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Success Doesn't Stifle MGMT

of the Oakland Press

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There’s a quick but crucial moment on MGMT’s sophomore album, “Congratulations,” during the epic track “Siberian Breaks,” when the group’s Andrew VanWyngarden apes The Who and intones that “I hope I die before I get sold.”

It’s one of the album’s many references to the Brooklyn-based duo’s struggle with its own success.

MGMT’s 2007 debut album, “Oracular Spectacular,” was a profound breakthrough, going gold in the U.S., launching the hits “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” and earning VanWyngarden and partner Ben Goldwasser a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist and a Grammy win for a remix of the track “Electric Feel.” Rolling Stone magazine named it the 18th best album of the past decade, while Britain’s New Musical Express dubbed it the best album of 2008.

MGMT was name-checked as a new favorite by Paul McCartney and opened a show for the former Beatle at Boston’s Fenway Park, while Jay-Z approached the duo to remix a track from his “The Blueprint 3” album, though it ultimately wasn’t used. Nevertheless, the two musicians — who met and formed MGMT in 2005 at Wesleyan University — found themselves thrown for something of a loop by their rash of good fortune.

“I think when we made our last album, we didn’t really have any goal in mind and had no idea that it was going to take off as much as it did,” says Goldwasser, 27. “We had a really good time ... but we were a little bit unprepared for how intense the whole thing was going to be.

“There’s a sense that all the stuff was planned out and was meant to happen, but when we released ‘Oracular Spectacular,’ it wasn’t really apparent that we had any hit songs on it or anything. No one knew how the album was going to do. It really seemed like a happy accident to us.”

Goldwasser acknowledges that the off-balance MGMT did lapse into a bit of heavy drug use — Britain’s Q magazine placed the new “Congratulations” at No. 13 on its list of the Druggiest Albums Ever — while he and VanWyngarden were estranged for a short time. But grappling with the success did provide fuel for them to write about on “Congratulations.”

“It’s a fine line, though,” Goldwasser notes. “We wanted to write about what happened to us over the last couple of years, but we didn’t want to make ourselves out to be the victims of something. I don’t think we want to come across sounding too shell-shocked or anything.”

“Congratulations,” which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart in April, has managed to surprise MGMT’s fans, however — and not because of its lyrics. This time out the duo eschewed the pop charm of its hits in favor of trippy psychedelia and melodic invention, a more challenging set produced by Pete “Sonic Boom” Kemper of the British psychedelic alternative rock group Spaceman 3 and featuring songs that pay titular tribute to musical visionaries Brian Eno and Dan Treacy of the group Television Personalities.

Goldwasser acknowledges that it was “a little bit intimidating to try and get started on something new and figure out what direction to take it in,” but he adds that he and VanWyngarden — who worked on the album in upstate New York and in Malibu, Calif. — were not gratuitously trying to confound those who wanted another “Kids.”

“I think it would’ve been pretty hard to try to repeat what happened last time without it coming off as disingenuous,” Goldwasser explains. “We weren’t really trying to make a point out of the fact that we had this totally new direction; I think for us it was pretty natural. I think some of the things we said early on about this album being different and not having any catchy dance singles or whatever turned into a much bigger deal than we were ever making it out to be.

“This is just kind of the same thing we’ve always been doing. We’ve been interested in psychedelic music and music from the ’60s for a while, and I think you can hear it on some of (‘Oracular Spectacular’), too.”

Goldwasser says he and VanWyngarden were left alone to craft “Congratulations” without record company interference. “We’re both really harsh critics of ourselves,” he says, and that did lead to “a few moments” when they openly questioned where the music was headed.

“We would kind of step back and look at what we were doing and just wonder what people were going to think of it,” he concedes. “But I don’t think that ever stopped us from doing something. We had some momentum going and just kept following it. That’s just how we work.”

Goldwasser expects that’s how MGMT will make its third album, too. In fact, he says he and VanWyngarden are “ready to start working on something new” even with “Congratulations” early in its run. The direction for that album is undetermined, but it’s something that’s definitely on the duo’s radar.

“I think we’re going to try to write and record some stuff while we’re touring and see how that goes,” Goldwasser says. “That’s something we didn’t get around to doing much last time we were on tour, so we’re going to try to figure out how to do it more this time.

“I think it’s going to be different, but still sound like the same band. We like to change things up. But we’re really excited to start writing again; I think we want to try to come up with something new before we get too bored of playing stuff we already have.”

MGMT and Tame Impala perform Wednesday, June 16, at The Fillmore, 2115 Woodward, Detroit. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $29.50.Visit www.livenation.com.

Web Site: www.livenation.com

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