10 Years Ago: MGMT Go From College Goofs to Rock Stars on ‘Oracular Spectacular’
Before MGMT got their shot – before they were even called MGMT – the band was done, over, forgotten. By 2006, college collaborators Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser had split, with the former planning to join neo-psychedelic rockers Of Montreal and the latter retreating from the music world.
But then Columbia Records A&R representative Maureen Kinney got ahold of Time to Pretend, an EP the duo had released in 2005 when they were known as the Management. Among the EP’s six tracks were the title song and “Kids,” both of which carried the potential to be hit pop singles – at least in the opinions of Columbia’s A&R people. Unaware that the Management had ceased to operate, the label contacted VanWyngarden and Goldwasser about a record deal. The two weren’t sure that reuniting was the best option.
“Both of our dads were telling us, ‘You’d be silly not to take this opportunity’,” VanWyngarden recalled to Pitchfork. “So we said, ‘Here we go, let’s see what happens.'”
It helped that the Management hadn’t suffered a nasty breakup. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden just felt that the project – formed in 2002 when the pair were students at Wesleyan University – had outlived its appeal. The band had been, more or less, an outlet for the two students’ musical shenanigans, whether that involved performing a 45-minute live version of “Ghostbusters” or writing songs that were ironic in their celebrations of rock ’n’ roll clichés.
But, in signing a record contract, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser had to get a little more serious. Plus they had to change the name of their band.
“And that was the first moment that we had to behave like an actual band, because legally we couldn’t have the same name, so we had to think of ourselves like a real band,” VanWyngarden told Under the Radar about switching monikers from the Management to MGMT. “With the name change came this rush, especially once we were signed to Columbia and we were writing songs for our first album, and we had to think of ourselves as a band. We couldn’t write a whole album of joke songs, so that’s when we started transitioning into what music we would really want to make and play for people. That was a big turning point.”
Another turning point occurred when MGMT was given the opportunity to record their debut album with producer Dave Fridmann, most famous for his work with the Flaming Lips, at his Tarbox Road Studios in the spring of 2007. As longtime Lips (and Fridmann) admirers, the duo were thrilled. They were less excited when Columbia pointedly suggested that MGMT include “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” on the record.
“We weren’t that dumb. We knew that they liked ‘Kids’ and ‘Time to Pretend,’ and they knew they had a chance to be popular songs,” VanWyngarden said. “It was three or four years after we’d written those songs, and we’d already gone through college, where they were minor on-campus popular tracks. We were already over those songs, and we were trying to convince our A&R woman not to put ‘Kids’ on our first album.”
But MGMT acquiesced – at least partially – by re-recording new versions of the old songs with help from Fridmann and a bunch of distortion. The band’s first full-length, which would be titled Oracular Spectacular, took shape as the new, more experimental material was built around the two existing tunes.
“What I always find humorous is that what people think Oracular Spectacular [is] isn't what Oracular Spectacular is,” Fridmann said in 2013. “That is not a dance record. That is not a club record. That is not a dance band or an electronic band. Those songs have tons of big distorted drum kits on them. That is not club music. People got this idea of what it is, but they’re not listening to it. I still get people who come in and say, ‘Make it sound like MGMT’ and I’ll start distorting stuff, and they’ll say ‘What are you doing?’ Well, did you listen to the record?”
Although united in distortion, the album took on a mix of styles, including the space rock of the second half, the mind-altering funk of “Electric Feel” and the electro-dance aesthetic of “Time to Pretend” (which, after all, was partly modeled on ABBA’s ”Dancing Queen”). Completed before the summer, Oracular Spectacular was released digitally in October 2007 before getting a more enthusiastically promoted physical release on Jan. 22, 2008.
For the most part, the music critics reacted positively (some even rapturously) and the album was steadily embraced by both pop fans and devotees of indie rock. With the slow rollout of three singles over the course of 2008 – first “Time to Pretend,” then “Electric Feel,” then “Kids,” each with its own, trippy video – MGMT’s popularity increased incrementally. A year after Oracular Spectacular’s physical release, the unlikely hybrid of dance tunes and psych-rock peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard charts, achieving gold record status in the U.S., charting around the world and selling a couple of million copies globally.
“It was a fluke that these goofy songs we wrote in college were hits,” Goldwasser said, years later. “We never considered the possibility that people would like them.”
This situation of millions of fans loving this album and its singles also presented the possibility for rampant misinterpretation. The duo were shocked to discover that the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of “Time to Pretend” (“This is our decision to live fast and die young”) were taken at face value as mantras for the young-and-dumb clubbing set. MGMT were learning about the side effects of success.
Of course, amidst such popularity, MGMT were also opening for Radiohead, M.I.A. and Paul McCartney while getting praised by each of these very different acts in the media. Meanwhile, the press reported that VanWyngarden and Goldwasser were enjoying all the spoils of fame – maybe indulging just a little too much in the groupies, booze, etc. The duo that had mocked the excesses of pop stardom in song were earning reputations as heavily inebriated party boys.
The members of MGMT grew past it and turned their backs on that sort of lifestyle. In the years since, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden have rededicated themselves to music, although none of their subsequent releases have managed to match the broad pop and specific hipster appeal of Oracular Spectacular.