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.
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.
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"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."
Before long, the pair had cobbled together ditties such as "Interracial Dating," boosted by Mario Bros. electronics, an unlikely reference to the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" and lines like "I airbrushed your breasts on the top of my Lexus/But it's just because I fell in love with your solar plexus." Eventually, though, Koenig realized that "playing with a laptop is kind of a pain in the ass, too. I felt like, it's nice to have a live band that can just rock out on any system. It doesn't matter if the P.A. is crappy and you're at some shitty party. And that was kind of the impetus for getting Vampire Weekend together."
Koenig already knew Batmanglij, Baio and Tomson by then, and soon the quartet developed a multi-culti hybrid that merges quasi-African guitar parts and rhythms, classically derived string arrangements and lyrics that merge pop-culture allusions with references that prove the boys paid attention in class. Take "Oxford Comma," in which Koenig sings, "Show your paintings/At the United Nations/Lil Jon, he always tells the truth."
This blend, coupled with the foursome's preppy fashion sense (Koenig wore a prim white sweater on SNL), set Vampire Weekend apart from the oodles of interchangeable bands haunting the NYC club scene, and reviewers soon began raving, albeit in a fairly incomprehensible way. After David Byrne wrote something nice about the group on his blog, scribes began reflexively comparing the musicians to the Talking Heads, whom they sound almost nothing like, when not repeatedly name-checking Paul Simon's Graceland, a 1986 Grammy-winning album that no hipster critic worth his CBGB shirt had ever admitted to admiring before. "It can be frustrating," Koenig concedes. "We keep getting asked about these people over and over again, as if we sat down and listened to their albums and took notes and made our own album. Then you almost start to feel defensive, and you get to the point where you almost want to say something bad about someone you really like."
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Vampire Weekend could face a similar situation. The group's disc is an inoffensive, generally pleasant listen, with the blithely complex "M79" suggesting that there's more to these guys than a clever amalgamation of influences and some fortuitous timing. Nevertheless, the album as a whole remains far from earth-shattering, and as a result, plenty of folks who give it a spin after being inundated with raves may denounce it more severely than it deserves. There's no telling if this verdict will inspire the group to deepen and broaden its sound or bring the entire project to a screeching halt.
Not that Koenig has time to worry about either prospect. He's busy dealing with more immediate matters — like the question of whether the chances of Vampire Weekend's long-term survival will be enhanced or diminished by ten-second clips affixed to the end of MTV shows like America's Best Dance Crew and The Gauntlet III.
"There are two schools of thought on it," he says. "One school of thought is, MTV is putting some weird stuff on the air right now; do we really want to be a part of it? And the other school of thought is, there's nothing wrong with us — and if they're going to put anything on there, it might as well be Vampire Weekend."
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend.