Depending on who you ask, MGMT is either the new messiah of pop music or a couple of extraordinarily handsome charlatans who have managed to dupe the entire listening world into loving them. The duo has been described at different turns as Nu Rave, psychedelic dance music for hippies, hallucinatory space rock, and a tired throwback to New York City’s hipster-electroclash years-all of which might be a little bit true. But there’s no denying one thing: Brooklyn-based Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Vanwyngarden, who are both 25, have an uncanny knack for producing pop music that sounds as if it were filtered through a kaleidoscope. The group signed to Columbia Records in 2006 on the strength of their mostly self–produced Time to Pretend EP (2005), and, after holing up in a Brooklyn loft to write new songs, released Oracular Spectacular (Columbia), their debut full-length album, earlier this year. They were just as shocked as everyone else when the record began to take on a life of its own. Due to the infectious nature of the singles “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel”-which marry Prince-like funk with a synthy, Brit-pop party vibe-the band went from playing small clubs in the States to opening for Radiohead in the U.K., a country where the twosome has already been granted bona fide rock-star status. The band will round out 2008 with festival dates and -headlining shows around the world before finally putting an end to nearly 18 months of touring. Despite the pair’s penchant for tripped-out visuals (the “Time to Pretend” video features a shirtless Goldwasser and Vanwyngarden engaged in Day-Glo pagan rituals on a beach and riding on the backs of giant kittens) and a propensity for wearing capes, feathers, and headbands, rest assured: they are not hippies. In addition to being photogenic (Vanwyngarden has the baby face and long locks; Goldwasser, the scruff and the curls), they’ve turned into a formidable live act, with both members sharing vocal and instrumental duties. They also share a single phone in this interview, passing it off to each other. Calling from a hotel room somewhere in Scandinavia, the fledgling stars still sound as in awe of their recent success as the rest of us.
T. COLE RACHEL: I know you guys are in -Europe doing the festival circuit right now. Does it feel like you’ve been on the road forever?
BEN GOLDWASSER: Yeah. We haven’t had that much of a break at all. It’s been pretty crazy, but it’s all been really good.
I was so intimidated opening for Radiohead because I couldn’t convince myself that they really wanted us to play. I thought it was some mistake with the booking.”Andrew Vanwyngarden, MGMT
TCR: How does it feel to be blowing up? I’m seeing and hearing you everywhere right now.
BG: It’s pretty weird. Every time we come back to a city after we haven’t played there for a little while, we’re in a bigger club. We don’t really expose ourselves to a ton of popular culture or the news. We don’t really know how much people are talking about us or about any other band. We just kind of keep doing what we do.
TCR: Are you surprised by the way Oracular Spectacular has taken off?
BG: Really surprised. We weren’t really trying to write hit songs or get recognition from other people. We were doing it mostly for ourselves, just for fun. To have it considered not just as an indie album but as a pop album is really surprising.
I was in Brooklyn, wanting to do music stuff and he wasn’t really into it. I remember him saying he wanted to do some sort of social work, something noble for a good cause. I was like, ‘C’mon, man! where’s your selfish ambition?Andrew Vanwyngarden, MGMT
TCR: The two of you met in art school, right?
BG: Yeah, we were both studying music at Wesleyan [University].
TCR: I guess the aesthetic of the band has changed pretty dramatically since you first started?
BG: We went from being students who had this band that we were doing for fun on the side to having it be the only thing we’re putting our time into. So, you know, whether we consciously did it or not, it’s become a serious thing that we’re investing ourselves in. It would be hard to keep doing this if we didn’t take it seriously.
TCR: At what point did you say, “Okay, this is my full-time job”?
BG: Not until we got signed. We weren’t really looking for a label, and we had no intention of getting signed. We were on a really tiny indie label that some friends started, but they were telling us all along if a bigger label came along, they weren’t going to stop us. We never thought that would actually happen. Even up until the moment we signed the record deal-like when we were talking to people at Columbia Records-we totally didn’t believe that a big label was actually talking to us seriously about our music.
TCR: Was it just a fun experiment that got out of hand?
BG: Yeah! It felt like we could just try and see what happened. And to have somebody offer us a little bit of money so that we could quit our day jobs and focus completely on music was really . . . It was hard to pass that up.
TCR: Were you freaked out?
BG: Yes. We were pretty cautious because we didn’t feel the music was major-label material. But that’s also kind of why we decided to do it. We were also really worried about how we were going to be presented by a major label. We were really wary of starting out as a “hype band.”
TCR: That can be a double-edged sword, for sure.
BG: People were talking about us before they even knew anything about our music. It seems there’s a few phrases about us that everyone’s kind of throwing around. But for the most part, when people actually see us, I think they get it.
TCR: What kind of phrases?
BG: We definitely get a big reputation as a hippie band and a band that parties all the time.
TCR: [laughs] Do you party all the time?
BG: Not really. I mean, probably not above average.
TCR: Which means you are drunk right now.
BG: Because we have a song about cocaine and heroin, I guess people assume we’re big druggies or something. It’s kind of weird, because the whole song was meant to be taken as a joke. [The song “Time to Pretend” boasts the popular line I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars . . . ]
TCR: When you’re being photographed, do you have to be cautious of people wanting to present you as hipster heartthrobs?
BG: A little bit. It seems like every photo shoot we do these days-
TCR: They have feathers and rainbow ponchos for you to wear?
BG: Yeah, they bring us all these hippie things, which is fine. You know, it’s fun to dress up like a hippie, but I think it gives people the wrong -impression. Mostly we just wear jeans and T-shirts all the time. When we played on the Late Show in January, it was the first time we’d ever played on TV. We just arbitrarily decided to wear dark capes. After that, some people wrote articles about how we always wore capes when we played. I think we’re starting to learn that any time we put ourselves out there, we must be prepared for the consequences.
