The year of the
Twelve months ago, they were the best-kept secret in rock’n’roll – four ambitious New York college boys whose musical tastes swung from gangsta rap to classical to African pop. Tomorrow, Vampire Weekend take to the stage at Oxegen under the banner of “mos
AYEAR ago, admit it, you hadn’t heard of them. You hadn’t realised then that they were about to become one of your new favourites. You didn’t even know they existed.Well, you weren’t alone. Vampire Weekend may have been getting a spot of love from some of the bloggeratti, but it was small potatoes, the kind of love which doesn’t pay for enough petrol to get a band to and from a gig.
A year ago, Vampire Weekend were still playing small rooms in their hometown. They were New Yorkers who cut their teeth playing on and around the campus at Columbia University, where members first met.
By summer 2007, school was out and the band were singing for their supper in the real world. Many onlookers, though, simply didn’t see or hear anything to get excited about. Vampire Weekend were a bunch of preppy oddballs with lyrics about obscure points of punctuation and campus dramas, with a sound that was in thrall to jangly African guitars. Vampire Weekend were completely out of sync with the indie weather vane.
But the weather can turn. Singer Ezra Koenig remembers when things began to change last summer. They’d play shows at their usual haunts and notice that the audience faces they knew outnumbered those they didn’t. Record labels began to turn up to run the rule over them. They had to move to bigger rooms to squeeze everyone in. The buzz got louder.
As Vampire Weekend have learned, a year is a long time in pop. Since last summer, they’ve released a swashbuckling, joyous debut album and gigged and toured and talked about themselves until they’re fit to be tied. The songs they wrote back in New York have taken them far and wide. They will continue in this manner across continents until late September at least.
None of this phases Koenig. As he talks – and he’s quite happy to tease out every angle in a question -– it becomes obvious that Vampire Weekend were a group who existed long before the four members ever picked up their instruments.
“We’re the kind of people who would happily spend a lot of time sitting around intellectualising music,” he says. “The name and some of the ideas were talked about for ages first, and we only started practising when we had a show to play.”
When they did start to play together, the songs came quickly – “they were certainly not laboured over.” From the off, they were at odds with what everyone else was doing. Rhythms and melodies from the African high-life pop which all four listened to found their way into the songs. “It started with Oxford Comma,” says Koenig, “which has a vaguely African feel to it, and then it turned up again in Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. It just seemed natural.
“Sure, we listened
to a lot of
Photograph: Tim Soter African records. But the truth is that, at any given moment, the four of us are listening to a million different records. When Vampire Weekend was starting out, I was also listening to Leonard Cohen, but he hasn’t had much impact on our music.
“The reason why we gravitated so much towards the African sound has to do with us being a band with guitar, drums and bass who didn’t want to sound like the other bands who were around. So we looked to see if we could get ideas from other kinds of music.
“If you listening to a record that you want to consciously reference, you’ll just end up ripping it off. With us, we listened to lots of African pop, internalised it and then tried to do our own version of it. For example, the riff on Cape Cod is certainly not referencing any specific genre of African music or song, but is more us recalling some of the elements which inspired us about African music.”
When it came to writing lyrics, Koenig tried to stay in a hip-hop fame of mind. He’s a huge hip-hop fan, and one of his pre-Vampire Weekend gigs was with L’Homme Run, a rap act who wanted to be the new 3rd Bass, but never even got to first base.
“I can retroactively spot the rap thing on this album in certain ways. More than any other kind of music, rap has lyrics which delight in words and rhyming and references. One of the things about truly great rappers is how they can use metaphors to reference people or places. I spent a lot of time listening to The Beastie Boys, and every other line is a reference to some baseball or basketball player, even though that’s not what the song is about. You can get away with a lot less of that in your standard pop ballad which takes about love and stuff.”
Vampire Weekend’s connection with Columbia University has been seized on by many detractors as a stick to beat them with, something Koenig believes has wider connotations.
“In America, there’s a fear of coming across as being educated because education is linked very closely with class. It turns into
Oxegen supply: Ezra Koening
Vampire Weekend: from left, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, Christopher Tomson.