By Sara Liss
Every once in a while a band comes along and saves rock n’ roll. The Shins did it eight years ago and Vampire Weekend seems poised to be the post-millennial saviors of pop music. Headed by guitarist and vocalist Ezra Koenig, the band met at Columbia University and adeptly mix pop rock and African rhythm mash-ups with academia-laden lyrics (the Khyber Pass, Oxford commas). So what if the lyrics are enigmatic, referencing raincoats, Peter Gabriel and Benetton? The songs are breezy, poetic and refreshingly angst-free. It’s good music, and it’s fun.
Even before releasing their first album the band was embraced by music blogs and indie music mavens. Mainstream success followed with a cover story in Spin, an article in the New York Times and mentions on countless music websites. They have appeared on Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Kimmel Live and are currently in the midst of a global tour that recently included stints at South by Southwest and Coachella music festivals.
Songs like "M-79," a marriage of strings and ska, "Walcott," a howling, pounding ode that name drops small New England towns, and "Oxford Comma," which irreverently questions grammar snobs, mix the intelligent with the banal so cleverly that one can’t help but be enchanted. Now Miami fans will have a chance to get their "kwassa kwassa" on when the band performs June 9th at the Fillmore Jackie Gleason Theater. We had a chance to chat with Koenig recently and the conversation veered toward such wide-ranging topics as Israeli politics, the literature of Bernard Malamud and how to deal with haters. Don your best v-neck sweater and dock shoes and embrace your inner preppy.
On literature: Since I graduated college, I read more than ever. I think it’s one way to keep your brain functioning. It’s not necessarily like, "oh this book is great, I’m going to write a song about it," but maybe somehow the language influences you. I’m in a New York zone now. I just started The Power Broker, a book about Robert Moses, and I read The Tenants by Bernard Malamud. It’s really intense, super ’70s New York. There’s racial conflict, it’s really dark and it reminded me of I am Legend, even though it doesn’t take place during the apocalypse — but it’s almost that heavy.
On New York as creative inspiration: This album has to do both explicitly and subtly with us being in college and being in New York. All my family is from New York and it’s the city that I feel most connected to and it will probably inform anything that I do. But at the same time, that album was made almost entirely in New York and this year we’ve been all over the world, spending lots of time in California and other places. So I don’t know if the next album will be as tied to a specific place. We want to make albums that reflect when they’re being made and this album will come out of a period of lots of travel.
On touring: The tour is never-ending. We’re in a zone now where we’re used to it. Going home to New York now is a mini-vacation. It’s getting easier, though. The venues are getting bigger. We used to drive around America in a mini-van. Now we have a tour manager and someone helping.
On keeping up with the blogs: When we first started out, I would read what people were saying about us and get a sense of who was listening to us. But then you get to a point when you realize the Internet is full of psychos. Positive psychos, negative psychos. I realized, I couldn’t read them anymore. Occasionally I’ll be reading a blog and I’ll see a Vampire Weekend mention, but I don’t search for it. At this point, if I want to see how people feel about our band I’ll talk to people after shows.
On negative reviews: Our band sometimes brings out the worst in people. I’m fine with negative reviews, but sometimes we’ll read these crass diatribes. People associate our band with a certain lifestyle and they’re not right. They make all these assumptions about my background, calling me a trust fund kid because of how I dress, which my family finds hilarious. But that’s how it goes. If you want to get your music out there you have to be ready for that, you have to be thick-skinned.
On the preppy lifestyle: I’m a part of it in a certain sense just like everybody in America contributes to a certain system of living. I know people who embodied that lifestyle in a way that some people imagine our band does. I went to a school that clearly was associated with that historic Northeast thing, whatever it is. But like everyone in America it’s more complicated than that. My grandfather went to Cornell, but then he was living in public housing in the Bronx. These things are not mutually exclusive. You can’t judge people based on what they wear, be they baggy jeans or tight jeans.
On visiting Africa: We’re inspired by African music, but we don’t want to do anything presumptuous. We don’t want people to assume we’re trying to place ourselves in some sort of African music lineage. In some ways our music is a cultural thing, we’re saying this is the music we like. I’m very interested in the politics there but it’s something more to tackle as an individual than as a songwriter. I don’t like the idea of being a tourist in a third world country with an isolated kind of experience.
On Israel: I read about it a lot and I want to see it with my own eyes. The conflict there is affecting the whole world. We [Americans] are influencing things over there and it’s important to try and have your own understating of it.
On Miami: This will be my first time in Miami and I’m excited. It’s always struck me as being an international city that’s doing its own thing. Miami is tropical and there’s so many people from the Caribbean and it’s a very unique place in America. I’ll find out if it lives up to my imagination.
Vampire Weekend performs with the Harlem Shakes Monday, June 9th, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave.; 305-673-7300