Next story: Water You Wanna Do Today?
Interview With the Vampire
by Cory Perla
Alternative rockers Vampire Weekend headline Outer Harbor Concert Series
When Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig accepted the band’s Grammy for “Best Alternative Rock Record” this year he kept it simple. “Thanks a lot. You guys wanna say anything else?” he asked the rest of his band, keyboardist/guitarist Rostam Batmanglij, drummer Chris Tomson, and bassist Chris Baio. They did not. There was an awkward pause and the band left the stage. After releasing their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, they had already heard it all. They were called the best band in the world; they were called the worst band in the world. They moved on. Of course winning a Grammy for “Best Alternative Rock Record,” is great, Koenig won’t deny that, but after releasing two successful albums, getting good reviews was no longer the end game. Instead, making different, more challenging, personally satisfying music became the goal, and the band was album to achieve that goal on Modern Vampires of the City, an album full of tight indie-rock grooves and lyrics with some actual substance. Winning a Grammy was just a byproduct. This week Artvoice spoke with Vampire Weekend’s 30-year-old singer and guitarist about his former insecurities, population statistics, and his blog from another lifetime. Vampire Weekend kicks off the Outer Harbor concert series this Monday, June 9.
• • •
Artvoice: I know you’re playing a lot of festivals this spring. You’re doing the Governor’s Ball just before your date in Buffalo, which is kind of like a homecoming show because it’s in New York.
Ezra Koenig: It’s always nice to play a festival in New York because it doesn’t happen to often for us. It’s cool playing to a big crowd in the city, definitely kind of like a hometown show.
AV: Can you tell me about your favorite festival experience?
EK: I remember after our first album, the first time we played Glastonbury, which is a huge festival in the UK. A lot of times when you’re starting out, when you’re on your first album, you might play a few times at the same festival. You might play on one stage and the next day on another, and we actually played twice at Glastonbury. “Oxford Comma” had just become a single, so we played in front of this huge crowd, outdoors. It was so surreal. Everybody was singing all the words. We weren’t prepared for that.
AV: I heard that when you started this band you set out certain rules or limitations.
EK: When we started the band, we weren’t just starting the band for the pure purpose of playing music; we’d had music projects in the past. This time we wanted there to be more of an idea behind it. So we asked, why are we starting this band? What does this band mean? A lot of it had to do with trying to find a sound that we thought was fresh and new, so some of the rules we set for ourselves were about avoiding specific things. At the time, after having done some electronic music, I liked the idea of having a live band and playing guitar again. Back then we thought about what it means to have a guitar band. Nowadays, in 2014, people wonder if guitar bands are over. We were starting our band in 2006 and that was already a question in the mid 2000s. Our first rule was no distortion. As much as I like distorted guitar music, it didn’t feel right at the time. We liked the idea of having a clean guitar song. I think there is something about the riff from “This Charming Man” by Johnny Marr that makes it the Holy Grail of guitar riffs. There were a few other rules that were like half jokes, like no wearing t-shirts on stage. [Laughs] I don’t know how much people adhere to that. It was just a matter of trying to give the band some identity, because the truth is, that’s the hardest part: establishing yourself. Once you make that first album, then you can break your own rules. Setting out a few rules is like a creative exercise. Otherwise the possibilities are infinite.
AV: The band was named after a short film you made in college. Are there any other threads running through the music or image of the band that you can trace back to that original idea?
EK: The whole plot of that movie, which I made up with some friends, was this guy had to go to Cape Cod and tell the mayor that vampires are taking over the country. We were kind of like idiots running around in people’s back yard, making this movie. There was something funny about going to this real place, Cape Cod, and having this ridiculous mission. That kind of set the tone for the band. I think there has always been that sort of blend of absurdity and real detail in Vampire Weekend. The first album has all these Cape Cod references, and there has always been this strong kind of attachment to geography and place and specific details.
AV: Speaking of geography, I’ve got a statistic for you: Buffalo, New York and the country of Iceland have roughly the same population. I know you’re into population statistics because I read a blog post of yours from 2006 in a blog called Internet Vibes, where you mention it. Do you ever go back and re-read these old blogs you posted just before your band took off?
EK: Every once in a while they’ll pop up in my Twitter mentions. Some of those things are still true, like I do love population stats and it’s amazing to me that Buffalo and Iceland have the same number of people. That’s crazy. I like that stuff, but looking back on it, I wrote a lot of goofy things in that blog. At times I don’t think I really understood stuff or I sound really naïve or stupid in some of the posts. Actually, I did make a decision at a certain point—because I saw so many Vampire Weekend fans, especially the younger kids, finding the blog and reading it—that I was just going to leave it up. I feel like in the Internet era—and we see it all the time—people write something somewhere and they try to delete it, but it never really disappears. What you put on the Internet stays forever. You can move passed it and get better and grow, or not. But the idea of just deleting your past is kind of pointless, and I’m sure some kid out there has my blog archived anyways [laughs]. So I leave it up there and if people want to see the kind of slightly pretentious, goofy thoughts I had nine or 10 years ago, I’m cool with that because ultimately I identify with the internet generation.
