A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: Campus Reaction To Wesleyan’s Breakout Bands

December 16, 2008

Every Tuesday, FADER deputy editor Eric Ducker gets on instant messenger and "discusses" a subject that's been on his mind with another member of our staff or a special guest. While Vampire Weekend made Columbia the most name checked institution of higher learning in music journalism in 2008, this year also saw several success stories from musicians who are alumni of Wesleyan University, most notably Santogold and MGMT. Now there’s a new wave of Wesleyan-affiliated bands gaining attention, including Amazing Baby, Bear Hands and Francis & the Lights. After the jump, read the condensed (and emoticon-free) conversation between Ducker (Class of 2000) and Anna Wiener (Class of 2009 and editor of Wesleyan music blog Aural Wes) about campus reaction to these groups.

Eric Ducker: How aware are Wesleyan students that two of the biggest success stories in emerging music this year went to Wesleyan?

Anna Wiener: I think students here are very aware of it. There's a funny divide between older students who have ties to some of the people in these bands, and the younger kids, who probably listened to MGMT and Santogold at their high school proms and thought it was really rad that their future school was tied to these artists.

ED: When did MGMT graduate?

AW: 2005. They were still something of a presence when I arrived in 2006, playing a couple shows on campus before they got signed. 2008 (last year's seniors) was the last class to overlap with them. So for some people, they're part of Wesleyan lore, and for others, they're Andrew and Ben, those friends who wore shoelaces around their heads and danced in snowsuits to their iPod.

ED: They were called The Management when they were still in school, right?

AW: Yup. I think some people saw The Management to MGMT transition as a turning point, indicating their success (or their "selling out," depending on who you talk to).

ED: How do most people regard their success now?

AW: There are definitely mixed reactions. I think the most telling is that the kids who used to listen to The Management—the alternative kids, the Eclectic kids, the boys who wore girl pants because they weren't selling skinny jeans yet—no longer play MGMT songs at parties, and suddenly kids who you would never have expected to be into psychedelic synth pop are blasting "Time to Pretend" at keg parties. MGMT played a show last year right around the time that "Kids" was hugely popular, and it was a huge deal. It was in the largest venue on campus, tickets sold out very quickly and a lot of the audience were freshmen, class of 2011. There are equal parts pride and resentment, I guess you could say.

ED: That makes sense. When the Vampire Weekend album came out in the beginning of this year we did a story on the reaction from the people who ran Columbia University's radio station. It was a mix of bemusement, happiness and mild putdowns. I imagine as the year has gone on the putdowns have become less mild.

AW: I think that's to be expected. And it's especially accurate at Wesleyan, This is a place with a lot of musicians and a lot of people who really care about music, who are really paying attention. Even here, there's a similar reaction to Vampire Weekend—they played Wesleyan in 2007 and it was a really fun, small show in the dining room of Eclectic. Then they blew up, were playing Summerstage in New York, etc, and people were like, Enough already, let's move on.

ED: When it was The Management, were they a real band or was it a silly project of theirs?

AW: The Management were a real band. Apparently they played some festivals in Connecticut, at NYU, and in Memphis and South Carolina. Also they played Battle of the Bands, and performed at our annual Spring Fling with GZA. It definitely wasn't just a silly project. They had an EP by 2003/4, I'm pretty sure, and there was a performance in 2005 called "The Management vs. God" that was held in the Wesleyan chapel during prospective students weekend that I believe was part of either Andrew or Ben's senior thesis. It was a whole theatrical debacle, from what I've heard.

ED: Details?

AW: Debacle might be the wrong word. Maybe "explosion," in the positive sense. Lots of costumed monsters (?) crawling around the chapel, over the audience, hanging from the balcony. They also had a scoreboard at the front of the chapel, GOD vs. The Home Team.

ED: Who won?

AW: I think the Management won the battle, but not the war.

ED: Sounds about right. Are the feelings towards Santogold different, since there is so much more distance in terms of time?

AW: I think so, actually. Although there is some negativity there, especially amongst people who book shows on campus. She's turned down several offers to play here, including an offer to play Spring Fling, which tends to draw fairly big names. There is also a difference between MGMT and Santogold in that MGMT were launched right out of Wesleyan, whereas with Santogold the connection seems much thinner.

ED: What are the current feelings on Amazing Baby, who are even more recent graduates?

AW: You know, Amazing Baby doesn't have a lot of buzz on campus yet. We're trying to bring them to play a show here next semester, so maybe then. People are following two other bands a lot more closely, Bear Hands and Boy Crisis. I think Amazing Baby still have that feeling of being our best kept secret.

ED: They already have a pretty respected publicity company and are getting more press, I’m not sure how longer that secret is going to be around.

AW: Right. It's funny, actually—they're all over the place in Brooklyn (my hometown), but not so much at Wesleyan, although it is spreading here. I would have thought that trajectory would be reversed.

ED: Did they exist at Wesleyan? Or did they come about post-graduation?

AW: I'm not sure. Their members are before my time, but I'm pretty sure they did not exist as Amazing Baby here. Simon O'Connor and Will Berman (of Amazing Baby and MGMT, respectively) were in a band together called Monsters of Rock, but I don't think Will Roan (now of Amazing Baby) was involved. It's possible they played in different combinations and under different monikers.

ED: It would seem to me that now would feel like an exciting time to be an aspiring musician at Wesleyan. It must feel like success, in some form, is a possibility. Aside from the bands we discussed there's more—Shy Child, Amanda Palmer of Dresden Dolls, The Mobius Band, etc. When I was there, all people could really look to were the bassist of Girls vs. Boys, Atom & His Package and Dar Williams.

AW: Definitely. And there does seem to be some camaraderie amongst emerging Wesleyan groups. MGMT and Boy Crisis have played shows together in New York, and it sort of feels like they're pulling their friends—who, don't get me wrong, are fully deserving of success themselves —into the fold. When MGMT played that big show here last year, they had Bear Hands open for them. And Bear Hands had played a bunch of very successful shows on campus already, but their opening for MGMT was a great way to get exposure amongst social groups that may or may not be showing up regularly to concerts on campus. Not to mention that Wesleyan somewhat notoriously feeds straight into Brooklyn. So some of it is just being in the right place at the right cultural moment.

ED: Who's your favorite Wesleyan alum group?

AW: This is hard. It's maybe a draw between Bear Hands and Francis & the Lights. But I have my fingers crossed for Das Racist, I think they're the next breakthrough artists from Wesleyan.

ED: Do you still listen to Oracular Spectacular?

AW: Only in the privacy of my bedroom, shades drawn, lights off, headphones on. That being said, if "Electric Feel" comes on at a party, everybody is going to dance. And if "Kids" comes on, the floor might cave. Haters here really only talk the talk, but when the opportunity presents itself, they're going to get down like anyone else.

ED: It's true. I talk a lot of shit about Michael Bay [Class of 1986], but I saw the shit out of Transformers. And I saw both of the National Treasure movies from Jon Turtletaub [Class of 1985], which I liked better than Transformers.

Posted: December 16, 2008
A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: Campus Reaction To Wesleyan’s Breakout Bands