It's a pain in the neck
“People describe us as these incredibly privileged, waspy, brainless, whitewashed dudes.” No one expected a bunch of preppie boys from Columbia University to wheel out the rhythms like Vampire Weekend did on their debut record – and the quartet are still trying to confound expectations. Ezra Koenig and Chris Biao talk image issues and second album syndrome with KEVIN COURTNEY
IT’S December, and Ezra Koenig and Chris Biao of Vampire Weekend are sitting in the offices of XL Recordings in London, quaffing horchata and chatting about their second album, due out early in the New Year. Well, actually, they’re not drinking horchata, the sweet Mexican rice drink that kicks off the album’s lead track; they’re drinking plain old coffee.
Koenig and Baio look, dress and talk like really polite young men, which makes it all the more surprising to hear they nearly caused a diplomatic incident in – of all places – Belgium. Travelling’s a tricky business at the best of times; you have to be careful not to offend the natives or insult their gods. And for Pete’s sake, don’t disrespect their national treasures.
“Basically, we’d never heard of Toots Thielemans,” explains Koenig, a man who normally considers himself well versed in all forms of lounge, exotica and easy listening. “Although I’ve come to realise I’ve heard his music many times. So we were with all these Belgian people, out having dinner in a restaurant, and I just made an offhand comment about John Popper from Blues Traveler being the greatest harmonica player of all time. And everybody went silent. It was later explained to me that Toots Thielemans is one of the most famous living Belgians. So we’ve become obsessed with him. We found out he played harmonica on the theme tune for Sesame Street.”
Despite that glaring gap in Koenig’s musical knowledge, you can’t accuse the singer of being musically insular. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album displayed a breadth of influences well beyond the bailiwick of your typical college kid from uptown Manhattan. The album fused indie, surf, punk and African rhythms (to name but four genres) to oddly beguiling effect.
The band called it “Upper West Side Soweto” – this is what The Beach Boys might have sounded like if they’d grown up on the Ivory Coast, or what Fela Kuti might have sounded like if he came from Martha’s Vineyard.
The weird brew worked a treat, giving an exotic flavour to such collegiate anthems as Oxford Comma, A-Punkand Mansard Roof. The incongruity of it all is neatly summed up in the lyric of Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa: “This feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too”. The band’s appropriation of East African polyrhythms has earned them comparisons with Gabriel, Paul Simon and even David Byrne – Byrne’s probably the closest to the mark, not just because there’s an echo of early Talking Heads there, but also because the lyrical erudition is liberally sprinkled with a wry, dry sense of humour.
In terms of the New York music scene, Vampire Weekend were kind of a lost tribe, hidden deep in the campus of Columbia University in upper Manhattan, far from the cool Brooklyn scene that was fast establishing itself as the centre of the musical universe. The band – Koenig, Baio, guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and drummer Chris Tomson – met while studying at Columbia, and in their first few months they rarely ventured further afield than playing friends’ parties on-campus.
Coming from such a salubrious part of town, and studying at such an eminent institution, Vampire Weekend have been dismissed by some as rich white boys with guitars and a few CDs picked up on a gap year in Africa, and their whip-smart writing has been written off as pretentious and pedantic – who else would write a song about grammar?
Their preferred uniform – Ralph Lauren polo tops, chinos and penny loafers – has had them labelled “preppies with attitude”; one website even voted them the “whitest band” alive. Rather than don the leathers and grow mullets for their second album, however, Vampire Weekend are sticking with their Gap gear and boyish haircuts – even the album’s cover features a pretty young thing in a polo shirt, an iconic image in the making (The photo was taken in the 1980s). They may be uptown boys but, insists Koenig, they’re far from Ivy League.
“I think people don’t know what to make of us, and that’s why, for the people who want to put us down, all they can do is attack this kind of clichéd stereotyped version of what we are. They describe us as being these incredibly privileged, waspy, whatever, even though it’s like so obviously untrue. But people close their eyes to even basic things about us, ’cos rather than looking at the lyrics or looking at our more analytical side, they would rather pretend that we are just these totally brainless, whitewashed dudes.”
