MGMT Calls Themselves Middle-Aged. Feel Old Yet?


Photo courtesy of MGMT.

The swell of eighties nostalgia hits immediately when you listen to Loss of Life, the fifth studio album from rock duo MGMT. “There’s something cool about the raw earnestness of a lot of eighties pop music, especially juxtaposed against really cheesy synthetic sounds or overly dry slick sounding things,” says Ben Goldwasser, who joined his Wesleyan classmate Andrew VanWyngarden to form the band all the way back in 2002. Naturally, then, more than two decades on, they found themselves drawn to a sense of nostalgia as they worked on Loss of Life, their first album under the indie label Mom + Pop after leaving Columbia Records. This album cycle, though, the duo is passing up the chance to tour so they can sustain their creative flow. “The experience of trying to convince people to listen to new music in a live context is always frustrating for us and probably for a lot of musicians,” says Goldwasser. “We want to keep the focus on staying creative and making new music.” But before they get back in the studio, they took the time to get on Zoom and tell us about parenthood, middle age, vegetable trends, and which song on their latest album could soundtrack a kissing scene from an eighties movie. 


JULIAN RIBEIRO: Where are you right now?

ANDREW VANWYNGARDEN: I’m in the woods at my house. My cat’s meowing at me.

RIBEIRO: Oh, awesome.

VANWYNGARDEN: It’s a nice warm day, very breezy.

RIBEIRO: Terrific. Hey, Ben. How are you?

BEN GOLDWASSER: Hey. So sorry about that. I had to take my car to the shop and it took a little longer than I thought. 

RIBEIRO: It’s all good. How does it feel now that the album is out and in people’s hands? 

VANWYNGARDEN: Overall, this whole rollout has been very non-stressful. We both feel like it’s a collection of songs that takes multiple listens to really get into, so it’s fun to watch that. There’s been some knee-jerk reactions, and then some people go back and listen again and then their mind changes. I like that stuff, when the music has this amorphous, liquid aspect to it.

RIBEIRO: Totally. I feel like it’s easy to psych yourself up before something comes out and be like, “What are people going to think or do?” And then, when it’s done, you can kind of move forward.

GOLDWASSER: It’s kind of like if you move into a new house or apartment and get a new piece of furniture and you deliberate over all of the details of it. And then, after a while, you’ve just been living in this house and it’s your sofa. And having had the experience of releasing a lot of music and seeing how it takes on a life of its own and goes through different stages of people discovering it, it’s easier to think about it in that way. 

RIBEIRO: This is your guys’ first project that’s not with Columbia, is that correct?


RIBEIRO: Which label are you with right now?

GOLDWASSER: It’s Mom + Pop.

RIBEIRO: How has the experience been, working with an indie label versus working with a big industry player?

VANWYNGARDEN: It’s been fun for us because it’s a new relationship in every sense of the word. They’re really into the music we made, and we’re excited to have a whole fresh experience. I don’t think we ever really compromised our creative visions on a major label, but I will say that this experience with Mom + Pop has been more fluid and not much pushback. They’ve been really helping us achieve our vision. 

RIBEIRO: Did you have to date around for a label or was it a pretty quick transition?

GOLDWASSER: We did a little bit, but it was pretty brief. I don’t think we really wanted to deliberate too much on that. 

RIBEIRO: Yeah, it feels good to be like, “I do.” And get it moving.

VANWYNGARDEN: Right. But I have been watching the new season of Love Is Blind, and I think that the whole concept of that show is just doomed from the start, actually, because so much of attraction is based on things that you can only get from seeing someone’s face. I mean, that’s the whole point of the show, to be a disaster, which I love. 

RIBEIRO: I love that. That also begs the question of, “Well, if love is blind, why is it so taboo to be like, what I’m seeing is influencing me.” It’s actually one of the few regular parts about attraction where it’s like, “Yeah, I can look at you and think about it.”

VANWYNGARDEN: Yeah. I was just watching one last night where the girl had told him that she looks like Megan Fox, and when she said that, he was like, “Oh, yeah!” He asked her to marry her the next day, and then it was really bad when they met and he was like, “Well, I don’t care what you look like.” 

RIBEIRO: So, in addition to being the first one on a different label, this is the first album with a feature on it. Why did this feel like it was the right time to bring someone else in?

