Vampire Weekend: The Graduates
Thanks to the new speed of buzz, Vampire Weekend have gone from the Ivy League to the big leagues in record time. And everyone's impressed, it seems, but Vampire Weekend.
When Ezra Koenig was a sophomore at Columbia University, his main extracurricular activity was his (white) rap duo, L’Homme Run. They composed and performed verbally dexterous songs with titles like “Pizza Party” and “Interracial Dating” (which reflected on finding long black hairs in the shower), and co-opted the Lacoste alligator as their official mascot. The group was meant to be funny, but they weren’t a joke — a subtle but key distinction that ultimately doomed the project. “It was hard for me to take seriously because no one else would take it seriously,” Koenig says.
Some of that same eyebrow-raising cultural smash-and-grab is on display in Vampire Weekend, the baby-faced Koenig’s suddenly successful indie band, which appropriates African and Caribbean rhythms for its gleefully polyglot pop. The memory of L’Homme Run lives on, however, at Columbia, where Koenig’s one bit of underage civil disobedience remains on display: Just below a second-floor window at his old dorm, in black spray paint, is the alligator. It’s a sunny, freezing late December day when Koenig points out the graffiti to me, and he’s caught somewhere between sheepish pride and genuine concern that its revelation might somehow cause trouble. I tell him that the logo of a polo shirt company isn’t exactly an anarchy symbol, but he just grins and keeps walking.
There would be a lot of those inscrutable smiles and uncomfortable silences during my time with Vampire Weekend, a young band rocketing to fame — or whatever passes for fame in these bifurcated, bloggy times — thanks to an explosion of online buzz and that rarest of rarities, a (self-titled) debut album that is actually worthy of the hyperbolic hosannas. Because, for a bunch of 23- and 24-year-old recent college graduates who get to play music for a living, they don’t seem particularly elated by the attention. Indeed, they are, like Koenig, pitched somewhere between cocky pride and self-conscious reserve.
Over coffee in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood a few days after playing a sold-out show in Massachusetts, the band members — singer/guitarist Koenig, keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, bassist Chris Baio, and drummer Chris Tomson — are characteristically low-key about their rapid ascent. Just two years since their fumbling first practice in a dorm room, they have self-produced an album, played to rapturous crowds on both coasts, toured Europe with the Shins, signed a worldwide record deal, and now share management with the White Stripes and M.I.A. Yet when asked if things have been crazy — or at least exciting — Koenig, clad like his bandmates in tasteful plaid, looks back blankly. “It hasn’t gotten crazy,” he protests. An awkward silence.
“I think because we’re not 30 and haven’t had four bands and tried it before, this is just what it is,” Tomson elaborates, sporting a thick scruff that his bandmates don’t look capable of replicating. “I mean, we hear that it’s fast and, taking a look at other bands, maybe it is. But to us it kind of feels smooth.” There are nods and murmurs from around the table. If they seem defensive, that’s only because they know their unprecedented rise — Vampire Weekend are, for example, the first band ever to be shot for a SPIN cover before they’d even released an album — inevitably makes them a target of the very same machine that brought them this recognition: influential music blogs that champion unsigned, unheralded acts, only to turn their backs once those acts become signed and heralded.
Further, their success demonstrates a radical redefinition of the very term at a time when quantifiable benchmarks are increasingly defined not by units shifted or radio airplay, but by less scientific means. “Success might mean a synch on Friday Night Lights,” says Alexandra Patsavas, music supervisor for Grey’s Anatomy, Chuck, and Gossip Girl, referring to the placement of Vampire Weekend’s infectious “A-Punk” on an episode of the football drama last November. “It might mean a Letterman performance or inclusion on a magazine’s free CD. There are still gatekeepers, just many of them and smaller gates.”
“Nowadays, a band doesn’t even have to play shows, let alone go on a national tour, to have a ‘hit’ record,” says Mark Willett, a founder of Music for Robots, one of the most frequently visited MP3 blogs, alongside Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan, which regularly log downloads in the tens of thousands for every MP3 they post. (All of them jumped on the Vampire Weekend bandwagon way, way back in early 2007.) While outsize proclamations are nothing new in the fiercely proprietary world of indie rock,where record labels are brands and status symbols as much as a means of distribution, the current speed of buzz and its attendant backlash can be overwhelming.
