We Asked Ezra Koenig What Vampire Weekend Means In 2019
"It's like Jay-Z says, 'You want to hear the old shit, buy my old album.'"
Ezra Koenig keeps getting the same questions. That’s pretty standard on an album promo cycle, but this time they’re a little more of a dig than usual fare. It’s as if he’s being asked to prove Vampire Weekend’s worth in 2019, and, surprisingly, he doesn’t really mind it.
“Doing album promo, a lot of people ask about like, ‘Wow, been gone six years, the line-up’s changed. You got new collaborators, this must be so different?’,” he tells me on the phone, from Los Angeles. “And the thing I’ve kept coming back to is, well of course it is.”
It’s a bit of a duh moment, though Koenig is generous on the phone. He lends time to the idea, exploring the complexities of ‘Vampire Weekend in 2019’. As their first LP both in six years, and since Rostam Batmanglij left the band, it’s been overhanging the pre-release of Father Of The Bride, out Friday.
“I always think making an album is like landing a plane,” he says. “You’re looking at all these different little dials and metres, and you’re just trying to figure out how to come down at the right level, [or] don’t go too much one way or too much another way… It’s like Jay-Z says, ‘You want to hear the old shit, buy my old album.'”
Despite each member graduating from Columbia University more than a decade ago, Vampire Weekend are still associated with an Ivy League, New York intellectualism — one which, at the time, was accused of leaching off ‘African’ sounds to produce ‘quirky’ indie-rock about summers drinking rosé in Cape Cod.
The stereotype always had more in common with Gossip Girl (which several of the band’s early singles soundtracked) than the actual band. All four members came from relatively working-class beginnings, and studied at the Ivy League via student loans and scholarships.
But still, the image persists — so much so that the band joked that FOTB’s pre-album single ‘Unbearably White’ was a comment on infighting over white privilege, instead of an optimistic look at a snow-capped, cold relationship.
“I never want to disown our [older] stuff, because I love it,” Koenig tells me. “It’s meaningful to me. But how do you keep growing up, when the fans want to grow up with you?”
It’s the question he and the band have asked (and answered) again and again. Take their sophomore album, 2010’s Contra. At times, it’s as indie-twee at times as their debut (albeit with their modulators and arpeggios), but it’s a more emotionally layered, sometimes obfuscating album, thanks to Koenig’s impressionist lyrics.
Songs like ‘I Think Ur A Contra’, ‘California English’ and ‘Diplomat’s Son’ captured feelings of disappointment, disconnection and social politics with more savvy and off-campus. It was less tell, more show. By …Modern Vampires, the band had leant in even more.
“It’s the natural arc that a lot of people have in their own lives,” Koenig says. “I think of Modern Vampires… as being a very insular album. It probably had a lot to do with how I felt as a person in my late-twenties. You’re wrestling with big ideas: ‘Who am I?’ ‘What kind of path am I on?’.”
“When you feel your youth ending, it’s natural to almost fast forward to death… but then, one way or another, you make it through [and] you look around and say, ‘Well I’m still here.'”
“When you feel your youth ending, it’s natural to almost fast forward to death… It can almost feel apocalyptic. And, I know a lot of people who really suffered with crises of meaning and worth in their late-twenties. But then, one way or another, you make it through [and] you look around and say, ‘Well I’m still here.'”
“You probably didn’t learn the meaning of life, but you also learned that life goes on.”
Now in his mid-30s, and, as of last year, a father, Koenig’s conception of the world has changed between albums.
As has all of ours: 2019 is a very different place to 2013, a much more obvious maelstrom, to say the least. This takes us to the eighteen-track Father Of The Bride, which fans have already heard a third of it thanks to a series of three A/B-side releases over the year.
Koenig’s previously described it as a “Spring album’, which is clear on first listen. Whereas Modern Vampires… was moody and elaborate, Father… is much more mellow and warm. At 59 minutes, it takes its time to unfurl but somehow never seems to drag, thanks it its many flourishes throughout.
The first that stands out is the album’s features, a first for the band. The Internet’s Steve Lacy and Danielle Haim chime in — the latter across three songs, essentially becoming a de-facto member of Vampire Weekend. Batmanglij contributes too, producing much of the record alongside Bloodpop and longterm collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid.
The other immediately discernible change is genre, or lack-of. FOTB pinballs between country chords and harmonies, flamenco beats, psychedelia and trademark indie-rock. It also bounces between emotions, songs switch from sincere to self-deprecating, optimistic to resigned. All this makes for an uneven ride at times (there’s one too many country-ballads, for starters), but that’s kind of the point.
“Life looks like more of a double album,” Koenig says. “It’s kind of a funny thing to say, but you know, you have to find the forms and the structures that allow you to really make something that feels true to you. And this time around, [with] ten songs, it wouldn’t have been possible…”
“I think there are times as an artist where your circumstances or your artistic interests make you want to make kind of like a really orderly, monochromatic album… [but] I needed room to have songs with joy next to depressing songs.”
Still, he’s aware fans will probably edit down the album into a 10-track playlist, and that FOTB won’t necessarily be as big or accessible as previous efforts. He takes no issue with it, either: in fact, speaking to GQ a while back, Koenig described how an epiphany he had during recording, where he realised he didn’t need or want the album to be a bigger event.
And when we talk about Lacy saying ‘I think I take myself too serious/It’s not that serious” at the beginning of stand-out track ‘Sympathy’, Koenig says the line speaks to the album’s mantra.
“When Vampire Weekend first started out, something that me and Rostam really bonded over was [that] we both loved The Neptunes,” he tells me. “And we loved very clean, minimalist music. And I’ll always love minimalism and there’s definitely some on this album… [but recording FOTB], I loved these little one off moments.”
“Those were words that came up [in the studio] a lot. ‘Shaggy’. ‘Crunchy’. And I think really what I was saying is, ‘I want to feel a little more alive’.
“A little guitar thing comes in, doesn’t come back. Maybe [it’s] just getting older, or something, [but] to me that there’s like a simple joy in that. Noodling on guitar, a throw-away of words, that throw-away comment somebody made. That stuff increasingly felt very attractive to me.”
“A lot of time in the studio, we’d be working on songs and there’d be a version that might be, you know, uber minimalist. And then I’d say like, ‘Ah, I want it to be shaggier, I want it to be crunchier.’ Those were words that came up a lot. ‘Shaggy’. ‘Crunchy’. And I think really what I was saying is, ‘I want to feel a little more alive’. Those are the things that signified life to me.”
Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride is out May 3 via Sony Music Australia.
Photo by Monika Mogi.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and still gives a fuck about Neo Yokio, Gossip Girl, and yes, an Oxford Comma. Follow him on Twitter.