“I wonder how far we can go with our silly music?” pondered a bobbleheaded likeness of MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser onstage at Los Angeles’s Just Like Heaven festival Saturday. “Do you think we could ever record a professional album? Or play big live shows in front of thousands of fans?”
“Man, that’s the dream! Can you imagine?” Goldwasser’s papier-mâché bandmate, Andrew VanWyngarden, answered ironically.
Just Like Heaven, a celebration of what is now known as the neon-lit “indie sleaze” era of the aughts, threw its annual Meet Me in the Bathroom-level party at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl-adjacent Brookside Golf Club on May 13 — with white-belted revelers throwing misshapes and shifting vibes to headliners the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Art Star” (a rare “deep cut” from the NYC trio’s 2001 EP), the Bravery’s first festival performance in a decade, and another anticipated reunion from the long-dormant Walkmen, whose frontman Hamilton Leithauser confessed with relief to the packed Orion Stage audience, “When we got back together, we had no idea if anyone would remember who we were.”
But perhaps no Just Like Heaven moment was more eagerly awaited than the triumphant main stage set by neo-psychedelic disco duo MGMT, who perhaps more than any other band on Saturday’s bill embodied and encapsulated the freewheeling spirit of the indie sleaze era.
MGMT’s landmark 2007 debut, Oracular Spectacular, arguably opened doors for acts like Foster the People, Tame Impala, Temper Trap, Passion Pit, Portugal. The Man, Grouplove, and, more recently, lovelytheband and Glass Animals; the record’s ubiquitous singles, “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and especially “Kids,” became anthems of an indie generation. And at Just Like Heaven, as MGMT multi-instrumentalists Goldwasser and VanWyngarden played Oracular Spectacular in its entirety for the first time ever, some of the now-grown kids in the Brookside audience had been waiting to hear “Kids” on a proper festival stage since Coachella 2010.
When Goldwasser and VanWyngarden founded MGMT as freshman at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, they, like their bobblehead doppelgangers, never envisioned the success that would follow, with 2 million in record sales for Oracular Spectacular and tours with the likes of Radiohead and Paul McCartney. “When we wrote ‘Time to Pretend’” — MGMT’s obviously tongue-in-gaunt-cheek sendup of rock ‘n’ roll success and excess, which ironically came to the pass for the duo — “we were totally taking the piss out of the rock-star thing. And all of a sudden that song was, like, a single, and we had to play it every day for … two years,” VanWyngarden once griped to The Guardian. “That’s not where we want to be. We got a glimpse of that and shrunk back. We thought, ‘Hmmm, I dunno. Let’s write a really weird album.’”
And that, they most certainly did. That actually may have all been part of MGMT’s long-game master plan: VanWyngarden once told Under the Radar that MGMT “were trying to convince our A&R woman [at Columbia Records] not to put ‘Kids’ on our first album,” and back in college, he and Goldwasser “would joke about this big fantasy of getting as popular as possible and then destroying it in this bombastic and crazy fashion. Even if it was a joke, that little seed of a fantasy, some people would pick up on that and see us putting out an album like Congratulations.’” Even before Congratulations’ release, the band told Britain’s NME that their next album would be “terrible”— a joke that was taken out of context and, in hindsight, kickstarted the public MGMT backlash at the end of the aughts.
Whether or not it was premeditated, it was still a shock when, three years after Oracular Spectacular’s spectacular breakthrough, the band followed up with one of the most notable “difficult second albums” in pop history — a willfully uncommercial prog opus that sold one-third as much as its predecessor and surely had the A&R executives at Columbia wringing their hands, scratching their heads, and protesting that they “didn’t hear a single.” Many similarly confounded fairweather fans interpreted the dubiously titled Congratulations as nothing less than an act of self-sabotage. However, other fans took up Congratulations as a sort of cause célèbre, proclaiming it a cult-classic misunderstood sophomore effort a la Weezer’s Pinkerton, Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn…, Terence Trent d’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh, or the fictional Eddie & the Cruisers’ A Season in Hell. Still, even the staunchest Congratulations defenders were probably disappointed 13 years ago when MGMT played Coachella’s Outdoor Stage and did not perform the festival favorite “Kids.” This was an obstinate omission, hardly an oversight, and it unofficially signified the end of the Oracular era.