GOLDWASSER: It’s just where the song was going in general. I had this feeling of a classic ballad where two singers are playing off of each other. We also had communication with Chris [of Christine and the Queens] for a while and talked about doing some kind of collaboration together. So it just happened to be the right time for that.

RIBEIRO: Totally. I feel like that’s my favorite song because of that ballad aspect. And it moves in pretty well, where this album has so many fun eighties’ moments. I want to talk about what references you were pulling from. 

GOLDWASSER: I think it’s us drawing from our own nostalgia in a personal way, from music that we grew up with or that our parents might’ve played. There’s something cool about the raw earnestness of a lot of eighties pop music, especially juxtaposed against really cheesy synthetic sounds or overly dry, slick-sounding things. It feels a little bit contrarian to do that instead of something that’s super distorted and raw and cryptic. It feels like a fun path to go down.

RIBEIRO: I’m really into it. I had this conversation with someone recently where I was like, “Every six months, I go through a two-week phase where ‘Karma Chameleon’ is the only song I can listen to.” It’s the perfect song. I’m into the idea that it’s really fun to tap into some of those aesthetic sound qualities and touchstones from the era. 

GOLDWASSER: I also feel like there’s this kind of common attitude of, “Oh, that was all fine and well for people to do then, but we can’t do that now.” It’s just funny to me. What if we give ourselves permission to just go there?

RIBEIRO: Totally. And with the production of popular music over the last 10 years, we’ve gotten so far from it that it’s the perfect time. It’s such a cool thing that you’re able to pull from so many different references.

GOLDWASSER: I can’t pick music trends, though. I’m really bad at it. I’m really good at picking vegetable trends, though. I called the cabbage trend that’s going on right now, which I’m really proud of.


GOLDWASSER: There’s always a new kind of “it” vegetable.

RIBEIRO: Yeah, you’re right.

GOLDWASSER: Now it’s a lot of grilled cabbage and fermented stuff. 

RIBEIRO: Do we have an idea what the next vegetable is that we can get in on now, or is it we have to wait and see?

GOLDWASSER: My money’s on iceberg lettuce. And maybe cooked lettuce, too.

RIBEIRO: I feel like when these things happen it moves so far from the original context. It won’t be lettuce in a salad, it’s going to be lettuce on a plate with stuff plated on top of the lettuce. Yuzu is going to get put in the mix somewhere.

GOLDWASSER: You’re onto something.

RIBEIRO: To go back to the album, I was curious if there were any songs that had a longer incubation period than the others?

VANWYNGARDEN: There’s a few of those. The one that comes to mind first is probably “Bubble Gum Dog,” which was an idea that came about when we were making Little Dark Age and we always felt like there was something to it, but we would get far in arranging it and finishing it out and then think like, “Oh, this is too silly.” There was something about it where it never really was completed. And then, over the course of five years, it kept resurfacing and coming back up in my head, and it felt like the time finally to finish it off. 

RIBEIRO: Awesome. Totally. I’m always interested in the individual timelines for stuff like this, because I feel like people often have stories where they’re like, “Yeah, I made one of these in 10 minutes, and then one of them I’ve labored on in dreams and in my waking world for years.” You guys have always had a really strong sense of image direction, so I wanted to ask about the album art.

VANWYNGARDEN: The cover image is an artwork by John Baldessari. It’s from 2006. I wasn’t really that aware of him, but I saw this particular image in a little zine catalog that my friend gave me, and for some reason I was really drawn to it and sent it to him right away and said, “This could be a good album cover image.” I don’t know why, because it’s not inherently an attractive cover and it’s kind of strange and cryptic. But then, by the time we were kind of nearing the end of the album and writing lyrics for the songs and really getting into this theme of loss of life, it started to make more sense, because it’s this stark, anonymous image, but it also recalled our previous covers. It’s a little bit like our first album cover, those two figures. And then we realized the person on the horse looks a lot like the death card in tarot, and it’s also a carousel horse, which is often played out in the themes of cycles of life and change. It was fun to make these decisions based on gut feeling and then have more meaning blossom out of it later.

RIBEIRO: Absolutely. Do you guys plan on performing this album live, right?

