Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend: The gloves are off
For a guy who sings with a band whose last two albums went to No. 1, Ezra Koenig is comfortably anonymous in his neighborhood. Walking from his Lower East Side apartment to a nearby café, only one passerby seems to slip into an “I know that guy from somewhere” expression. Koenig orders a cafe Americano and talks about the crossroads he and the rest of Vampire Weekend were at before releasing their critically acclaimed “Modern Vampires of the City” album in May.
The new album is — I hesitate to say this — more mature. Was it a goal to have it be more mature? That always seems to have a negative connotation in music.
Well, for me it was kind of an anti-goal. I was scared of making music that was too mature. And not because I think that there’s anything wrong with your tastes changing or your outlook changing as you get older, but the idea of making a mature album connotes all kinds of whack things to me. There are just very few people that I think have gotten more mature and better, so it’s almost like you don’t want to think about maturity or anything like that. You just want to keep doing what you’re doing.
Sometimes we had to fight to find the middle ground. At least one of my favorite songs that we worked on in the recording process was another kind of slow piano ballad, and it was cool and it had a lot going for it, but if that had been on the album it would have been one too many slow songs. … And it’s not because I don’t enjoy slow songs, but you have to challenge yourself to find the energy and excitement. You can express the same idea in a number of different ways. And I think a great album has variety anyways. I think we had to make sure there were still some punky, energetic songs on there.
It definitely does feel like an album, in the sense that there’s a cohesive running order, the songs segue into one another smoothly, and there are a lot of recurring themes. In this day of the $1.29 single, how important is it to you to have a full album that makes a statement?
That’s just the way that I think. My whole life, I’ve always thought in terms of albums, even though I love singles and I don’t necessarily value the album art form over a career of great singles. There’s plenty of people that I put in the singles category who are no worse than people who make great albums. But for me, personally, even when I was a kid, in bands in high school, we always used to make albums, even though we were a little bit unprepared to do so.
I was hanging out with a friend of mine from high school and we were talking about our band’s discography [laughs] and I realized that we had made three distinct albums. We finished them, put the songs together, burned like 100 CDs, and sold them at our shows, gave them to friends and made album art. Because we like making albums.
So maybe it is just a vestigial quirk, but a lot of the way that I think about lyrics is album oriented too. There have to be connections between them, and I think Rostam thinks about things in the same way in terms of music. We try to have there be something cohesive happening, at least for these first three albums.
It’s interesting that you chose a producer who is known for producing hit singles, with Ariel Rechtshaid having produced “Hey There Delilah” for Plain White T’s and “Climax” for Usher.
He has produced Cass McCombs albums too! It’s good to have your feet in both worlds. I’ll admit as a listener, I probably listen more to singles than full albums, but maybe that’s because I’m hard to please. I haven’t been that impressed in a while. But a great album has to have songs that you can take out and take away.
On a great album, every song could be somebody’s favorite song. And they might think that one song is not really for them, but another song could be, and it becomes a “single” for them. I know in our band and a lot of bands I grew up liking, a lot of the favorite songs are singles. We’ve had singles that are very different from some of the deeper cuts on the album. It makes the band more interesting to have those different sides.
When you signed up to be Metro’s special guest, we had brainstormed a Style component, where we itemized each component of your outfit, but you guys didn’t seem to like that idea. Why not?
I like talking about style, conceptually, but when I have to talk about what I’m wearing, I feel embarrassed. I don’t know why I look at it so differently. I don’t think there’s anything lightweight or frivolous about fashion or style, but CT and I went to the VMAs the other week and occasionally people would stop and say, “What are you wearing?” and I just wanted to be like, “A suit.” But if we could do something on Ralph…
Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx.
AKA Ralph Lauren…
OK, so I don’t follow fashion that closely. Is Ralph Lauren a designer you’re really into?
I used to be a little bit more, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the brand and the fun of the made-up world that they put together. Somebody was telling me that somebody they knew was writing a book about all of these people that came from the Bronx in the same era. It’s interesting to me because that’s where my dad’s side of the family is from and where my dad grew up. Ralph Lauren and this guy Mickey Drexler, who now runs J. Crew and who had previously kind of saved the Gap and is sort of a fashion/business icon. Even Calvin Klein is from the Bronx.
