At this point, the weirdest thing MGMT could do is release a relatively straightforward pop album—and, lo and behold, that’s the name of the game on their fourth (and, possibly, best) long-player, Little Dark Age. Containing the most potent songs the band’s put to tape since 2007’s mega-breakout Oracular Spectacular, Little Dark Age finds cosmic wizards Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser dipping their toes in all kinds of synth-slicked waters with equal parts glee and freaked-out paranoia.
For the music nerds who have followed this band’s fascinating career over the last eleven years, there’s still flecks of impeccable reference points that have cemented MGMT as quite possibly the strangest major-label act in existence: jittery opener "She Works Out Too Much" is a hat-tip to legendary Japanese pop aesthetes Yellow Music Orchestra, while "Days That Got Away" and "When You Die" bear the unmistakable splattered pastels of Ariel Pink (who, not coincidentally, has songwriting credits on the latter, as well as several other songs on Little Dark Age).
But for the youngsters who were entranced by Oracular’s future-sick gumdrops and got lost in what followed (2010’s wonderfully confounding Congratulations, 2013’s grab-baggy self-titled effort), there’s plenty to grab a hold on to—from the teen prom swirls of "Me and Michael" to the dark disco of the title track and album closer "Hand It Over"'s soft-rock glow. This isn’t a bad thing, but listening to MGMT over the years has sometimes felt like hearing a record skip and wondering if it’s intentional; on Little Dark Age, there’s no confusion as to whether the needle’s locked in the groove—the band sure are.
Paradoxically, the rich, weird cohesion of Little Dark Age was borne out of division: while VanWyngarden got to work on finishing construction on his house in Queens beach area the Rockaways, Goldwasser moved to LA in search of a change of scenery. "I think everyone thought I was crazy when I moved to LA and couldn’t understand why that would happen," Goldwasser explains as we’re tucked in a booth at Park Slope haunt Brooklyn Public House. "It felt like a spontaneous decision, maybe—no one in our group of friends had left Brooklyn, and I was just starting to feel crazy living in New York. So maybe I did go crazy."
"I didn’t think you went crazy," VanWyngarden offers reassuringly, in the way only a longtime friend would. "But I was worried it would make it more difficult to make music."
And yet, despite the coastal divide, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser found each other again mid-2016 and began jamming. As I documented in my 2013 cover story for Pitchfork detailing the genesis of that year’s self-titled third LP, jamming is an essential element of the band’s songwriting process—but the sessions for Little Dark Age were much less fraught with frustration than what came before. "There was a lot going on musically all the time—it was a little overwhelming," VanWyngarden says about what they learned from the MGMT sessions while recording Little Dark Age. "We wanted to allow for more space to simplify things."
Surprisingly, the geographical distance helped. "It made us work like we did in college," he continues. "One of us would have a start to a song, and we’d add to it. MGMT was all about finding moments out of really long jams—we kept saying, 'Now we’re going to write a normal pop song,' but there was some part of us that wouldn’t let us do that. For whatever reason, we were more in that mood this time around."
Read on for our conversation about making the new record, the David the Gnome theme song, and what VanWyngarden’s learned from judging high school Battle of the Bands competitions.
Noisey: You guys have made a lot of funny videos, and the video for "Little Dark Age" is funny, too—but the humor is a little more subtle.
Andrew VanWyngarden: Subtle enough that some people thought we were actually a goth band now. We’ve always been into exaggerated '80s goth. The videos from that era which are kind of ridiculous in lots of ways, and we wanted to reference that—Flock of Seagulls, that kind of world. It’s about being hyper-stylized, and people going for it so hard to nail this particular style. I think a lot of people look down on that now in new music—everything is supposed to be authentic, straight from the hip. I’m not hiding behind anything, you know? It’s fun to reference that era.
What role does humor play in you guys' music? It’s hard to make "funny" music without sounding like you’re trying too hard.
VanWyngarden: Yeah, you don’t want to be annoying or come off as a joke band, like Flight of the Conchords. Ariel Pink helped write the verses on "When You Die"—he wrote the lyrics in under ten minutes—and when his music is really working right, it can be ridiculous and super funny to musicians, and people who get the references. He does that well, it’s a good touchstone.
Besides Ariel, you’ve also worked with a range of left-field musicians from Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema and Sonic Boom to Connan Mockasin. What do you think attracts these types to collaborating with you?
Ben Goldwasser: They come from a noisier, more experimental side, but they all have a strong appreciation for pop music—which maybe doesn’t come across in their music as much, but it’s fun to get together with them and riff on these things that we really like in pop music.
VanWyngarden: They approach writing music like they want their music to be as popular as possible, and that’s not what people think when they hear it. Maybe Ben and I gravitate toward that because we also have our own messed-up idea of what pop music is.
"Me and Michael" stands out to me as something that’s almost nakedly John Hughes-y. It’s really straightforward—not something I’ve heard you do in a while.
VanWyngarden: It’s pretty sincere. We wrote it really quickly in the studio on synths. I was singing "Me and my girl" over and over in the car while I was driving around in LA, and I thought it wasn’t the most exciting thing to sing—it should be "Me and Michael." It’s meant to be confusing and ambiguous; you’re really behind it, but you have no idea what they’re talking about.
You get that vibe from that early Italo music in the 80s—really heartfelt singing about somebody, but you don’t know what they’re talking about. [Laughs] With that song, we’re just going for that earnest feeling, but it doesn’t have to be about something concrete. Of course, we revel in the idea of confounding people’s expectations too. The song was also influenced by the theme song from David the Gnome. You know that cartoon?
