The four members of Vampire Weekend — Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio and Chris Tomson — made their third record over a period that began in 2009, while they were still recording Contra, the band's second album. Now the record is done. It's called Modern Vampires of the City, and it comes out on May 14. I think it's the band's best yet, not a minor accomplishment for a band that had so much success its first time out.
Vampire Weekend is still a New York band writing about New York things, and you'll still find references to musical styles other than the band's own clean pop, like hip-hop and dancehall. What has changed since the band's 2008 debut album and its 2010 album, Contra, is how the music is made. I spoke with Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij about how this record came together — how they thought about it, how the songs came to be and influences from John Lennon to Souls of Mischief and more. And while the band still maintains a distinctive sound, there are darker moments on Modern Vampires of the City, more thoughtful and reflective moments amongst the pop fun. It's something you see immediately upon looking at the album's cover: a black and white aerial shot of their city, New York. (An edited version of our conversation is below, but you can hear the entire 35-minute interview, including clips of several songs from the new album, by clicking the audio link on this page.)
Bob Boilen: Let's look at the record cover a minute. It's a bit dark. It's a little mysterious. Ezra, do you want to describe the record cover?
Ezra Koenig: Sure. Rostam found that picture, and the first time he showed it to me, I was struck by the kind of celestial nature of it. When I first saw it, I was really struck by how you see the far downtown financial district buildings popping up through the clouds. There's something very kind of fantastic and mystical about it to me. That was the first thing that I saw when Rostam showed it to me.
Boilen: It's a black and white photograph of New York City from the sky. It's a lot of haze; a lot of smoke.
Boilen: I lived through that. This was the 1960's, where you would put a glass of milk down on your stoop, and half an hour later it would be coated with a little black film. It was rather disgusting in 1966, which is about when that picture was taken, right?
Boilen: What attracted you to use this as an image for the record?
Batmanglij:I think there's something kind of unknowable about this image. In one way, it is New York, but in another way, it's a surreal version of New York. It's an unreal version of New York. And in the same way on the last album Contra, there's the image of this girl who's looking at you and she doesn't reveal anything really. There's no one emotion you can attribute to her. I think, in a similar way, this album cover draws you in because you want to know more about it, but it's hard to know about it in some way.
Boilen: One of the great things that happens as a listener of music is when I can interpret and it's not done for me, and I think that's what you're getting at. I'd like to talk about the lyrics to the album's opening cut, "Obvious Bicycle," particularly the line "You ought to spare your face the razor, because no one's going to spare the time for you." Not very hopeful. A little bleak, guys.
Koenig: If you don't like to shave, it's a positive message.
Boilen: Having never grown a beard, I just didn't see the world that way. This record, off the bat, from the cover, the black and white cover, the smog, those opening lines ... darker than ever, at least in my vision of things. Talk about the place that got you writing about this record. Where do you even start? I don't even know who the instigator was. Was it Rostam? Ezra? Where do you even begin?
Koenig: It's difficult to answer. Whenever we finish one record, we usually have some sort of conversation about what the next one will be like, even if it's just for fun, kind of daydreaming about it. And there's some very vague ideas floating around, and then we were on tour, we were busy touring behind Contra so things are floating around, including the original instrumental that Rostam made of "Obvious Bicycle." I spent a lot of time listening to it. We actually didn't talk about it.
Boilen: When did you make that?
Batmanglij: I made it in June of 2009, before we finished Contra. We were in this phase in Contra where we were just finishing songs, and when I get into that phase sometimes I want to rebel so I start something new.
Boilen: What was it? Was it the beat? Was there any piano?
Batmanglij: This song is interesting because it evolved. It started with a very hectic drum beat that I made, and that inspired me to play piano, and I just played these simple piano chords that came very quickly. I was listening Plastic Ono Band, the John Lennon album a lot, and that might have had some inspiration on me.
Boilen: He and Phil Spector like those echoey piano things. The piano has that slapback to it.
Batmanglij: It's just those simple chord changes.
Boilen: Did you strip away all the drumming?
Batmanglij: So I sent Ezra the busy drums and piano and he wrote on top of that. From there, we kind of continued in the songwriting process and the song was evolving and I came up with some chords for a bridge and Ezra came up with lyrics and a melody on there and we kind of just kept going. And then we pulled away those hectic drums and we actually replaced them with a sample, which is the only recording sample on the record.
Vampire Weekend plays "Obvious Bicycle" at Roseland Ballroom in New York on April 28.
Boilen: When you're doing this, when you're writing and going back and forth, different rooms, even different cities?
