MGMT - Biography
It seems like literally any band can become famous through the web these days. Ever since the internet made minor stars out of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, your favorite online music publications have been flooding your hard drive with so many new groups that you sometimes don’t even bother trying to keep up. Just when you think you’re caught up with all the latest cool bands, along comes another one, and another, and another. After a while, you almost try to hate them. God forbid one of these new, super-hyped indie bands is actually signed to a major label. Enter MGMT, the two-man band that just about every indie hipster tried their best to hate in 2008. A major label? How could a couple of disco-loving scarf-wearers be signed to a major without having released even one album, while countless other bands have been slaving away on indie labels for years without so much as a sniff of radio exposure? It just didn’t seem fair. Then again, “Time to Pretend” was, and is, a terrific nugget of disposable pop. “Electric Feel,” for all its derivativeness, wasn’t trying to be anything other than danceable and fun. No, MGMT did not live up to the impossible hype surrounding them. But hype or no hype, a promising debut is just that, and MGMT will have an easier time winning people over now that the dust has settled.
The duo, consisting of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, got together in 2002. Both of them were freshmen studying art at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. They called themselves the Management. In their first round of live shows, they didn’t concentrate too much on playing instruments. Aside from synthesizers, most of the tracks their audience heard were prerecorded, giving the duo the freedom to be as outrageous in their performances as possible. Slowly but surely, they began to seem like a real band. They brought in backing musicians to better translate their sound to a live audience. In 2004, the Management put out their debut EP, We (Don’t) Care. Their friend, Billy Bennett, recorded and engineered the EP at the plumbing office of his father. The release, which they put out by themselves, contained an early version of what is now one of their most popular songs, “Kids.” Some tracks off of the EP were included for their 10-song full-length album, Climbing to New Lows, which they self-released in 2005. Later that year, the pair graduated college, changed their name to MGMT (pronounced “Em Gee Em Tee”) and released the Time to Pretend EP on Cantora Records (they quickly became the pride of Cantora even after they left the tiny label for Columbia). Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, an early champion of the duo, selected them to tour with Of Montreal on a lengthy road trip, giving the young band a healthy dose of exposure.
Time to Pretend was well-reviewed and the title track was becoming a minor sensation. British record producer Steve Lillywhite, who was moonlighting as an A&R executive for Columbia Records, was one of many industry insiders to take a shine to the band. In 2006, Lillywhite signed MGMT to a major, long-term record contract. After signing, the group got to work, moving to Brooklyn and diving into the process of recording their proper debut full-length. They enlisted the oft-praised Dave Fridmann, the go-to producer of experimental pop bands like the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. The result was Oracular Spectacular (2008, Red Ink/Columbia), another ten-song album that combines newly written tracks with many of MGMT’s past songs that had already been widely heard at the time of its release.
Like Vampire Weekend, whose debut LP arrived exactly one week after Oracular Spectacular, MGMT were hyped to the nth degree by bloggers and club kids before releasing a debut. The big music magazines started to pay attention as well. Spin.com named them artist of the day on October 5, 2007. Rolling Stone declared them a top ten band to watch one month later. In the BBC’s Sound of 2008: The Top 10, which was posted weeks before they released their album, MGMT ranked at number 9. All of this praise naturally led to even more bloggers and club kids (which are often the same people) to flock to this band and rave about them without even one full-length album to listen to (Climbing to New Lows doesn’t count, apparently). It was the same way with Vampire Weekend, who placed at number 6 on the same BBC poll. The hype surrounding that Ivy League quartet was such that they were the first band ever photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone without having an album available for purchase (Blue CD-R also does not count). The glaring difference between the two groups is the way their debuts were received. While Vampire Weekend’s self-titled album was fawned over by the press, MGMT’s debut was met by critics with a pretty tepid response. The former band had successfully lived up to the hype, while the latter was evidently experiencing a backlash.
Some critics loved the inclusion of producer Dave Fridmann. Others thought it was a huge mistake. Some loved the carefree, winking throwback sound of the LP, and others saw it as proof that the band had nothing new to offer and therefore, were not worth the listener’s time. Certainly, the album has enough enjoyable moments to make it worthwhile. “Electric Feel” has a likable, infectious beat, with the Barry Gibb-informed vocal line to match. “Time to Pretend,” the almost unanimously-adored album opener, can’t decide if it’s ironic or sincere, but the listener will want to sing along no matter how she interprets the rock star fantasy lyrics. To be sure, there are less inspired moments as well. “Kids,” for example, is catchy but disposable, boasting that grinding synth organ sound that was better off dead along with synth pop revivalists the Bravery. Despite any publicized detractions, Oracular Spectacular was hugely popular with indie fans. In the UK, it debuted at number 12 on the charts. In the US, it reached number one on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. Not everyone wanted to like MGMT, but most of them did anyway.
MGMT toured throughout most of 2008, and spent the middle part of the year supporting Radiohead on a few dates in the UK. As for 2009, they are one of the confirmed bands for the eighth annual Bonnaroo Festival. In 2010 the band released their second full length, Congratulations. In 2012 they began work on a third release.