- 08 May 19
It's been a few years, but Vampire Weekend are back with their best album yet, Father Of The Bride. In a revealing interview, frontman Ezra Koenig discusses the record’s fascinating creation, writing for Beyoncé, covering Thin Lizzy, and the attraction of Italian reggae. Plus his thoughts on Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, and much more besides. Interview: Pat Carty
It was obvious from the get-go, back around 2007, that there was some serious intelligence at work behind Vampire Weekend. Their incorporation of African and classical influences set them apart from other contenders and marked them out as one of the more interesting indie bands of the period. The eponymous debut, released a year later, would go on to be included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. They built on it with 2010’s Contra, which hit number one on the Billboard charts. The final part of what main man Ezra Koenig has described as a trilogy arrived in 2013. Modern Vampires Of The City, a darker, more experimental animal than the first two, was met with widespread acclaim and debuted at the top of the charts. It also secured the band the 2014 Grammy for Best Alternative Album.
It was a busy seven odd years, so it was no surprise when, once the tour ended, the band slipped off the radar. They’re about to re-enter the fray with the very good indeed Father Of The Bride, which is being released on May 3. Today, we find ourselves in the none-more hip – beards and tiny coffee cups abound – Hoxton Hotel in London’s Shoreditch, for an audience with Mr Koenig. I actually run into him in the bathroom first – he’s sporting a fetching dressing gown and slippers combo, trying for comfort in the storm of a press barrage. We’re on the clock so I get started quickly: Ezra, where have you been for the last half-decade?
“A lot of journalists have been saying, ‘You’ve been gone a long time but you kept busy.’ I wasn’t that busy actually!” he laughs. “The first couple of years I really chilled. When the opportunity came up to do something outside of music, to work on cartoons for a year, it was perfect timing, because I always wanted to do something light and fun, and not part of music.”
He’s talking here about the distinctly oddball Neo Yokio, a Netflix animated series about a demon-slaying playboy, which Koenig wrote and produced. He also found time to host his own Time Crisis radio show on Apple Music’s Beats 1.
“The thing about Time Crisis”, he points out, “is it’s two hours every two weeks. It’s just me and my buddies, especially Jake Longstreth.” Bullshitting about music? “Bullshitting about music!” Nothing wrong with that, but what’s this about you calling out the "Space Cowboy" Steve Miller?
“We talk about The Grateful Dead on the show a lot,” says Koenig. “Jake is in a Dead cover band, and they’ve been very influential on me in terms of re-embracing the guitar and getting excited about music. There were guys in other bands when Vampire Weekend came out who always talked shit about us. Not everybody in music has to respect each other or be friends, but we’re all sensitive people who have to deal with enough indignity, just based on our profession. If you recorded me talking in the studio, half the industry would hate me because I say very strong things. ‘We can’t make the drums sound like that!’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because that sounds like those people – they’re middle-brow dipshits!’ But why would you say this shit publicly? I’ve always had this chip on my shoulder about that.”
So Miller had a pop at the Dead?
“He opened for the Dead in the early ’90s when they were playing huge stadiums, then he did an interview after Jerry Garcia died in the late ’90s, where he basically said, ‘I never thought the Grateful Dead were that good, they just dick around on stage.’ There was some part of me that was like ‘Man, you’re Steve Miller and you’ve written some good songs...’” Good, not great, Hot Press interjects. “Yeah, some good songs, but he didn’t accomplish what the Dead accomplished in terms of truly defining something and having an audience that big. There’s something about the hypocrisy of being happy to open for these guys, and then saying you don’t like them. It became a kind of a joke on the show, but I do think he owes them. I don’t want to become that kind of guy.”
One of the biggest changes in the band’s world during this period was the departure of original member, multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, which seems to be an amicable arrangement given that he features on the new record.
“I don’t want to talk about his own motives, but there was a real sense between the two of us that it was meant to be,” says Koenig. “When people are older they can start a band or an organisation and have clear cut rules, but it can be tougher when you’re young. I knew I wanted to be the singer, I knew I wanted to be in charge in some respect, so the only rule I really threw out there was that I’m going to choose the songs.”
It was a benign dictatorship then? Koenig being the German word for king, after all.
“A little bit, and I think I did a good job. I’m such a fan of Rostam as a musician, songwriter and producer that I never had a hard time choosing his music or his ideas, because it was obvious – the best idea wins. Wanting that degree of control was the reason I knew that configuration wasn’t going to last forever. He was always clear when we started the band that he saw Vampire Weekend as one of multiple projects, while I saw it as my be-all, end-all songwriting vehicle, and Chris and Chris” - drummer Chris Tomson and bass player Chris Baio - “saw it in their own way too. Rostam officially leaving actually felt like a long time coming and a bit of a release. I understand that when you’re a songwriter, no matter how much you might contribute to the songs you co-write, until you make an album where you sing the songs and you write the lyrics, if that’s an ambition of yours, it won’t go away. It’s very hard to make your own album when you’re in another band. As someone who holds the privilege to do that as a very sacred thing, it makes sense to me when someone else feels that way.”
