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A Quietus Interview

The Wince Of Parties: MGMT's Sophomore Slump
Julian Marszalek , March 24th, 2010 08:10

We're all for artistic freedom, says Julian Marszalek, but what happens when it leads a band straight off a cliff edge?

Make your own mind up about the MGMT album by clicking here.

If anything has come to characterise the wait for Congratulations, the second album from Brooklyn’s psych-pop purveyors MGMT, then it’s the sense of heightened anticipation that precedes its arrival. How could it not? Their debut, Oracular Spectacular, was one of those once-in-a-generation albums that seemed to appear as if from nowhere before snowballing to the grand status of A Very Important Album indeed.

Oracular Spectacular stood out from the pack and it certainly distanced itself from any number of painfully studied Brooklyn hipsters, flipsters and other finger poppin’ daddies. MGMT’s nearest kindred spirits were neighbours and one-time touring partners Yeasayer and both bands gleefully tapped into an aesthetic that blended psychedelic flashes with a pop sensibility. Yeasayer aesthetically outflanked the Ivy League Afroisms of Vampire Weekend with a fierce sense of independence. At the same time MGMT separated themselves from everyone thanks to a mix of knowing winks, a sense of humour and an intimate relationship with the concept of melody and the sheer joy that it can bring.

Their initial live shows were hesitant, almost nervous affairs. Opening for Band Of Horses and Sons & Daughters at Koko during the opening overs of 2008, MGMT looked more than a little scared. Their fragile pop barely held together as nerves seemed to get the better of them. Yet, as their gigs grew in number, so their stage craft began to flourish. By the time they reached Glastonbury’s Park Stage that summer, their swagger matched their infectious pop hooks and they ended up storming the Reading Festival’s Radio 1 tent. The eruption that met ‘Time To Pretend’ was a genuine outpouring of pent-up emotion from a crowd hungry to party and the 21st century floor-filling classic that is ‘Kids’ simply detonated what was an already combustible environment.

This was pop the way that it should be – high on tunes and fuelled by the same sense of sonic creativity that drove the likes of Brian Wilson, Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk and, latterly, James Murphy. Of course you’re going to be bursting at the seams to check out Congratulations. You can just feel the anticipation.

And then the word filtered through that none other than Pete Kember – aka Spacemen 3’s cosmic commander-in-chief – was to assume the mantle of producer. For all his reputation for psychedelic exploration and the limitless possibilities of repetition and trance-like mantras, Kember is a man with a strong pop sensibility. Witness his appropriation of Evie Sands’ Northern Soul classic, ‘Can’t Let Go’, for Spectrum’s 'How You Satisfy Me' or the acid house pulse of Spacemen 3’s ‘Big City (Everybody I Know Can Be Found Here)’.

A combination made in heaven? It certainly felt like it had the potential to be and one that adds to the nagging sense of anticipation that’s soon going to give way to a crushing feeling of disappointment because, sad to report, Congratulations has the potential to be the year’s biggest stinker.

This is the album that will have major record labels emitting hollow and cynical laughter every time the concept of “artistic freedom” is mentioned with regards one of their charges in the near future because what we have here is a collection of songs totally lacking in what us made fall in love with MGMT in the first place.

The humour of its predecessor has been replaced with knowing smirks (check the mangled horror of ‘Brian Eno’) and misplaced emphasis on what constitutes psychedelic experimentation. ‘Song For Dan Treacy’ manages the genuinely upsetting feat of emulating the Television Personalities at their most garbled and tuneless and the result is something that even the opiated horror of Babyshambles would consider dumping. Elsewhere, and with no hint of irony, you’ll find ‘Flash Delirium’, a song that comes out like the twisted, disowned sibling of Flight Of The Conchords’ mannered 60s LSD spoof, ‘The Prince Of Parties’. But what’s happened here is MGMT’s total estrangement with melody, hooks and the notion that music can still be fun while offering a challenging perspective.

MGMT are at least to be congratulated for delivering this album with a straight face to their doubtlessly perplexed label but it’s difficult not to imagine the sense of panic that must have greeted it. Repeated requests to the band’s label for advanced copies of Congratulations were met with a volley of excuses ranging from outright stonewalling to some nonsense or other about the lack of human resources available to put a watermarked copy together. (In their defence, Columbia did at least offer a playback at their offices but those circumstances were of use to neither man nor beast; an artificial environment not conducive to the listening experience.)

