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Concert Preview: MGMT Find Exigence for Pop in a ‘Little Dark World’

While indie fans have seen MGMT through their experimental ebbs and flows, other listeners have been wondering where the makers of “Kids” and “Electric Feel” have gone. With their new record Little Dark Age, MGMT (Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden) is set to reclaim the wider stage, with a scheduled stop at The Union on May 22, 2018.

I spoke with Ben about going down the “poppy” route, the pros and cons of city life, and the weird state of today’s world.Charissa: It seems like a lot of albums nowadays are being produced in reaction to the 2016 election. I read that yours was similarly motivated?

Ben: I think we tried not to make it a political album, outright … I feel like there are too many opinions out right now, especially with the internet and online forums and whatever. There’s so many people telling other people, ‘This is the right opinion,’ and then not listening to other people. If anything, we’re trying to encourage more questioning, of your reality, the world that you live in, and wondering if there’s a different way to think about things.

Charissa: So rather than impose an opinion, encourage different points of view?

Ben: Yeah, and I think there’s so many bands that put out records where, to a kind of annoying degree, it’s just one person like, ‘I’m here to tell you that this is the way to think,’ and we didn’t really wanna do that.

Charissa: That actually brings me to my next question, about the song, “Hand it Over.” It seems like there’s this kind of balancing act going on, where Andrew’s singing things like, “It’s rightfully mine,” and “Yours is mine,” but we also hear the echo of “Hand it over” after each line. What’s going on there?

Ben: There’s some parts of that song that are about politics, but I think a lot of it is also about record labels and how things shake out for the artist on them. It’s not necessarily a jab at our record label; they’ve been really great and we feel very able to do whatever we want on it. A part of it is artists not getting paid, which is something we’ve been seeing more of with the streaming era, which isn’t necessarily how things have to be. I don’t think that streaming is a bad thing. I actually think it’s a great way to discover music, but hopefully pretty soon there will be a way that artists actually get paid for streaming.

Charissa: A lot has changed since the last MGMT album, in 2013, in terms of social media and the way we interact online. It seems like a lot of your music revolves around that idea of the influences that the internet could have on people. How has that played a role in the making of Little Dark World?

Ben: A lot of the songs on the record are about how we can’t avoid that stuff. Neither Andrew or I really participate in social media that much, but I think we’re also totally addicted to our phones. I think we differ a little bit with our relationship to technology. I kind of embrace it a little more than he does, but I think we both would agree that it feels like, the place we’re in right now with technology, we’re diving headfirst into something we don’t fully understand how it can affect us. And going back to the election, that feels like a direct product in some ways. The way that politics have changed in the last few years, and how that’s tied up with technology; just people allowing their information to be bought and sold is a little disturbing to me.

Charissa: But in many ways, it’s the primary way most of us communicate today. Is there a way you think we can negotiate between using technology and not being too swayed by it?

Ben: I don’t know. It’s something I think about a lot. It’s really complicated because we all desire a human connection to each other, and in a lot of ways, social media promises a deeper level of connection. Like you could be in touch with so many more people and be exposed to things you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to because you’re geographically isolated, and I think that’s why it’s so hard for a lot of people to give it up even if they know that there’s some aspects of it that are harmful.

 

Charissa: What was it like collaborating with Ariel Pink on “When You Die,” and how did that project come about?

Ben: That was actually the first song we finished for the album. It was an idea that Andrew and I had been floating around for a while. Then Patrick [Wimberly], who was producing the record, suggested that maybe we try having Ariel coming to the studio. We’d met him a few times before, but it was really eye-opening to see how he worked because his style of working in the studio is so different from ours. Like he just tries the first idea that comes into his head and doesn’t stop himself, or have a moment where he’s like, ‘Oh, this is too dumb; I can’t do this.’ And it was really motivating for us.

Charissa: Did it help you become more spontaneous for the new MGMT album as a whole?