Koenig: Sure. I had the original beat that Rostam sent; I probably listened to it a hundred times little by little over the course of a year, a lot of times travelling on a plane somewhere and just very slowly coming up with some lyrics. I think the razor part was the first, but just little by little coming up with some different pieces. By the time we actually got together to make the first kind of demo of it, to actually try and lay down some vocals, that was already a couple of years later. We were finally off the road, we were both in L.A., we got together casually just to try and work a little bit, and that was the first time I actually put that stuff down onto the beat. We felt pretty confident in the song and like Rostam said it took a long time to finalize the arrangement, but knew there was something special about it from the beginning.
Boilen: Who is this person? What decade are they living in? Is it someone who's grown up in New York? That's sort of the feeling, the picture I started to paint when I listened to it. I pictured someone who didn't grow up in this country that maybe was living in New York.
Koenig: I hadn't thought about that. I actually picture pretty much every song on the album more or less taking place in the present moment. I think there's different ways to think about the present moment — there's the more mystical way and the more factual way, but I don't think of any of these songs taking place long in the past or anything like that. This song always struck me as kind of different territory for Vampire Weekend, just because the voice is giving advice to somebody else, maybe somebody younger, kind of has a different tone than any song we'd written before.
Boilen: "Obvious Bicycle," doesn't have an obvious title. The song never mentions the words obvious or bicycle in it.
Batmanglij: That's a product of the fact that that was what I named it on that day however many years ago it was and I didn't expect the title to stay but it just ended up sticking.
Boilen: I assume you're writing on a computer. You have to give it a name. You're forced. Something says to you now is the time you're going to name this thing and yeah you're right often they stick. I love the title. The title of your album is a quote from the song "One Blood" by Junior Reid. What's your attraction to Junior Reid? Can you talk about the connection between that song and your record?
Koenig: Yeah, this is such a classic song. It's been sampled a lot. And I always liked the message of the song, one blood, unity of man message. But there's always something kind of haunting about the phrase "Modern Vampires Of The City." And at first there was something that seemed kind of funny about calling a Vampire Weekend album Modern Vampires Of The City, but then I do feel like there's some deeper resonance there too.
Boilen: There is, on this record, very different production and I'm not going to stretch this too much with Junior Reid, but even with "Obvious Bicycle" and other songs on there there's lots of space in your music. Really for me, the big change, what I heard was, this didn't feel like a band making music together in a studio, but it feels much more composed. I didn't lose any of the sense of excitement and so forth that you get as a band all making music together in a studio, but I did get a sense of songs that really had a lot of thought going into them, the way they develop. Or am I on the wrong track here completely?
Batmanglij: No, you're definitely on the right track and I think what you're getting at is that when we make a new album, we treat it as a recording project.
Boilen: Would you say that's true of all three projects, or more so here?
Batmanglij: It's something that's evolved. On our first record, we could play pretty much every song before we began to record it. On the second record, about half the songs that was the truth, we were able to arrange them as a band, and then another half were more a product of the studio. On this record, we wrote songs in many different ways and we got together and worked on them in very different ways but the songs that we ended up pursuing and the ones that ended up on the album were a product of treating the making of the album as a recording project and putting the recording first and foremost and the word composed is right to some extent. But I hesitate to use that word because we're pursing spontaneity whenever we're writing things and a lot of it was written really fast. We got together and we wrote a lot and the songs we ended up keeping often were ones that the initial spark happened very quickly and a lot of the initial melodies and chords and even the drums happened very quickly and we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants.
Boilen: Let's talk a little about how the song "Hudson" came to be. What was the first element, for example. Do you remember?
Koenig: The first elements were some chords that I wrote, the kind of verse chords on the piano but I didn't really make a recording of it. Then Rostam and I went to Martha's Vineyard with the expressed purpose of writing songs for the album. We started trying to turn it into a real song and Rostam is writing the bass part and adding different drum sounds and just working on the computer and kind of composing it that way. Then Rostam made this second descending part, later in the process we brought in this chorus that had previous been from another song that Chris Tomson and I had written. We were kind of feeling our way, finding the different pieces to make it all work.
Boilen: What sort of time frame are we talking about? Because this could be an afternoon or this could be a week.
Koenig:Well, sometimes we make the first little recording very quickly and that kind of gives us a sense of if it has legs: Is there a nice melody? Does it have some sort of identity in terms of production? It's always a good sign when you feel good about the song and good about the production ideas and the arrangement from the beginning.
