The Slow Burn

Photo: Jon Bergman

Some bands sell their souls to attain hotness. Some have it thrust upon them, like MGMT, which began this year as New York’s other hot band. The buzz then was dominated by Vampire Weekend, those excitable preppies with a weakness for Paul Simon’s Graceland. Unlike Vampire Weekend, the two multi-instrumentalists behind MGMT weren’t quite prepared for the limelight when it swung their way. They had to grow into it.

The creation of MGMT is a story of ambition taking shape fitfully, with apathy, bong hits, and graduate school looming at every turn. Andrew VanWyngarden from Memphis and Ben Goldwasser from upstate New York met as freshmen at Wesleyan and mucked around in various bands, eventually producing a six-song EP and touring in a pickup truck. Their songs had a strong sixties vibe, groovy numbers that merged glam and psychedelia, driven by keyboard riffs and heavily layered falsetto vocals.

They sounded a good deal older than their years. “Time to Pretend,” which was on that EP and later became their first major-label single, manages the mean trick of both spoofing rock-star aspirations (“I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars”) and arguing for having them anyway (“Yeah, it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do? Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning news?”).

That last bit, about an allergy to the nine-to-five, is pure autobiography. After graduating in 2005, Goldwasser moved to the woods and helped a friend build ecofriendly straw-bale houses. He eventually “had enough of smelling like cow shit all the time.” Contemplating a degree in social work, he stopped in Brooklyn to see VanWyngarden, who had been failing to hold down the crap jobs he’d found on Craigslist. They had just decided to re-form the band—“I had convinced Ben that it was okay to be a selfish, ambitious musician like me,” says VanWyngarden—when an A&R rep from Columbia Records called. She had heard their EP and wanted to sign them.

They were flabbergasted. “We gave them every reason we could think of why they shouldn’t sign us,” says Goldwasser. “We were a band with no street cred or any sort of indication that we’d be successful. And we hadn’t played a show in over six months.”

“And the shows we had played,” says VanWyngarden, “were, like, us singing along to an iPod speaker.”

Columbia, as desperate as all the other imploding major labels, persisted, and soon enough, MGMT had taken a low six-figure advance and rented a large room on an old oil depot in Williamsburg, where they had to relearn their own material. “It was the most intense self-hatred part of our lives,” says Goldwasser. They felt inept and clueless, until they went to Dave Fridmann’s studio in way-west Cassadaga, New York, and the recording genius who turned the Flaming Lips into indie gods helped them make Oracular Spectacular, their Columbia Records debut. “He took all our flailing around and made it sound like something you could listen to and not go crazy,” says VanWyngarden.

All they had to worry about was playing it live. Though it would’ve taken a 50-piece band to achieve the complexity of the album, they made do with five instruments, including VanWyngarden on guitar and lead vocals and Goldwasser on keyboards. Early shows were disastrous, especially on their first trip to England, when they nervously snuck off to a pub right before their set and got completely loaded. Their manager herded them onto the stage, where VanWyngarden played at half-speed and kept shouting at the drummer to slow down.

MGMT ought to do better when they appear on July 27 at McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg. After standout performances at Coachella and Bonnaroo this spring, the British press deemed them the ultimate festival band, their past travails only adding to the mystique. “We could fuck up again at any time,” says VanWyngarden. “People must like that.”

Meanwhile, they’re getting comfortable with the freedom that used to scare them. As Goldwasser puts it, “The natural state of my brain, which is kind of confused and unable to accomplish anything practical, is now being encouraged.”

Oracular Spectacular
Columbia Records. $12.98.

The Slow Burn