As Ezra Koenig remembers it, his band Vampire Weekend’s 2013 best alternative music album Grammy win for Modern Vampires of the City felt like “perfect timing.” The act had been nominated once before (for 2011’s Contra), but after three albums, hundreds of shows -- and nearly as many think pieces about whether it was OK for a band of Columbia University graduates to be incorporating West African music into indie rock -- “it was a nice way to cap the previous six years,” continues Koenig. Then, for the next six years, the group more or less disappeared.
Koenig kept busy: He created a Netflix anime series called Neo Yokio, started hosting a radio show called Time Crisis on Beats 1, participated in songwriting sessions with Kanye West, worked with Diplo on music that made its way onto Beyoncé’s Lemonade (which earned him another Grammy nomination) and became a father with his partner, actress Rashida Jones.
When Vampire Weekend finally returned this May with its fourth album, Father of the Bride, much had changed -- not only for Koenig, but for the band itself. Founding member Rostam Batmanglij had departed (though he still wrote and produced two tracks on FOTB) and a host of new collaborators joined up, including Danielle Haim, who duets with Koenig on three tracks; Steve Lacy of alt-R&B outfit The Internet; and pop-leaning producers like DJ Dahi (Big Sean, Drake) and BloodPop (Justin Bieber, Madonna). The results, though, sound distinctly like a Vampire Weekend album -- far-flung melodies and eclectic rhythms made disarmingly familiar, weighty lyrics delivered with a light touch -- albeit a more sprawling and ambitious one than the group has ever made, and which could well earn the band another handful of nominations, perhaps even for album of the year.
Nestling into a cozy corner of an upscale bar in Midtown Atlanta (where the band is about to play the Fox Theatre), Koenig orders a black coffee and, during the course of a 90-minute conversation, sounds much as any fan would expect -- engaged, thoughtful and ever-willing to muse at length on the Grammys, the industry and the state of rock.
The first round of Grammy voting is coming up soon. As someone who has won one, do you vote?
I have voted before. Last year, I logged onto the website the last day and voting had already closed, so I felt very disenfranchised. I wasn’t outraged enough to go demand my vote be counted, but I was upset because I was looking through the producer of the year category, and I think hip-hop has been severely under-recognized. I remember looking at all the songs Metro Boomin produced that year, and that’s an insane amount of iconic, forward-thinking productions, my favorite being “Mask Off” by Future. I remember thinking, “This is so obviously the producer of the year.” The fact that people like Metro Boomin haven’t been recognized actually motivates me to vote.
What did it mean when you guys won?
It felt good. The best alternative album, when you look back and see who has won it over the years, that’s a fairly strong category. It’s not like one of those head-scratcher categories where one year it’s right on the money, the other year, “Whoa, what happened?” It felt like a real milestone.
When you finished the last album cycle, did you know it would be a while before you came back?
Yeah. I wouldn’t have quite guessed six years, but I was very sick of everything. I didn’t want to get back into the studio, I didn’t want to get back on the road, I was really not wanting to think about music or Vampire Weekend at all.
Did you consider pulling the plug entirely?
I never quite thought that. When people in the past have asked me if I would make a solo album, it barely made sense to me because I’d reach out to the same collaborators, I’d approach it the exact same way. The truth is, I’ve put my identity as a songwriter into Vampire Weekend since the beginning. I never got to that extreme place where I was like, “I’m done with music.” As long as I’m interested in music, there will be a Vampire Weekend.
So after all that time off, you didn’t feel any creative shackles on you?
The only shackles on Vampire Weekend, ever, have been the public’s expectations. But when I think about what constitutes a Vampire Weekend album, I can’t help but feel like it needs to check at least a few boxes, especially coming back after six years with a lineup change. The indie rock that we never particularly wanted to be associated with, but were, is now pretty unfashionable, so coming back with this album felt like walking through a minefield. If this album didn’t have some immediate singles, I can imagine the way people would have reacted. Maybe that’s why I needed to make 18 songs, just to have enough room to hit all those marks.
Eighteen songs -- it’s a lot, it’s low-hanging fruit for the haters to be like, “Too long!” But I’d stop and say, “Is there a 10-song version that’s going to feel more focused to people?” Then I’d always be like, “For our fourth album, it can’t be 10 songs.” When I think of Father of the Bride, it’s not just that there’s a lot of songs, it’s that there are different songs. It was really important that there were what I would’ve called at the time “stupid songs” -- simple songs, childish songs. “We Belong Together” literally lists things that belong together. It’s nursery rhyme-esque. There wouldn’t be room for that on a 10-song album. Compare that with a vibe-y, sad, unsettling ballad like “Unbearably White.” When those two things are on the same album, I do see something bigger.
Did your songwriting experiences outside the band change the way you thought about the creative process?
None of that stuff truly changed it. I was very interested to see the way that Kanye worked. In some ways, what I saw was what I expected: a lot of very creative people talking about songwriting, about music. The Beyoncé song [“Hold Up”], the truth is, I didn’t go in with Diplo and pitch her stuff. He played her 20 beats, she heard the thing with the hook that I wrote, and that’s the one she liked. I didn’t have to go step into that kind of painful arena a lot of people do, desperately trying to get your track on the album. I’m not against it. I might more in the future.
What has changed in the industry since you first started putting out albums?
It’s very quaint to think about it now, but when we first came out, there was all this talk about the internet, and “Are things happening too fast?” That’s before Twitter. People were just like, “Whoa! [The] band is only around for a year before their first album? Pump the brakes!” Whereas now you have superstars who’ve never put out an album. At that time, there was so much talk about how the internet was going to change things. “Maybe we don’t need albums anymore. Maybe put out one song a month.” We’d have music industry people saying to us, “Listen, guys, this is the last Christmas for the CD.” I remember that very clearly. Christmas 2008.
The truth is, we’ve actually sold a decent amount of CDs in the 10 years since. So at the end of the day, the music industry has changed radically and yet, our fans still want Vampire Weekend albums. People still talk about albums. Even when I zoom out more, at the whole industry, I think the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Do you conceive of your albums as full albums or just songs that go together?
It’s always, “I have an idea for an album.” For better or for worse, I like big ideas. Literally, my earliest ideas for Vampire Weekend were things that made us exciting to some people and immediately written off by other people. I told the rest of the dudes, “I don’t think anybody should wear T-shirts onstage.” That feels like an artifact, when there was this thing about preppy clothes.
And do you regret any parts of that? Because the combination of preppy clothing and African influences was polarizing.
It’s hard to say. No. Well, maybe like a few lyrics here or there, a few phrasings. The actual album, the majority of the songs, the presentation, I don’t particularly regret. When I look back at that time and think about what we could’ve done to be less controversial, it’s all very cowardly. There were a lot of bands who came from upper-middle-class backgrounds. But such a big deal was made that we went to Columbia -- off the top of my head, there were members of Animal Collective, The Walkmen and The National who went to Columbia, and the amount of ink spilled over their collegiate and class background is not even close. We could’ve really downplayed the whole college thing. Rather than wearing a $50 button-down shirt, I could’ve worn a $300 leather jacket, and weirdly, that would’ve gone down easier for people.
When I think about referencing African music -- which, frankly, is a much more valid conversation than the preppiness -- I think again of artists who interpreted black music, or interpreted the music of other cultures, I should say, in ways people were more used to. When I picture a version of Vampire Weekend that’s less controversial: Don’t call the song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” take out the hand drums, then you’ve got a song that’s going to rub people the wrong way a bit less. But none of this gets to the underlying issues. Honestly, it’s better to be straightforward.
Since your last album, rock has become less important to the mainstream. Is that something you think about when you’re writing and recording?
I think about that stuff all the time. Of course, you’re aware that you’re releasing an album in a moment when the conversation is about how irrelevant rock is. But there’s a type of power, or something interesting, about unfashionable things too. You just hit a point where you’re on your own trip, and it’s more interesting to examine your own feelings about what you once found unfashionable and just find what’s interesting about your own project.
Why do you think rock has declined in popularity?
When I see people in rock bands with very strong feelings about rock, often it takes the form of either “It’s a grave injustice that rock is less popular” or “Rock’s on the ropes, so we’re going to fight back, baby!” They’re both so insanely corny to me. Within rock, there’s all sorts of great songwriters, but for something to really smash it in 2019, you need a few things, and one is market share. You’ll get a cool rock album that critics like, but it doesn’t have that same feeling as the pop album everybody likes because everything is pointed in one direction now. A new narrative won out: That thing is big because it’s good. Too big to fail. And everybody is a market observer.
You see it in these fandom wars on Twitter, where they talk about who outsold who. When fans use the language of who outsold who, they’re also telling the artist, “When you fall off commercially, we won’t be able to defend you anymore.” People say, “That’s late capitalism. Everything is seen through the lens of branding and the market.” But I do think we live in a moment when people want to be on the side that’s winning. Bob Dylan sang, “You just want to be on the side that’s winning,” in the mid-’60s, so it’s always true. But, in music, there used to be more people who didn’t want to be on the side that’s winning.