Can MGMT see the future? Well before 2017’s unceasing torrent of push notifications turned everyone into full-time news junkies, the group tackled informational excess on their polarizing 2013 self-titled album. “We were going for everything happening at once: chaotic, overwhelming, anxious-feeling music,” singer Andrew VanWyngarden says.
The world’s daily barrage has only intensified since, and it’s a central topic of conversation when VanWyngarden and MGMT bandmate Ben Goldwasser convene to discuss their fourth album, Little Dark Age, due in February, at a nondescript diner in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood on a nippy November afternoon. Written largely in 2016, their first full-length in more than four years inevitably addresses current events — “It would be impossible for our political world to not make it into some of the lyrics,” VanWyngarden says — but the anxiety runs deeper.
Take the colorfully baroque funk of new track “T.S.L.A.M.P.” Short for “time spent looking at my phone,” it reflects the discomforts the duo, both 34, have with the modern technologies — YouTube, Facebook, iPhones, and more — that have become omnipresent since their singles “Kids” and “Electric Feel” stormed the alt-rock airwaves in 2008. “It’s a universal feeling these days, where every day I find myself so frustrated that I’m just glued to my phone screen,” VanWyngarden reflects. “It seems like it just keeps getting worse, like constantly. I hate that I can’t go to the bathroom without checking my phone. I have it by me when I’m going to sleep and I look at it when I wake up.”
But with Little Dark Age, MGMT seems to have exorcised some of their fears. “We’ve lived through more apocalypses,” Goldwasser explains matter-of-factly as he and VanWyngarden dig into catfish sandwiches. “I still get a lot of inspiration from British punk music, where all of the songs are just how shitty life is in England, but there’s also a real sense of humor about it, black humor, and just finding this human element in a world that has become so industrial and dark.” Adds VanWyngardeen: “This one was more having fun with how shitty things can be. Its [title is] negative, but the fact that it’s diminutive — that it’s the little dark age — is helpful. It’s not permanent dark age!”
While Little Dark Age is unmistakably MGMT, from caffeinated acid trips (“She Works Out Too Much”) to cinematic psychedelia (“When You’re Small”), its more direct songs could also exorcise the fears of those who’ve struggled to connect with the group’s recent output. MGMT have seemingly spent the better part of the decade since their 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular at odds with fans, critics, and the artistic reputation that first defined them. In April 2010, they released their sophomore LP, Congratulations, a bizarre blast of art-pop that accentuated their stranger side. Days later, they omitted “Kids” from a nighttime Coachella set, contributing to the narrative that they’d spurned their audience.
“The most disappointing part about it is that a lot of people interpreted it as a ‘f— you’ to our fans or an overt reaction to success,” Goldwasser recounts today. “There was an element that was a reaction to success — but it wasn’t a ‘f— you.’ We considered ourselves so lucky that we ever got attention at all and we weren’t trying to squander that.” Congratulations enjoyed a critical reappraisal — singer-songwriter Dan Bejar said it’ll “go down as this overlooked, death-knell-of-rock-‘n’-roll masterwork” — but 2013’s MGMT remains divisive, another symbol that the duo prefers to lean into what VanWyngarden calls their “element of prankster.”
Though VanWyngarden readily concedes with a laugh that Congratulations and MGMT “weren’t commercially successful,” MGMT quash the insinuation that the response shaped their creative direction. But it’s notable that after a little dark age of their own, MGMT reconvened last year with a revamped creative process that emphasized some of their oldest, most beloved traits. Splitting time between New York and Goldwasser’s new home in Southern California, they teamed initially with zany indie rocker Ariel Pink and Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly to prime their creative juices. “That was the thing that we really needed,” Goldwasser says. “To have people around us who were like, ‘No, that thing you did, that was really cool, you should keep working on that.'”
Afterward, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser polished their ideas with longtime producer Dave Fridmann (the Flaming Lips) in a western New York studio. “The last album kind of ended up being freeform structurally a lot of ways,” VanWyngarden recalls. “This time it was a slightly more focused attempt to write more structured songs.” By mapping out demos before fleshing songs out in the studio, the band split the difference between their meticulously crafted early hits and the jammy impulsiveness of their last album.
For MGMT, Little Dark Age‘s stylistic synthesis and lyrical themes represent a creative step forward that’s still true to their career arc. “We’ve stuck with what felt right to us and doing what we wanted to do,” VanWyngarden says. Goldwasser concurs: “We just wanted to find the people who, like us, grew up digging really deep to find the coolest, craziest music. We wanted to make music for the freaks out there.”
All signs indicate that MGMT will continue to make good on that mission as they embark on the next decade of their career. And even if Little Dark Age dabbles in digital-age paranoia, the duo remains cautiously optimistic about the future. “I kind of love it,” Goldwasser muses with a hint of sarcasm when discussion shifts back to technology addiction. “I’m kind of into the sort of Phillip K. Dick metamorphosis of humanity thing. Maybe we’ll become something better through all this — I don’t know!”