The final piece in a trilogy of sorts that started with the group’s XL debut Vampire Weekend (2008), it sees the group relocating – temporarily, at least – from New York to Los Angeles, and honing in some of the more complicated instrumentation of their last album Contra (2010). FACT sat down with the group’s Ezra Koenig and Chris Thomson to talk about modern vampires, reggae and “dealing with the different questions that pop into your mind when you’re 28 rather than 22.”
You’ve billed the record as the final part, or culmination, of a trilogy. How would you describe the narrative arc of that trilogy?
Ezra Koenig: There’s a few sides to it. In some weird way, even from the beginning, we always had this feeling that the first three albums would feel like a unit. I guess there were boring reasons for that, like the fact that we signed a three-album deal with XL [laughs], that type of thing.
When you’re making something, it can be really hard to have perspective on it; but now that we’ve got a tiny bit of perspective, having just finished it, I can see it does have an arc, one that came about naturally. It’s something that you see in a lot of books and movies, I guess. I see the first album as this kind of ‘school days’ type thing, because obviously that’s the mileu in which we made it, and it had this very kind of local vibe, just in terms of the references and where I saw it as taking place…It had these campus references – there’s literally a song called ‘Campus’ – a lot about New England and Cape Cod, it’s this very specific East Coast thing.
And then the second album…I guess it broadened very suddenly, in the same way that our own lives did. Finishing school, getting jobs, and then doing this. And then the third album feels like a return, with maybe a new perspective, to some of the same territory. And maybe starting to deal with the different questions that pop into your mind when you’re 28 rather than 22.
So I do see it as this natural ‘there and back again’ kind of thing. I think that’s one of the reasons that a lot of things are in trilogies: because you start with an idea, then you expand or challenge it, and then there’s this kind of synthesis at the end. That’s how I see it. And I think thematically there are a lot of the same people and ideas in all three albums, but the mood shifts between the three of them.
Chris Thomson: When we made the first record, we were all playing secondary instruments. We were all more fluent on a different instrument, in my case guitar. And so we were trying to figure out parts that we could play, things that fit very well but were maybe not so technical. But on the second album we had more stuff like that, on a song like ‘Cousins’, for instance – I think you can tell that we’ve grown into our instruments more. And I think on this third album, because we were feeling comfortable with the instruments, we felt comfortable pulling back a little bit, and playing a simple part that we might not have deemed exciting enough on the first or second record. Just playing something really simple that worked for the song.
With the first record, we came up with the songs and the arrangements for parties and gigs we were playing. But when we did Contra there were different approaches and ideas, and the same with this album too – if Rostam [Batmanglij] came up with an arrangement, there was no consideration of whether or not it would be tough to play live. We just wanted to make the recordings what they are, because they exist in their own right, and have their own life. We’re now in the process of trying to re-translate that back for four people playing instruments on stage. So far it’s going decently, and we’re about to lock ourselves away and really get it nailed before heading out on tour.
You recorded the album in Los Angeles; how, if at all, did being there impact on the sound or mood of the thing?
EK: Not in any obvious way. I find the distinctions that people draw between New York and LA are largely superficial, or self-serving depending on which city you’re from. Whereas the reality is that the two cities have more in common with each other than any two cities in the world.
My feeling with LA is that it was a good place for us personally to focus. Because New York’s our hometown, and at times it felt difficult to really hunker down, just because there are so many distractions. LA there were less distractions without it being like a monastery or anything. So it helped us, just on a very practical level, to finish the record.
Speaking personally, being in LA makes me think more about New York – just because I’m not there. Even right before we started making the record I lived in LA for four months, and that was coming off a year of intense touring, a long time during which I didn’t have an apartment, and I felt kinda rootless. So I thought, who cares about New York, I’ll just live in LA for a while. But it really made me realise how much I love New York. And I totally appreciate LA but at I felt like I was in this weird kind of dead space – maybe because of the weather, maybe just because I missed things. So in that way too it perhaps helped to crystallise certain feelings or ideas that were attractive, and on this record they tend to be a little more New York-centric.
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So you feel it it’s a New York album?
EK: I mean, I do think it feels like a New York album. There’s something funny about the way that translates…because that’s where we’re from. I have my own very specific feelings and references when it comes to the city, that’s where I was born, and then I grew up in the suburbs, it’s where my parents are from, where I went to school. So I have a million specific takes on it. So to say it’s a New York album feels…reductive. But that is where it’s centered. Even the last album had songs that were totally about experiences in New York – the song ‘White Sky’ literally takes place in a very specific 10-block radius in Midtown. But the album on the whole still had this very broad, international scope to me. And this one definitely feels centered. Of course there are moments in any record where things go further afield or swirl around, but there’s always got to be a centre I think.
Who are the Modern Vampires of the City?
