Vampire Weekend: New Sounds Signal The End Of An Era

May 14, 2013
Originally published on May 14, 2013 4:17 pm

Vampire Weekend's third album, Modern Vampires of the City, is out today. The band, featuring four classmates from Columbia University, emerged in 2008 and made a big splash with its bubbling rhythms, world-music influences and highbrow lyrics about mansard roofs and Oxford commas. Singer Ezra Koenig says those few things quickly dominated critical discussion of the group.

"When you start your band, and you come out and people start writing about you, you're known for very specific things," Koenig says. "We were, essentially, the 'preppy African guitar band.' "

According to Koenig, the band sees the new album as the final part of a trilogy. Here, he tells NPR's Melissa Block why that's a liberating thought — and explains some of the stranger sounds Vampire Weekend is exploring this time around.


Interview Highlights

On how the band was pegged early on

"You know, it's understandable. And we certainly didn't shy away from those things. But every time you make a new record, you have to ask yourself, 'Is that truly the essence of Vampire Weekend?' Now, we kind of feel like we're free from any specific sounds or ideas — that our approach to songwriting, and our approach to making music, we can take to new places."

On the album's themes of aging and the passage of time

"When we got off the road after touring, there was this kind of strange feeling. And I think anybody who's ever gone on tour, or had any kind of job where you leave home and you're on the road a lot — there's a feeling that when you get home, suddenly, this momentum ends. And your conception of time really does change; it feels different. Coming off the road and having all this free time, I think, naturally, I started to become more reflective."

On the song 'Diane Young' and its weird vocal effect

"That's called 'formant shifting.' It's almost like an approximation of the way that your vocal cords would sound at different ages, you know, depending on the size. ... We thought it sounded so crazy; we loved it. It kind of kicked the energy up a notch on the song. And I also kind of felt like, this song that's about the pros and cons of dying young and living long — there was something just perfect about hearing these baby voices going down into this weird old-man voice."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The band Vampire Weekend is out with its third album, titled "Modern Vampires of the City."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA HEY")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) Oh, sweet thing, Zion doesn't love you, Babylon don't love you, but you love everything.

BLOCK: Vampire Weekend made its debut in 2008, four classmates from Columbia University, and they made a big splash with their bubbling rhythms, world music influences and highbrow lyrics about mansard roofs and Oxford commas. The band sees album number three as the final part of a trilogy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA HEY")

WEEKEND: (Singing) Through the fire and through the flames, ya hey, ya hey, what do you, eh, ya hey, ya hey.

BLOCK: Vampire Weekend's lead singer Ezra Koenig told me finishing that trilogy feels liberating.

EZRA KOENIG: When you start your band and you come out and people start writing about you, you're known for very specific things. So when we first came out, journalists would tend to focus on the fact that we kind of referenced African guitar pop in our music, so we're kind of known for the, you know, high clean African guitar sound. They also talked about the fact that, you know, we dress preppy, so we're essentially the preppy African guitar band. You know, it's understandable, and we certainly didn't shy away from those things.

But every time you make a new record, you have to ask yourself: Is that truly the essence of Vampire Weekend? Now, we kind of feel like we're free from any specific sounds or ideas that our approach to songwriting and our approach to making music, we can take to new places.

BLOCK: Let's listen to the song "Worship You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORSHIP YOU")

WEEKEND: (Singing) Only in the way you want it, only on the day you want it, only with your understanding and every single day you want it, only in the way you want it, only on the day you want it, only with your understanding and every single day you want it you, you.

BLOCK: And, Ezra Koenig, I hear you take a breath in there, but I'm not sure how you get all these words out without tripping over yourself. Are you doing this completely unassisted with digital...

KOENIG: Well, we always...

BLOCK: ...or computer wizardry?

KOENIG: I mean, we always comp vocals because if we - if one bit from one take sounds better than another, we'll put them together where you compile the best bits of every take. And sometimes you're lucky, and you don't really need to do that. But it's the type of tool that it kind of feels like foolish to avoid.

BLOCK: So if I were to say to you, Ezra, sing along with this song right now...

KOENIG: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...could you do it?

KOENIG: Well, the truth is I haven't sung this song in a very long time because we haven't been playing it live yet, but I can (unintelligible) it.

BLOCK: So it'd be an unfair test, though, if I were to put you on the spot and say: Ezra, try, try (unintelligible).