I watched it a lot when I was a kid.
VanWyngarden: It’s really emotional. I love it.
As two people who were born in the mid-80s, what’s your understanding of the decade’s cultural totems?
Goldwasser: I don’t think the two of us got into cool pop music from the 80s until recently. We originally bonded over cheesy '80s songs, and we did a lot of covers as a band. The
"cool" music we were listening to was Spaceman 3 and Royal Trux. But over the last few years, we got into the Wake and artsy synth pop, which has definitely been more of an influence on us recently.
VanWyngarden: It’s weird to have been born in the '80s but not have distinct memories from the '80s—while also having a nostalgic leaning toward the 80s. It’s definitely in our blood—Talking Heads, OMD. "Me and Michael" pulls on OMD a whole lot. It’s a really interesting decade.
Goldwasser: I think it’s my favorite decade for music now. There was so much variety—like in the way there can only be an animal like a peacock that exists if it doesn’t have too many natural predators that are like, "Fuck you, peacock." People were really just going for it.
A lot of artists from your generation have approached the 80s through the lens of nostalgia, but to me your music has often sounded nostalgia-resistant.
VanWyngarden: In terms of the actual music, that’s pretty accurate. I don’t think we’ve ever fully gone for a musical world that’s from another time. We do get described as nostalgic
sometimes, but that’s more about what the music evokes. Our most popular song is called "Kids" and has lyrics about childhood—that’s probably a big part of us being called nostalgic. It’s not like we’re making songs that sound exactly like Depeche Mode.
You worked with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) on your last few albums, but this time you brought former Chairlift member Patrick Wimberly into the studio to help with production, too.
Goldwasser: Dave’s mixed all of our records, and on the last record he was more involved as a producer because we did it at his studio. Patrick was more of a traditional producer.
VanWyngarden: He was there while we were jamming and writing—encouraging us to develop stuff, which really helped a lot. If it’s just two of us in a studio, a lot of the time it doesn’t go anywhere.
Goldwasser: We’re usually pretty hands-on, but we’re getting better at giving up a bit of control—but we’re still control freaks. I think it’s healthy to let somebody else affect something so you can step back and be like, "Is this good?" If you’re trying to do everything yourself, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re doing something good when it’s garbage.
Was this record easier or harder to make than the last album?
VanWyngarden: Easier, overall. I’ve always read other artists saying, "We had 50 songs to choose from," and I’m always kind of jealous. How did you have 50 songs? This time we had probably 30 things that could be songs, and that felt really nice. It wasn’t as stressful. The last album felt like we were scraping hard to get somewhere. These songs came out quickly, which is a good feeling.
Last time we talked, you guys mentioned that you found the fact that the Flaming Lips get to do whatever they want on a major label is really alluring. But that’s basically what you guys are doing too.
Goldwasser: I think it’s really hard to make weird major label music right now. We’ve been really lucky to have our relationship with our label. There have been rumors that they’ve tried to put the reins on us, but they’ve never said that we can’t put something out because it’s too weird. They might tell us we’re hanging ourselves—but they don’t tell us we can’t do it, which is really great.
VanWyngarden: We’ve always done whatever we wanted, and I think that comes through in the music. We’re not being calculated to get more success or money. This time, songs that were more simple came out, but it’s not like we’re sitting there thinking, Let’s write a really simple pop song that could be on the radio.
Although you guys could be classified as rock, you’re not really a rock band. In an era of popular music where the notion of genre has ceased to exist, your past work seems prescient now.
Goldwasser: It’s cool to see younger bands like the Lemon Twigs who really exist outside of genre. You can tell they’re obsessed with Todd Rundgren. It doesn’t feel like there’s too much editorial stuff going on in their own brains—they’re just doing what they like. It feels
like there’s a lot of that coming out now.
VanWyngarden: Since our last album, I’ve judged two high school Battle of the Bands competitions in New York. Both times, the kids were dressed like Veruca Salt and playing slacker rock. Even though a lot of bands from our generation are incorporating mainstream hip-hop, R&B, and electronic music, I don’t think rock is dead. There’s a whole generation that loves it—they’re just not quite old enough for it to come out.
Goldwasser: Ironically, what kills rock is people doing overly studied genre interpretations—the same way it killed jazz. It doesn’t really matter what style of music you’re playing, and it’s important to keep that alive.
A lot of the lyrics on this record feel very doomy when it comes to the future.
Goldwasser: So many people in the news have been saying, "Objectively, the world is actually ending now." It’s not like it’s ending in ten years—it’s starting to end and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a pretty harrowing time to live in, but what do you do? Do you give up? Or do you try to bring out the best in humanity with whatever time we have left? In a way, it’s beautiful that people are actually more present.
VanWyngarden: On our last album, we were meditating on death a lot and we had this feeling of cynicism at times—but it was also about acceptance. This one’s more about celebrating how fucked up things are and not being in control of anything, instead of lamenting it.
Would you say you’re happy people?
VanWyngarden: I mean, I don’t even know.
Goldwasser: I finally got a dog. That was one thing that was really holding me back for a long time.
VanWyngarden: I don’t know about happiness, but as I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve been able to manage stress and anxiety on a day to day basis better—which still isn’t that great. I think I’m happy. I don’t know—you should ask my mom. She’s always like, "Are you OK?"
Larry Fitzmaurice is OK on Twitter.