Ezra Koenig on the Great Vampire Weekend Debate

Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig.
Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig. Michael Schmelling

If you are an indie kid of a certain age, there’s an extremely good chance that the words “Vampire Weekend” at one point inspired passion — positive or otherwise — in you. Granted, this was the post-Strokes mid-2000s, an era in which MP3 blogs reigned supreme and the supposed demise of guitar music had not become a dead horse ripe for the beating. Back then, those blogs were the first to lose their absolute shit over the Columbia-degreed boys with a closet full of polo shirts, a startling command of Afro-pop rhythms, and an undeniable ability to integrate them into sparse, bright indie-rock songs.

Most everyone half plugged in at the time knows what came next: the band’s 2008 debut, Vampire Weekend, and, well, a meltdown. The Village Voice ran two side-by-side reviews of the record, one positive, one titled "Please Ignore This Band." So maybe you loved these guys, with their working knowledge of the term “kwassa kwassa” and snarky co-opting of WASP aesthetics and yuppie snobbery and smartassery — all unequivocal proof that the band was obviously in on its own joke.

Or you felt, shall we say, differently. These guys were hacks in boat shoes who thought they were so damn clever because they’d managed to sell Tommy Hilfiger on a song with a ska beat. And the whole African rhythm thing? Textbook appropriation: rich New York white boys mining African musical conventions with all the grace and charm of Leopold in the Congo. And, honey, Paul Simon did it first — in 1987, no less! Ever hear of Graceland?

“Nothing was more overhyped than the supposed controversy about Vampire Weekend,” remembers frontman Ezra Koenig. “There was something very empty about it, because it was a conversation that didn’t really go anywhere.”

But, God, how those of us on both sides of the debate were eager to have it again and again. Regrettably for the band’s detractors, Vampire Weekend survived. Thrived, even. Breezed by, really, which in retrospect feels like a damning indictment of the actual power of rock critics this side of Lester Bangs. In 2010 the band clocked another well-received album, Contra, and forced a maturity narrative into being with 2013’s marvelous if moderately darker Modern Vampires of the City.

Koenig isn’t sure why it took so long. “With the first album, people would be like, ‘Oh, this is a vapid celebration of being a young, carefree college student.’ The last song is called ‘The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance’!” he says with an exasperated laugh.

The band went quiet after touring Modern Vampires, partially from exhaustion. The recording process was hardly pleasant: “We had all the singles, and still every time I talked to anybody about Vampire Weekend, I would be so extreme," Koenig recalls. "I would be like, ‘We’re in bad shape. We need to write more songs.’”

By the time the album dropped, Koenig was “sick of everything” and disconnected from his own band. Long story short: “I didn’t enjoy touring on that album," he says. "I was not happy being out there.”

So the band went quiet. Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Rostam Batmanglij quit amicably in 2016. Koenig developed an anime project for Netflix and took “a nice, long break.” And yet he couldn’t stay away. Koenig started writing again, took meetings with record labels (Modern Vampires fulfilled the band’s contract with XL Recordings) and signed with Sony.

Initial singles “Harmony Hall” and “2021” arrived in January of this year, courting immediate and breathless comparisons to the Grateful Dead. Father of the Bride dropped in May. Luckily for Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride was not a crushing disappointment to fans and inspired no petitions demanding a total rewrite. It’s the band’s longest and loosest album yet, imbued with a melodic brightness — and slick funk sparkle courtesy of Steve Lacy — that belies Koenig’s global concerns, primarily regarding his Jewish identity and the state of Israel: “Judeo-Christianity, I’d never heard the words/Enemies for centuries until there was a third,” on “Sympathy”; “But this prophecy of ours has come back dressed to kill,” on album closer “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin."

Koenig sees the latter as “one of the heaviest songs we’ve ever put out,” and it’s enough to make him annoyed with the pervasive narrative of Father of the Bride as proof of Vampire Weekend’s newfound happiness. He intended the song as a parting summary when he placed it at the record’s end. And with that, he’s the first to call his own bluff. “That’s probably stupid on my part, because the final song will generally be listened to one-tenth as much as the first one,” he says. “Maybe I think too much about albums being like movies. Nobody would write about a movie if they didn’t think hard about the ending of the movie, but albums aren’t quite like that.”

To critics' credit, there is a melodic lightness that permeates Father of the Bride. But Koenig is reasonably justified questioning that narrative, considering that the record concludes with a meditation on the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in so many words, what post-World War II ethno-nationalism has wrought.

Not that he'll take issue with critics' foibles on Twitter, a platform where musicians and music journalists have been squabbling all year long. Recently, Lana Del Rey lashed out at NPR critic Ann Powers over a measured essay on Norman Fucking Rockwell!; earlier this year, Lizzo responded to a less-than-glowing Pitchfork review by declaring that only musicians should critique other musicians. Diplo ended up being the adult in the room.

Koenig knows better than to tweet his personal displeasure at critics, partially because he spent the better part of multiple album cycles taking it on the chin. So it’s all zen, baby. If people want to note how fatherhood informed the album, that’s fine, even if he didn’t know he was going to be a dad when he wrote it. And you can call him happy. He’s heard worse.

“I can think of it two ways. The above-it-all, mellow side of my personality is like, ‘Let the people hear what they want to hear. It’s all good. The press need to write their reviews very quickly, so they have to have a quick take.’ And then the more difficult artist side is like, ‘What did they listen to? Are you serious?’” he says. “You have to let all that stuff go. If I care to say what I think, I guess I would say all four Vampire Weekend albums have a pretty similar view of life. I don’t think my philosophy has changed since the first album.”

Vampire Weekend, 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 8, and Wednesday, October 9, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, $49 and up,
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Elle Carroll is a writer and photographer based in Denver. She has written for Westword since 2016.
Contact: Elle Carroll