Before playing three NYC shows this month, the newly roughed-up band talk about their latest album.
Wed Jan 13 2010
Vampire Weekend, from left to right: Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris...
Chris Baio is ripping off a set of shin pads when his hockey getup suddenly reminds him of the most surreal moment of his career. “I was at Madison Square Garden for a Rangers game and our song 'Mansard Roof’ came over the system during a time-out,” the Vampire Weekend bassist says, sitting down to join his bandmates for our chat. Having shed their own head-to-toe gear, the other three guys start throwing out their favorite arena songs. The consensus is that Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” is the ultimate in hockey rock, though singer Ezra Koenig offers “Slam” by Onyx, and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij brings up the Outhere Brothers hit “Boom Boom Boom,” admitting he actually had dreams of becoming an arena organist as a child. The whole band is cracking up, apparently quite pleased that they’ve just posed for TONY as scrappy dirtbag hockey players—their idea. One that, they hope, will be a step toward dampening the notion that the band adheres to a strict privileged-prep image, a revision they seem eager to get on with as they release their second album, Contra. “All the early reviews said that we went to Columbia and we were interested in African music,” says Koenig. “Then everything after that had to reference those two things in some way. I hope this record will make it more difficult to reduce us to two descriptors.”
It’s true that Vampire Weekend was pigeonholed from the beginning as Ivy League indie-rockers who had co-opted elements of sub-Saharan folk music, but it’s not like the designation came out of nowhere. The Upper West Side--bred quartet did slap lyrics about New England folkways on top of syncopated rhythms, they did make videos depicting the country-club lifestyle, and Koenig did lead their Letterman gig in a sweater embroidered with terriers. “Whether or not our look changes,” he says, smirking, “will depend on the sweater makers of America, how much they evolve.”
For now, we can at least assess how much Vampire Weekend’s music has evolved: just enough. Since 2007, when they experienced the kind of meteoric rise last seen by the Strokes six years earlier, the group has expanded its internationalist sound, finding ways to reinvigorate their elegant pop with elements of ska, reggae, baile funk, Middle Eastern styles and even the infamous Auto-Tune. The result is a more intricate album that doesn’t abandon the organic appeal of Vampire Weekend’s original opus. It’s a tricky feat that they’ve nailed, considering Contra is their own dreaded sophomore effort, the moment in a young band’s career when the world decides whether or not a brilliant debut was merely beginner’s luck.
Koenig insists that Vampire Weekend approached the new record with no regard to outside expectations, but there are lyrical hints that the band members have something to say about the way the public has scrutinized their backgrounds. On the explosive, ska-tinged single “Cousins,” military drums and gourd rips announce cryptic commentary on the issue. “When your birthright is interest,” Koenig sings, “you could just accrue it all.” Indeed, so much has been made of Vampire Weekend’s upper-class airs that last year, Christian Lander, author of the Stuff White People Like blog and book, named them the “whitest” band, a label that bugs the boys a bit. “He’s pointing out this self-conscious multiculturalism,” says Batmanglij, adding that his own parents are Iranian immigrants. “My sense of multiculturalism is more incidental.” Koenig wasn’t amused either. “I looked at the book in a store,” he shrugs. “It’s really just not funny.”
Instead, Koenig explains that Contra is a natural reaction to the kind of categorization Vampire Weekend has faced constantly since its formation. “There’s conflict in everything, but people tend to think in terms of a duality, that something’s either this or that,” he says. “Our approach to music just isn’t like that.” Take, for example, that Auto-Tune on the track “California English,” the way it fights against Koenig’s precise, fast vocal attack. “It’s a familiar effect,” says Koenig, “but when it’s divorced from the genre that people normally associate it with, it’s no longer clich.” His buddies nod in agreement. If there’s one practice that makes Vampire Weekend’s aesthetic fresh, it’s wrestling sounds (and sweaters) away from their usual cultural contexts.
Bid on a Rangers jersey autographed by the band—proceeds go to charity
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