Vampire Weekend: Beyond The Blogs The band's detractors are vocal, deriding it as a bunch of Ivy League white guys who appropriate African music for personal gain. But, while Vampire Weekend is one of the most hotly debated acts of the Internet age, its new Contra just entered the Billboard albums charts at No. 1.
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Vampire Weekend: Beyond The Blogs

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Vampire Weekend: Beyond The Blogs

Vampire Weekend: Beyond The Blogs

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(Soundbite of song, "Horchata")

Mr. EZRA KOENIG (Bandleader, Vampire Weekend): (Singing) In December, drinking horchata, I look psychotic in a balaclava.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is music from Vampire Weekend. The track is called "Horchata," and it's from their new record.

Just four years ago, the members of this band were still students at Columbia University. And since then, their whimsical lyrics and afro-pop sound have inspired sharply divided reactions.

Some critics see Vampire Weekend as the most exciting American indie band in years. And others argue that these four seemingly privileged Ivy Leaguers are engaging in the worst type of cultural appropriation. But despite that, the band's new record just entered the Billboard charts at number one.

(Soundbite of song, "Horchata")

RAZ: Vampire Weekend's latest record is called "Contra." And lead singer Ezra Koenig is in our New York studios.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. KOENIG: Thank you.

RAZ: I know you're probably going to wince here, but I have to ask you about this song "White Sky."

(Soundbite of song, "White Sky")

Mr. KOENIG: (Singing) An ancient business, a modern piece of glasswork, down on the corner that you walk each day in passing...

RAZ: And there's just this - there's a gem of a song with this wonderful falsetto howl right in the middle. And I was reading comments on a Web site about this song.

Mr. KOENIG: Yeah.

RAZ: Okay. And someone wrote: This song sounds like the lost track of Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints." Now, I know I've read that you don't like the comparisons but I'm wondering why. I mean, what's wrong with the comparison?

Mr. KOENIG: Well, we don't dislike the comparisons. I mean, you know, of course we have nothing but respect for Paul Simon. I guess we felt like when the first record came out, we just were inundated with these comparisons and constantly getting asked about Paul Simon and "Graceland."

And as much as it's an amazing album and, I think, a very important album, it started to feel extremely reductive to have to only talk about African music through the lens of Paul Simon's "Graceland."

But that said, the idea that somebody would think of this track as having some sort of connection to "Rhythm of the Saints" is thrilling.

(Soundbite of song, "White Sky")

RAZ: You grew up in New Jersey. How did you sort of first start to get into African music?

Mr. KOENIG: Well, I think we all grew up with, you know, parents who came of age in the '60s, people with pretty diverse record collections. My dad had King Sunny Ade and Fela records and, you know, in addition to all sorts of music from around the world. So, I never felt that any one type of music was, like, the music of our households.

So, when this band started, for various reasons, we'd become very disinterested in what we found to be the, you know, kind of cliched ways of playing guitar and playing drums. And...

RAZ: I mean, when you were in college, like the biggest band at the time out of New York were The Strokes.

Mr. KOENIG: Yeah, and I totally love The Strokes. And the bands that I don't like though are the kind of second and third Xeroxed...

RAZ: Generations. Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOENIG: ...generations of The Strokes.

We naturally were trying to think about different ways that we could approach the idea of being a rock band and approach the drum set and the electric guitar. And for us it's all totally natural because it was music we'd essentially turned up listening to anyway.

(Soundbite of song, "Cousins")

RAZ: The song "Cousins," and this is kind of manic, skittering collision of guitars and drums. And I supposed it's a sound sort of closer to the way that you guys are sometimes described, which is as a punk band.

(Soundbite of song, "Cousins")

Mr. KOENIG: (Singing) Dad was a risk taker, his was a shoe maker, you greatest hits 2006, little list maker. Caught in the melody, you wait in the car, oh you were born with ten fingers and you're gonna use them all.

RAZ: I want to ask you about the lyrics here. Dad was...

Mr. KOENIG: Sure.

RAZ: ...a risk taker, his was a shoe maker. You greatest hits 2006, little list maker. What...

Mr. KOENIG: Yeah.

RAZ: What's this song about?

Mr. KOENIG: I think ultimately this song is about conflict and about how easy it is to define yourself in opposition to others and, you know, think like everybody else is a, you know, some privileged arty whatever. And me, I'm the real deal.

RAZ: Is it sort of a personal thing here that you're trying to address. I mean, your band, obviously, has been referred to as a preppy band, a bunch of privileged kids, you know, trying to be punkers. But obviously the real story behind that is not true. Is this kind of a way to address some of those assumptions?

Mr. KOENIG: Sure. I mean, also it's difficult because going to Columbia and having a propensity for boat shoes, we naturally set ourselves up to have lots of critics look at us, you know, as these, like, little Lord Fauntleroys or, you know, these George W. Bushes. But it was always so clear to me that these people were attacking this kind of made-up version of us. They were making all sorts of assumptions about who we were based on where we went to school. And, I mean, you know, that always made me feel a little more at ease with that type of criticism.

