Vampire Weekend Takes on Its Buzz

Hot on the heels of SXSW, the nation’s hottest buzz band returns to Denver.

When music scenes turn moribund, tastemakers desperately flail about for something, anything, to fill the void — and a band that's anointed as the Chosen One under these circumstances often goes from obscurity to ubiquity with quicksilver speed. Too bad even the strongest among them can drown while undergoing their baptism in hype.

If Vampire Weekend lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig is to avoid becoming another victim, he'll have to navigate a flood of attention capable of overwhelming anyone. He speaks to Westword the day before his worldbeat-meets-indie-rock band is slated to appear as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live and toward the end of the group's stint as artist of the week on MTV, an airplay bonanza during which the music network runs clips of Koenig and his colleagues (keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson) over the credits of virtually every show it airs. In addition, the Weekenders, who met as students at New York's Columbia University, adorn the cover of Spin to tease a profile that seems less interested in the band's music than in the reasons the magazine's editors saw fit to give a new, untested act such prominent placement.

Vampire Weekend has the hype machine in overdrive.
Vampire Weekend has the hype machine in overdrive.

Considering this state of affairs, it's understandable that Koenig gets a mite testy when he's asked if Vampire Weekend's rise to prominence, which started even before XL Recordings released its self-titled debut CD in late January, has been as uncomplicated as press reports suggest.

"I know a lot of people in bands, and I've been going to shows almost my whole life, so of course I know that it's rare what's happened to us," he says. "But the idea of it being completely easy? If you've been reading the articles, you know that people tend to make a lot of hugely inaccurate judgments about our background just because of where we went to school and things like that. People do kind of walk away with this image of us as these people who've never worked at anything, which is untrue, and who were just handed this music career on a platter.

"People don't realize that we recorded this album ourselves," he goes on. "Our keyboardist produced it. We were working on it right after graduating college. We had full-time jobs. I was working at my first full-time job, and then having the energy to go record this album in Rostam's little apartment in Brooklyn.... It's not a sob story, but it's not, like, easy, either. It's certainly no easier than any other band has it, I'd say. So the fact that things have gone so well after that point — you can say that's luck or something we should be thankful for, and we are. But in terms of it being easy? Sometimes we take issue with that, because we played so many shows nobody came to. Once it started rolling, it rolled very quickly, but up until that point, it didn't. And we put in a lot of work making this album ourselves. We didn't have a label come find us and say, 'How much money do you need to record this?'"

Then again, cash wasn't an insurmountable obstacle for Koenig, who was raised alongside his younger sister, a fledgling actress, in the northern New Jersey suburbs by parents practicing very different professions. His mother is a family therapist — a specialty he appreciates more in retrospect than he did at the time. "You don't exactly want to talk to your parents about your problems, no matter what," he acknowledges. "But the older I get, the more I can appreciate that my mom has always had her shit together and would always give me very reasonable advice." His father, meanwhile, oversees craftsmen who build sets and props for film and television productions; his formal title is lead man. "He worked on a bunch of Spike Lee movies," Koenig says. "I remember going to the set of Malcolm X when I was, like, nine."

Around that time, Koenig began taking piano lessons, and within a year or so, he wrote his inaugural composition, "Bad Birthday Party." As a kid, "that sounds like one of the worst things ever," he affirms, laughing. From there, he formed his first band with Wes Miles, who's currently the frontman for another rising combo, Ra Ra Riot. The pals played their seventh-grade graduation, cranking out a U2 song and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." Koenig performed in other groups throughout his high-school years as well, and when he headed to Columbia, he kept it up. His first outfit of note there was L'Homme Run, a cheeky rap combo that partnered him with Andrew Kalaidjian.

"He was really into rap," Koenig says. "And I've always been into rap and into making a lot of beats. So we just decided to start something, and we liked the idea of having this very easy-to-move setup. It was just a laptop, and we would rap over it. We'd had these experiences of trying to get a whole band together, and it had been a real pain in the ass, so having minimal equipment and minimal musicians was kind of nice."

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