MGMT on Naming New Album ‘Loss of Life’ — And the ‘Wildness’ of That ‘Saltburn’ Synch

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Two decades since forming MGMT as Wesleyan University students, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser haven’t lost their psychedelic puckishness. Despite its grim title, their fifth album, Loss of Life (out Feb. 23), contains some of the duo’s most sincere, hopeful music yet. “Coming out of the pandemic, there was a whole wave of super doom-oriented art and music and apocalyptic shit,” VanWyngarden says of MGMT’s first album since 2018’s Little Dark Age.

Recorded in 2021 and 2022, Loss of Life is also the act’s Mom + Pop debut (after leaving longtime label Columbia Records) and features “Mother Nature,” MGMT’s first hit on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart since its 2007 smashes “Time To Pretend” and “Kids.” As VanWyngarden says, “This album is more reflective and existential and sort of philosophical. But at the core, it’s about always going back to [the idea of] love being something that you can depend on — and that is sort of indestructible.”

How did you settle on Mom + Pop as your new label home?

Goldwasser: It was after the album was completed. We got to shop the record around – it was the first time we’ve ever really done that. One of the people works at the label went to Wesleyan, where we also went, and her faculty advisor was the same as ours. We bonded of that the first time we met, just talking about weird stuff that we did in college.

VanWyngarden: We kind of did, like, label speed dating. Everyone we talked to was super, super cool. It could have been great to go with any of them. In the end, Mom + Pop had this sort of ethos that was at the foundation of their label that we were attracted to and related to. Goldie, as [Mom + Pop founder/owner Michael Goldstone] is affectionately known, had been in the music industry for decades before for major labels and came out of it kind of wanting to do something [at Mom + Pop] that was trying to change things up and be more all about the artists, like in a true sense. So we liked that.

You’ve said that your last two records, 2013’s MGMT and 2018’s Little Dark Age, dealt with the paranoia and anxiety of living through the modern era. What was your headspace when making this one?

VanWyngarden: We both turned 40 while making this album, and we wanted to find a way to retain our light-hearted, playful approach to things but to challenge ourselves to have more of a sincere and hopeful message. Coming out of the pandemic, there was a whole wave of super doom-oriented art and music and apocalyptic shit. A common condition for humans for, like, the entire history of humanity is that you feel like the world is ending – and it’s probably because you know you’re gonna die. Mortality is an apocalypse that’s common to every human. It’s sure, it’s certain. This album is more reflective and existential and sort of philosophical. But at the core, it’s about always going back to love being something that you can depend on – and that is sort of indestructible.

You reteamed with Little Dark Age producer Patrick Wimberly and longtime studio collaborator Dave Fridmann. What do they bring to the table?

Goldwasser: Those are the human beings that we feel most comfortable existing with in the creative process. We just want to feel like uninhibited and natural in the whole process of creating music. Especially having worked with Dave Fridmann since our first record, we just have this level of understanding and communication with him. I don’t know how we would ever build that up with anybody else.

VanWyngarden: Considering how naive and new to everything in the music industry we were when we first met [Dave], he’s almost like a dolphin trainer. Like we were these dolphins that came to his complex and he trained. Everything we know traces back to Dave Fridmann. Patrick’s the same, really. He’s a peer; he’s a producer, but more so in the sense of helping preserve the atmosphere and the vibe.

For Loss of Life, you also widened your creative circle compared to your previous albums. Tell me about that decision and how it impacted the record.

Goldwasser: Part of that’s a result of us being less precious about the way that we make music. It had been hard for us at a lot of points in time, wanting to be recognized more as producers ourselves and wanting people to know that we’re responsible for the sounds on the records – maybe we’ve had a chip on our shoulder about that in the past. With time and experience, we’ve learned to let go of some of that. The most important thing is to make good music.

“Mother Nature” has a cool lineup: Oneohtrix Point Never, Danger Mouse and Nels Cline. It’s also your first charting hit on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart since “Time To Pretend” and “Kids.”

VanWyngarden: I didn’t even know that.

How’d it come together, and how have you been reacting to its success?

VanWyngarden: I’ve driven around so much listening to classic rock radio, and I recognize that now, in terms of time having passed, we’re like eligible to be on classic rock stations. Along with ’90s Britpop, there’s a lot of classic rock influence [on “Mother Nature”]. When we were first working out the piano riff at the beginning, I always felt like there was a Supertramp feeling to it. It all really came together very naturally and organically on that song. We had known Brian Burton [Danger Mouse] for a really long time and we were we were working in his studio. He was there giving us advice and his opinion and helping work through sections. Then once we developed the song out and invited Oneohtrix Point Never on, he and Ben did a session where they just went hog wild with guitars and made this sort of shoegaze-y bridge. Then we got the song closer to where it ended up when we were working at Sean Lennon’s studio in September 2022. It was in upstate New York and Nels and Yuka [Honda] live close by, and then Oneohtrix Point Never was up there. There was this smorgasbord of amazing musicians. We had Nels go in and just fool around on the guitar and we were like, “Wow, this is incredible.”

Oneohtrix Point Never worked on five of this album’s tracks. Artists from The Weeknd to Soccer Mommy have been collaborating with him lately. How’d you connect with him? What did he add to Loss of Life?

Goldwasser: Andrew met him at a party in New York – and didn’t know who he was at the time. They just ended up having a really cool hang. After that, they hung out again. And then we thought it would be fun to get together with him and see what happened. It turned out we have a lot of the same musical references. We just got along really well. He got where we were going with the record. The way that he works is very curatorial – he mines sounds and has an encyclopedia of sounds that he knows, like, this is how you get this sound. I always get a kick out of seeing people’s different approaches to how they work.

“Time To Pretend” features prominently in Saltburn. How did that synch happen?

Goldwasser: We were approached by the filmmakers. I had been a fan of [director Emerald Fennell’s] Promising Young Woman — so I knew it was going to be something a little out of the ordinary.

VanWyngarden: I don’t remember exactly when it was brought to us; I don’t think I was paying too close of attention. I was like, “OK, another [person] who wants to use ‘Time To Pretend’… I wish they would use one of our newer songs.” But then I saw Saltburn and I was like, “Oh, this is set in 2007, this totally makes sense.” It’s really great to be kind of passively participating in another cultural phenomenon. I’m impressed that there’s Georges Bataille-level wildness happening in this massive pop cultural film — that’s not very common. To have a song in that is cool, because we like being subversive and irreverent too.

You debuted with Oracular Spectacular almost two decades ago – and played it in full at Just Like Heaven festival last year. How do you look back on that time?

Goldwasser: It’s pretty wild how things get put into context, the stories that people tell about things over the years. At the time, we weren’t thinking about how people were going to be writing about it 20 years later. We were young and dumb and somehow we…

VanWyngarden: Wait, how are you going to finish that?

Goldwasser: …are still here.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2024 issue of Billboard.

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