RAZ: You guys spend time in California for this record. You were really in this sort of reading about the state, about California culture.

Mr. KOENIG: Yeah.

RAZ: What did you want to capture? I mean what did California culture means to you? And how did you want to put that on this record?

Mr. KOENIG: And I grew up in New Jersey, and my family is all from New York. Like my Dad grew in up the Bronx. He's never been into California, and you know, he has this kind of weird attitude towards it. You know, there is that kind of old school Annie Hall type of New York, anti-California bias.

But having spent so much time there, you know, since becoming a musician, I really started to kind of, I dont know if I'm in love with it, but become very fascinated by it. I was very excited by the idea that California actually did have some culture especially in an era when regional variation can seem like such a dying concept.

RAZ: Now, there's a song on the record called "California English." And I guess you put the vocals through this program called Auto-Tune.

(Soundbite of song, "California English")

Mr. KOENIG: (Singing) And if it's all a curse, and we're just getting worse, baby, please don't lose your faith in the good earth.

RAZ: Why did you decide to put your vocals through Auto-Tune?

Mr. KOENIG: The Auto Tune idea was totally Rostam. You know...

RAZ: You're friend to Rostam Batmanglij who's also in the band.

Mr. KOENIG: Yeah, right. He, especially on this album, was really into the idea of giving the vocals a distinct sound on every song. I was hesitant at first because I don't think Auto-Tune is considered particularly cool anymore. You know, it's already gotten to the point where every 12-year-old kid knows what Auto Tune is. But we really did feel like the way it worked on this song was distinct from the way it was being used in a lot of modern R&B.

RAZ: Where else on the album did you sort of work with voice manipulation?

Mr. KOENIG: Well, it's not always manipulation. I mean, on a song like "Taxi Cab," just the kind of mic we used and the way that it was miced, I'm singing extremely quietly for our band considering how on, you know, other songs I'm basically like barking as loud as I can.

RAZ: Let's hear a little bit of that song "Taxi Cab."

(Soundbite of song, "Taxi Cab")

Mr. KOENIG: (Singing) Unsentimental, driving around, sure of myself, sure of it now. You stand this close to me, like the future was supposed to be...

RAZ: Your voice is almost fragile here, Ezra. It's unlike anything you tried on your first record. What's the story behind this song?

Mr. KOENIG: This song kind of had an interesting genesis. There's this very old song that I'd had in a rap group before Vampire Weekend started that we never really knew what to do with. And one day in the studio, Rostam kind of took the idea from that previous song and started crafting it into this kind of dub-by quiet rhythm. Pretty soon after that we had this song.

RAZ: It's hard to imagine it as a rap song. And I - if I recall correctly that rap band you were in was like a comedy band, right?

Mr. KOENIG: Well, we never considered it comedy. I mean, it was a comedy rap band in the same way that Vampire Weekend is a comedy rock band. I mean, all the raps had been...

RAZ: I mean, the name of it was L'Homme Run, right?

Mr. KOENIG: Yeah, yeah, L'Homme Run. I mean, I - all of my favorite musicians -Elvis Costello or Q-Tip or De La Soul - always has had a sense of humor. So, I've always felt like in whatever music we make that we have to try to walk that line between not being overly serious but also not being a joke.

(Soundbite of song, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa")

RAZ: I want to go back to your first record for a moment and to hear a little bit from a song "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa."

(Soundbite of song, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa")

Mr. KOENIG: (Singing) This feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too. But this feel so unnatural, Peter Gabriel.

RAZ: I love this song. You name check Peter Gabriel here, and then Peter Gabriel recently recorded a cover of that song with the British band Hot Chip. And I want to hear some of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa")

Mr. PETER GABRIEL (Musician): (Singing) But it feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too. And it feels so unnatural to sing your own name.

RAZ: How surreal that must have been for you to hear Peter Gabriel singing your song about Peter Gabriel.

Mr. KOENIG: That's about as surreal as it gets. When we wrote all these songs, we were, you know, just college students. I mean, literally that song was written in my dorm room at Columbia. The use of his name in that song is more conceptual because, you know, when you're just a 22-year-old kid you think of Peter Gabriel's not a person. He's not somebody that you - you're going to shake hands with or talk to. He's a concept.

Obviously, since then I've got a slightly different perspective on it. But, yeah, that's probably the single craziest thing that's happened.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: That's Ezra Koenig. He fronts the band Vampire Weekend. Their new record is called "Contra."

Ezra Koenig, thank you so much and good luck.

Mr. KOENIG: Yeah, thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Run")

Mr. KOENIG: (Singing) Every dollar counts, and every morning hurts...

RAZ: To hear full cuts from the new album, go to our Web site,

And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Thanks for listening and have a good night.

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