Vampire Weekend talk politics, rapping and Justin Bieber
By Ellie Davis
Vampire Weekend has London’s art deco Troxy theatre packed to the rafters for the unveiling of their new album, Modern Vampires of the City.
It has been more than two years since the band played in the UK – when they sold out two nights at the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace – and their fans are itching to hear the band’s signature preppy pop hits.
“Just do what you want for this one,” shouts lead singer Ezra Koenig as he bursts into the first frenzied chords of their 2008 hit A Punk. The crowd go wild.
It has been five years since Vampire Weekend released their first album, a catchy collection of Afro-inspired tunes that led the Brooklyn hipster music scene’s charge into the mainstream.
But the band, who are getting ready to release their third record, are keen to show they have matured in personality and sound.
“There’s something about the first album being a happy-go-lucky record about school days,” Koenig reflects.
“The second album [2009’s Contra] had references to seeing the whole world – a bigger universe that was a little bit more complicated.
“With this third record it feels like a return, with new information. It feels like a trilogy,” Koenig adds contemplatively.
The literary references are unsurprising for a group that formed while studying at New York’s prestigious Columbia University. But the band say they are now in a “different world”.
“We are the same people, but we’re older with new concerns,” Koenig says.
In the chorus of the harmonious Unbelievers, he sings: “I’m not excited but should I be? Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?”
“George Bush was president when our first album came out,” he laughs. “Isn’t that crazy to think?
“I find American politics mostly just stresses me out,” he says. “But this record – more than any of the others – hopefully reflects our feelings about the country and the city that we live in.”
The band pay homage to their native New York on the album cover, which features a foggy photo of the skyline taken in 1966 by photographer Neal Boenzi for the New York Times.
The image brought the name of the album to life for Koenig, who used the opening line from Junior Reid’s reggae song One Blood.
“Modern vampires of the city, hunting blood, blood, bloo-ooo-ooo-od,” sings the Jamaican dancehall musician.
“I liked the two ways of looking at blood,” says Koenig. “Blood as being the life force vampires are going to suck, but also the unifying factor.”
The band, who describe themselves as “massive music fans”, cite everything from John Lennon to gospel music as influences on the album.
“A lot of the time we are coming back to things we already know, but finding new ways to be excited about a sound or an instrument,” says Koenig.
Manipulating musical genres and sound effects, the album is a mash-up of choral harmonies, driving beats and synthesised vocals.
These are mixed with sounds of trains rumbling past the flat where they recorded some of the vocals.
“We don’t hold anything sacred,” says Koenig, who sings higher, lower and faster than ever on the new record.
“When our band started I didn’t have a ton of experience as a singer, but I felt like a singer in myself,” he continues.
“I’ve tried a lot as a singer to test the boundaries of my abilities.”
Koenig, whose vocals on Worship You sound unnaturally fast, insists he could “speed rap with the best of them”.
But this experimentation came with its own issues. Indeed, drummer Chris Tomson admits that some of the parts are “impossible to play with two hands”.
“We make the record first and then figure out how to play it live,” he says laughing.
Guitarist and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, who produced the band’s first two albums, enlisted the help of his long-time friend Ariel Rechtshaid to bring the pieces of the album together.
According to Koenig the Californian producer, who has worked with R&B singer Usher and Canadian superstar Justin Bieber, felt like an “extra member of the band”.
“He’s very adaptable,” says the Vampire Weekend frontman. “If you look at the stuff he’s worked on, it’s very obvious that he knows how to integrate himself with the artist.”
The band, who “listen to pop radio as much as anything else”, were comfortable with a producer who “shares all the same references as us,” Koenig says.
So did any Bieber influences creep into the record? “I was a ‘Belieber’ early,” says Tomson.
“I was into him when he was a sweet kid – I loved his video for One Time.”
“But he ‘beliebs’ his own hype now,” Koenig interjects.
The self-effacing lead singer feels relieved he does not get the same level of recognition as Bieber or his fellow pop powerhouse Rihanna.
“The people who come up to us on the street are almost always fans,” he says. “We exist in a really great middle ground.
“Large numbers of people want to see us, and yet we still maintain a sense of intimacy in our gigs.”
That said, Koenig clearly feels the pressure to keep up with the pace of the ever-changing music industry.
“Making an album you really deeply feel connected to, you’re really proud of and you really believe in is all encompassing,” he says.
“Either I’ll learn how to handle it, or I’ll retire. I couldn’t keep this pace up forever.”
Modern Vampires of the City is released on 13 May.