MGMT Interview: “I Think I Dream”

The one and only MGMT (Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser) are back with their fifth studio album, Loss of Life. It was an honor to have them for a Zoom chat, and all turned out as lovely as a conversation can be. You can read it all below.

How are you doing?

Andrew: Doing good. Where are you?

I’m in Istanbul.

Andrew: Cool.

The obvious reason why we are here right now is to talk about your newest record, Loss of Life. If you were to pick one easiest and one hardest track to create from the record, which two would they be?

Ben: I guess for easiest, I would say “I Wish I Was Joking” because that was the first track that kind of fell into place when we were working on the album.

Andrew: Yeah, that was really fast.

Ben: We just added some things quickly, and we were happy with it. Didn’t end up changing it very much.

And for the hardest track?

Andrew: It’s got to be “Dancing in Babylon” just because it took a while to figure out what the song wanted to be, and it didn’t really start making sense until we had most of the album finished. And then we kind of knew where it fit in.

I heard that “Bubblegum Dog” was created during the Little Dark Age era.

Ben: Yeah, we started during that time.

Did it transform much since then?

Ben: Yeah, it changed a lot. We worked on a few different versions of it, and it never felt quite right. We weren’t really sure what kind of song it was going to be. The melody and the chord progression hadn’t really changed. We had this session where we were working on the album, and then we sort of just blew it up. Just destroyed it and put it back together, and then it started to get really fun.

Can you name two specific recording memories where you had real fun from this album cycle?

Andrew: There were so many moments, one being this big group session where pretty much everyone who appears on the album except for a few people was coming in and out. That was late summer in upstate New York in a really pretty setting. We had multiple workstations set up, were having these big meals together, playing basketball, riding around on 4-wheelers, and all of this stuff. I just felt like that family energy went into the songs that we were working on.

I really like playing drums and playing fretless bass. I have fun doing more of the other instruments. And I did a lot of that on this one.

Ben: I had a lot of fun when we were working on the guitar solo for “Bubblegum Dog”. When we started working on that, it was James Richardson who plays with us live. He and I were in the control room at the studio in upstate New York where we were working, and it was the first time I had worked on writing out a guitar solo note for note. It was really funny because we were just coming up with the most ridiculous things and trying to figure out how it all fit together, or how to make it as epic as possible.

You both play multiple instruments. Do you have a specific piece of instrument in your collection that you think is the most unique in a weirdo-cute sort of way?

Ben: I have a synthesizer called Fenix. It’s this one Dutch guy who makes them all. I’ve had it for many years now, and when I bought it, you had to get on a waiting list to order it and there weren’t that many of them. It’s really unique and also broken in some ways, so I had to learn how to fix it. Right now, I don’t think it’s working quite right, but it sounds really cool. So I just kind of leave it like that.

Maybe it’s cooler exactly because it doesn’t work right.

Ben: Yeah, definitely. (laughs) It makes some really crazy sounds that I can’t make any other way.

How about you, Andrew?

Andrew: I have a few guitars that are not super unique or special, but even just getting a new guitar feels great sometimes. There are songs that come out with a new instrument, which is exciting enough. But I usually end up playing other people’s really unique and special instruments. On this new album, at that same session I was talking about when we were in upstate New York, I played the glass harmonica for the first time, which includes these rotating glass things. It was really difficult to play, actually. I kind of figured it out after a while.

There’s also this bell tree which includes strands of bells that are each a different chromatic note. I played that on “Phradie’s Song”, and that was really fun because you’re just smacking it. Every time, you hit it really hard. It produces this gentle, beautiful sound, but you have to be a little bit violent when you’re making it happen.

I want to talk about the Christine and the Queens collaboration, “Dancing in Babylon.” I know that you have talked about it a lot during recent interviews, but I specifically want to talk about its video, because it includes the legendary John Cameron Mitchell. How did that whole gang line up and come together to make that?

Ben: I guess somebody who Chris knew had some connection to him, or was working on a project with him. It happened last minute, like maybe two or three days before we were supposed to shoot the video. We ended up getting in touch with him, and he was totally up for it. Was a really good sport. I think with the video, there was a lot of improvisation. We were just seeing how things would go, and he and Chris were coming up with these really cool, choreographed moves on the spot.

It is a really cool video. I feel the music video culture in general needs to be appreciated more. And your videos are always interesting. Do you have a favorite video in your catalogue?

Andrew: It’s hard to pick one. I’m always partial to the “Your Life is A Lie” video. I think it’s really, really incredible. Editing-wise, I think it was a 16mm film, and every shot had to be really precise and arranged. It’s a really brilliant video. I also like the “Nothing to Declare” video that just came out, just because it’s so unique in our video catalog. What’s yours, Ben?

Ben: I don’t know. Not sure if it is my favorite video, but there is a favorite memory that I have, and it is the making of the “Flash Delirium” video. It was such a chaotic video shoot, there was so much going on. I ended up covered in KY Jelly because of this eel that was supposed to be coming out of my neck through a hole, and I ruined a nice suit.

It just felt very rock’n’roll.

Were there any major accidents that occurred in one of your videos during the shooting process?

Andrew: I don’t think there were any in terms of injuries. There was an incident at the “Bubblegum Dog” video shoot last fall, though. The person who was in the dog costume wore the dog mask for two or three days in a row. He was really, really in character and didn’t take it off much. Then came the slime scene, which was a lot of cold pink slime that was made from wood pulp and all of this stuff. It was a group shot where we could only do two takes. During the first take of the shot, the slime shot really hard through the dog mask and into the eye of the actor behind the mask. He didn’t say anything and had to endure the other shot, as well as pretty much the rest of the shoot.

