We've been asking musicians what they think of when they think "American music." Today we hear from Khalif Diouf, aka Le1f.
Members of the band MGMT were just college kids when they wrote some of the songs that shot them to fame and won them a Grammy. Their 2008 album “Oracular Spectacular” was released by a major record label, sold over a million copies and was chosen by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
I feel like we have a mutual respect between us and our fans, where they trust us when we want to do something different.
But their second album, “Congratulations,” had a very different sound. The website Pitchfork described it as a “well-meaning, overstuffed and reactionary record,” and many fans were upset that it didn’t include catchy pop songs like the first.
In their new self-titled album “MGMT,” the band continues its evolution, showing a spacier, darker side. The first album had songs titled “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” The new album’s songs have names like “I Love You Too, Death” and “Mystery Disease.”
“The new song titles are just trying to be a little bit more real and open and honest,” MGMT lead vocalist, guitar player and songwriter Andrew VanWyngarden told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
“In a way for us it feels like more of a positive thing to write songs about how life is not always easy and there are some bad things happening in the world right now, and confronting that and recognizing that everyone’s thinking about that right now,” MGMT vocalist and keyboard player Ben Goldwasser added.
Despite the pushback they’ve received for their new sound, Goldwasser says he thinks fans are open to new things.
“I feel like we have a mutual respect between us and our fans, where they trust us when we want to do something different, and they’re patient with us, and those are the fans we really want to keep around,” he said.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME TO PRETEND")
MGMT: (Singing) I'm feeling rough. I'm feeling raw. I'm in the prime of my life.
HOBSON: That is the well-known 2008 song "Time To Pretend" from the band MGMT. The band members were just college kids when they wrote the song, which is about what it would be like to be famous.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME TO PRETEND")
MGMT: (Singing) This is our decision, to live fast and die young. We've got the vision. Now let's have some fun.
HOBSON: Well, they did become famous. They won a Grammy. They played with Paul McCartney. But their second album didn't go over as well. So they decided to take some time off. Well, now they are out with their third album, and they're here to share it with us. Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
BEN GOLDWASSER: Thank you.
ANDREW VANWYNGARDEN: Hi. Thanks.
HOBSON: Well, tell us what you're trying to do with this new album. It's been a while since you guys have come out with an album.
VANWYNGARDEN: Yeah. Well, we took about a year off from really touring or writing and then used our rejuvenated spirits to kind of go into the studio, and through improvisation we recorded an album. And we didn't really have like a goal. We kind of just wanted it to be a pure representation of working in the studio and being in the moment, that kind of thing.
HOBSON: And sometimes hours and hours of improvisation, right?
GOLDWASSER: Yeah. We wanted to get to the point where we weren't overanalyzing what we were doing. And that was the best way to do it, which is to play for long enough that we kind of forgot what we were doing. And then it kind of seemed like the music was coming out of thin air.
HOBSON: What's the best example of one of the songs on the new album that benefited from all the improvisation?
VANWYNGARDEN: "A Good Sadness." Most of the song came kind of fully formed out of an improvised section of music. Originally it was like 20 or 30 minutes. But in general the structure of it and the kind of the main sounds that are going on, that's how they were played live.
HOBSON: Let's take a listen to a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GOOD SADNESS")
HOBSON: Of course a lot of people know you from your first album. How was the process different for this one than that?
VANWYNGARDEN: The first album, it was all pretty new to us. We just signed to Columbia, to a major label. And we went in to write songs to go along with three songs that we had already written in college: "Kids," "Time To Pretend" and "Electric Feel." So we found, like, a little dance studio in the industrial part of Williamsburg. And the songs pretty much all have a lot of tracks that we recorded ourselves in kind of like a lo-fi way, unintentionally at least.
So this new one is way different since we recorded everything, you know, over the course of a year and didn't go in the studio with any songs already written.
HOBSON: And as you were doing this, did you feel pressure from fans who wanted to hear that early stuff, "Electric Feel," as you said, "Kids"? They wanted that sound.
GOLDWASSER: I mean, in some ways it's a tough relationship because on the one hand we're really grateful for the fans we have. But at the same time, we've seen how opinions can change. I feel like we have kind of a mutual respect between us and our fans where they trust us when we want to do something different and they're patient with this. And those are the fans that we really want to keep around.
HOBSON: But there are some fans that have not been patient with you. You were booed at a concert in London when you didn't play "Kids."
VANWYNGARDEN: When was that?
GOLDWASSER: Did you read it in NME?
