Vampire Weekend are biting back
After their second album, Vampire Weekend stepped back and took stock. For their new album, the main goal was to keep things fresh and uncomplicated, and keep coming up with decent songs, frontman Ezra Koenig says
It’s the quiet before the storm. Vampire Weekend are warming up for the release of their third album and Ezra Koenig is doing what every frontman does ahead of a new album release and answering a bunch of questions.
Koenig is in Austin, Texas for the band’s show at the South By Southwest festival. Downtown, the carnival is in full swing with bands playing every nook, cranny and alley that will have them. But, in a balmy hotel garden overlooking the town lake, Koenig is far from that fray.
Perhaps it’s the nature of a third album, but it looks as though Vampire Weekend are taking stock. The first two albums took care of the band’s arrival and initial development, leaving Modern Vampires of the City to put down some markers about what they are about right now.
And that, says Koenig, is songs. “With every album we make, we have hours of conversations about what’s cool at the moment, what we want to avoid, what are signifiers that excite us,” he says. “All that intellectual music-nerd stuff that every band has. All that is meaningless without the songs and we had to wait for the songs to come. No matter what, you need songs, especially now, and the process to write a catchy song which does all that takes time.”
The title was inspired by a song from reggae artist Junior Reid. “There’s a lot of vampire imagery in reggae and the vampire is connected to this idea of an evil force of modernity attacking Babylon. It’s a force that zaps energy and represents greed and selfishness. A lot of people think of bankers and lawyers as the modern vampires, which is a bit simplistic, though not necessarily wrong. I prefer to think about the greed and selfishness in all of us. There is something dramatic about the title, but also a little funny.”
When Koenig looks at the band’s progression from college band to third album, he finds it funny to see how things now look in hindsight. “When we came out in the mid-2000s, people were asking if bands were getting hyped too quickly or doing that stupid one-upmanship thing, inventing new genres or talking about the importance of blogs. It’s hilarious to look back at the great blog controversy of 2005 and realise it was just nonsense.
“Then we came out and we were guys who met at college who were referencing African music, so, of course, there was a perfect storm. People were ‘oh my God, another made-up genre!’ All these years later, though, I’d like to think someone who picks up our first album will not be thinking all that much about the cultural milleu of 2008 and is just listening to the songs. That’s what separates a band from a group of cool people with some fresh aesthic ideas.”
For the new album, Koenig says they wanted to move away from any preconceived notions of a Vampire Weekend sound. “From the beginning of this album, we agreed on a couple of things. We were agreed on organic sounds. Now, organic means different things to different people. To us, it means not synth, not a candy-coated 1980s thing, just simple things. On the last album, we were into expanding the universe and threw synths and drum machines into everything and it sounded fresh and it worked on that album.
“But we didn’t want to continue that trajectory. We wanted to bring in piano, organ and simple harmonies because they felt more attractive. As much as we wanted to get away from that obvious 1980s synth sound which a lot of people have done to death, our biggest fear was to make music which was vintage or retro. There’s a fine line. Can you bring old classic 1960s pop sounds and make a distinctly modern record? We care very much about making stuff fresh and modern.”
That also means ensuring Vampire Weekend don’t sound like anyone else. “When we came out first, lots of other bands talked about us or dissed us,” says Koenig. “We decided that we were never going to let a journalist convince us to talk shit about another act, but does that mean we don’t talk shit about people when we’re in the studio? Of course we do! You have to have cutural signposts to help you. You get times in the studio when someone says, ‘I don’t want us to sound like that. Band A made an album that sounded like that and it sucked.’ You need to have those feelings.”
As a pop fan, Koenig has some interesting perspectives on where the music is right now. “I’m 28, I’ve been obsessive about pop music since I was 10 years old. But the odds that I’m going to hear a record that sounds like something I’ve never heard in my life are unlikely. I might find something which moves me in a way I didn’t think was possible when I was a teenager, but I think I’m fairly au fait with most genres of music.
“I’d always defend current pop music to the death. That’s a typical fight you’d have with someone else in a band, something like, ‘we’re living in borrowed time, the rock canon ended years ago, everything is a rehash, it would have been cooler to have been alive in 1977.’ I’ve never bought into that. I’m happy now – this is the time I belong in.
“When I picture those stories that you read about some young guy in England hearing Elvis and rock’n’roll for the first time, I believe that was a seismic event because he had so little access to outside things. To suddenly hear that was crazy.
“Like, when I first heard A$AP Rocky, I thought he was fresh and distinct but I’ve been listening to rap since I was a little kid. It didn’t blow me away but my curiosity was piqued and I began to spend more time with it and realise he is a very important and unique modern artist. You almost have to have a more subtle ear now. No one is going to hear rock’n’roll or hip-hop at a diner and go, ‘what is this?’”
yyy Modern Vampires of the City is released today on XL. Vampire Weekend play the Longitude festival in Marlay Park, Dublin,
on July 20th