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Interview: Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend

"We should be the least controversial band of all time. Yet, we anger people."


Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend (Ezra Koenig, left)

Alex John Beck

Since their 2008 breakout, Brooklyn-based indie-poppers Vampire Weekend have been one of the most divisive, debated, hated bands in the blogosphere. The band are informed by West African guitar-pop and R&B and hip-hop production, but their sound scans closer to a twee take on Paul Simon's Graceland LP. Vampire Weekend's self-titled 2008 LP introduced their breezy, preppy take on pop music, yet it was on the defiant, fascinating Contra that the quartet marked themselves as not some buzz-band, but an act here to stay; the LP was one of 2010's best albums and even garnered a Grammy nomination. In 2013, they returned with the much-anticipated Modern Vampires of the City, another album that found the band experimenting; marking yet another interesting chapter in the Vampire Weekend discography.

Interview: April 3, 2013

Who's a more fearsome opponent: self-appointed guardians of Africa out to vet indie-pop for supposed colonialist qualities, or Saab enthusiasts?
"Boy, that's a tough one. That'a good question. I'm gonna have to say Saab enthusiasts, because they have a deeper connection to the thing that they're supposedly protecting."

It's weird to me —and I'm assuming to you— that your band has been controversial over the years, due to random things like cover photos or Saab-burning. How does it feel to be in that? To stumble into these storms in internet teacups?
"It's surprising, isn't it. If you look at our band, you think we'd be the least-controversial band of all time. Yet, somehow, in often surprising ways, we anger people. But, people also just love to fight. So maybe we're just providing a public service, giving people something to fight about."

I asked this question of Lana del Rey once, so I figure it's good for you, too: what's it like to be hated? To know that out in the digital wilds there are people driven to fury by your very existence?
"I've had different feelings about it over the years. When we first came out, and we had some really angry reactions, I was shocked, a bit hurt, defensive, all very natural reactions. But, as time's gone on, I've realised that anger and hatred towards a band is not something that you have to defeat or get over. Anger and hatred, it's sad to say, is almost like your reward for existing in the first place. To become a band that's well-known enough, and distinct enough, that some people love you and some people hate you, that's about as good as it gets. And you hope that there's a simpler way of existing once you get through that gauntlet. But the truth is, any time you make something that earns a place for itself in the world, that's distinct and real, you're going to create a range of opinions."

Even when Contra came out, a lot of those early Vampire Weekend topics —those misguided accusations of African-pop appropriation or these dreamt-up critical fantasies of country club privilege— really felt like they were still in play, still trenchant. This time around, are you through that gauntlet? Am I crazy, or have those sources of debate cooled off, and now there's almost a sense of the world being able to take you as you are and not seen through the prism of an issue?
"Well, we'll find out, won't we. I honestly don't know. I'd like to think that. At this point, also, I just don't care. A lot of those early trumped-up accusations were so baseless that these arguments feel so boring to me now. I'm not interested in having them, in even engaging in an argument about that type of stuff. Hopefully, now that this is our third album, we have a lot of legitimate fans. We have more people who like us than that hate us. And it's obvious which group we need to focus on. But you never know how people will react. And the Saab thing is a good example of that."

So, does making music, and having that interpreted by the world, make you as a human being feel more understood, or misunderstood?
"I feel like the more music that Vampire Weekend makes, the more information people have about us. When we only had one album out, people had little to judge us by; that one album showed a certain side of the band. The second album showed another side of the band. This album shows yet another side of the band. As time goes on and we release more music, I do feel like we become better understood, yes."

What side of the band does Modern Vampires of the City show?
"As time goes on, we change. So there are calmer moments on this album that we've ever done before, there are more straightforward emotional songs than anything on the first two albums. I think you see the less sarcastic side of Vampire Weekend on this record. It wasn't intentional in particular, I think we've become —or at least I've become— less of a smart-ass as I've gotten older. We also like to challenge ourselves. On this record, songs like 'Don't Lie' or 'Unbelievers,' which are in some ways conservative by our standards, they felt the freshest to us. It was really exciting for us to figure out how to write really simple, direct songs, because maybe people think of Vampire Weekend as having a lot of bells and whistles, or cryptic lyrics. We love that stuff, too, but there's also moments on this album —and some of my favourite moments on this album— that are just the most simple."

Did you approach this album with specific goals in mind, about what you wanted to do?
"That's a hard question to answer. Because, yeah, we love to talk about our albums and music, and even before we start work on a record we'll have these big conversations about 'What can this album be like? What're the vibes? What're the ideas?' And, then, as you start working on it, reality sets in. And there's the more basic business about writing great songs. Songs that excite you. So you end up getting something that maybe is based on your big idea that you had at the beginning, but ultimately its fundamentally different. You surprise yourself a lot."

How deep into the making of (Modern Vampires of the City) did it start to take on an identity of its own?
"There were some basic ideas we were set on from the beginning. Rostam and I both agreed that 'organic' sounds sounded a lot fresher when we started working on this record. Like, we didn't want to make our synthy '80s album. We were really attracted to sounds like piano, organ, acoustic guitar, voices singing in harmony. We knew that was something that we wanted to pursue. Figuring out how to take these older sounds and marry them to modern sounds, that was something we had to work out as we went, through trial and error and thought and conversation."