VANWYNGARDEN: We don’t have any shows booked right now. We’re actually going to go and make more music now. We’re trying to disrupt the normal album cycle a little bit, and that should allow us to release more music a lot sooner than six years from now.

RIBEIRO: Yeah, totally.

GOLDWASSER: Also, the experience of trying to convince people to listen to new music in a live context is always frustrating for us and probably for a lot of musicians. In some ways it feels like a necessary step a lot of the time, but we’re just trying something a little different. We want to keep the focus on staying creative and making new music, and we’re feeling that now.

RIBEIRO: Totally. I’m really interested in that statement about working on new music now and disrupting the cycle. Is any music being made right now in connection to this project? Or are you giving yourself the space to branch outside of that moment?

VANWYNGARDEN: I would guess that it wouldn’t really be, there was some sort of catharsis or something that happened making our newest album where it felt like it was sort of representative of a big transition in our lives, and probably into middle-age, even. But what came with that is a more kind of stable and confident existence. It’s almost like we leveled up in some ways in life, and now we will be approaching making music from a new perspective. What excites both of us most is that a lot of times when we’ve gone in to make new music, it will be at the end of a three-year album cycle, really drained, physically exhausted, disillusioned, all of these things. Going back to your life in New York after you’ve been in this fantasy rock-and-roll lifestyle and your friends are just trying to get by and you’re like, “Oh, I just played a hundred-thousand person crowd”—there’s this weird disconnect from reality. So now we’re sitting in this spot where we feel good and connected with reality. We’re going to go make new songs, and maybe they’ll really suck because they’re not full of pain and anguish. But we’ll see.

RIBEIRO: What song from this album would soundtrack a kissing scene from an eighties movie?

VANWYNGARDEN: Probably “I Wish I Was Joking.” 


RIBEIRO: I don’t know if you guys have the same experience, but I feel like I usually frame music in my mind against unrelated visuals like, “Oh, this song would hit if it was in this movie or this kind of scene.” When you guys are creating your visuals, is there ever that sense of, “Oh, I know where this song needs to go and how it should look”?

GOLDWASSER: We’re always doing that and writing music in terms of what visuals might go along with it. I’m personally probably more influenced by film than music at this point. I actually just watched the “Dancing in Babylon” video for the first time, which our friend Ray [Tintori] directed, and he put a lot of references to that film in the video. That was a really cool experience of watching this movie that I hadn’t even seen yet, but I felt like it had already influenced me in some way. 

RIBEIRO: Yeah, a hundred percent. I feel like you guys turn outside of music for your own pleasure or as a source. Is it mainly film as that base for you?

VANWYNGARDEN: Ben’s probably more in the film zone than I am. I used to be really into reading all sorts of books, and now I’ll probably read a couple books a year, but usually when I do it has a big impact on me. Something about books really affects me. They’ll usually be a handful of passages that give me tingles and summarize something that feels like a universal human thing in a really concise and poetic way. That’s something I strive to do with music sometimes, where it feels like, “Oh, these guys summed up exactly how I felt at this certain moment.” That connection is really beautiful and it’s rare to achieve it with any sort of media.

RIBEIRO: I know we’re running low on time, but I wanted to know if there were any artists from the younger generation that you guys find interesting or notable. 

GOLDWASSER: I’m not really listening to any new music right now. I feel bad because it’s not that I don’t think that there’s good stuff out there right now, but I’m in a nineties electronic music hole right now.

RIBEIRO: Awesome. 

GOLDWASSER: Andrew, you’re probably listening to tons of new music, right?

VANWYNGARDEN: I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I’m listening to “Happy Birthday,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” and “Apples and Bananas.”

RIBEIRO: The classics.

VANWYNGARDEN: Yeah, I have a two-year-old daughter.

GOLDWASSER: That’s funny to watch.

VANWYNGARDEN: That’s where I’m at right now.

GOLDWASSER: Our friend Simon, who is playing bass live with us has a kid, and he would leave his Spotify listening public, and it was so funny because it would all be obscure punk music.

RIBEIRO: Like, Cradle of Filth?

GOLDWASSER: Yeah, Cradle of Filth.

RIBEIRO: Yeah. Going from Aphex Twin to the Bluey theme song, which actually hits.

VANWYNGARDEN: I know. That’s kind of hot right now.