Meanwhile, here’s Ezra Koenig’s track-by-track guide, a version of which appears in the current issue of NME, an ‘albums for 2010’ special.
Horchata started with the opening line. It was a melody that I’d had in my head going way back to when I was a teacher because I remember singing it when I was fixing up my classroom early in the morning. It took a long time to grow and become a proper song.
We have a guest musician on this song: Mauro Refosco, a Brazilian percussionist who plays with David Byrne and Thom Yorke. He was really cool. When he showed up at the studio he brought his marimba but he also brought all sorts of other things that allowed us to try different instruments that we hadn’t even heard of before, so those became an important part of the sound of that song.
We also play a kalimba, which is an African thumb piano. It’s such a unique sound because it’s very pretty but it’s also metallic and buzzy.
The best Horchata [a drink, popular in South America] that I’ve ever had is in LA. It was a restaurant that did Oaxacan food, so very specific regional Mexican cooking. They put all these nuts and fruit in it.
We debuted ‘White Sky’ at the album release show for the first album way back in January 2008. We knew all our friends were going to be there so we set ourselves a challenge to write something new, because they’d heard all the other songs a million times.
We approached it almost like a rap or R&B song. Rostam [Batmanglij, keyboard] made a 30-second loop on his computer and I kept listening to it at home until I came up with a melody. Usually we’d hash out a song out in the studio between. So to me, that song is a link between the first and second albums.
‘Contra’ is something of a Californian album, but ‘White Sky’ is a song about exploring New York and the people who live there.
I hammered out the basic idea on the piano in the practice room one day when I was waiting for everyone to show up. Then we started playing it on guitars and we liked how it reminded us of Operation Ivy and ‘90s ska-punk. To some, that’s a very reviled genre, but it was important to us growing up, so we wanted to pay tribute to some of those bands.
As we were working on the song I kept trying to think of a different name to call it, because there are so many songs called ‘Holiday’. But then we realised that it’s quite a nice idea to be participating in this grand pop tradition, alongside Madonna, Weezer and Dizzee Rascal.
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The lyrics refer to a member of my family who gave up eating meat when we invaded Iraq. They were horrified by what was happening internationally and they lost their taste for meat. It wasn’t even necessarily an overt protest, it was a physical reaction.
Probably the most notable thing about this song is the Auto-Tune. Because Auto-Tune has become so synonymous with a certain type of pop music, some people started to have a knee-jerk reaction against it, but at the end of the day it’s really just a technology. We felt it took the song to a new place and made it more original, rather than less so. I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake it for T-Pain.
It’s one of our first ballads. Even though it’s a quiet, emotional song, it’s still rhythmic. I don’t like the idea that a ballad has to be mushy and lightweight, so I’m singing over these really heavy, dubby drums.
A major turning point in this song was when we had Nat Baldwin come in, who plays bass in Dirty Projectors. It’s about the way different people deal with problems in different ways. In relationships, some people want to talk about stuff to death while other people want to move forward, and there can often be a conflict.
If you can hear some Springsteen on this song, that’s cool because I’m a huge Springsteen fan. My Dad has all his records and also growing up in New Jersey you had to be aware of him. He’s the master of writing songs about running away. ‘Born To Run’ is a very positive song but this song deals with the fact that you could also be running away because you’re trying to ignore your problems.
In the middle of the album sessions we did a tour of Mexico. It was a two-week tour but only three shows, so we had all this time free. We did some tourist stuff but we also booked a studio in Mexico City for two days, which was enough time to get ‘Cousins’ done.
It’s one of the most bare-bones songs we’ve ever made because it’s only guitar, bass and drums. Two days later we debuted it for the first time at a show in Guadalahara so I’ll always associate that Mexican tour with the process of making ‘Cousins’.
Giving Up The Gun
I got the idea for the song from a book my Dad gave me called Giving Up The Gun. It’s a history book about the time when Japan expelled all the foreigners from the country, closed off all trade, and stopped using guns and reverted back to the sword. It seems unimaginable now that humanity could willingly go back to an older technology. It got me thinking about whether you could give up the things that you have and go back to a simpler way of life.
It’s an MIA sample [from her song, ‘Hussel’] at the beginning. We used a mixture of live drumming, drum machines and hand percussion. Rostam already had some lyrical ideas for the chorus and then I came up with my own verse melody, so because two people collaborated on the lyrics, there is that sense of shifting perspectives.
I Think Ur A Contra
It’s the first song that I’ve sang entirely in falsetto and the vocal feels more exposed because of that. It’s a conversation between two people and the way they’re using the word ‘contra’ is to say, “You’re the opposite of me.”
Say you break up with your girlfriend and suddenly you feel like they’re a totally different person to you, but obviously that’s not the whole story because at one point you felt very tender towards them.
We have so many signals in our life telling us to make decisions between two things, but usually it’s not as simple as that. Some people would say a choice between two things is no choice at all.
We thought of calling the album ‘Contra’ before this song was even written – to me it makes perfect sense as the title of this album because in some way every song has something to say about being forced into a dichotomy, that every choice is always either A or B.
You can apply it to politics, culture, religion or personal relationships. We’re fighting against the dumbing down of choice.