HOBSON: Is it wrong? Did that not happen?
VANWYNGARDEN: Well, I mean lots of things were weird in 2010. I think, you know, that was right after our album - second album came out. And definitely, it was a shock to some people who only knew us for a couple of songs, like you were saying. And so Ben and I got a little bit of enjoyment out of going on stage and playing these long, psychedelic, sweet-style songs and denying people what they really wanted.
You know, I think at that point, the scales were a little bit tipped towards giving the people what they didn't want. And now we've come back and kind of found a good balance where the live show has songs from all three albums, and I think it's really working well.
GOLDWASSER: I don't want to make it sound like we didn't care about giving people a good show though. And I think that touring for the last album, the music press was kind of sensationalizing how we'd completely abandoned any sort of pop music structures or things like that. And in reality, the shows were really great and most people enjoyed them. And, you know, it wasn't as black and white as it was made out to be by some people.
HOBSON: Well, let's take a listen to one of the songs on your new album. This is called "Alien Days."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALIEN DAYS")
MGMT: (Singing) A couple hours to learn the controls and commandeer both my eyes. Hey, be quick, dear. Times are uncertain. One month crawling, next year blurring. Decades in the drain, monograms on the brain. Decide what's working and what's moved on to the last phase. The floodgate alien days, I love those alien days. Mm, the alien days.
HOBSON: There is a spacey sound to that, isn't there?
VANWYNGARDEN: Yeah, I guess you could say that. It definitely has references with the drums and maybe the harpsichord. A little bit of, like, glam or space rock from the '70s.
HOBSON: But I do want to ask you about the titles of some of the songs because if you look at your earlier songs, you've got "The Youth," "Electric Feel," "Kids." And then the titles of these ones - "Mystery Disease," "A Good Sadness," "I Love You To Death" - people might ask, are you getting older and bitter?
VANWYNGARDEN: No. You know, you're asking about songs that we wrote when we were 19 and songs that we wrote when we were 30, and obviously, like, we've had a lot more life experiences. We've had the experiences with our band, which are pretty surreal and bizarre at times, in their own right. And maybe on the second album there was like a little vein of bitterness, kind of confusion as to what had just happened.
And the new song titles, I think, are just trying to be a little bit more real and open and honest. And just for us both, there happened to be moments of melancholy or confusion still and just wondering why things happen.
GOLDWASSER: I think in a lot of ways the new music is - for us it's the most positive music we've ever made because it's coming from a really honest place and we're not really trying to hide from anything or escape. And our old music, even though, I mean a lot of the lyrics were really idealistic, in a way for us it feels like more of a positive thing to write songs about how life is not always easy and there are some bad things happening in the world right now and confronting that and recognizing that everyone is thinking about that right now.
HOBSON: Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden from the band MGMT. We'll be back with them in a moment. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW.
Let's get back to our conversation with Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden from the band MGMT. They are best known for songs like this one, "Electric Feel," from their first album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELECTRIC FEEL")
MGMT: (Singing) I said, ooh, girl, shock me like an electric eel. Baby girl, turn me on with your electric feel.
HOBSON: Well, with their new album, MGMT continues to turn away from that poppier sound to a sound that's a bit darker.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL SONG NO. 2")
MGMT: (Singing) Wherever scientists turn lead to birds, torment ignites, essence delights from the Earth. What you find shocking, they find amusing. Something else to soften a sadistic urge.
HOBSON: That is "Cool Song No. 2" from their new album, which The New York Times calls both testing and eventually rewarding. And I want to ask you, Andrew VanWyngarden, when I spoke with John Gourley from the band Portugal The Man recently, he was talking about the difficulty of writing songs that are short, that it's a lot easier to write longer songs. And I notice that "Your Life Is A Lie" from your new album is only a couple of minutes long. Is it difficult to write a song like that?
VANWYNGARDEN: No. I think we wrote that song in like two minutes.
VANWYNGARDEN: I think that's one of the things I like about our new album, is that there's a lot of different styles and methods that went into the making of the songs. Like we said before, we have a song, "A Good Sadness," that's coming from improvisation, and then "Plenty Of Girls In The Sea," which is - we were trying to write almost like a standard or something. You know, we were like thinking about music from the '20s and...
VANWYNGARDEN: ..wanted it to be kind of like a novelty song. That's what I'm looking for.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLENTY OF GIRLS IN THE SEA")
VANWYNGARDEN: I don't know. We're just kind of having fun in the studio. Ben and I really love working and writing in the studio and producing. And, you know, we did have a good break before starting on this third album, and now we're both in the mindset of really wanting to make more music more often. So hopefully that'll happen.
