MGMT Takes A Risk With 'Congratulations' Album
When Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser -- the fashionably hip Brooklyn-based duo who comprise MGMT -- handed over a copy of their forthcoming album, "Congratulations," to Columbia Records executives just before Christmas last year, the label seemed a bit apprehensive.
With the unexpected success of MGMT's 2007 debut, "Oracular Spectacular," which earned the group a best new artist nod at the 2010 Grammy Awards and spawned radio hits like "Kids" and "Time to Pretend," the major-label execs were taken aback by the duo's decision to release a decidedly weird nine-song follow-up.
"Congratulations" includes a frenzied psychedelic surf-rock cut about Brian Eno; a creepy instrumental whose title, "Lady Dada's Nightmare," plays off a certain of-the-moment pop star; and a trippy, 12-plus-minute track with a loose theme about surfing the Arctic Circle off the coast of Russia.
"They started off saying it was a great album and that it was beautiful, and they loved it," Vanwyngarden says. "But then they said, 'We just need to make sure that this is what you want' -- like, 'Are you sure this is what you want to put out there?' " They were sure, and the label greenlit the release of "Congratulations" without any request to commercially finesse the tunes. The album will be released worldwide by Columbia; a North American release date is set for April 13, and the set will be available a day earlier in the United Kingdom.
So far, the MGMT camp has received positive feedback from its peers and the music press about the band's new, off-kilter direction. But like most acts that quickly rise to fame with a successful debut, the true test will be whether MGMT fans are open-minded enough to buy into the eccentricities of the group's sophomore effort. "Every indication we're getting is that people really want it," says Mark Kates, who co-manages MGMT with Dave Gottlieb. "That doesn't mean they're going to like it, or that they're going to buy it, or that it will sell more or less than the last record. However, in this environment, it's exciting to be involved with a record that people are actually anticipating, because that's really hard to do."
FROM 'ORACULAR' TO 'CONGRATULATIONS'
MGMT has made an impressive mark since stepping into the spotlight three years ago. It has toured with acts like Of Montreal, Yeasayer, Beck and Paul McCartney, and has performed at nearly every major music festival in the United States and Europe. Word-of-mouth is fueled in a number of ways: the band's seemingly acid-inspired music videos that feature the good-looking pair dressed like modern-day hippies dancing around beach fires; radio airplay; being remixed by Justice and covered by Weezer; collaborations with Beck and rapper Kid Cudi; and heavy exposure through song placements in TV shows like "Gossip Girl," "90210," "CSI: New York" and the 2008 film "21."
All these elements factor into a successful promotional scheme for a normal album. But "Congratulations" could present a challenge for Columbia if its content doesn't connect with consumers in the same way as "Oracular Spectacular." "I don't know what that will mean for the top layer, mainstream middle America," Columbia senior director of marketing Nina Webb says. "But I really do hope they do find a way into this album, because I think it stands apart from other releases coming out right now."
"Oracular Spectacular" has sold 580,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 461,000 copies in the United Kingdom, according to the Official Charts Co. The set peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 last January and has spent 91 weeks on the chart. It topped out at No. 29 on Billboard's European albums chart and rose to No. 8 in the United Kingdom. Digitally, MGMT has sold 2.5 million tracks (the top seller being "Kids," which has sold 881,000 downloads), according to SoundScan. And in the United States, MGMT scored two radio hits on Billboard's Alternative chart with "Kids" (No. 9) and "Time to Pretend" (No. 23).
The figures aren't too shabby for a debut album from a virtually unknown act. But the question remains whether "Congratulations," one of the year's most anticipated rock releases, can live up to the high expectations of fans and critics. In recent interviews the band members freely admitted that people who loved the catchy, feel-good synth hooks of "Kids," "Time to Pretend" and "Electric Feel" may have trouble digesting their newer, more complex material. The duo's new album was co-produced by Spacemen 3 founding member Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember and influenced by the Beach Boys circa 1970 and obscure '80s music from post-punk psychedelic bands like Monochrome Set and Teardrop Explodes, Vanwyngarden says.
"They could've made a second album that was less ambitious, but that wouldn't be this band," Kates says. "They did not set out to write pop songs and hit singles."
The first test of whether fans would be open to MGMT's new musical direction came in early March. The band reluctantly gave the world a taste of the new album by posting the song "Flash Delirium" on its Web site. (The duo says "Congratulations" makes more sense when listened to it in one sitting.) As expected, music sites and blogs immediately reviewed the track, citing influences ranging from Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd to doo-wop to David Bowie-tinged psychedelia. Some reader comments dubbed it the "best song of 2010 so far," while others were flat-out confused. The mixed reactions weren't a surprise, the band says. "It might not be something as immediately catchy as the stuff on our last album," Goldwasser says. "We think of this album as something that will grow on people after a few listens."
