Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Vampire Weekend's No. 1 Debut With 'Father of the Bride'
Not many would've guessed when Vampire Weekend emerged as a collegiate and critical favorite of the peak of the blog-rock era in the late-'00s, we'd still be talking about them making history on the Billboard charts a decade later.
The band's fourth album, Father of the Bride, debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, with 138,000 equivalent album units moved. It's the band's third consecutive No. 1 album on the chart, and marks the best first-week numbers of any rock album in 2019. Perhaps most impressively, it makes Vampire Weekend the first artist to ever score three Billboard 200 No. 1s without ever even notching a single entry on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart.
How have they been able to do it? Where does Father of the Bride rank within the band's catalog? Billboard staffers take on these topics and more in this week's Five Burning Questions.
1. This is Vampire Weekend's third straight No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, a streak that now stretches back to 2010. What's been the biggest key to their longevity?
Harley Brown: Vampire Weekend’s audience aspires to age as gracefully as the band has over the course of its past three albums, thanks in large part to consistently excellent and adaptable songwriting. After establishing themselves with their debut in 2008, Ezra Koenig and co. continue to write with elegant irreverence, whether foraying into expansive jamming on Father of the Bride, delving into existential crises on 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City or hopscotching through tempos and reverb on 2010’s Contra.
Gab Ginsberg: While there tends to be big gaps between VW's albums -- three between Contra and Modern Vampires, six between the latter and FOTB -- they work each album over a long period of time by touring. Meanwhile, they know it’s important to stay active, so they maintain robust side projects during the off-times, never really taking a break. Still, the crux of it is that anyone who became a fan upon their debut has stuck with them... and that was quite a lot of people. It’s also worth noting that it feels like VW is still the only band in their lane: Despite that aforementioned six-year gap, they weren’t replaced by anyone, nor have they shapeshifted dramatically themselves. A decade later, they still feel like the band I fell in love with in high school.
Joe Lynch: Unlike a lot of bands who came up in the late '00s, Vampire Weekend have shown consistent growth on each album while remaining sonically accessible -- and they never oversaturated the market. Other bands from the indie boom decade who have released numerous albums without switching up their sound are at a disadvantage because of diminishing returns. And then there's other acts who release albums with similar infrequency, but many of them (Animal Collective, Destroyer) alter their sound radically LP-to-LP, which is too challenging for most listeners in that late 20s / early 30s demographic who just want a college nostalgia fix. Vampire Weekend's songs are easy to grasp but inventive enough that you're getting just the right amount of familiarity and variety.
Chris Payne: The short answer is making great albums that people want to own, because they know everything the band has released so far feels like their favorite Vampire Weekend album, at least on some days. More deeply, VW has endured because they have a long history of setting trends rather than chasing them. Back in 2008, hardly anyone in indie was dressing the way they were or repping the whole Afropop influence. Over their next two albums, they gradually outgrew their rock aesthetic and became more of a producer’s band, working samples, vocal effects, and other aspects of pop and hip-hop production into their sound - all of which coalesced with 2013’s Grammy-winning Modern Vampires.
But in the years that followed, every interview with an indie rock band trying to keep pace seemingly included a line about how they were getting tired of guitar, were getting super into ‘90s R&B, learned to love Carly Rae Jepsen, etc. So naturally, 2019 Vampire Weekend does a complete about face to all that, employing Dolly and Porter-esque singalong duets and jamming across four-hour concerts like the Dead. And now if alt radio is about to enter its "featuring Trey Anastasio" phase, rest assured Koenig and company will know the next move.
Kevin Rutherford: There’s something to be said about finding a sweet spot where you’re not gone for so long that people forget about you but long enough that the hype for a new release builds and builds the longer an act is removed from its last LP. Vampire Weekend seems to have figured out the formula, first when Modern Vampires of the City took three years and now with Father of the Bride, which doubled the wait time. The appetite for new music hadn’t been satiated, and it apparently hadn’t been so long that interest began to dwindle.
2. Father of the Bride's first-week numbers are even slightly higher than the debut tally for Modern Vampires of the City (134k) in 2013, despite being released six years later to a very different musical landscape. How surprised are you that their commercial performance has stayed so consistent?
Harley Brown: I’m not all that surprised. The band’s core audience has stayed steady, and each member has likely grown overall listenership through their independent pursuits: Koenig with his Beats 1 radio show (which has featured guests like Jonah Hill, Rashida Jones and Tim Heidecker), and Rostam Batmanglij with his solo work, including producing for Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen on E•MO•TION.