EK: Well, it’s inspired by the opening lyrics of that Junior Reid song, which I always loved, and which clearly a lot of people love. I’ve always liked the message of that song, which is kind of about unity. But then at some point I started hearing those lyrics in a different context and I liked the idea of decontextualising them, so yeah, Modern Vampires Of The City does sound like it’s describing a certain type of person…but I wouldn’t be too quick to say it’s a very specific person, I think we all have these tendencies towards selfishness…
‘Vampire’ is a really reggae word… when we were working on the album I made myself a playlist of all my favourite reggae songs that had the word on them, and also ‘Babylon’, sometimes both. And it was so long, there’s so many of them. There’s a Peter Tosh B-side called ‘Vampire’, that was supposed to be on Equal Rights. It’s great, it opens with kind of a wolf howling – which is close to my heart, because when I made the Vampire Weekend movie it was all werewolf masks. And there’s the Bob Marley song, “Babylon system is the vampire…”, that’s a great song.
Maybe because we’re called Vampire Weekend, I always like situations in which ‘vampire’ is somewhat liberated from a very specific meaning. Because it’s a word we have to live with our whole lives [laughs]. So it’s nice when it’s liberated from, I don’t know, Twilight or something; it can be such a deep metaphor and it’s nice when it’s not literal.
Our records are often about trying to judge people and situations and look at our own greed and corruption, so I wouldn’t want people to think it’s just about us dissing these ‘modern vampires’. I like things where the line’s blurred – so sure, the Modern Vampires Of The City might be these greedy, self-interested people, but it also could be that we’re the Modern Vampires Of The City. It’s all in there.
You recorded the album at [the legendary] Vox Studios in LA. Was that in any way an influence or an eye-opener? Did it enrich or affect the sound of the record itself?
EK: I certainly think so. Even months before we went there, there was a general feeling that this record was going to be in some way about the interplay between old and new. Which is something that you can probably say about every record, it sounds really boring, but it’s true [laughs]. On our last album we really didn’t give a fuck; we’d made one album, a relatively simple album, and the second album it was us opening the floodgates and doing what we wanted, jamming a song with synths and drum machines, making it really complicated, making the songs really long. Those things were really attractive to us because we had this freedom and we also felt like we had this overflow of ideas that we were ready to deal with.
Having done that, on this album there was something very nice and attractive about revisiting organic sounds and simple sounds – the classic American songwriting things. Things that in the past we found way too boring to even touch but suddenly…For instance the first track, ‘Obvious Bicycle’, that all started with a beat that Rostam sent me years ago, and I listened to it from time to time before I wrote anything on top of it. And there was something about the phrasing of the chords – there was this really pretty gospel phrasing, very simple, very American-sounding. Something that on the first or second album perhaps I wouldn’t have found so attractive, and Rostam might not even have written.
But then of course we still drive ourselves crazy making sure that the finished recording is something that we find exciting. So there was naturally this tension between a desire for simplicity, for something classic, and doing something fresh. Going into the studio there was definitely a possibility to just make something that sounded old – record on an old drumkit, on an old tape machine, using old-ass tape, and you’re gonna get that. So that was part of the puzzle. But then taking those sesisons, fucking with them further – that ended up being just another tool for us, another colour in the palette. One of my favourite songs is ‘Everlasting Arms’ and if you listen to what’s going on in that song – Chris recorded drums at Vox, great performance, with a good classic drum sound, and there’s all this hiss because it’s recorded to tape. And then you hear what Rostam does on that song, it somehow makes it sound modern to me, giving it this pulse, this pump that’s associated with dance music, which was the goal. So it’s like you’re hearing this old sound, this hiss, then you’re suddenly hearing something that’s fresh and alive, it’s not just like a recording from the 60s. So for the producers and for Rostam in particular that was a challenge, but it all came together in a way that felt right. I mean, it’s easy to say on paper – let’s do a mix of old and new, everbody likes old shit, but they don’t like it to be too old, so let’s put it together with new shit [laughs]…but to actually do it, that was the challenge, that was the journey of this album.
Tell us about the cover art.
EK: Well the picture on the cover, that was something Rostam found on the internet and showed to us, and we all liked it. Then there’s a bit of an interplay, obviously, between the album title and the picture…
CT: The title pre-dates the picture.
EK: Right, the title pre-dates the picture, and I’d long been a proponent of the title but it did take a little bit of convincing for everyone else – which I totally understand, because if you just say it out loud, with no context for it, it sounds like a bizarre title, and I understood that for everybody to believe in it, it would have to be earned. And I think when Rostam found the picture, it recontextualised the title for him. I remember when we were working on the Modern Vampires of the City font, because we’ve used the same font on everything before and this is the first time we’ve done something a little different; and when we were backstage somewhere Rostam laid it out and showed it to Baio and said, do you like it? And he said yeah, and it makes me like the title better too. It’s funny how that stuff works. A title is not inherently good or bad, it’s not a fixed thing. It depends – how does the title work with the cover, how does it work with the name of your band, how does it work with the music that’s on the album? So it was cool how the cover helped tie everything together, and kind of put a stamp on a mood that the record was already taking.
I made the mistake in early interviews of saying that the album was “darker” than our previous stuff. I mean, there are parts of the album that are darker, but there are parts that are just different, parts that are more mysterious, parts that are maybe grander… there are a lot of different words I could use to describe it. That’s why the cover picture worked for me – when Rostam showed it to me, I knew why it had caught his eye; it had a little bit of that darkness, that mysteriousness, that grandeur, but also something of the mundane. The city. The city that we live in, the city that our band started and the city that some of these songs specifically take place in. It’s all in that single image.
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