It’s only the resourcefulness of The Quietus that secures a copy of the album well in advance of our meeting with MGMT but repeated and continual plays refuse to yield any of the factors and graces that charmed us in the first place. For sure, MGMT have taken a bold move to extricate themselves from the perception of being a bunch of happy clappy, faux hippies but the price that they’ve paid in the name of ‘experimentation’ has been way too high.

And right now, as The Quietus – one of only two websites to be granted an audience with the band - takes a seat in the 10th floor suite of an upmarket hotel in Kensington, the problem is how to broach the subject that this album just isn’t much cop? The decision is made to gently find out why MGMT didn’t make their much-rumoured appearance at the previous night’s Spectrum gig at the Luminaire in north west London. A fall out with Kember perhaps?

“It was a mis-communication or something,” offers guitarist James Richardson as we await the arrival of Ben Goldwasser. “We just thought that we were going to go and hang out. I’m not really sure how it all came about but I hope that Pete [Kember] isn’t mad at us, ‘cos we wouldn’t want to, y’know…”

His voice trails off before adding: “We love Pete.”

Ah yes, Pete Kember. As producer, what exactly has been his role in all of this? Speaking recently to producer Tony Visconti, this writer was told that the job of the producer was not unlike that of a film director. In other words, it’s the producer who sees the grand vision and does what he has to to make sure that that vision is realised.

So what was his imput?

“He’s creating a vibe, I guess, and y’know, I don’t think he ever said anything like, ‘You’re doing this wrong’ or ‘You need to put this part here’ and stuff like that,” says James.

“It was kinda nice to have someone else there who, y’know, kinda keeps you on track. Yeah, the whole thing was really surreal and bizarre, y’know?”

Keep things on track? The mind races to imagine what things would have turned out like off track but there’s little time to consider this as the colourful figure of Ben goldwasser enters the room. With his tightly fitting grey jacket, green trousers, striped socks and Buddy Holly glasses, Goldwasser cuts a delightfully eccentric yet colourfully intriguing figure.

“Have we met before?” he says, offering his hand.

I don’t think so, replies The Quietus. We were just talking about last night.

“Last night?”

Yeah, the Spectrum gig. There were rumours flying around that you were supposed to be playing.

“Yeah,” replies Ben somewhat hesitantly. “Uh…yeah, probably. But we were too busy to go to the show last night.”

There’s a long pause as Goldwasser considers his words.

“Yeah, we had a really long day in Maida Vale doing a session and we did about five songs. Then we went to the rehearsal studio for a little photo shoot and a rehearsal.”

Let’s talk about the new album. You’ve managed to avoid the usual second album syndrome by not complaining about the music biz too much. Are you happy with your lot then?

“I think we could complain more but we just choose to focus on positive things but yeah, I think we realised that it would easy to fall into that trap of like, writing an album of, ‘Oh man, we’re like semi famous! What do we do now? It’s terrible!’” he begins.

“I mean, some of the stuff on the album deals with fame and attention but overall the album’s about us having fun and making music that we really like and that we’ll enjoy playing live for the next year.”

Time for some diplomacy.

It’s a marked departure from the first album.

“Yeah. It makes sense that we’re going in that direction considering some of the songs that were written later for the last album and ‘Metanoia’ which we recorded between the last album and this one and that was heading in that kind of weird and eclectic psychedelic direction.”

What prompted that move into psychedelia?

“It’s all we listen to,” replies Ben. “We don’t really listen to a lot of like, radio-friendly pop music. I mean, we appreciate and love it but it’s not really what we listen to most of the time.”

So what sort of psychedelic stuff has been blowing your mind?

“I dunno… the Television Personalities, the Beach Boys, Royal Trux and some Electric Prunes…”

Largely good choices.

It’s interesting what Ben has to say about radio-friendly pop music but surely he must realise that a lot of this psychedelic stuff is pop? The Beach Boys were regularly storming the charts and even the Electric Prunes had hits with stuff like ‘I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night’.

