Vampire Weekend: “We can’t help talking about the next album”

Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig talks to EDWARD SHARP-PAUL about how his weird little band broke into the “big league”.

One spin of third album Modern Vampires Of The City should be enough to silence a lot of Vampire Weekend’s detractors. It’s not so much a change of direction as a dizzy expansion towards all four cardinal points at once, rendering those old jibes about “trust-fund afrobeat” pretty much redundant.

Impeccably-mannered frontman Ezra Koenig was only too happy to take time out while on tour in Portland, holding forth on the band’s “Spartan” recording process, the elusive notion of the “big leagues”, and living a weird life on the road with a weird band.

Your voice has a sensuality to it on Modern Vampires, a flexibility and versatility. Are you growing as a singer, or responding to the new challenges of new material?

When I’m on tour, I become very sensitive about my voice, because I have to sing all these shows. It’s nice when you’re recording an album, because you can just do your best for each song. To me, the finished product is down to the performance, the production, and making all the elements sit right.

I like to think that I’ve become a better singer now compared to when Vampire Weekend started. It’s more important that I sing each song the way it’s supposed to be sung. A song like ‘Hannah Hunt’, there just wasn’t a song like that on the first album. I’m glad that we’ve waited until now to do a song like that, because I probably know how to sing it a little better. Generally though, I think the material leads the performance, rather than vice versa.

“We were a little worried that the album might be considered too different”

Which makes me wonder, what led you to this material? You did a lot different on this album, didn’t you?

Yes. When we first started talking about the album, Rostam and I were on the same page about not repeating ourselves, and wanting to move in a slightly more organic direction. A lot of it was trial and error, though. We started many songs, and very few of them became finished products: a lot of songs were cool, but we were saying, “Is this the right vibe?” On a given day, we might start five songs, and we might only persevere with one. It might have something about it, something in its harmonic structure, but really we were just following our gut.

Does it hurt to throw songs away? Do you form an emotional bond with your material?

Well yes, but the ones where the bond is deepest are generally the ones that make it onto the record. Also, we start a lot of songs, but it would be incorrect to say we write a lot of songs. Modern Vampires has 12 songs on it. How many songs did we write? Full lyrics? Full production ideas? Not a lot more than 12, but we started about 40.

We have this “Spartan” system. If an idea doesn’t have what it takes to go all the way, we discard it pretty quickly. The flipside of that is if there’s something about a song that could see it grow into something great, we hold onto it. ‘Hannah Hunt’, for instance, goes back seven years. We tried to do a version of it for every album, but it never quite worked. We never threw it away, though, because it had something about it.

How did Rostam feel about sharing production duties on this one?

He already knew Ariel [Rechtshaid], so there was a natural connection. Also, Ariel brought a lot to the table, but he didn’t change the fundamental process for us. He was just another person arguing with us about where the song should go next. There was nothing restrictive about Ariel’s presence, he gave us more ideas, if anything.

You’ve always adopted a Nick Carraway [the narrator of The Great Gatsby] perspective in your lyrics, the observer-from-within. Modern Vampires feels a lot more personal, though. Have you shied away from that in the past?

I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it easier to express some emotions more directly. I do get scared out by things I find to be too emotional or sappy. Maybe in the early days I preferred a degree of distance between me and my emotions, some mystery. But now it’s become a fun challenge to figure out ways of expressing something very simple, about love or feelings, in a way that doesn’t feel sappy. With time, I guess you get a little more equipped to do it, and also more curious about how you do it.

Another thing about the lyrics is the way you talk about “young people”, as if it were a group that you were outside of the band. You’re not that old, are you?

No, but I do feel like I’m in some sort of purgatory. I would never claim that 29 is old. I’m not married, and I don’t have kids, so I haven’t crossed any of these major thresholds that you cross when you become an adult. But even before you hit those milestones – before you become a dad, a husband, a partner at a law firm or whatever – there’s still that moment, when you realise that your teenage years are a little bit further away than they were before. What does it all mean? Well I guess that’s the big question at any stage in your life. That I don’t really know.

I don’t think death is around the corner – maybe growing up is a better term than aging. When I think of aging, I think of getting your prostate checked, saving money for retirement. Growing up is something that you experience in your twenties, as you get a little bit closer to adulthood – that’s what’s on my mind.

Some of the feedback I’ve been hearing about the album, is that it’s almost a play for the big leagues. It’s still idiosyncratic, and prickly, but was the album affected by the awareness that you were poised to cross over?

That’s funny, because we were a little worried that the album might be considered too different. Compared to the other albums, this one has slower songs, more minimalist songs.

We love the fact that Vampire Weekend has a big, broad audience – we never thought of ourselves as a band making music for one type of person. In our early days, some people said, “Who could enjoy this music other than a small group of elitist, college-educated types?” We love that little kids come to our shows, older people, people from all different places. You can’t pander to a mainstream audience simply because it doesn’t work. You never know what people are going to gravitate towards.

“You can’t pander to a mainstream audience simply because it doesn’t work”

Take a song like ‘Oxford Comma’. Maybe it seems like an obvious single: it’s a pop song, hopefully it’s catchy. But “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma”? Did we really think we’d be playing that song at a festival, with thousands of people singing along? You never know what people will latch onto.

With each album, the challenge is to make music that feels fresh, that gets us excited. Hopefully if we manage that, there will be an audience that will respond to it. Anytime you starting to think about making a play for the big leagues…

Sorry, “big leagues” was an obnoxious turn of phrase.

[Laughing] Yeah, it is, but I take your point. We’re in a pretty incredible place, given how weird our band sounds on paper. It shows that you just have to give people credit – the so-called mainstream audience is ready to listen to anything that’s good, you just have to figure out how to get it to them. If there’s such a thing as the “big leagues”, sure, we’d like to be a part of it, but we’re never going to drop an album that will change things overnight.

Are you planning to get out to Australia on the back of this album?

We’re definitely planning on coming back to Australia. I don’t know what we’ve totally confirmed yet, but it won’t be too long. It won’t be a year and a half, or anything.

Now, how did come to be working with Steve Buscemi?

We were participating in this project with Amex where they do a live stream of a band’s concert, and they pair you with a director. We threw some names around, and when Steve Buscemi came up, we were intrigued. There’s a vague family connection there, as well – [Chris] Baio found out that he [Buscemi] was very distantly related, by way of Sicily. Everything about it aligned. We already loved him as an actor, he’s from New York. We his name popped up as a candidate, and we said, “Of course!”

It’s been a whirlwind six years since your debut album. Do you have a life outside of the band and the road? What do you return to when you get off tour?

Well, it’s not so easy. The last time we truly had some time off was when we stopped touring Contra, and we took four months off. In most jobs, that would be pretty extreme, but when you’re touring, it actually doesn’t feel like that long.

You always dream of not being on tour, but when you finally get there, you suddenly have all this time, and you can’t stop thinking about the next album. Even now we can’t help talking about the next album: “What’s it going to sound like?” “How can we approach it?” I am learning how to clear my mind, but I find it difficult to take vacations – the idea of hopping on a plane after you’ve come off a tour is a little unappealing. There’s always the normal things, though, writing lyrics, seeing friends, going to movies. It’s not like I go home to New York and bang my head against the wall.

Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City is out now. Read our full review here.