Interview: Vampire Weekend are ready to step into the light

The band talk to David Pollock about their debut album

Friday 16 November 2007 01:00

Geeks might be too strong a description, but there's something indefinably preppie, perhaps even bookish, about the way Vampire Weekend carry themselves. They're a sociable bunch, and the gang mentality that all naturally formed bands possess is very much in evidence, yet you also imagine that none of the time the quartet spent in education at New York's Columbia University – the Ivy League college where they met – was wasted. It's this scholarly aspect that sets them apart from their peers.

Congregating in a dressing room at Edinburgh's Bongo Club around 11pm on a Sunday night, the band are about to play their last show of a very productive first European tour. They have completed four support dates with The Shins (three in the UK and one in Paris), their song "Mansard Roof" has been named Radio 1's single of the week, and press interest has been building up steam ahead of their debut album's release in February.

Sitting down to a late dinner before they take to the stage, singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio, drummer Chris Tomson and keyboard player Rostam Batmanglij (all 23) reflect on the experience. "It's all been going pretty well," says Tomson between mouthfuls. "Those [Shins supports] were some of the biggest shows we've ever done, and opening for someone else isn't something we've done often, either. But all in all, The Shins were really nice guys and you could see the crowds really warming up to us. So yeah, it's all been cool."

"We were lucky enough to hear our single on Radio 1," says Koenig. "Yeah," continues Baio, "someone told us that was happening and then we just kinda forgot. Then we were listening to Radio 1 and [Edith Bowman] said: 'Here's our record of the week – Vampire Weekend.' "

The song in question is different from anything that other young, middle-class, male pop groups are creating at the moment. Based on an edgy, vaguely post-punk rhythm, it's carried along by Batmanglij's twee keyboard lines and Koenig's chiming, Afrobeat-influenced guitars. The latter's words are sweet, and naturally lyrical.

Although they take their influences from all over, it's the African elements in Vampire Weekend's music that makes it sound so distinctive. The songs "A-Punk" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" delve even deeper into Afrobeat territory, a breezy, summery sound that the band has christened "Upper West Side Soweto". The latter song addresses, after a fashion, the dichotomy of affluent Westerners adopting such a style with the line: "It feels so natural / Peter Gabriel, too / It feels so unnatural / Peter Gabriel."

"We'd known each other for a long time," says Koenig. "We'd worked on music together and knew each other's interests, so it just seemed like it would be exciting to start a band with rock instruments – even though we wouldn't really call ourselves a rock band – to get something together and start playing live. African music is definitely something that influenced us from the very beginning. We had a compilation of music from Madagascar that we were very excited about when we started. I listen to all sorts of stuff, though, like the New York New Wave scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties – that's a sound I really like."

Batmanglij adds: "The African influence comes from being interested in different sorts of music, and just going out to find it. Discovering it, and saying, 'This is something interesting and new to us, so let's try to bring it together in a way that hasn't been done before.'"

"We bonded over things we were interested in," continues Koenig, "and we were all pretty much uniformly agreed on the things we didn't like. Of course, we don't want to make difficult music, because we also like catchiness and pop appeal. But it was important for us not to be using the same rhythms, the same styles of playing that so much rock has used. When you hear the same drumbeat in five songs that are really popular, it's kinda like, 'What's the point?' You have to go try your own thing."

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It's a design that has worked very well, considering that the band have reached international recognition and gained a record deal with XL – home to the White Stripes – within 18 months of their inception. That's even more impressive given that the first six or seven months of their life, by Tomson's reckoning, were spent playing exclusively on-campus at Columbia, at friends' parties.

"Columbia's quite far up north in Manhattan," he says. "It's not really close to the downtown area or Brooklyn, where all the clubs are, so we were just hanging out at school. There weren't any other bands around, and the scene we were in was just us."

Eventually, the band did start playing in other areas of the city, and word-of-mouth spread quickly. Tomson specifically remembers how, earlier this year, "the percentage of friends and non-friends [attending Vampire Weekend shows] started to tip in the non-friends' favour". One particular gig, in fact, stands out as the turning point.

"There's this email mailing list and website in New York called Flavorpill," says Batmanglij, "and they wrote about a show we did underneath an elevated train track, pretty deep in Brooklyn. Not many people were at that show. Not even the person that wrote about it came to that show."

"It was a junk shop in Bushwick," continues Koenig. "In the nice areas of Manhattan the train is underground, but it probably goes hand in hand that where the train comes up is less desirable, because it's dark and noisy. It's kinda like The French Connection, the way the track is elevated above the street."

"It wasn't quite a junk shop," interrupts Baio. "Everything is for sale there, even the chairs. It's kinda conceptual."

"A place called Goodbye Blue Monday," Tomson remembers. "It's a hike for most people to get to, but some guys from the neighbourhood came down."

"So among certain people Flavorpill must be pretty well read," finishes Batmanglij, "because as soon as that write-up was published and sent out, we had emails from people who were becoming interested in our band and wanted to give us shows. Then it was that thing of more and more people hearing our music – from friends, to other people coming to see us, to journalists who wrote about us, to record labels becoming interested."

So to the deal with XL, which came about when the label's A&R scouts contacted the band via their MySpace page on the basis of word-of-mouth recommendations. The band consider it an advantage that, at this point, they had an album's worth of material in some kind of finished state – the drums were recorded in a friend's basement, the rest in the members' apartments – because it helped convince the label that they were investing in a finished article, rather than just potential.

Do they feel that being headhunted by their label was a particularly pleasing way to be signed? "I think they're probably all good ways to be signed," says Tomson.

So now the band begin an intense international touring schedule ahead of the album. How do they rate their prospects for success in the mid-term, and do they think their position as de facto heirs to Paul Simon's Graceland era might eventually dent their credibility with their own generation?

"It's really hard to say what's going to be successful," ponders Koenig. "We shouldn't be doing what somebody else says – there are so many factors that go into it [being successful] that all we can do is write good songs. I think if you tell the people who listen to us that there are elements of African guitar music in what we do, that's probably not what they react to. People react to music in a more visceral way, a less intellectual way. Or, at least, you hope they do."

"I think that people would be less interested in us," sums up Tomson, "if we were doing something they had heard before, or doing exactly what they expected to hear."

As they clear their plates and file out, this most musically learned – possibly even geekish – of bands are already entering into a discussion on the precise lyrics of Frank and Moon Unit Zappa's oddball 1982 single "Valley Girl". By the time they hit the stage downstairs some time after midnight, they still have enough energy to deliver an exciting and notably proficient set, which is, indeed, entirely unlike anything the young indie-loving audience will have on their iPods.

"Who's got work at 9am?" enquires Koenig – an exemplary frontman – of the crowd at one point. "Well, we'll be asleep on a plane home to New York by then." And when they wake up, the hard work will begin again in earnest.

Vampire Weekend's debut album will be released next year on XL Recordings

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