MGMT dishes on the making of Congratulations
Tue Aug 10 2010
By now you will have already seen our highly scientific thought-bubble chart on the making of MGMT's Congratulations album. Rest assured, it's based on 100 percent fact, gleaned from an illuminating chat with singer Andrew VanWyngarden. Check out the full Q&A here, and go see the band in action at Radio City next week (August 17 and 18).
"We like being ridiculous and I think that's lost on a lot of people, or they think we're coming from this super serious angle, and that's too bad, really."—Andrew VanWyngarden
TONY: Let's talk about the ingredients of Congratulations. What went into making the album?
Andrew VanWyngarden: Okay, yeah. First, you'd have to have a little bit of upstate New York in the dead of winter. So maybe some dirty snow, and the smell of a wood-burning stove. And some kombucha? And then we went to California, so there's definitely some sort of Malibu Canyon springtime, hummingbirds, coyotes crapping at the highest point around the hot tub. [Laughs] And some mulled mushroom wine. Maybe Sonic Boom and a suitcase synthesizer. And some surfing.
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So let's throw in some bands. You've mentioned Joe Meek before?
Yeah! Our guitar player James was a fan. I heard I Hear a New World—the Joe Meek and the what's it called? Blue Man Group or something [Laughs loudly]—I forget what it's called. I heard that and I was really into that and really impressed that those crazy sounds were being made in the late '50s. But then when we went to Malibu and we were working there and Sonic Boom came out, he brought a four-disc Joe Meek box set. And we'd be eating dinner and he'd be DJing, and a lot of the songs he played were produced by Joe Meek and we got really into that stuff. So that was a really big influence on us. On some songs, you can hear that Telstar-y sound. And also his use of reverb; I know on the song "Siberian Breaks" [on Congratulations], there's a little sound that comes in, in the transition...I guess you would have no idea what sound I'm talking about. [Laughs] But there is a big influence.
And early Van Morrison?
Yeah that's another one that Pete brought, a disc called Bang Masters? It's got early versions of some songs that are on Astral Weeks. There's a really good early version of "Beside You," and another song called "It's Alright," which I was really into. And a lot of those songs were clearly recorded more quickly and with a mike in a room, but there's a really cool sound with the drums and the bass together and I think that was an influence on us, so we were just trying to figure out how they recorded it like that.
It was a lot of experimenting with mike positions and getting different sounds, and unfortunately I think so much of the stuff that we did in Malibu wasn't even recorded. Like we had...[Laughs] this giant reverb box called the EMT250 or something like that and it looks like a robot with this giant, red handle. And yeah, we rented that and it was something that we used a lot but never really recorded. And also a ton of late-night jams with Sonic Boom and playing Spacemen 3 songs—really special moments. That we have and can think about, but no one will ever know about!
It feels like the record combines two seemingly opposite approaches—on the one hand, that Joe Meek/ToeRag Studios vibe, where everyone's working in lab coats, and it's really neat and precise. And on the other hand there's this sprawling, psychedelic element to it. Was there a split between sometimes being all neat and precise and sometimes lying on the floor in a mess?
Yeah, I think that less of the lying on the floor stuff made it to the album than the precision stuff. Ben and I are too uptight and particular about arranging and panning and mixing and everything to really let loose—and I think a lot of the psychedelic music that we listen to is something that we love but could never relate to ourselves because we're too obsessed with pop music and melodies to let go and just, like, do something, like a Can song that's a 12-minute funk-bass jam. So we'll take elements of that stuff and try to incorporate it into our songs but we usually try to stay more precise and methodical.
It's like the way that people danced in the '60s, quite neat and jerky?
If you had a set of mental Polaroids of your time making the record in Malibu, what would they be of?
I mean, the first one that comes up is the backyard of the place that we were in. We rented this family home that was in a canyon, so there were the five of us in the band and Billy and Sonic Boom, and people would come up and stay with us, like Anthony Ausgang, the artist who did the album cover. He came up from L.A. a few times, and Jennifer Herrema [Royal Trux] came up and sang on the tracks. The backyard was this little canyon, and it was late March early April, and everything was in bloom, and there was a trail that we could hike through to get to this little waterfall. And there were all these little red-bellied salamanders that were breeding one time we went up there, in these...kind of like sex-balls? Of like, ten salamanders in a ball. And it was just really great 'cause I love nature and being outdoors, so there was that. And then driving to the beach to go surfing and going to get really good fish tacos. It was a pretty nice time.
Did you start surfing in Malibu?
I was definitely into it and interested in surfing for a while before—even on the first record I was dreaming about surfing a lot. So that kind of made it into the lyrics and the imagery of the "Time to Pretend" video. I didn't start surfing myself until the end of 2008. Then Malibu was when I really started trying to learn and really got into it. I've definitely kept it up and it's something I really love to do.
Are you good?