Are MGMT trying to shy away from having hits or is that something that doesn’t motivate you?

“I think we just want to make pop music that’s interesting,” counters Ben.

“People only have a sense of what pop music means from like, the last five years. Pop music, over the history of pop music, is a lot of different things. I think the new album is pop music but it’s not pop music like you’ve been used to hearing over the last five years.”

It’s difficult to argue with that but then it remains difficult to view Congratulations as any form of pop music.

So, is MGMT still interested in reaching out to a wider audience then? Are they trying to subvert the form? Is that it?

“Yeah, I mean we hope that we can turn some people on to some different kind of music. We’re not trying to be exclusive and only cater to elitist record snobs or something like that but people who came to the last album from hearing our songs on the radio but who don’t know who Television Personalities are. We want everybody to try something new,” says Ben.

Ah, yes…Television Personalities. You big-up Dan Treacy from the group on the album but you’ve got a downer on Brian Eno. Shouldn’t that be the other way round?

“We mean ‘Brian Eno’ to be very positive. I mean, we’re kinda poking fun,” responds Ben in protest.

James springs into action: “It’s just a funny song, you know? It’s not supposed to be a diss.”

Ben offers an explanation: “It’s about how Brian Eno is seen as an untouchable kind of uber-genius producer and…”

But he is.

“Yeah, but his image in the public eye is really ridiculous,” counters Ben.

“If you read the lyrics they all really make sense. It’s about like, [vocalist] Andrew [VanWyngarden], like, you know, travelling through Pennsylvania and finding, like, uh… hearing like really weird music in a cathedral and finding out it’s like Brian Eno playing the organ or something. It’s like a weird dream or something.”

Right…

Aren’t there more worthy targets to have a go at than Brian Eno?

“I don’t think we’re looking for targets. I think we wanna celebrate Brian Eno more than anything and he’s done so much amazing stuff,” replies Ben.

“It’s like ‘Lady Dada’s Nightmare’ – it’s much more about the music than the title which is like a silly thing that we added later. It’s not meant as a jab or a negative comment or anything like that. We just talk about Lady Gaga because she exists in such a different world from us and to be even mentioned in the same breath is like, “Wow! Lady Gaga!” She’s, like, from another planet compared to us.”

Let’s talk about ‘Flash Delirium’, the free download and taster for Congratulations. How did you feel about the reactions to it? It got a mixed response over here.

“We’re really proud of the track and it is really weird and we were admitting that we think it’s a weird song and we’re fully aware of what kind of music it is and we think that it’s really good music,” replies Ben.

“We hope that people are open minded enough to accept a song like that. And we’re really glad that’s it been played on the radio and music like that rarely gets played on Radio 1; it’s pretty creepy.”

It sure is.

_You can listen to Flash Delirium here...

But is it as good as 'Prince Of Parties by Flight Of The Conchords...

Are you being wilfully perverse?

“No. I mean, what do you do after an album like Oracular Spectacular with all these hits on it? What can you do other than make a record that you would want to hear? What else are you supposed to do?” asks James, missing the point that more top tunes wouldn’t go amiss.

Ben expands: “The only way forward is to say, ‘Well, OK, if I bought a record, what would I want it to sound like and let’s try to do that.’ So that’s what we did.

“We’d already written ‘Time To Pretend’, ‘Kids’ and ‘Electric Feel’ when we started working on Oracular Spectacular and I think most of the music on that album was, in a way, a response to that, to the music that we’d already written. So it’s like, ‘OK, we have these pop songs that we wrote when we were still in college and having fun in innocent times and now we’re in the real world and it’s scary and we don’t understand what’s going on’ and so we wrote these kind of weird, alienated songs as a response.

“With this album we’re not responding to any of that stuff even though the lyrics are kind of about fame and success. We don’t wanna stand on a soapbox and tell people, ‘This is what we believe’”

Sensitive readers are now warned of the cliché alert:

“We just wanna make music we like and we hope that other people find that music and like it.

You were warned.

“But it’s interesting to see the reaction and see how much people get offended by music.”

The apparent secrecy surrounding Congratulations suggested that perhaps you’d found a cure for cancer but it’s not as immediate as its predecessor, is it? Is that a deliberate move?

