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‘It reminded us of partying with drunk British people’: Time to Pretend stars MGMT on watching Saltburn

The song and its album were twin juggernauts whose success ‘hipster geeks’ Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser never tried to follow

All sorts of memories came flooding back when Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser of MGMT sat down to watch Saltburn, last year’s most ridiculous film. “I almost got little spine shivers during some of the party scenes,” VanWyngarden says as he and Goldwasser prepare to release their gorgeously woozy fifth album, Loss of Life. “They reminded me of when we were first going to England and Ireland in 2007 and 2008.”

Emerald Fennell’s film, which chronicles the downfall of a family of grotesque toffs, is set circa 2007, the year MGMT’s psychedelic electro stomper Time to Pretend stormed the charts. Still brilliantly escapist after all these years, the tune accompanies a pivotal, can’t-be-unseen set piece in which Barry Keoghan’s character joins a nude party in a wheat field on the decadent Saltburn estate. It is the perfect synergy of sound and image. Only MGMT could make us party like it’s 2007.

VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have had misgivings about the ubiquity of Time to Pretend, a squelchy acid-pop opera that pulls off the difficult trick of feeling both playful and profound. It has graced TV shows, commercials and TikTok videos and been covered by everyone from Paolo Nutini to Sigur Rós’s Jónsi Birgisson. Yet they were won over by Fennell’s pitch.

Saltburn’s dark humour felt like a good fit with lyrics that skewered the sort of excesses in which the film’s characters enthusiastically indulge – “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and f**k with the stars. You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.”


Yet when they finally had a chance to see the movie it wasn’t the story to which MGMT responded so much as the avalanche of upper-class British accents. “It was like a Pavlov’s dog, “says VanWyngarden. “It reminded us of partying with drunk British people.”

Time to Pretend and its accompanying album, Oracular Spectacular, were twin juggernauts. For better or worse, MGMT never tried to follow that success. Rather than chase the limelight, they’ve stayed in the same slipstream of out-of-body pop – a sound Rolling Stone magazine has praised as what happens when “two hipster geeks get some rad vintage keyboards and compose a suite of synthesised heartache”.

That’s the vibe throughout Loss of Life. It’s fantastically hazy and autumnal, audibly the work of MGMT yet shot through with a wisdom and bitter-sweet perspective that come with age. (Both musicians recently turned 40 and seem happy to have left behind their carefree youth.) But they are still up for taking the occasional risk – on the shaggy rock ballad Mother Nature they even sound like a lo-fi Oasis.

“We knew it had an emotional pull,” says VanWyngarden. “I feel that is similar to Wonderwall, though I’m not comparing it to Wonderwall.” By the end of the recording, he adds, he felt he was cosplaying as Liam Gallagher. “The last climactic build section, I definitely put on a parka.”

They came into the album feeling that the wind was in their sails. That upswing started in 2018 with their previous album, Little Dark Age. To their shock, it became a phenomenon on social media, thanks to the title track striking gold on TikTok.

Paradoxically, they reached the brightest point of their recent career with one of their bleakest songs. (They wrote Little Dark Age when Donald Trump was on course to claim the White House. Its chorus dolefully proclaims, “Burn the page / my little dark age.”) That, of course, is precisely why it chimed with kids on TikTok. Something about its air of doom and its claustrophobic lyrics spoke to listeners barely even aware of Time to Pretend.

“It makes sense that it connected with people when it did. During the pandemic, right around the last US presidential election was happening. All this social turmoil,” says VanWyngarden. “A lot of those feelings of paranoia and fear [were] in the world. There was more of a conspiratorial feeling in Little Dark Age. We ended up dealing with it with our absurd humour and silliness in the end. But it makes sense that that song resonated with people.”

The sense of having a moment was augmented by Saltburn, which introduced Time to Pretend to Gen Z. These one-time millennial indie kids had become the cool uncles who like to party. “We are the Hall & Oates to the generation now,” says VanWyngarden, snapping his fingers groovy-dad style. “When we were 19 we were listening to Hall & Oates and dancing ironically. Now kids are, like, ‘Oh, throw on that old MGMT track.’”

VanWyngarden grew up in Tennessee, the son of a hippy father who had played in bands and edited a local alternative weekly, the Memphis Flyer. Goldwasser is from upstate New York, where his love for music was sparked by piano lessons from his mother.

The future chart-toppers met in 2002 at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The college is considered one of the “little Ivies” – less prestigious than Harvard or Yale but not far behind. As Wesleyan graduates, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser are certainly in prestigious company: fellow alums include Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda; Buffy the Vampire creator Joss Whedon; and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

At Wesleyan they enjoyed the fratboy lifestyle through a prism of ironic detachment. They also started playing music together. “We weren’t trying to start a band,” Goldwasser said in 2007. “We were just hanging out and showing each other music that we liked.” They released their Time to Pretend EP shortly after graduating, in 2005. Twelve months later they had signed to Sony Records – and then, with Oracular Spectacular in their back pocket, quickly conquered pop.

Speaking over video link from separate locations, they are thoughtful and upbeat. That’s quite a contrast from the Oracular Spectacular era, when they were overworked and often visibly zonked. On one occasion, meeting journalists at a hotel in central Dublin the night after a sell-out concert, they struggled to stay awake. When a bowl of soup was presented to VanWyngarden, he stared at it, unsure whether to tuck in or pass out face down.

“It was a wild time. A lot of it is a blur,” he says. “We would always be boarding a car ferry, sleeping on a bus on a car ferry, and then waking up in another country. It sounds ridiculous, but if you go straight from a bus to another generic backstage area it can feel like [you don’t know where you are]. That year, 2008, it feels like it lasted five years. We went through all sorts of different life experiences. It was a pretty fantastic thing to happen at that age.”

It had to end. The shutters, when they finally came down, did so with a crash. In 2010 MGMT released their second LP, Congratulations. It was a great indie-rock album – but there weren’t any hits, and the pop kids who had fallen for Time to Pretend were baffled. As was their label. That puzzlement soon turned to anger – many took MGMT’s unwillingness to pander personally. When they declined to play their hit Kids at a show in London, it became a story in the UK music media. People were losing the plot.

“It was mostly confusing to us – doing press at that time and being spoken of in the same sentence as Katy Perry,” says Goldwasser. “We’re not those people. Nothing against mainstream pop at all, but if people have that expectation of us to be able to perform in that space, they’re looking at the wrong band.”

Besides, if the goal was to throw it all away, they would have done so more outrageously. Goldwasser nods. “If we wanted to commit career suicide we would have done it in a more spectacular way than making an album of offbeat 1960s-influenced psychedelic pop,” he says.

The Congratulations backlash is a long way behind them now. In the intervening years their feelings about fame have become more nuanced. VanWyngarden recently quipped about following U2 and headlining the Las Vegas Sphere. He was joking, he says – but not entirely.

“For a lot of reasons we’ve never felt super comfortable as performers. We play concerts and we’re closing our eyes and are in our heads. That venue just seems perfect. That’s way more appealing than getting a tour bus and going to Calais. We’re these tiny ants and there is a planet of visuals.” He pauses, half in jest yet with a hint of earnestness in his voice. “It would be really fun.”

Loss of Life is released by Mom + Pop Music