No. I mean, I think it takes years and years to really get good, but I've learned a lot. It's gotten to the point where it's at least enjoyable—in the beginning it's really challenging, and paddling can feel so weird. [Laughs] And paddling out can be the biggest challenge. So yeah I've gotten more confident and can stand up and maybe do one turn or something.
Let's go quickly through some of the folks who you namecheck on the record. Did any of them respond? Did Brian Eno say, "Hey thanks, I love my song"?
Yeah, actually we sent Brian Eno a copy of the album before it even came out, and we were kind of nervous. [Laughs] We didn't hear back for, like, two-and-a-half months, so we figured he hated it—and then finally we heard from his manager. She was like, "Yeah, Brian really likes the album, really likes the song." So that was good. I mean, he's hugely influential on us.
Any particular era of Eno?
I mean, it's changed, but I guess the way he affected me earliest was through his production work with Talking Heads, 'cause my parents played that a lot when I was growing up. But for his solo stuff, the first album I really got into was Here Come the Warm Jets. And then definitely Taking Tiger Mountain by Storm, and now I'm really into Another Green World. And also the Roxy Music stuff. We actually got to see Roxy Music play at the Fuji Rock Festival and it was so amazing! It was great. And actually, a friend of mine had seen them a few weeks before and said, "Don't go into it with high expectations, you'll be disappointed, it's not that great," and I was blown away. It was just...it was beautiful. It's up in the mountains at a ski resort, and it was raining and kind of misty, a real great setting.
You're friends with Dan Treacy, though, aren't you?
Yeah, we are friends with Dan...
And you talk about Hackney Lanes and the underground on Congratulations—have you spent enough time in London to have that, as a flavor?
Yeah, not a lot of time, but while we were touring in 2008 for a while, I was set on wanting to move to London and I spent two weeks living near Hackney with Will, our drummer, and just did a lot of walking around over there. And there are all these weird canals and little twists and turns, and it's a really cool area. And I have walked around there with Dan before. I don't know, I was kind of just imagining...[Laughs] Dan walking around, and a typical day in Hackney, and what he's doing and thinking. And he also, there are a lot of Television Personalities songs that are about other people and stories in the vein of Ray Davies or something. Like "Where's Bill Grundy Now?" Or "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives." And so that song's inspired by TVPs. But musically, it's more inspired by this band the Deep Freeze Mice—I think they're from Leicester? This guy Alan Jenkins... And that's really just off-the-wall.
Your enunciation on the record feels really British—not your accent, but the ways your mouth seems to shape the words. It reminds me of the Kinks' "Dedicated Follower of Fashion"...
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
The line about pulling your nylon panties right up tight—
[Quotes] "This week it's polka dots, next week it's stripes!" That song is awesome.
So Dan Treacy was happy with his song?
I don't think... I think it makes him uncomfortable. [Laughs] Yeah, he likes it, but his favorite song is definitely "Kids." And I think he likes our new record, but that song "Dan Treacy" makes him feel a little funny. Which, you know, is understandable; it's kind of weird to have a song about yourself.
Did Gaga get in touch with you?
Tell us more about what you've referred to as "The Snailing Hour" in Malibu....
The Snailing Hour, yeah! Man, that's funny, 'cause yesterday we were in Montreal we went out, and I got this little, cool digital video camera when we were in Tokyo. It's called the digital Harinezumi, and it looks like Super 8 footage, but it's a tiny camera. And we went out into the woods here and we were just shooting a bunch of snails with the goal of trying to make a band-made video for "Lady Dada's Nightmare." Yeah, but we were talking about the Snailing Hour; I actually never experienced it, but Matt and Ben and James were all talking about it. It's, like, close to five in the morning in the backyard I was talking about where the coyotes take shits. And I guess there's, like, a magic time when hundreds and hundreds of snails come out. [Starts laughing] Yeah, I don't really know how that influenced the album, but the fact that we were up for the snailing hour is telling, maybe.
Scooby-Doo was a factor, as well?
Yeah, the whole time we were making the album, we were laughing at certain points because the songs felt real cartoony, with the bongo sounds and some of it feels like the Heathcliff theme song, which we were listening to a lot, actually. [Laughs] Ah. Yeah, "Brian Eno" seems like the theme song to a kids' cartoon movie, where Brian Eno is this kind of slightly sinister musical vampire or something. We're definitely a band that loves cartoons and grew up on cartoons, so that's probably in the music.
When Congratulations came out, it felt like people took it so super-seriously, and it's also a fun record....
People heard it and instantly assumed—I remember reading about "Flash Delirium," people did not think that we were laughing when we made it which we were, we were cracking up. Even just, like, the chord progression, there's little things that Ben and I just... You know when we know we have a song that we like is when we're on the floor laughing about a part of it. Like, the flute solo or something like that in that song, we like being ridiculous, and I think that's lost on a lot of people, or they think we're coming from this super-serious angle, and that's too bad, really. But I think a lot of people do get it and get that side of it, and I think that's really important.