Ben Goldwasser of the psych-pop outfit MGMT was kind enough to share his thoughts and stories on bringing the DIY spirit to a major, how they got to be best buddies with Of Montreal and playing shows covered in butter.
An Interview with Ben Goldwasser of MGMT
YANP: I just saw you were included in the Bonnaroo lineup.
Ben: Yeah, that just got settled. We just kind of found out about it. We knew it was a possibility, but yeah, it’s awesome. We’re really excited.
I was pleasantly surprised. Do you like playing outdoor festivals?
Never done one before. We used to go to a lot though. We used to be into a lot more.. hippie music and used to go to a lot more festivals. It’s cool to be coming back to that and get to play one.
So when I was preparing for this interview, I found an old MGMT recording. It was you all doing Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” live at some college.
MP3: MGMT – Closer (Nine Inch Nails)
It’s kind of a weird recording because we made the music on a laptop and then played the music off a computer and sang along with it live. Then we like overdubbed vocals on top of that afterwards. So it’s a very weird sounding recording. That was pretty awesome. That’s probably my favorite of our really old recordings.
What are some of the differences between how you approached live shows back then and how you do now?
It’s a lot different. It’s kind of weird because people knew us for doing the karaoke thing before, but that was never really what our band was about. But all these people now are like “they used to be this D.I.Y karaoke band” A lot of people talk sh*t about us because we don’t do that any more. But we never set out and had a manifesto that said that was what we were. You know, we were just trying something new.
We’ve been doing something more like a straight-up rock band now, but we’ve been trying to bring back some of the prankster element to it. Lately we’ve been doing this thing during our encore where we play our last song and then just hang out on stage and play covers that we don’t really know.
We’ve been doing a bit of Led Zeppelin, maybe a little Neil Young. Classic rock stuff.
Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal has been singing your praises for a while now. How’d you guys wind up hooking up with that bunch?
We met them in Athens, Georgia at a bar. We hadn’t really ever listened to them before. Andrew and I were living down there for a summer with our friend Hank who now plays guitar with us. We were just hanging out and Hank pointed out some of the guys from Of Montreal to Andrew and Andrew went up to them and asked if he could join their band. They told him they were actually looking for a guitar player and made him sign on a napkin that he would drop out of college and go on tour with them if they wanted him.
That was our first encounter with them. Then a couple of them came to a house party in Athens were we were playing and doing the karaoke thing, rolling around on the floor just covered in butter. It was a really crazy show. They liked the show. We opened for them once in Massachusetts and then they asked us to tour with them. We ended up going on tour with them three times. Andrew and Kevin are now working on this side project thing. They haven’t really been working on it too much though, lately.
I’ll give you one of my favorite questions for bands with out-there sounds: is your record a product of lots of influences or very, very few?
I don’t know. I’d say the album is influenced by a lot of things. We try to reference a lot of things we’re influenced by in our music. It’s weird, because a lot of time people don’t get the references or think we’re referencing other bands. We get a lot of comparisons to Ween, Muse and They Might be Giants, who are not really bands we listen to. So it’s funny what we think we’re influenced by and what people think we sound like — which is usually nothing like what we listen to.
Nice. Do you guys get any perverse pleasure out of seeing people try to pigeonhole you and get it all wrong?
It doesn’t really bother us. It’s kinda funny to see people try to figure out where we’re coming from or try to pin us down one way or another. We’re just kind of f*cking around; we don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re really into a lot of classic rock and more out there 80s stuff. We’re big fans of Suicide.
Now I heard that you guys didn’t take the whole signing to a label thing very seriously early on.
Yeah. We never really could believe what was happening. We wouldn’t have been able to handle it if we’d taken it seriously, so we had to treat it as a joke early on. At first we thought it was a prank at first that somebody had gotten in touch with us. We hadn’t shopped around at all for labels because we didn’t think anybody would be interested. We were pretty much ready to move on from the band as a career choice.
Did the label hear your last EP?
There was an intern who worked for our A&R at Columbia who was friends with a couple of our friends from college. He just dropped it off on her desk or something. So it was really random. We weren’t expecting to hear from any labels at all.
You’ve done some wild videos and have amped up your live show. What’s your favorite thing that’s been made possible by major label money?
I’d say getting to do the videos was amazing. I’m looking forward to more stuff like that. Just the opportunities of having an idea and not being constrained by budget or resources. It’s definitely something that we’re still working on and trying to come up with ideas and getting the record label to go for. They don’t want to throw away their money at it. But I think we’re definitely getting into a relationship with them were they’re willing to try as much of the crazy sh*t as we come up with. Hopefully there’ll be more and more of that.
I was actually kind of surprised at the amount of freedom it looked like they were giving you.
Yeah, we were surprised too. That wasn’t the impression we had of major labels before we signed. So far things have been really good. We’ve been able to make the album we wanted to make, go on tour and make videos and everything.
Now you just played Letterman not too long ago. How was that experience?
It was, like, really surreal. I don’t know. We showed up in the morning and soundchecked. We didn’t have to play until 4:30 in the afternoon or something. So we pretty much just sat around in the green room all day, not knowing what to do with ourselves.
Did you meet any of the guests?
We met one of the guys. There was this guy who drove cross country in something ridiculous like two days.
Oh, yeah. I think I read about that guy in Wired magazine.
He was on the show. We met him; he was a pretty cool guy. Lucy Liu was on the show — we didn’t meet her. She was being chased by paparazzi the whole time. We didn’t get to meet David Letterman, either.
No. He was sitting next to us and then introduced us. We played and then had to pack up our stuff.
Ouch. Maybe he’ll send you a Christmas card or something.
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe.