The Times: Vampire Weekend

The Times, London
Oct 2008

Vampire Weekend mix Soweto grooves with New York cool and love Milan Kundera. Sophie Harris meets unlikely stars.

Picture the scene. Several thousand people, gathered in a muddy field in Pilton, Glastonbury, singing along with a song about… an obscure punctuation mark. “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma?” is the catchy refrain from Vampire Weekend’s recent hit, perfectly combining the picky pleasures of academia with a two-fingers joie de vivre – and it’s a stance that has seen the Brooklyn four-piece go from internet sensations to world-touring proper pop stars this year. “The audience that day was incredible,” says the band’s singer, Ezra Koenig, cracking a slow smile. “That’s still the most people we’ve ever played to, so it was kind of a shock.”

He and bandmate Rostam Batmanglij are today sitting outside a Brooklyn coffee shop, soaking up the last of the summer sun and reflecting on their year so far. And why, in particular, the Brits have taken Vampire Weekend to their hearts. From Japan to Australia, it’s here in Blighty that the band is biggest. “I think we all take inspiration from British pop music, though it’s a pretty diverse tradition,” says Koenig. Batmangjli nods, “I mean, ever since we started, we’ve had people saying they thought we *were British.” His brow furrows. “Especially in France.”

It’s funny, because to look at Vampire Weekend, they couldn’t be more American; fresh-faced and sporting the kind of yacht-chic you’d expect to see in a Ralph Lauren ad (today, Koenig is wearing beautifully tailored white shorts with a crisp t-shirt). The band formed at the prestigious Ivy League college, Columbia, in New York, and if their image is decidedly un-rock, their eloquence is similarly atypical. It’s not often you hear a doe-eyed young pop hero say something like, “I’m just interested to hear his theory of the novel,” of Milan Kundera’s essays on writing.

Lyrically, their songs glow with unusual illustrations, from the chalky (ions and cryptographs) to the exotic (pueblo huts, Dharamsala). Anything, says Koenig, to avoid emotional cliché. “People say Bob Dylan lyrics make no sense,” he says, “but you can spend a lot of time thinking about them – and you can’t do that with something that’s total nonsense. Almost anything is better than just repeating the tried and true feelings.”

So how have Vampire Weekend managed to go beyond the tried and true feelings? College books aside, the band’s real inspirations go way back. Koenig was brought up listening to Fela Kuti records, to Jewish parents with a penchant for Buddhism. Christmas wasn’t celebrated at home (he wasn’t allowed guns either, he adds ruefully). Early memories include throwing a tantrum in a supermarket when surrounded by forbidden Christmas candy; and realising early on that there was no Santa Claus. Batmanglij, too, says that as a kid, he was sceptical of religion – though both have a deep-seated love of Christmas carols. “D’you know In Excelsis Dei?” asks Koenig, his eyes lighting up, “Ah aaaaah aaaaaah…”

Raised in Washington DC, the junior Batmanglij would demand every car journey be accompanied by the Beatles’ Tax Man. After being discouraged from playing the flute as a tiny child (his hands were too small), he took up the instrument at eight, and, he says, “made it cool at my school.” No surprises that Batmanglij now writes film scores, and arranges the giddy string flourishes that whirl across Vampire Weekend’s songs. Koenig learnt classical piano, and played the sax in his high school marching band. Like Lisa Simpson? “Yeah,” says Batmanglij guffawing, “did anyone ever call you Lisa Simpson?” “No” says Koenig flatly.

When bands cohere so beautifully – on vinyl and in person – it’s usually the case that the initial get-together happened with spooky smoothness too. Koenig and Batmanglij met right at the beginning of term at Columbia, at a party, and immediately talked about starting a band. They were, says Batmanglij, part of the 20% of kids at Columbia who actually socialised (“because the legal drinking age is 21, and a lot of people don’t even have fake IDs”).

