By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
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Mix one part infectious indie-pop with one part world music section from your favorite record store—old and new, East and West. Stir vigorously and serve with a wink and a nod.
It's true: Ever since they first appeared in early 2008, Vampire Weekend's recipe has been laid bare.
At a time when most bands compete to see whose sense of irony is bigger, or to see just how indistinguishable from Nickelback they can sound, along comes this quartet of sensibly dressed, upper-middle class Ivy Leaguers with clean-sounding guitars and blatant references to African music. But rather than simply being some attention-grabbing bit, it's also a genuine reflection of the band's four members—vocalist/guitarist Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio, keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and drummer Chris Tomson—and how they play music together.
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And it's been part of the band's heterogeneous mixture since the very beginning.
"As far as Afropop, it was definitely there early, early on," remembers bassist Baio as he wraps up preparation for the band's upcoming U.S. tour. "We all found the clean sound of guitar in Afropop really inspiring, because here's this instrument that's pretty much rooted in blues-derived British and American rock 'n' roll music sounding completely different and very fresh to us."
The band met while students at Columbia University and discovered their mutual love for world music while sitting next to each other in the back rows of music classes, chatting at parties and hanging out in the dorms. Their earliest rehearsals focused on songs like "Oxford Comma" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," two gems off of their self-titled debut album, which perfectly showcases their infatuation with the clean guitar sounds prominent in African musical styles like Soweto.
But, after blowing up in a whirlwind of critical adoration, Vampire Weekend's exploration of world music started inviting strong reactions and inevitable comparisons. The most common comparison, under the shadow of which the band still finds itself, is to Paul Simon's Graceland, arguably the most successful exploration of African music by a popular Western artist.
It's an obvious comparison, sure, and Baio says it's one that doesn't bother the band.
"You know, you're pouring your life into your musical project, [and] you don't want to create anything that can be reduced into one sentence, but I think that's just a natural critical response for seeing things," he says. "Honestly, I'm just happy that people are talking about it."
When Vampire Weekend began work on their second album, Contra, they faced pressure not only to outperform comparisons to music from other cultures or to albums by legendary artists, but also to live up to their own hype. Contra couldn't just be a warmed-up version of their eponymous debut; it truly had to be new, while still respecting the old, and their recipe still had to be followed.
As a result, Contra is, according to Baio, "a deeper and wider record that has a lot of the same touchstones but also goes off in a few different directions." And, true enough, that can be seen in the vocal tricks on "California English," in the sweeping falsetto on "I Think Ur A Contra" and in the tribal drums on "Horchata." There's indeed progression to be found.
Similarly, as the band returns to the road for the second U.S. tour behind Contra, they're doing so with some new additions to their stage show. Because of legal issues surrounding the album's cover, which was used as a giant backdrop for the first leg of the tour, the band has changed to a new backdrop and an updated stage show.
It's added a refreshing element to the tour, Baio says, which has already found the band on the road for the better part of a year at this point.
"It's really beautiful," Baio says of the band's new live presentation, "and I think, in that regard, it was kinda energizing."
Yet even amongst all these shows, Vampire Weekend is in the early stages of planning their next album. And, with so much left for the young band to explore and express, neither legal action nor endless touring can quell that excitement.
Not at all.
"That," Baio says, "would be a pretty depressing prospect."