MGMT's Matt Asti on Spacemen 3, '60s psychedelia and playing with Paul McCartney

Not so long ago, MGMT was like many underground bands in America playing small clubs and relatively low key shows. But even by the time of the release of its second album, 2007's Dave Fridmann-produced Oracular Spectacular, the band was already in the midst of its meteoric rise to popularity. With gigs opening for the likes of Radiohead, M.I.A. and Of Montreal under its belt, MGMT garnered the attention of Paul McCartney, who tapped the group to open for him at Fenway Park in Boston.

In 2010, MGMT was nominated for two Grammys for Best New Artist and for Best Pop Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals for its single "Kids." The song's a mixture of glam rock, synth pop and psychedelia that sounds a little like what might have happened had Roxy Music and ELO formed a supergroup. We had a chance to speak with bassist Matt Asti about the new album and a bit about that opening gig with Paul McCartney.

Westword (Tom Murphy): On the new album, you're credited with doing field recordings. What sorts of field recordings did you gather for that album?

Matt Asti: I captured cricket sounds in the garage. It's not exactly a trade of mine, and I feel a little cheeky putting that in the credits.

WW: Why did you pick Jennifer Herrema to do vocals on Congratulations?

MA: We were always just big fans of Royal Trux and RTX. We were recording in L.A., and hung out with her for a week. She has a certain kind of growl that we liked.

WW: How did you come to work with Peter Kember?

MA: Everyone was a fan of Spacemen 3, and when we first started, all we listened to was Spacemen 3 and Spectrum, pretty much. I think Andrew [VanWyngarden] and Ben [Goldwasser] mentioned him in a few interviews, and we ended up playing a show with him. He's very crazy, but also very methodical. He said that we would ask him what to do, and then we would do the opposite. He would also light a lot of candles. No, but we also trusted his tastes and how he filtered things.

WW: Why did you pick Anthony Ausgang to do the cover art, and did you give him any direction on what kind of imagery you wanted?

MA: He was a friend of Pete's. I'd become familiar with his art through James [Richardson]. He came by and he left his book, and we ended up looking through it. I think someone suggested to him a surfing cat with a wave or something like that. We just gave him a general idea. Last time we were in Los Angeles we went by his house and got to see the actual painting -- three feet by three feet. Luminous.

WW: You're cited as the bass player but it's obvious you're a multi-instrumentalist. What instruments do you find most enjoyable to play and how did you get into playing those instruments?

MA: I play bass and guitar, mainly, maybe a little bit of keyboards. When we tour, I just play bass. I got it into my head, when I first started playing, that guitar was too obvious a choice. Early on, I was influenced by Les Claypool and Flea. Later on, John Paul Jones and Geezer Butler.

WW: A lot of people compare your sound to a revival of '60s psychedelia, but it sounds more to me like your drawing more from synth-pop, maybe some glam rock and whatever it is ELO was doing at the end of the '70s. What kind of music inspired you when working on songs with the band, or is that even part of your creative process?

MA: Ben and Andrew did all the songwriting, but we all worked on it. Pete [Kember] was playing a lot of music like the Troggs and the Electric Prunes and other '60s psychedelic stuff, but more the garage rock end of it. We were listening to early electronic music like, Thomas Leer, Bruce Haack and Television Personalities. I think some of the lyrics drew on that, you know, writing songs about people in pop culture.

WW: What was it like playing a show with Paul McCartney, and did you get to meet him?

MA: We only talked to him for about a minute. It was surreal because he's such an icon or something. The show was a lot of older people waiting to hear Paul McCartney. Seriously, though, it was a big honor, and it was a little bit of nerve wracking, because it was in a massive stadium and not everyone is there. And most people could care less that you're playing.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.

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