With a bellowing creak, a pair of imposing wooden doors opens into Alder Manor, an 80-room mansion in Yonkers, New York. Inside the grand foyer, two waxen-haired men, dressed in pressed military uniforms, talk in hushed tones. One is wearing a black eye patch. In the first room at the top of the marble staircase, a younger man speaks into his headset: “Stand by for the poodle and the prosthetic hand.” The dog, manicured like suburban shrubbery, strolls into a deep, empty, white-tiled indoor pool and sniffs an amputated hand covered in chili meat. Without much prodding, it begins to lick. “They must have thrown some wild orgies here,” says MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, carrying with him from a nearby room the sweet smell of a fresh joint. Behind him appears bandmate Ben Goldwasser, who smiles loosely in response. Cast and crew make their ways downstairs to film the next scene of the music video for “Flash Delirium,” the first single off MGMT’s second album, Congratulations. The poodle is left to polish off the chili.
Four days later, before devouring a plate of French toast at Jack the Horse Tavern in Brooklyn Heights, VanWyngarden, 27, reaches into his mouth and removes the invisible braces that hug his upper and lower sets of teeth, placing them into the pocket of his black trench coat. His hair looks like it lost a grueling death match with his bed sheets, and purple edges line his feral, sleepy eyes. Our waiter walks over unprompted with a cup of coffee for VanWyngarden, who arrived at the restaurant a few minutes late. He would prefer, however, a cold glass of orange juice. “Why do you think that guy assumed I needed coffee?” he asks. Goldwasser, a 27-year-old native of Westport, New York, with a fertile head of black corkscrew curls, explains, “You kind of look like you partied really hard last night.” Laughing, VanWyngarden says, “I just smoked a lot of weed.”
But VanWyngarden has another reason to be exhausted: within weeks, MGMT will release Congratulations, and expectations couldn’t get much higher. The group’s first album, 2008’s compulsively trippy, platinum-selling Oracular Spectacular, earned the Brooklyn-based duo two Grammy nominations, critical fanfare on countless year-end lists and, thanks to the undeniable charm of tracks like “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids,” enough mainstream success to land songs on four of The CW’s series, including Gossip Girl, the apotheosis of a certain type of New York cool.
Oracular also put MGMT in an increasingly rare position for a rock band these days. Whereas they once teetered happily on the brink of mainstream oblivion, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden are now on the verge of becoming bona fide, big deal, sold-out–arena rock stars. Sure, they already hold the title of indie kings, but if Congratulations is as successful as Oracular, MGMT could go from being one of the few acts that Pitchfork and teenage girls can agree on, to one that, well, everyone agrees on.
They are coping with the pressure by denying its existence. The only people they care to please are themselves, which means that fans eager for Oracular Spectacular 2.0 should prepare for disappointment. Congratulations has a rougher, more deliberate sense of despair than its predecessor, both lyrically and sonically. (Take, for example, “Siberian Breaks,” a spacey, at times cacophonic, 12-minute song that dips into Alejandro Jodorowsky soundtrack territory. Its refrain, almost a mantra, insists, “I hope I die before I get sold.”) “If we tried to re-create our last album and someone didn’t like it, I think it would have been really difficult to look them in the eye and tell them we really believed in the album,” Goldwasser says. “But now, if someone tells us that it sucks, we don’t give a shit.” Striking another note, VanWyngarden adds, “But if this doesn’t work, if this isn’t what people want to hear, then I’m not sure what we’ll do next.”
Congratulations’ co-producer Peter Kember—a British musician better known by his stage alias, Sonic Boom—understands the score. “Nobody really knows how the album is going to be received. But one thing I do know is that if they can’t do things their way, they will give it all up tomorrow and walk away.” After working on their new songs in an isolated, chilly house in High Falls, New York, where they lived last year for just under two months, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden relocated to a much bigger house in Malibu, where they spent almost every waking moment in the studio with Kember and a backing band. Although the pair’s lax personae suggest the opposite, Kember insists that Congratulations has been labor-intensive for MGMT. “They appear to be laissez-faire about things,” he says. “But they care deeply. I can promise you that. They will tell you until they’re blue in the face that they don’t care about how the album is received, but I know for a fact they do.”
Downstairs, in the dining room, the table has been set for 10 guests, who will be feasting on painted blue sausages, a nod to the “hot dogs getting cold” in “Flash Delirium.” Also on the menu during this shoot: a tiered cake bearing the image of Goldwasser’s youthful face; a pair of prosthetic breasts, size 36DD; the headless bust of a man with Tom Selleck’s chest hair; a giant turquoise eel; the 1997 edition of Consumer Reports’ Complete Drug Reference. An hour later, when the scene has wrapped, the music video’s prop stylist brandishes a veiny rubber square with a hole at its center. “Wait,” he yells. “Did you guys see the flatulating asshole?”
There are two well-documented lines in “Time to Pretend” that spoof the various excesses of rock stardom: “Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives/ I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars.” Ironically, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden found themselves for a time living, rather than lampooning, the clichés of nouveau-notoriety. VanWyngarden was even romantically linked to actress Kirsten Dunst. (His current girlfriend is an Irish commercial model based in New Zealand. Goldwasser lives with his girlfriend, a student in dentistry, in Manhattan’s financial district.) “I don’t think we ever got completely immersed in it,” says Goldwasser of their new-found celebrity, which included VIP appearances at European clubs, a revolving door of would-be groupies and late-night binges that went well into the next morning. “We felt ourselves getting sucked in at points, but it freaked us out early on and so we found ways to avoid it. We didn’t want to turn into the kind of assholes we hate.”
