“The whole process was a trip” – Sonic Boom on 10 years of MGMT’s Congratulations

Anthony Ausgang’s cover art for Congratulations (edited by dRedder)

Ten years ago, on April 13, 2010, MGMT released their second album, Congratulations. At the time, the entire music press seemed to decide that the duo had set out to sabotage their career with an impenetrable slice of whacked out petal machine music. What was worse, they had invited former Spacemen 3 man Sonic Boom along for the ride as co-producer and “master of ceremonies”. One of the biggest pop groups in the world was playing with fire and was about to get burned.

Except they didn’t: a decade on, the album stands up as a perfect prescription of whimsical psych pop, with tunes, experimentation and fun in plentiful supply.

The poster for the Sonic Cathedral show where MGMT first met Sonic Boom

Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser first met Peter Kember, aka Sonic Boom, at a Sonic Cathedral show at the Dome in Tufnell Park, north London on February 27, 2009. They were in town that week for the NME Awards where they picked up Best New Band and Best Track, for their breakthrough single ‘Time To Pretend’. Knowing they were fans, I let slip to their PR that Sonic Boom and his band Spectrum were playing on the Friday night and invited them down – they were so excited they delayed their flight back to New York so they could come along.

I remember them nervously climbing the stairs and heading into the makeshift dressing room to meet their hero. Introductions complete, I left them to it, and just a few hours later – after some memorable sets by Pat Fish, Banjo Or Freakout and Gentle Friendly – they were both onstage, helping out on a visceral version of Spacemen 3’s traditional set-closer ‘Suicide’ that should have gone on forever, or at least until our 2am curfew.

But it did carry on. Not that night, but when the band asked Sonic Boom to work on their second album, the follow-up to their hit-laden, multi-million-selling debut Oracular Spectacular. I spoke to Sonic Boom about how it all came about, his memories of recording the album in a Malibu mansion, how it was received and the impact it had on his own career.

How soon after the show at the Dome did they talk to you about working together?
“I think it was within a couple of weeks. I had already had some email convo with Andrew before, about them bigging up some Spacemen 3 and Spectrum tracks. They’re dynamically cool people. Some people like that are an instant sync, it’s very nice. You know it’s kind of instant whenever you meet up again. Andrew’s been out [to Portugal] a couple of times. He loves the area and we always have a lot of fun listening to stuff. We had a three-day lovers rock and dub session last time. I really enjoy all their company.”

What was it like recording the album in Malibu? Are there any good stories from the sessions?
“I used to vibe out the place in different ways – lots of candles in the gardens and the studio/house space that we were using. Good stories? There’s a lot I think. The day Jennifer Herrema turned up to do her vocals was a trip – she came for a few hours and stayed a couple of days. Andrew hadn’t written the vocals yet, so Jennifer was trying to sing along to his wordless nonsense vocal guides. It was pretty psychedelic.

“There was also a beautiful EMT 250 multi effect unit the size of a radiator that they had hired. It had a sort of gearstick to shift through the effects and I found it had a very special freak out when you suddenly shifted between certain effects – that became a thread through the whole session, that sound. A proverbial comment from the gods of sonic possibilities, offering advice. It gets a shout out in the credits where it was used on ‘Siberian Breaks’.

“Then there was the day Rick Rubin con-descended upon us. He thought he was some sort of guru; I thought he was a bit of a typical record biz douche. Almost instant allergic reaction to him. Didn’t dig his vibe at all…

“There were some cool jam parties. They would jam and play essentially pretty perfectly formed songs out of nowhere. Mostly in a sort of Link Wray-esque/surfy/psych sort of mode. Sadly, those recordings got lost. It was a little chaotic, especially until I got them to set up a studio two. There was so much creative energy it was sometimes a feat to steer it. The whole process was a trip: them renting a big house and us turning it into some sort of cross between a Buddhist temple and The Monkees’ house. It was set in nice gardens on the edge of a national park; it was really pretty amazing and different.” 

