, we're trying to make songs we love that can connect with people, and we want them to go to as big an audience as possible."
It's as near to the 'We're making music for ourselves but if anyone else likes it it's a bonus' indie cliche as it's possible to get, but VanWyngarden somehow makes the sentiment seem completely genuine.
"We couldn't sit down and write a pop song if we wanted to," he says. "Writing this new album, Ben and I would try to write something with a catchy chorus and fail miserably. And there were other times when we thought we'd written a pop song, play it to Dave and he'd say 'Guys, this really is not a pop song'."
Dave is Dave Fridmann, formerly founding member of Mercury Rev, latterly idiosyncratic producer for alternative royalty including The Flaming Lips, Weezer, Mogwai and The Cribs. He also brought his unmistakable skills to MGMT's debut Oracular Spectacular.
Congratulations was recorded in grabbed weeks between tours and promotional duties, at a time when MGMT were in demand all over the world, but for the new album they decided to recreate the circumstances in which they made their debut.
The band formed in 2002 when Goldwasser and VanWyngarden met at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. The freshmen say they didn't initially set out to form a band, but started off just playing each other their favourite music. That led to jamming, without expectation, writing their own take on psychedelic pop and eventually a handful of demos, EPs and a tour.
"To make this album we wanted to get back to those college days," says VanWyngarden. "Just getting together and making sounds with no goal in mind."
They wanted to avoid prying eyes so, having not stated they were in the studio or spoken of a potential release date for the third album, there was no deadline imposed upon them.
After a few months, during which time Goldwasser was starting to amass an impressive collection of old synthesizers, they'd recorded hundreds of hours of music. Not songs, but huge blocks of improvised music without structure, let alone anything approaching a verse or chorus.
This is where Fridmann came in, encouraging the duo to stop recording and start trawling through the recordings to find segments from which they could carve songs.
"Dave is very good at recognising things and editing," says Goldwasser. "He's very good at trying new things without thinking of the goal at the end of it. It's important not to feel like you're stuck with one idea because that's the only thing you came up with. We had hundreds of ideas to try."
The resulting album, then, doesn't dial down the experimentation, but their ear for melody makes the new release every bit as accessible as their first. While Congratulations was a reaction to being in an intense spotlight, this album finds the duo with nothing to prove and seemingly happy with their position. It's quite an achievement.
"If there was any stress while making MGMT it was because we knew we were making something good and wanted to see it through," says Goldwasser. "It took a long time, but that's the best stress to have. It got to this point where we'd said everything we possibly could, and tried everything we wanted."
VanWyngarden adds: "People can say whatever they want, and we did get some criticism for Congratulations, but we knew it was good.
"We play shows, and we've seen people react to the songs from the second album, and have received six-page hand-written notes from people about how our music has moved them, or saved them from whatever terrible dark moments they had, and that's the kind of thing that's really fulfilling.
"Finding those deep connections with people justifies what we do, and that's always going to be more satisfying than a chart position.
"This time, we know MGMT is really, really good, so we're very excited for people to hear it."
Extra time - MGMT
:: MGMT are Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden.
:: They were formerly known as The Management and released a couple of demos before realising another band was using the name, so abbreviated it to MGMT.
:: The band's debut We (Don't) Care came out in 2004.
:: MGMT's second album Congratulations went to No 4 in the UK album chart when it was released, selling 66,000 copies in its first week. However, it only sold 11,000 copies in the following 18 months.
:: The band's new album MGMT features a cover version of Introspection by obscure New York folk band Faine Jade.
:: MGMT release their self-titled third album on September 17.
October 12 - Glasgow ABC
October 13 - Wolverhampton Civic Hall
October 14 - Manchester Apollo
October 16 - London HMV Forum
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