MGMT Is More Than Just ‘Saltburn’ Nostalgia Fodder

“Time to Pretend” is the rock star Iliad and Odyssey, nestled in a four-minute pop song. Say yes to models, Paris, and heroin; no to jobs with offices and morning commutes. After its major-label release in 2007, the song oozed out of teenage bedrooms and across college quads, a kaleidoscopic escape from encroaching adulthood and a looming financial crisis. The lyrical debauchery was (mostly) tongue-in-cheek, but MGMT co-masterminds Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser offered a humbling summation of adulthood in the closing lines: Years will pass, you’ll miss the comfort of youth, and after enough trips round the sun, you’ll wind up dead in a bed somewhere. This was MGMT’s first single, the first track on its first album. What do you even say next?

Seventeen years after that debut album, I’m chatting with MGMT. VanWyngarden isn’t rocking Ray-Bans or a headband, and Goldwasser has some gray hairs I don’t remember from the Oracular Spectacular cover, but here they are, storied sound explorers of the Urban Outfitters generation. Our topic of conversation: feeling rough, feeling raw, in the prime of one’s life. Not us, though.

We’re talking about Barry Keoghan in Saltburn, particularly the scene in the can’t-help-but-talk-about-it 2023 film when Keoghan’s rich and libertine new friends convince him to slip out of his boxers and join them in a lavish English garden for an afternoon of psychedelics, presumably his first time. The opening seconds of “Time to Pretend” gurgle before Keoghan’s trunks hit the grass.

“That was the perfect scene for that song, when they’re naked in a field and happy, before most of the really messed-up stuff happens,” VanWyngarden says. “It made a lot of sense seeing the movie and knowing it was set in that era.”

A callback to the late aughts and early 2010s, Saltburn is the sort of film that leans heavily on its soundtrack to let you know exactly what the deal is. (Even if there are questions about exactly which year it was set in.) An awkward coming-of-age hookup scene? Bloc Party’s “This Modern Love”! A carefree road trip through the English country? “Mr. Brightside”! If you’ve seen Saltburn (or spent any time on social media the past two months), you know why VanWyngarden is relieved his song got used before “the really messed-up stuff.” So how did MGMT become shorthand for capricious millennial experimentation and live to tell the tale?

MGMT formed in 2002 when VanWyngarden met Goldwasser; the pair of musical free spirits were living in a party dorm at Connecticut’s famously free-spirited Wesleyan University. They bonded over niche indie rock bands like Royal Trux and Spacemen 3 and attended Bonnaroo together. At early campus shows, they’d do things like wear fur coats, pop champagne, and riff on the Ghostbusters theme for 20-plus minutes. VanWyngarden, tall and pretty with a mop of Julian Casablancas–tier hair, emerged as the de facto lead singer, sharing vocals and a bevy of instrumental and production duties with the curly-haired, bespectacled (and also tall and good-looking) Goldwasser. MGMT recorded a handful of demo projects before graduating in 2005. That year’s Time to Pretend EP featured proto-versions of the title track and a sticky, keyboard-driven jam called “Kids.” One night their freshman year, they wrote the riff in the dorms after, according to legend, deciding not to go out and try to get into a keg party.

After graduating, Goldwasser stayed behind near Wesleyan with a girlfriend, while VanWyngarden went off to Brooklyn, already a well-known incubator of Pitchfork-approved buzz bands. Upon arrival, VanWyngarden’s first “jobbish thing” was working the door at noisy, experimental shows thrown by legendary NYC promoter Todd P at art spaces like Williamsburg’s Glasslands. “There was a specific hole in the balcony overlooking the stage that I would leave partially smoked joints in so I would never have to bring them,” VanWyngarden remembers.

MGMT went months without playing a show, but when you’ve got MP3s like “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” bouncing around the internet, your old college band has a way of catching up to you. The Time to Pretend EP piqued the interest of Columbia Records A&R Maureen Kenny, and MGMT was back in business. Suddenly, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser had work prospects outside of dog walking and a reason to maybe start showering more.