Gab Ginsberg: Not very surprised. For FotB, 119k of that sum was in album sales, which is an indication of how a mostly physical fanbase can help an artist benefit in 2019. Vampire Weekend fans are collectors; we’re the type to buy cassette tapes and colorful limited edition vinyl, and that’s exactly what they gave us.
Joe Lynch: I'm not surprised they went No. 1, but I am surprised at how well this moved units – for a rock band in 2019, outdoing your last album from six years earlier is no small feat. Part of that I'd attribute simply to how good Modern Vampires was -- it has their highest Metacritic score ever and it won over people who were haters of the first two albums. The album after a career-high LP is always going to benefit from some spillover of goodwill and interest.
Chris Payne: You know what? They’ve done this before. Back in 2013, few established acts were outperforming an album from three years prior, but Modern Vampires went and bested Contra’s first-week sales by about 10,000 copies. Factoring in Billboard’s 2014 transition from straight sales to equivalent album units, each of Vampire Weekend’s four albums has now topped the first-week numbers of its predecessor. That’s really, really rare in today’s industry, but I think we’ve already established that Vampire Weekend is a pretty unique entity. I’ll say this: “Harmony Hall” performed better at radio than arguably any Vampire Weekend single before it, earning them their first No. 1 on a Billboard airplay chart. That kind of radio love goes a long way.
Kevin Rutherford: Yeah, a little. Father of the Bride wasn’t gonna flop, but doing six digits in units is tough for anyone to pull off these days, let alone an alternative rock band with no Hot 100 hits who hasn’t put out an album in six years. At the same time, remember: those sales are goosed to an extent by ticket bundle redemptions for Vampire Weekend’s upcoming tour. That’s absolutely not to say it wouldn’t have still been a strong debut without them, but they sure do help matters.
3. Frontman Ezra Keonig & Co. have made a ton of unpredictable aesthetic choices in the sonics and visuals leading up to the release of Father of the Bride, finding inspiration in everything from Spencer Tracy-via-Steve Martin comedies to Jerry Garcia Band albums to uh, North Face tents. Do you have a favorite of these oddball new VW touchstones?
Harley Brown: I wear a whale tattoo, have swum with dolphins and was a cetacean obsessive as a youth so obviously my favorite inspiration for Father of the Bride is Ecco the Dolphin.
Gab Ginsberg: I’m going to go with the little green snake. Taylor Swift owns serpents, I know, but this one is just very friendly-looking. It’s also one of the earlier symbols they used in this new era -- one starred in the “Harmony Hall” video -- so I associate it with the excitement I felt over one of my favorite bands returning.
Joe Lynch: Naming the album after a beloved '90s comedy remake is just plain smart. People in the VW age demographic grew up watching that movie as kids (and it's constantly on cable), and so there's an immediate, warm familiarity with the album before you've even listened to it. My favorite of the oddball touches is undoubtedly "2021," which samples Haruomi Hosono's Watering a Flower, an '80s album that gained cult Internet fame thanks to sublimely ridiculous YouTube comments. Ezra is obviously paying attention to what Rivers Cuomo is doing.
Chris Payne: On Time Crisis, Koenig’s Beats 1 radio show, the frontman did a bit around last Super Bowl Sunday when he asked listeners to throw a party for the big game and for snacks, provide guests with only a big bowl of Goldfish and hummus. The joke/social experiment being, do they assume it must have been some mistake and ask you for something proper like pita bread to dunk in the hummus, or do they just go with it and try to scoop up bits of hummus with the tiny crackers? Anyway I’m not sure the Goldfish-and-hummus thing is manifested on the album per se (it should have been a line on “We Belong Together”) but I like how someone who thinks that way would wind up enlisting iLoveMakonnen and BloodPop on an album also heavily inspired by ’70s jam bands.
Kevin Rutherford: I was sold on Father of the Bride from the moment I heard the pedal steel in album opener “Hold You Now.” Ezra and the boys are in on the yeehaw agenda, y’all. And Danielle Haim’s the secret weapon there (as she is throughout much of the album), sounding like a veritable Americana veteran against the folksy instrumentation, as though HAIM had already put out its own Simple Dreams. Plus, sampling The Thin Red Line?! Hans Zimmer is the greatest composer of our time. Good taste.
