"You might not agree, but making Contra was really crazy," Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig says to his bandmate, Rostam Batmanglij, of the New York outfit's chart-upending 2010 full-length. "My memory of making that record was us working in this essentially window-less studio in downtown Brooklyn. I remember it being cold and rainy all the time, and I remember being stressed out. We felt really strongly that it needed to come out relatively quickly. I think a lot of bands feel that way after their first record and we were in a lucky position where we actually felt like we had more to say, musically, so there was this added emphasis on having people hear that. It was a really short, really intense time." Batmanglij laughs in agreement. "But this one" Koenig says, "was difficult in other ways."
"This one" is Vampire Weekend's nearly completed third full-length, blaring at the moment from a ProTools console in Batmanglij's South Brooklyn home. Not yet titled, but tentatively due this spring on XL, it's another leap that came together over the course of the past three years, written in bursts on tour and at home, on a trip the two made to Martha's Vineyard last April. "It was off-season and an old friend from college was staying there," Koenig explains. "He was there by himself, doing his thing, working on his art, enjoying some solitude, and he had a guest house where we could set up and play. Neither of us had ever been there before so it was cool to drive to a new place and work continuously. There wasn’t exactly that same time pressure or that urge to show people our ideas really quickly, so we could focus very purely on songwriting. And when you prioritize like that, you're going to be in a situation where you write things that are good, but not good enough. That can be a weird feeling because it's not always clear what you do in that moment. So we experimented."
Starting in June, Koenig and Batmanglij, the group's only producer and engineer up until that point, began flying to Los Angeles to begin working with Ariel Rechtshaid (Cass McCombs, Usher, Glasser) in his backyard studio in Echo Park, as well as at Vox, a storied, privately-owned recording space tucked behind a liquor store across the street from the Paramount lot in Mid Wilshire. "I love being able to record in a room that's surrounded by trees," Batmanglij says of Rechtshaid's home studio. "We actually recorded vocals in that back house with all the windows open and you can hear it happening. On this album, there's a lot of organic sounds and a lot of performance. You want the personality of each performer — whether it's singing or bass or drums or piano — to be intact. In some ways it's much more challenging to preserve that and to also make music that sounds modern. The way this album sounds is the product of thinking forward and being fearless in terms of mixing and production, going for something that hasn't been done before but using elements and techniques that have existed for years and years, pushing them as far as they can go."
And while the soft, aerated harmonies of "Obvious Bicycle" or the slightly grotesque, extroverted rhythms of "Diane Young" are every bit as considered as what we've heard from the oft-polarizing foursome before, listeners will encounter a family of songs that feels tough, less edited and decidedly from-the-gut. "Just in terms of writing music, it wasn't thinking in terms of 'Oh these are two interesting things, let's put them in a song and make something new out of it,'" Batmanglij says. "It was more about 'That's the melody that was written on that day or that's the way I play the piano and that's the way it sounds. I don't know when I started playing like that but at some point I did and this is a recording of that.' It's distinct because it's instinctive. And maybe that's why this was a hard record to make: we wanted it to be simple and bare, we wanted you to hear us coming through the speakers. There was one song that was just a bass line, drums and vocals. And we tried adding all kinds of other stuff to it, but Ezra was actually the one who said, 'No, we can do it. We can make a chorus as big and powerful and we can do it with those three elements.' He was right."