Vampire Weekend Interview
In pop music, it’s not often that one of the year’s biggest-selling albums world-wide is arguably, too, the most musically progressive and diverse, and also among the most thought-provoking. Back in January, Vampire Weekend, an arty, mid-twentysomething quartet from New York City, stunned everyone, including themselves, by topping the American charts with their second opus, Contra.
It’s an album of astonishing contrasts. On the one hand, it is packed with the kind of immediate melodies that should see the band’s festival appearances this summer turn into rowdy singalongs, as vast audiences try to approximate the angelically high-pitched voice of their singer, Ezra Koenig.
Yet Contra is also a work of gradually revealed subtleties. There are, as well as hurtling dance anthems, some deeply sophisticated arrangements, influences both from Western rock and “world” music, and a sound palette that deftly integrates synthesizers and computerised beats with orchestral strings, thumping bass/drum rhythms, and trusty old electric guitars.
What makes this young band’s music so impressive is that once listeners starts to unravel its complex fabric they are implicitly pitched into some weighty, even uncomfortable, socio-political issues.
Vampire Weekend’s success rests upon their initial revamp of common-or-garden indie-pop, using the tingling guitars and jittery rhythms of African “highlife” — an inspired marriage, rather like Belle & Sebastian meets the Bhundu Boys. During their upward trajectory, though, there have been dissenting voices – occasional accusations of cultural piracy, with the subtext that the four alumni of Columbia University are some clique of Ivy League imperialists, stealing sounds from a less privileged continent.
When I meet Koenig, the morning after his band played the second of two triumphant sold-out shows at the Brixton Academy, he certainly looks the part, thanks to his neat, almost preppy attire. He is, furthermore, alarmingly compos mentis for a young guitar-slinger who “rocked London” barely 12 hours earlier.
“People often talk about us like we’re some kind of conservative think tank,” he says, in deep, measured tones, which contrast strikingly with his excitable singing voice. “People seem to forget that we’re a band, just trying to make great pop songs, which anybody can sing along to, and dance to.”
On that level, Vampire Weekend have certainly hit the bull’s-eye. The week that Contra was released, I saw them play a late-night show in Kingston-upon-Thames, where the lairy, student-age crowd hurled beer at each other and cavorted in some kind of primal frenzy. “That show was about as far as you can get from any kind of nuanced critical discourse,” Koenig confirms with a wry smile, “and part of me would much rather be playing there than explaining what our band does. Sometimes, it’s rather like writing an essay.”
Much of the band’s sound, Koenig explains, derives from his upbringing in and around multi-cultural New York. His parents, of Hungarian Jewish descent, raised him rather impecuniously in an affluent New Jersey suburb, giving him an early glimpse of social discrepancies.
“I grew up with their record collection, too. They bought records pretty late into their adulthood, so they had the Beatles, the Clash, early rap like Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash, but also Indian music, King Sunny Ade and a huge amount of reggae.”
In that context, he says, he didn’t distinguish between “white” and “black” traditions. “We listened to the ‘Harder They Come’ soundtrack just as much as we listened to ‘Sergeant Pepper’. I was just aware that neither of these musics came from New Jersey.”
Koenig followed in his father’s footsteps to Columbia University on the Upper West Side, where he studied English. There, he formed the band with Rostam Batmanglij, who was studying music. Batmanglij is of Iranian stock – his family fled Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979, arriving in New York via France. On top of his parents’ Persian and African tastes, he soon developed a passion for classical music and Nirvana’s Nevermind, which turned him on to college radio.
“When we were starting out,” he says, with his omnipresent mischievous grin, “I liked the idea that we were some kind of archetypal college band, connecting with that tradition. Our first gigs were at these literary societies at Columbia, which we turned into crazy, nutso parties.”
The very first song they wrote together was Oxford Comma, an uncharacteristically caustic summation of a Columbia society devoted to punctuation. This track, also, was their inaugural experiment with a highlife guitar line, which would lead to more daring excursions on their self-titled debut album, which was released after they’d graduated.
As Vampire Weekend briskly shifted a million copies worldwide, Koenig and Batmanglij fielded hundreds of questions about their apparent celebration of Ivy League privilege. On one track, Koenig pitched the names of two up-market designers, Louis Vuitton and Benetton, against reggaeton, the new musical form sweeping through the impoverished nations of Central America and the Caribbean.
They have not been forgiven in some quarters.
“People said, ‘They’re singing about rich people’, like there’s something wrong with that,” says Koenig. In rock, of course, class and wealth have always been taboo: rebels have to be poor.
“What we realised is that people sometimes don’t know how to separate the songs from the person singing them,” Koenig concludes. “There are a lot of blurry lines, but that’s what gets me excited. As an artist you have the luxury of maybe presenting an issue in a certain way, as opposed to actually solving it.”
To their credit, Koenig, Batmanglij and their excellent rhythm section held their nerve with Contra, refusing to clarify, simplify or retreat. With almost punk-ish antagonism, the album’s cover features a picture of a polo-shirted debutante, while its title playfully lampoons rock’s habitual rebel stance.
Koenig’s lyrics remain cryptic, subversive, needling at social divides, while their influences broaden out to include Brazilian baile funk, Jamaican ska and dancehall, and, indeed, reggaeton, plus artful sprinklings of post-millennial electronica.
When I suggest that they may come to be seen as representative of a new, forward-thinking, integrated America under President Obama, Batmanglij laughs it off. Koenig, by contrast, warms to the idea.
“Well, hopefully, yes,” he says, earnestly. “When Obama came to power, there was a lot of talk about a post-racial America. It’s something that we’ve had to think and talk about a lot, even when people define us, as one writer did, as the whitest band in the world – despite the specific ethnicities of our band!
“All I know for sure is that issues like race, like class, are always best approached with compassion and open-mindedness.” He looks up for a rare moment of eye contact, dropping the stiff facade. “Hopefully, that’s what our band does.”