“No, not really. It’s just how we think about music these days,” says Ben.

“Most of the music that we like the most, there’s something drawing you in but at the same time there’s something putting you off. And you think, ‘Woah! This would go down easier if it wasn’t for this part’ and then you start to realise that the more challenging stuff is, it’s like ying and yang or something.”

James analysis is more succinct: “It’s a shitty bit in an oyster that becomes a pearl.”

Quite.

So you’re saying that you’re hoping that this album will open up?

“Hopefully, yeah. I think we all wanted it to be the kind of album that you don’t get the first time, that you listen to over and over again and it grows on you.”

James expands on the theme: “Yeah, for me, it was like the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. When I first heard that I was in, like, the sixth grade and I thought it sucked. I thought the production was, like, awful and they couldn’t play their instruments, you know? I used to like Led Zeppelin and it kind of blew my mind.

“At first I thought it was terrible music, just awful and it became, like, you know, over time it kinda stuck in my head because it was so weird and different and it changed the way I thought about things so much that it became a part of my life.

“Not that I’m comparing us to Surfer Rosa but that’s sorta what we’ve gone for, I think.”

Are you making your audience work then?

“Yeah,” replies Ben.

But here comes the caveat: “I mean, I think that’s the kind of audience that we want – a critical audience.

“I’m sure we have some fair weather fans who’ll say, ‘Well, there are no songs that on here like the ones that I really, really liked on the last album and I’m not going to give this album a chance.’ But I’m sure there are also people who are more into the stranger songs on Oracular Spectacular who are going to love this album.

“And maybe the people who never gave us a chance because all they thought of us was that we were a derivative pop band because of what they heard of the last album and now they’ll realise that we have this crazy, psychedelic side. I dunno, who knows?”

But surely that “crazy, psychedelic” side was apparent at the beginning, wasn’t it?

“We would argue, ‘Yes’ but I think that because we were kind of painted as an indie-electro band after the last album, it was, like, people have to spin that into the story somehow. Like, it was a total 180 degree shift but for us it was like, that was a blip on the radar.

“And it’s also like the definition of psychedelia; there’s a difference between what we consider psychedelic music and you know, like wearing your headband and being on a beach and stuff. You know what I mean?”

What? Like the look you had on the last album?

“A lot of people latched on to the last album as being psychedelic but not for musical reasons but like, for, ‘Ooh look! They’ve got face paint on!’ I think a lot of the last album was poking fun at this image of what you already saw with that image of a pair of hippies and stuff and that and we were definitely joking about that. I mean, the ‘Time to Pretend’ video was kind of a satire and I think that some people really don’t get that.”

So with this album you’re trying to draw a line in the sand then?

“I think we’re trying not to be satirical for the most part or ironic or something. I think it’s as honest as possible. I think that some bands are so caught up in irony that it’s, like, they don’t ever have to be serious because at any moment, like, they could do something and then be, like, ‘Oh, we didn’t really mean that!’ ‘cos they were joking around and we don’t want ourselves to be one of those bands.”

Errr…

“We want to be honest and we want people to know exactly where we’re coming from and we’re not trying to hide behind obscurity or something.”

Given Sonic Boom’s background and his personal tastes and also Dan Treacy, can we expect a collaboration with Pete Doherty at some stage?

Ben says: “Ummm… I guess it probably wouldn’t surprise people would it? I wouldn’t expect that to happen. I don’t see it in the near future but I guess… Oh, is this because of past records of heroin use?”

Yeah.

He continues: “I dunno. The NME article must be out and they’ve realised that we’ve listened to a lot of music that’s made by people who have some point in their lives done a lot of heroin. I don’t know what it is about heroin."

To be fair, Congratulations is not a terrible album and many, doubtlessly surrender to its reedy charms. The album will probably even struggle into the lower reaches of the end of year lists. But as we attempt a fifth and sixth listen to this missed opportunity - this exercise in laziness - very little of it remains in the memory bar the bass line to 'Brian Eno', the few flashes of actual psychedelic deviance that crop up on 'Lady Dada's Nightmare and the ominous phrase that opens the title track: "Dead in the water."

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