MGMT comes to the Orpheum this Saturday. And for member Andrew VanWyngarden, a 2001 White Station High School graduate, it's something of a return home. VanWyngarden is half of the platinum-selling musical duo that formed at Wesleyan University in 2002, along with Ben Goldwasser. (VanWyngarden is also the son of Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden.)
We talked with one of Memphis' biggest musical successes about MGMT's new self-titled third album on Sony Music and the storm of commentary that seems to follow the band.
Memphis Flyer: Everybody has an opinion about this record. What do you think?
Andrew VanWyngarden: I'm a little biased, because I made it. I like it. I think it's not very comfortable-sounding music. It's something Ben and I tried to make intentionally a little upsetting in a way. It's not easy listening. We try to avoid the word challenging, because I think that's a bit pretentious. It accurately reflects Ben's mood and my mood when we were recording in 2012. I think it's an honest and real album. I'm proud of it and happy to tour around to promote it.
How did your approach change from the earlier albums?
It was just me and Ben in the studio. On the second album [Congratulations], we were definitely going for a more live, whole band, sort of psychedelic folk sound. This time around, it was more about the two of us experimenting in the studio. We weren't thinking about translating the songs to a live setting. It's really all about the listening experience. And this is studio time. It's been different for each of our three albums. This time, it was more about starting off with sessions of improvisation and finding moments that we both liked and building songs out of those. A lot of arranging and editing. We haven't put out an album that has live takes or more than one person playing at once. Maybe bass and drums or something. We've always worked more in the sense of setting the time and then getting it together.
Did you intentionally abandon formal song structures?
There are still songs like "Alien Days" and "Plenty of Girls in the Sea" that are more traditionally structured and have verses and what we call choruses and that kind of stuff. But, in general, the headspace we were in while we were making it was about creating dense sonic worlds that you can get overwhelmed in if you want to. It was more about trance, in the sense that we would do things that were repeating over and over. And the chord progressions are more simple than on the first two records. So it's more about repetition. What we were looking for in the improvisations and the moments we try to build songs on were usually ones where Ben and I felt like we were in a trance state. In the moment we were making it, we felt like it was automatically happening.
You wore your early influences on your sleeve. Who influenced this new direction?
Our musical tastes have evolved. I think we were definitely going for a Beach Boys Surf's Up thing [on Congratulations]. But also definitely influenced by tones and personalities of more obscure English '80s bands like the Deep Freeze Mice, the Monochrome Set, that kind of stuff.
This time around, what makes this album different — and I think what makes it cool — is that we didn't go into it with specific musical references in mind. For the second album, we knew we were consciously trying to reference a moment in musical history. This time, we weren't doing that at all. The music we listened to while we were making it was much more about textures and the kind of environments than sounds ... Woo, the Orb, and Aphex Twin. The songs are their own individual worlds to go into.
Why did you return to work with producer Dave Fridmann after an album with Sonic Boom?
Even on Congratulations, we mixed it at Fridmann's studio. So he was still part of that album but not as much on pre-production. Since we first went up to Tarbox Road Studios, we have felt comfortable there recording and creating. Dave is the kind of guy who helps to push us and motivate us to do the crazy ideas we have. He's such a good guy. He doesn't have an underlying intention or motivation to mess with the song or stamp his own kind of sound on it. That makes us feel comfortable working with him. This time, it was cool to go back. We've only done this a couple of times, when we're writing everything in the studio with Dave.
How important is it to isolate yourselves from the social-media commentariat?
That's one of the things about being at Dave's studio in rural, western New York — it's easy to forget about that side of the music world and to kind of push it out. I think that's what Ben and I have done while making the second and third albums. Both times, we've gotten completely into our own world and come out and released it and been a little bit giddy. Back to that naive mindset thing ...
Ben and I both feel a little bit shocked [at the response]. We're both sensitive dudes. A lot of times it feels like it's a competition to see who can say the snarkiest thing. It's so much less about listening deep into the music, which is all we want to do. The good thing is that if music critics aren't doing that, then our fans are more and more. We hear it from them. That's why we play shows. We're fortunate that we've established and developed deep connections with our fans. They've kind of followed us along and gone down different paths of experimentation with us. And that's what we want.
MGMT plays the Orpheum on Saturday, November 23rd, at 8 p.m.