What’s interesting about the Bronx being next to Manhattan is that there’s some kind of power being just outside of where the action’s happening. I feel somewhat similar being from New Jersey, although the Bronx is a different vibe and is different socioeconomically. If you look at all of these people that came from the Bronx, and hip-hop came from the Bronx, Manhattan is more the center of activity, but as far as people who come out of it the Bronx probably has it beat.
Sense of place has always been an important part of the Vampire Weekend aesthetic. In this album you mention so many different places — Phoenix, Providence, Los Angeles, etc. — but as a whole this album seems to be the first one to be dedicated to New York City.
All of our albums have had some New York references, but this is the first one that I truly thought of as being set in New York. I mean, when you live in New York, obviously that’s going to always be a sort of home base, but yeah, the first album was very much New England. In some ways you could consider New York to be an honorary part of New England, because I feel like once you get past New York, New England is totally done. But this is the first one where I thought of New York as truly being the center of it.
In our band we’ve always talked a lot about vibe, which is not unique to us, because music is often hard to describe so you often have to talk in terms of vibe. Sometimes you have to be like, “Meh, the vibe is wrong,” or “We’re going for this kind of vibe,” but a vibe is really a vague set of ideas that somehow create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and to me that’s why places are so useful in terms of thinking about albums. Because that’s what a place is! New York has a vibe, Boston has a vibe, London has a vibe, but what is a city? It’s a mishmash of different people, most of whom don’t even talk to each other, different neighborhoods that sometimes don’t even cross paths and different places, but somehow we still feel like there is something bigger.
Do you make sure when you namecheck a city that you do have experience there?
It depends on the song. Like on the first album, all of the Cape Cod places that I namechecked were places that I actually had been, albeit somewhat briefly. But like on the song “Step” on this album, there is a lot of namechecking, and I’ve never been to someplace like Dar es Salaam, but part of that song is about somebody who in the beginning is talking about how they were going all of these different places, but really back at home is where they really have to figure things out.
That song “Step” is also the one where you sing the line about a modest mouse. The last time you dropped a recording artist’s name — Peter Gabriel in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” — he ended up covering the song. Were you hoping that Modest Mouse might do the same with this?
That would be exciting, if they wanted to.
In the video, the phrase is not in title case. Does the lyric really have anything to do with the band Modest Mouse?
Not really. I saw some kids on Twitter and YouTube debating, “Is that a reference to the band or is that a reference to Virginia Woolf?” Because that’s where they got their name, from a phrase that she used. But to me — and this is hard to describe without sounding too highfalutin — basically that whole song, “Step,” can sometimes give the impression of being a bunch of random words and phrases put together, which I think at times people have accused Vampire Weekend lyrics of being something like that, just random s— put together, but to me that song is kind of using that randomness, but still actually telling a story.
It’s kind of like a conversation between two people and rather than somebody saying, “Oh, you’re talking yourself up” or “You’re being immodest,” they would say it in a referencey way and call somebody a modest mouse, perhaps sarcastically. It’s referencey because of the band and because the band’s name is a reference too. It’s certainly no kind of a commentary or reference to their music, but it’s just the idea of somebody calling a modest mouse.
The lyrics that you sing most in that song almost seem like an apt description of where Vampire Weekend are in 2013, “the gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out.”
Yeah, to me that’s just a highfalutin referencey way to describe growing up. Even in that part about the modest mouse thing, the line before that, there’s a reference to a Jandek album.
That’s funny. I got that reference, but then thought, “No, they can’t be referencing that!” And I just assumed “ready for the house” was some poker or gambling term or something that I wasn’t familiar with.
It just seemed funny to me to tell a story or show a conversation that’s totally made out of references, because it can be meaningful. I’m definitely not trying to make any connection between Jandek and Modest Mouse. A conversation like that can feel random, but to me that song makes more sense than almost any song I’ve ever done.
