MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser On New LP, Doing Laundry – And His Favorite Cover Of An MGMT Song
MGMT are still young. They’ve only put out two LPs. That said, the Brooklyn group led by Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser has toured a helluva lot, behind the platinum Oracular Spectacular and the more recent (and more commercially unfriendly) Congratulations. So why on earth haven’t MGMT, now four years old, played Florida till now?
“As far as the routing of tours go, it’s a hard place to fit in, ’cause we’d have to go all the way down and all the way back up,” Goldwasser said in a recent interview.
“But,” he qualified, “I won’t make any excuses.”
They play Ruth Eckerd Hall on Wednesday.
MGMT, if not yet completely acquainted with the masses, are familiar to just about everyone keeping up with new music. Their Oracular Spectacular singles “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” are ridiculously ubiquitous; the latter has been covered by Weezer, Ben Lee and the Kooks.
Still, “there’s a new group of people who never checked us out because of the hype around us,” Goldwasser said. “I’m like that too: If a lot of people are talking about [a band], I don’t even want to check it out.”
While MGMT have been touring incessantly – they just returned from Europe, but will head back again after their current U.S. stint – Goldwasser says they’re still discovering their love for the road.
“[Congratulations is] a much cooler record to play live. We’re still getting better at playing some of the older songs.”
For a little while, MGMT were allergic to playing their hit singles. But no longer; even if they’ve become known as the “Kids” kids, Goldwasser hopes people will appreciate them in sum.
“People who come to our shows and give what we’re doing a chance are going to see there’s no image about it. It’s really about the music, and us playing the music live and putting on a good show.”
Here’s the full transcript from the interview, conducted October 5.
What took you guys so long to play Florida?
We’re really bummed that we haven’t been there yet, and we’re really excited to play. Seems like, as far as the routing of tours go, it’s a hard place to fit in, ’cause we’d have to go all the way down and all the way back up. But I won’t make any excuses. We’re really glad to be finally playing there, because it’s one of those places we’ve always had people at our other shows saying, “C’mon, why the fuck haven’t you come performed [there] yet?” And we never have any good answers.
What are you most looking forward to about playing there, specifically?
Um … I don’t know. Mainly just playing for a new group of people who are waiting to see us. It should be a really exciting show to play.
Are you finding that people are still discovering you, and if so, who are those people?
Yeah, it’s kinda changing, because I think that, at first, there would be some people who found out about us and heard the whole first album and got what we were doing. And then I think there were some people who heard a couple of songs from their playlists or the radio or whatever and knew us from one or two songs. And I think now there’s still the people who are still finding out about “Time to Pretend” or “Kids” and still getting into that. But I think there’s a new group of people who never even checked us out themselves, because of the hype around us or whatever. I’m like that too, where if a lot of people are talking about it, I don’t even want to check it out. And I think now there are some people now who are hearing our second album, which not as many people got into as far as the mainstream-pop crowd goes, but I think that some people who are into more psychedelic stuff or whatever are hearing the second album and realizing what we’re actually into and kinda getting the influences that we’re referencing on it.
Now, when you talk about the “second album,” you’re referencing Congratulations, correct?
Yeah. I guess we had an EP [We Don’t Care] before Oracular Spectacular.
There still seems to be some lingering confusion about whether that EP is considered a proper … but if it’s an EP, it’s not a full-length, so there you go. I know you’re going to be recording new material next year; you’re not tempted to put together any pieces on the road, or during practices or rehearsals?
Nah, we’ve never really been good about that. Especially the way we write, a lot of it’s based on … we kind of spend some time just hashing things out with piano and acoustic guitar and whatever. We kinda need to have some peace and quiet to do that. Once we have the basic idea for a song, we kinda build up the arrangement on a computer and sketch things out. The way we’ve learned how to work so far is kinda hard to do on the road. We haven’t been able to find the time to concentrate. But I think we’re hoping that’s something that starts to get easier for us.
Tempted to do any collaborations or side projects at this point?
Yeah, we’d like to. There’s a lot of stuff that kinda gets thrown around and talked about, but it’s hard to make any of it happen. But hopefully we’ll be able to do some stuff like that. Also, the soundtrack stuff is something that we’d like to get into: writing scores for movies.
Sort of a left-field question, but do remixes matter? I mean, how many have actually stood the test of time, you know? Are you a fan of remixes? Do you think they actually have any value?
For me, personally … well, I didn’t really grew up going to clubs, so remixes were never a big part of my life, as far as that goes. I think some people are a lot more invested in hearing a dancier version of a popular song they heard on the radio. For me, yeah, that kinda thing doesn’t have a very long shelf life. It’s this song I’ve heard a million times with a big dance beat on it. It doesn’t really do much for me. But I think that there are some remixes that take a song and turn it into a different song and do something really creative with it. And those aren’t maybe the most successful club tracks, but I think those are the most interesting remixes. Our friend George [Perez] from the band Violens did a couple of remixes for us. The one he just did it really cool like that: He actually wrote a completely different song.
Do you listen to other people’s covers of “Kids,” and if so, which is your favorite one you’ve heard so far?