The Fabulous Ms Knowles, Some Italian Reggae & The Lizzy
Somewhat surprisingly, Koenig is listed as one of the songwriters of ‘Hold Up’ on Beyoncé’s all-conquering Lemonade album.
“Around the time Vampire Weekend were getting big, there was a real blurring of the lines between alternative and mainstream,” is how he explains it. “A lot of pop people were looking to the indie world for inspiration, a lot of indie people were hoping to make the leap to becoming pop writers. On paper, it sounds better – I don’t have to tour constantly, I can go write songs. It sort of became fashionable to say pop music was cool and indie music sucked! I related to that, maybe out of self-hatred, but I got it. As somebody who is a fascinated fan of that world, I was very lucky that I could, with Diplo, start what I thought would be a Vampire Weekend song. Then, without any hustling, without any sitting in rooms, it became a Beyoncé song, and for me that’s about as good as it gets. Maybe I’ll write for other people, because there’s something enchanting about that world, the big mainstream song. Beyoncé is an icon and she makes works of art. It was a pretty great way to scratch that itch.”
Was it a big financial windfall, or has that day gone by? It’s perhaps not the same as getting a song on Thriller years ago…
“No, it’s not,” replies Koenig ruefully. “Vampire Weekend will probably continue to be my main source of income!”
It wasn’t all gold during the break – there’s a cover of ‘Time To Say Goodbye’, which isn't exactly The 'Weekend’s finest hour.
“How dare you, sir!” Koenig exclaims, in what I hope is mock horror. “Starbucks asked us to be on their compilation, and it’s typical music business stuff. They’ve been supportive of us in the past, so when they asked for a minor thing like that, you might as well say ‘yes’. The assignment was to cover one of your favourite love songs, so we needed to find something that was earnest but also very silly. To do a reggae version of the song, singing in Italian, just felt perfect. An assignment like that is like a problem you have to solve. Covering a Beatles song would feel really off so as much as, like you said, this was not our finest hour, it felt right."
Another cover was Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ at Fuji Rocks last year – where did that come from?
“We just started playing it in rehearsal. You want to shake up the live show a bit, to have more songs in the arsenal, and it’s a fun song, people got excited about it.”
Would he play it in Dublin?
“That might be too on the nose!” laughs Koenig. “My favourite Thin Lizzy song is actually ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, that kind of traditional folk song really moved me. ‘I just like sleeping in my Molly’s chambers’? I relate to that, I just like sleeping! I look at the setlists of some of these older bands like Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen, and they’re like bar bands with all these classic rock covers. It’s a way to re-embrace the joy of just playing music, you play your serious songs, but then have fun with a cover. It goes back to the joy of picking up a guitar.”
The Pater Familias
Enough of what’s been, what of what’s coming? The new album, Father Of The Bride, is a sprawling delight, encompassing the perfect pop of the marvellous ‘Harmony Hall’ and ‘This Life’, oddball fare like ‘2021’, and Hans Zimmer-sampling folk (‘Hold You Now’). There are several duets with Vampire pal Danielle Haim, not to mention pedal steel, horns, string arrangements – the works. To these ears, it’s their best record yet. Koenig said he had the name before anything else. It’s a bit of a jump from the Junior Reid quote of the last record's title to Steve Martin – is it really from that movie?
“Well, I’m an American who grew up in the ’90s, so my first association is with the Steve Martin film.”
If I might extend a familial analogy, Father Of The Bride isn’t exactly The Godfather in terms of quality – does it have some other meaning?
“I like things with a couple of layers, and Father Of The Bride brings some joy associated with that lightweight movie. But why was I was attracted to that title as a metaphor? There’s something almost biblical about it, it’s a transitional moment. It’s the joy of a wedding, the beginning of something new, but there’s something heavy about it too. It represents the past, the weight of history.”
It’s a double album in old money, calling to mind Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk – Koenig’s established himself, and now he has total creative freedom. It’s also a very upbeat record: there’s flowers and spring and bright colours. Given that he has became a father recently, was that a conscious approach?
“Well the timeline doesn’t really work because even by the time I knew I was going to become a Dad, I had already written most of the lyrics.”
Okay then… there’s a lot of break-ups in there too.
“On the most basic level, I felt older, wiser, and more interested in writing about real life stuff,” he reflects. “There are more flowers on this album, but slightly less flowery language. I love that Fleetwood Mac reference, but one that might be slightly more meaningful to me is Bruce Springsteen’s The River. I’m from New Jersey, so he’s kinda like our poet laureate. With that album, there are silly and funny characters, but there’s real emotion too.”
You’ve already released two singles, the next one must surely be ‘This Life’, it’s got hit written all over it.
“Yes ‘This Life’ with ‘Unbearably White’”
Let’s talk about ‘Unbearably White’. Are we talking the white man’s burden – is it a reference to who’s in the White House? Or is it Hemingway’s white bull?
“It started with the phrase,” replies Koenig. “It’s a classic cliché of think pieces. Instead of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, they write ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of x, y and z’. I’ve literally seen that phraseology hundreds of times, so ‘Unbearably White’ popped into my head. The empty page, the top of a mountain, there’s something about this moment – and it’s not just about race – this idea of being surrounded by bright, raw whiteness, even from the technological angle. With the album cover, I always knew I wanted the Earth to be on this raw digital white background. One of my interpretations of the song is the lack of darkness and I don’t just mean metaphorically. I’ve been jet-lagged here for two nights and I’m surrounded by screens. It’s never dark, and maybe I feel that more acutely because I live slightly in exile now in LA. I love so many things about it but I hate the light, the sun beating down. I come from the New York area, my family’s from Eastern Europe.”
You need seasons?
“Seasons, shade, trees, and tall buildings, yeah,” he nods. “Also, we talk about the Dark Ages as a metaphor for the lack of knowledge – the light had gone out in Europe, the forces of darkness reigned, but the light came back on. That’s how we’re taught it in school, whereas now… it might have been my friend the graphic designer, David Rudnick, who said we’re now in the light ages. You want to go into a closet and not have the 24/7 lightness surrounding you. The question is does that sick digital whiteness that surrounds us from screens bring us closer to the truth, or is there something unbearable about it? That’s the best interpretation I can give at the moment.”
Johnny Cash, Cocaine & Diego Garcia
Moving on to ‘Married In A Goldrush’ – is that straight from the ‘Jackson’ of Johnny Cash and June Carter?
“A little bit. I kinda took a bunch of country clichés and jammed them together.”
‘We Belong Together’ as well?
“Yeah, that’s at the same time, and coincidentally they’re both duets with Danielle. ‘Jackson’ is an iconic piece of American songwriting and when I picture that, I picture Johnny Cash on cocaine!”
The album is Tusk without all the cocaine then?
“California these days is actually way more defined by weed than cocaine, if anything,” Koenig counters. “’Married In A Goldrush’ started with that phrase. Maybe there’s something a little deeper there, how I feel about my generation.”
The stand-out line in ‘Harmony Hall’ comes from the song ‘Finger Back’ on the last album: “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die”. Why go back to it?
“I think this is where it always belonged,” responds Koenig. “I liked the line, I wanted to stick it on the last album somewhere. ‘Finger Back’ is more of an abstract collage of a song, with a lot of different images whereas on ‘Harmony Hall’, everything is pointing in the same direction. It serves a different purpose in each song. I always wanted to finish ‘Harmony Hall’ and make it the song it was destined to be. I knew people would think I was quoting ‘Finger Back’, but I’ve done that before. "Feel so natural, Peter Gabriel" in ‘Cape Cod Kwasa Kwasa’ actually comes from the song ‘Ottoman’, even though it came out later. That phrase is something I’ll probably be turning over in my mind for a long time, so I had the confidence that the song was saying enough that I could repeat the line.”
The reference to Diego Garcia – a US bomber base on an Indian ocean atoll – in ‘Sympathy’ seems fairly obscure.
“I’ve been trying to fit that in for years! That song in general is looking at the concept of sympathy and how often it’s misused. Apart from the obvious meaning, sympathy can also be about projecting a feeling of caring, more of an alliance. So the idea of sympathy has been degraded. The origin of the word comes from mutual vibrations – Judaeo Christianity is not exactly the strongest alliance, but people talk about it as if it’s existed for thousands of years. That alliance wasn’t there in Europe 70 years ago. And now, conveniently, it’s talked about, to the exclusion of Islam, as the most fundamental partnership that’s ever existed in the western world. It’s interesting timing.”
Time's up, but before I go, I mention Vampire Weekend’s hotly anticipated show at the Trinity Summer Series. Koenig is familiar with the University but not the gig’s location. When I tell him it’s on the cricket pitch, both eyebrows head north. When I add that both Brian Ferry and Grace Jones triumphed there last year, he expresses his enthusiasm, the thoroughly decent chap. If the album is anything to go by, they’ll knock it for six.
Vampire Weekend play Trinity Summer Series on July 1st. Father Of The Bride is out now.