Q&A with Vampire Weekend

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With their truly excellent sophomore album, Contra, out today on XL Recordings (you can listen to it here), New York’s finest Afro-beat loving prep-meisters Vampire Weekend are, to our eyes and ears, a band apart right now. Fresh off a plane from Belgium, singer Ezra Koenig and bassist Chris Baio were photographed for the music portfolio in the current issue of Esquire (above, far right and second from right, with bandmates Rostam Batmanglij, second from left, and Chris Tomson, far left) before settling down to discuss some all important topics: AmDram, grime and Belgian harmonica players.

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ESQUIRE: Everyone’s going wild about your second album, Contra, which seems to be as fun and melodic — but perhaps more complex — than your self-titled debut. Does it feel like a more intricate record to you?

EZRA KOENIG: Yeah, I do think it’s more complex.  Our goal was always to have that initial layer where anybody can just get into it and it’s still catchy and a pop song. It would feel like something had fundamentally changed if it lost that. But I do feel like you can listen more deeply to this album.

ESQ: Were there any things from the first album that you were very keen to avoid redoing?

CHRIS BAIO: I think one thing: there’s no references to college on this record. Which I think is a good thing, being three or four years out of school. Maybe that’s something people ran with on the first record, and I think it reflects the fact that the songs were written when we were still at school.

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ESQ: The fact that you formed at Columbia University [Koenig majored in English, Baio in Russian] means you’re often labelled as a “brainy” band. Does that bother you?

EK: Well, we’re never going to try and prove that we’re actually stupid but the whole idea that being educated means that you’re somehow different just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m sure there are people who have this weird impression of the band, who imagine that everyone at our show is wearing a polo shirt and they’re all Waspy country club types, but it’s so far from the case. The age range especially is pretty diverse: you get older people and children, teenagers… We always have people telling us that their two and three-year-old kids are obsessed with our album. If kids and teenagers can get into a band, it’s probably not because they think it’s brainy. Every musician would like to think that there’s an intellectual side to their music, but being that we’re so interested in pop music we have other goals too.

ESQ: As you say, you have been credited with bringing back "preppy" style. Was this the plan, or happy accident?

EK: Well, I can say this, that when I first got into wearing boat shoes it was difficult to find good ones and now you can find really fancy versions. I was also walking down Broadway near Canal Street, at a sneaker shop, and they had all these boat shoes sort of mixed in with all the basketball shoes. I’m not trying to take direct credit for it or anything but I can say that at first people wanted to read very deeply into what it means to dress that way, and I think that now maybe more people understand that it’s just a kind of classic way of dressing.

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ESQ: Admittedly you sent it up in the "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" video, with all the girls in khaki shorts and guys in over-the-shoulder sweaters.

EK: I think the video’s the time to have fun and play things up, so the truth is none of us are spending time at parties like that. But yeah, it certainly fitted the vibe of what we wanted to do.

ESQ: You certainly don’t shy away from some inventive lyrics. Did we hear correctly that you rhyme “cheese-steak” with “toothpaste” on the new record?!

EK: Oh yeah, that’s my favourite lyric I’ve ever written! The bridge to “California English”. That’s what I naturally go for, but I guess it depends on the kind of music — in rap, using unusual words is the rule not the exception. It’s not like I sit down and write, “It’s been a long time / I’ve missed you baby” and then say, “I’ve got to spice this up…”

ESQ: When you met, how quickly did your musical compatibility become evident?

EK: Rostam and CT [Chris Tomson] met almost immediately – they’re both music majors so I think they knew they had something in common. The first time I met Rostam he told me that his favourite bands were Coldplay, Radiohead and Sigur Rós. I thought that it was in the wrong order but I could tell that he was interested in them musically so I did feel a connection to him in that way.

ESQ: I guess that reveals a certain open-mindedness about music.

EK: Well that’s very true, because it’s also very easy to meet super-music-snobs, but even though we both liked slightly weird stuff we were also both interested in pop music. We liked The Neptunes a lot.

CB: I met Ezra because one of my best friends in freshman year was in a production of Romeo And Juliet with Ezra and Rostam.

