TikTok Gave MGMT a New Audience. They’re Going to Make the Most of It

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MGMT album - Credit: Jonah Freeman*
MGMT album - Credit: Jonah Freeman*

Just a few years ago, MGMT seemed like they were spiraling into oblivion. The psychedelic synth-pop dup of Andrew VanWyngarden and Benjamin Goldwasser exploded onto the scene back in 2007 with their debut LP, Oracular Spectacular, and the hits “Kids,” “Electric Feel,” and “Time to Pretend.” But follow-up albums Congratulations and MGMT divided critics, baffled many fans, and failed to generate any genuine hits.

Everything changed in 2018, when they dropped Little Dark Age, which was a return to the hooky anthems of their debut. The title track generated a TikTok craze and has been streamed more than 500 million times on Spotify. Both Congratulations and MGMT had their share of appreciators at the time, and they’ve aged quite well. But Little Dark Age was the one that proved Oracular Spectacular was no fluke — and it sent them back into the studio with renewed confidence when the time came to cut their fifth album.

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A few weeks back, MGMT began teasing fans that a new album was imminent by taking down their website and replacing it with a cartoon turtle slowly walking toward a checkered flag. And now they’re ready to tell the world that the album is called Loss of Life, and it’s hitting Feb. 23 via Mom + Pop Records. Leadoff single “Mother Nature” is available right now, along with an animated video directed by Jordan Fish.

We hopped on Zoom with VanWyngarden and Goldwasser to discuss the making of Loss of Life, which involved reteaming with Little Dark Age producer Patrick Wimberly and longtime collaborator David Fridmann; bringing in Christine and the Queens for the new track “Dancing in Babylon”; their odd career trajectory; turning 40; and playing Oracular Spectacular straight through earlier this year.

Let’s start with the last record. Many people saw you guys coming back to songs that were hookier and more accessible after going pretty left field and eclectic with the two before that. That’s a simplified narrative, but is that broadly how you saw it?
Goldwasser: I think especially when compared to our self-titled record [in 2013], Little Dark Age had more obvious hooks on it. But I don’t think in terms of our attitude that we felt like our self-titled record was way more experimental than anything we’d done. Little Dark Age was more straightforward. We were focused more on the process and how we felt.

The frustrating thing for us is that the self-titled record felt really liberating. We were like, “We’re not going to focus on what people are going to think of this record. We’re just going to make music.” And in some ways, we were a little bit scarred by that process. We’ve taken pretty long breaks in between albums. We’ve come back to rediscovering how to make music together, which was true for Little Dark Age, and also true for this record.

VanWyngarden: I think the little summary that you said is true, but it wasn’t a planned, intentional thing. We’re not prolific. We never have 100 songs that we’re choosing and whittling down. We craft as we go. We mix as we go. When we were doing that for the self-titled [album], it turned into this more kind of experimental, collage-y, chaotic thing. And then, when we were working on Little Dark Age, we definitely wanted to simplify things, and that naturally resulted in things being catchier.

The streaming numbers for “Little Dark Age” are pretty nuts. That must have been very gratifying.
VanWyngarden: It is just wild. It’s one of those things that you can never really create or try to make happen. We are really not active on social media, especially TikTok. And then magically, spontaneously, a few years ago, the title track from Little Dark Age became a TikTok trending sound, and it just rocketed the song up to this. I’ve seen some bands that will release the TikTok version of a song once it blows up there. They’ll rerecord it and try to keep it going. We just let it happen.

On Spotify alone, the song has 500 million streams.
Goldwasser:
That’s pretty incomprehensible for me. It’s not like we’re completely oblivious to pop culture. I know who Taylor Swift is. But success just means different things to different people. For us, we’ve been existing in our own little world. We toured a lot for that record, and for the other records, and we have a very loyal core fan base who go really deep into our music. For us, that’s success. We have these fans who hang on and are willing to take risks with us. But then there’s this other story that’s on the more mainstream level — that we went off the deep end and finally resurfaced however many years later. To us, that’s not really what happened at all. We’ve just been busy making music.