I’ve heard a few. Sometimes I try not to listen to a lot of that stuff, ’cause it makes me feel self-conscious, which it probably shouldn’t. I dunno, I actually like the … I don’t know how to pronounce his name – is it Jónsi? From Sigur Rós. His cover of “Time to Pretend” was kinda cool.
What do you think are the most under-appreciated aspects of Congratulations?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’m not really sure.
Are you finding that it’s a more concert-friendly record, because you’ve obviously had much more experience touring by now?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a much cooler record to play live. We’re still getting better at playing some of the older songs. I think we figured out how to do them pretty well, but I think that, having written the new album with playing live in mind, and actually having that be part of the songwriting process and the recording process, that made the new songs a lot easier to learn. Like, when we started rehearsing for touring this year, we were really surprised by how quickly the new stuff came together, when we were learning it as a live band. It’s more intuitive, in a way.
I’ve got to ask you about the comments you’ve made about the next album. Have you been getting any flak for talking about the relationship with Columbia?
That whole thing started … I dunno. We’re kinds of idiots in a way, and one of those ways is we tend to make sarcastic remarks to journalists sometimes, and especially when it’s a journalist from England or the United Kingdom, they tend to turn around what we say, make it sound like we actually meant it. And that was one of those situations where … we’re sarcastic about it sometimes, like, how can we not be [in response to what was said in the article, about the band not being able to do what they want with their next album after getting free reign with Congratulations]? We had an album that did really well, and then we made another album that we’re really proud of, but it didn’t do as well commercially. So, you can’t help but speculate about what our label was going to do the next time around. But we haven’t really heard anything from them like that. And hopefully they’ll be really chill about it let us do whatever we want. I know they have to sell records, but I think now record labels should be investing in artists in the long term and not just trying to find something that makes them quick cash because they’re trying to save the record industry, which is, at this point, not in their best interests. They should be trying to prove that they’re in it for the long haul.
Yeah, something struck me as funny about that, because you would’ve heard something like that maybe 10 years ago, but now, I don’t even know how major labels could dictate like they used to.
Yeah, I think one of the best thing that a record label can do is build a catalog of music that’s going to be worth something for years and years, and it just seems so silly for me that record labels are just trying to find things … these derivate, flavor-of-the-month whatever … next big thing that no one’s going to care about in a year. That just seems really silly to me. Doesn’t seem like the best way to keep a business going.
Are you concerned that your image or stature might be taking precedence over your music? Or is that not even true?
I think maybe that was the case and probably still is the case to some people, but … yeah, I don’t know. We can’t really … we can try as hard as we can to show that music is actually the thing we care about the most and the rest of it is kind of superficial, but yeah, I mean, some people are just gonna be like that, I guess. But I think that people who come out to our shows and really give what we’re doing a chance are going to see there’s no image about it. It’s really just about the music, and us playing the music live and putting on a good show. I think that we’ve had a lot of silly things written about us, but I think we’re just going to keep putting out albums and playing music and ignoring all that stuff.
Is making music your career, your vocation – or both?
Wow, I dunno. Well, I guess it is my vocation, because I do it for a living, but it was never something I thought I was going to make a career out of. It just kind of happened. I hope that we keep playing in this band for a while, and I think we’re getting better at it. The more we enjoy it more and more, the more we figure out how to do it and deal with doing this full-time and keeping us interested … I dunno. I have no idea if it’s going to be what I do for the rest of my life or something else. But I hope it’s something I keep doing.
Can you briefly run down some of the songs on Congratulations and say who you’d like to hear cover those songs the most?
Oh … whoa. Uh … yeah, I can’t even think. I’m bad at these sorts of things.
That’s actually interesting, because … I wanted them to be really weird if anybody covered them. They’d probably all be strange as covers – very idiosyncratic songs. I think Congratulations is a really pretty song, but the lyrics are really personal to Andrew, so … a lot of the lyrics are really personal, I guess, so … I hope somebody does a cool cover of one of those songs.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?
[I laugh.] What, you don’t have someone to do it for you yet?
I like to do it myself. It’s kind of a cleansing ritual.
Sorry, couldn’t resist. So what’s up with you guys going home and going back to Europe so far? Why not do Europe all in one swing?
I think just for the sake of our sanity, it’s nice to break it up. Two months on the road in Europe is a lot for us. But yeah, I’m also excited that we’re going to be on the road in the U.S. in the fall. It’s my favorite time of year.
What other places are you playing for the first time, besides Florida?
Nashville, actually. We’ve never been to Nashville before. I can’t remember if that’s it.
Are you going to be checking out a lot of the music landmarks? Are you a big musichead?
Yeah, I don’t even know … I’m not sure how much time we’re going to get to hang out there, but we’re playing at the Ryman, which used to be the Grand Old Opry, so that’ll be a cool place to check out. Because they’ve kept it restored.
Other Bad Penny interviews:
• David Bowie Transcript, 7.9.03: ‘I Am The Man Who Found Velvet Underground!’
• David Bowie Faces Reality
• Iggy Pop: ‘I Didn’t Want To Sell Out’ The Stooges
• Iggy Pop Transcript, 7.18.03: ‘I Was Shooting Dope At The RIAA Awards When It Wasn’t Chic’
• The Who’s Pete Townshend: Every Young Rocker Should ‘Mark A ‘W’ On Their Arm In Blood’