TCR: Dave Fridmann produced your record. He’s known for coaxing really interesting sounds out of the bands he works with, particularly bands like the Flaming Lips and Low. What was that like?
BG: It was . . . Hey, Andrew is here now. You want to take this one, Andrew?
ANDREW VANWYNGARDEN: Sure. The making of the record was a funny process because it was a strange period for Ben and me. It was a month after we’d signed the record contract, and we were in an industrial space in Brooklyn at this oil depot. We had a bunch of instruments in there, and we were kind of like, “Okay, let’s write music now.” We hadn’t done that in a really long time. When we had written songs before, it was very light-hearted, and one of us would usually have a part of a song, and the other would complete it almost in an ironic way. We didn’t want to be ironic this time. We wanted to actually put some effort into the songwriting. We had no idea what we wanted it to sound like. And then we went and worked with Dave. We had only 21 days to record and mix the album, so we worked really quickly and used a lot of the tracks that we had already recorded on our old shitty microphones at home, which Dave was really into.
TCR: He likes weird sounds.
AV: Yeah, he likes the challenge of using drums recorded with a RadioShack mic and putting them on a major-label release. So that was great. Dave was really perfect for us.
TCR: Doesn’t he have a studio that’s out in the woods somewhere?
Because we have a song about cocaine and heroin, I guess people assume we’re big druggies or something. It’s kind of weird, because the whole song was meant to be taken as a joke.Ben Goldwasser, MGMT
AV: Yeah, we recorded in upstate New York. We were shooting BB guns in between recording and eating a lot of pizza and chicken fingers, and it kind of just felt like fun times.
TCR: Do you feel if the label hadn’t come your way, you guys would have just gone off on separate paths and the band would have ended?
AV: Oh, yeah, most definitely. That’s what I had assumed was going to happen. Even six months before we signed our deal, we were in very different places, and I remember rarely even talking to Ben, because he didn’t have a phone out in the woods where he was working at a construction job. I was in Brooklyn, wanting to do music stuff, and he wasn’t really into it. I remember him saying he wanted to do some sort of social work, something noble for a good cause. I was like, “C’mon, man! Where’s your selfish ambition?” Eventually I got him to come to New York. We were just going to go work on a few songs, and then he was maybe going to go to California. Then Columbia Records sent me an e-mail out of the blue. Then we got offered a record deal.
TCR: Wow. It also must have had a lot to do with the Time to Pretend EP, which got so much attention from the music press. Can you imagine that your career would have been totally different if you’d never written that?
AV: Yes. When the label people were talking to us, we knew that they liked us because of that EP. That’s all they had heard. They hadn’t seen us play live. We kept telling them over and over that we weren’t necessarily going to make music like that again, just because we were kind of over the ironic-pop-song thing.
TCR: You guys have been touring nonstop for a little over a year now. What have been some of the most surreal moments for you?
AV: [laughs] This whole last week was some of the most surreal, amazing stuff that has ever happened in my life. Playing Glastonbury was just unbelievable. I’ve heard so much about that festival, and I was kind of starting to doubt if it was actually as good as people said it is, but it’s the ultimate crazy stuff. The second show we played there was probably one of my favorite shows ever. The crowd was just insane. Then we went to Manchester and opened up for Radiohead the next night.
We recorded in upstate New York. We were shooting BB guns in between recording and eating a lot of pizza and chicken fingers, and it kind of just felt like fun times.Andrew Vanwyngarden, MGMT
AV: The show took place on these big cricket grounds that held 45,000 people, and, when we were playing, there were maybe 25,000 or 30,000 people, and we were just freaked out. I was so intimidated opening for Radiohead because I couldn’t convince myself that they really wanted us to play. I thought it was some mistake with the booking. They’re really nice guys. When we got to talk to Thom [Yorke] and Colin [Greenwood], hearing about how much they like our record was really strange for me.
TCR: Yeah, that’s hard to top. Radiohead is arguably the greatest band in the world right now.
AV: I saw Radiohead play last night in Amsterdam. After the show, I was standing there with our drummer, and Thom was talking to all of R.E.M. They were sitting together at a table and I was like, “Man, I really want to meet R.E.M.” All of a sudden Thom Yorke gets up and walks over with Michael Stipe, and they start talking to us. I almost couldn’t take it.
TCR: You felt like your brain was going to collapse on itself?
AV: Yeah. I kept thinking, This isn’t really happening.
TCR: That’s amazing. I know you guys are touring through the end of the year. Are you dying to write songs and make a new record?
AV: Yeah, I’m actually feeling it coming on-like I just got pregnant or something. I can tell I’ve got some songs that are about to come out. That’s usually how it happens-there’ll be a whole lot of ideas in my head for a long time, and then all of sudden they kind of spew out. I can tell it’s gonna happen soon, and I’m really excited.
TCR: I get the sense that in the very earliest days, when you guys first started doing this together, it was more like a performance-art sort of thing. You’ve come a long way.
AV: It wasn’t as thought out as performance art. It was just us fucking around-like you do when you’re a kid in your living room, but doing it in front of small groups of people.
TCR: To go from that to opening for Radiohead-that’s a leap.
AV: I know. It’s funny, but I still feel we’re total little amateurs and we’re still fucking around, but to fuck around at this scale is just really absurd. At the Radiohead show, during our opening set, we’re running around with big tie-dye ponchos acting like fools, and Ed O’Brien, the guitar player from Radiohead, was on the side of the stage watching. Afterward he was like, “You guys are really, really brave to do what you just did.” It’s like, “Um, yeah . . . That’s not bravery, that’s us being silly and not knowing any better.” We’re still just fucking around.