“The people with the loudest voices during that time were the people who were being snarky and complaining that we didn’t write another ‘Kids.’ You know, whatever,” Goldwasser told Under the Radar. “We know a lot of people got the second record and got really into it. I guess it was just a learning process for us. At first, [the backlash] was really disappointing, and we didn’t really understand why so many people were saying negative things. But we learned to shut that out, and after a year a lot of people came around to it and started saying really nice things about [the second album]. I feel like at this point we’ve learned not to care too much about that stuff.”
And now, 15 years after Oracular Spectacular (and after a new age of surprise success for MGMT, when their 2017 song “Little Dark Age” went viral on TikTok during of the COVID-19 pandemic), VanWyngarden and Goldwasser finally came to terms with their debut LP’s legacy on the Just Like Heaven stage, playing the full album in its original running order. And it turns out the Dave Friddman-produced Oracular Spectacular was always a “really weird album” in its own right. It’s no wonder the band wasn’t prepared for its runaway radio success.
As Goldwasser told The Guardian, MGMT “didn’t consider ourselves as a band and we were more interested in pulling pranks on people,” so the band’s Oracular Spectacular spectacular at Just Like Heaven wasn’t some reverent museum piece. The bonkers concert began with an orchestral Oracular overture, set to a fever-dream video supercut of heartland Americana images that looked like a hellscape version of a Stater Bros. supermarket commercial, followed by appearances from gauze-swathed interpretive dancers and, on “Piece of What,” a full white-robed children’s choir. At one point, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser, who started the concert in lab coats that made them resemble either messianic indie-rock cult leaders or the butcher-style Beatles on that banned Yesterday and Today cover, even underwent a costume change — returning to the stage in TRON-style LED headbands and glittering athleisure straight out of a Cobrasnake snap from Cinespace circa 2008.
Since Oracular Spectacular was surprisingly frontloaded with hits (by the fifth song, the duo had already played all three singles), many fairweather fans started trickling out at that point to catch the rest of M83’s set on the Stardust Stage, thus missing out on Side 2 psych-prog deep cuts like “4th Dimensional Transition” and “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters.” But the audience did finally get to see “Kids” live — in the most piss-taking, in-jokey, on-brand MGMT manner imaginable, proving that they now have a real sense of humor after years of processing their conflicted feelings about their early success.
Before “Kids,” those above-mentioned, arts-and-crafty papier-mâché MGMT mascots took the Orion Stage, re-enacting a Wesleyan dorm-room scene as they told the song’s origin story. (“Kids” was created on a blueberry iMac, apparently.) “Our music is getting better, I think. I don’t care what the experimental music department says!” declared the giant-headed faux Goldwasser in a stilted, artificially intelligent voice. “No matter how far we go with MGMT, I already feel like I won, because I get to make sure with you,” the puppet VanWyngarden gushed, as the two hugged it out. Then the real-life bandmates returned with yet another costume change, in hockey uniforms, and played an onstage hockey game for reasons unexplained. Those crazy kids!
While MGMT didn’t play any post-Oracular material, they did offer another rare treat for longtime fans, encoring with their first performance in 18 years of “Love Always Remains,” a 2015 Time to Pretend EP track from their Wesleyan days (when they were still called the Management). Other Just Like Heaven highlights included a last-minute early-afternoon set by the best stage-banterer in the biz, Howlin’ Pelle, and his garage-rock troupe the Hives (filling in for fellow Swedes the Sounds, who had to cancel due to visa issues); Nebraska electro-punks the Faint (amusingly performing “Your Retro Career Melted” in the blazing L.A. heat); Empire of the Sun playing a perfect festival-at-sundown dance set; and queer provocateur Peaches dousing herself in golden champagne showers, dancing with giant vulvas, and rocking a wardrobe of ever-changing granny-panty onesies emblazoned with slogans like “Drag Saves Lives,” “Thank God for Abortion,” and “Trans Rights Now.”
But perhaps “Time Won’t Let Me Go” band the Bravery’s frontman Sam Endicott captured the festival’s spirit best, when he played right to the nostalgic crowd by saying: “You wanna hear some some new songs? Well, that’s too bad — because we’re not playing any!” (The Bravery did toss in some Fugazi, Descendents, and Black Flag covers between their own classic radio hits, however, and teased that they’ll be releasing a comeback album in 2024.) Time won’t let them go, indeed.
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