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Interview: Vampire Weekend

9th October 2008

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Cup a hand round one ear and you’ll hear faint whispers in the air preaching of the latest New York fad and Brooklyn’s new underground scene, but when you go in search of it you may be at a loss. The fuss over raw-indie bands such as The Strokes and The Walkmen has long since died out, and with label giants merging and reigning a vast majority of the music kingdom, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for new talent to break out. But when a new sound does break out and it prophesises to be expertly educated in the ways of ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ and ‘Upper West Side Soweto’, it comes as a rather pleasant revelation.

Vampire WeekendUnder genres so strange, it’s unsurprising that this fresh New York genius goes by the enigmatic name of Vampire Weekend, named after a lo-fi horror flick attempt by front-man Ezra Koenig. The band formed at Columbia University, in the Upper West side of New York, they shared a love of Africa and music and hey presto! Eighteen months later they were signed to XL and were ready to release their self titled, debut album.

In the months following their emergence the UK press was quick to lump them into the Brooklyn scene with bands such as Yeasayer and Celebration, but do they see themselves as part of it? Keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij doesn’t seem to think so. “I don’t know, is there a Brooklyn scene and do we feel a part of it? I would say no.”

So why does the press feel a need to place bands into pigeonholes, whether they fit or not? “A lot of the connections are probably tenuous. I think mostly that sort of scene-making comes from the journalists who have an easier time writing about the bands they’re into if they can sell their editor on some hook or story.” This is perhaps why Vampire Weekend chooses to place themselves into various genres of their own, ‘Campus’ and ‘Oxford Comma Ridim’ being among the suggestions on their Myspace.

“I think that came from all of us feeling that bios were so cheesy no matter what. We felt like it would be weird to have one of those bios in the third person. So, we thought the best way for us to say a little something about ourselves would be to make up these fake genres. In the genres there’s juxtaposition in the various phrases that we’ve chosen and juxtaposition is something we’re totally after as a band.”

Their afro-beat laced, pop wig-out of an album can be compared to early Talking Heads and Paul Simon, from the skitty rhythms through to Ezra’s vocals. But mixed among that are violins and raw jangly guitars. Somehow Vampire Weekend have managed to pulp together the best bits of music-past in a fantastically, mind-boggling way.

“If we had a song with hand drums and guitars with a certain kind of slap back delay, then West African guitar music was an influence. Then we’d want to find something that you wouldn’t find in West African guitar music like a harpsichord. So, in ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ you can hear the influence of West African guitar music but then in the end a harpsichord comes in and it’s something that you wouldn’t expect that was influenced by Bach. I guess it was our idea to bring together things that were separate. I think the point of our band is to never let anybody say, ‘This band does this and they do it well’. It’s more exciting to be the band that takes weird things and mashes them together.”

Rostam describes their sound as taking pop music from hundreds of years ago and today, from different parts of the world and putting it all together, which is exactly what they are - an amalgamation of pop that refuses to sit still, ever evolving. Born in the eighties, they all formed a fondness for early punk from the late seventies, before it got distorted, when it was ‘clean.’ And then their interest in African literature blossomed and they started thinking about the correlation of objects as well as sounds.

“Ezra approached colonialism in terms of aesthetics. He became interested in the word khaki and how it’s a word we frequently hear these days as relating to a certain kind of style of pants and where the term khaki pants comes from. He realised that it came from India and from the colonial era and then he became more interested in stuff like that. I think all of us are interested in why Ralph Lauren has paisley prints. What’s the significance to Ralph Lauren? It’s a deeper interest.”

Between lectures Rostam spent a lot of his time playing around on the production side of music, working on it in different ways and learning as he went and towards the end of their degree the boys began recording everywhere and anywhere that would let them. “Nowadays with technology it’s really easy to do, you can just put the session on a hard drive and carry it wherever you want to go. We had about 10 songs exactly a year ago in some kind of shape and then we toured throughout the summer and this fall we went back and recorded two new songs. We took one of the original songs off and that was 11 songs. That was it. I feel a lot of people make records like this. They don’t go into the studio anymore and rack their brains.”

And of course Rostam produced it all. It’s the first full album he’s worked on, but he’s dipped his toe in the sea of soundtracks too. “After I graduated I wrote music for films. They were just graduate school, 20 minute films. The movie I worked on that was longer was called The Ten [comedy starring Jessica Alba and Adam Brody, among others]. It’s made by David Wain. I think it’s more of a cult thing in America.”

Vampire Weekend aren’t the sort of band to sit around twiddling their thumbs when there are new projects they can get their teeth stuck into. They’re already raring to start piecing together the next album, they’ve even written some new material for it that they’ve been bandying about in the odd live show, it’s just finding the time to get into the studio, which is something Rostam wants to do ‘more than touring’.

“I love the idea of working with different producers. There are a lot of exciting things that you can do in producing a band because if you think about the divide between electronic music and dance or rap - which is made not as a band but as people with computers - those kind of walls have crumbled and it’s one thing now. All the same rules apply, whether you’re making dance music or rock music.”

Having already toured with bands as big as The Shins and Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend have been welcomed with open arms into the music-community. “We opened for The Shins in Paris at La Cigale. We felt like people hadn’t really heard our music but somehow we’d won them over. It was completely packed when we played and it seemed like everyone was there to hear the music.”

But why have this fresh young band, which seem to have come out of nowhere, been so anticipated? “I think it helped that we started recording as soon as we were a band. I think what being hyped about actually means is people having your songs. I think that’s all hype is to a certain extent.” Or perhaps it’s because they’re responsible for pairing the most baffling lyrics with mystifying noises and creating one of the most intelligent sounds to come out of last year. No one could possibly explain it but themselves. “I think that if you try to say exactly what something means, then what’s the point of singing it? It exists in that subliminal world where it’s just vibes being put out. If you were to try to deconstruct those lines in particular it wouldn’t be worth doing.” But what is worth doing, is waiting the few months of U.S touring for these preppie New Yorkers to come back to England so that you can witness their all-inclusive-generations of pop madness ‘vibing’ against a Jamaican steelpan choir. Leave your sensibilities at door.

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