Each week we take an artist, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences. This week, it’s Vampire Weekend!
Back in the late autumn of 2007, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Rostam Batmanglij was asked about the new band he and his friend Ezra Koenig had formed. Considering Vampire Weekend’s fantastically rhythmical blend of African-pop, artful experimentalism, ska, seventies folk, Caribbean fusions and indie-rock, Rostam simply said, “I thought it would be interesting to play classical music on rock instruments.” For Koenig, it was even simpler; “The basis of our whole band,” he said, “is not playing modern rock.” Ezra and Rostam’s band, named after a comedy horror short Ezra made in 2005, played their first gig at a Battle of the Bands in February 2006 (they came third). A few weeks later their first track, Walcott, (after Ezra’s character in his short film and, laterally, as a tribute to St Lucian poet, Derek) appeared online. By September they had a three-track EP out which was followed early the next year by some CD-Rs of a whole album. In July 2007, seventeen months after their very first gig, the band signed to XL Recordings. Almost immediately, the debates about colonialism and cultural appropriation began. What on earth, the critics asked, were these hip-hop obsessed middle-class kids doing singing about Congolese dance crazes of the 1970s and 80s anyway? How dare they even attempt such a thing? Interestingly, Koenig had already had a go at answering that question in an entry posted on his blog the same month the band played its debut show. “What is authentic for a guy like me?” he wondered in February 2006. “Fourth-generation Ivy League, deracinated, American Jew, raised [by] middle-class, post-hippie parents. I should be a truly post-modern consumer, taking the bits and pieces I like from various traditions and cultures, letting my aesthetic instincts be my only guide. [I am] both disconnected from and connected to everything.”
Three hugely successful albums later, we know where Vampire Weekend are now, the question is, how did they get there?
In The Beginning
Ezra had played in surf, funk and indie bands, but a good place to start with Vampire Weekend is the two collections of contemporary Madagascan music that he picked up in a garage sale in the early noughties. Originally released in the mid-80s, they’re both full of vivid, melodic, totally un-rock pop songs, while he insists Billy Joel (whose The Downeaster “Alexa” alludes to, um, Cape Cod) is simply, “woven into the fabric of my life.” Rostam remembers hearing his mother play Persian folk music, Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints and the soundtrack to the 1996 film The Big Night over and over again. “When you know something in-and-out like that,” Rostam once said, “it starts to affect who you are.” His head would be forever changed by the purchase of a compilation cassette of South African superstar Brenda Fassie.
Never underestimate the power of artists who know how to twist pop into startling new shapes. That might be Talking Heads (including frontman David Byrne’s collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts), Kraftwerk, Momus or Poppin’ My Collar by Ezra’s beloved Three Six Mafia. Drummer Chris Tomson was a huge fan of US jam-band Phish, while bassist Chris Baio was originally hired thanks to his ability to play complex Metallica riffs from memory.
Punky Reggae Party, and Beyond
As a teenager Ezra fell for the charms of punk, classic rock and a whole lot more. On one hand, he loved Fat Wreck Chords bands like NOFX and even developed a minor thing for Blink 182 (but he couldn’t stand Simple Plan). On the other hand, he loved Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones (“an awesome band”). But then there’s digital-dancehall classic Under Me Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith, Sean Paul’s Like Glue (“probably my all-time favorite Sean Paul song”, Ezra enthused in November 2005), Bollywood songs like Kajra Re from the film Bunty Aur Babli and Latin-music / Bachata star Anthony’s Simplemente Te Amo. As Koenig once noted, “By the time I was in high school, I had no genre allegiance at all…” Oh, really?
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Anglophilia looms large in VW world. There’s The Smiths, in particular Johnny Marr, whose bright, clean guitar lines – as on This Charming Man – were a huge inspiration for both Weekenders. Ezra found Kate Bush, The Beat, The Beatles, The Specials and Ian Dury through his (equally Anglophile) dad, while Rostam’s first loves were Coldplay and Radiohead. And Sigur Ros – yes, I know they’re not British, but, hell, we nurtured them from the get-go, goddamit!
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