If we can backtrack a little, I don’t think we quite exhausted the style discussion. When Vampire Weekend first came out, a lot of people were paying attention to your style. How much consideration went into that? Was it a conscious thing or was it you guys just wearing onstage what you were wearing anyway?
It was both. My tastes had already leaned toward the preppy side, but in a somewhat detached way. It’s not like I grew up dressing that way exactly. But by the time I got to college I got more interested in wearing boat shoes and finding old Lacoste shirts at thrift stores, and for me it was very much tied up with the music and with the ideas in the music and the idea of having a preppy band just seemed funny and fun. So when people talked about it, it wasn’t surprising. Even in the songs there are references to clothes, and it’s very much tied into the fabric — no pun intended — of that first album and those early songs.
What surprised me was the people didn’t have the same sense of humor towards it as I did. Sometimes I’d wear fairly extreme things. I used to have this yellow Polo sweater with dogs on it, which to me is so funny and insane that it surprised me that anybody would see somebody wearing something like that and be like, “These guys are like prep school villains.” So that was surprising that not everybody got in on the joke, but as you get older, you realize that not everybody is going to have the same super-specific sense of humor towards these things. It’s complicated. It’s not that I find preppy clothing or preppiness despicable and it’s a big joke, nor do I find it totally natural.
I think the backlash probably had to do with the fact that never before had a preppy band really existed. Rock ‘n’ roll is not traditionally the domain of this type of person.
I’ve said this a few times before in interviews, but if you look at the way people dress now— and I’m not saying that we were the cause of it, but we were just in the right place at the right time, when things were changing — but definitely people who would have previously looked at boat shoes and button-down shirts as being some uptight way of dressing, that now seems like a very normal, neutral way for a hipster/yuppie/normal dude to dress. All of these things are just signifiers and at the time, these were just interesting signifiers to play with. Now, they’re not quite as interesting. They used to mean a lot more. They used to get people hot underneath the collar.
Hot underneath the popped collar!
Exactly! But now nobody’s going to care. That’s how everything works though. Things mean something and then they settle down and don’t mean anything anymore.
It feels like your band has grown out of things in a similar way. A song about an Oxford comma or walking across campus just wouldn’t fit on the “Modern Vampires of the City” album. Conversely, it would have been weird if you were singing about mortality as much as you do now on the first album.
For me, personally, on a basic level, I probably have become a bit more melancholy at this phase of my life than I was when I was 21. But I think it’s natural. When we made our first album, and when those first songs were written — and maybe this is why people connected to it — that album clearly gave off a collegiate vibe. Everything about it gives that aura, and that’s how old we were when those songs were written.
In the very early days, right around the time that I started writing “Oxford Comma” and Rostam started writing “Campus,” that was all there. Like anybody, whether you’re in college or in your early 20s, doing whatever, there’s a sense that it’s an eternal springtime. And that’s also true for a band that’s making their first album. So we had that threefold: A bunch of young cats, fresh out of college, suddenly people have interest in our band! That atmosphere was in the air. And then when you do something a second time it’s still exciting, and you’re building and you start to get to the third time, and unless you’re a total craven careerist, you’re going to pause a little bit and be like, “OK, so we’re doing this for a third time. We’re now five or six years older than when we started. Is this just a job? Are we just banging out products of varying degrees of quality, based on an initial template? Or are we trying to do something different?” So that right there is an introspective question.
You don’t have to ask yourself too much like, “Who am I? Who are we?” on your first two albums, because a good band usually starts and a bunch of ideas are there and you’re excited. But if we had made “Contra” Part Two it wouldn’t have worked. When “Contra” came out, to me it seemed very different from the first album, but in some ways the first album is like A and the second album is like A Prime. It’s like a lot of the same ideas taken to a new level. This album does feel a little different. And those first two were a little closer together in time, so that’s naturally going to feel a little different. But if we had made another album that was too close to the first two, I think the fans probably would have been a little bored and we would have been a little bored.
You have to become a little bit more introspective to figure out why you should keep being a band. If your first batch of ideas run out of steam a little bit, you have to stop and ask what it means to be a band or a songwriter. Because it’s very easy to succumb to the pressure of just feeling like, “Time to make an album…” Sometimes that could produce something that’s good and casual and quick, but that wouldn’t have worked for us this time. Maybe in the future. I don’t want to spend every three years of my life obsessing over this.
