If you've even skimmed a music blog over the past year, chances are you're already familiar with Vampire Weekend. Together for less than two years, the band has generated a substantial blogosphere buzz that has spread to more traditional outlets — NPR, Spin and even the New York Times — and helped the act land a record deal with XL Records. For an outfit that hasn't even released a full album yet, that's a considerable amount of success.
"I'm not entirely sure what success would be, because it's not like we're making any money," says Christopher Tomson, Vampire Weekend's drummer. "It feels cool, obviously — you know, all of our parents loved it when we were in the New York Times. But that can only go so far. We're still playing for thirty people in Tucson or whatever. It's not like we're playing all these sold-out shows all over the country. It certainly feels awesome to have been recognized. It's not success. I don't know what word is appropriate — maybe notoriety or something."
Semantics aside, Tomson and his bandmates — singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio and keyboard player Rostam Batmanglij — have accomplished quite a bit in their short time together. The four met at Columbia University, where they attended school and played together in various projects before forming Vampire Weekend in the spring of 2006. Since then, they've released the EP that garnered so much attention, quit their day jobs and mounted tours of the U.S. and Europe. And right now, the guys are in a position that most groups would kill to be in. They may not be making any money yet, but people are clearly enthused and attentive.
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"Sales," Tomson muses, "are like...I guess they're important to some people. As we kind of know, that's becoming less and less an actual thing, because people don't buy records. For me, anyway, personally — not speaking for the band, necessarily — touring is one of the coolest things. When we play Seattle and, because the radio station there has been playing us, a couple hundred people come out and they're all really excited and they know the words, that's exciting. If that can continue and that can keep going, then I think all this stuff and attention will be worth it."
For the members of Vampire Weekend, the challenge now becomes sustaining their current momentum while building upon it, winning over music fans who don't necessarily take their cues from music blogs but still buy albums. Shouldn't be too difficult. Driving that attention is the presence of certain sounds and influences that haven't been heard in indie circles for quite a while. The EP kicks off with "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," a poppy track that incorporates some of the same African elements apparent in the music of the Talking Heads and the work of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel in the late '80s. "A-Punk" uses some of the same tricks but leans heavily in a ska direction, while "Oxford Comma," the closer, is reminiscent of the reggae-informed work of Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. The songs themselves are all clever and catchy, and the whole thing is cemented together by a sunny, chipper and clean approach that's been called "preppy." Within those few songs, the members of Vampire Weekend manage to incorporate a fairly broad range of influences, but it's the Afrobeat connection that most critics have seized upon as the crucial element of the group's sound. Tomson acknowledges the inspiration but thinks pundits have made too much of it.
"Those songs, the EP songs, more heavily have the African influence," he admits. "While that's certainly a part, and we like African music, that's not the defining characteristic of our music. I think that was just something where that wasn't even a conscious thing; that was just something we'd all been listening to. It certainly has been a part of what we've done. I don't think its quite as limiting as I've seen, or like people write: 'Oh, they're just this African-influenced group.' Which we are, but I think there's a number of other things as well that are equally there."
Of course, with a near-infinite number of bloggers writing about the same three songs and brief band history, it was almost inevitable that the act would get typecast early on the web — not to mention in the mainstream coverage that followed. When you're a darling of the blogosphere, though, that almost comes with the territory. "I wasn't too into the blog world and stuff before people started writing about us," Tomson confesses. "It's kind of new to me. I'm not really sure how to gauge it, I guess. It seems like a lot of the people are just kind of like dudes — at least a lot of the ones I read are like random people in Ontario or something who are like, 'Oh, I like this band, you should check them out.' I don't know who really reads them. I don't know, it's a weird thing."
Indeed. Nonetheless, Vampire Weekend has benefited from a fortuitous symmetry between the blogosphere and several other ubiquitous destinations in the online world. "All we had done was put our songs on MySpace or whatever," Tomson points out. "We didn't send demos out, and it wasn't like we had a press person or these promotional people behind us. It was pretty much just the music online and people hearing it and responding to it. It hasn't felt forced or manufactured, really, because it pretty much comes down to people liking the songs and getting in touch with us, e-mailing us, like, 'Hey, you want to come play our city?'"
The band's meteoric ascent in the indie-rock world could also be attributed to the leak of its ten-song demo — which the group had only offered briefly at its shows — on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. Many artists would consider that an unmitigated disaster, but Tomson and company took it in stride.
"We sold like maybe eighty of these hand-burned things from our computers," he notes. "It's very funny to see someone from, like, Spain post it as a download. I think it's cool; it's kind of what helped us out. When we played our first London show, people were singing along to a lot of songs, so it's like, 'Okay, you guys have downloaded this stuff.' At the point we're at, it can only be positive. You want people to hear about you, and you want to be able to tour and have people come, and if that's the way it happens, that's the way it happens. You know, I hope if people like that stuff, they'd go out and buy the album. You can't really get pissed. It is what it is."
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Tomson knows that no matter how much attention Vampire Weekend has generated, to achieve any sort of real, tangible success, he and his mates have to focus on the fundamentals — writing good songs, playing shows and connecting with people.
"Looking at history and talking to friends and stuff, obviously it may have happened a bit quicker for us, getting to a point where we can put out a record and hopefully have a lot of people hear it," he acknowledges. "It has felt, at least to us, very natural in a way, because most of it has been from people responding to the songs.
"When you're touring and you play a bad show to no one, it's like all the blogs in the world don't matter," he concludes. "At the end of the day, you've got to reach people, and people can read anything, but you still want to come and play to people and have them come and hear your music."