It's a pain in the neck
“People describe us as these incredibly privileged, waspy, brainless, whitewashed dudes.” No one expected a bunch of preppie boys from Columbia University to wheel out the rhythms like Vampire Weekend did on their debut record – and the quartet are still
IT’S December, and Ezra Koenig and Chris Biao of Vampire Weekend are sitting in the offices of XL Recordings in London, quaffing horchata and chatting about their second album, due out early in the New Year. Well, actually, they’re not drinking horchata, the sweet Mexican rice drink that kicks off the album’s lead track; they’re drinking plain old coffee.
Koenig and Baio look, dress and talk like really polite young men, which makes it all the more surprising to hear they nearly caused a diplomatic incident in – of all places – Belgium. Travelling’s a tricky business at the best of times; you have to be careful not to of- fend the natives or insult their gods. And for Pete’s sake, don’t disrespect their national treasures.
“Basically, we’d never heard of Toots Thielemans,” explains Koenig, a man who normally considers himself well versed in all forms of lounge, exotica and easy listening. “Although I’ve come to realise I’ve heard his music many times. So we were with all these Belgian people, out having dinner in a restaurant, and I just made an offhand comment about John Popper from Blues Traveler being the greatest harmonica player of all time. And everybody went silent. It was later explained to me that Toots Thielemans is one of the most famous living Belgians. So we’ve become obsessed with him. We found out he played harmonica on the theme tune for Sesame Street.”
Despite that glaring gap in Koenig’s musical knowledge, you can’t accuse the singer of being musically insular. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album displayed a breadth of influences well beyond the bailiwick of your typical college kid from uptown Manhattan. The album fused indie, surf, punk and African rhythms (to name but four genres) to oddly beguiling effect.
The band called it “Upper West Side Soweto” – this is what The Beach Boys might have sounded like if they’d grown up on the Ivory Coast, or what Fela Kuti might have sounded like if he came from Martha’s Vineyard.
The weird brew worked a treat, giving an exotic flavour to such collegiate anthems as Oxford Comma, A-Punk and Mansard Roof. The incongruity of it all is neatly summed up in the lyric of Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa: “This feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too”. The band’s appropriation of East African polyrhythms has earned them comparisons with Gabriel, Paul Simon and even David Byrne – Byrne’s probably the closest to the mark, not just because there’s an echo of early Talking Heads there, but also because the lyrical eru-