“I don’t think the opinions are entirely different than what we saw in prior eras,” says Matador Records copresident Gerard Cosloy, who helped shepherd the careers of Pavement and Interpol, and who published the hilariously caustic fanzine Conflict (a sort of Paleolithic blog — on paper!) in the ’80s. “What’s different is the vehicle for delivery and the unfettered access. One favorable notice on Stereogum can be instantly undermined by one or two sarcastic, pseudonymous commentators.”
Indeed, parlaying this flashpoint notoriety into career longevity is the big challenge. Drooled-over acts like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have seen their fortunes falter when follow-up albums failed to deliver on the breathless promise (CYHSY’s Some Loud Thunder sold 100,000 fewer copies than their debut) or the fickle blogosphere simply moved on. “Tapes ‘n Tapes played no fewer than nine shows at South by Southwest in 2006,” says Willett, referring to the annual Austin, Texas music festival. “Then their record came out, and people stopped caring.” The travails of more recent blog bands suggest an ever-widening disconnect between the wishful hyping of fans and the reality of youth. Despite reams of breathless praise online for Florida-based Black Kids’ scrappy pop, for example, nothing can change the fact that they only have a four-song EP completed. Nothing, that is, except the one thing bloggers have no sympathy for: time.
“All creative activity requires at least some time to mature,” says cultural critic Malcolm Gladwell, whose book Blink examines instinct and split-second decision-making. “And one of the inadvertently useful aspects of the pre-Internet, pre-accelerated-hype era is that it allowed artists some enforced period of obscurity to develop their art. My biggest worry about the way hype works now is that we’re in danger of discovering people before they are worthy of being discovered.”
But this is not a worry that keeps the guys of Vampire Weekend up at night. They seem either unafraid of failure or absolutely certain of their own success. “Forget money,” says Koenig. “People can make money however. Get a second job or tour.”
And if a backlash were to kick in? “In some ways I’d love that,” says Batmanglij, “because then we could just make our next album more quickly.”
Vampire Weekend — named after a comic horror movie set in Cape Cod that Koenig and friends made a few summers back (the trailer is on YouTube) — is a New York City band but free from the skinny-trousered baggage that label usually entails. The group formed not in artsy Brooklyn, but rather at prestigious Columbia University, on Manhattan’s genteel Upper West Side, where their idiosyncratic influences and decidedly unpunk technical chops were free to develop undisturbed and unmocked. And, despite all the preppy clothes and passport-friendly style sourcing, the resulting songs are effortlessly infectious, imbued with a sense of whimsical, dancey abandon that’s missing from most “college” bands, not just ones featuring former music majors. “That’s the great thing about them,” says Rich McLaughlin, format manager for Sirius Satellite Radio. “They appeal to a lot of different audiences: indie, mainstream alternative, even jam-band fans.”
“Being a New York band but living where they did meant they were free to come into their own,” says Kris Chen, the A&R rep who signed the band to XL Recordings in the U.S. “That’s why I fell for them immediately: They didn’t give a shit about being cool. We all know that’s the ultimate in being cool.”
Koenig, an English major, remembers encountering Batmanglij at a party in the fall of 2002, their freshman year, and instantly wanting to join forces. Though their interests were disparate (Batmanglij listed as his then-favorite bands “Coldplay, Radiohead, and Sigur Rós — in that order,” and Koenig, whose tastes leaned toward folk and hip-hop, recalls thinking that Batmanglij had the order wrong), they shared a passion for exploration and performance. Tomson, a genial recovering Phish phan, met Batmanglij in harmony and composition classes and eventually served as L’Homme Run’s hypeman. A year later the trio met Baio — who was one year younger but able to play Metallica riffs from memory — and thus a gang was born.
Midway through his senior year, Koenig became obsessed with a compilation of pop from Madagascar at the same time that Batmanglij returned from a trip to England with a worn cassette by Brenda Fassie, the late South African singer known as “the Madonna of the townships.” Doubly inspired, the two, with Baio and Tomson on board, began planning what would become Vampire Weekend. “The name and some of the ideas were talked about for a while,” says Baio. “It took actually booking a show to start practicing.” Indeed, long before their first concert, the group produced a “band manifesto” that either doesn’t actually exist (according to Batmanglij) or, to hear Koenig tell it, lurks on his laptop, written out in a font stolen from Tintin comic books. Ranging from a policy of no T-shirts onstage (Koenig prefers cable-knit sweaters and boat shoes) to a canonical appreciation for Johnny Marr’s clean, almost African guitar riff on the Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” the manifesto lays out the group’s core conceits, and whether it physically exists or not, suggests that this is a band highly conscious of its own mythmaking. They care deeply about appearing not to care, which, country-club trappings aside, is about as old-school rock-star as it gets.
Vampire Weekend’s first gig was a battle of the bands thrown by some engineering students in February 2006. They played future album standouts “Oxford Comma” and “Walcott” in slightly different forms, and the reaction from friends was positive. Still, they finished third out of four. “The judges did an American Idol postperformance critique,” remembers Koenig. “So we had to stand there and listen to these guys say, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good, but I don’t really like hipsters!’ Which was funny — even at the first show I thought we were dressed very unhipstery.” Subsequent shows were played at a frat house-cum-literary society on Riverside Drive, a photo of which graces the cover of Vampire Weekend.
Even though they were all still students, the members of Vampire Weekend quickly adopted a professional tone. “I just felt it was important to have ten songs recorded,” says Batmanglij, “even when we only had four written.” In short, they were doing the same sort of high-work, low-reward business that bands have plugged away for decades. But thanks to the Internet, Pro Tools software, and Batmanglij’s MacBook, rewards could come more quickly. Gradually, the band recorded the songs that would eventually wind up on Vampire Weekend — a friend’s violin captured in a dorm room here, drum work in a campus studio there. Batmanglij burned the results onto bright blue CD-Rs that were sold at early shows and distributed to key tastemakers like Stereogum’s Amrit Singh. “It was pretty aggressive,” Koenig admits.
Interestingly, none of the CD-Rs were ever sent to actual record labels. “That seemed ultimately fruitless,” says Koenig. “These people don’t want to listen to some random thing they don’t have any context for.” (When I ask Batmanglij if they at least partook of some fancy meals from major-label reps, he responds with a yawn. He actually yawns.)
Instead, the band worked the newly developed middle — an incestuous network of fans, bloggers, and music-biz outsiders who seemingly can disseminate world-changing hype at the touch of their iPhones — and created their own context. Derek Davies, the blogger behind Good Weather for Airstrikes, saw Vampire Weekend at a Columbia show in February 2007 and copped a CD-R. One month later U.K.-based XL A&R rep Imran Ahmed and music-industry attorney Nicky Stein each independently e-mailed Davies asking to pick his brain when they were in New York on their way to South by Southwest. At both meetings, Davies talked up Vampire Weekend. “Then, after South by Southwest, both sent me e-mails calling Vampire Weekend the best new band they’d heard all year,” says Davies. “And the rest is pretty much history.” The gamble paid off: So-called “old media” — labels, MTV, The New York Times, even national magazines — were quickly forced to respond to the buzz.
“There was kind of a tipping point in April of 2007,” says Tomson, invoking a Malcolm Gladwell buzz phrase. “Suddenly, at our shows there’d be more nonfriends than friends.” Just two months later, Koenig decided to forgo his nascent teaching career and instead concentrate on the band full time. “By June it was incredibly obvious that we really needed to go on tour and play our music for more people,” he says. At each stop on that national tour they were greeted by fans who knew the songs from the blogs. By the time they returned to New York in August — with Batmanglij behind the wheel, blasting the Killers triumphantly on the George Washington Bridge — they had landed themselves a record deal, a booking agent, and a manager.
As for the perception that Vampire Weekend, who like to toy with a children-of-privilege image, haven’t worked hard for their success, XL’s Chen disagrees vehemently. “They’ve done more than what a lot of bands do a couple of years into their careers,” says Chen. “Three tours driving around the country with no tour manager, pooling their money to buy a minivan — they made these decisions because from the gut they knew it was the right thing to do. Some people will stress over whether Vampire Weekend have ‘paid their dues’ — all it takes is a little Googling to see that they have.”
The day after coffee in Greenpoint, I meet Koenig at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a student-friendly bakery blocks from Columbia’s main quad. After a year living and teaching middle-school English in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, he has moved back to the neighborhood to be with his girlfriend while she finishes her senior year. Though he is likely to be carded well into the next decade, Koenig is cerebral and preternaturally self-assured. He seems to possess encyclopedic knowledge of every major era of pop music — our conversation hopscotches from ’70s Brit-folk to mid-’90s hip-hop — but he speaks in a clinical, removed way, as if it were all a glorious steam table that had been laid out specifically for him to feast upon.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Koenig played guitar and saxophone, starred in musicals, and had bands ranging from surf (the Aquatones) to funk (Groove Prophecy) to indie (Sophisticuffs). “He’d always be into something different than the week before,” remembers Wes Miles, singer for Ra Ra Riot and Koenig’s longtime friend. “African music, folk, hip-hop — I don’t think his curiosity was ever satisfied.”
