The Music of Andrew VanWyngarden, Part One: "Oracular Spectacular" and Before
Andrew VanWyngarden at the 2011 Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival
Justin Fox Burks
In the December Memphis magazine cover story "The Future is Now," we take an up-close-and-personal look at Andrew VanWyngarden, the world-famous musician who hails from Memphis. As lead singer of the indie rock band MGMT, VanWyngarden's career has led him to platinum records, Grammy nominations, and the world's biggest stages.
As a web-only supplement to the story, Memphis magazine examines "The Music of Andrew VanWyngarden," in two parts. Part one looks at VanWyngarden's musical outpout during his time at White Station High School, in the bands Glitter Penis and Accidental Mersh. It also examines the music of MGMT from the Time to Pretend EP and culminating with the band's smash major-label debut, Oracular Spectacular. Part two of "The Music of Andrew VanWyngarden" considers the MGMT album Congratulations and beyond.
While at White Station High School, VanWyngarden formed his first band with his friend, Dan Treharne (pictured left, above, with Andrew on the right). Dubbed Glitter Penis, the group was essentially the young men with a computer, “just making songs,” VanWyngarden says. Ironic and funny, Glitter Penis was the first dipped toe in the pool.
"Sparkle John" — An origin story of sorts.
"Hippycrit" — Lo-fi but catchy. Three steps above most any other kids with some instruments and and a computer.
"Crumz On My Lap" — VanWyngarden and Treharne rap. (And dig the Blue Monkey shirt VanWyngarden is wearing.)
"Milk & Rice" — hip-hop, comic, with a little Bee Gees falsetto.
The dipping became a little more serious, and certainly more public with VanWyngarden’s second high school band, Accidental Mersh. Massively popular, as Memphis high school bands at the turn of the twenty-first century went, Accidental Mersh saw VanWyngarden and area students Hank Sullivant, Nick Robbins, Charlie Gerber, and Wyeth Greene forming a rock group.
Accidental Mersh was influenced by local bands such as Big Ass Truck and played sizable gigs, full of massive numbers of high-school kids, at Newby’s, the Overton Park Shell (pictured above), and the New Daisy.
Their first album, which didn't have a title, was recorded at Ardent in 2000, and it reached the #2 spot on Napster's "Unsigned Bands" chart. Their second album, Mirror Israeli, was available in most of the major and independent record stores around Memphis, but it's unclear whether any — even one — copies were ever sold.
At an MGMT rehearsal before the 2011 Memphis in May concert, VanWyngarden saw an Accidental Mersh bumper sticker still on the wall at the New Daisy along with contemporaries such as Mrs. Fletcher and FreeWorld. The band had the stickers made by a website where you could make your own political or union stickers.
But Mersh broke up as high-school groups are wont to do during the great collegiate diaspora.
The members of the band had committed to reuniting in Memphis in 2002, the summer after their freshmen college years. VanWyngarden invited along Benjamin Goldwasser, a young man he had befriended at Wesleyan University, to live with him in Memphis during the summer break. Goldwasser played keyboard for the Mersh during their brief stint back together. “We were always scrambling to find decent keyboard players, and the summer before we'd been resorting mostly to hired guns (like Ross Rice),” recalls Mersh bassist Charlie Gerber.
These were among — if not literally — VanWyngarden’s and Goldwasser’s first shows together in a public arena. Accidental Mersh had a weekly gig at Newby’s, among other shows the band scheduled. Steve Selvidge (formerly of Big Ass Truck, today a member of the Hold Steady) sat in from time to time. In this last incarnation of Accidental Mersh, the band played a lot of Sullivant material that would wind up as Whigs songs.
The Whigs were Sullivant’s Athens, Georgia, band, that enjoyed a fair amount of success, touring with the Black Keys and Kings of Leon. Sullivant would later form the band Kuroma along with Mersh drummer Nick Robbins, and joined MGMT briefly (appearing with them on their appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, among other places). Sullivant introduced VanWyngarden and Goldwasser to guitarist James Richardson, who would become MGMT’s guitarist.
The members of Accidental Mersh were in for a dose of reality, however, upon reuniting: The new shows were sparsely attended, a far cry from the fledgling rock-star status they had begun to enjoy as seniors in high school. At the band’s last pre-college performance, in August 2001, about 1,000 people crammed into the New Daisy to see the three-and-a-half hour show.
As it turns out, the 21-and-over requirements of some of the places they played may have prohibited many of their fans from going. The discontinuity after nine months away from their fans may have played a role. Whatever it was, the band played its first show back at the Map Room to about 40 people, and some other shows saw the band playing to a dozen drunks and the kitchen staff.