Is 'Diane Young' a slightly misleading first single, then? If the album as whole is a more acoustic, traditional-instruments kind of thing, putting out something so filled with pitch-shifting, and warped production?
"We've never been able to chose a song that represents the album, so that's not really how we try to think about singles. If anything, no one song can sum up the record. That's why we wanted to release 'Diane Young' and 'Step,' because that way you get more of a sense of the world of the album. It's not just pumped-up, weirdo rockabilly, and it's not just low-key, melancholy hip-hop. There are other moments that are fast and punky, and other moments that are really quiet and hushed. That's the universe they inhabit. We love to make albums. For us it's more than just a collection of songs, we want people to experience the album as a whole, and we put a lot of thought into how the songs all work together. We want to make sure there's a diversity on the album, but still a continuity. I'm excited for people to hear the whole record."

How does it feel in this time when the record is finished, but you're waiting for it to come out into the world? Is it frustrating? Nerve-wracking? Exciting? All of the above?
"It's all of the above. But more than anything, it's busy. For better or worse, you don't have a lot of time to reflect. Now that we've released music, now that 'Diane Young' and 'Step' are out there, that's kind of a relief. People have heard some of our record, now. That feels like we've cleared the biggest hurdle, even moreso when the full album comes out. Because, before that, people have not literally heard a thing from your record, now they've heard two songs. Right now, I'm honestly not that stressed. Making the album is much more stressful; the creative challenges are the things you worry about the most. That's what concerns us: 'Do we love the record? Did we make something we're proud of?' Now that I've got a little bit of distance from the record, I can honestly say yes to those questions. Everything that comes thereafter, this year, is almost out of our hands. We'll go play shows, we'll do interviews, we'll do fun stuff. But the real hard part is over. Making the record is the true challenge."

What was the most challenging part of that challenge?
"The most difficult parts were the weeks and occasionally months where we wouldn't come up with a new song. We were lucky that right off the bat we had a bunch of songs that we know belonged on the album, but, then, occasionally we had to stop and say: 'let's right some new songs'. And that's something we'd never done before. Previously, all our best songs came very naturally, we never had to stop and be like 'let's go write songs'. So, it's funny to say, that this time there were even occasions where I had to say: 'how do you write a song?' I like to keep the creative process a little magical, almost; I hate to think of songwriting as work. On this album, though, we had to do some things to shake up our songwriting arrangements. Like, we tried writing with different groups, Rostam and I took a 'songwriting retreat' to Martha's Vineyard. Some people only work that way, we'd literally never done that. I wouldn't ever call these moments 'writer's block', because we can always write songs, but when you're waiting for the really good ones to come, that was frustrating."

You've never made an EP thus far, is that due to your devotion to the LP?
"I'm not anti-EP! But, to me, the album form is the thing that I feel the most passionately about. And I think the same is true for the rest of the guys. There's something about an album that just feels so exciting to me: it's like creating a whole world. Obviously the fundamental unit is the song, but there's something that I love about an album, where there's something about the way the songs work together that is extra-special, and it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. So, I've never been that psyched about EPs or standalone singles or whatever. But, y'know, it's not an unbreakable rule, it all depends on the material."

No less than two songs on the record, "Finger Back" and "Ya Hey," feature spoken-word over the bridge. Were you just in a real Boyz II Men kind of mood?
"Oh! I like that Boyz II Men reference! That's better than musical theatre, which some other people have said. If anything, I just like the idea of talking. I like a lot of French singers —Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, who's Belgian— who have that real talky, French chanteur vibe. There's something I like about occasionally talking the words rather than just singing them. Also, it's a nice break from constantly singing. There's something more natural about, sometimes, just speaking. It just felt right for those songs."

You described Contra as your 'California album' and now Modern Vampires of the City as your 'New York album.' Were they supposed to be sister works? Mirror images from each coast?
"I definitely feel like all three albums fit together, and have a bit of a narrative. The way that I see it, in the most simplest terms, when I look back on these three albums, is this... The first album is this youthful, college, New York vibe. Then the second album is our world expanding, there's more California, there's more of the whole globe in it, there's a lot of new ideas and it corresponds with the time when we were suddenly watching our world change, going to places for the first time. Now this album feels like a return home. So, in that sense, there's a real connection between Contra and this record. Every album has its New York moments, but Contra reminds me of the post-college years where everybody's doing new things. For us, that meant touring, releasing records, going to places we'd never been before. It's very natural, then, that this album reflects the time after that. For me, I literally did return to New York. I'd spent two years being a nomad, where I didn't have an apartment, and I'd travel between tours, and I'd go stay with different people, I lived in LA for a bit. So, the past two years for me really do feel like this return to New York."

Are these albums the ultimate marker of times in your life? And to look back on them in years hence is to almost look back on journals?
"Yeah. That's kind of the goal in some ways. I like the idea that every album we make was reflective of the time in which it was made. It reflects our lives, our friends' lives, what's happening around us. I can't think of a better way to mark the years than making an album."

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