The June issue of Relix features exclusive features on two bands who have helped bring psychedelic music into the 21st Century: The Flaming Lips and MGMT. In Relix’s cover story on MGMT, we sit down with the band’s principals to discuss a number of topics, including their sudden rise to fame, hidden roots in the jamband scene and, of course, collaborations with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. As is often the case, we also addressed a number of topics that didn’t make it to print.
To celebrate the release of MGMT’s dark, psychedelic album Congratulations today, we offer the following exclusive online interview with the five members of MGMT: Andrew VanWyngarden (guitar), Will Berman (drums), James Richardson (guitar), Matthew Asti (bass) and Ben Goldwasser (keyboards). Be sure to subscribe to Relix to hear more from the musicians, as well as interviews with Wayne Coyne, Galactic, Jack Johnson, Mike Gordon and Danny Barnes, among others.
Andrew VanWyngarden on what to expect during the Congratulations tour
Early on our show was more frenetic and hyper. We’re playing more chilled out versions of our songs now, but there’s still more energy. It seems more captivating now…I think there was sometimes when we were figuring out the older songs like what’s the easiest way to play this song and then we did it and it sounded great, and then every time we tried to add something it sounded worse.
We put this band together after we finished recording the first album. We had to figure out how to play these songs live, and we didn’t know what to do because we hadn’t played live before we signed for like a year almost. We pretty much had always did karaoke style show, and we really didn’t wanna do that. So we thought about having a five piece band and not trying to use any prerecorded tracks and just do it like that would be cool.
Will Berman on how he joined MGMT
Andrew and I played various instruments in a bunch of bands throughout college. There was Gold, Irma Vep, Man Vs Beast, an early version of Stylofone. Right before I graduated in 2004 I played keyboard at a local festival with a seven-piece version of The Management, doing the only live version of “Kids” ever performed. In 2005, the band became MGMT and had a month long US tour planned opening for Of Montreal. They were getting tired of doing their two man karaoke type show and wanted to attempt more of a rock band setup with completely new songs. So a couple weeks before the tour began, Andrew and I started rehearsing and trying to write songs in a sort of prog rock meets CCR style. I think at the time I was listening to this band Zolar-X a lot. We didn’t so much write songs as much as half assed sounding garage rehearsal/improvisations with mumbled nonsense lyrics. There was, however, a song called “Constellation” which, at the time, seemed very epic and glorious to me. So Ben met up with us a few days before going out on tour, and we spent every show playing these really drugged out sounding, trashy and loose progressive glam rock songs while wearing those of “drug rug” ponchos you can buy at a rest stop in the southwest. I think it ended up alienating people who came to check out songs they heard off the “Time To Pretend” EP, and Of Montreal was probably like, “What the fuck are you doing?” We did end up writing an early version “Electric Feel” on that tour, though. The lyrics that we made up in the van on the way to the 4th or 5th show of the tour actually stuck, and are the ones recorded on the album version.
James Richardson on switching from drums to guitar in 2008
Playing drums was a lot of fun. It was physically very satisfying—after a show I felt a real endorphin rush from the exercise. Guitar can be a little less physically draining. I was a little wary of switching guitar, partly because it’s nice to hide behind the drums and not have the pressure of being so close to the front of the stage. But I got into it pretty fast – I’ve always loved playing guitar so it’s good. At first I tried to do a lot of the things on guitar that Hank Sullivant (our old guitar player) did but gradually I started changing things to the way that I would do them. The band in general has gone through a lot of rethinking and rearranging parts trying to find the right sounds. I was just listening to some old recordings we did at the BBC when I was on drums and I was shocked. We’re much more pared down now – streamlined, I guess.
Matthew Asti on playing with drummer Will Berman before joining MGMT
Will and I met through friends of friends. We lived together for two years in a loft with 3 other guys. We played in another band called Standing Nudes for about three years from about 2003 to 2007. So by the time we started playing in MGMT we had already logged nearly 650 hours of serious play-time.
Andrew VanWyngarden on seeing Phish at Madison Square Garden in December
I was a big Phish fan growing up and went to lots of shows. We actually got to meet Trey at one of the Madison Square Garden shows last fall. The first few songs I was really taken back, and then the new songs I couldn’t get into as much. That long song “Time Turns Elastic”—that was awful…
James Richardson on the differences between the Grateful Dead and other jambands
Well, the Grateful Dead are one thing, and the jamband scene is another thing. I really like the Grateful Dead’s music, and I think they’re pretty different from any other band, including a lot of so called jambands that might be going for that same approach to playing live. But a lot of people look past the music and the way they played and just see the ‘jam’ element to it. I think they wrote a lot of beautiful songs, and they had this great knowledge of all these old styles like flatpicking and country stuff, plus they had the coolest groove together, even if it’s kind of goofy to a lot of people today. I think we’re probably influenced by that a little bit, and also we try to play a different set list every night, and hopefully people are getting a real performance from five people trying to interact with each other and not some cookie cutter cabaret act. But beyond that there’s not much of an influence. And as far as jambands of today go, we don’t really listen to that stuff and don’t really connect with it, so I can’t really say it’s an influence.