He went up to a medic and was like, “I can’t see out of my right eye!” It turned out that he was fine, but it was a little bit freaky. He was a very dedicated actor.

This may come off as a weird question, but do you guys dream often? Are they vivid?

Ben: I don’t remember my dreams most of the time, but lately when I do, I have a lot of dreams about impossible travel logistics like trying to catch a train, or trying to figure out how to get somewhere in a city. It’s either that, or an impossible house with really weird architecture hidden rooms, which must probably mean something.

Andrew: I think I dream. I have pretty intense dreams regularly, and can usually remember them if I sit and collect my thoughts a little bit when I wake up. But I also have a lot of travel anxiety. I have dreams about being on tour or being late for a flight and having to pack a suitcase while all sorts of things are happening, like running through the airport. Really stupid dreams.

I also have lots of nuclear apocalypse dreams recently, which I don’t enjoy. (laughs) It sucks.

Your songs are really easy to get crazy along with and for people to come up with interpretations of what they actually mean. And of course, all interpretations are totally fine. People can appreciate art any way they want to. But do you ever get a really wild interpretation from your fans that make you go, “Wow, hadn’t thought about it that way?”

Ben: There have been some pretty wild ones. And I agree with you, a song can be about anything.

Andrew: It’s definitely happened a few times where I saw someone analyzing a song lyric of ours on Reddit in college essay style, like breaking it down and everything. (all laugh) After I read it, I sometimes go, “They’re right, that is what was happening!” Because a lot of it is a part of subconscious that goes into the lyrics. Then sometimes, somebody has this outside perspective and they’re like, “Oh yeah, this is what’s going on.” A few times, an explanation actually clicks, and it’s interesting.

You have no concerts announced yet for this album, and it’s especially interesting since we just went through a pandemic and lots of musicians were happy and excited to be back to concerts after a long period of time. But I guess you always had a fun-oriented approach to musicmaking rather than a careeristic approach. Do you think that your priority to have fun is a crucial reason why you’re still here making new things as two free-spirited individuals?

Ben: I don’t know. I mean, coming out of the pandemic and also making this album, we weren’t on a record label anymore, we were in between labels. I think we were able to really do things on our own time and not think too much about the business side of things, or what was going to happen once we were done. 

It was just us immersing ourselves in the process. There’s something we enjoy in playing shows. But there are some things about touring that we don’t enjoy, and I think it’s nice not to have this big thing hanging over our heads or feeling like we immediately have to go out and endlessly promote this music. We can just kind of let it exist and see how people respond to it.

Andrew: I think that is related to how our career progressed and came together, which all felt like a magical happenstance in some ways. We never really had this joint vision in terms of how we’re going to promote ourselves and have a career. A lot of the aspects of music making and being an artist are so important to so many people today, and it was never really something that we were super comfortable with. I think because of the origin of the band, whenever we go to make music, it’s really about expressing ourselves as accurately as we can and not trying to do something that’s calculated, or trying to progress our career somewhere or get more popular. Not anything like that. I think, in that sense, it has allowed us to maintain a longer career.

I don’t remember my dreams most of the time, but lately when I do, I have a lot of dreams about impossible travel logistics like trying to catch a train, or trying to figure out how to get somewhere in a city. It’s either that, or an impossible house with really weird architecture hidden rooms, which must probably mean something.

Ben Goldwasser

Time for a little game: Can you check the last three streamed songs on your streaming platform’s search history?

Andrew: Let’s see. I can look. How do you do it, though?

Ben: Actually, I know the last thing I listened to. It’s the album Full Sunken Breaks By Kid Spatula. I was just listening to the whole album. Do you know that album, Andrew?

Andrew: I don’t think so.

Ben: Do you know it, Deniz?

Yeah, love it.

Ben: It’s so funny. It’s like there’s a song called “Jar Jar Binx” on it, which I think is pretty amazing.

Andrew: Mine are all over the place because I often use the platform for looking at different artists and their streaming numbers, like their global rank and all that. I like to do that a lot more than listening to music sometimes. So a lot of these searches are just that.

I know the ones that I listen to. It’s really funny. The first one is “Happy Birthday” and then the next one is a song by Air called “Don’t Be Light.” I was talking with my friend about the mixer. I was reading his Wikipedia and I saw that he did an Air song. So I went to listen to it and it’s really good. It’s from 10 000 Hz Legend. Then I was searching for Joanna Newsom, but her music is not on Spotify. There’s only one song, and I was really bummed because I loved the album The Milk-Eyed Mender when I was in college and I wanted to go listen to a couple of songs, but I had to pull up YouTube. I was driving, and then you get an ad for an allergy medicine that plays really loudly. It’s so annoying. 

By the way, that “Happy Birthday” is there because I have a 2-year-old daughter. That’s her favorite song right now.

That’s sweet. Time for my final question. Let’s say we are at a Musicians Theme Park 100 years from now and MGMT obviously has a memorial stone on it with one of your lyrics written on top. Which one would you like it to be?

Andrew: Probably this line from “Kids”: “Control yourself, take only what you need from it.” 

That would look cool. How about you, Ben?

Ben: I don’t know. That’s a pretty good one. Honestly, I don’t know if I can do better than that.

Andrew: What about “Go yourself” from from “When You Die”? That would be a good one.

Lots of the lines from that song could work, I guess.

Andrew: Yeah. (laughs)

You can check out the official MGMT website here.