Batmanglij: For me, I think, the test is if you become addicted to listening to it, which is a little bit shameful and embarrassing, and it's nice to be able to do it without anyone knowing that you're listening to your own music, but when you are addicted to listening to it, it's a great sign. It means it's good. It's kind of how you know.
Boilen: Tell me about the people you worked with to put this together. Who produced this record?
Batmanglij: There's two producers. One of them is myself, and the other is Ariel Rechtshaid and we co-produced every song on the album. The way that we worked was Ezra and I initially went out to L.A. and we brought all of these recording sessions that we'd started and we were able to open them up very easily.
Boilen: Were these the Martha's Vineyard ones [and] other places you might have worked?
Batmanglij: Yeah we worked a lot in my apartment in Brooklyn too. We opened up the sessions and we sort of started to take stock of what needed to be done in order to get to a completed song.
Boilen: How many things did you walk in with? Did you come with 20 songs?
Batmanglij: Well, what's interesting is we had a sense of every song that needed to be on the record because at that point we'd spent about a year in this sort of writing, recording, gestation process. So then we started to take stock and we set a goal for ourselves: In August, Chris [Tomson] and Chris [Baio] would come out and we would record the drums and the bass parts for the record. So in order to get to the point where we were ready to do that, we sort of killed ourselves for two weeks, working twelve hours a day on these songs.
Boilen: So Chris and Chris really would have to play at the pace that everything was written at. They'd come in, you'd have drum parts; Chris Tomson would hear them and you'd strip them away and he'd play live drum in their place, is that right?
Batmanglij: Well, what we ended up doing was recording the drums and the bass to tape.
Boilen: When you say tape, do you mean analog tape?
Batmanglij: Yeah, analog tape. And that was something we hadn't done before. So we would integrate those parts that we'd recorded into our session and then, like you said, sort of build things back up again. If some things needed to be rerecorded after that, they could be rerecorded. If they were working together, they could stay in. In the song "Don't Lie," for example, there's acoustic guitars that I recorded in Martha's Vineyard in this little cottage and those acoustic guitars have made it to the final recording from that very first day, from the inception, they never needed to change. In fact, they had a quality that we liked. There's other moments like that. On the song "Step," the chorus is Ezra is singing into my laptop with the laptop microphone, and you can hear the trains going by my apartment, but we liked the quality of that recording.
Boilen: Let's talk about things that are playful with voices on this record. You can sing deep. You sing deeper on this record maybe than before, but "Step" is one of the songs where Ezra's vocals are manipulated.
Koenig: No, I mean, even on previous records we haven't been too shy about messing with the vocals, but especially on this record it just felt right on a lot of songs. Songs like "Ya Hey" and "Step" — it kind of just fit the vibe of the song. To us, it makes perfect sense that a vocal performance is very important, but also the way that the vocals sound. I mean, we've really wrestled with certain songs, trying to figure out how the vocals should sound. I think you can ruin a song by having the wrong vocal sound, so it's important to have a pretty broad palate.
Boilen: "Step" has its origins in a song by the Bay Area rap group Souls of Mischief.
Koenig: Souls Of Mischief I've always loved. I kind of associate them with the first time that I really started become a music fan as a young teenager. This song apparently was recorded around the time of their first album, which was called 93 'til Infinity, but it never made the record and it floated around as a bootleg for awhile. I only discovered it five or six years ago but it always really stuck with me, especially the chorus. I didn't know where it came from but they're kind of like scratching somebody saying, "Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl." Slowly as I listened to this song, I found myself kind of writing this alternate song based on that phrase. Later we found out that that in of itself is a sample from a rapper called YZ. We didn't know that at the time. This was kind of the inspiration to write this other song that became "Step."
You can also hear how the vocal melody of our chorus kind of riffs on that saxophone sample that you hear on the Souls of Mischief song. We had to go clear the samples, and we had to find out where Souls of Mischief gathered all their pieces from. Like I said, that line, "every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl," comes from this rapper YZ. But that saxophone melody is actually a cover by Grover Washington Jr. of a song by Bread called "Aubrey," which I had never heard before. So in the end, if you compare "Step" to "Aubrey," you can see the connection. They're pretty different, but you can see how the melody kind of changed and morphed through these different versions.
Boilen: There's a line in that song that just slays me. It says, "Wisdom's a gift but you trade it for youth. Age is an honor, but it's still not the truth." I just love that. I don't know where you were when you wrote that line, but good lord.
Koenig: Thanks. Yeah, I don't remember. But it kind of seemed to fit with the vibe of the song.
