The creation story behind "Astro-Mancy,"
Despite the whirling rhythms and psychedelic electronic noise rolling within, "Astro-Mancy" was born of a failed attempt to rein it in a bit. Which perhaps makes sense. The last album, "Congratulations," was an odd, angular affair, at least given MGMT's early history of dance-along, sing-along hits. The new stuff splits the difference.
"We were trying to write a song and be traditional about it — come up with some sort of chord progression or hook," said Benjamin Goldwasser on a recent Sunday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles. His musical partner Andrew VanWyngarden, with hair like
You wouldn't guess by their demeanor that they'd be capable of fronting a headstrong, wildly experimental rock band able to push at the edges of pop while exploring the music's long, strange history. A few hours later, though, they'd do just that, performing new and old music for thousands at the FYF Festival, where their beat-heavy mantras, meandering pop songs and imagistic aesthetics were on full, primal display.
Working on a song for their third album for Columbia Records at producer Dave Fridmann's studio in rural New York, the pair started messing with the chord sketch until it was thick with layers. "We kept overdubbing all these things, and slowly it turned into less and less of a pop song, until you could barely even make out the chord progression in some ways," said Goldwasser.
A pure and blissful psychedelic dance rock song, the jam echoes such sounds, among others, as Beatles' "Revolver"-era studio experiments, King
MGMT (shortened from the Management because another band had already claimed the name) was born at
Evidence they're succeeding: Their new single is the bleakly themed "Your Life Is a Lie," which they recently performed on "Late Show With
MGMT laid out its own fictional life for "Time to Pretend," its best known song. Featuring a plunky synth melody and lyrics that imagine the band's ascent, fame and ultimate demise, the song opens with VanWyngarden admitting a desire to "make some music, make some money, find some models for wives" and moves to imagining children with, then divorce from, said models. No problem, he sings wryly: "We'll find some more models — everything must run its course."
The song concludes with the two choking on their own vomit, rock-star style, and dying: "That will be the end," VanWyngarden sings as the catchy synthesizer melody propels the song toward verse: "We were fated to pretend."
Somewhat miraculously, the band nearly achieved the level of fame it predicted — only to veer off in a wildly divergent path on "Congratulations." Released in 2011 to a mostly baffled populace, "Congratulations" was a gymnastic guitar rock maneuver. VanWyngarden aptly described the record as having "a sort of cartoon wacky vibe."
For the 10 songs that became "MGMT," the two, working only as a pair, dedicated themselves to exploring something more basic, which required long jam sessions, some extending to three hours. Working full time in a studio featuring sleeping quarters and space to roam, lyricist VanWyngarden channeled lines via "isolated little lyric writing moments in the studio. I'd just go upstairs to my bedroom, take a few books or something, or go walk around outside." The quiet of rural New York was far removed from the noise of their
Downstairs, though, with their favorite gear surrounding them, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden were getting gone, intent on constructing songs from bits and pieces of energy within their improvisational sessions. Though the latter sang and wrote all the lyrics, in the studio their roles were less defined; both play many instruments and continually swapped roles during the recording.
"We felt like it almost got to a point where we were in some sort of altered state, just channeling, or in the zone, or whatever you want to call it. It almost felt like automatic music making," said VanWyngarden. "That helped us feel a little bit more free and open, and wanting to explore whatever came into our heads."
What landed on tape were a batch of songs built from what they estimate to be 100 hours of recordings. Many are singalong catchy, but in their own surrealistic way. The first single, "Alien Days," suggests "Uncle Albert"-era
"Mystery Disease" begins with the sound of a UFO landing before launching into a dystopian, echoed world in which a strange
Chart-topping themes they're not, but despite the experimental nature of the recording process executives at Columbia weren't blindsided by their direction, said Goldwasser, who described them as "very encouraging."
VanWyngarden added that Fridmann's skills reassured the label. The producer has recorded artists including the
The band displayed both later that night, where it played a typically tripped-out performance at the FYF Festival. Featuring hallucinogenic screen projections and computer animation more worthy of MOMA than FYF, the gig ran in a predictable MGMT pattern. That is, it veered completely off-course when, before performing the new single, the pair and their backup players introduced a non-sequitur guest: Henry Winkler, who clanged the jumbo cowbell during "Your Life Is a Lie."