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Interview: Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend

"People hear certain words and think: 'these guys must think they're so smart!'"

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Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend (Ezra Koenig, second from Left)

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Some of the Vampire Weekend critiques I read reminded me of those awful 'virtuous defender' movies, where the gracious white knight intervenes on behalf of the hopeless black people. The people attacking you were so blinded by their misplaced noble intentions that they didn't see how they were propagating this fascist ideology that musical influence should only ever go from the first world down to the third world, and never the other way back.
"You're totally right: it is a condescending idea that music needs protecting. The idea that African music needs to be protected and shielded by white American critics, let's say, is one of the most patronizing things you can possibly do. And these are the people who are trying to criticize our music as being culturally insensitive? People need to understand that to be inspired by music from around the world is a good thing. That's how music works! The African music I love tends to be more modern music with electric guitars. So, should people be getting angry that these Africans took this quintessentially American instrument, the electric guitar, and did their own thing with it? No! It's amazing that music works that way. And trying to raise red flags about musical appropriation is no substitute for real social activism. Love music, but use other parts of your life to educate yourself about the global political climate. That's what I try to do. And, I'm 25; hopefully it's something I'll get better at. But, in the meantime, I don't need to hear the opinions of these falsely-virtuous critics. Every experience I've had meeting African musicians has only reinforced that belief. So, on this album, certainly we have not shied away from referencing the music that we love; whether that's African music or classical music. None of our family backgrounds are rooted in Western European high society, but that doesn't stop us from loving French classical composers."

What ideas were central to Contra?
"The first idea I had was that this should be a kind of 'California album.' That was a vague idea, so we needed to figure out what that meant: 'What is it about it that resonates with me? Why do I think about it so much? What's the music from California that really matters to me? Is it The Eagles? Is it Dwight Yoakam? Or is it Operation Ivy?' I had to figure that out."

So what did you work out? Were you attracted to California as place, or as mythology?
"Both. What's so funny about California is that it's become this international brand that represents this exported American idea of what the good life is. You'll find apartment complexes in China that're called The Palm Springs Houses. Yet, California has all sorts of problems, too; at this stage the state is almost bankrupt. So, there's something inherently interesting about that contradiction in terms —of the myth and the reality— and it really helps you understand America. So, in 'California English,' there are a lot of subtle references to the idea of myths vs reality, to the idea of culture clashes. More generally, it's about my experiences in California and the things that stick out about it. In some ways, it's almost like my love-letter to California. Which goes against the prevailing cynical condescension that reigns in New York, in regards to LA. That's such a joke, to pretend that New York is so different, when clearly it's two sides of the same coin. But, sometimes people seem to think my lyrics are cryptic, and misread them accordingly, so we'll see if anybody else reads into them what I do."

Was it difficult wearing that misconception of Vampire Weekend as 'lifestyle music'?
"Not really, because it only came from those people who are looking for something to be angry about. For example, with 'Oxford Comma,' to me it's very obvious that it's about elitism, and dealing with someone who thinks they're better than you, and who tries to criticize you in bulls**t ways. I know it's not the most straight-forward song in the world, but to me it's pretty obvious that that's the tone of it. But some people would say that by even naming a song 'Oxford Comma,' all we're doing is reinforcing elitism, because, in theory, only the privileged classes know what an Oxford comma is. That, to me, is a classic example of how people misinterpret our songs. Some people just hear certain words and think: 'these guys must think they're so smart!' But, my family history has pointed to the idea that you don't have to be rich to be educated, to care about books, to know obscure words. Those are the kind of misperceptions we need to fight. And, on this album, it's not going to be as easy for people to do that."

So, you've toned down the polysyllabic words?
"Oh, no, I definitely haven't toned down the polysyllabic words! I love the sounds of words, and I'm certainly never going to change those because of what other people think. But, in terms of meaning, I think it'll be harder for people to hear this new album and pretend that our songs are about hanging out at the country club with our rich friends, or whatever ridiculous idea that people have tried to propagate. But, no —hell no!— I'll never give up my polysyllabic words."

Was it weird bearing the brunt of anti-intellectualist attacks given you're writing three-minute, singalong pop-songs?
"Yeah, it was. But it's so funny: there can be some cognitive dissonance, where you read one thing about how you're so elitist, and that your music is for over-educated Ivy League rich-kids, and then you go to the show and you have people of all different backgrounds and all different ages singing along to 'Oxford Comma' and 'Mansard Roof.' You start to realize that you can't make assumptions about your audience. Not everybody knows what a Mansard roof is, but that doesn't mean that song is only for architecture students. That's so condescending, to imagine that everybody needs a song to be broken down into their vernacular. I grew up listening to Wu-Tang Clan, and I didn't know what Shaolin meant the first time I heard it; I didn't know what most of the slang meant. But, that's part of what's so great about learning other people's lyrics: it's like learning another language. To me, that's what being a music fan is all about."

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