The hippies whp are hip

MGMT, aka Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, are — despite themselves — this year’s hottest US rock band

MGMT are the biggest new American band right now, generating the sort of hype not heard since the heyday of The Strokes. A two-piece (with extra musicians when they play live) who got together as a recording and performing unit while studying music at liberal-arts college Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, about five years ago, they have been compared to everyone from Scissor Sisters to Suicide, the late-’70s New York electro-punk duo.

Really, though, they are the latest exponents of that brand of cosmic American music purveyed by Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips. Appropriately enough, their just-released debut album, Oracular Spectacular, which is garnering five-star reviews everywhere, was produced by David Fridmann, who helped transform those aforementioned two groups into giants of early-21st-century space-rock.


MGMT, formerly The Management, could soon be rivalling the Rev and the Lips in the cult-hero stakes — their recent show at London’s ICA was rammed to the rafters with industry cognoscenti. They have even predicted their own imminent rise to stardom -- and inevitable demise! -- on their album’s opening track, Time To Pretend, in which they get to hang out with supermodels, are driven about in limousines and eventually become disillusioned heroin addicts.

“It was an ongoing joke that Ben and I had while we were at college, kind of: ‘Yeah, we’re going to sell out and be rock stars’,” explains singer-guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden. “We never thought the band was ever going to go anywhere. We were being completely ironic.”

“We thought there was absolutely no chance our band was going to succeed,” agrees keyboardist Ben Goldwasser, whose tight black curls — what they call an “Isro” — betray his Jewish roots. “It was the funniest thing in the world for us to talk about how huge we were going to get. Then all of a sudden, everybody’s saying we’re commercial. So it was a complete joke, and now it’s not a joke at all. Now our music is being played on catwalks during Fashion Week and we’re going to DJ a party in some fancy club in Paris for supermodels.”

Recording Oracular Spectacular proved an intense experience for MGMT. “It was like a controlled experiment,” says Goldwasser. “We were under pressure to come up with some sort of finished product in a certain amount of time. And we were sequestered in this little warehouse space, just the two of us, hanging out there all day, trying to write enough songs for the album. And we went totally crazy because we were around each other all day, trying to come up with a work of art.

“Eventually, we started arguing over where to put the handclaps on a song. We’d be working on something for days, and then listen to it and it would sound horrible. We’d be, like, ‘Why are we even making this music? It’s terrible.’”

The pair, possessed of vivid imaginations at the best of times, got so carried away that they went a little crazy. “We convinced ourselves for a while that the only rational explanation for what had happened to us,” recalls Goldwasser, “was that aliens were manipulating us, that they wanted us to do something, and we had to figure out what it was. And we decided that that was the only way to explain the fact that we had been offered a record deal.”

If anything, MGMT are a latter-day psychedelic rock band. It sounds as if mind-expanding substances might have been involved in the recording of Oracular Spectacular... so were they?

“It wasn’t written on drugs,” says Goldwasser, a tad sheepishly.

“Definitely not while on, but maybe a day after,” clarifies VanWyngarden, who is less discreet on this matter. “We don’t really like writing or playing music under the influence, and we don’t want to come off like we’re a drug band or anything, but yeah, we had some great formative experiences at college and post-college.”

And they seemed like such nice boys. Goldwasser, who lives in New Jersey and resembles the young Elliott Gould, and VanWyngarden, who lives in Brooklyn but looks like he just stepped out of late-’60s San Francisco, are witty, intelligent and inventive musicians. Goldwasser is from upstate New York, a small town called Westport. His Jewish father, a vet, did not force the religion on him, but he took a healthy interest in the teachings of the Bible. “It’s part of who I am, so of course I’m proud of my background,” he says.

The non-Jewish VanWyngarden grew up in Memphis, where his father edits an alternative newspaper; his mother is a photographer in New Mexico. “They’re pretty cool,” he says of mum and dad. “They were hippies.”

At college, says Goldwasser, “We were always the weirdos that were kind of cool, you know?” He says this of his and VanWyngarden’s hippie-ish fashion sense. “So many kids in the States seem like they don’t go past 1974 in the music they listen to and their style, and over in the UK it’s much more, like, futuristic and early ’90s, with crazy patterns and stuff. It makes you feel kind of lame sometimes, like we’re just clones of our parents, little hippies. But,” he adds, “we also want to destroy stuff and cause chaos.”

Both their families are delighted at their sons’ success, even if it’s tempered with trepidation at what might happen should it go to their heads.

As Goldwasser puts it, “Our dads are really thrilled. They’re living vicariously through us, whereas our moms are really worried about us.”

Do they have anything to fear? Are MGMT about to become rock monsters? Goldwasser thinks not. “I watched a concert video of some crazy rock idol performing onstage, and I tried to get inside his head, but I couldn’t. There are some personality types that I just don’t understand at all. Besides, you’ve only got to spend five minutes with us to know we’re not capable of being huge rock stars.”

So no rock-star overindulgence or misbehaviour for him? “I have too much self-censorship to be able to do that,” he says. “I don’t think I could ever, like, go up in front of a bunch of people and do whatever I wanted and not feel guilty about it.”

Oracular Spectacular is out now on SonyBMG

 

Snapshot

Names: Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden Born: Upstate New York (Goldwasser) and Memphis (VanWyngarden)

Career: Formerly The Management. They toured extensively in support of their debut EP, Time To Pretend, and in late 2006 signed a six-figure, four-album deal with SonyBMG. They recently appeared on Later With Jools Holland on BBC2 to promote their debut album, Oracular Spectacular

Goldwasser on being Jewish: “I don’t celebrate the holidays in any formal way, nor do I adhere strictly to the tenets of the Bible. Nevertheless, I am unavoidably, ineradicably, Jewish. It’s in my heart, my head and my blood”

    Last updated: 2:36pm, March 18 2009