4. Where does Father of the Bride rank for you among the four Vampire Weekend LPs released so far?
Harley Brown: After my skepticism of the normcore aesthetic touchstones for the LP – and being underwhelmed by the two of the advance singles, “Unbearably White” and “This Life” – Father of the Bride has definitely grown on me as a coherent artistic statement. That said, my super-official-and-not-subjective-at-all-ranking of all VW albums is probably, in order of most to least favorite, is Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City, Contra, Father of the Bride. The band’s first album is just a classic that has untouchable nostalgia for me, Modern Vampires is incredibly poignant, and Father of the Bride falls last simply because I kind of hate Phish and I can’t escape the LP’s Phishy vibes.
Gab Ginsberg: It’s my third favorite, after Vampire Weekend and Contra, and ahead of Modern Vampires. I do think “Harmony Hall” is one of the best songs they’ve ever written, but there isn’t a track that evokes the same urge in me to shout along to the lyrics that, say, “Oxford Comma” does.
Joe Lynch: Last place, but I don't mean that as a diss. It's a good album, but the fact of the matter is their first three are basically classics. This is an album any band in its second decade should be proud to deliver, but it's not a game-changer, nor do its peaks approach the idiosyncratic highs of self-titled, Contra or Modern Vampires. And at an hour, it definitely has the most filler of any VW LP.
Chris Payne: Fourth of four, at least for now. Listening to Father Of the Bride, it feels like the first time a Vampire Weekend album doesn’t just mesmerize me, demand my attention all the way through. Listen to all of Modern Vampires -- or any of the first three LPs, really -- and then Bride; there are tangible lulls on the new set where hanging on every note just doesn’t feel necessary as it once did. But Bride could be a big-time grower: Given Koenig and producer Ariel Rechtshaid’s track record, I could see some of the album's best moments revealing themselves deep in its subtleties over time.
Kevin Rutherford: This is a rad album that’s got a good shot of making my best-of list at the end of 2019, but one week removed from release, I’ve got it fourth of four. Which is weird to say, because again, I like what I hear. But when I think of its predecessors, I can name you three, four, maybe five songs off each I’d consider essential Vampire Weekend listening. I’m not sure I can do that yet here, even with an 18-track album.
5. VW make history this week as the first artist to land three Billboard 200-topping albums without having ever spun off a single Billboard Hot 100 hit. Which song, from any of their four albums, do you think Vampire Weekend will best remembered for 20 years from now?
Harley Brown: I think “Married in a Gold Rush” will be remembered, because it’s the Vampire Weekend equivalent of a classic country ballad, and also references the time period in which this album was made (although to be fair, that theme runs through much of Father of the Bride). And we all know this time period won’t be forgotten, because it’ll be when climate change got so bad that it shifted the Earth from salvageable to doomed.
Gab Ginsberg: I really almost said “Oxford Comma,” because it’s my personal favorite, but I think it’s “A-Punk.” I have a theory that because that song title starts with the first letter of the alphabet followed by a dash, it appears at the top of most playlists and iTunes/Spotify libraries when sorted alphabetically. Which means you’re going to hear those first few chords, at least in your head, every time you see it. It’s also their only certified gold single, and it marked their breakthrough both critically and commercially.
Joe Lynch: "A-Punk" is the easy, and correct, answer. People who have no idea who Ezra Koenig is can recognize the song from its irresistibly jangly opening chords, and rock songs with a "hey-hey-hey!" portion tend to stand the test of time.
Chris Payne: First of all, shouts to Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” reaching No. 99 on the Hot 100 for one week in 2013 and making this distinction possible. And as much as I’d like to have a clever, unexpected answer for this… it’s “A-Punk.” It has more than twice as many Spotify spins as any other Vampire Weekend song and I’ve seen how (politely) turnt it gets their live crowds, even recently. It's short and sweet and easy to chant along to, and was the first song many fans heard from them. But "A-Punk" doesn’t overshadow the rest of their catalog, so this title doesn’t feel set in stone. Could a heady deep cut like say, “Hannah Hunt,” wind up soundtracking the emotional climax of a best picture winner 10 years from now and temporarily steal its title? Maybe!
Kevin Rutherford: It’s not just because it’s fresh in my mind as a number from a recent karaoke session, but the edge here has to go to the song the most folks are gonna recognize from the opening notes, and that’s “A-Punk.” Shoot, Vampire Weekend could finally score a Hot 100 hit via Father of the Bride or whatever album(s) come next and, barring some cultural moment, it’ll still be “A-Punk.” Your parents even recognize that opening guitar riff, and most of your parents are not cool.