Infusion of new blood

By Gareth Grundy

For the fangs: Vampire Weekend (from left) Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig and Christopher Tomson and (below) at the Coachella Festival, California, this month. Photo / Supplied
For the fangs: Vampire Weekend (from left) Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig and Christopher Tomson and (below) at the Coachella Festival, California, this month. Photo / Supplied

Talk of pop's turbulent shift into the digital era is usually accompanied by mention of the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen, at least in Britain. Across the Atlantic it's Vampire Weekend, who are emblematic of this generational changing of the guard; the New York-based quartet recently capitalised on the blog buzz of their self-titled 2008 debut by topping the US charts with its successor, Contra (others in the top 10 that week: Susan Boyle, Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas).

Vampire Weekend's appeal lies in a collision between high and low. Thoughtful, sardonic lyrical observations of American's more privileged social strata rub up against a more inclusive musical outlook that doesn't see why southern Californian ska-punk and West African party tunes shouldn't be bedfellows. Much has been made of the former, especially as the band formed at an Ivy League university - New York's Columbia.

Ezra Koenig, multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij and drummer Chris Tomson convened to discuss how the band's has graduated into the big time.

Contra went to No 1 in America. What did that mean to you?
EK: As time goes by I'll probably get some perspective on it, but it was meaningful for a lot of people besides us - it was the first US No 1 for our label. It was interesting to look at the top 10 that week - there was us, an independent band, at the top, and everything else was on a major label. That's exciting. It shows there are no limitations any more.

It seems that in the digital era bands have to work much harder than before for that kind of recognition.
EK: It's pretty cool that people will pay for something even though they don't have to. It's totally different now to back in the day. Now you're paying for a record because you believe in the band. In the future that will be the only time people will pay for albums, because there's some kind of connection.

Has technology made it easier to establish that connection?
EK: A band who would have been No 1 15 years ago, like Guns N' Roses, might have had that element of rock stardom and seemed untouchable. That's definitely on the wane. It's hard to imagine a band becoming quite so big now. People send us emails and Twitter, and it's not that we all feel like we know each other, but there's something more personal about the relationship. Even Lady Gaga - there's something fundamentally different about her compared to 70s and 80s celebrity-type musicians.

RB: The whole point of Lady Gaga is that anyone can do it. A few years ago she was a nobody. She talks about how it's important for people to know that by sheer force of will they can bring about anything they want in their lives.

You started out in a "battle of the bands" competition at university. You didn't win either.
EK: We came in third [laughs]. A bluegrass group won, which was controversial because they weren't really a band. There were 12 of them. This is the type of adversity we've been dealing with since day one. And Chris was playing with them as well as us, so he doubled his chances of winning and there was a cash prize of, like, $200.

Your debut album drew on that time at university, but Contra was partly inspired by leaving college and entering a more grown-up world.
EK: I remember the first pangs of stress arriving at the end of school. Once I graduated I had to get a full-time job, worry about health insurance, saving money, paying rent - things I'd never thought about before. The band was a constant, even though we were doing other things. I was a teacher.

What did you learn from teaching?
I realised that I was at an age where you can go either way. You can be 24 and continue to live like you're at college, or even continue to live like you're in high school. Or you can put on a shirt and tie and pretend to be an adult. And that's what I felt like. And maybe I wasn't actually pretending, because I was eight, nine years older than these kids and an authority figure.

Did it help your performance skills?
EK: It taught me to raise my voice. I definitely had to yell a lot.

Why does the band's background, and the world you write about, upset some people?
RB: I think some journalists feel threatened - what we're doing is too close to home. Some of the journalists who've ended up writing about our band - and this is disappointing to say - have a very narrow outlook. And because of that they fundamentally misunderstand us.

CT: A song like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa is obviously not a celebration of a certain kind of lifestyle. It's not, "Dude, you gotta check out this sweet button-down shirt", it's a critique.

Has Peter Gabriel, who is namechecked in Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, thanked you for helping people realise he's still around?
CT: He didn't need our help [laughs]. He actually came to an early show in London. His kids go to school with the boss of our record label's kids, so he'd heard us early on and liked us. We were interviewed together at a charity event in New York and someone asked the class question, and he said: "There's a myth of the working-class rock hero, and it's all bullshit."

-Observer

LOWDOWN

Who: Vampire Weekend
Albums: Vampire Weekend (2008), Contra (2010).
Where & when: Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, Thursday April 29

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