The frequently-asked question about Vampire Weekend right now is, having pulled off a neat little musical trick with their debut, can the band make it a double with their second offering?
Compared with their exuberant first album, the forthcoming Contrais a more considered work, the melodies taking a little more time to weave their way around, and the choppy West African guitar licks sounding more structured. It’s still reassuringly riddled with polyrhythms, and there’s a post-graduate intensity to many of the lyrics. On the debut album, they corralled a few friends from Columbia and Julliard; they’ve roped them in again for Contra, plus the legendary marimba player Mauro Refosco, who plays with David Byrne and has recently been sitting in with Thom Yorke’s band.
“If you’d asked us before we started the record what we wanted it to sound like, well, we would have said, we want it to be different to the first album, but also connected to it. We wrote these songs, and then we just kind of had to follow those songs and give them what they needed. So if one song needed a particular instrumentation, if it sounded better with an electronic drum sound, we would just do it and mix it together, or if it needed no guitar but lots of strings and Brazilian percussion, we just did it. So that kind of guided us, because I think if you think too much about making something different, then it can come across as just contrived, but we felt we just naturally followed the songs.”
Their pursuit of tuneage led them all the way to Mexico to record, but though they spent five days holed up in a studio south of the border, and Horchatais a paean to the country’s sweet, milky beverage, Vampire Weekend haven’t suddenly morphed into The Baja Marimba Band.
“It’s hard to kind of say exactly how Mexico has influenced this album, because, for instance, Horchata, I started writing those lyrics when I was still a schoolteacher in Brooklyn. For most people who live in major cities or anywhere in NY, you probably drank that in a Mexican restaurant or a cornerstore somewhere in your neighbourhood. So even though it’s something that comes from Mexico and probably originally came from Spain, when I think of horchata, you know, I think of home. I think of New York.”
The album’s heart, says Koenig, belongs in what seems a very unlikely place for a New Yorker – California. New Yorkers are supposed to hate the west coast, aren’t they? Woody Allen taught us that, right? Wrong.
“That’s why we’re doing this tour in California, because we love being in California so much. We certainly don’t subscribe to the New York is better than LA kind of thing. To me that is an outdated idea. We’re playing in some very small towns during this tour; we’ll be basically treating California like its own country.
“I think what made me interested in California to start with was these gritty 1980s punk movies, that kind of show the dark side of it. And in LA, just like in any other city, the dark side is totally apparent. California has been this idealised future of America kind of place, especially when you consider that more than any other place, California has influenced the way people live their lives worldwide ... I think that’s what the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’s song Californication is all about.
“Musically, we’ve started to reflect on how many bands that came out of California have influenced us. And California culture as something legitimate and complex. People like to reduce it to The Beach Boys and surfing, but when you think about some of the angry punk that’s come out of California, it’s as diverse a place as any.”
So, maybe no happy clappy songs about surfing, cars and California girls, but perhaps a certain maturity and reflection almost worthy of Surf’s Up. The album’s title evokes images of Nicaragua and the Sandinistas during the 1980s, and the song Diplomat’s Son could well be about Koenig’s hero Joe Strummer. But, says Koenig, the album is more about the politics of personal relationships.
“I think even on the first album there are political messages, and some people might think I’m crazy for saying that, but the truth is that the way you act on a personal level is connected to politics, because at the end of the day, it just comes down to thinking about other people, and thinking about how your actions affect other people.
“Even a song that’s deeply personal about the relationship between two people can have a certain political importance. Maybe it can’t be reduced to a slogan or anything, but I think all of those things are connected because they’re essentially rooted in the same feeling, which is just about trying to be a good person and trying to take other people’s feelings into account.”
Contra is out on January 8th, on XL Recordings. Watch the video for the track Cousins on www.vampireweekend.com