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MGMT's sound is, in a word, eclectic. Time Out London described their music as "a woozy, complex and omnipresent sound which encompasses surf, psych, various electronicas, prog and shoegaze. Generally all at the same time." (Source)
Their two main instruments are guitar and keyboard, but their sound is anything but simple. Everything is synthesized, compressed, scratchy, overdriven, and loopy. Their sound is kind of a throwback to the eighties but with a more modernized twist. All this elaborate craziness has rather simple origins—Andrew and Ben screwing around on a laptop computer in their dorm room: "We would sit and make up these weird little electronic loops, play them live and do silly things over the noise. We didn't sing at that point. Then at some point we decided to start writing pop songs, kind of as a joke, so the whole thing wasn't that serious to start off, it's still not." (Source)
When they first started doing live shows while still in school, they basically sat up on stage in front of large audiences and experimented with random keyboard functions for hours. One of the funnier stories is when they played the Ghostbusters theme over and over for an hour. Andrew says, "Yeah, an hour. I mean, it went places, it was a pretty psychedelic version of it, but the drum loop was going the whole time and I just laid on the floor and closed my eyes and muttered stuff into the microphone, Ben held down a synth line pretty well." (Source)
Their on-campus live shows became somewhat of a phenomenon because they sounded so different from what was out there at the time: "[We staged] these obnoxious, noisy live electronic shows—we never planned on having it be a recorded project—where we would write these weird techno loops and arrangements that we could play with live. Most of it was running live off the computer and we had a turntable plugged into some guitar pedals, a radio, and a tape player. It was all electronically generated at that point. We would write a new song for each show and our shows would be 15 minutes long." (Source)
For the album Oracular Spectacular (where "Kids" can be found), the duo enlisted the help of producer David Fridmann, who also worked with the similarly experimental Flaming Lips. This collaboration seems to have added to the duo's unique musical style and helped to skyrocket them to fame:
We love his production work. I mean, we didn't want to work with him because we wanted to sound like the Flaming Lips, it was more that we felt like he understood us on a personal level and he really got out music. We were pretty sure after talking to him that he would make it the album we wanted it to be. Dave mixed it and he did a lot of the mastering. A lot of the album sounds over compressed, like really mashed. There's times when there is full mixed distortion, which is crazy, it sounds awesome. He ran the whole thing through crappy '90s compressors. There are so many bands that are over compressed so they sound loud for the radio. I hope our album sounds loud, but not bad. (Source)
When asked to define what kind of music has influenced their unique style, they said:
[Andrew] We've always been attracted to what we call creep balls music, which is just really strange music. Some people would call it bad, but we call it good.
[Ben] It's really gross music..
[Andrew] We like gross music, examples Ben…
[Ben] Erm, Psychic TV maybe?
[Andrew] I guess we like it if it's pretty, but really strange. We like Chrome, Spiritualized and Spacemen 3. A lot of British music too. The oldies, the goodies!
As far as their albums go, it seems like MGMT's musical style changes from song to song. There is never an overarching consistency to the sound or genre. These boys just seem to want to play whatever they feel like at the time and mix it all up together: "A lot of times," Goldwasser says, "when we write songs we have had some kind of influence or a style that we really want to put into our music. Like, we'll say let's have that part sound like this and that part sound like that and then we piece it all together. We didn't plan anything, it was more of a song by song thing." (Source)
"Kids" basically consists of four main chords that repeat while synthesizers, weird sounds, and beats are layered over them. The three major chords are A Major, F minor, D Major, and E Major. Overall, they come together to create a happy-go-lucky kind of melody, something you might expect in a song about kids. The F minor, however, does throw a bit of darkness and complexity into the mix.
And the lyrics certainly don't paint a picture-perfect vision of childhood. Even weirder is that the screaming "children" in the beginning of the song are actually adults' voices that have been altered. MGMT's unique sound style works perfectly here because the electronic loops remind us of our own childhoods. (Babies of the '80s and '90s, anyone?) The music itself invokes old TV theme songs and other catchy music that kids and adults alike can appreciate.
Every university has its fair share of start-up bands. Playing in a band is the thing to do if you are a musician and in college. Everyone's making new friends, has time on their hands, is accustomed to pulling all-nighters, and possesses a youthful optimism. All this creates a perfect formula for band formation.
This is exactly how MGMT got started: a couple of friends in a dorm room were messing around on a laptop. Luckily, they happened to be talented musicians and before you know it a band was born. As one journalist puts it:
This is the story of two crazy kids who wrote some deliberately obtuse songs while getting high at college, before going their separate ways, moving to different cities and forgetting all about their pop dreams. The twist is that, by total accident, they end up signing to a major record label a year later and then have to relearn what they have unlearned before their triumphant appearance, confusing America, on David Letterman. If this was a movie, it would star Aaron Carter and Stifler from 'American Pie' and you'd want your money back afterwards. In real life, fortunately, it stars likeable cosmos cadets Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser and it's all good. (Source)
The duo met at Wesleyan College in Connecticut in 2002. The guys were music majors and played live shows around campus. They recorded a bunch of tracks, but never really had the intention of starting a band. Though they went their separate ways after graduating, they did manage to release the "Time to Pretend" EP on an indie label, Cantora Records. Even though the EP was released on such a small label, it caught the attention of prominent producer Steve Lillywhite of industry giant Columbia Records. Through a fortunate series of serendipitous opportunities and accidents, MGMT ended up getting signed to a major label.
