SOUNDING LIKE MGMT has become a musical genre of its own. Music made by two people that involves as much, if not more, studio manipulation as traditional instrumentation, has vocals, but isn’t conventional sounding, and is decidedly dance-y on its surface, but informed by a multitude of genres with many left-of-center musician references at its core.
“I don’t like that,” says MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser. “I feel like ‘sounding like MGMT’ has become synonymous with self-indulgent party music, which is not what our band is about.”
Ben Goldwasser (left) and Andrew VanWyngarden. Goldwasser formed MGMT, then called The Management, with Andrew VanWyngarden in 2001 when the two were studying music at Wesleyan University. The 2008 release of the duo’s debut, Oracular Spectacular, catapulted them into the stratosphere with standout tracks “Kids,” “Time to Pretend,” and “Electric Feel.” A testament to MGMT’s magic hit-song touch, their songs have been covered by artists ranging from the Flaming Lips to Cage the Elephant, Jack’s Mannequin, Sigur Ros’ Jonsi, and Katy Perry.
The self-assuredly titled follow-up, Congratulations moved from the psychedelic experimentation of Oracular Spectacular to a more guitar-driven sound, featuring all members of MGMT’s live band and focusing on a whole-album listening experience rather than spiky hits.
On their self-titled third time out, MGMT takes another tack, doing little writing prior to recording, instead jamming for long stretches of time until songs start to emerge. Once again working with producer/engineer/mixer David Fridmann, who produced Oracular Spectacular and worked on Congratulations, the artists repaired to Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York, where the writing and recording happened simultaneously.
Goldwasser tweaking the Fenix synth. Let’s Jam!MGMT was written and recorded in the round. Bringing all of the instruments and pieces of gear that used to live in their Blanker Unsinn studio—which they gave up a while ago—VanWyngarden and Goldwasser set everything up in a circle with themselves at the center. The two would play for hours, improvising and jamming, at times on headphones, one not necessarily aware of what the other was doing, and often not sure who generated which sound.
“They went crazy for a long time,” says Fridmann. “They had set up so many machines and live instruments that were happening simultaneously, they couldn’t always hear all the parts. I could hear everything in the control room, but each of them individually would have an impression of what was happening. There would be moments where they would hear enough of the same thing at the same time that they’d be laughing about how crazy what they had created was. We’d flag those moments as something to get back to because obviously, something magical happened there.”
As unconventional as MGMT’s sound is, the duo’s songwriting approach has been fairly traditional—until now. Prior to MGMT, the only time they had written in the studio at the same time as recording was for the song “Metanoia,” the B-side to “Time to Pretend.” The goal was to expand on that approach for the entirety of MGMT, and in the process avoid being confined to a specific style or goal.
“The word improvisation has negative connotations for me,” says VanWyngarden. “We both went to so many formal concerts in college with experimental people. The air in the room was always uncomfortable. And in high school, both of us saw a lot of jam bands. There are moments in that music that are painfully not fun to listen to . . . you really have to figure out which moments are worth saving and working on.”
Even with the old-school jamming approach, MGMT sounds more electronic than live. Not the big arena dance-y electronic, but dark, once again psychedelic, and unexpectedly lo-fi. “Alien Days”—originally released on Record Store Day—twinkles as it wheezes calliope-style, “Astro-mancy” oscillates in and out with backward-sounding vocals, the eerie “Mystery Disease” has the touch of an old-school sci-fi television show, while “Cool Song No. 2” rumbles agreeably and “A Good Sadness” comes the closest to a pop song. Throughout all, the sheer multitude of sonic layers is impressive, if overwhelming.
The major challenge for VanWyngarden and Goldwasser was to avoid letting working the way they were used to working become a hurdle for continuing with an idea that didn’t fit into their comfort zone. In fact, the whole ethos was to try things in as different a way as possible. “Tough for us, but totally worth it,” according to VanWyngarden.
“At first, we were having a really good time with the way we were making the music, but having trouble [figuring out] how to translate it into a song,” says Goldwasser. “Once we got away from thinking traditionally about songwriting, we could start appreciating having the songwriting process be an extension of just playing. That was probably the biggest challenge we got over.”
“A lot of times, they would be creating new sequences in real time on different machines simultaneously, not through a computer, just adjusting, making new patterns and new sequences with most of it linked together,” says Fridmann. “One guy would say, ‘Oh, I love what you’re doing,’ and the other guy would start changing it. Neither of them would know what was going to happen next.”
Goldwasser linked synths together via CV rather than MIDI, partially because many of the pieces are older and not MIDI compatible. “Everyone has problems getting things synchronized,” he says. “I use the Expert Sleepers Silent Way MIDI conversion [plug-in suite designed for controlling analog synths], which made things a lot tighter. We ended up using a modular synth for a lot of the sounds; that had its own CV sequencer built into it. It’s a pretty even blend of the new gear, MIDI, and CV stuff. Having Expert Sleepers was key. It’s a messy-looking thing. We had all these exposed wires and MIDI connectors. It kind of freaked me out looking at it, but it worked out.”
