Vampire Weekend: It Came From Africa
When the sun goes down,
Vampire Weekend have the hunger for the blood of fresh nubile young...
No. These guys reach beyond the shores of the USA for musical influences. These Four Lads Are Not Goth. They Make Sunny Indie Pop You Can Listen to With Your Mom.
By Scott Wood
It is a sunny but blustery day when I get the word I will be chatting with Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Baio from Vampire Weekend. Of course, I am psyched!
Anyone who doesn’t already know the band is probably imagining long dyed black hair, thick combat boots, piercings and tortured songs about the full moon and undying love. This could not be farther from the truth.
Vampire Weekend create sunny songs recalling Paul Simon in his Graceland era. (Their misleading name comes from a student film made by lead singer Erza Koening, which featured him fighting off vampires in scary masks.) Because of their music’s unabashed buoyancy and playfulness, Vampire Weekend have become intensely popular very quickly.Vampire Weekend's Rostam on the band's "Upper West Side Soweto" sound: "Instead of a bio, we had a list of genres we made up. 'Upper West Side Soweto' was one of them... But 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa' was also another genre. 'Campus Oxford Comma Riddum'-these are all genres. We thought it would be fun to claim these kind of genres as things that we specialized in. And somehow the press got carried away with 'Upper West Side Soweto' and that became the only thing they wanted to talk about. So I don't think we would say that encapsulates our sound, but there's certainly reason why we wanted to claim to specialize in that made up genre.
It is warm enough so that the interview will be outside, in Yaletown’s Nelson Dog Park, but I still have to guard my notes or they will fly in the faces of latte-sipping dog walkers.
Rostam and Chris chill on a bench, squinting into the sun. They are dressed in scruffy yet functional clothes. Rostam wears a scarf, the short side falling over his chest and the long side down his back, and little touches like this give both of them the aspiring careerist look of most prestigious school grads. The band met while completing their degrees at Columbia, but Chris and Rostam immediately balk when I suggest that Columbia is “prestigious” or refer to it as an “Ivy League school.”
“Hold up!” Rostam jumps in, sounding like an eager debater. “What do you mean privileged? It was a privilege to go there certainly. But to call it ‘privileged’ is presumptuous and inaccurate.”
Scott Wood: “Is it?”
Rostam: “Very much so.”
Scott Wood with a smile: “How would you describe it?”
Rostam: “It was a very diverse school.”
Chris: “I think the connotations of ‘Ivy League’ don’t really apply to Columbia where you’re going to school in a city. I feel like Columbia has a lot more in common with other urban city universities as opposed to a place that is more sequestered, like Harvard or Yale. Me, I feel like I went to school in New York City more than an ‘Ivy League’ school. That’s how I identify with it.”
Chris graduated with a degree in Russian Regional Studies with a minor in Math. He had just accepted a job, teaching math, when he had to leave it to go on tour with the band. Rostam got his degree in Music. If Vampire Weekend had not happened, he says he would be temping and doing scores for film.
I decide to tease the band a bit more by asking them what is the most ‘highbrow’ conversation they have had spending all that time together in the tour bus.
Chris indulges the question: “You can get into this mundane routine, where you’re kinda happy with being bored in the tour van. Our drummer has been playing a lot of Tony Hawk lately. I just watch—I don’t even play. I just get mesmerized by this screen.
These four well-dressed lads from Columbia are just regular guys
who happen to be in an insanely popular indie rock band: Chris Tomson,
Ezra Koening, Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Baio.
Rostam: “I think all our conversations are thoroughly no brow.”
Scott Wood: “Ok, so you guys call your sound ‘Upper West Soweto’…”
“Wait!” Rostam cuts me off again. “I have to set the record straight on that too.
Chris laughing: “More record setting!”
Rostam: “Where that comes from… Instead of a bio, we had a list of genres we made up. ‘Upper West Side Soweto’ was one of them… But ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ was also another genre. ‘Campus Oxford Comma Riddum’—these are all genres. We thought it would be fun to claim these kind of genres as things that we specialized in. And somehow the press got carried away with ‘Upper West Side Soweto’ and that became the only thing they wanted to talk about. So I don’t think we would say that encapsulates our sound, but there’s certainly reason why we wanted to claim to specialize in that made up genre.”
Scott Wood: “Incorporating World Music styles has certainly made your brand of indie rock exciting. Why did you decide to go in that direction?”
Rostam struggles for words (for once): “Uhm… I think we were just genuinely interested and inspired by being able to play instruments that are simple, like a guitar, drums, bass, keyboards… You find those music in African pop music but they’re not doing what Nickelback is doing with those same instruments.”
