“It’s funny; it’s kind of like being in purgatory.”
Ben Goldwasser is speaking with me from his Brooklyn home, where he’s preparing to go back out on the road in the dying days of a summer that’s seen himself and the other half of MGMT, Andrew VanWyngarden, making sporadic live appearances, ahead of the release of their self-titled third record later this month.
“We’ve played a bunch of shows this summer; a few in Canada, and we’ve gone around the U.S. a little bit. It’s always an awkward time when the new record’s not out yet; you can’t play too much new stuff because nobody knows it. We’re gonna slip a couple more in there for this next run of dates, though.”
MGMT, their self-titled third album, is the first offering from the band since 2010′s divisive Congratulations, and came about, by their own admission, much more organically than their last effort. “We started working on the record about a year and a half ago, I think. We were just getting together in our studio in Brooklyn – which we don’t have any more – and just figuring out some basic things about how we were going to approach it. We pretty much had ‘Alien Days’ written there and then, and once we had a few other ideas recorded, we booked some time up in Buffalo, New York with Dave Fridmann. We went out there in March of 2012, I think, and we got the whole thing done in one go.”
Fridmann was also behind the production desk on the duo’s debut full-length, Oracular Spectacular, but Goldwasser insists that the decision to bring him back to work on MGMT isn’t indicative of a sonic shift back towards the likes of ‘Electric Feel’ and ‘Time to Pretend’. “I feel like Dave understands us really well at this point. What we were looking for on production was somebody who could help us to organise our ideas and keep us on track, rather than try to become an active part of the creative process – we didn’t want that kind of heavy involvement. Dave already really likes the way that we go about things, and he’s someone we felt we could trust.”
For Congratulations, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser made the decision to bring in a host of session musicians to record with, but reverted to working alone this time around, an approach Goldwasser feels was ultimately to their benefit. “We started out working on the record just between the two of us, and I think we realised that we tend to get things done more efficiently that way, purely because there’s a really important implicit understanding between us about the direction we want to take things in. There’ll be little arguments from time to time, but we usually find we can come to conclusions about what we like and what we don’t quicker when there isn’t any kind of external input musically. I think things just got going so well from the start that we never felt like we needed to bring anybody else in. The songwriting process has always just been a straight-up, collaborative thing between the two of us anyway; it’s normally just us developing on a little melody or something like that, and then once the music’s in place, Andrew takes care of the lyrics.”
If Congratulations sounded a little reserved by way of comparison to the constantly colourful Oracular, then MGMT is the sound of the band coming back out of their shell, whilst still being faithful to the experimental textures and vintage pop sensibilities that underscored the likes of ‘Flash Delirium’ and ‘Siberian Breaks’. Early critical reaction has noted the influence of Aphex Twin, but Goldwasser claims that there’s nothing new in that respect.
“We’ve actually always been into Aphex Twin; I think his influence goes right back to when we were in college, when we were making more electronic stuff. Since the last album, I know Andrew’s been listening to a lot of deep house and I’ve been into tons of punk rock stuff, so we’ve kind of been all over the place in terms of influences over the past couple of years. I don’t really think there was anything that really overtly had an impact on the album stylistically. A lot of what we were listening to rubbed off on the record, but there was nothing we were trying to emulate. What really shaped the way that the record sounds is that we’ve tried out new things, like sequencers and drum machines and modular synths, things that we felt represented, for us at least. a really different way of working with sound.”
VanWyngarden has already commented that, on reflection, Congratulations bears the hallmarks of what he described as a ‘paranoid’ mindset during its production. Goldwasser agrees, and adds that a whirlwind of live dates and promotional commitments left the duo burnt out after Oracular.
“We managed to take a really nice break this time, before we got started again. I do think the overall tone of this record is a lot more positive in a lot of ways. Around the time we made the last one, we both just felt that a lot of things were kind of coming crashing down on us all at once, and we didn’t feel as if we were really in control of our own destiny. I think you can hear in the music that we felt pretty small in the world, which is what Andrew was talking about. The new album is more about facing the world head on – confronting it, and making something positive out of it.”
There hasn’t, though, been too much of a concerted effort to move away from the sound of their last album. “I think in purely sonic terms, the only thing we maybe consciously thought about making different to Congratulations was perhaps toning down some of the stylistic juxtaposition that we were really interested in on that record. We just weren’t thinking about that kind of thing this time around. For the most part, though, we’ve tended to treat each record as its own thing so far.”