“Right before we got signed, I was living in a cabin with no running water,” Goldwasser remembers. “I was completely filthy doing this construction job, a hippie style of building houses you’d insulate with straw bales and plaster.”

VanWyngarden jumps in: “Do you remember when I convinced you to come down to Park Slope, Brooklyn? You were walking down the street with dirty jeans and no shirt on.”

“Yeah,” Goldwasser replies. “I couldn’t get a taxi to pick me up.”

Hoping to spark ideas for their major label debut, MGMT sent Time to Pretend to producer Dave Fridmann, a legend in psychedelic circles for producing the Flaming Lips’ classic oeuvre.

“Wayne [Coyne] was like, ‘What’s that? It sounds cool,’” says Fridmann, recalling when the Flaming Lips frontman overheard Time to Pretend. “I was like, ‘Right? I don’t know what happens next, but let’s say yes.’”

“Time to Pretend” and “Kids” were several years old, and MGMT balked at including them on what would become Oracular Spectacular. By then, they were grazing in trippier pastures: “The Youth” evokes Odessey and Oracle–era Zombies, “4th Dimensional Transition” fits nicely alongside freak-folk contemporaries like Animal Collective, and “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” … oh boy. The way they drop an incredible falsetto chorus less than a minute in, never repeat it, then trail off into airy noodling forever haunts me.

But MGMT was still a pop band, right? Right?!? The Fridmann-assisted hi-fi rerecordings of “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” sure thought so. Toss in a dance-funk earworm called “Electric Feel,” and MGMT had a trio of potential singles in tow. If only their label’s C-suite had any idea.

“Columbia was in turmoil. They had just taken on new leadership,” Fridmann remembers. “They refused to put the record out in physical form. It’s one thing now to put a record out for streaming only, but back then it was like, We don’t believe in this. We don’t think this is gonna work.”

After dropping digitally in October 2007, Oracular Spectacular finally got its physical release January 22, 2008. It proved a slow-burning success, enough to overcome a middling 6.8 score from Pitchfork. As MGMT toured with kindred indie spirits like Yeasayer and Chairlift, the undeniability of those future singles came into focus.

“I remember seeing ‘Electric Feel’ live,” says former Chairlift multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly, now a frequent MGMT collaborator. “We had been on tour with them for a while, but for some reason, one night at Mod Club, this small club in Toronto, it clicked. The lights were right, there were so many people there. You could feel the energy. That was the moment I realized, ‘Oh, this band is gonna be huge.’”

Oracular Spectacular entered the Billboard 200 albums chart on February 16, 2008—before “Time to Pretend” was even released as its first single—and hung around long enough to peak at no. 38 almost a full year later. As months passed, MGMT was picked as an opener for Radiohead and Paul McCartney. Oracular Spectacular’s musical elasticity made MGMT an avatar of an increasingly online and genreless era: “We Fly High”–era Jim Jones rapped over the “Electric Feel” beat, and Katy Perry recorded a twee, acoustic cover of the same song. (Later, Frank Ocean would interpolate “Electric Feel” on his career-making mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, and “Time to Pretend” appeared in the pilot of a buzzy HBO show called Girls.) Improbably, MGMT had conquered the mainstream. As a 20-year-old Travis Kelce, then playing football at the University of Cincinnati, tweeted in 2010:

“Ooo Girl!! Shock me like an electric eal!!! Haha MGMT-Electric Feel has been playing in my head all day!”

MGMT’s fame crested at the 2010 Grammys. Dressed like “mad scientists from the 1970s” (as VanWyngarden remembers), MGMT rolled into the Staples Center in downtown L.A., nominated for Best New Artist and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals. They lost the former to Zac Brown Band, and “Kids” dropped the latter to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” As the evening went on, VanWyngarden sensed their beatnik selves didn’t belong.

“It’s not like you just win a Grammy because your music is better. You have to do active campaigns, go to certain parties, meet certain people, sell yourself. We weren’t doing that.” Still, MGMT took away some memories. VanWyngarden turned 27 at midnight after the Grammy ceremony and ran into Adele at an after-party, and through the mental fog of 14 years, he’s pretty sure she was among the many voices that sang him “Happy Birthday.”