EK: I was Nightwatchman Number 2. Not very exciting. I come in at the end and look at the grounds. I think Rostam was Nightwatchman Number 1.

CB: I also remember seeing Ezra play with L’Homme Run [Koenig’s early not-entirely-serious experiment with rap] at the end of my freshman year, and just thinking he was really fun and funny.

ESQ: So you played out properly as L’Homme Run?

EK: Yeah, we opened for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! at a really small club on the Lower East Side. I remember right after we played a lot of people came in to watch them. I think for me, in terms of song-writing, L’Homme Run was a very basic precedent for Vampire Weekend, because there are some things we approach in the exact same way.

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ESQ: We read that you also bonded over your love of Britpop, is this true?

EK: I was never really interested in Britpop, although I’ve subsequently become much more interested in Blur since we played with them. Watching their show was amazing. Being a teenager in America you weren’t hearing too much Britpop on the radio.

CB: What’s The Story Morning Glory? [by Oasis] was a huge album.

E: Everyone at my middle school had that CD; but even Pulp’s “Common People” is a really cultish song.

ESQ: You’re breaking our hearts.

EK: But then you guys don’t like Dave Matthews Band! Growing up I was certainly interested in British music, but I would say more Sixties and Seventies stuff like The Kinks. British music has been very important for us but Britpop, not so much.

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ESQ: Presumably you get the same question depending on where you go. Have you just had to come up with Belgian bands who influenced your formative years?

EK: We actually had a long conversation about who’s famous in Belgium, and we named almost every famous person in Belgium. Tintin.

CB: Jean Claude Van Damme.

EK: We thought he was the most famous, and then we happened to be talking about harmonica players and I said that John Popper was the greatest of all time, and everyone went silent because there’s a very famous Belgian harmonica player named Toots Thielemans.

ESQ: And you were familiar with his work?

EK: Well I realised I was. He’s played with a lot of famous jazz people, he’s played with Billy Joel, and he plays the harmonica on the Sesame Street song. So he’s actually incredibly famous and talented, and it seems like people in Belgium are trying to distance themselves from Jean Claude Van Damme for whatever reason.

ESQ: Well you are interested in grime. And that’s pretty much British.

EK: It’s exclusively British. I’ve always been a fan of Dizzee Rascal but maybe that’s too obvious.

CB: Bear Man?

EK: Bear Man! He’s a favourite, actually before Vampire Weekend started.

CB: Ezra was having a party and we were all over in his dorm room, and he showed us this video for “Drink Beer” by Bear Man.

EK: [raps] “What you know about drinking beer?” There are very few American rap songs about beer. I might even say there are no rap songs about beer. There’s lots about hard alcohol and champagne, but not beer, and the lyrics are really witty. [rapping again] “I know you want to drink Strongbow, ‘cause you want to be strong like bear / But you be beat like a bongo, deep below in somewhere don’t come near…”

ESQ: Your accent's very good.

EK: I think I’m pretty good at doing a grime voice! Actually I saw Dizzee Rascal’s first ever American performance in Brooklyn — he performed on a flatbed truck in this weird club. I was really into his first album, and, it’s not unrelated why we were excited about [signing a deal with] XL [Recordings, who also represent Rascal]. There was a compilation called Run The Road, which maybe wasn’t such a big deal in England, but was an introduction for a lot of Americans to Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, and early Lady Sovereign singles — "Cha-Ching?" — which I thought was really good. I don’t know what she’s up to now…

ESQ: It’s probably better you don’t know. You've got some UK dates coming up — how has your touring regime changed?

EK: Our first tour was just the four of us in a minivan. It was long drives, sleeping on people's floors, moving all the equipment. Every band has to do it, and it's certainly not terrible, but  after years and years it burns people out and causes tension in the band. Even staying in hotel rooms is a major step. We now have a great crew that we work with, and someone helping with the monitors so that I can actually hear myself sing. I think it helps us be good musicians.

CB: It's awesome to do a show not having driven for six hours beforehand.

Vampire Weekend play select dates in the UK starting at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-On-Sea on 5 February. For a list of dates visit www.myspace.com/vampireweekend