When you paused and asked yourselves if you were in this as a career, what was the answer you arrived at? I’ve read that you have said these three albums were like a trilogy. So that means a chapter has closed now. What is the next chapter?
I’m not sure. It’s a funny time when you work so hard on an album and then you finally finish it and then you’ve just got to go on tour and get into the drudgery of touring. It leaves you in a funny place. There are times when I think of some of the leftover stuff from this album; some of the stuff that stylistically wasn’t quite right or that we didn’t have time to finish, and I think, “Man, it’s going to be exciting to work on that stuff and to get back into it and work on the next album!”
And also this album has brought us to a place where it’s comforting to know that there are people who have been true fans of our band for six years now. And they’ve watched us change and make very different types of songs on different albums, so it’s comforting to know that there are people like that out there, because that makes you feel like as long as it’s good, you can kind of do whatever you want, whereas sometimes people’s fans can be a little bit more judgmental. I feel like we’re in a good place, creatively. The next album can be one of a million things. We don’t have to create a specific sound or anything like that.
And you have had the luxury of having experimented with so many different things like auto-tuning and pitch-shifting, so that if you experiment more, you know that those fans will have your back, right? I do seem to recall some outcry when there was auto-tune on the second album, but now that you’ve done that, it will be harder to make people say, “Where the hell did THIS come from?”
Certainly not. It’s like we want every song to be somebody’s favorite, and we want every album to be somebody’s favorite. And in some ways I feel like our greatest accomplishment is that we’ve made three albums of which large numbers of people consider each to be the best. What more could you ask for? That’s the hardest thing to pull off. Sometimes everybody likes the first album the best, a handful of people like the second album the best and nobody likes the third album the best. I was really happy to see in the response from fans, people were saying that this new album, people were saying, “This is my favorite album!” It’s not because I have a chip on my shoulder that’s like, “I want people to like this album more than the first two!” I just want there to exist people in the universe who could feel that way, because that makes me feel like we’re still earning their trust. We haven’t begun the coasting period yet.
And when does that begin?
I think the coasting period begins when you put out two consecutive albums that nobody thinks are your best. But people still come to your shows to hear the old shit and people are still kind of interested in you.
It’s interesting to hear you speak about the fans so much and how plugged into their opinions you are. From the music you make it wouldn’t seem like you were seeking approval.
Given how many people — critics and random people — hated on us when we first came out, we have to have a somewhat flexible relationship to what people think. [Laughs.] And definitely, the dream is to not give a f—. But as we see with many artists who claim to not give a f—, of course they do. Kanye is probably the greatest artist of our generation, and he’s always talking about how he doesn’t give a f—, but he’s also always talking about how he does give a f—. It’s two sides of the same coin. I would love to eventually get to a place where I could be so relaxed and be like, “As long as we think it’s good, nothing in the world matters.”
But that’s not exactly what this whole world of music that we participate in is about. As soon as you start releasing albums, you are out there promoting yourself and promoting your product. You can’t front and be like, “I just made this for me! Why is everybody giving it grades and writing about it and expressing their opinions about it?” You can’t say that. If you truly feel that way, then make music for yourself and get a day-job. So that’s what it is. That’s the bargain. As nice as it would be to not care what people think, we’re always going to care what people think, to some degree.
If you truly believe in and love pop music, the way that we do (and I’m considering ourselves pop music, and taking the broad view) and if you grew up obsessing about pop music and idolizing people like The Clash or Radiohead or Prince, who were able to have long careers in which they changed a lot, part of that is because in addition to following their own visions, they were also able to create things that mattered to people. I think that it’s really cool that The Clash came out and made this early punk album that had all this energy and got people talking, and then six or seven years later they made this dancey hip-hop song about the Middle East that was like a huge hit. I think it’s cool that at those two bookends of their career, they connected with people. It’s not just cool that they changed stylistically. It’s cool that they did it well and that they did it in a way that mattered to people.