So, the two started showing each other songs they’d been writing. Bassist-to-be Chris Baio was waiting, literally, in the wings of a school production of Romeo and Juliet, in which Koenig and Batmanglij were acting (there are photos of the pair in costume as Nightwatchman 1 and 2, on the web). Both Batmanglij and drummer Chris Tomson were music majors, introduced at Harmony class. “And we met people who would go on to help us record our album on that first day,” says Batmanglij. Sweet harmony, indeed.

Vampire Weekend’s rather unremarkable first incarnation was as a folk rock outfit. But the next stage of the band’s development is splutter-inducing to say the least. “At the end of that year,” recalls Batmanglij, “Ezra said, I want you to help me record my rap group.” Sorry, his rap group? The cardiper-toting Koenig was in a rap group? Koenig giggles. “I’d been rapping for a while, since high school,” he says, “and when I was a freshman these seniors got me really into freestyling.”

Freestyling, to the unacquainted, is when rappers go off on stream of consciousness tangents, rhyming with whatever comes into their heads. It’s something you’d associate with Jay-Z, not Vamp-We. Can you still do it? “If you get him high enough,” grins Batmanglij, with a distinctly un-preppy grin. “Freestyle battling gets the same brain waves going as when you’re writing a song, it’s a similar place.”

Asked if he pulled rap poses, Koenig takes the teasing graciously: “I think if you’re holding a mic in one hand, your other hand is naturally gonna do stuff like – this,” he says, gesticulating. His favourite rappers are old-schoolers De La Soul, “who were defined by having a sense of humour.” The pop-rap group was named L’Homme Run (pun ahoy!), featured the talents of Batmanglij and Baio, and lasted until Koenig got sick of it (“it was hard trying to be humorous without being stupid”) and felt a yearn for live instruments. And so, Vampire Weekend was born – named after a spoof horror home movie Koenig made on vacation, in which he stars as a regular kid-turned-vampire-slayer.

After graduating, Koenig taught English lit to kids in New York’s tough BedStuy district, while Batmanglij arranged music for films. And gradually, via recordings in friends’ basements and their own apartments, Vampire Weekend was born. Much has been made of its Afropop sound. There are chiming, reverbed guitars and high-pitched, sugar-beet sweet melodies, and the band say they were listening to a lot of Madagascan pop at the time, even joking that the sound was “Upper West Side Soweto.”

When fellow New Yorkers Yeasayer emerged, with their Toto-goes-tribal anthems, and Vampire buddies Dirty Projectors introduced their extraordinary fusion of King Sunny Ade and Black Flag, it seemed to be a case of what Brian Eno termed “Scenius” – the communal form of genius. “Scenius?” ponders Koenig, rolling the word around his mouth. “There are little connections there that have to do with living in the same area and being the same age,” he shrugs.

But the comment levelled at Vampire Weekend most is that they sound like Graceland-era Paul Simon. “It’s somewhat of a put-down to say that your band sounds like someone else’s album. Like, you can’t even move beyond one phase of Paul Simon’s existence,” frowns Koenig. “But then to other people, Graceland just means really good pop songs with some non-European influences. It’s hard to know how to take it.”

The record does share a feeling with Graceland – a warmth, and a real joy in being alive. And both records are imbued with a New Yorkiness – the “angels in the architecture” that Simon sung about suggested by Batmanglij’s celestial strings, and a wide-eyed, just-off-the-boat fascination with the city’s nooks and crannies. But Vampire Weekend is a young album, the sound of a band at the beginning of their adventures.

As for the next step, Koenig admits he finds the idea of putting out a second album stressful; little wonder, given the scrutiny of the past year. “There’s this cliché of the failed second album, and I can’t pretend it doesn’t cross my mind what the future holds for us,” he says. “But then I get excited when I think about just making it, ’cause I know we’ll be happy with how it turns out.” Above all, says Batmanglij, “I don’t think we need to overthink it.” Leaving the café, the pair stroll together down the leafy avenue, fully aware that there’s a time to think deep thoughts and a time to just enjoy the sunshine. Lucky for us Vampire Weekend can do both.