A New Set of Toys The blend of gear used on MGMT is very different from the gear VanWyngarden and Goldwasser used on either of their previous albums. The Fenix synthesizer—which Goldwasser had been pining for a long while—features prominently on every track; plus, it aided the two in breaking out of the convention of their previous methods.
“A lot of the sounds that on first listen sound like guitars or synthesizers are actually the Fenix. [Goldwasser] is really knowledgeable about what the knobs do and what inputs and outputs are controlling and doing, but even so, the Fenix does what it wants to do. It will surprise you and come up with random sounds on its own. That’s something that helped us branch out of a formal mindset when it came to writing.”
The Korg Mono/Poly vintage synth expolorer, which was heard a good deal on the previous albums, is absent on MGMT. Its place is taken by gear that according to Goldwasser “is trying to be different by emulating a vintage thing.” Elektron pieces such as Machinedrum SPS-1UW+ Mk II function as the main drum machine. But also, older synthesizers such as the Nord Lead and Access Virus—whose older digital converters appeal to Goldwasser—as well as the Roland SH-7 found their way into the circle of gear.
Before decamping to Tarbox, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser had been messing around with their “gear in a circle idea” at their previous studio, as well as at Goldwasser’s home. They got comfortable with the set-up, the only drawback being the limitations of recording to a laptop. Sending everything through the board at Tarbox took the plan to the next level. “[Fridmann] kept noting the improbable mix of things while we were recording,” says VanWyngarden. “Everybody in the control room would hear a different chord progression while listening to the same bit of music. When you’re trying to control that many things Willy Wonka style, it limits the chord changes you can do, so that’s how that sound came about.”
Sing to Me Songs are almost entirely mapped out before vocals are considered. VanWyngarden would remove himself from Goldwasser and Fridmann with a stack of books and his laptop to work on lyrics and melody. Upon his return, the entire song would often go through a metamorphosis dictated by his vocal contribution.
Fridmann kept the vocal chain simple in order to not interfere with VanWyngarden’s voice control and the various personalities that emerge with this control. For example, an Altec 639A microphone was used on a couple of the sections, but for the most part, a Bock Audio 241 tube condenser microphone into a Neve 8801 channel strip was the signal path.
“I won’t necessarily know what [VanWyngarden] is going for until after he’s piled on 10 vocals; then I can finally chime in on what he was doing,” says Fridmann. “They are very particular about their vocal sounds so it can be a very delicate operation. Because they want so many effects simultaneously, it’s difficult to bring out all the different subtleties all the time. Usually we’ll have a cleaner version of the vocals, a super-squished version, three or four delayed ones, sometimes simultaneously, more frequently at different points throughout the song. We’ll have one type of delay on the chorus, another type of delay on the verse, sometimes a different one on the bridge, and then some other combination of special effects on top of those. Typically for those, I’m using the TC Electronic 2290. I use a lot of Ursa Major Space Station to create some of the delays, and I have a few old Digitech RDS 3.6s that I like quite a bit but they’re cantankerous and difficult to dial in exactly. This is just a big analog dial that goes from 3.6 seconds to 500 milliseconds. Somewhere in there you keep twisting it until you get it right.”
During the mixing stage, Fridmann would add vocal treatments that were welcome surprises for the other two. On “Alien Days,” Fridmann put a panning delay on the “hey” in the vocals in the verse, and on “Astro-mancy” there is a descending pitch on the voice. He didn’t discuss these with VanWyngarden or Goldwasser, but they were completely in line with that they had in mind.
Goldwasser used a Madrona Labs Soundplane—another new toy, for which he writes his own programs—to treat VanWyngarden’s vocals. Soundplane is a flat, pressure-sensitive, wooden controller that lets you play notes as you glide over its “keys.” “I wrote a granular synthesis program on SuperCollider that if you have a section of recorded music you can scan through it really slowly or choose the speed or back it up or play one part over again. We ended up using that on part of ‘A Good Sadness’,” says Goldwasser.
Track Breakdown “A Good Sadness” is best representative of the improvisational songwriting MGMT employed for this album: All the sounds and the mix of sounds happened in the moment, with a loop going on the MPC, the organ at the beginning, with live sampling and looping, sampling themselves as they played.
In the jam zone, Machinedrum and Schlagzwerg drum machines and a Yamaha drum pad (which is the source of the laser sound on “Alien Days”) were set up with cables connecting the Schlagzwerg to the Roland SH-7 synth. VanWyngarden sequenced basslines on the drum machines but also controlled a Moog Minimoog Voyager, which makes the synthesized cowbell sound at the start of the song. At the same time, he played sample strings like the Mellotron organ on the Nord Electro.
