Andrew VanWyngarden admits it now. After his art-rock duo MGMT (with longtime college chum Ben Goldwasser) had the hits “Kids,” “Electric Feel” and “Time to Pretend” from their 2007 debut “Oracular Spectacular,” they recorded a couple of clunkers, albums so arcane they pleased only the artists themselves. Now they’re back with oblique hooks and quirky chords on “Little Dark Age,” their fourth album. “More than anything else, it was me telling myself, ‘Look, motherf—–, you can still write great songs!’” he says.
People forget that at Wesleyan University, you two were studying under some cutting-edge jazz guys.
Yeah. Real experimental music. And that’s not something that people really connect — the ties between experimental music and more formal studies of avant-garde music that I did and our approach to pop music. We were taught in college that it was all about the concept first, so we approached pop music like it was an experiment. And it was always in our heads that it was all just a riff on the pretentious, high-concept stuff that we were learning, but were applying to, say, Hall and Oates or something.
But you really did push the aesthetic envelope with your last two albums.
Well, we kind of went the opposite direction that a lot of artists that we listen to take. We had pop success first, and then went obscure, and that really threw off a lot of people. But because we made these pop songs at our college, and then making the second album the way we did, it was confusing for people, but I think we probably relished that confusion to a degree, because we liked avoiding people’s expectations. And we liked messing with what people thought we should be doing. We just liked going back to our experimental roots, I guess.
But new tracks like “When You’re Small” and “She Works Out Too Much” strike that happy balance between hummable and downright eccentric.
We figured out our course a bit on this album. We always tried to have that split of having pop moments and far-out moments. And through working with (producer) Patrick Wimberly, and really just writing quickly, we kind of scraped away some of this preciousness with songwriting, which was really helpful for us, because in college it was all just music that made us laugh — we would just crack up about a sound we created that sounded like an insect or something. So with this album, we were getting back to that, and it documents the rekindling of the creative friendship between me and Ben. We’ve found our bond again, which is really good.
IF YOU GO
Where: Warfield, 982 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. May 15
Tickets: $45 to $59.50
Contact: (415) 345-0900, www.axs.com