Rostam is stumbling and Chris is silent for a reason. We are trying to avoid the elephant in the room. How does the world feel about four well-dressed American lads from an Ivy League school playing African-influenced indie rock? Is this a case of Imperialism? Or is this just a case of the world getting smaller and musicians reaching farther than the shores of Cape Cod for inspiration?
Given the popularity of Vampire Weekend, no one seems to care.Vampire Weekend's Rostam on Missy Elliot's "Work It" I remember listening to it. This song is so awesome and so weird! And it was a hit. You don't hear that in rock music anymore. There's no weird pop songs being made in rock, it feels like. In a way, it seems like rock music has been so uninspired recently-especially what's been made in the mainstream.
The only criticism Vampire Weekend have had to face is for starting what critics now see as an inevitable trend of ‘Passport Rock.’ The term was created to mock Westerners who go traveling to Third World countries and then return to North American audiences with ‘new sounds.’ Imagine an oil baron’s daughter coming home with an acoustic guitar and telling her audience, “I’ve gone to Vietnam and picked up this cool goat herder music.”
Rostam: “That [criticism] doesn’t really apply to us because none of us has been to Africa.”
Chris: “I can understand why there’s that criticism. But, for us, using an African influence is just part of a bigger whole, which is pop songs basically. We have a ton of influences. People focus more strongly on that one, for whatever reason. It’s not like we’re gonna spend two weeks in Africa and then just copy something we hear there and bring it to an American audience. For us, we’re doing our own thing where one element is from another part of the world. I don’t think that criticism applies to us.”
Although the African influence is obvious to anyone who hears a Vampire Weekend track, the band also draws on other forms of music. “Oxford Comma” namechecks Lil’ John, Atlanta’s King of Crunk—and this is only the beginning of the band’s love for hip hop. Back in college, Vampire Weekend’s lead singer Ezra Koening fronted a hip hop group called L’homme Run.
Chris: “I saw L’homme Run a bunch. I was actually the only member of Vampire Weekend not involved that. CT [Vampire Weekend’s drummer] would play drums and guitar and base and be like the backing instrumentals, and Rostam produced it. Those were really fun shows. I liked going to them a lot.”
Scott Wood: “What was the rapping like?”
Chris: “There was a sense of humour to it. There were really strong hooks. I think you can see some similarities—even if it’s a different style that we’re working in now—between that and Vampire Weekend.”
Scott Wood gets sly with Rostam: “Do you need to set the record straight?”
Rostam chuckles: “It was a lot of fun. I think Ezra would claim that, although the intention was to have a sense of humour, it was unironic. So, that’s an interesting stance on it.”
Scott Wood: “I was thinking about this the other day… Most ‘rock’ musicians will cite other rock music as influences, but, if you think about it, most people our age were just as if not more influenced by hip hop. They just don’t talk about it.”
Rostam: “That’s definitely true. Hip hop, from a production standpoint, has been so much more interesting. Ah! I remember hearing that Missy Eliot song. I can’t remember what it’s called… I think it’s the one with the backwards [he tries to sound like sped up Missy] ‘It’s your flipper dipper flam yeah flippa!’”
Chris mumbles the same verse: “Oh yeah! “Work it?””
Rostam: “I remember listening to it. This song is so awesome and so… weird! And it was a hit. You don’t hear that in rock music anymore. There’s no weird pop songs being made in rock, it feels like. In a way, it seems like rock music has been so uninspired recently—especially what’s been made in the mainstream. I think hip hop and R&B is much more inspired. I think had to do with people our age hearing it so much and getting so into it when we were younger.”
I tell the guys about an interview with them I read where the interviewer got them started talking about hip hop and they were so enthusiastic they wouldn’t stop. The interviewer ran out of tape and he was glad, making it seem like he thought like hip hop wasn’t worth talking about in the same breath as indie rock.
Chris: “That’s kind of a snobbish way to look at it. I’m not gonna rank genres. Hip hop is great.”
Scott Wood: “It could be perceived that you guys gave up hip hop to make Vampire Weekend’s indie pop…”
Rostam: “That’s not exactly true… I wrote a lot of chamber music in college. Did I give up chamber music to write rock music? Certainly not! If you listen to our album, you can hear elements of chamber music—and hopefully you can hear elements of hip hop and R&B in our production. What we’re more about is not setting something aside, but trying to be inclusive of every music we love.”
Tune in to the interview show with host Scott Wood, every Monday @4:30pm on CJSF 90.1FM www.cjsf.ca for more interviews with your favorite indie acts. You can also listen to new and old shows at www.winniecooper.net.