The general consensus among aspiring musicians is that major-label record deals are a very good thing. The New York-based psychedelic- pop band MGMT, which headlines Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday night, has to be one of the few acts whose members have tried to talk a corporation out of signing them.
"We went into [our A&R person's] office, and we were completely in disbelief that anyone would want to sign our band," says 27-year-old Ben Goldwasser, MGMT's keyboardist and one of its principals, along with vocalist/guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden.
Columbia Records had gotten its hands on "Time to Pretend," an indie-label EP containing hook-heavy synth-pop tunes and a title track that cleverly, almost affectionately, parodied the rock-star lifestyle. But as Goldwasser recalls, the band was in a slight state of hibernation and hadn't done anything for several months. Furthermore, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden already knew that their artistic course wouldn't always be a marketable one.
"We kept trying to tell her that the next thing we did was going to be nothing like 'Time to Pretend' or 'Kids,' " Goldwasser said, "and we wanted to move in all these different directions, and we weren't going to be a really reliable artist to sign."
In the end, both the band and Columbia proved prescient. MGMT's 2007-2008 debut for the company, "Oracular Spectacular," eventually earned the group Grammy nominations and became a hit on the strength of those singles plus a sexy, psychedelic-disco cut called "Electric Feel."
"Congratulations," the follow-up released in April, is more an extension of the debut's adventurous moments. Despite the album's receiving positive reviews in some of the top music magazines and charting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, early Internet buzz painted it as overly artsy and conceptual, and, devoid of dance-floor-friendly hits, quite possibly a commercial shot in the foot.
Truth be told, "Congratulations" isn't that far-out. Much of the album is structurally demanding; sections and textures might emerge but then quickly disappear.
"There are some things that are experimental about it, but it's not like John Cage experimental," Goldwasser said. "People still want their A-B-A-B song structure with a chorus that is very easily defined."
Still, the album is consistently melodic, expertly arranged and produced with flower power flourishes. While Goldwasser cites rock-aficionado-type figures as personal heroes, the album should appeal to most classic rock fans: Without really trying, it evokes the Beach Boys, early Pink Floyd, the Zombies, the Dead, Love and the Beatles during their facial- hair days. (For the record, Sir Paul McCartney is a fan.)
But the music isn't the only thing about MGMT that summons up the '60s — a time when being good and being commercially viable weren't so exclusive. Indeed, Goldwasser says that one of the most disturbing aspects of the band's rapid ascent to stardom — a ride that put serious strain on his and VanWyngarden's friendship — was being held to the same standards as straight-ahead pop stars; though he also concedes that the band's "attitude towards the idea of indie-rock is pretty skeptical. I think a lot of it is purely an image thing."
The band's relationship with Columbia also harks back to the vinyl era, when big labels gave promising bands the time and money to grow and develop ambitious work.
"They trust us in a way to kind of hold out for the long term a little bit more," Goldwasser said. "I don't think they see us as something that's just a passing trend."
He appreciates the same attitude from fans who come to MGMT's live show, a few-frills concert that doesn't reflect the group's surrealist videos. Speaking about a recent performance at a huge Japanese rock fest, Goldwasser says, "I think we felt more comfortable doing that than we ever have, really because the crowd was so understanding and they were really following along with the set, and they weren't just waiting for us to play the hits."
To be sure, festival sets and headlining spots at Merriweather are far away from the early days, when Goldwasser and VanWyngarden played prankish duo gigs around the campus of Wesleyan University, where the two began playing together in 2002.
"We had one of those giant inflatable snowmen that people put in their front yards, and we slowly inflated it during a song," Goldwasser recalls of one show. "It was kind of just goofing off, making fake pop music which I guess at some point turned into real pop music. But I don't really know when that happened."
MGMT performs Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Devendra Banhart and the Grogs will open. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 877-435-9849 or go to ticketfly.com.