It was a learning curve that peaked at this year’s Grammy Awards, where Goldwasser and VanWyngarden walked the red carpet in support of their two nominations, which included Best New Artist. They are quick to downplay the event. “It’s been two years since the album came out,” says Goldwasser. “The Grammys were kind of late to their own party.” VanWyngarden agrees. “A lot of the interviews we did that night were with people who had no idea who we were,” he says. “There’s one clip of us doing an interview, I think with CNN, and our portion of the screen is tiny and in the corner, while the rest of the screen is focused on Lady Gaga’s arrival. Obviously, no one cared what we were saying.”
One can’t help but think they’ve survived the hype, perspective intact, because of each other. One is always there to laugh at the other’s asinine jokes (“When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me,” said Goldwasser a er the waiter retreated from our table with a full cup of coffee); nod along when the other says the wrong thing (“By the time we finished the first album I hated it,” says VanWyngarden. “But the new one is really good—it took me two months to get sick of it”); and have the other’s back when it comes to upsetting record label executives (“The people responsible for making money hoped that we’d record another ‘Time to Pretend,’” VanWyngarden says, “but everyone close to us knew we weren’t going to do that”).
They wear their obscurity and weirdness like badges of honor, beaming with pride, for example, when describing disenchanted fans. “We’ve invited strangers onto our bus, where we end up listening to weird music, getting stoned and playing with puppets,” VanWyngarden says. “A few times they would be like, ‘You guys are dorks,’ and leave.” Their bond is that of two old friends who started a band, rather than bandmates who’ve become friends. They met when they were 18, as freshmen at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Stories abound of their college bacchanals—most of them involving nudity and hallucinogens—but Goldwasser says it was the perfect place to make music: nonjudgmental, uncritical and hungry for culture. “People just wanted to see shows,” he says. “They didn’t care how good we were. They were very tolerant of weirdness and didn’t expect to see a polished band play.” In VanWyngarden’s retelling, the people were less important than the countryside. “More than any class I took on Islamic history,” he says, “my education at Wesleyan was about running around ponds in my underwear catching frogs and exploring the countryside while taking mushrooms.”
As Management, a name they later shortened to MGMT because of copyright issues, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden played schizophrenic experimental shows at college parties, on any given night alternating between electronica, acoustic performances and nine-piece electric rock. After graduating in 2005, they released their six-song Time to Pretend EP on Cantora Records and began touring with Of Montreal, an equally outlandish musical troupe. Through deafening word of mouth, their wonderfully amateurish collection of tracks made its way to Maureen Kenny at Columbia Records, who signed them shortly thereafter.
A camouflage banner hangs between two walls, the words “Welcome home, Ben!” printed on it in chunky white letters. At least a dozen people are screaming, jumping and waving their arms in the air. An old woman in a blue cocktail dress and matching heels lifts a glass of champagne to the sky as bursts of silvery confetti explode behind the crowd. A metallic snowfall lands on the shoulders of military veterans, society dames and a young woman dressed in a miniskirt and knee-high socks. In the video at least, MGMT has arrived.
MGMT have spent five hours every day for the past few months rehearsing their new material in the basement of VanWyngarden’s home in Brooklyn Heights. The space is cluttered with equipment, sheets of music and unpacked boxes of all sizes. The living area, on the second floor of a two-story townhouse that VanWyngarden found on Craigslist, is surprisingly tidy, decorated with a mix of antique and modern furniture. Airy and spacious, its walls are lined with paintings and still-life photography. A copy of Karlheinz Weinberger, a rare and very expensive book of portrature, sits on the coffee table. VanWyngarden points to a mess of electronics in the corner of the room. “That’s where I spent three hours last night DJ’ing after I got stoned,” he says, laughing.
For two guys who would rather not be characterized as drugged-out hippies, they sure do spend a lot of time talking about getting wasted. “If someone asks if we take mushrooms, we’re like, Hell yeah, we take mushrooms,” Goldwasser says. “But just because we talk about it doesn’t mean we’re on drugs all the time.” VanWyngarden adds curtly, “We’re just being honest.” Inside VanWyngarden’s bathroom, on the counter next to the toilet, a well-leafed copy of the New Yorker is open to a story about Vampire Weekend, another New York-based rock band that rose to prominence at the same time as MGMT. (Weekend’s recently released second album Contra debuted at number one on the Billboard charts: at least their core audience has expanded beyond hip twenty-somethings.)
In a video interview with music magazine NME, MGMT was asked to name one person on whom they would wish bad karma. Although he was obviously kidding, VanWyngarden answered, “Vampire Weekend.” It was, more than anything, a jab at music critics eager to lump the two bands together as part of a burgeoning scene. “We met them for the first time after we’d done that interview, which they for sure saw,” he says. “They were really nice, but they probably thought we were such assholes.” Goldwasser chimes in. “Everyone kept comparing us, but if the fabled Brooklyn music scene does exist, we’re de nitely not part of it,” he says. “Most of those bands are never going to be discovered by anyone because they’re too insular and weird. Although there are very cool things happening in those makeshift clubs in Bushwick, they have nothing to do with us.”
It’s early afternoon on the first warm day in March, and only a few minutes remain until MGMT’s backing band is scheduled to arrive for rehearsal. There is much work to be done before the pair leaves in a few days to begin promoting their new album overseas. While saying our goodbyes, VanWyngarden gets up from the daybed where he’d been reclining. He walks me halfway to the exit and, shaking my hand, leans in and whispers, “Just make us look cool.” Billy Crudup says that very thing in Almost Famous, in which a young rock journalist tours America with a band about whom he’s writing for Rolling Stone. VanWyngarden’s smile tells me he knows this. I tell him I’ll try.
Photography by David Roemer. Styling by Christopher Campbell.