Published Apr 13, 2010Those looking for another set of chart-topping singles from MGMT aren't likely to find what they're looking for this time around, but there's hope yet for those who wrote off Congratulations after hearing first single "Flash Delirium." The song, which at first seemed a jagged piece of multi-coloured nonsense to fans waiting for "Kids 2.0," suddenly makes sense in the context of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's artful sophomore album. After the overblown hype of 2008's Oracular Spectacular, the duo have seen fit to scale back the sky-reaching synths and perpetual shroud of reverb to expose the pop core of their songwriting, and the result is surprising and, indeed, refreshing. Songs like album opener "It's Working" and 12-minute highlight "Siberian Breaks" are loveable examples of oddball pop that reach beyond the oft-overwrought psychedelia of their debut to expose the duo as subtler, more nuanced songwriters. While Congratulations is no masterpiece, it's a consistent, cohesive burst of pop adventurousness that makes their debut look facile by comparison.
Are you bracing yourself for the media swarm or has it already begun?
Andrew: I don't think we're really ready for it, no matter what the response is, 'cause there'll be a lot of people talking about it. I'm a little anxious.
Were you anxious about making the second album in general? The second album is typically the hardest to make, especially when the first garners such hype.
Sure, we felt a little bit of pressure, but I think since the goal of the band wasn't ever to be successful ― I mean, we're really grateful for that, of course ― but we never thought we would sell a million records. We were happily surprised, but since that wasn't really a goal, we didn't feel pressure to repeat the success. We were kind of just able to make the music that felt right to us at the time, so that's what we did. I think when we were writing, we really weren't thinking about that side of it: how it was going to be received.
Even the album title, Congratulations, seems like a direct response to the weirdness of fame. And the titular last track like a tongue-in-cheek "Congratulations for making it." Is it?
No, I mean, we came up with the title for the album while we were writing songs for Oracular Spectacular, and we just kind of, after a couple years, decided it could be really funny and could confuse people if we call our second album that. It's not necessarily tongue-in-cheek; it's kind of more cynical, in a way. I hate to end an album on a cynical note, but I think it's a song that kind of came up while we were finishing that epic tour in 2008 and yeah, it's talking about success and what it does to people. I don't think it's a very positive take on fame at all. It's not necessarily from our perspective. Like, some of it is, but it's supposed to be more of a take on fame in general.
The whole vibe of this album is really loose and fun, where the first felt just a hint more calculated.
I think [Oracular Spectacular] was kind of strange for us because there were a few songs that the label wanted us to include on the album that were older songs of ours, you know, "Kids" and "Time to Pretend," which we'd already released on our EP. We were proud of those songs, but we didn't really connect with the mindset anymore that you needed to be in to write those songs, and the rest of the album was filled up with songs that were dealing a little bit with the paranoia that we felt after signing with Columbia. We were kind of worried that we'd be fucked over, but were doing it anyway. It was a weird combination and I think that kind of made the album a little jumpy, in a cool way, but this one feels a lot more like one statement. It's got a lot of different styles, but it's all coming from the same place and time, and I think that it's definitely got a looser feel. "Brian Eno" was recorded pretty much live, except for vocals, and not in a very formal way at all. The first day we had our home studio set up in Brooklyn, we were just kind of jamming and we made up the chord progression pretty quickly, and it just sort of ended up on the album. So, yeah, we wanted to have less of an uptight feeling.
You've spoken about how you didn't want Congratulations to have singles, you wanted it to be heard as one cohesive, flowing unit.
I think that kind of got blown out of proportion. What we meant is that there wouldn't be any tracks on the album that were immediately accessible like "Kids" and "Time to Pretend." But that doesn't mean that we were trying to make some sort of experimental album that drives people away. We still wanted to make pop music and we think we did make pop music. We just didn't want to fall back and repeat or capitalize on the success of the first album.
The album feels looser in terms of songwriting, but not calculated, more focused. Is that at all a product of working with Peter Kember or was it influences that you just hadn't tapped on Oracular?
I think that mostly it has to do with us learning what it means to be a touring band. We were pretty naive when we signed and I don't think we realized that you have to go out and tour for like, two years. Thinking about how to play these songs in a live setting, we wanted a lot going on, but we wanted it to be manageable live, unlike on Oracular Spectacular, where there are 400 things happening at once and you have to whittle them down for a live show. So that was one thing, but we definitely wanted it to be more naked, at times, we didn't want to completely cover things up with reverb. Of course, there's still a ton of reverb, but we wanted moments of clarity too.
How did the 12-minute "Siberian Breaks" come about?
Well, we'd written a 14-minute song called "Metanoia," which was the b-side to "Time to Pretend," so we'd kind of ventured into that territory before, but it's not like we started with the idea that it was going to be that long of a song. It was just a chord progression for the verse that we had, and then we strung it together with other parts as we wrote them. It was just a journey of a song.
So it's kind of like the album in a nutshell: a number of small songs that just happened to flow together well?
Yeah, I think we did a good job of not making it prog-y. We just wanted it to be an almost sweet song. It was inspired a lot by the Beach Boys' Surf's Up. It's a pretty multi-part song, and not a classic rock epic.
Can you explain the album cover?
It just kind of felt right, because there are references to surfing on the album, and some of the songs have a surf rock influence. For whatever reason, I'm still dreaming about surfing all the time and waves, and I don't really know if there's symbolism there, but I think it's pretty easy to interpret our album cover as feeling a little overwhelmed by this kind of beast that was created that we hadn't really intended to create. We feel like the cat on the surfboard sometimes: about to be swallowed up by it.
Could surfing be used as a visual metaphor for Congratulations? You're going with the flow, trying to do your thing, but you're treading dangerous waters of being on a major label. Is that an apt metaphor?
Yeah, I guess the most obvious interpretation of the cover is the phrase "wave of success" [laughs]. It wasn't that strategic of a cover, but I think the surfing metaphor does work well with how we feel about things.
Lastly, have you begun thinking about the third album at all or is that the last thing on your mind?
Yeah, not really, no. We haven't thought about that at all. (Columbia)