MGMT isn’t pretending, just ask the president of France
Indeed, what does Brian Eno know? It’s not surprising that the members of MGMT liken their relationship to the English ambient innovator as a master/apprentice dynamic, whether or not they’ve ever actually met. In fact, the band even asked Eno to produce the aptly-titled track, “Brian Eno,” but were shot down because he hadn’t heard of them.
However, nowadays Brian Eno seems like the only person who hasn’t heard of MGMT, which will come to the roomy Santa Cruz Civic with psychedelic trio Tame Impala opening on Saturday, May 29.
In 2007 MGMT hit the scene (and hard) with Oracular Spectacular, an album mostly crafted by two constituent members—Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser—but has since expanded to a full five-piece band. “Back then nobody was really sure of what was going to happen,” explains guitarist (and former drummer) James Richardson. “We were all used to going on tour and playing in each other’s bands, but nothing really coming of it … But it kind of blew up pretty fast.”
Buoyed by the singles “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids,” MGMT has not only hit the big time commercially, but has done so while mostly keeping the indie cred—a feat not to be understated. Is this because hipster music has been overtaken by dance beats the last few years? Probably, but these were damn catchy tracks, and, if nothing else, it’s nice to see that catchy isn’t uncool anymore. Moreover, don’t the lyrics of “Time to Pretend”—which paints a picture of pure rock ’n’ roll hedonistic excess—seem pretty prophetic now?
“It is a little weird, yeah,” says Richardson of seeing his band blow up. “It was kind of cool, it’s a neat thing to have happen. I don’t think anyone expected it to happen, but that’s the magic of music.”
So, when you’ve metaphorically attained the models for wives, moved to Paris, shot heroin, and manned elegant cars—not that MGMT has necessarily done any of these things—where do you go from there? The next logical step seems obvious: write more pop songs, duh. But to anyone who’s already heard Congratulations, the band’s April follow-up to Oracular Spectacular, this is clearly not the case.
“It definitely wasn’t an effort to say, ‘Hey, let’s not write any big hits,’” says Richardson. “The last thing we want to do is do something contrived. The real goal was to make a record that we would love to listen to ourselves, and that felt as natural and as truthful as it could be.”
Indeed, if you were the type to toggle through the three ubiquitous singles on iTunes, then, well, you’re probably shit out of luck. Congratulations is a distinctly more challenging record, no obvious sing-alongs in sight, relying more on a phosphorescent production haze—appropriately provided by former Spacemen 3 member Pete Kember—more akin to The Soft Bulletin than a dance floor hit. The psychedelic moments—organic gang vocals, flittery keys and distortion freakouts—stand out over more muted electronics, while a frenetic vibe permeates the whole record.
Still, if you move past Oracular Spectacular’s singles, Congratulations doesn’t feel like a paradigm shift so much as a logical progression.
“In a lot of ways it’s different,” says Richardson. “But also, if you listen to a lot of the non-single tracks on Oracular Spectacular, it’s pretty close … if you try to force things or do something that’s based on a concept, a lot of times it’s not very human-sounding.”
Nevertheless, for a band which so heavily relied on its accessibility to sell records, it seems like a ballsy move to eschew traditional singles. But it’s far from being the bravest pursuit the band has made in recent years.
In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy used “Kids” several times for political videos without the band’s permission. MGMT’s response? Sue the President of France. Even after Sarkozy offered a symbolic repayment of 1 Euro, the band rejected the offer, citing intellectual property law, and eventually settled the suit about a year ago.
“I’ll put it to you this way,” Richardson admits, “if the guy’s politics were a little bit different, we might have been a little more lenient with him.”
MGMT and Tame Impala perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 29, at the Santa Cruz Civic, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30 in advance, $32 at the door. For more information, call 420-5260.