Interview: MGMT — "My favorite directors are Werner Herzog, David Lynch and Federico Fellini. All of them do more far-out ideas in their movies…"
Tue, 11 May 2010 08:47:05
On their sophomore offering, Congratulations, MGMT step into a sonic time machine.
Lush melodies and sun-drenched licks transport the band right back to the '60s on cuts like first single "Flash Delirium" and the bombastically beautiful "It's Working." Then there's the 12-minute plus album standout, "Siberian Breaks," which could be the most epic song The Beatles never wrote. In fact, "Siberian Breaks" shows every side of MGMT—from the slyly poetic lyrics to the undeniable harmonies and instrumentation. Congratulations is the kind of rock record that warrants all sorts of celebration…Grab your tie dye headband and favorite flowery blanket and pop in Congratulations for an instant trip to 1968.
MGMT's Andrew Wells VanWyngarden (Lead Vocals, Guitar) sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino about what's behind Congratulations, his favorite filmmakers, ventriloquist dummies and the albums that shaped him…
Congratulations has a pronounced psychedelic feel. Were you listening to a lot of '60s records while making it? What encouraged that sonic shift?
Ben [Goldwasser] (Guitar, Keyboards) and I have always listened to all different kinds of music. In college, we really had a mutual love for Neil Young, The Mamas and Papas and more classic '60s music. For this record—after graduating—we spent a few years finding more obscure corners of music. There's a whole array of different bands and styles that influenced Congratulations. We love stuff from the '60 and early '70s as well as English underground bands from the early '80s. Ben's a big Julian Cope fan, first of all, so The Teardrop Explodes was a big influence. We were listening to Ben Phelps a lot too. Then there was Deep Freeze Mice and definitely the Television Personalities. It was a bunch of different stuff.
If you were to compare Congratulations to a movie or a combination of movies what would you compare it to?
I don't really know. I don't think it'd be a rom-com or anything [Laughs]. It'd be a movie that Ennio Morricone could do the soundtrack to or a psychedelic western—a real journey.
Do you tend to watch a lot of westerns?
I do like westerns. It's not my favorite genre though. My favorite directors are Werner Herzog, David Lynch and Federico Fellini. All of them do more far-out ideas in their movies.
Did you like Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?
Yeah, I really liked it a lot! I saw it twice. I thought it was a really incredible movie! Right now, I have Fellini's Satyricon, and it's pretty wild—from the visuals and colors to the darkness of it. That's a film I've been watching recently.
What's the story behind "Siberian Breaks"? At 12-minutes long, there's a lot going on…
Similar to the other songs on the album, we were writing it, and it started growing and taking shape as a longer song. It wasn't something where we set out from the beginning to write a really long song. It started with a simple chord progression for the first verse, and it kept developing after that. It never felt too long. I think some people are somehow offended by its length, but we wanted it to be a sweep of a song at this walking pace. A lot of the lyrics are about surfing and more cosmic stuff. That's my favorite track on the album. It's fun! I think the more concerts we play where people are coming with knowledge of our new album, the better "Siberian Breaks" will go down live. We've been playing it, but sometimes the crowd is obviously waiting for us to get through it [Laughs].
Did you pull the album title from the song "Congratulations" or did you always know you wanted to call the album that?
The title for the album came first. I came up with the title when we were making Oracular Spectacular. "Congratulations" was the first song that we really did for this album. We were touring in 2008, and the song was in my head. I didn't really know if we were going to use the song or not because it was a completely different style. I think it works pretty well on the new album.
Do you tend to read a lot while you're writing lyrics?
I read an average amount, maybe I read a little bit more when we're making albums. The lyrics usually develop over the course of half a year. It takes a long time. For some of the songs, obviously we'd demo them and I'd sit down for a few hours and try to do them. Usually, the ideas for the lyrics have been in my head for awhile, and that's how I go over them again and again. I'm proud of the lyrics because I take a lot of care in writing them. I try to make it so people will want to go in and get really into the lyrics. I hope there are different corners to them, with lots of levels—without sounding pretentious [Laughs].
Where'd that idea for the "Flash Delirium" video come from?
For the first album, Ben and I were pretty adamant about being in control of the video concepts and their direction. We worked really closely with Ray Tintori to develop all three videos. This time around, we still had input but we wanted it to be more about directors as artists submitting their ideas of what their video would be like. Ben and I really liked the idea for "Flash Delirium." It grew from the original treatment after we chose it. The director, Andreas Nilsson, was a really cool guy with a crazy mind. Obviously, crazy minds can think of what's in that video [Laughs]. Ben and I really connected with that. It was a one-day shoot. We didn't want it to just echo the theme of the song of things falling apart and not making any sense really.
The dummies were pretty awesome…
[Laughs] Yeah, we got some dummies in there.
Did you get to keep any of those?
No, that was all this guy who does stage comedy. Those were the dummies he uses.
Overall, Congratulations truly doesn't sound like Oracular Spectacular 2, and that shows a lot of guts on your part…
Ben and I didn't want to make this some huge statement. We approached this new album naturally. We didn't want it to feel processed or blown out of proportion. We wanted it to be a musical reflection of where we were last year after touring. We wanted to write quickly and not over-think things—this is just the sound that came out. I can see a lot of musical similarities to the first album, especially the songs we wrote after we signed to a major label, which weren't the singles. Those were the second half of the album. We had a b-side that was longer than "Siberian Breaks," so it wasn't unprecedented musical moods. It felt pretty natural to us.
What are you listening to right now?
The drummer of Girls has his own project called Dominant Legs. I have his EP, it's not out yet, but I've been listening to that a lot. There's a band called Awake that I like a lot.
Which records do you always go back to?
Since I was 17, the big ones have been Neil Young's After the Gold Rush. Don Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys' Surf's Up, Velvet Underground's self-titled. They're classics for a reason.
Have you heard Congratulations yet?