Boilen: I'd trade my wisdom for youth right about now. I think we've talked about stuff that makes it sound like this record might be a downer. But there's lot's of "up" stuff on this album too. "Diane Young" has a rockabilly style to the vocals. There's an incredible guitar line that sounds like The Cramps. It has a very different mood.
Koenig: Yeah. For us, we really like to stand behind every song that we put on a record and our standards are very high. We're kind of obsessed with quality control, but that also means that every song needs to have its own kind of voice and vibe. There can't really be any repetition on the record so there are going to be mellow moments and there have to be energetic moments too to fill out the world of the record.
Boilen: I think that's one of the reasons that this is one of my favorite records this year, and I think that's one of the things that makes a great record. When every single thing is distinct, yet it all seems to hold together in a way you may never understand. I don't know if you think in any way shape or form as connected, if there are characters that run through them that connect.
Koenig: I think it's the type of record the more time you spend with it, you'll find all sorts of connections. Sometimes surprising connections between different songs, whether it's a sound, a musical idea you hear in two very different songs. A lyrical idea, theme that gets repeated. I think those are the little connections that kind of make everything work, even though some of the songs are very different from one another. That's kind of how it should be. I'd like to kind of think of each album as its own world or its own city where it's a space that all these different things are happening in and yet they kind of belong together.
Batmanglij: Not only do we think of the songs within this album as connected, but we think of all of our songs and all three albums we've made as being connected and interrelated.
Boilen: Let's talk about that for a second, because that was not immediate to me. Somebody mentioned this is part of a trilogy?
Koenig: Yeah, we see it that way. Of course, when you're working on each individual record, the bigger connection you have to keep in the back of your mind because you have to focus on writing and recording the best songs possible. But now that all is said and done, I look back on them. I certainly see all sorts of connections, the way Rostam was saying, between each album, whether you look at them as chapters in a book, or just kind of a continuation of a story. I don't know how many people would do this, but even if you listen to them straight through, one, two, three ...
Boilen: That'd be a fun Sunday.
Koenig: Why not? Get the whole family together ...
Batmanglij: That would be a short Sunday.
Koenig: It really wouldn't take that long, that's true. But we love the idea that, because we put a lot of thought into sequencing and things like that, that the last song on every record in some way leads into the first song on the next one. The two records might have a ton of differences, but there is this sort of connection. To talk about characters can be difficult because there are no characters in the sense that you don't see Walcott on each album, this album has a song called "Diane Young," [but] Diane Young's not on every album. If you look at them as a group of people, then I could see them kind of moving through time and space together from album to album. It feels like a trilogy now.
Boilen: You've grown up a lot from the beginning of the band to this point, so does the band sort of all change as you have grown up and think of the world different, or think of approaches to music differently?
Koenig: In some ways. When I think of all three albums, if I had to boil down the making of each album to one image, at least in my memory of how I participated in the album, I always just picture sitting in Rostam's apartment next to him in front of the computer. So things like that are a constant throughout. But then, when you zero in on specific musical ideas, approaches like we were talking about before, whether the band has played the songs live before recording or whether we had totally come up with it in the studio, the balance has shifted over the course of three records. But in some basic sense, our approach to recording ... there is something that hasn't changed.
Boilen: When you say the balance has shifted, how has the balance shifted?
Koenig: Like Rostam was saying before, on the first album, every song on that record we'd performed at some sort of show before we'd recorded it. That doesn't mean that we didn't still spend hours and hours tweaking the recording, revamping things.
Batmanglij: Trying different sounds. That was something we did a lot on the first album.
Koenig: Yeah, so there's still a ton of experimentation in the studio and it still felt like the bulk of the work happened in the studio. But on this album, there's not a single song that we played live before recording. The elements of the process remain the same, that kind of tweaking, experimenting on the recording, that hasn't changed. In terms of the relationship between studio work — the way songs get built — versus live performance, that balance has shifted. Sometimes we call it pop style or hip-hop style when Rostam makes a piece of music and I just write on top of it, and we've definitely done more songs that way. On this album, we found that was one of the most effective ways to get the ball rolling. Sometimes we hadn't come up with a song we loved in a while, and especially when we were in Martha's Vineyard a few times, we'd just say, alright I'll go take a walk, take a pad with me, write down some lyrical ideas, [Rostam would] compose some music, start making a beat, arrange some drums and chords and stuff, come back in, listen back and sometimes just immediately record on top of it. That's something that there have been elements of, especially on Contra, but on this record that really produced some of the best songs.
This interview has been edited. To listen to the full interview, click the audio link on this page.