Q&A: MGMT's Andrew Vanwyngarden

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MGMT (Andrew Vanwyngarden left) / Photo by Nick Haymes
WRITTEN BY
William Goodman

With neon headbands, funky synth melodies, and jokey anthems about living fast and dying young, MGMT danced their way from Wesleyan's dorm rooms onto our iTunes playlists -- and were awarded with a pair of Grammy noms just last month. This spring the duo will release their second album, Congratulations, and singer Andrew Vanwyngarden has a warning for fans: "It's definitely going to shock people.

"We dropped any sort of irony that was on the first record, and Congratulations feels true to who we really are," the 26-year-old tells SPIN.com.

The Brooklyn resident also discusses fame, his respect for Lady Gaga, and how his love of surfing influenced Congratulations:

How's the new album coming?
It's mixed and mastered, and now we're just working on presenting it to the world. We spent all of last year working on it, and that's after a good long while touring behind the first record [2008's Oracular Spectacular], so it's definitely nice to be done.

What about Congratulations is really going to surprise people?
The honesty of it; it's very plaintive. In a weird way, it's like a soul record. That, and there's an instrumental track, the second to last song on the album, called "Lady Dada's Nightmare."

Lady DaDa? Is the song a tribute to Lady Gaga?
Well, it's just an instrumental track, but it's very nightmare-ish sounding! Actually, it's really kind of messed up sounding, and we thought it would be funny to call it "Lady Dada's Nightmare."

Are you a fan of Lady Gaga?
Well, at first I brushed her off as crap. And then I realized that her videos are really creative, and I like that she's getting more and more bizarre and spreading that to the mainstream. VH1 would say that she's driven, that she wanted to be as famous as possible. That's a very different goal from us. But I respect that she's doing what she wants to do.

MGMT have become quite famous over the past two years, but some lyrics on your first album poke fun at fame and rock excess. Do you ever feel you're becoming the kind of person you were making fun of?
We did become the people we were making fun of -- but you can't blame us. We were a group of guys in their mid-20s touring around the world and of course we are going to party. But after a while we all learned that you can't just keep doing that over and over, and the new record addresses those issues. On some of the new songs, I found myself thinking about Lady Gaga or Kanye West, and what their ultimate goal is. This sounds cheesy, but for us it's really just about the music and getting people to hear what we have to say. I'm sure it's about the music for those people, too... but fame... it's an interesting career.

The lyrics to Congratulations' title track seem to be about the spoils of your newfound fame -- the money, drugs, etc. Can you elaborate?
I was working on the lyrics while we were on the road. Some of it is about the worldwide economic crisis and how -- thankfully -- we were able to continue making music through it. But it's also from the perspective of other musicians, and about how fame and all the stuff it affords doesn't get you any answers. Maybe that's a cynical outlook.

Another track on the new album called "It's Working" seems to explore the same topic.
Yeah. It was the first song that we demo-ed almost a year ago. Ben [Goldwasser] and I went up to this little cabin in the woods in upstate New York, and the second I walked in the door I sat down and played this chord progression. The next day we expanded it into a song. Lyrically, it's about doing drugs. I didn't realize it until now, but it's kind of funny, because the first song on our first album was "Time to Pretend," which was about the imagined rock star scenario. So, "It's Working" is like, "Yeah, we went out there and we did a lot of drugs and it's not that great." The song is mostly about Ecstasy.

Is there any specific experience with Ecstasy that influenced that song?

No, not really. But that's how we envisioned the track when we were writing it. It stops and starts a lot; it's frantic, confusing. There's also a surfing thread throughout the record. When you're surfing, there's a specific break you're paddling to. And when the waves are really good you say, "It's working." The song kind of has a surf-y vibe. It's like surfing on ecstasy. Which is what the "Time to Pretend" video is like. Actually, the video is more like surfing on acid.

You spent a lot of time surfing while recording the album in Malibu. Have you always been an avid surfer?
When we were making the first record I didn't surf. But for whatever reason, I was dreaming about waves and surfing for about a year straight. So that made it into the lyrics and the imagery of the record. Then about a year ago, when we were recording Congratulations in Malibu, I started surfing. Now I try to do it whenever I can. I'm going to Costa Rica to surf this Sunday. I love it and it's definitely a theme on Congratulations.There's one song called "Siberian Breaks," and it's about 12 minutes long. It's kind of like eight different songs strung together into one, and the general theme is about surfing in the Arctic Circle by Russia.

Pack a wetsuit.
I saw a surf video with some guy who is surfing up there. But it looks a little too chilly for me. I don't want to be the guy that's completely covered in rubber.

MGMT recorded a few album tracks in your Brooklyn apartment. What's the best part about working at home?
Well, one of the songs on the album is called "Brian Eno." It started with just us messing around; we never took it seriously as a song. Then on the second day we had the home studio working. At 1:30 A.M. we did a live take and that's what ended up being the foundation for the song. With the home studio we're going to get better and better at recording, and our goal is to eventually record other bands. I don't want to toot our own horns, but I don't think people think of us as producers.

The first album was a genuine co-production with Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Weezer, Mercury Rev). We knew how we wanted our songs to sound before we met with Dave. Even more so this time. We were working with both Dave and Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3's Pete Kember), but we really controlled how the songs developed and sounded. We definitely want to work as producers at some point.

MGMT are nominated for a pair of Grammys: Best New Artist and Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals for your hit "Kids." What was your initial reaction?
It was really, really unexpected and just crazy. I was watching the nominations with our sound guy, and it was surreal to hear our name on TV. It's a whole other world of music. I'm glad that they want to recognize a stranger band.

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