You finished touring the last album a few months before Covid hit. What were you guys doing during the lockdown?
VanWyngarden: I was going out to L.A. a lot starting in 2019, and spending more time out there. And then I met someone and was going out there even more. I was in L.A. when Covid started going wild and ended up spending the whole lockdown in New Mexico. That was a nice place to be because I could still go outside, even though everything was closed. We could go on hikes, and I had my mom’s dog. Ben and I were communicating a bit, but we weren’t really making new things.

Goldwasser: During lockdown, I was working on this soundtrack for an animated movie [Where Is Anne Frank] with Karen O. That one took up a lot of my time. I was deep in that world, and the film never really got wide release. But that was not so much like a conscious break from MGMT stuff or anything like that, but more just something to do that was a challenge, and also something to think about instead of Covid.

When did you guys start thinking seriously about a new record?
VanWyngarden: We went up to Dave Fridmann’s studio in May or early June of 2021.

Goldwasser: It was the first time that he had people back in the studio since lockdown started. He was super cautious about it, and I think we were too. It felt very weird to be actually doing things in the world, and we were trying to figure out if it made sense to call this a record. We were like, “Are we just messing around? We don’t really know.” And it took a while to pick up and be like, “OK, this is happening. This is a group of songs that work together.”

Do you guys start songs separately and then bring the ideas together later down the line?
Goldwasser: I guess on this record it was mostly separately and then bringing stuff together. In some ways it was similar to Little Dark Age, because we were working with Patrick Wimberly on that one and also this one. He was really good at wrangling a lot of different sessions and making sense of the bicoastal thing. But also, on this record, we got into a really good workflow of being able to send sessions back and forth, and develop the long-distance collaboration a little better so that we could be productive when we were apart. And then we would get together for a couple of really concentrated weeks of hard work and bring things together.

VanWyngarden: I think almost every album we’ve made as MGMT, we say the same thing where we’re like, “Let’s just be really simple and never have too many things going on.” And then it always ends up that we pile stuff on. I think this time we finally found this good zone of restraint where it felt like things were more balanced and more confident in a way.

Goldwasser: For a long time, we’ve had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder about not being recognized as people who do things ourselves in the studio. I think that there’s been a little bit of us wanting people to know that we can do that stuff. And maybe in the past a little bit, we were trying a little too hard to prove that to people and being like, “Look, we really know what we’re doing.” I think that we’ve maybe gotten to a point just through age, or experience, or whatever, that it just flows naturally now. We just do it.

It felt like it wasn’t something we were fighting against on this record. The studio side of it just felt effortless. We know how to get the sounds that we want. That was a nice realization that we could get together, especially after spending some time apart, and just be like, “Yeah, we know what we’re doing.” We have level of confidence that I think we maybe didn’t have before.

You’re off a major label now for the first time. Was that freeing in any way? Did it have any impact on the music?
Goldwasser: I think probably the biggest impact it had is just the psychological impact. We didn’t have a bad relationship with Columbia. They really were relatively hands-off with us, and let us take risks and let us put things out that I think maybe we all knew weren’t going to be big records, but it was the music we wanted to put out. And they were fine with that, which we’re grateful for. But I do think there was always something lingering in the back of our minds that it just felt like there was this…. I don’t want to say a cloud over everything we did — that sounds mean — but just that it was never 100 percent us. There was always somebody else we had to answer to, or uncomfortable conversations we had to have, where we had explain something to somebody who wasn’t a music person.

VanWyngarden: Because of that relationship, it’s easier to get into more of a self-conscious phase where you’re doubting things because it has to go through another level. Even though it was never punishing or unpleasant with Columbia, it still had to pass through everybody and they have to give their comments and say their thoughts. “What if the chorus came earlier?” If you don’t have that, it’s way more liberating.

Goldwasser: Once we got off of a label, we were like, “We’re never going to let this happen again.” We want to make a record, and when we’ve finished making the record, we still want to like what we did, and we want to be excited to share it with people.

VanWyngarden: Also, paradoxically, it made us less precious and less clinging to our own thing. I think it allowed us to work with other producers, work with collaborators in a way where we really appreciated and took in their input and their perspective on things. Before, I think the label dynamic makes you almost possessive and want to make sure it’s yours because they’re taking away so much of it.

