No time to pretend
There's a world of difference between the first song on MGMT's debut album and the last song on their second. Time to Pretend, from the band's 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular, is a deliciously warped pop song with a catchy-as-cooties hook in which two young pretenders dream of rock-star excesses: 'Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives,' they sing.
Three years later, when Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have actually attained that rock-god status, they're singing a very different tune. On Congratulations, the last number on the 2010 album of the same name, they're in introspective mode, simultaneously dialling down the beat and the fantasy: 'It's hardly sink or swim,' they sing with a hint of disaffection of their new-found fame, 'When all is well if the tickets sell'.
The agreeable disjuncture between the two albums couldn't be better encapsulated. If Oracular Spectacular is a giddy entrance to the world of rock'n'roll with its jumping melodies and sing-along choruses, Congratulations - more sarcastic, more world-weary - is a mature, cohesive piece of art that, remarkably, doesn't pander to the major-label temptations of its contemporary predicament (sell or die).
Oracular Spectacular, hyperactive and trippy, feels like the mutant child of some drug-dabbling indie kids just finding their feet in music. Congratulations, stuffed full of chorus-less songs and wandering instrumental digressions, feels measured and experimental, at once reflective and defiant.
'A lot of it is a matter of our taste changing, time passing, and getting older,' Goldwasser says down the phone from New York while taking time off between tours and ahead of the band's visit to Kitec's Star Hall on March 30.
'Time to Pretend was something we wrote as naive college students who were partying all the time and just being silly. Congratulations was a song we wrote right after finishing our first really long stretch of touring, and losing our innocence as far as that whole thing goes. It wasn't like an idealistic dream; it was something that was happening to us every day, and the reality of it had set in by that point.'
At the time of writing the second album, the songwriting duo were cynical about the idea of touring. They weren't enjoying themselves. 'At that point, part of it was just how non-stop it was, and how we never really felt like we had a chance to catch our breath and inject some fresh life into it,' says Goldwasser. 'Another part of it was just not feeling like we were connecting with our audience as much as we wanted to, and that people were coming to our shows expecting one thing and getting another thing.'
The guys feel differently now. The miscommunication between fans expecting to turn up to an MGMT show and hear nothing but Kids-type pop tunes (you know, the song that goes: 'Control yourself, take only what you neeeeeeed from it') and the band's desire to be known for more than just those hits appears to have been resolved.
'The way we feel now is that most of the people at our shows know what they're going to get. They're fans of the band who have been following us for a while and know all of our songs and not just the hits.
'We're feeling that connection a lot better - that what we do on stage actually has an effect on people beyond, like, 'Oh, this is the song I came here to see', or 'Here's another one I recognise'. You can feel that in a crowd and that doesn't feel very good. Lately it's been so much more fun. People are into the new stuff as well as the old stuff.'
Goldwasser and VanWyngarden didn't enter the business expecting to be rock stars. The two friends met at a private liberal arts college in Connecticut called Wesleyan University. They would share music with each other and experiment with noise rock and electronica, before finally settling on their brand of psychedelic pop, which first found its way to the public courtesy of 2005's Time to Pretend EP (the initial home to the tracks Kids and Time to Pretend).
For Goldwasser, the definition of psychedelic is broad enough to speak for all MGMT's music from that point until now. 'I think psychedelic music or psychedelic art is something that challenges the senses in a certain way, and has more levels than just surface value. In that way, a lot of things that aren't traditionally thought of as psychedelic could be psychedelic. It's more about the attitude towards it than anything.'
After touring with the self-consciously weird indie rock band Of Montreal in 2005, it looked as though the sun might set early on MGMT's career. The band went on hiatus and then, months later and unexpectedly, they got signed to Columbia Records. They're still with the label, which so far is standing beside the group despite the notable absence of radio-friendly hits on Congratulations.
'Whenever I really think about it, it's crazy just how far we came,' says Goldwasser. 'Especially Kids, which is a song we wrote in 2002, when we were still pretty immature, trying to figure out life. Well, I guess we are still trying to figure out life. We were sophomores in college, and having that be a song that now people all around the world are listening to and identifying with is something that I can't really get a grip on.'
Does he actually still like the song? 'Yeah, I do like it,' he says with a laugh. 'I didn't like it for a while because I resented the fact that people weren't paying enough attention to the things we were doing that were newer or I identified with more.
'I'm at the point now where I don't think we have anything to prove as a band. The best we can do is just make music that speaks to us and that we like and hope people like it. We're lucky to have made music that people listen to, and I think we can't really have a spoiled attitude about that.'
The band - the other members are James Richardson, Matt Asti and Will Berman - are now in the planning stages for a new album but they don't yet know what's going to be on it. They're working independently on ideas but are yet to put their heads together on the new material. However, they'll be spending most of this year writing and recording, with a view to an early 2012 release date.
And for Hong Kong fans not familiar with Congratulations, there'll still be plenty of reasons to get excited at the Star Hall show. They'll be playing half old songs and half new songs, promises Goldwasser. 'We'll play all the songs that people want to hear. We're not going to punish anybody. We really enjoy playing the hit songs - obviously the reaction for those songs is pretty crazy, compared to other stuff, so it is a lot of fun playing them.'
Still, do yourself a favour and get to know the band beyond the hits. There is depth and nuance to be found in the new work, and it'll make the show that much more rewarding - even if only it proves that there is life after Kids.
MGMT Live in Hong Kong, March 30, 8pm, Star Hall, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$580 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288