MGMT: From Phish to Faine Jade
“I was a huge Phish fan—I was obsessed with Phish. And I remember reading at some point in high school Trey [Anastasio] talking about something he called the “kill mummy” phase—just how at one point he kind of forced himself to break from that and step out and try something else,” Andrew VanWyngarden said in late spring, while finishing work on MGMT’s third, self-titled album. “I think that’s kind of what happened with us on this album with rock and roll.” VanWyngarden has experienced a lot of changes since MGMT released Congratulations in 2010: he rediscovered electronic music, moved out to the Rockaway Beach section of Queens, NY and managed to massage a series of dark, synth-heavy jams into his band’s most psychedelic release yet. Plus, he turned 30 and is in the midst of a “Saturn’s Return” phase of his career. “The kind of mystical side of me thinks that there’s kind of like this development of what it means to be a human, kind of the whole people wanting kind of a medicine band, music to kind of push them and open up different perspectives or whatever,” he muses on a spring day during a series of interviews with Relix and Jambands.com for our July/August issue. “So I think that’s what psychedelic music does when it’s doing it best.”
Let’s start with the new album. Can you give us a quick rundown on when you started working on MGMT and how you came up with your new recording approach?
All the recording sessions were all up in Buffalo. We did some writing and improvising with these little synthesizer kind of jams that would become some of the parts of the songs at Ben’s house and my old house in Brooklyn, where we used to have a studio.
But pretty much every track was recorded at Dave Fridmann’s studio. That’s the first time we’ve done it like that. Dave worked with us on both of our other albums but [the approach was different]. The first one was sort of loose and the second one was sort of mixed recording wise.
With this one we recorded every track in the studio and it’s all super well engineered and high quality—as opposed to the other ones which would have tracks that Ben and I recorded with our limited but expanding knowledge of recording techniques. Dave Fridmann also had a bigger role kind of as a motivator and also kind of pushing us to go with certain sounds.
In terms of a timeline, at what point did you start sketching up those original ideas at Ben’s house and then start making the pilgrimage up to the studio in the woods?
January 2012 is when we started doing those jams in Brooklyn at Ben’s house or at my house. Early March 2012, was the first Taxbox session [at Fridmann’s studio in Buffalo]. And then over that last year we went up there I think a total of five times, maybe six. Some sessions were more productive than others, but it really wasn’t until the last two sessions when we kind of saw it come together as a whole and made sense to us.
It was one of those situations where the last song we mixed was the last song of the album and once that was there with vocals and everything, it all kind of made sense as a whole. It was a nice way to end it.
You recorded Congratulations with your live band and captured the psychedelic feel of your stage show but decided to revert to the original MGMT duo for your new studio album. Was your initial goal to create an album that was a true “studio project” or did that idea really marinate when you went into the studio with Dave?
The only goals we had initially were really just to… We wanted to be a little less inhibited with our musical decisions and just kind of let things bloom and grow a little bit more because we had a bad habit of starting an idea and then just cutting it off.
The moments that felt like things were really working together and Ben and I were grooving and feeling happy were coming out of these extended kind of improvisations. We would have drum machines and Ben’s module loop here and synthesizers and sometimes guitars and everything going and sometimes we would be doing it for like an hour and a half, two hours, and then that’s where the meat of the jam would be and we would take those sections and that’s when we were getting really excited and feeling happiest. We didn’t really have a set approach but we knew that it was going to be different.
I’m sure that this new approach allowed you to shift your roles a little bit.
Yeah, on some of the tracks it was definitely like that. It was much less like, like you said, like I’m the guitar player and Ben’s the keyboard player. For the first two albums, I played a lot of the drum and bass parts, but really Ben was more kind of master of the keyboard and synth area.
But we both just love making sounds together even though it is usually a point of contention to the particulars of the sound because we love making weird and original sounding synthesized stuff. Dave was important in that we would kind of do a bit of a jam or get something going and then kind of like laugh and kind of go do something else and Dave would be like, “No guys, you should keep going with this. This sounds cool.” That was really helpful and good. But yeah, I played more synthesizers than I’ve ever played.
I actually saw you play synthesizers at that Joshua White performance you guys did.
That was kind of like we’d never done something like that before in front of people. But that’s what we do on our own so that was kind of cool. That’s how a lot of the songs came about on this album.
Did that Joshua White performance come to fruition because you were kind of working with this template or was it just kind of a great coincidence these guys asked you to do something?
I guess it was both. I mean, they asked us to do something and it was early in the year and we were like, “Well, we don’t want to play a full band show but we could do something kind of one-off for this.” And it would be kind of a challenge to what we were used to and we went for it.