Goldwasser: I don’t remember exactly what was in our contract, but a major-label release has to constitute this many songs or this many minutes and you have to be responsible for writing this percentage of the music. At the end of the whole process, it comes down to like, “Did we pass the test? Did we do everything right?” And to think about a creative work in that way is pretty soul-sucking.

Let’s talk about the first single, “Mother Nature.” You mention that it briefly sounds like Oasis in the press materials.
VanWyngarden: I never would’ve thought that would be coming into an MGMT album, but here we are. I think it’s funny that’s literally the only time. For 10 seconds on this album it sounds like Oasis, and the rest of the album there’s no Oasis.

Goldwasser: Our engineer Miles is a huge Oasis fan. I remember recording the bridge section to that song, which I played guitar on. I’m not a guitar player at all, and I have this very crappy style of guitar playing that sometimes works for certain situations, but I was just like, “Miles, can you get an Oasis grungy guitar tone right now?” And he’s just like, “I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that question.”

VanWyngarden: And then incredibly, you, as an amateurish guitar player, are balanced against one of the best guitar players in the world on this song, Nels Cline.

Goldwasser: My biggest fear is I don’t want anybody to think that Nels Cline is the one who’s playing my guitar. I feel like that would be doing him a big disservice.

Let’s tall about “Dancing in Babylon” and the decision to bring in Christine and the Queens for it.
VanWyngarden: That song started off as a really silly, joke-y song about this couple in Rockaway Beach that I didn’t know that well, named Catherine and Bobby, and it was almost like this Magnetic Fields, happy-go-lucky, cute little song. Almost like Belle and Sebastian-y or something. We sent it around to other people since it felt like it should be a duet. Once we brought in Christine and the Queens, it went into this whole other space where it felt like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or a Roxy Music ballad. It’s all over the place.

On “I Wish I Was Joking,” you sing “Nobody calls me the Gangster of Love.” Where did the Steve Miller reference come from?
VanWyngarden: On “The Joker” he sings, “Some people call me the Space Cowboy/Some people call me the Ganger of Love.” That’s just so bombastic. I loved the idea of somebody saying, “Nobody calls me the Gangster of Love.”

Little Dark Age had a pretty bleak outlook at times. What’s the tone of this one?
VanWyngarden: By calling it Loss of Life, we’re maybe hoping people are going to see that without hearing the music and expect that we’ve gone darker and we’ve gone more hopeless. And in my mind it’s actually the opposite. It feels like existential relief because of love.

It definitely seems like you guys are in a good place since the last record had such a great reception.
VanWyngarden: I think so. We’re really not concerned with making something and thinking about how other people are going to perceive it as much. And we’re not trying to consciously be weird at all. We’re just being ourselves. We’re not afraid of people hating it. We’re just making music.

A few months back, you played Oracular Spectacular straight through at Just Like Heaven. It was the first time you’d done anything like that. How did it feel?
VanWyngarden: We had so much fun doing it and we really went all-in. We put so much time and energy into re-creating all the songs, and we had so much fun opening up the recording sessions from 2006 and 2007, and resampling ourselves from then. We wanted the whole thing to take on the spirit of us in 2004. And I think we accomplished it. It is crazy. We did all this, and then it was just one show and then that’s it. But we were really happy and had a great time.

Goldwasser: On top of it being just a head trip to revisit that album in that context, there’s a certain amount of being very self-aware of why we’d been tapped to play that festival. Because to be labeled as a “culturally important” band from a certain generation of people that that festival is clearly trying to appeal to, that demographic…. It felt like we had to answer to that in some way, or come to terms with that in a certain way.

But it ended up being really a cool experience of mining old demo tracks that we’d recorded for the first record. That part of it was really cool. Andrew and I worked incredibly intensely together on the show. For whatever reason, we felt like we had to put an extraordinary amount of work into this one show. We put that on ourselves, and I honestly think it was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life on anything. It was a lot of work, and it was a cool experience. And we saw that it wasn’t just our generation that was there enjoying the music, but all ages were there. That felt incredible.

