The Twilight film craze hadn’t yet struck when Vampire Weekend’s Internet buzz–fueled debut came out in 2008, but the indie-rock world’s reaction was more polarized than Team Edward versus Team Jacob. Many critics praised the group’s bouncy, Afropop-infused sound; others bitched that the Columbia University–educated twentysomethings were rich-boy elitists who had no business dabbling in music from the developing world. Still, their first album went gold, and their follow-up, Contra, debuted at No. 1 in January. In advance of their Aragon gig, lead singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig called from his home in New York.
Stephen Colbert took you to task for railing against the use of the Oxford comma in your song “Oxford Comma.” Did he persuade you to change your position?
Well, we’ve been singing that song at every show for three years, so we kind of gotta stick with it. [Laughs] It was really funny because he came backstage and said, “I’ve got a hard-on for this Oxford comma thing.”
I have to admit: I’m a fan of the Oxford comma.
All we’re doing is creating a dialogue about comma usage. That’s all you can hope for as a band.
Why do you think so many people have such a hard-on about your band’s whiteness? Christian Lander, the author of Stuff White People Like, dubbed you the world’s whitest band.
The reason people talk about our whiteness is not because of our music, not because of our skin; it’s because we’d be wearing boat shoes and button-down shirts. Maybe some of the people who thought we were being so brazen by wearing boat shoes, as if that’s, like, this ultimate status symbol, they might be wearing boat shoes now themselves and realizing, you know what, these go for, like, $39.95. [Laughs]
They’re just good quality footwear.
Of course! I hope people have realized we don’t conform to some sort of out-of-touch Ivy League elitist stereotype quite as easily as they thought.
You get some of the same shit Paul Simon did with Graceland—that you’re cultural tourists, as The New York Times put it, because you incorporate African music.
It’s so easy for anyone to deal with their own guilt of being a middle-class white music fan by pointing to other people who they perceive to be richer than them, whiter than them.… If you’re a middle-class white person in America, you can only blame the power elite so much.
We’re all complicit.
Some reviews of Contra fixate on the fact that many songs are about vacations and the bourgeois life. One called it an “escapist fantasy for the recession.” But you’ve said your lyrics are mostly satire.
There’s plenty of satire. We have songs that are about sex, hanging out with rich people, being a tourist, being on vacation, sure. But we’ve never written a song that was solely about just the fun of it. We have a song called “Holiday” that is thinking about the whole concept of vacation.
The Chicago Reader suggested it’s a class thing: Indie rockers aren’t supposed to be Ivy Leaguers.
First of all, that’s such a myth. Second of all, if going to an Ivy League school is a negative thing, then our society has a serious problem.
I also hear late-’70s and early-’80s new wave in your songs. Your dad got you into that music?
Yeah, totally. My dad has a really great record collection that basically went up to the year I was born: 1984. And those are some of my favorites: all of the 2 Tone stuff, Elvis Costello, Squeeze. They can really be smart-asses at times. They have this love of wordplay. You can hear that in our band. The reason people have been more excited to talk about Paul Simon and African music goes back to what we were talking about before: Race and class are juicier topics than just loving Elvis Costello.
So that’s why those influences don’t get brought up as much?
Totally. There’s classical music all over the album. That influence is almost equal to African music. And people ask us about it one tenth as much.
You’ve pointed out you named the band before the vampire craze. But then you contributed a song to the latest Twilight soundtrack. Isn’t that going to lump you in with all other vampire-come-latelies?
We thought it was fun that Vampire Weekend would finally be on the soundtrack to this big vampire movie. If anybody thinks Vampire Weekend is just part of the vampire craze… I’m not worried about any confusion.
Vampire Weekend plays the Aragon Sunday 5 at 7pm.