It’s soundcheck at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the second to last show of MGMT’s 2010 southeastern fall tour. Andrew VanWyngarden is sitting behind the drums, while Mark Richardson, who was first hired to be MGMT’s drummer but now handles lead guitar duties, is playing the rhythm guitar part for one of the band’s biggest hits, “Electric Feel.” Lately, the band has been swinging the rhythm, so VanWyngarden sits pensively behind the skins, trying to figure out why it’s not working.
In their Wesleyan University days, songs would generally start with VanWyngarden on drums and MGMT’s other creative force, Ben Goldwasser, on synthesizer. After an idea hit and a basic structure emerged, the duo would start recording. While they were able to use Wesleyan’s studio on occasion, VanWyngarden says the easiest way for them to make songs was through Reason – the recording and MIDI software popular with electronic musicians – but later switched to Apple’s Logic.
“Writing songs as a band and learning about production techniques go hand in hand,” says Goldwasser, seated next to VanWyngarden backstage at the Ryman before the show. “We start working out the arrangement and sounds before we even have a finished song or lyrics. A lot of times we get inspired by the sounds we’re using and it helps us figure out what the song’s going to be about.”
One sound that changed the direction of the band was the Korg Mono/Poly synthesizer, which they discovered while recording demos in Atlanta. The Mono/Poly figures prominently on the big, argpeggiated intro to “Electric Feel,” as well as other MGMT songs.
“We have a Roland Space Echo that we use a lot too,” adds Goldwasser. “That with a synthesizer is a pretty easy way to make a big, crazy sound that just happens, and you don’t really have to think about too much.”
The Space Echo and Mono/Poly still show up on the band’s newer songs, but their 2010 album Congratulations also dives more readily into acoustic material. And while Brian Eno and cult figure Dan Treacy are invoked in quasi-tributes, the influence of Van Morrison is also present.
“I was listening a lot to [Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece]. That song ‘Who Was That Masked Man,’ that’s my favorite. That and the Bang Masters, which were early, early recordings. I really loved this song ‘It’s All Right,’ which I think kind of influenced a song like ‘I Found A Whistle.’ We went through different styles of recording for pretty much every song. During one phase, that song was more garage-y, early Van Morrison-sounding.”
In fact, there were a few different versions of Congratulations that could have surfaced. At one point, there were versions of every song running through the fabled EMT-250 reverb, a large upright tank with whacky knobs that was produced in a run of about 250 units in Germany in 1976. VanWyngarden says he and Goldwasser really loved the sound of the original EMT, but that none of those versions made it to the final mixes.
“The album would have sounded a lot different if [it had],” adds Goldwasser. “There’s tons of weird jams that we recorded that we could probably fill up a whole album with.”
Whether any of the creative flashes that were left on the shelf for Congratulations make it onto MGMT’s third record is anyone’s guess. What Goldwasser does say about the next phase of MGMT has more in common with the long ethereal sections in the 12-minute “Siberian Breaks” and his interest in generative music, than it does with the pop hooks of the band’s early songwriting.
“We just haven’t been in that place for a long time,” says VanWyngarden about writing jokey songs like “Time To Pretend” in college.
For MGMT’s third album, which the duo reveals will be titled MGMT, Goldwasser says he’s interested in writing song sections that are more trance-y and repetitive. For the live show, he says he’d like the band to be able to “start off with something and take it somewhere different every time.”
Back at soundcheck, Goldwasser pulls up the metronome click track for “Electric Feel” and confers with the rest of the band. When they launch into the song at the concert that night, the crowd’s eruption is like something out of an early ‘60s Rolling Stones show at the Crawdaddy Club. For a band that produced one of the most sophisticated records of 2010, and can also fill auditorium seats with screaming 16 year olds, it seems like something is definitely working.