Vampire Weekend: ‘Our lyrics are not nonsense. They’re impressionistic’
Ezra Koenig on his new straightforward songwriting and the ‘bitter-sweet’ experience of touring
Steve Lacy, who contributes to new Vampire Weekend album Father of the Bride, and Ezra Koenig
Six years is ample time for a band to call quits, complete a farewell tour, try their solo ventures, realise they’re not John Lennon and announce a comeback album. Or if they’re Vampire Weekend, skip the drama and use the time to expand their creative portfolio while perfecting album number four, Father of the Bride.
Kudos to the industry heads around them that let the New York-formed group take their time, given the momentum from their last album, the typically idiosyncratic Modern Vampires of the City, and even after they’d committed to choice festivals such as End of the Road in the UK and Lollapalooza in the US last year, anticipating their big return. Oops.
“We didn’t work on the album for the full six years,” Ezra Koenig says, when asked about its elongated gestation. “I worked on it for three years, so in some ways it’s not that different from the last record. But that’s what happens. You take a few years off, next thing you know, six years go by. It’s crazy.”
Today, in an industrial-chic east London hotel, Koenig is wearing an outfit including blue cords, sandals and tie-dyed socks that only someone in the music or fashion industry could try out. He looks as fresh-faced and doe-eyed as when Vampire Weekend formed 13 years ago at Columbia University, but warns that he doesn’t feel fresh-faced – mostly to do with the jet lag from his flight from LA, but also as it’s one of his first days back in the public-facing realm of Vampire Weekend.
Since he was last in the hot seat, the world around Koenig has changed. At home, he has a baby son, with his partner Rashida Jones (of The US Office, also Quincy Jones’s daughter). In the band, while Chris Tomson and Chris Baio continue as the rhythm section, co-writer Rostam has moved on, though he still contributed to the album. Outside the band Koenig turned his attention to television, creating Netflix’s comic fantasy series Neo Yokio (with the voice talents of Jaden Smith, Jude Law and Susan Sarandon). His society has changed, too; Koenig’s US president of choice, Bernie Sanders, didn’t achieve the intended result for the 2016 elections, though that’s not stopping him from backing him again for the 2020 elections. And among his peers, the #MeToo movement has spread so far that with the revelations of Ryan Adams’s mistreatment of women, it has proved that indie music, previously imagined as an arena governed by empathy and emotion, is no safe space. Had he known about Adams’s behaviour before the news hit?
“I knew about it when I read it,” he says, intoning that it clicked once he found out. “It doesn’t surprise me. Any situation in which there’s lopsided power, it’s never a surprise to find out that it’s been abused.
“I think what we can conclusively say now – and it goes beyond music and misogyny – is in scenes and movements that purport to be forward-thinking or progressive, there can be retrograde, fucked-up ideas embedded. That will never be surprising again.
“What’s been interesting about living in this moment, is that, especially in the States, you’re raised with binary choices. There’s liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Democrats stand for good things, like women’s rights and supporting the rights of vulnerable communities, Republicans don’t. So when you’re raised with that idea, at first it’s a nauseating feeling when you realise that even within the supposed good guys, there’s retrograde ideas. For a certain type of person it’s almost earth-shattering. You thought that you were on the right side or that the person you supported was the good person, you realise that to truly … I don’t know, it’s a hard thought to finish.”
He tapers off. “What’s clear is that we’re in a really important moment when everything is being re-evaluated.”
Koenig doesn’t elaborate on whether he’s referring to specifics, such as allegations of impropriety in Sanders’s campaign team (the Joe Biden allegations have yet to come out when we speak), though it feels like it’s a more general point.
In their own way, Vampire Weekend are also being re-evaluated. Father of the Bride – the title more to do with the Steve Martin film than Koenig’s family circumstances – is comprised of 18 songs, ranging in texture from the dark-but-dancey Harmony Hall that begins the album proper (containing pertinent lyrics about “wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified”) to the boldly odd Sunflowers, both of which were unveiled in pairs in the lead-up to the album’s release.
On a full listen-through, what’s most striking is the album’s (deceptive) simplicity, given that there’s little more that strikes fear in a fan’s heart than news of a double comeback album, especially when there have been changes in the higher ranks of the band.
“We were cognisant of that,” says Koenig. “The most basic thing that I’m most proud of is the songs have a straightforwardness that I was always afraid of, or maybe just incapable of, accomplishing in the past.
“It’s lean, just not in the amount of songs. When the ideas started coming, they came quickly, and I knew there was a lot there. Plus in terms of what chapter four needed to accomplish, only a double album would give me the room to include the contrast I wanted to put forward. I wanted room to have heaviness next to lightness, and smartness next to stupidity. Each of the songs serves a purpose.”
So while the first trio of Vampire Weekend albums introduced them to the world as a band who marbled together offbeat Afropop grooves and lateral thinking into an indie-guitar package – demonstrated from the early days of A-Punk to the ear worm that is Unbelievers – Vampire Weekend 2.0 proves that they’re capable of much more.
The lyrics board
The lyrics mark another source of change, Koenig explains.
“Even with people who liked Vampire Weekend, I think they’ve sometimes given us too much credit in the past,” he says. “They explain that we tell stories about New York or college life. I think that we don’t tell stories, we do collages, and a collage is not a story. They’re both art forms, but when you’ve done enough collaging, maybe you want to take a drawing class.
“Thinking about early Vampire Weekend with a song like Oxford Comma, that started with the lyrics ‘Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?’ It’s a silly thing, it’s a bit of grammar, but it feels evocative. ‘Why would you lie about something dumb like that’ and then you talk about the Dalai Lama and English dramas. It’s a series of images.
“It’s very meaningful to me, and it always hurt my feelings when people would say that Vampire Weekend’s lyrics were nonsense. They’re not nonsense. They’re impressionistic.
“I felt that the blossoming of the collage idea was Step, on the last album. The chorus is just a series of little phrases: ‘the gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out’. That’s a collage, two little cliched phrases stuck together that creates a feeling, maybe about ageing, maybe about a relationship to music. But it’s a feeling that is bigger than its units.
“After that, I didn’t want to do worse versions of collages. I’ll always be the type of person that starts with phrases, but I wanted somewhere new to go, too.”
A case in point is Married in a Goldrush, a country-style duet with Danielle Haim (one of a few contributors the album; others include Mark Ronson, Steve Lacy of The Internet, Jenny Lewis and Chromeo). It plays out the story of a couple looking back at the better times of their relationship.
“Sometimes you hear a duet and you’re like, ‘Aw, come on, they just broke up one song that somebody wrote’,” says Koenig. “The duets that I really love, like old country duets, are when people talk to each other and tease each other. The two singers are offering different perspectives on the same situations.”
Happily, after the long absence, the group are taking these new songs on tour, including an outdoor date at Trinity College in Dublin. And while the smattering of sold-out dates indicates their return is welcome, Koenig’s daddy duties mean touring has taken a different position in his life.
“Musically I’m more excited about touring than I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “I thought of touring as a necessary evil in the early days. It was always rewarding to see people sing along, but even then, after a while it gets a little old. Whereas now, I’m in this place where we have new members in the live band, the songbook is so much bigger and I’m really excited about set lists.
“But also I have a family now, so I am excited to tour and I want to provide, but also it’s not that fun to leave.
“I know that the good thing about being a touring musician – and I’ve talked to a lot of people who were raised by musicians – is that when you’re gone, you’re gone a lot and when you’re home, you’re really home. But going on tour now is a bitter-sweet feeling.”
Father of the Bride is out on May 3rd