Ezra Koenig On Vampire Weekend's First Album In Six Years, 'Father Of The Bride' Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig talks about Father of the Bride, the band's first album in six years, along with all the changes that time has brought.
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Vampire Weekend Is Looking For The Cool Within The Uncool

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Vampire Weekend Is Looking For The Cool Within The Uncool

Vampire Weekend Is Looking For The Cool Within The Uncool

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/719162038/720097421" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Boat shoes and button-downs, Vampire Weekend's preppy style was always a bit of a put-on says Ezra Koenig, at the creative force behind the band.

EZRA KOENIG: Every Vampire Weekend I'm going back to the start, starts with something uncool.

CORNISH: But a funny thing happened to the Ivy League rockers singing about the Oxford comma. People ended up thinking they were cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "THIS LIFE")

CORNISH: Now, more than 10 years after their debut, they're back with their fourth album - a little older, a little wiser, still a little uncool. The sound of their new album, "Father Of The Bride," has been compared to the jam band Phish, and the group is embracing that. Songwriter and lead singer as Ezra Koenig says it's a nod to the kids he grew up with.

KOENIG: It's really the other side of the preppy coin, you know, when I'd see like the older kids in the town I grew up in driving around in a Jeep with a North Face listening to the Grateful Dead and Phish. And I was kind of like, what's this all about? It was fascinating to me.

CORNISH: I think we have a lot in common. And I feel seen and a little uncomfortable.

KOENIG: Uh-oh (laughter). You know that character.

CORNISH: I think I dated that guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "THIS LIFE")

CORNISH: So I think of your music, in terms of some of the later albums, as being bittersweet in a way, kind of cheerfully narrating a fair amount of pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LIFE")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) You've been cheating on me, but I've been cheating through this life and all its suffering.

CORNISH: I didn't choose this just because the word suffering is in it. But can you talk a little bit about it? I mean, I think this is a good example of that cheeriness that isn't really matched lyrically.

KOENIG: Well, I always kind of felt like, growing up, I always liked artists like The Smiths and The Cure, for instance. They have some very upbeat, cheerful songs, but it's such a contrast to the lyrics. And that always just made a lot of sense to me, you know, especially if you're kind of trying to create a snapshot of life as you know it, that every song would have a mixture of, you know, joy and pain.

And I did find on this album - it's interesting that you bring up the word suffering because at some point, I realized that three of the songs had the word suffering in the chorus. So I took out the other sufferings.

CORNISH: What - can you give me an example of another song that had suffering in it where you took it out?

KOENIG: Well, yeah. The first song we put out, "Harmony Hall," had this part that went (singing) I thought that I was free from all that suffering - almost like a Buddhist way of thinking about things. You think you've finally figured out a way to be free from suffering, but, of course, like, life is a cycle. And then actually, I changed it to questioning, which I think is better for the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARMONY HALL")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) I thought that I was free from all that questioning. But every time a problem ends, another one begins. And the stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness. Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight of wicked...

CORNISH: This also gets to this idea a lot of people are wrestling with of people, places, maybe, that let you down. I mean, like, I haven't had a soundtrack for that emotion - right? - for like, there is corruption in this place. There is ugliness in this place. How do I reconcile with that?

KOENIG: Well, yeah. I mean, I always think about high school and college and reading books from 100, 200,000 years ago where people are more or less saying the same thing about government, politics, even just individual pain and suffering. And, you know, you read all that stuff and yet you're still a little bit surprised when you feel it in a personal way or a generational way or a national way, you know. It still is always shocking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW LONG?")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) Tough choice? Don't make me laugh. My life's a joke. Your life's a gas.

CORNISH: You had a very funny quote to The Times of London - "guitar acts in 2019 have an irrelevance I've come to enjoy." Which is, like, not a joke but, like, not wrong in a way (laughter).

KOENIG: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, being gone for six years, you watch a lot come and go. There are these big questions being asked. Is guitar music dead? Is indie music irrelevant? And I saw the way that it caused stress and anxiety in many of my peers...

CORNISH: Oh, really?

KOENIG: ...About their place in the world. Well, yeah. Sure. I think maybe that happens every time, like, a wave crests. People get nervous. And things just come in and out of fashion. So - but...

CORNISH: But can I ask a question? Like...

KOENIG: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Is it also that that music stopped speaking to people about their lives - right? - in a way that felt relevant? Like, rock fell down on the job.

KOENIG: Well, maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW LONG")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) What's the point of getting clean? You'll wear the same old dirty jeans.

KOENIG: But then again, even beyond that, things come in and out of fashion. At some point, guitar seems like a funny old instrument. And other times, it kind of seems more charming or more exciting. I almost felt happy that, as I started to work on the record, the question has been answered. It's not particularly relevant. And there's almost something pleasant about just being like, yes, it's irrelevant. Now can we talk about something else? Can we talk about, you know, how to get the guitar sounding good?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW LONG?")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) How long?

CORNISH: I read a quote where you said, "with regards to songwriting, everyone's identity defines how they think about life." And you were talking about this idea that you don't get frustrated when people don't like the band because of your voice or something in the sound, but when they look at it through that accusation of whiteness or privilege or something like that rather than who you are in particular.

KOENIG: Well, there were elements that I think we all felt when the band started that we were a little bit blindsided by because I always had a sense of humor about preppiness and the Ivy League. You know, I went to Columbia. But I also had student debt and scholarships to pay for it. But the particular identity of Jewish people, which is my background, is not particularly pleasant for people to talk about. In the interview you're referencing, we were talking about a song that's called "Jerusalem, New York, Berlin."

So it's not surprising people might want to look at it through the lens of identity. But my point was kind of just like, well, if you want to go there, you maybe do have to talk about Jewishness and the relationship of Jewishness and whiteness. But, you know, that creates a real can of worms in the current political climate, I think.

CORNISH: It does. And I appreciate you saying that it's not an easy thing to talk about. I mean, in that song, you reference the genocidal feeling that beats in every heart. I mean, it's serious language.

KOENIG: Yeah. It's serious language, and it's also a song. So if I wanted to make a direct statement about it, you know, I could go on Twitter. That's there. So there's also a part of me that feels protective of the world of songwriting to let it lie for a second.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JERUSALEM, NEW YORK, BERLIN")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) All I do is lose, but baby, all I want is to win. Jerusalem.

CORNISH: I like that idea of protecting songwriting.

KOENIG: Yeah. I don't know why I've always felt so connected to Irish folk songs. And there's one called "The Minstrel Boy" that's about the boy who plays music along with the army. But there's a line in it that says, land of song says the warrior bard, though all the world betrays thee.

I don't know. That just always struck me that the whole world betrays the land of song. And that may be letting the land of song live on its own terms or something. Just - it sounds corny when I say it. But the land of song is being some place that is a little bit separate from the daily battles that we face.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGER")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) Things have never been stranger.

CORNISH: Ezra Koenig, thank you so much for sharing your music with us. It was a great conversation.

KOENIG: Yeah, nice talking to you.

CORNISH: Vampire Weekend's new album, "Father Of The Bride," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGER")

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) ...As a stranger, but things change. You and Kidada, oh, the lights get low, low, low. And I got nowhere to go.

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