HOBSON: So that break is important. It's nice to take a little time off.
GOLDWASSER: It was at that time. We were feeling a little burnt out and disconnected after not having really taken much of a break between touring for the first album and the second album or - and recording the second album. It had a direct effect on our attitudes and the music that we were making. And sometimes it can be a little annoying when musicians write too much about being musicians and not enough about other things and feel like we were kind of going into that territory.
HOBSON: You got to get in touch with the outside world.
VANWYNGARDEN: Or the inside world.
GOLDWASSER: Yeah, or everyday life in general.
HOBSON: Who has influenced you in the last year or so, people that you've been listening to that maybe you weren't listening to when you were doing your earlier albums?
VANWYNGARDEN: Well, I mean it's different for the two of us. But I think maybe we kind of went in opposite directions. But for me, personally, compared to what I was listening to on the second album, which was a lot more psychedelic rock and folk from the late '60s and '70s, for the new album I definitely started getting into music, I guess, that you would call electronic music and dance music. It was kind of a new universe for me to explore. And I definitely moved away from rock and roll a little bit and got a little bit tired of rock and roll attitude.
VANWYNGARDEN: It sounds like a child behaving badly. I'm tired of your attitude.
HOBSON: Well, what is - let me ask both of you this question. What is your favorite song on the album? We can start with you, Ben.
GOLDWASSER: I think my favorite would be "Astro Mancy." I have a really good memory of recording it, and we kind of did a live mix of the song, which is mostly how it ended up on the final - the album version where Andrew and I were both sitting at the mixing board and we each had our own half of the board to be in control of, and we would just fade certain parts up when we felt like it was appropriate. And it has this really cool organic feeling to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRO MANCY")
GOLDWASSER: Also, when we were in Chicago, it came on in a Starbucks, and I thought that was really cool.
HOBSON: Hmm. Really?
VANWYNGARDEN: That was cool.
HOBSON: You still get excited when you hear it in a Starbucks?
VANWYNGARDEN: Corporate bastards.
HOBSON: What about you, Andrew? Favorite song on the album?
VANWYNGARDEN: My favorite song in the album is probably the last one, "An Orphan of Fortune." I just like the emotion in the last one and I think it's a nice closer on the album. I was really satisfied with how it ended the whole thing, tied everything up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN ORPHAN OF FORTUNE")
MGMT: (Singing) If I don't feel right, polishing off the sand, lay by me and we'll erode as gently as we can into the twilight. Into the twilight. Into the twilight. Into the twilight.
HOBSON: As you're writing these songs, of course you have to think about what they're going to sound like. But you also have to think about the video that's going to go along with them these days. How does that process work? When do you start to think about what the video is going to be?
GOLDWASSER: Well, we do get a lot of imagery just in our heads when we're writing. And I think that did translate in a lot of ways to the videos that we've put out.
HOBSON: Well, I'm thinking of the video for "Your Life Is A Lie" with some people kicking a bucket on the ground when a cowbell is hit every time.
GOLDWASSER: Yeah. The original idea for the video was that it would be like a Whac-A-Mole game and like...
VANWYNGARDEN: Well, just something that emphasizes cowbell hits - just felt like, you know, a giant Whac-A-Mole baton thing, hitting people that were walking down the street would be funny. But I'm really happy with the way the video turned out. I think it fits the song really well, just the kind of - I don't know. The song definitely has a tongue-in-cheek element to the structure and obviously the lyrics. So I think it fit really well.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LIFE IS A LIE")
MGMT: (Singing) Tell your wife this is your life. Your life is a lie. This is your wife. Now she knows, she understands her life is a lie. Nobody wins. Try not to cry. You must survive on your own, on your own.
HOBSON: Well, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden of the band MGMT, thanks so much for speaking with us.
GOLDWASSER: Thanks for having us.
VANWYNGARDEN: Thank you.
HOBSON: And Robin, I cannot let this moment go by without mentioning that I know Ben's grandparents very well. Ned and Lizzie Goldwasser, they're great family friends from Champaign-Urbana. They have been married for 72 years. They've just celebrated their 72nd anniversary.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, I'm sure they're thinking right now, you know, we thought our kid was doing well. But now he's really made it.
HOBSON: Their grandson is doing very well.
YOUNG: He's been on Jeremy's show.
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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