KOENIG: I can do like the basic part.

(Singing) Only in the way you want it, only on the day you want it, only with your understanding and every single day you want it, only in the way you want it, only on the day you want it, only with your understanding and every single day you want it you, you.

So, you know, that's without warming up. So you cut me a little bit of slack, but that's, you know, getting there.

BLOCK: That's a pretty good party trick.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORSHIP YOU")

WEEKEND: (Singing) ...you. We worshipped you. Your red right hand won't we see once again.

BLOCK: There are tons of international world music influences all through the album, and what are the influences that we hear in this song, and particular, where are they coming from?

KOENIG: Well, that song started very simply. I kind of wrote the verse and the chorus. I just played it on piano, and I always thought of it as being more or less some kind of Celtic song. And then when Rostam and I got together to start working on it, you know, he started cooking up this beat, you know, started like (unintelligible) and suddenly got to this like kind of more pumped-up vibe. And then a notable part was when he brought in the solo, the synth solo that comes in that originally, he'd kind of - he'd been working on something that was kind of more in a Persian vein. So that part kind of became this kind of Persian-Celtic fusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORSHIP YOU")

KOENIG: And that's actually one of my favorite parts of the song.

BLOCK: Rostam is your bandmate, Rostam Batmanglij, who's Iranian-American, so the Persian influence has come straight through his family, I suppose.

KOENIG: Yeah. I mean, he said that he's grown up listening to that music and certainly influences, you know, various melodic choices he makes for some parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORSHIP YOU")

BLOCK: I'm talking with Ezra Koenig of the band Vampire Weekend. This is your third album in five years, and there's a constant thread of lyrics that talk about mortality in the album and time passing you by. You know, it's worth mentioning that you're all under 30, so you're coming to this mortality thing pretty early.

KOENIG: Well, we're very close to 30.

BLOCK: Yeah, perilously.

KOENIG: Well, one thing I realized this is the last album that we'll make in our 20s. No matter what, no matter how fast we work, this is the final record of Vampire Weekend in their 20s.

BLOCK: Were you aware of that when you were writing the songs that there was this thread running through them about the passage of time? And I mean, there's a, you know, lyric in the song "Don't Lie:" Does it bother you? The low click of a ticking clock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LIE")

WEEKEND: (Singing) I want to know, does it bother you? The low click of a ticking clock. There's a lifetime right in front of you, and everyone I know.

KOENIG: I didn't totally realize how many clocks and time there was on the record. When we got off the road after touring, there was this kind of strange feeling. And I think anybody who's ever gone on tour or, you know, had any kind of job where you leave home and you're on the road a lot, there's a feeling that when you get home, suddenly, this momentum ends. And your conception of time really does change; it feels different. Coming off the road and having all this free time, I think, naturally, I started to become a little more reflective. And as we started working on these songs, the tone shifted a bit.

BLOCK: Well, it seems given what we're talking about that it would be appropriate to go out on a song. It's called "Diane Young." It's a play on words, say it fast and it sounds more like dying young.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIANE YOUNG")

WEEKEND: (Singing) Out of control but you're playing a role. Do you think you can go till the 18th hole, or will you flip-flop the day of the championship? Try to go it alone on your own for a bit. If Diane Young won't change your mind, baby, baby, baby, baby, right on time. Baby, baby, baby, baby, ride on. Baby, baby, baby, baby, ride on. Baby, baby, baby...

BLOCK: And, Ezra, what's going on here with your voice?

KOENIG: That's called formant shifting, and it's almost like an approximation of the way that your vocal cords would sound at different ages. It's almost like, you know, going from like a baby voice to an old man. The pitch isn't actually changing, which is kind of chirpy to think about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIANE YOUNG")

WEEKEND: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, baby, ride on.

KOENIG: We thought it sounded so crazy; we loved it. It kind of like kicked the energy up a notch on the song, and I also kind of felt like this song that's about the pros and cons of dying young. There was something just like perfect about these baby voices going down into this like weird old-man voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIANE YOUNG")

WEEKEND: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, baby, right on time.

BLOCK: Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. Ezra, thanks so much.

KOENIG: Yeah. Thank you.

BLOCK: The new album is "Modern Vampires of the City."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIANE YOUNG")

WEEKEND: (Singing) If Diane Young won't change your mind, baby, baby, baby, baby, right on time.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.