Whenever a band is the recipient of much advance excitement, resentment inevitably follows. Decisions are made and reputations formed, all before the music is even ofï¬ cially made available to the public. In the case of indie-pop band Vampire Weekend, hype and reactionary criti-cism have become permanent ï¬ xtures in its short two-year career. Singer Ezra Koenig sits in Fairway Supermarket’s upstairs cafÃ© on New York’s Upper West Side, keenly aware of both the exhilaration and antipathy his band’s self-titled debut album has inspired.
The four recent Columbia University graduates (L-R: Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig, Christopher Tomson, Chris Baio) have crafted an exciting amalgamation of worldly sounds—a reverent homage to baroque pop informed by foreign backdrops—and somehow it’s the most divisive album in recent memory among the bloggeratti. “It’s been tough because with one Google search, you can read stuff that’s over-the- top praiseworthy that it’s almost embarrassing,” he says. “But then there’s the weird backlash, which seems based on not knowing us. And if I could just sit down with those people and talk to them, I think they would understand what we’re doing.” The singer’s downy face reads incredibly earnest—it’s almost as if he would set aside time to explain himself to snarky bloggers if only his group wasn’t busy securing the title of the new Biggest Band From New York.
“Here’s the strange thing,” he continues, “We’re just making pop songs. Sure, they can be exciting, but they can’t change the world. So why get so worked up over a catchy song?”
Great question. Some complaints target the band’s sartorial style, lamenting Vampire Weekend’s tendency to dress like walking J. Crew catalogues. “We like preppy clothes,” Koenig shrugs. Sipping his coffee, the singer is wearing a blue Ralph Lauren cardigan embroidered with ï¬‚ ying geese, a green-and-blue plaid scarf wrapped ï¬ rmly around his neck and, underneath it all, a pink button-down Oxford shirt. “I mean, this is normal clothing that everyone has,” he asserts. “I would even call it â€˜anti-fashion’.” Later on, he discusses the merits of boat shoes.
This has contributed to the idea that the four members of Vampire Weekend are snooty upper classmen, a misperception helped along by songs devoted to imaginary buddies Walcott (“Walcott”), Blake (“One (Blake’s Got A New Face)”) and Bryn (“Bryn”). Not to mention an album track reminiscing about time spent in Cape Cod (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”). It’s a beautiful frolic, guitar and drums playing leapfrog over one another. But then, the song’s seducer notices the brand of his girlfriend’s sheets as he makes the moves (“Can you stay up to see the dawn in the colors of Benet- ton?”). “I went to Cape Cod,” Koenig explains, “But it was a very laid back experience. It wasn’t fancy mansions and cocktail parties. I had some really fun times there as a child so it inï¬‚ uenced the song. But I ï¬ nd it bizarre that our record would be associated with privileged WASPiness because, really, none of us are WASPs.” For the record, Koenig is Jewish and his keyboardist’s name is Rostam Batmanglij.
Finally, there’s the pointed criticism that the band borrows from international inï¬‚ uences—mainly traditional African music called Afropop once mined by Paul Simon on Graceland—without un-derstanding the political and cultural signiï¬ cance. Koenig doesn’t see a problem here. “I think that my generation is more exposed to multiculturalism than previous generations,” the 23-year-old singer postulates. “That’s why it’s not unusual for us to be inï¬‚ uenced by world music. We’re not afraid of listening to songs we don’t necessarily understand.” And that’s what makes their music so great: The band’s iPods aren’t xenophobic. Vampire Weekend makes beautifully accessible music that at the same time feels new and unfamiliar. The group has even invented a name for their sound: Upper West Side Soweto.
Whether you see their reference points—Cape Cod, Upper West Side, Soweto—as naÃ¯ve, ironic or purely aesthetic, at least there’s a New York band ï¬ nally looking outside of navel-gazing Brooklyn. And if you still want to hate on them, go tell it to your blog.