“I think we knew after that that the band wasn't going to be popular anymore and that that summer would be the last time we'd play together,” Gerber says. “But we had a great summer and a blast playing those weekly gigs.
“Ben was great, too, we probably would've killed one another if he hadn't injected some new blood into the group,” Gerber says.
"Bad Thoughts" — Dig that organ and Memphis soul groove.
VanWyngarden went to Wesleyan, where he met a freshman from New York, Benjamin Goldwasser. They were in the same dorm and, VanWyngarden says, they were kindred spirits with similar backgrounds and musical tastes and, as it turns out, talents. Goldwasser, a keyboardist, and VanWyngarden, the guitarist, made their debut as a band called The Management at a college party, repeatedly playing the theme song from Ghostbusters. The band’s original concept? An ironic, sarcastic take on mainstream pop music. MGMT née The Management was a fixture of the Wesleyan social scene, playing frat parties and on campus whenever they could.
Time to Pretend EP (Cantora Records)
MGMT developed the songs “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” during that time, released a self-produced EP on Cantora Records in 2005, and toured with the indie rock band Of Montreal to support the EP. In addition to early versions of "Time to Pretend" and "Kids," the EP had the pre-major-label cuts "Boogie Down," "Destrokk," "Love Always Remains," and "Indie Rokkers." The EP was remastered and re-released in 2009 and can be found pretty readily. (Even in disc form, as a recent sighting at a Best Buy in Memphis proved.)
"Boogie Down" — A classic.
"Destrokk" — Even better.
More video: In the studio, recording the EP.
VanWyngarden and Goldwasser thought MGMT might be played out. That’s when Columbia Records came calling in 2006. An executive at the label had heard the duo’s EP and began wooing the young grads, making them a six-figure offer to sign with the venerable label.
Andrew's father, Bruce VanWyngarden, recalls Andrew calling and asking for advice about the Columbia offer. Andrew and Benjamin were torn between remaining a true indie band or signing with a major label. Bruce remembers saying, “Sign with Columbia. If it’s good enough for Bob Dylan, it’s good enough for you.” Andrew later used that line in a couple of interviews.
Oracular Spectacular (Columbia Records)
MGMT’s first major label studio album, Oracular Spectacular, produced by David Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney), was released by Columbia in January 2008 to critical acclaim and strong sales. Spurred on by three singles — “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” — the album would go platinum or gold in the U.S., UK, Australia, Canada, Belgium, Ireland, and New Zealand. Oracular Spectacular was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist (losing to the Zac Brown Band). “Kids” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Performance (losing to the Black Eyed Peas).
"Time to Pretend"
About a musician on the precipice of mega-fame, “Time to Pretend” is a fun, funny, tragic affair. With an infinite-mirror perspective, the character in the song writes in future tense about looking back on a career he’s fated to have. “Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives,” VanWyngarden sings. Then: “This is our decision, to live fast and die young. We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun.”
“We’re fated to pretend,” the chorus predicts — “pretend” signifying a life less ordinary, name-checking the perils of celebrity: drugs and divorce. Distant from a reality with roots in family, pets, and home, the whirlwind lifestyle is capable even of retroactively obliterating a normal childhood.
The song concludes with a nod to the destiny of Elvis or Jim Morrison: “We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end.”
All sung over one of the catchiest tunes you’ll ever want to hear.
More video: See the version performed on The Late Show with David Letterman in January 2008.
Arguably their best song. Seventies dance dragged into the post-millennial universe. A line from the lyrics is MGMT's mission statement (in my mind, at least): "This is what the world is for: Making electricity."
VanWyngarden says, "In college, MGMT was much more ironic, a sarcastic take on mainstream pop music in a way. And that’s when we wrote 'Kids,' our most popular song. After touring and playing that song over and over and doing it karaoke-style, we wanted to make an album [Congratulations] that was music that we really felt good about that wasn’t overly serious but wasn’t joke music. I don’t think 'Kids' is a joke song, but I think it does have that air of sarcasm about it."
One of those generational, sea-change kind of songs that are rare. The Who's "My Generation" for the Millennials.
More video: "The Youth" performed live at the Grenada Theater in Dallas in 2007, touring to support their EP.
[Story Updated 11/30/11: Additions to the section on Accidental Mersh; one video and two photos.]
[Story Updated 12/21/11: More Accidental Mersh information, including reflections from band member Charlie Gerber.]