Recorded in 11 months last year in upstate New York, Brooklyn and Malibu, Calif. ("Oracular Spectacular" was recorded and mixed in about 20 days), MGMT wrote the new songs "thinking about how we were going to play them live," says Goldwasser, who splits songwriting duties with Vanwyngarden. To achieve a fuller sound, the duo brought in its touring band -- including Matt Asti (bass, backing vocals), Will Berman (drums, backing vocals) and James Richardson (guitar, backing vocals) -- while recording. Thematically, the set is a "collection of songs that reflect on how chaotic our worlds have been for the past year-and-a-half and what it did to us," says Vanwyngarden, who pens the lyrics.
Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser formed MGMT in 2002 while attending the artist-nurturing Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. They were signed four years later by Columbia A&R rep Maureen Kenny. Vanwyngarden points out that half of the tracks on "Oracular Spectacular" were written during the pair's experimental college days, when they were "super-idealistic pranksters who just wanted to mess with people." The remaining songs were "fueled by paranoia after signing to Columbia Records and not knowing what the fuck was going to happen," he adds.
With "Congratulations," however, the members have had more time to reflect on the direction they would like to take as songwriters and artists. And they don't feel the pressure of living up to the success of "Oracular Spectacular."
"We're not that concerned with having a No. 1 record or anything like that," Goldwasser says. "Of course, there are probably people at our label who would love to have a No. 1 record, but we try not to think about things like that."
Vanwyngarden concurs. "We never set out to be as big as possible. It was kind of a fluke, in a way," he says. "And we never felt completely comfortable with success, so it allowed us to make something that didn't have that in mind."
Columbia executives say they're supportive of MGMT's expansive new musical approach, which will ultimately "solidify them as career artists," Webb says.
NPR, 'LETTERMAN' ON DECK
Now, with less than a month before the release of "Congratulations," the primary challenge for Columbia is getting fans to hear the new music. The label recently began a marketing plan that aims to get fans to listen to the album in its entirety. To accomplish this, Columbia set up the Web site WhereIsMGMT.com, which is launching in six U.S. cities and eventually expanding to other worldwide markets. The site provides clues on a designated day to a location that will allow a select number of fans to hear "Congratulations" -- the first listening session in New York was held in a 15-person passenger van -- and then later write a review on MGMT's Web site.
MGMT also plans to appeal to its following's more offbeat sensibilities by selling a limited number of "Congratulations" with a scratch-off front cover (designed by cartoonist Anthony Ausgang) that includes a custom metal coin and a 32-page booklet of photos and lyrics. Thirty thousand copies of the scratch-off version will be available in the United States for $13 apiece, according to Webb.
Additionally, for Record Store Day (April 17), the band will release 2,000 copies of the lengthy track "Siberian Breaks" on 12-inch vinyl.
In late March, fans across the globe will be able to stream "Congratulations" in its entirety on NPR.org, and a number of music videos will follow in the next several months. MGMT is also scheduled to perform on "Saturday Night Live" (April 24) and "Late Show With David Letterman" (May 11).
To raise awareness of the album internationally, MGMT embarked on a four-week promo tour that began March 15 and was scheduled to include stops in London, Berlin, Paris and Australia. A key market for the group is the United Kingdom, where it played a club show March 18 at Heaven in London.
Columbia U.K. managing director Mike Smith says his focus will be getting songs from "Congratulations" heard on U.K. radio. "If we do that, everyone will fall in love with this album," he says, noting that MGMT was scheduled for a BBC Radio 1 live session with Zane Lowe in mid-March. "It isn't something that I expect people to get after one listen."
MGMT will spend the remainder of 2010 touring the world with its live band. Several concerts are already booked in Europe and Australia, and the group will spend the summer touring North America, beginning with a second-stage slot at next month's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. Other confirmed U.S. festivals include a co-headlining performance at the Bamboozle festival (March 17) in East Rutherford, N.J., and an appearance at the Sasquatch Music Festival (May 2) in Quincy, Wash.
MGMT North American booking agent Heather Kolker at the Paradigm Talent Agency says a summer headlining tour is in the works. "The venues will range from very small, special moments to a couple of bigger ones," she says, adding that MGMT will play a handful of college campuses in April. "It's a work in progress."
Ultimately, only time will tell if all of these promotional efforts will lead to album sales. But if all else fails, MGMT can always revert back to what made it popular in the first place. "Our next album is probably going to be completely different from anything else we've ever done, but maybe it will be an electronic dance-pop album and everyone will be happy," Goldwasser says with a laugh.
Additional reporting by Richard Smirke in Manchester, England.