The Wesleyan Mafia: MGMT, Boy Crisis, Amazing Baby
In the fall of 2002, early in his freshman year at Connecticut's Wesleyan University, Simon O'Connor was walking through the quad, "talking to a girl or something," he recalls. "And I just happened to say out loud, 'I wanna rock!' " A stranger overheard this statement of intent and approached him from behind, seeking clarification: "Dude, do you wanna rock?"
Thus did the young scholar soon find himself at a nearby co-ed fraternity called the Eclectic Society, rocking indeed with one Will Berman, now the drummer for Wesleyan-bred, quasi-hippie, semi-famous electro-rockers MGMT. "We played together in the basement there, then we went to a party where I got wasted and broke some windows," O'Connor recalls, snorting. 'They hated me then."
Now lead guitarist in the fast-rising space-rock band Amazing Baby, whose sprawling debut Rewild came out earlier this summer, the slightly older former scholar can trace his musical roots directly to Wesleyan. He's not the only soon-to-be-quasi-famous Brooklynite in that position. There's a whole clique of NYC-via-Wesleyan acts emerging in MGMT's wake, including the dance-pop parody band Boy Crisis, whose founding member, Tal Rozen, slept on MGMT frontman/mastermind Andrew VanWyngarden's dorm-room floor as a prospective student. "I remember he had all these Phish posters on the wall," Rozen recalls of the digs. "I was like, 'Who is this Teva-wearing motherfucker?' "
When he finally did matriculate at Wesleyan, Rozen's freshman-year roommate soon became his Boy Crisis bandmate: Victor Vazquez, himself one-half of stoner-rap duo Das Racist, they of the hilariously mundane summer-'09 blog smash "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." Boy Crisis, whose debut record is due early next year, trafficks in the same sort of surrealist silliness: The chorus to infectious single "Dressed to Digress" goes, "You can do me like Bruce Springsteen/Ask the swim team/Pass the string beans."
Wesleyan is a typical New England liberal arts college of 2,800 students. One of the "Little Three" schools along with Amherst and Williams, it doesn't boast the fine-arts cachet of, say, Talking Heads alma mater Rhode Island School of Design, and though a surprising number of Hollywood players have emerged from its folds, it has no tradition as a rock hotbed.
Sure, the school has minted a few minor music-biz players in its time: Dar Williams went there. So did Santigold. Hell, even the guy who wrote "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" put in some time in the '20s. But it's never been known as a particularly "cool" place until now. And if it seems wrong for a tiny, nerdy Connecticut college to be the focus of so much hype, well, blame the British. The music press over there is obsessed with Brooklyn bands, and MGMT's collegiate circle is obviously irresistible, possibly because it reminds them of the University of Leeds scene that birthed the Mekons and Gang of Four in the '70s. Boy Crisis's U.K. publicist advertises them as having attended "Connecticut's prestigious Wesleyan Art College," a blatant attempt to make it sound somehow fashionable.
That sort of thing drives O'Connor nuts. "It's not a fucking art college," he says flatly. "I made the mistake of telling an NME writer that Will (Berman) had left our band to join MGMT, and that was it. We were labeled a Wesleyan band." O'Connor is currently the only member of his band who attended the school, and he doesn't think the experience was anything special. "Yeah, we played in bands together," he says, "but we were music majors. That's just what you do." O'Connor and VanWyngarden had a band called Irma Vep that once opened for the Rapture at the Eclectic Society, another institution O'Connor is quick to denounce: "It was exactly like that movie PCU," he says. "A nerd society, basically."
MGMT's Ben Goldwasser was a member of Eclectic, and though he admits he thought of the club as lousy with "hipster assholes" at first, he warmed up to the idea when his friends joined. "I liked being involved in running a performance venue," he says. "We had the best room on campus for bands to play." As for Wesleyan overall, Goldwasser disagrees with O'Connor about the experience. "There was definitely something about it," he says. "There was the usual college drinking/party atmosphere, but people also took initiative to put on creative events. There were bands playing really cool shows on campus"—MGMT among them.
Conversely, Boy Crisis didn't perform much while at school, and Das Racist and Amazing Baby formed post-college in New York, but the core Wesleyan crowd stayed friends, which won them all extra attention once MGMT blew up. "In some cases, we've tried to get their names out there and make people aware of them," says Goldwasser. "But once we started getting attention, people just automatically started looking at bands we were friends with and bands that came from Wesleyan." Francis Farewell Starlite (of the electro-funk outfit Francis and the Lights) and the DJ-producer Leif (who's still studying at Wesleyan) are also among the clique's rising stars.
That clique isn't confined to musicians, either. Filmmaker Ray Tintori has built a promising early career on his contributions to the MGMT's video library, including the psychedelic "Time to Pretend" clip, an opportunity he secured almost entirely through his friendship with Goldwasser and VanWyngarden. (Tintori's senior thesis short, Death to the Tinman, had screened at Sundance, giving him the shred of legitimacy he needed to work on a major-label project.) So far, he has made four videos for the band (including the recent one for "Kids," starring Joanna Newsom), along with clips for Brooklyn psych outfit Chairlift and, just for the hell of it, the Killers. Now at work on the film adaptation of the Shane Jones novel Light Boxes (Spike Jonze is producing), Tintori recently returned to Wesleyan with Boy Crisis to shoot a clip for "Dressed to Digress," a clever satirization of pop stardom, running neon splatter-patterns across Middletown's drab backdrop as Boy Crisis's members fly across the screen, dancing pseudo-sexily.
Tintori and Goldwasser actually met in their sophomore year in a class called "Theology and Popular Culture," in which their main task was to analyze Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video. "You would have thought we were wasting our parents' money," Tintori says. "But it ended up being weirdly relevant." Indeed it did, since, just a few years later, they were making their own pop-music videos. "I remember hanging out with Ray the week after he graduated," Goldwasser says. "He told me if we ever wanted to make a video for 'Kids,' he would like to do it. It's pretty crazy that it ended up happening."
When they did start making videos together, Tintori recruited his Wesleyan friend, Max Goldblatt, as choreographer; now, he's videographer for singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, after working on the clips for both MGMT's "Electric Feel" and the Killers' "Spaceman," scoring credits on two major-label projects. "It's like a ladder," he says. "When somebody moves up a rung, they reach a hand down to the next guy." It's the kind of career mechanism a lot of people would love to latch on to, and Goldblatt suspects they're already trying. "There must be tons of kids in neon Wayfarers writing wild, psychedelic essays to get into Wesleyan now," he says. The frightening thing is, he's probably right.
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