In addition to the ever-present Fenix (going through OTO Biscuit pedals), Goldwasser also had control of the Roland Chorus Echo delay guitar effect pedal, the Waldorf Microwave, and a rackmount Jupiter.
“It took us an hour-and-a-half to two hours to get anywhere with what we were doing musically, says VanWyngarden.” “A lot of times, I had no idea where the sounds were coming from. For [‘A Good Sadness,’] I was playing 29 keys on the Roland through the drum machine, just playing the basslines, improvising this chord progression. There are four or five samples from records. [Fridmann] has a big shelf with a bunch of vinyl and I picked a bunch of records based on what the covers looked like. I threw them on the turntable in the control room and sampled them. It’s weird because two of the samples that are the main ones that you hear, like the sitar sample at the end, I just dropped the needle, first take, lined up, and we ended up using it like that.”
“Astro-mancy” was the last song recorded, and the one that was causing a lot of disagreement and putting everyone in a bad mood. It turned a corner when VanWyngarden switched to the bass, stumbled onto the bassline, causing the whole song to fall into place. “We started with a standard chord progression, then recording things then slowly stripping away everything we had done,” says Goldwasser. “We ended up with crazy loops playing over the chord progression, then the chord progression would taper off. We added a bunch of layers, [Fridmann] set it up on the board, and [VanWyngarden] and I were performing live mixes of the song on half of the board. A lot of it ended up being really spontaneous as far as what was in the mix.”
“Cool Song No. 2,” on the other hand, came from loops cut out of a long section of improvised music and put together. “We pasted a bunch of stuff in Pro Tools and played other stuff over it, slowly built it up that way,” says Goldwasser. “That was one that changed a lot in the course of writing. The middle instrumental section, we decided we wanted another part in the song and arranged that from scratch. There are a lot of overdubs on that one.”
In a turnaround, MGMT’s cover of ’60s troubadour Faine Jade’s “Introspective” helped them get through a technical rut. The cover was intended as a fun interlude during the recording, something that didn’t need to end up on the album, one that could help them get back in touch with reality after a slew of weird musical landscapes. “Going back to normal for a minute, that gave us a reset and reenergized us to go toward the unknown again,” says Fridmann.
In the EndMGMT took almost a year from start to finish. During this stretch, Fridmann spent a lot of time focusing and refocusing VanWyngarden and Goldwasser. With an improvisational approach, it can be easy to lose track of the exciting part of what you’re doing and know how to coalesce it into a final song. “[Fridmann] doesn’t have an ego in the studio or about sounds,” says VanWyngarden. “He’s got an incredible ear and mind for arranging and writing parts.“
“He’s very good at being a neutral observer, figuring out how we’re working, and when to step in, says Goldwasser. “A lot of times it was hard for us to find a good starting point when picking out a jam and trying to make it into a song. He is really good at getting something out there, which can be the hardest part. [Fridmann] is one of my biggest role models for a producer as someone who can remain neutral and not have to put too much of himself into something. That’s how I want to be as a producer, try to understand what the band is trying to do before I have to interject something, making it closer to their vision.”
“They had an extreme commitment to, ‘We’re not going to stop this experiment until we succeed’,” says Fridmann of MGMT. “We got to a point on the last session where none of us had anything more to say about the songs we had made. We’ve mixed and remixed and changed and adjusted and worked on these songs over and over and over, and there’s absolutely nothing we want to change anymore, so I guess we’re actually done— which any musician will tell you is a pretty rare experience. Most musicians will tell you records are only done when they are no longer allowed to play with them anymore. This was just not the case. We finished it. Every millisecond that you’re hearing is exactly what they want you to be hearing.”
Lily Moayeri is a freelance writer and teacher librarian living in Los Angeles; track her work at pictures-of-lily.com.
Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden spent most of their session time jamming inside a circle of synths, but plenty of other recording gear was used to track the record. Below, a select list.
Fénix II and III
Access Virus A
Access Virus Indigo
Nord Lead 2
Nord Electro 3
Waldorf Microwave XT
Teenage Engineering OP-1
Avid Pro Tools
Expert Sleepers Silent Way
Valhalla DSP, SoundToys, and Fabfilter plug-ins
GUITARS AND BASSES
Gibson SG Special
Fender Deluxe Reverb
Madrona Labs Soundplane
Alternate Mode DrumKAT DK10
DRUM MACHINES AND SAMPLERS
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1UW+ Mk II
Jax Auto Rhythm
Ekdahl Moisturizer spring reverb
Foxx Tone Machine
Roland Chorus Echo
Roland SVC-350 vocoder
Boss RRV-10 reverb