Sonic Boom in Malibu, 2009
Photograph by Josh Cheuse

What exactly did your role as “master of ceremonies” entail?
“DJing. Lighting modulation duties. Making sure everyone had what they needed – there was quite a lot of alcohol flowing, certainly for my part, so I’m sure I was mixing drinks for folks, too. Being a conduit in general. Helping any flows I could.”

Did you bring in Jennifer Herrema, Britta Phillips and Anthony Ausgang, who ended up doing the memorable cover art?
“Jenniffer was Andrew’s buddy already, but Britta and Ausgang were my intros. With Ausgang, they just loved him and his art and I only introduced him as a friend, not to do the sleeve. They clicked really well, but that was their own sync with him. Britta is a pro session singer, so she was an easy intro. I tried to bring in as many of my buddies as possible. I have a lot of beautiful friends and it’s killer to connect them with each other.” 

The end result has a whimsical Englishness, like the Television Personalities crossed with something weirdly and almost unexpectedly psychedelic, like those late ’60s Chad & Jeremy LPs. This was a curveball for the band’s pop fans at the time, or as you described it on the sleeve notes “Sunday Bacon for the Monday Generation”. Were the band happy to move in this direction and was it more reflective of them than the big hits?
“Happy? It was entirely their design and the direction they wanted. They wanted to show a new side to their gem. I think confusion was high on the menu. I loved it. They did it with purpose and, in my eyes, with verve. I don’t think it’s necessarily more reflective – their hits are some of the best of that decade; they carved a signature-like notch almost instantly – I think they just wanted to flex a little.”

The majority of the reports ahead of the album suggested it was some sort of commercial suicide. Was there any sense of them consciously sabotaging what they had going, or subverting from within? 
“Of course. They’re not gonna play anyone’s game but their own. They accommodated success more than sought it – a very enviable position in which to sit. I totally supported that, although I would equally have been happy if they’d wanted to proceed more in the Oracular Spectacular mode. That LP is stunning. They were very much a band who did it all a bit different – that’s special and I think should be supported way more than what the record company would ‘prefer’.”

What did you make of the somewhat mixed critical reaction the album got? It was like everyone had made their minds up about it before it even came out, but it has actually aged really well.
“I dunno. It’s a way more mature work in some ways. ‘Siberian Breaks’ is a classic of the instrumental genre – it’s up there with the best. They wanted to lead some of their fans into some interesting parks and avenues, and lose some of the more superficial element that you inevitably have when you become so heavily part of the zeitgeist.”

Sonic Boom, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, Malibu, 2009
Photograph by Josh Cheuse

Andrew and Ben ended up on Mad Love, the Cheval Sombre album that came out on Sonic Cathedral in 2012, playing fireworks, among other things. It caused a bit of a legal logistical nightmare with Sony, which also ended up nixing that split single that Great Pop Supplement did.
“That LP was done in their studio. Andrew gave me a key to his pad and studio, so I would use it when he was away and sometimes he’d be there and we hung out, too. He’s a super cool dude – very generous in many ways. I did a bunch of things there and introduced my buddy Nick Kramer to them, and they set up a shared studio [Blanker Unsinn] in the carriage house beneath Andrew’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights.”

Congratulations seemed to kick off your second career as an in-demand producer and you have since worked with Panda Bear, Beach House, Peaking Lights, No Joy and many more – has all that finally come full circle with your new solo album?
“We shall see. Production is about adapting your role to best benefit the artist. It should be a two-way street; a producer who thinks he is better or knows better than the artist is a dead duck to me. I think they said the fact I had programmed some sweet stuff for the Reason software was also part of their decision, and of course I brought my modular synths into the mix, which was relatively a new twist for them. But they gave me my largest job to date and shoed me in on a job that I would never had slipped in if it wasn’t for their unique and uncompromising approach. I really learnt a lot from them.”

Sonic Boom’s new solo album All Things Being Equal is released via Carpark Records on June 5.

Sonic Boom in his home studio, Portugal, 2020
Photograph by Ian Witchell