“By the time I was in high school, I had no genre allegiance at all,” Koenig says. “I think sometimes people get caught up in the need to feel that by listening to indie rock, they’re separating themselves from something,” he says. “But it was the white kids flipping out to Nelly at the school dance. It wasn’t anything to be diametrically opposed to. Whereas, maybe if you went to high school in the late ’70s and the kids were listening to Toto or something, you’d really feel a tension.”
While at Columbia, Koenig immersed himself in postcolonial literary theory and even started a blog of his own (internetvibes.blogspot.com) documenting his investigations into the overarching ideology that fuels Vampire Weekend’s freewheeling cultural sampling. “It’s like zeitgeist or gestalt,” he explains brightly, “a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.” So his lyrics can reference both posh New England towns and Lil Jon, all from a musical sensibility that insists “the vibe from hearing interlocking African music is the same vibe you get from a baroque Vivaldi.”
Koenig claims the right to cherry-pick across lines of culture, race, genre, and class because, as the descendent of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he is himself an outsider of sorts. And having wrestled with issues of authenticity and cultural appropriation as a deracinated fourth-generation Ivy Leaguer, he’s concluded that he’s allowed to do whatever the hell he wants. It’s charming, but it’s also indicative of the sort of confidence that only exists in the very young, the very successful, or both. Because he cannot imagine any resistance or skepticism to what he’s doing, none seems to exist. At least not yet. “From thinking about it so much, you naturally know where the boundaries are,” he insists. “Every once in a while, we’ve seen some things where people try to bring colonialism or appropriation into [talking about our band] in a negative way — but that debate has already happened. We’re in a context that’s coming after instances of people actually stealing from each other.”
Rostam Batmanglij, the child of actual immigrants (his mother is Najmieh Batmanglij, a cookbook author and leading authority on Persian cuisine), has a similar attitude. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he saw music not as an escape route or as a higher calling, but rather as a problem to be solved. “I got really interested in theory,” he says, “in melodies and harmonies, and I just wanted to crack it.”
He’s also the man who defined crunk — literally. “I interned at the Oxford English Dictionary a few summers ago,” he says. “We each got to pick three new words to define, and I got crunk.” This seems highly appropriate for a former flautist who is technical enough to scribble string arrangements in his spare time but also enough of a dreamer to believe that Discovery, his R&B side project with Ra Ra Riot’s Miles, will unseat Usher from the hip-hop charts.
He and I are sitting in the bedroom of his shared apartment in tony Brooklyn Heights. The room is spartan, with most of the space dominated by very serious equipment: multiple Macs, a microphone, keyboards, an electric guitar. The shelf above the bed is filled with various pedals and fancy-looking effects boxes. Batmanglij is friendly but reticent. Questions are often met with stony silence or one-word replies. He requests that a discussion about his love for Wes Anderson be kept off the record. After a long conversation about how a passion for postmodernism and his hero, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, infiltrated the planning of Vampire Weekend, Batmanglij suddenly pauses and announces that he eventually realized he “hadn’t had a single real thought about postmodernism in four years.”
A cynic could argue that it’s Vampire Weekend’s inflated profile mixed with their youthful precociousness that allows them to indulge in such intellectual conceits. But that seems shortsighted. The battles over authenticity, over appropriation, are ancient history to these guys. They are playing the hand they’ve been dealt, and their fast success is proof that they’re playing it expertly.
It’s hard to credit the rise of MP3 blogs with a revolution when they are in the midst of dramatic change themselves. While smaller blogs fight for exclusives, the heavyweights have begun sounding more and more like the old guard they seek to usurp. Listen to Stereogum’s Amrit Singh on Vampire Weekend’s long-term prognosis: “With the ball rolling and growing support overseas, there’s an opportunity to make some money on the distribution and larger-scale touring.”
In fact, when seen through this prism, Vampire Weekend seem like the steadiest yacht in a bumpy sea. They’ve recorded their own album, booked their own tours, designed their own artwork. They can play well-attended shows at home and abroad, and they own their master recordings. Their DIY aesthetic is punk, even if nothing else about them is. And though he may be reluctant to read too much into what all this hubbub portends for his band, Koenig is too thoughtful and studious to resist contextualizing it. “It’s not because of a lack of technology that those Black Flag-type bands had the lifestyle that they did. There was still a-ha blowing up off of one single, people getting excited and then forgetting about them.”
His eyes twinkle for a moment.
“And who’s to say we’re not more like a-ha anyway?”