By the time they walked the Grammy red carpet, MGMT had already finished recording its sophomore album. Columbia had visions of “Kids Part Two” and handed over the checkbook. “We were excited about the resources we had,” Goldwasser says. “We weren’t thinking, ‘How do we follow up our successful record?” VanWyngarden is more blunt: “We took full advantage of a label that wanted another hit.”

Holed up in a big Malibu house, MGMT crafted Congratulations, a collection of prog-pop indulgences and arty non sequiturs. With a studio set up in the living room, VanWyngarden spent mornings sunbathing naked and learning how to surf. MGMT’s partying never reached Oasis-sized proportions (they admit to smoking a lot of weed and not much else), but they were beginning to embody the more clichéd aspects of the “Time to Pretend” protagonists. “Rick Rubin was [cohead of Columbia], so he dropped in a couple times,” VanWyngarden remembers. “Ben and I went for a ride in his car, and we played him an early version of ‘Song for Dan Treacy.’ He was just kind of like …” I watch VanWyngarden do his best impression of Rick Rubin nodding ambivalently to a weird surf-rock song about the singer of an obscure ’80s twee-punk band. “[Rubin] was probably thinking, ‘These guys are fucked.’”

Still desperate for follow-up success, Columbia pushed Congratulations hard. It debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard 200 but plummeted quickly. Lead single “Flash Delirium” bricked, as did two follow-up singles over the course of 2010. You’ll find contrarians today arguing it’s MGMT’s best album; to me, it’s two very talented musicians following an era-defining indie-pop album with … a perfectly fine prog LP. According to Pitchfork, Congratulations held steady (a second consecutive 6.8), but some tastemakers who had championed MGMT’s previous work began to turn.

There was Hipster Runoff, a sort of indie blogosphere Perez Hilton, known for its irony-slathered (and sometimes repellent) cultural criticism. Carles, the then-anonymous alt-bro blogger behind the site, would spin entire posts out of random photos of Tumblr-famous musicians with titles like ‘‘Is Wavves Ripping Off AnCo / the ‘Panda Bear Aesthetic’?” “I was habitually reading it before MGMT took off,” VanWyngarden says. “Continuing to read it once MGMT became a focus of the posts probably did bad things to my brain.”

Some MGMT-centric Hipster Runoff entries from the Congratulations era:

“Cheer Up, Andrew VanBroGardyn”

“Andrew VanWyngarden Is Still Sad :-(”

“Andrew VanWyngarden Rumored to Be Dead, Father Confirms He Is Still Alive #pray4AVW”

“We were dealing with the fallout of people accusing us of committing career suicide. And we were going out and playing shows, and there was this weird energy. I remember one post was a photo of me at a festival in Austin, standing by myself, kind of looking depressed. The post was like, Oh, Andy, what’s the matter? I was like, ‘Oh my God, am I depressed?’”

Other critics were more blunt. “I remember a review of us playing [New York’s] Bowery Ballroom. The [writer] hated us so much, he called us ‘eminently punchable.’ I still think about those words!” VanWyngarden laughs it off now; back then, not so much. “Maybe it was annoying because we had this whole attitude of We weren’t trying to be famous, now we are! And people were like, ‘Fuck you.’”

Most of MGMT’s normie fans, the Travis Kelce faction, if you will, jumped ship once Congratulations set in. By the time MGMT’s self-titled third album dropped in 2013, even the weirdos’ patience was tested. “I’m waiting for everybody else to catch up to that record,” says Fridmann, who coproduced the album alongside MGMT. “Any musician who wants to try to figure out the chords and play along? Good luck.” A heady psych-rock album lacking big choruses, MGMT came and went with little more than a shrug.

The speculatory rush of indie’s blog era had waned by Obama’s second term, as the genre veered into smoother, pop- and R&B-influenced textures. When you think about it, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser kind of helped create a world they ultimately wanted no part of. Without those Oracular Spectacular singles, would we ever get the success of CHVRCHES or “Pumped Up Kicks”? At a Columbia photo shoot in 2013, MGMT met three sisters the label was apparently making big investments in. “Haim performed two songs while we were sitting at tables with white tablecloths. … We were posing alongside them, Adele, and John Mayer while my arm was in a sling and I was on pretty hard-core painkillers for shoulder surgery,” VanWyngarden remembers. “What the fuck is going on?