Ben: I think so. Like, a big part of making this album for us was about just allowing ourselves to be more open and not try to force things in any particular direction. We ended up surprising ourselves with this record. It wasn’t necessarily what we set out to do in the first place, but we ended up being really happy with the result. And we’ve also allowed ourselves to be more open to collaboration with other people and inviting people into the studio, which is something that on the last record, we didn’t really do. 

Charissa: I read that in the making of this album, you guys kind of parted ways geographically?

Ben: Yeah, we were both living in New York, and I moved out to LA like three years ago.

Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser. Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty

Charissa: As a native New Yorker who moved to Utah a while ago to be more productive, I was met with a lot of disbelief, like, ‘Why would you leave? If you wanna be productive, this is where to be.’ Were you met with a similar reaction?

Ben: I think about that a lot, and I do feel more productive not being in New York. I didn’t grow up there; I grew up in the country, so living in the city has always been like an alien thing for me. But being in New York, there’s this idea that things are always moving forward, or they’re always like things you have to do. And everyone’s always talking about like, ‘Oh, I’m so busy; I have to do all this stuff.’ But I feel like it was really necessary for me to go to a place where I could kind of experience the absence of that, and motivate myself instead of being motivated by other things.

I think LA is a really good place to get work done, if you have something you wanna do. A lot of the stereotypes about LA aren’t really true. A lot of them are, also, and I find that hilarious. But it’s a really inspirational place for me. In some ways it could feel like a small town, depending on where you are. I never experienced living anywhere other than the east coast before, and I felt like, in terms of being creative, it was necessary to shake things up a bit, and I think that came across on the record. It was a new thing for Andrew and me too, to figure out how to collaborate long-distance, and at first it was really frustrating. But we figured out a way to make it work, and I think in the end, it turned out to be a positive influence that we were equally working on the East and West coasts.

Charissa: I think there’s a lot of hype around metropolitan areas, that if you want to be an artist or if you want to be creative, it’s almost strange for you to go somewhere more low-key. I do wonder about the baggage that might come, for an artist who leaves that busy place to somewhere else, to know that they’re not in a place where everyone feels like they have to be, you know?  

Ben: Yeah. I guess, now everyone’s moving to LA, so maybe I didn’t go far enough (laughs). But I think I had to deal with that when leaving New York – and I’ve talked to other people about it, too – there’s a sense that if you leave New York, you’re missing out on something. It’s like this whole idea of New York being the center of the universe, and if you live there and then you leave, you’re no longer a part of the cutting-edge of culture, which I think isn’t really true. But it’s easy to feel that way when you live there. I’m actually getting really excited. Because the cities are getting so expensive, there’s a lot of movement to smaller towns, and young people starting things up in places that don’t already have like, 20 artisanal coffee shops or whatever. I think that’s a really cool thing, and I hope more of it happens.

 

Charissa: Looking back, it seems like MGMT albums have fluctuated between being more structured electronic, to more experimental and psychedelic music. People are saying you’ve kind of come into your own and found the sound that you’re going to stick with. Is that the case? Where do you feel like your music is going in the future?

Ben: I think for us, we never wanted to settle down or find a particular sound that was ours. If we ever feel too comfortable, we’re the kind of people who like, immediately want to shake things up. But at least right now, we’re really enjoying making catchy, poppy music. It’s weird to think about people’s expectations because of course, there are more people who want to hear poppy music because that’s the nature of poppy music. And I think there’s a part of us that wants to defy that and play with people’s expectations a bit. But at least in making this record, the way we were feeling about the world and how weird everything was made us want to write satisfying music that pushed that button in a way. I don’t know how we’ll feel next time, but we do wanna make more music really soon.

To get tickets to see MGMT at The Union on May 22, go to here.

Charissa Che :Charissa Che hails from NYC and has been a journalist for over 12 years. She is a regular music contributor for Salt Lake Magazine. Additionally, she is a PhD candidate in Writing & Rhetoric at the University of Utah. She prides herself on following the best cat accounts on Instagram. Calicos preferred.