As Goldwasser told an interviewer:
We never really could believe what was happening. We wouldn't have been able to handle it if we'd taken it seriously, so we had to treat it as a joke early on. At first we thought it was a prank at first that somebody had gotten in touch with us. We hadn't shopped around at all for labels because we didn't think anybody would be interested. We were pretty much ready to move on from the band as a career choice. There was an intern who worked for our A&R at Columbia who was friends with a couple of our friends from college. He just dropped it off on her desk or something. So it was really random. We weren't expecting to hear from any labels at all. (Source)
Then, MGMT took off into the stratosphere, gaining worldwide praise and attention. Yet the two guys at the heart of it still maintain their original quirkiness. After concerts, they tend to linger onstage after their set to play an encore of covers that they hardly know. They want to play a concert only for dogs.
In one of their earliest gigs, they played a weird electronic loop while inflating a giant lawn-ornament snowman. When it was done inflating, they stopped what they were playing and did a wacky cover of "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails. Once, during an outdoor festival, there was a high school cheerleading competition and the boys invited the winning squad onstage to perform their number during "Kids."
MGMT have come a long way from the guys who would just screw around onstage during college. Through all of their experimentation and crazy stunts, they've become true artists. And for those fans who refuse to accept their metamorphosis, we'll leave you with two final thoughts:
[Ben] It's kinda funny to see people try to figure out where we're coming from or try to pin us down one way or another. We're just kind of f-----g around; we don't really know what we're doing. (Source)
[Andrew] We still have that mentality where we wanna wear fur coats and always be making the music we want to make and being good dudes. No one likes assholes. It's annoying when people turn into assholes, we never want to be like that. (Source)
MGMT has often been accused of writing lyrics that are deliberately obtuse. "Kids" certainly seems to fit the bill.
First of all, who is the speaker of the song and who is the "you" they are addressing? It appears to be an adult speaking to a youngster: "You were a child crawling on your knees toward it, making Momma so proud, but your voice was too loud." That your voice is "too loud" could reference the fact that one day we all outgrow our parents and somehow need to develop our own voice in the world. However, the past tense of the lyrics gives the impression that we're hearing an adult give advice to a child.
Perhaps, Ben and Andrew are in a way talking to their younger selves, trying to give themselves post-college advice on how to stay afloat in the real world. Wouldn't it be great if we could actually do that? Reach back into the past and tell yourself what to watch out for. All twenty-somethings should be told ahead of time that the end of their first major relationship is not the end of their life, that the gas will be shut off if they don't pay the bill, and that their mothers can't write sick notes to get them out of work.
As one of MGMT's bios states: "'Kids' is filled with all those college feelings: naivety, idealism, nostalgia, happiness, sadness" (source).
The biggest piece of advice in the song, by far, is "Control yourself, take only what you need from it." This message is kind of vague and can be interpreted in a number of ways. As we mentioned, this may be a reference to Shel Silverstein's book, The Giving Tree, which is about a boy who takes advantage of a selfless tree until she is reduced to a stump.
Perhaps the band's point is that the key to life is moderation: anything in excess will lead to trouble. Taking more than you need will not necessarily make you happy. In fact, it can cause big problems. MGMT has commented a lot on the excessiveness of the rock and roll life. The band's first big hit, "Time to Pretend" (an attack on the excesses of the rockstar life) shares many common themes with "Kids." Namely, don't go overboard or you will get screwed by the world. "Kids" could be seen as a warning and "Time to Pretend" as the consequence of ignoring that warning.
Next we get to the whole "family of trees wanting, to be haunted" line. What on earth does that mean? Well, it could be a simple play on "family tree," or maybe another reference to The Giving Tree. Or perhaps it's just a metaphor for what happens when a child grows up. The kid in the video was surrounded by monsters and ghouls, right? So, perhaps, this line is suggesting that all family trees have skeletons in the closet and are "haunted" by various traumas, tragedies, and secrets.
It could also mean that as a child grows up, he gets thrown out into the real world full of monsters which will inevitably haunt him and his family. And of course, it could also mean that the kid is fated to one day turn into a "monster" himself.
The song is full of sensory imagery, from visual ("we liked to watch you") to auditory ("laughing," "crying"), to tactile ("warm," "shivers"). When we're babies, most of the input we receive from the world around us is simple and sensory. MGMT's use of these kinds of images could perhaps strengthen the image of childhood in the listener's mind. "The water is warm, but it's sending me shivers," seems to almost recast the singer as the child. It's also another good example of sensory imagery. Although the baby is content in his little bath, the shivers could be foreshadowing the unpleasant feelings that lie ahead for him when he grows up. Perhaps, this is intended to show that the baby doesn't yet understand the ugliness of the world in a logical way, but feels it somehow instinctively.
The final verse is even more abstract:
The memories fade
Like looking through a fogged mirror
Decision to decisions are made
And not bought,
But I thought
This wouldn't hurt a lot.
I guess not.
This last verse seems to be about the harsh realities that accompany coming of age. The pleasant, idyllic memories of childhood fade to the point where they are blurred "like looking through a fogged mirror." Our adolescence and early adulthood can usually be summed up as a series of immature decisions that bring us pain, heartbreak, rejection, and, ultimately, growth.
The point that MGMT might be making, however, is that without all these stupid decisions and growing pains, we would never be able to learn from our mistakes. We need to mess up a little if we're to eventually turn into responsible, conscientious, mature adults. Hopefully, all our mistakes will one day help us make a worthwhile contribution to the world.