You just did it that one time. Are you tempted to do that again somewhere?
Goldwasser: We’ve talked about the possibility of doing it again, but I think that timing-wise, it’s been a lot of work just trying to get this record out. I think we’re mostly wanting to focus on new music because we haven’t put out new music in so long. We’ll see. It would be super fun to do that again.

You guys both turned 40 last year. Did that feel weird or did it just bounce off you?
Goldwasser: It pretty much bounced off me. I went out in the woods with my wife for a couple of days and stayed in a cabin and had a very peaceful birthday, just cooked some nice food. I feel like I’ve been trying to allow myself to slow down for a while now. There’s something about turning 40, that maybe you have permission to do that from the world. I can just be the old man that I’ve always been.

How did you feel about it, Andrew?
VanWyngarden: I don’t know. I feel OK. I think I maybe bought a couple pairs of vintage Billabong board shorts. I definitely got a couple albums on vinyl from 2006. I think it was like I had a little flirtation with early midlife crisis, but other than that, I feel fine.

Are you guys booking a tour now? Are you going all over the world?
Goldwasser: We don’t really know yet. The thing we’re mainly trying to avoid is … I don’t think we’re the most comfortable on the road. It’s never felt like the most natural environment for us. We’ve always felt more of a studio band. I mean, we really enjoy playing shows, but there’s a lot of things that go along with touring that we just really don’t like. The thing we’ve run into on pretty much all of our past records is that we put out a record, we tour really hard, go all over the place, and by the end of it we’re so burnt out and exhausted that we can’t think about making music for a really long time after that.

I think that’s the main thing that we’re trying to do now, is figure out how can we put out music and support it and promote it in the world, but also stay grounded and happy, and not lose the spark that makes us want to keep making music.

Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You could play 10 concerts and call it a day.
Goldwasser: Yeah, and maybe that’s what we’ll do. We’re not making any ultimatums or anything like that. We’re focusing on trying to be happy and the good feelings we get from making music. That’s the center of the whole thing for us right now, I think.

VanWyngarden: I prefer domestic … like, cooking, and being home, and going outside, and that kind of stuff. We’re not saying we’re not going to tour again, but we don’t have anything booked.

You guys are one of the few duos in music history that have gone a couple of decades and still seem to genuinely like each other. How did you accomplish that?
Goldwasser: From the beginning, it’s been an equal partnership. It’s more important to remain friends and not bicker about business stuff with each other. I think that stuff always tears people apart, especially bands that are songwriting duos. It always tears people apart when the business stuff becomes more important. Somebody needs a second castle or whatever.

What are your plans for the next couple of years? Have you outlined that in your head at all?
VanWyngarden: We’ve been really just focusing on near-term. Ben and I are making really fun videos. We’re really involved in all of the creative decisions, from artwork to the video treatments. It’s fun again, it doesn’t feel like there’s a layer of gloom over everything, so we don’t really know what the next two years is going to be like. But I hope that we do a residency at the Sphere.

That would be sick. I just saw U2 there and it was incredible.
Goldwasser: It sounds like a lot of fun. That’s one thing that’s cool about having done this Just Like Heaven show and putting all of this effort into production for one show. I think it did unlock something for us where I don’t know if we ever saw ourselves as the kind of band that could do that. And we did it in our own scrappy, unconventional way.

It might have been easier back in the day to write a bunch more songs that sounded sort of like “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” But had you taken that easy route, I really don’t think you’d be here today.
Goldwasser: I think we’ve just been incredibly fortunate to be able to do this thing for a living that we actually like doing. It’s never been about success for us in terms of recognition, or financial success, or anything like that. It’s just the fact that we can actually spend all of our time doing this if we want to do it. We’re very lucky to have that. And I wouldn’t want to spoil that by ever having to do something that we didn’t like doing because it meant that we would get more money or advance our careers in some way. If we were at that point, why would we be doing this for our job? There are more stable jobs where you do things that you hate and at least you get a more steady paycheck.

VanWyngarden: It’s been more difficult at times than other times, but we just have to try to be ourselves as much as possible.

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