In terms of the improvisation, I know that psychedelic music has been something that you guys have been interested in for many years, but when it came to actual jams was it more like you guys actually jamming live or was it you were going to loop and Ben would kind of flesh it out or vice versa and then Dave would just roll tape and then focus in on those moments?
There were a bunch of different approaches. It kind of goes song by song. For “Alien Days,” that was one of the first songs that we wrote during this writing period. That came more from me kind of strumming on the verse chords on my acoustic guitar, and then going into Ben and we kind of worked out the song, which is way more the way we used to do things.
But then something like “A Good Sadness”—that whole song is just a chunk taken from a long jam. All the chord changes we were doing live and then we just kind of arranged a little bit, added a few things and sang over it. Then Dave kind of mixes it.
And then something like “Your Life Is a Lie” was much more kind of a spur of the moment, just kind of really quickly done song that we thought was funny and made us laugh but was kind of crazy. So there’s a mix.
At what point did you add the lyrics to these jam sessions?
Like with the first two albums, it’s always coming last.
That said, since this was recorded over so many different sessions, over a chunk of months, did you find there were some lyrical themes that run through all those songs or was it almost like “Alien Days” was written at this point and this other song was written at a different stage, where you were?
I think there are some themes. Ben and I kind of started to see the first album as this sort of wide-eyed, kind of naïve, psychedelic fantasy, post-apocalyptic thing. And kind of just like this beautiful energy, and then the second one I feel like was kind of the result of all the touring and kind of us being naïve and not knowing what we were getting into with being a band and touring.
The second one’s more of I guess melancholy and looking inside and kind of more closed off and a lot about just being a musician. And so I think we had to get that one out and kind of like therapy, and this one feels much more like kind of where the first breaths of feeling comfortable with the music we’re making and excited about being free to do whatever we want, which is kind of scary on one hand that we’re taking risks.
The themes I think were kind of this feeling of being overwhelmed or feeling of a constant chaotic sensation which is daily life in New York or whatever, and trying to make sense of it or accept it or kind of accepting these kind of multiple realities. I don’t know it’s us searching for answers or something [Laughs].
I think we enjoyed finding sounds that were abrasive and putting multiple melodies that you wouldn’t think would go together, throwing them on top of each other and taking the result of that as the sound.
That’s something that Dave got really into with us, which I think would be cool if you could talk to him about it because he was always amazed or kind of impressed that we would have these songs where there was… You couldn’t really tell at the end of the song what the chord at any given moment was or sometimes where the beat is but it still made sense and it was still sing-able.
I think that’s the kind of angle that he really wanted to help grow and encourage.
2013 has been the year psychedelic music returned to the mainstream. Do you think that that’s a result of the fact that people who have grown up with this music have had the opportunity to present this music to a larger audience and embrace it or do you feel like there’s some sort of trend that’s going through, with Tame Impala being on the other side of the world and embracing the same thing too?
Yeah, it’s interesting to see it sprouting up simultaneously around the world. I think it’s a combination of a certain group of kids that probably have slightly similar musical backgrounds. I’m sure that all of our parents played classic rock and psychedelic stuff from the ‘70s and late ‘60s. Growing up, that was just a part of our musical knowledge and possibly even some of the last generations of kids that didn’t kind of have that, so I think that’s part of it.
And then the kind of mystical side of me thinks that there’s kind of like this development of what it means to be a human, kind of the whole people wanting kind of a medicine band, music to kind of push them and open up different perspectives or whatever. So I think that’s what psychedelic music does when it’s doing it best.
You see this in bands like Tame Impala and Flaming Lips, too. Their new album is pretty dark and out there, I mean, just kind of embracing the pretty utopian side of psychedelic music as much as the fucked up side of it.
I think it’s interesting from the Relix perspective—being a magazine that was formed as a Grateful Dead fan magazine and obviously has grown along with the jamband scene—that psychedelic music has entered a dark sonic period recently. A band like Tame Impala wouldn’t have fit with the “happy-vibe” of the Clinton-era jambands.
Yeah, well not to be too political or social by bringing that side of thing into it but with the Internet I feel like so much information is available, pretty much everything you want to know so that it’s harder for there to be this abstract concept of “the man” that you’re writing songs about so it kind of leaves you.
If you’re a psychedelic band that wants to be political, it’s like what are you really going to go into that’s safe?
I guess that’s kind of the distilled situationist approach. But Ben and I, and I think the Tame Impala guys too, were definitely were inspired in college a lot by way antagonistic groups like Suicide and Throbbing Gristle and bands that kind of had this sort of kind of like nasty prank side to it or something. I was definitely not like everything is roses, the other side of it.