The varsity boys of Vampire Weekend have grown up. Frontman Ezra Koenig discusses what their smart-ass sound turns into after dark with Aidan Smith
I DON’T know if America has a version of University Challenge – maybe, because it dreamed up the TV show Bowling For Dollars, it doesn’t feel obliged to copy anyone – but you can easily see the four members of Vampire Weekend sat at a long desk bearing the name of their beloved alma mater. Possibly they would be too cool for varsity scarves and gonk mascots of synthetic fur, but fingers would definitely be hovering over buzzers, such would be the keenness to impart knowledge.
Today, they don’t look much different from the quartet who graduated from New York’s Columbia Uni and went straight into the pop consciousness with snappy, smart-ass songs about punctuation and architecture, and one that begins with “Ion displacement” and another where the first word is “Occident”. They don’t sound much different either.
For instance, frontman Ezra Koenig will often start sentences with a “Welllll…” in which his voice flutters into a higher register, as if he’s nervous about the learned professor having invited him to speak in class for the first time. And quite often during our conversation – he’s just got back to New York after the band’s headlining show at Coachella in a Californian sandstorm where songs from third album Modern Vampires Of The City were unveiled – it will seem like we’re on opposite sides in the debating society with the pub still some way off.
Perfectly innocently, because we’ve just got started, I ask him about his feelings for New York because a glance at the album’s cover art – a black-and-white aerial shot of the skyscrapers which could have come from the movie Manhattan, Woody Allen’s love-letter to the city – might suggest they’re strong and positive.
“Welllll… I think it’s important to have self-esteem and important to believe the place you’re from is interesting. But I’ve always felt a little bit alienated from those massive group-identity celebrations. You know: ‘We’re from this city and it makes us proud.’ Yeah, we can be proud, and that goes for everyone whatever the ethnic or religious background. At the same time, we don’t necessarily need to be ashamed when someone from our city f***s up. But, you know, while I find ‘I love New York’ kinda cheesy, in my own life I’m coming to realise that the place I live, where my family comes from, there is a personal attachment which goes a little bit deeper than I initially suspected.”
Bless him. Koenig, his floppy fringe covering big brains, can tie himself in knots and appear to over-think things. Nothing wrong with that: there are enough lunkheaded bands who under-think. The man is simply getting older, pushing 30, turning reflective and the album, maybe their best yet, bears this out.
We discuss the record’s tone, or rather he discusses this with himself. “Is it darker? Yes, certainly. But I think there were dark moments on the other albums which got lost in the shuffle. Is darkness the dominant mood? Not sure, because there are Vampire Weekend moments of joy, too, but it’s our most melancholy record, for sure. We’re not the same guys. I’ve just turned 29. The first album was kind of the start of our twenties, the end of college, everything new and exciting. The second album was us travelling the world, and this one is us returning home. It’s an interesting philosophical question whether people really change but, yeah, you hope you do.”
Not the same smartypants guys? Koenig says that whereas in the past a song like M79 would contain a slight narrative about a crosstown bus bound for a museum, but then detour along impressionistic streets, down surrealistic avenues and end up at the Khyber Pass, every track on Modern Vampires is “about something”. Two are named after women. Diane Young is a fictitious person and may be a play on “dying young” as the song is about growing older. Hannah Hunt, though, is real, a contemporary of Koenig’s from Columbia. “We sat next to each other in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhism class run by this brilliant professor, Robert Thurman – Uma’s dad.” The theme of this track is similar: life is rushing past, the clock is ticking.
Has the subject heard the song? “Yes, I sent it to her and she liked it a lot, which made me happy.” Happier, for sure, than when the band were hit with a lawsuit from Ann Kirsten Kennis, cover star of second album Contra. Kennis, snapped in 1983 but looking like your average preppy under-graduate very much in love with Vampire Weekend, claimed the photo had been used without her permission. She originally sued for $2m and settled for an undisclosed sum.
There’s more angst in Ya Hey and Unbelievers, which tackle US foreign policy (“America don’t love you so I can never love you”) and feeling yourself excluded by religion (“The fire awaits the unbelievers”). Koenig says he never realised men of the cloth and holy days were peppered throughout the album until he heard it back for the first time. “Bigger themes sometimes only become apparent once a record’s done. When you’re working you’re guided by your instincts and, to an extent, you get lost in them. I’ve honestly been making these connections for the first time like a fan or a journalist would and that’s part of the reason why song words are my favourite literary form, much more than fiction or traditional poetry.”
Among his favourite lyricists, Koenig makes no distinction between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in an earlier era and Kanye West, Drake and Kendrick Lamar from right now – a winning lyric is a winning lyric. Line he wishes he’d written? “Maybe something from the Smiths. One of the things I admire about Morrissey is how he combines highbrow references with universal emotions. On Cemetery Gates, for instance, you don’t need to have read Keats or Yeats to conjure an image of people trying to escape what they perceive to be a dreaded sunny day by heading for the graveyard to muse on life and death.”
Read any good books, Ezra? He gives me his critique of the autobiography of Malcolm X, the singer’s father having been a movie set supervisor who worked on Spike Lee’s film about the civil rights activist. Does the Koenig library contain anything schlocky, for easy laughs? “Welllll… no. But the band have a deep love for stupid comedies, the most unfunny ones, ever. I feel bad picking on this one but Mike Myers’ The Love Guru was really terrible and it’s our new favourite tour-bus movie.”
Although there are longer songs on Modern Vampires, less reliant on shouty choruses, the band’s trademark punky reggae and classical smarts are still there. “I’d like to think over the course that we’ve gotten more experimental and more conservative,” says Koenig. When Vampire Weekend started out – Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij and the two Chrises, Baio and Tomson – they had to answer lots of questions on class including a variation on “Can white men sing the blues?” which went something like: “Should well-educated ones be in a band at all?” They get less of that now, and Koenig smiles when I tell him this urgent inquiry is mostly directed at a British group, Mumford & Sons, as a breakdown of the UK charts reveals 60 per cent of acts are privately schooled.
“We dressed like rich kids and played up to the image, but that went over the heads of the people who got angry. Now, what is there left to say about Vampire Weekend and money? Actually, class is still one of my favourite topics but I’d like to think we’ve moved on, that we’ve got some new stuff to talk about.” «
• Modern Vampires Of The City (XL) is out on 13 May