By Mikael Wood
May 19, 2013
Ezra Koenig wanted to be clear about this: The frontman of Vampire Weekend was not comparing his band to the Beatles.
"What we're talking about is making me think like a fan, which is a little bit dangerous because it could come across as me trying to put myself in the same league as one of the biggest albums of all time," he said, responding to a question about the value of mystery and ambiguity in music. "But, yeah, you think about 'Sgt. Pepper.' Is it a concept album about a lonely hearts club? Is it some sort of reevaluation of pre-rock 'n' roll British music-hall tropes? You could say that." Koenig laughed. "The album is a thing — a very referenced, understandable thing that's extraordinarily difficult to sum up in words." He searched for the right one anyway. "It's like an element."
With apologies to those canon-guarding types responsible for triggering Koenig's disclaimer, Vampire Weekend has created its own element: "Modern Vampires of the City," the New York band's third full-length, on which it confronts foundational ideas — think faith, mortality and the concessions required by growing up — in music that reaches toward its own category.
Released last week, the album is a major leap for a band that began its ascent while its members were students at Columbia University. On 2008's "Vampire Weekend," the group used ska rhythms and African guitar licks to punch up clever pop songs about East Coast society. "Contra," from 2010, depicted a similar milieu with a wider stylistic palette.
The records sold around half a million copies each and made Vampire Weekend — Koenig, bassist Chris Baio, drummer Chris Tomson and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij — a favorite of critics, festival bookers and Hollywood music supervisors. The band was also an early beneficiary of what came to be known as "blog buzz," though its broad appeal among undergraduates led to a kind of prep-rock caricature.
"Our first record was very easy to turn into a sound bite: four dudes from college singing about college," Koenig said. The singer was sitting on a rooftop deck at the Fox Theater in Pomona, where Vampire Weekend played a sold-out show last month between its appearances at the two-weekend Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. "Which I think is an oversimplification, but sure, there's a song called 'Campus'; there's a song called 'Oxford Comma.' We spelled everything out so simply."
That's hardly the case on "Modern Vampires of the City," which sets willfully unresolved narratives against sophisticated, shape-shifting arrangements. "Nobody knows what the future holds," Koenig sings over a demented rockabilly groove in "Diane Young," "And it's bad enough just getting old." Elsewhere, in the haunted doo-wop number "Step," he quietly unloads what might the album's thesis: "Wisdom's a gift but you'd trade it for youth / Age is an honor, it's still not the truth."
"I think with any record what's most important is that there's an identifiable feeling," Koenig said. "I could probably write in a paragraph or two what the major themes are [on 'Modern Vampires'] and how they're all connected. But that doesn't need to exist in the world. A lot of records I really enjoy aren't easy to explain."
As on Vampire Weekend's earlier albums, the meticulously detailed music is dense with allusion: "Step," for instance, borrows a line from a song by the Oakland rap crew Souls of Mischief, which itself had sampled the smooth-jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. And Koenig, who's famously sung about Cape Cod and Lil Jon, Masada and Louis Vuitton, is still peppering his lyrics with an abundance of proper nouns: names, places, titles. The songs may resist instant understanding, but they're grounded in specifics.
"To me that's the most natural way to write," the singer said. "Trying to get at some sort of universal truth through vague generalities — that doesn't make any sense."
For help synthesizing the album's disparate strands, Vampire Weekend (which took its name from a short film Koenig made during college) turned for the first time to an outside producer: Ariel Rechtshaid, who worked with the band in L.A. after earlier writing and recording sessions in New York and on Martha's Vineyard. "I knew we were doing things that ran the full gamut, so I thought it'd be good to bring in another mind," Batmanglij said in Pomona. "And even though he and Ezra didn't really know each other, I knew they'd get along."
A well-connected indie scenester whose resume also includes pop hits by Justin Bieber and Usher, Rechtshaid became a trusted collaborator of the band's. "Anytime they'd start to fall into old habits and do something they'd done before — or, worse, something someone else had done before — it was back to the drawing board," the producer said. He singled out "Diane Young," which starts like an older Vampire Weekend song such as "Cousins" or "Walcott." "Then we just took it somewhere else," Rechtshaid said, referring to the digital processing that soon envelops the drums and vocals. "That was the goal: How do we make new-sounding music?"
If Vampire Weekend is breaking stylistic ground, it's not without old-fashioned ambition. After Coachella last month the band played a concert at New York's Roseland Ballroom that was webcast under the direction of the actor Steve Buscemi. Last week it performed on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." And this summer the group is booked for top-line festivals including Lollapalooza in Chicago and Glastonbury in England; it'll return to Southern California on Sept. 28 for a show at the Hollywood Bowl.
"They're part of that small group of bands — Radiohead, Arcade Fire — that've figured out how to maintain their indie roots while appealing to mainstream America," said Huston Powell of C3 Presents, which puts on Lollapalooza. The promoter added that Vampire Weekend, "more than almost any other band out there, seem poised to make the next step."
Where precisely that step leads is less clear. Three years ago "Contra" debuted at No. 1, an impressive feat that "Modern Vampires of the City" may well duplicate. (Its stiffest competition on this week's chart is likely to come from new albums by the country singer George Strait and the Disney star Demi Lovato.) Kris Chen of the band's label, XL Recordings, said another No. 1 "is entirely possible."
Beyond chart positions, though, what's the ceiling for a band like Vampire Weekend, which seems determined to become harder, not easier, to grasp? At Coachella it got the enormous festival crowd jumping with oldies like "A-Punk" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa." But knotty new tunes such as "Ya Hey," in which Koenig ponders the irrationality of religious fundamentalism, were received more coolly — a reflection of the songs' unfamiliarity, of course, but perhaps also a sign that they aren't compatible with the demands of superstardom. Koenig isn't convinced.
"You never know what's gonna connect with people," he said before heading to the stage at the Fox. "One thing I've noticed is that the biggest artists tend to be the weirdest. Sometimes it's hard to realize that because when they get so big, their weirdness ceases to be weird; it's been mainstreamed. But think about it: The Beatles. Prince. Lady Gaga. Psy." He laughed, relishing the opportunity to be seen as comparing himself to Mr. Gangnam Style. "Literally, all the people who come to mind are really just doing their own thing. It kind of makes it easy to follow your gut."
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