WORKING FOR THE WEEKEND
On their gutsy new album, Vampire Weekend dare to go darker—but with a very enlightened sense of evolution.
The gentlemen of Vampire Weekend are waiting to have their portraits taken, one by one, elementary-school-picture-day-style. It’s multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij’s turn, and he follows the photographer through the door of Welcome to the Johnsons, the Lower East Side dive bar that’s home base for today’s shoot, while vocalist-guitarist Ezra Koenig patiently scrolls through text messages and Twitter feeds, drummer Chris Tomson reads Game of Thrones—an "airport purchase" from the band’s recent festival dates in Australia, Japan, and Singapore—and bassist Chris Baio dives into Amity Gaige’s latest novel, Schroder, which he picked up after reading a review comparing it to Lolita, one of his all-time favorites.
As the photo shoot wraps up, the bartender pours a round of flavored seltzers and we settle in to discuss the band’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City (the title quotes the first line of “One Blood” by reggae artist Junior Reid). Some have described it as the dark conclusion to a trilogy that includes the band’s 2008 self-titled debut and 2010’s No. 1-charting, gold-selling Contra.
Koenig is not one of these people. “Maybe this is just vestigial sensitivity, but with the first album, people described it as being so upbeat, without a care in the world, almost to the point of character assassination, like: ‘This is an album made by a bunch of happy guys who never had to worry about a thing,’” he says, pulling on the zipper of his navy fleece. “We always felt like every album had layers of feeling, mixed emotions, and even straight-up somber songs, so to describe this third album as being fundamentally different from the first two doesn’t feel quite right.”
No arguments here. Sure, moaning church organs and droning Latin choirs make the occasional appearance on Modern Vampires, jibing with the smoggy black-and-white aerial shot of New York City that graces its cover, but so do positively sparkling moments: “Everlasting Arms” rivals “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” for the distinction of “song most inspired by Paul Simon’s Graceland, ever,” and “Diane Young” sounds like a lost single off a 1950s soda fountain jukebox, a little contemporary studio trickery warping Koenig’s vocals into a baritone-contralto-falsetto doo-wop harmony. For the first time, the band invited contribution from an outside producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, who’s a friend of Batmanglij and co-mastermind behind Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing.” He helped facilitate this synthesis of old and new.
But listening to a Vampire Weekend record has always been an exercise in unexpected but undeniably pleasant juxtaposition, the band’s disparate influences—Senegalese guitar tones, Congolese rhythms, chamber pop, polo shirts, and Greek mythology—forming a strata rather than a mash. Of course such a culture clash could never escape dissection from the army of online commenters/ armchair cultural critics, and the band has experienced their share of controversy—even lawsuits.
As most fans know, the model with the popped collar on the cover of Contra sued the band for using the image without her consent. “We got permission,” Koenig insists, “but it seems that we were perhaps in some way...misled. The law is a complicated thing.” They wound up settling a year later, and can laugh (nervously) about it now, but a few weeks after our conversation, a new firestorm erupted when an official stream video for “Diane Young,” featuring a blazing Swedish sedan, enraged Saab enthusiasts. And lest we forget the recurring tweet-rage surrounding the Columbia grads’ tendency to casually toss around terms like “vestigial sensitivity” or their obsession with the Oxford comma.
On the whole, Modern Vampires feels more emotionally mature and less wry. Legitimate moments of revelation (not unlike Bon Iver’s “at once I knew I was not magnificent”) are wrapped in the already warm blanket of Koenig’s vocals and subtle harpsichord that pops in and out like a polite conversationalist. But the guys still make room for lyrics like “Back, back, way back/ I used to front like Angkor Wat,” from “Step,” a line that feels as showy as the ornate, massive Hindu temple, as glib as the band’s previous references to obscure architectural elements and grammatical minutiae, and as annoying as the guy at the party who’s taking the Trivial Pursuit game a little too seriously.
I consider soliciting the guys’ thoughts on the missing apostrophe from our location’s signage, but instead decide to ask about the new album’s cover, a New York Times image from 1966. “People actually died on that day, because of the smog,” Batmanglij says. “Some people have thought that picture is supposed to be a rendering of the future, but now, we live in a cleaner New York. In some ways, things can get better. And I’d like to think, in a very broad way, that’s something that comes across—that there’s a darkness, but also a hopefulness—in the form of a cautionary tale.”
Maybe the more important question is whether they took the proper legal precautions in procuring the photo. “We had to clear it with the recognizable buildings in the image,” Batmanglij says. “But we did it,” he says, a big grin forming. “And hopefully we did it right.”