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Interview: Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend

"We took enough s**t for everybody."


Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend (Ezra Koenig, third from Left)

Søren Solkær Starbird

Vampire Weekend are a four-piece indie-pop outfit from New York based around the creative partnership of songwriter Ezra Koenig and producer/arranger Rostam Batmanglij. The band's exuberant music draws heavily from twee, college-rock, West African guitar-pop, and Paul Simon's legendary Graceland LP. Vampire Weekend's 2008 self-titled debut made them not merely one of the breakout bands of 2008, but one of the most blogged-about bands ever, subject to both hysterical hype and bilious backlash. In 2010, they released their second album, Contra, to great scrutiny.

Interview: 23 November 2009

Was Contra the difficult second album?
"No more difficult than the first one. We've always put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves, and if we're not happy with how a song is sounding, it can be very difficult to really whip it into shape. The fact that this was our second album didn't really change anything. Because, even when we were making the first album, and nobody really cared about us, we were still pulling our hair out about getting the vocals sounding right. It's all internal to us."

You really didn't feel the weight of expectations, this time?
"That didn't make me feel any more pressure, that mostly seemed like a positive. To get emails from kids saying 'I can't wait for your next album,' that almost makes you feel better about working on it, because you know there's going to be an audience for it."

Did you, in the beginning, have doubts that there would be an audience for Vampire Weekend?
"Well, we always had people that liked to come to our shows, even if they were mostly our friends. So, I always assumed we'd have some kind of audience. Did I think we'd have the success that we had? That we'd travel around the world at play at big festivals? No, I didn't think that."

How bizarre was it suddenly being on that upwards ride?
"It was very surreal in the beginning. Now we've gotten a bit more used to it, but playing to 40,000 people at Glastonbury is pretty crazy when you consider that we'd been playing almost the exact same set at a frat party to drunken college students a year-and-a-half earlier."

Were you surprised that your band, playing largely non-provocative pop-music, generated so much blog backlash and fiery debate?
"To a certain extent. I knew some of the things that we were doing and some of the things we were talking about would set some people off. Because, a lot of rock critics love to try and pretend that they're social activists when it comes to talking about background and class and wealth. And I knew that because those are things that I want to talk about, not every critic would understand that my lyrics are analytical, and some people would interpret it as some sort of lifestyle album about promoting wealth, when that's so far from the case. Every album we make will show a different side of the band, and maybe help people to understand us a little better, but the knee-jerk, angry people are gonna probably never give us a chance. But, I think about all the same issues that everybody thinks about. I think about what cultural appropriation means. I don't think our band does anything negative, but I know that there are people who just can't wait to take down a person whom they perceive to be some sort of privileged white whatever. That didn't surprise me; there's always people that want to be negative. What did surprise me were the assumptions that people would make without knowing anything about us, biographically."

What assumptions are you speaking about, specifically?
"People have made all sorts of assumptions. People have, in a very large way, assumed that we grew up privileged, simply because of the school that we went to. Never mind that I received a scholarship from my dad's labor union and am still in the midst of paying back loans; it doesn't matter to people. They hear you went to a good school, and they'll start talking about what your parents must do for a living, and how your daddy must pay for everything. That's not how school works in America, especially at a school like Columbia. It's diverse; they have a huge financial aid department. So, that's for one. And people also made assumptions about our family backgrounds. I've seen many times people describe our band as being WASPy. Nobody in our band is a WASP."

Batmanglij isn't an Anglo-Saxon surname?
"Exactly! Rostam's background is Persian; his parents are from Iran. My family is all Eastern European Jews; my grandma is from Romania. [Bassist Chris] Baio's family's Italian, and [drummer Chris] Tomson's family's Ukrainian. That's the American story: everybody has a varied background. Which makes it even more amazing that people will still make those assumptions based solely on seeing you dress a certain way, or use a certain word. From that, they like to imagine exactly who you are."

Talking recently to The Very Best and Fool's Gold, both claimed they'd encountered no negative reactions, no critiques that they're robbing African culture. Do you think Vampire Weekend were the frontline, and now the indie world has grown used to this idea of the global dialogue?
"Oh, totally. We took enough s**t for everybody. Who knows why it works out that way; perhaps it goes back to what we were talking about before, that people made assumptions that made them feel more validated in being blindly negative. The truth is, when I collaborated with The Very Best, the first time I met Esau [Mwamwaya], the singer, who grew up in Malawi, he had so many nice things to say about Vampire Weekend. And, one of the things that he said he liked about us was that some of the rhythms reminded him of the music he grew up listening to in Malawi. Clearly, he did not think of that as a negative thing. He didn't come to me and say 'I really think you guys have been ripping us off'; he knows that Vampire Weekend is doing its own thing, but he saw a cultural connection. Just like I see cultural connections in The Very Best to music that I grew up listening to. When you have experiences like that, it really makes the opinions of white middle-class critics seem even less valid."

Next: "It'll be harder for people to hear this new album and pretend our songs are about hanging out at the country club with our rich friends..."

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