AV: It’s pretty amazing that the blog still exists. When I read it, it made me feel closer to the band. It’s unique because as far as I know there is no, like, Diary of Bruce Springsteen floating around or anything like that. To have that kind of access to someone’s past is kind of a new thing.
EK: Yeah, and you know, I’m sure as a writer you probably remember a lot of the think-pieces that came out right around the time that our band started about “is the internet good or bad for music?” Not even in terms of money, but in terms of like, artist development. And people were actually worried about it, as if it was a problem. What if these bands get all this attention from one MP3? Are they just going to implode? Now we see that not much has changed. Some bands implode, some bands don’t. Some bands make good second albums; some bands make terrible second albums. The Internet didn’t change any of that. At the time, people were wondering though. People were wondering how there could be a Bob Dylan in the Internet era. Bob Dylan is a guy who created a whole mystique for himself. He created his own version of himself. There was a thought that you wouldn’t be able to do that with the Internet; people would find your real name and your high school yearbook photo in a second and it would seem kind of goofy. But the more you think about it, it’s kind of like: you can be just as mysterious as ever; you just have to use the internet for it. You can’t get away with straight up lying about who you are, you’ll get caught, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the internet to show your world, show your thoughts, all the things that people buy into in an artist. In that sense, if you change your name people will find out your real name, but look at Lana Del Ray: People tried to pull a Bob Dylan thing on her, saying “Oh that’s not your real name, we know where you’re really from,” but it didn’t matter because at the end of the day, her persona was something you actually couldn’t poke a hole in so easily, even though it was something that was created on the internet. So for me it’s been really interesting being a part of that transition.
AV: Another thing that Bob Dylan never had to deal with is the idea of instant feedback. I think a lot of bands right now are afraid to say anything political or are not interested because of a fear of instant feedback or backlash from the blogosphere.
EK: Anything that’s political about this band, it’s just so personal that it’s hard to cut it out, no matter what fears you might have. My only fear is usually “am I making a point that accurately reflects my feelings?” as opposed to offending anybody. Historically, I don’t think our lyrics have offended many people. Any backlash that we’ve gotten tends to be people trying paint a caricature of the band, or misinterpret our points. It is difficult, but I don’t know if that’s a product of the internet. You’re right, you can Google yourself and read a million things about yourself faster, but even back in the day people would read reviews and it would hurt their feelings and you’d have to lick your wounds and move on. I would say, if anything, with every album we got a bit more confident. I wouldn’t say it got easier to make each album, but once you’ve read people say you’re the best thing in the world or you’re the worst thing in the world, it’s like, you can’t help but move on. We’ve literally had people say both of those things about us. Once you’ve seen the extremes, you have to move forward.
AV: How do you move forward?
EK: Well, by the time we got to our third album, although it was very difficult to make, I really wasn’t scared of the haters anymore. When you know you have real fans, the haters don’t matter as much. Once you put out a couple albums, you’ve toured the world a bunch, you know you have real fans. You kind of realize it’s all a little bit empty anyways. Our first two albums, they got lots of good reviews and some extremely negative reviews, but you realize it doesn’t change your life. You hope for good reviews, and you hope for fans to like it, but you’ve already played that game a little bit so you just want to make something that you truly feel is great, different, and challenging, and that becomes the goal. That’s still a really hard fucking goal, it’s not like you’re out of the woods, but even now when I start to think of a fourth album, or the future of the band, it’s like whatever happens, we’ve already experienced so much. The thing that gets me excited about making new music is covering new musical territory. I can no longer dream about like, what if our album...
AV: Wins you a Grammy?
EK: Right! We’ve had these things. You can win one Grammy, and you can dream “what if we won album of the year, what if we won five Grammys?” That’s not like an amazing goal, it’s like chill out, if it happens it happens. You’ve got to redirect your energy. That’s the nice thing about getting older and completing this phase of the band: a lot of that insecurity, and that hyperactive energy you have in the early days, it changes.
AV: You’ve followed a pretty consistent record cycle; will we have to wait another two years for a new Vampire Weekend record?
EK: Well, I go back and forth all the time. There are times when I think about some of the songs we’ve already started, I don’t want to call them leftovers from the last album because it’s not like they didn’t make the cut, they just didn’t get finished and they need more time. So I think of those songs and I’m like damn, we already have some pretty good stuff, it could happen very quickly. Then there are other times when I feel like I’ve been on tour for a decade, which is not quite true, but it’s approaching that. So I go back and forth between thinking, “Wow I need a huge break,” to “Meh, who needs a break?” One thing I can say is that I feel like there are already little bits and pieces of new things, things from the last album that I’m excited about. Historically, that bodes well for us. When we were finishing up Contra, Rostam [Batmanglij, guitarist/keyboardist] sent me this instrumental piece of music labeled “Obvious Bicycle,” and it was a cool, it had some beautiful piano chords. It didn’t quite feel right for Contra, but I kept listening to it for two years, and I kept writing on top of it, and that became track one of Modern Vampires of the City. It took a long time, but it was worth the wait, and it was good that we held on to it. So I do feel like we’re off to a good start, however long it takes.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v13n23 (Summer Guide, Week of Thursday, June 5) > Interview With the Vampire
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds