Remembering MGMT’s ‘Oracular Spectacular’, the college dorm experiment that went horribly right

Remembering MGMT’s ‘Oracular Spectacular’, the college dorm experiment that went horribly right

Words by Tom Parker

Exploring the ’00s masterpiece.

It was 2001 and college students Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser were lounging in their dorm, most likely hungover, meddling with a Nord or a Yamaha or some other synthesiser.

The idea of making music let alone a band appeared farfetched. Yet, as the duo began assimilating over a joint record collection completely with The Flaming Lips, Royal Trux and David Bowie, a pioneering psych-pop baby was born.

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In between classes, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser would secretly craft their identity song by song and suddenly The Management was spawned.

Demo albums We (Don’t) Care and Climbing to New Lows represented a duo not confined to minimalism. They were traversing a milky way without landing on any one planet — an expedition that explored everything from traditional rock to electronica and beyond.

Given time, The Management’s experimentations would blur together and eventually they found a consistent nerve. Soon enough, they would record Time to Pretend, a six-track EP that resided in its own pop homestead. It was inimitable to the humdrum of The All-American Rejects or Snow Patrol, popular bands dominating the charts at the time. VanWyngarden and Goldwasser were at the doorstep of stardom, but Time to Pretend would sit dormant, indecisive on a computer hard-drive.

The duo had officially split standing on a gold mine. VanWyngarden would explore an opportunity with neo-psych band Of Montreal, while Goldwasser would explore imaginations outside of music. But then, at the grace of Colombia Records A&R rep Maureen Kinney, Time to Pretend would get its worthy affirmation. Colombia offered a record deal but VanWyngarden and Goldwasser remained resolute, clinging to the vanity that first shut the door on the project.

For the duo, it was a project that had done its dash, an outlet to voice their early musical shenanigans and nothing more. But after a push from both dads, The Management was back off the ground. Only it was The Management no more — cue the stylised acronym that continues to stimulate listeners’ curiosities to this day. They would become MGMT, an alteration which carried more significance than a simple name change.

VanWyngarden and Goldwasser realised with a record deal and a new name they’d need to take things a little more seriously — remarkable for an outfit who once recorded a 45-minute live version of Ghostbusters and treated live shows as a joke.

Nevertheless, with a nudge from Colombia the germs for Oracular Spectacular were born. The tracks, ‘Kids’ and ‘Time to Pretend’, could incite global fame if released to the right crowd at the right time. Initially unveiled in 2005, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser would perform a masterstroke, incorporating the tracks into their debut album wheelhouse.

Then the whimsical hands of Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) clasped the beaming organism and the promise was real. Fridmann championed his unbridled rock imagination and embraced the saccharine psychedelic potential the album presented. Welcoming VanWyngarden and Goldwasser into his remote New York studio, Fridmann capitalised on the album’s trashy bedrock to unearth distorted synth-laden psychedelia seldom explored at the time. It was only the beginning, but Oracular Spectacular was already poised to inhabit its own realm of the global pop landscape.

Months from its October 2007 release, slivers of Oracular Spectacular began to emerge on the streets of Stockholm to oblivious folk. It was through summer issues of free monthly magazine Nöjesguiden that copies of ‘Weekend Wars’ would be unearthed. It seemed the kaleidoscopic nature of their music had gotten to their head; such a peculiar dissemination exercise seemed arbitrary Nevertheless, MGMT’s next move would gratify the hype. Album juggernauts, ‘Time to Pretend’, ‘Electric Feel’ and ‘Kids’ would be unveiled one after another like a three-pronged sucker punch to a boxer’s abdomen.

Punters from all over the world revelled in the fanfare. It was a relief to hear something so inspired, so avant-garde amidst early millennium pop monotonousness.

The full album was released on October 2, 2007 and to this day, fans from across the world continue to carousel the schoolyard hooks of ‘Kids’, before reaching low for the bombastic bass of ‘Electric Feel’. Then all it takes is the quirky synth of ‘Time to Pretend’ and the party has officially started.

When pop music bore a colourless varnish, MGMT threw convention out the window to forge a psychedelic masterpiece. Thank you Ben and Andrew, the world is much better for it.

Did we hit a nerve? Explore the story behind The Killers’ famed debut album, ‘Hot Fuss’.