I think to not care about what people think is in some ways not to participate in the grand tradition of pop music. It’s a nice fantasy to imagine that it wouldn’t matter. But if our fans totally rejected an album and nobody liked it, I would have to blame ourselves that we f—ed up, I think. When I look around at people who are very popular, like Drake, Kanye, The Weeknd (I’m just thinking of people that I saw at the VMAs) I think that the world isn’t stupid. Artists can take risks, do different shit and it can totally work. It’s not like the world is so conservative, you know I think you’d be kidding yourself if you tried to take solace in some outdated idea that people’s tastes are so conservative or reactionary that they just don’t get it.
But the thing about people “not getting it” is that it can be advantageous when it comes up for reconsideration 10 years later! You know, we talked about if a band makes two bad albums. What if they only make one bad album, but it’s not really that bad, but just ahead of its time?
That’s true. Although I have a feeling that with music from that past 10 years, you’re going to get a lot less things that totally slip through the cracks, just because of the way that music criticism and the Internet and the voices of the fans are heard now. There’s so many ways to move around the old-school music machine that it was a much more plausible scenario in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. Somebody releases an album now and the right people don’t hear it? That just doesn’t happen. Did you watch that Big Star movie?
Yeah, but the thing about them that I never knew before was that they really didn’t tour! I interviewed [Big Star drummer] Jody Stephens for that movie, and I was asking him about touring and he said aside from a few one-off gigs and strategically booked shows, they never really toured! The movie kind of glosses over that and that aspect seems conveniently left out of the Big Star legend when people consider this amazing band that was so tragically overlooked. But what you’re saying does seem to make sense. I mean, Nick Drake wouldn’t have fallen through the cracks if he’d had a MySpace page in 2007.
Right. And it doesn’t mean he would have been Bob Dylan, but he would have been able to tour, he would have had many fans, and Big Star is kind of the same in that way. But I don’t think that can happen today. There might be some great albums that nobody’s played for anybody though.
Is there even anybody that you’re privy to that you think could use more exposure?
Nobody comes to mind, but maybe that’s because I’ve been out on the road and I’m a little bit out of touch so I don’t know too many people who are just starting out. I do feel like a lot of stuff that gets released gets a fair shake. Usually, one way or another, an audience comes to it. … It is hard for me to think of anybody that is truly getting slept on.
I went on a drive last week and I was listening to the A$AP Ferg album. I thought there were some really great songs on it, I liked his vibe and I think it’s a well-crafted album. And then I saw it debuted in the top 10, and it’s his first album and I was like, “Well, that seems about right.” That’s cool that people are excited about that. … He’s part of the A$AP Mob and it has a lot in common, stylistically, with the A$AP Rocky stuff, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are actually on a track and there are other songs where he actually sings like Bone Thugs. And sometimes he gets into this crazy almost Jamaican patois thing. It’s just a very vibey album. He’s also got really consistent imagery throughout, like the album is called, “Trap Lord,” and there’s a song called “Hood Pope.” … I’d listened to plenty of A$AP Rocky, but I didn’t know too much about Ferg.
We spoke briefly about the themes of mortality on “Modern Vampires of the City,” but let’s discuss it a little more. Did somebody close to you die recently?
No, nobody close to me died, but some people close to me have started talking about death a lot more. Thankfully I have not suffered a major loss, but aging and the changes it brings about I feel like are somewhat prominent in my life, but in the way that it is for everybody. For me, mortality and the way we think about aging, dying and death is something that is such an obvious part of the human experience. At any part in your life, that can become a big concern or something that you think about, whether you think about it in a fearful, negative way or just in a philosophical way.
Some people, it happens when you’re 14. I think for me, it also has to do with what we were talking about with the first two albums being this rush of excitement and newness and then suddenly you just kind of pause. And maybe a little bit too much time to ruminate on meaning and purpose; stuff that’s probably better to just keep your head down and work. But that’s the only negative thing about not having a 9-to-5, is having a little too much time to think.
Vampire Weekend kick off their tour at the Mann Center for Performing Arts in Philly on Sept. 19. They play the Barclays Center in Brooklyn the next night on Sept. 20.