One autumn morning in 2020, during the thick of the COVID-19 lockdown, VanWyngarden logged into Spotify for Artists and almost spat out his coffee. Streams were way up, preposterously so. Not for any of the Oracular Spectacular hits, but for “Little Dark Age,” the title track from the 2018 album that had finally gotten MGMT out of its Columbia contract.

It was TikTok. “Little Dark Age” had gone viral, its dystopian synth riffs soundtracking videos across the political spectrum: progressive responses to contemporary issues like trans rights and the murder of George Floyd, along with far-right military clips from users oblivious that the song was written in protest of the Trump presidency. Like TikTok in general, the whole trend felt chaotic and random, with assorted anime, manga, and gaming clips also driving the “Little Dark Age” mania. “We had a conference call with someone from TikTok, and they were talking about all these things someone who was smart with social media could do to capitalize on it,” VanWyngarden says. “We ended up not doing anything.”

In classic MGMT fashion, their inaction hardly mattered. “Little Dark Age,” a song that received almost no radio play upon release, currently has about 200 million more Spotify spins than “Time to Pretend.”

Whenever our conversation shifts to the present, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser sound very much at peace. On February 23, they’ll release Loss of Life, their fifth studio album and their first for the independent label Mom + Pop Music. Loss of Life is earthy and sincere and hits with a technicolor clarity unlike any previous MGMT project. Looking back, it’s kind of absurd that they lasted a dozen years on Columbia. “It felt like trying to correct the course of a very slow-moving dinosaur,” Goldwasser says. “Now, there’s a lot less overpromising and under-delivering,” says VanWyngarden. “It’s not ‘You guys are gonna be huge staahs!’”

Nothing on Loss of Life has reached virality, but given MGMT’s history, would it really be surprising if a surrealist bop like “Bubblegum Dog” popped off randomly in three years? For now, “Mother Nature,” a Loss of Life song that sounds like a literal ray of sunshine, has gotten more alternative radio play than anything since Oracular Spectacular. Simultaneously, “Time to Pretend” is enjoying a healthy post-Saltburn TikTok surge. Neither member is really sure how, but MGMT’s fan base is now legitimately multigenerational, with the streaming data to prove it. “There’s gonna be a camera crew that steps out in a couple weeks,” VanWyngarden jokes. “This was a yearslong candid camera show. You really thought Gen Z liked your music?!?

There was a time when MGMT would have absolutely turned down a big check from a music festival to play Oracular Spectacular start to finish. That time was not last May.

MGMT hadn’t played a show in four years, but the band invested the bulk of its Just Like Heaven check back into its performance: a modern dance troupe did an off-Broadway performance to an extended intro of “Time to Pretend,” a children’s choir filled in the harmonies of “Pieces of What,” two people in cartoonish bobblehead costumes played the parts of Wesleyan-era MGMT, headbands and all.

“Hey, Ben, should we go to the big college kegger tonight?”

“I don’t even know if they’ll let us lowly freshmen in. I’d rather stay in and work on music for our new band, MGMT!”

Bobblehead Ben twiddles through some synthesizer notes and stumbles into the “Kids” riff. It’s hilarious and adorable. The Rose Bowl crowd erupts. Real-life Ben and Andrew walk out to play the real thing.

In our chat, Goldwasser thinks back to the Wesleyan days. “I remember feeling really insecure when we were making that music. We didn’t have a lot of confidence and didn’t really know what we were doing.” At Just Like Heaven, they got to cosplay their college selves, present-day self-assuredness intact. VanWyngarden sums it up: “Doing that on a huge stage in 2023 was magical.”

There will always be nostalgia, just as there will always be teenagers trying to write pop songs in their bedrooms. Just as in 2007, we’re fated to pretend.

Chris Payne is a New York–based culture writer. His first book, Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo’s Mainstream Explosion: 1999-2008, came out in 2023 on Dey Street Books.

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