Around this time two years ago, New York band MGMT were being spoken about by almost every Melbournian under the age of 35 in words such as, ’Did you know Electric Feel is about drugs?…’ ‘No, it’s about world peace…’ and ‘Are you going to see them at Meredith?’
The mythology and hype surrounding MGMT’s visit to play songs from their debut album Oracular Spectacular that had come out earlier that year, was intense and somewhat intoxicating. And you know what happened when they did perform in Victoria back in December of 2008, at both Festival Hall and Meredith Music Festival?
Those in attendance were collectively underwhelmed, with the overriding sentiment – particularly from the Meredith performance – being that they were quite shit.
Talking from Scotland in late 2010, MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden explains the band’s perspective on their 2008 Australian tour. “We were so excited for the Meredith Festival but it just ended up being like this kind of…” he pauses. “Not a disaster, but just one of those things where everything was going wrong and we were just like ‘Oh God.’ By the end of that show it was just like, ‘let’s just get home!’ We had weird vibes at that show.”
It was also understandable as the aforementioned shows were MGMT’s final gigs after 16 months of back to back world tours with the popularity of Oracular Spectacular growing exponentially with the release of each single: Kids, Time To Pretend, Weekend Wars and Electric Feel. Having been present backstage at Meredith in ’08 and getting to interview VanWyngarden and MGMT’s other founding member Ben Goldwasser for Beat TV I got the feeling that both band members had not yet reconciled themselves with the hype and attention surrounding their musical creations.
That is, simply, they hadn’t yet come to terms with exactly how big they were. “I think that was definitely part of it; I don’t think we were ever completely comfortable with the level of hype we got in some places. Or the kind of way that we were described and presented to people through that hype, because we knew that we weren’t an electro pop band at heart… but I think that’s how we were represented in a lot of places,” explains VanWyngarden.
On MGMT’s latest album, Congratulations, that emerged in April this year VanWyngarden and Wasser musically veered away from pop structures and instead embraced the more experimental and anti-hegemonic music styles associated with the psychedelic movement of the 1960s. One particular track off Congratulations that represents this intention is the twelve minute long Siberian Breaks.
VanWyngarden happily talks about where the song’s title came from, before delving into the song’s varying textures. “The title was inspired by that… I’ve taken up surfing in the past couple of years and really gotten in to it,” he smiles. “Different sections are about different things. For the first section I was flipping through the book Be Here Now which is like the kind classic, new-age hippy book. It incorporates Buddhist and the Eastern philosophies and stuff. I was looking through it in the studio and kind of wanted to open up this kind of journey of a song, a ‘walking-speed song’.”
VanWyngarden also relates the song back to the hype and ultra-popularity that initially surrounded Oracular Spectacular. “Some of it’s about looking back on the craziness of 2008 and wondering what happened and referencing different things like meeting people who don’t have the best of intentions and the strange things that go with being in a popular band,” he laughs. “And then there’s that part that has got the cheesy ‘tide metaphors’ and a lot of that song is about not wanting to compromise yourself, sell your soul to get something that is really not that great in the end.”
It’s refreshing talking to VanWyngarden because he’s so talkative and open about MGMT’s songs and where they come from; a subject that other songwriters can find difficult to talk about. However when talking about another song off Congratulations, the tender lullaby I Found A Whistle, initially VanWyngarden is lost for words. “I guess it started off kind of about…” Is a false start before he explains further, “I’ve never really been able to openly tell people what the song is about for certain reasons. “I think,” he muses, “it started off as talking about getting in situations with someone you love, where each person is kind of holding back from the other person so they don’t hurt them.” Then, as it would seem, pushed by an unseen arbiter VanWyngarden moves on to explain that the song’s subject matter as a kind of triptych. “That’s where the subject matter of I Found A Whistle started from and then I got on to reading this Aleister Crowley book called Diary Of A Drug Fiend and some of the lyrics are referencing lines from that book… then it kind of got into this thing with the devil. That is, coming to a point where you can sell a part of your soul and get somewhere else, but it’s probably where you don’t want to be and seeing that point from the threshold and deciding not to go on with it. “It’s kind of weird mix, in that I don’t really know what that song is about,” he chuckles.
As is evidenced from VanWyngarden’s insights regarding Congratulations, MGMT’s latest album is varied, deep and textured beast. It would seem from what VanWyngarden had to say at the heart of the MGMT story is it’s a response to the misconceived ideas that surrounded Oracular Spectacular/.. however he is very definite when explaining that MGMT’s old material will work well with the newer tunes when they come to Australia next year for the Future Music Festival.
“Our show has changed a lot since we were last in Australia for Splendour In The Grass (2009) in that it is incorporating a lot of the new songs and we’re a lot more comfortable playing something like Electric Feel next to Siberian Breaks. “We’re really happy with our show at the moment and getting really good responses from the audiences so I think that by next year it could be different still.”
MGMT – along with The Chemical Brothers, Dizzee Rascal, Pendulum, Mark Ronson And The Business Intl, The Presets and many, many more – headline the Future Music Festival that is happening at Flemington Racecourse on Sunday March 13 (Labour Day weekend). Tickets go on sale this week Thursday October 28 from 136 100 and ticketmaster.com.au. Congratulations is out now through Sony.