ezra koenig: “is rock dead? yes. is the guitar a relevant instrument? not really”
The indie boom is long over, but Vampire Weekend have prevailed as the era’s most imaginative and transcendent group.
When Vampire Weekend released their eponymous debut album a little over ten years ago, the music industry was a completely different place. “Remember, when we came out, there was a lot of excitement because things were changing,” the band’s effervescent lead vocalist Ezra Koenig says, sat in a backroom of Islington Town Hall after a pre-tour warm-up gig. “It was the period between Napster and Spotify... it was a bit of a golden age for indie commercial success.”
A glance at the UK’s number one albums that year paints a very detailed picture of where music was at. Scouting for Girls, The Tings Tings, The Feeling, The Kooks, The Last of the Shadow Puppets, The Script, The Verve, Keane, Kings of Leon, The Killers. You get the idea. The number one spot of the charts was dominated by a dreary malaise of largely (though not exclusively) derivative, guitar-strumming, white men. Even in the US, indie had found a modest foothold in the charts.
By the release of Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra, exactly a year later, the band had distinguished themselves as a compelling, commercially successful and far more imaginative offshoot of the indie boom, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 and earning widespread critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
“There was real excitement about us, like this weirdo band from Brooklyn seems like they're on track to headline Coachella, and wow indie bands are having number one albums and major labels seems confused,” Ezra says. “People were asking ‘Is this trajectory heading to a place where one day, the global festival headliners and the global elite of music will not be pop music but will be whatever, something called indie?’ And, of course the answer is no! But people get very excited when things are looking up.”
The band’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, released in 2013, came on the cusp of a change within the music industry. The year saw a sharp increase in streaming income, sparking a seismic shift in the way music was to be consumed. The album -- lyrically a little darker and heavier than the first two but ultimately a sharp, astute continuation of the first two records -- also debuted at number one. It found itself topping many of the year’s best album lists, and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.
“There's something nice about that indie trajectory kind of being over,” Ezra says. “We're releasing an album at a time when a lot of people tell me straight up, indie doesn't stream. I'm like alright cool, pressure's off.”
Father of the Bride, the band’s fourth album, released last Friday, feels distinct simply for being released six years after the last. It’s already garnered ‘universal acclaim’ according to Metacritic. It’s notably longer, at 18 tracks, features guest vocalists for the first time (Steve Lacy and Danielle Haim) and doesn’t have quite the same discipline or cohesion of the first three. Thematically the album covers familiar territory; existential angst, religion, dark introspections over upbeat tempos. It ponders the scale of the earth and the minutiae of day-to-day life. The reviews seems unanimous; the album is messier and all the better for it. “I think I take myself too seriously, it’s not that serious,” opens the high-energy Sympathy, somewhere around the middle, a message that runs throughout the entire record. It’s also distinguished by the absence of multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij, who announced his departure from the band in 2016, though has still worked on production for lead single Harmony Hall.
“This week I've spoken to like 25 journalists. Somebody would say, 'You know what I like about this album, it's not like all this... you don't talk about Donald Trump or politics, it's just fun music' and I'm like, alright. Then other people are like... 'This is a very serious album’." I've always believed that every Vampire Weekend album needs to push in two directions at once. It's a contradiction and it's a paradox, but it's just a gut feeling I've always had. I like the idea that every album gets a bit weirder and a bit more normal at the same time. You're not the first person to call it ‘experimental’ but at the same time, it definitely contains some of our most straightforward songwriting ever.”
Since 2013, the band has remained quiet but Ezra has orbited the music industry and fame, his profile increasing incrementally with his anime show Neo Yokio, his radio show, his relationship with actress Rashida Jones and his occasional work with other artists. “I had a feeling it wasn't going to be quick,” Ezra says of the six-year gap. “I knew one way or another things were going to change in the band. I knew I needed a break. I did have a sense of exhaustion and emptiness. There's a funny mix of very intelligent people, but also like, severely myopic, gossip-y nonsense in the music industry. I also had this funny realisation about how many times someone would say to me ‘Have you heard this song?’ and I'd say, ‘No, but I've heard of it’. What does that mean? That I saw some dumb tweet or headline? I didn't take 10 seconds to listen to it, but I've heard of it. And I realised that's such nonsense.”
His most illustrious credit in that time is perhaps Beyoncé Lemonade, writing the hook for Hold Up. “When Diplo told me it might become a Beyoncé song, well I'd just heard too many stories about this... I kept on my little iPhone list of songs for the next Vampire Weekend album, Hold Up was right there, next to Harmony Hall. When I heard the finished version, she of course had taken it to the next level; she's a genius. The handful of times I've worked with other artists it was either just like sheer luck. I feel like, in a way, she chose my demo off the pot, and I'm like, that's cool -- didn't have to go, like, hawk my wares. I think it's got to be pure chance or a real relationship. [That song] wasn’t particularly time consuming.”
Next the band will commence a tour of America and Europe. With a number of sold out dates, not to mention streaming numbers for FOTB in the millions already, whatever trepidation around the band’s success in 2019 has already proven unfounded. “I think if we'd released an album even three years ago, it might have felt high-pressure. It wasn't necessarily on purpose. I was kind of happy that, rather than dropping an album in the midst of big changes to the music industry, with big questions being asked: Does indie rock serve a purpose? Is rock dead? Is the guitar an interesting instrument? People were still debating those things three or four years ago, and I kind of feel like the question’s been answered. Is rock dead? Yes. Is the guitar a relevant instrument? Not really.
“I think our hardcore fans know that we're sort of on a journey together,” Ezra finishes with. “It took some figuring out, but I almost just tie to age. It's like I understand why Adele straight up calls her albums her age. If I'd thought of it I would have done that. Because that's how I feel. Vampire Weekend's first album, when I think about it, could have been called 21. Would've been very confusing, but…”
Photography Maxwell Tomlinson