Talk new album, U.S. success and new directions

Feeling more at home wandering around the tattily exotic maze of Shepherds Bush Market than sat in the photo studio across the road, Vampire Weekend demonstrate with one quick falafel lunch that they are a band who enjoy digging a little deeper and defying expectations.

This time last year, Vampire Weekend were scooping up all the end-of-year glories after their 2008 self-titled debut, jam-packed with afrobeat party rhythms and more hooks than a cloakroom, became both a huge critical and commercial success both sides of the Atlantic. ‘A-Punk’, ‘Oxford Comma’ and ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ dignified the humble student discos with a worldy, scholarly lean, each one bursting with summer flavour and bounding optimism.

Now, though, comes the hard bit. The Columbia University alumni have broken out of the ivy league and are in the big league, about to drop second album, ‘Contra’, that’s set to prove their worth.

- - -

This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the February issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from January 11th. You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.

- - -

Recorded as before in their home town of Brooklyn, ‘Contra’ immediately feels more mature than its predecessor - a first listen displays an album that’s not trying as hard to please and that isn’t too interested in instant self-gratification. A few listens later and it transpires what we have here is an album that is more focused, more developed, layered with introspection, but ultimately just as much fun. It retains their debut’s pan-cultural diversity - harpsichords woven through electronic beats, bouncing into taut drums, rattling through ska bass lines - with songs like the joyous ‘White Sky’, the jumping ‘Run’, the frantic ‘Cousins’ and the soft, mellifluous ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ all on course to quell the fears of anyone who thought ‘Vampire Weekend’ was a fantastical one-off sensation.

In keeping with their music, the Vampire Weekend that Clash meets in London is a contrary bunch; initially reserved and impenetrable, scratch below the surface and, as they come out their shells, they become playful, vivacious and eager to please. Frontman Ezra Koenig keeps constant eye contact, and is considered and erudite in his answers. To his right, smiling throughout, sits multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, while on the couch opposite are the two Chrises - drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, quieter than the other two, but just as expressive.

We sat down with the quartet to catch up on life after their debut, their handling of instant success, and how having wordly visions keeps them inspired.

- - -

Vampire Weekend - Cousins

- - -

January is an odd month to release an album. Why did you decide to bring it out now?

Ezra: It’s not very odd for us, because our first album came out in January. January just seems to make sense. And I think it is a good time of year - it’s a fresh start.

Is this album a fresh start for you?

Rostam: I think in some ways we continue exploring ideas that started on the first record, but I do think this record sounds fresh, you know? It sounds fresh to me because there’s stuff that we didn’t do on the first record that we wanted to do on this one, and I think that it’s quite different because of that.

Your first album was successful critically as well as commercially. Is acclaim important to you?

Ezra: Well, if the opposite of acclaim is having everybody hate you then I think it is important. But the truth is we live in an age where music is readily available and so is every opinion, so you can’t put too much stock in what other people say. Now we’re at a point where if we go play a small show in a city and it sells out very quickly, we know that these are people that really care about our band and are really excited. Those are the people who, I think, we take the most seriously.

Are you doing well back home? You’re loved over here and are selling out venues - is it the same in America?

Chris B: Yeah, it’s pretty much the same between America and England. There’s not a big difference in our popularity, which is nice.

Ezra: I think we have a sense that there’s just kind of a different attitude towards music in England. It’s not drastically different, it’s subtle, but... Even, for example, the festival culture - in a certain sense England is kinda like thirty years ahead of America. We’re starting to have festivals that people go to every year, but they’re kind of a different feeling, I think, about music. But I think we’re lucky that it’s not one or the other - it would be weird to feel like nobody at home cared about you.

You said recently that you think you sound more like Vampire Weekend now than you did on the first album. What did you mean by that?

Ezra: I think, on a basic level, every band has an opportunity on their second album to further define their sound. I think you have the choice to continue in the same vein - and there’s lots of great bands where maybe because the songwriting is so strong the instrumentation or the sound doesn’t change much from album to album. But we always felt that the first album, we’re very proud of it and it’s certainly a huge part of our identity, but it is also just a snapshot of us at a certain moment. You can never reflect your entire identity with one album. So, putting out two albums allows us to expand the edges of the playing field a little bit and show people more what Vampire Weekend is about.

So, how did you intend to progress? Was there much thought about how the second album would differ from the first?

Rostam: One of the first songs that we could play from this record, ‘White Sky’, we actually played it the day we released our first record. In that song there’s like a combination of elements; there’s an electronic backing track, which is something we’d never done before; Chris is playing drums and then there’s also drum machines and synthesizers going in tandem with us playing the song as a band. That kind of gave us one idea for one direction we could go, and it is something that we do pursue on this record, but we also go in different directions: we go into stuff that’s almost like a garage band, without anything other than a band playing. We go in different directions on this record. That was kind of how it came together - it came together as a diverse record, not as a single new direction to push it.

What inspires you to pursue those directions - is it something you’re compelled to do, or is it a reaction to what the press or fans might say?

Ezra: No, it’s not a reaction to what anybody else says because you can never find a consensus view. It’s hard to actually glean any good information from what anybody else says. For us, we’ve always listened to a lot of different music, even from the time of the first album, so our feeling is that if we’re working on a song we need to serve that song and take it in the direction that makes the most sense. If we feel like the bass drum sound isn’t working, we can think about so many different sounds that we’re familiar with - we can try something electronic, we can try a different drum sound - and we feel no need to limit ourselves by our instrumentation. We never have done. Even on the first album, if we had told ourselves we can’t use any instruments that the four of us can’t play live, then we wouldn’t have had any cello or violin, and I think that’s even more true on this album.

Words by Simon Harper
Photos by Scarlet Page

- - -

This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the February issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from January 11th. You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.

Follow Clash: