Privileged white-boy intellectuals or down-to-earth multicultural masters?
As he joins the rest of the band in a New York hockey stadium, Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio suddenly remembers the most surreal moment of his career. ‘I was at Madison Square Garden for a [hockey] game and our song, ‘Mansard Roof’, came over the system during a time-out,’ he says, sitting down to join his bandmates for our chat. Picking up on the subject, the others start throwing out their favourite arena songs. The consensus is that Queen’s ‘I Want to Break Free’ wins out, though singer Ezra Koenig offers ‘Slam’ by Onyx, and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij brings up the Outhere Brothers hit ‘Boom Boom Boom’, admitting he actually had dreams of becoming an arena organist as a child.
Being outed as fans of the rough-and-tumble game will, they hope, dampen the notion that they’re just upper-class white boys – especially with the release of new album Contra. ‘All the early reviews said that we went to Columbia and we were interested in African music,’ says Koenig. ‘Then everything after that had to reference those two things in some way. I hope this record will make it more difficult to reduce us to two descriptors.’
It’s true that Vampire Weekend were pigeonholed from the beginning as posh indie-rockers who co-opted elements of sub-Saharan folk music, but it’s not like it came out of nowhere. The New York-bred quartet did slap lyrics about New England folkways on top of syncopated rhythms and Koenig did lead their Tonight Show With David Letterman gig in a sweater embroidered with terriers. ‘Whether or not our look changes,’ he says, smirking, ‘depends on the sweater makers of America, how much they evolve.’
For now, we can at least assess how much Vampire Weekend’s music has evolved: just enough. Since 2007 they have expanded their sound, finding ways to reinvigorate elegant pop with elements of ska, reggae, baile funk, Middle-Eastern styles and even the infamous Auto-Tune, a voice-altering program beloved by R&B stars. The result is a more intricate album that doesn’t abandon the organic appeal of Vampire Weekend’s debut. It’s a tricky feat that they’ve nailed, considering Contra is their difficult second album.
Koenig insists they approached the new record with no regard to outside expectations, but there are lyrical hints that the band members have something to say about the way the public has scrutinised their backgrounds. On the explosive, ska-tinged single ‘Cousins’, military drums and gourd rips announce cryptic commentary on the issue. ‘When your birthright is interest,’ Koenig sings, ‘you could just accrue it all.’ Indeed, so much has been made of Vampire Weekend’s upper-class airs that last year, Christian Lander, author of the Stuff White People Like blog and book, named them the ‘whitest’ band, a label that bugs the boys a bit. ‘He’s pointing out this self-conscious multiculturalism,’ says Batmanglij, adding that his own parents are Iranian immigrants. ‘My sense of multiculturalism is more incidental.’ Koenig wasn’t amused either. ‘I looked at the book in a store,’ he shrugs. ‘It’s really just not funny.’
Instead, Koenig explains that Contra is a natural reaction to the kind of categorisation Vampire Weekend have faced constantly since their formation. ‘There’s conflict in everything, but people tend to think in terms of a duality, that something’s either this or that,’ he says. ‘Our approach to music just isn’t like that.’ Take that Auto-Tune on the track ‘California English’: the way it fights against Koenig’s precise, fast vocal attack. ‘It’s a familiar effect,’ says Koenig, ‘but when it’s divorced from the genre that people normally associate it with, it’s no longer cliché.’ His buddies nod in agreement. If there’s one practice that makes Vampire Weekend’s aesthetic fresh, it’s wrestling sounds (and sweaters) away from their usual cultural contexts. Contra is available now online.