By Kyle MacKinnel; Photo by Alex Beck on January 8, 2010
Sometime in the late ’80s, a boy stands in the imposing shadow of his parents’ bookcase. He has not yet learned how to read, but clutches his father’s weathered paperback edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy anyway, marveling at its beaten orange surface with the picture of a peculiar British gentleman. Next, he reaches up high to pull his mother’s copy of The Vegetarian Epicure from a shelf, poring over the earthy, ’70s-era design of the classic health food cookbook. This boy is still some 20 years away from singing and playing guitar in a band called Vampire Weekend (or, for that matter, knowing who Laurence Sterne even was), and is yet is unable to understand the irony of his youthful fascination with book covers.
Today, the 25-year-old version of Ezra Koenig cites such early memories, among them a certain kids’ TV show featuring Paul Reubens, as some of the images he aspires to chase with his creativity.
“I’ve never cooked a recipe out of any of those books,” Koenig admits over the phone from a Canadian airport. “But that was super evocative for me. It’s a weird one, but growing up, my favorite show was Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and I’ve always felt that it influenced me somehow. I think that stuff is lodged in the back of your brain when you’re making art, because you know what feels right when you write a song that’s good. You know the feeling because of these experiences.”
Koenig and his bandmates—multi-instrumentalist/producer Rostam Batmanglij, bassist Chris Baio and drummer Christopher Tomson—have been chasing this feeling since forming Vampire Weekend in 2006 while students at Columbia University. Their first resulting product, 2008’s Vampire Weekend, was a bright, kinetic and intricate record that saw wide critical acclaim. Unfortunately, the band’s packaging proved even shinier, and with song titles like “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” a photograph of a chandelier as cover art, and a penchant for polished onstage attire, it became difficult to read about Vampire Weekend without stumbling over trigger-happy mentions of “Ivy league” or “J. Crew.” For some listeners, the surface imagery became a distraction from the music, as well as the intentions of the people making it.
“I learned pretty early on that we were going to get a lot of criticism that other people are immune to,” Koenig admits of Vampire Weekend’s curious polarizing effect. “There are some people who are looking to be outraged. How can you put nuanced music in front of somebody who’s already made up their mind about who you are, or how music should be, or how bands should look? If our band really did write songs promoting upper-class hedonism, I probably wouldn’t like us either, but it’s not the case. People who really get our band realize we can’t be that easily reduced.” As he speaks, Koenig never breaks from his relaxed, languid tone, and it seems silly to connect any semblance of pretension to this thoughtful voice, Columbia educated or not.
“From some of the things that people wrote, you’d imagine that Columbia was like Oxford in the ’20s, with children of Dukes having butlers and stuff,” Koenig continues. “It’s a private college, but people from all different backgrounds go there, and they give out financial aid; I received financial aid. The whole idea that you could get so angry about us going to a good school—it’s so close-minded.”
Now, please open up. Turn to the first page.
Sometime in 1983, a strikingly pretty, golden-locked young woman turns in the corner of a room to face an eager camera lens. She wears a yellow Polo shirt and an enigmatic expression. Her eyes might resemble those of a doe caught in headlights, only cognizant of a much deeper fate, while her half-smile slides into a shape of indifference, or perhaps, annoyance. It’s all very Da Vinci. Snap.
The date of this Polaroid is as far into specific detail that Koenig will go on the cover art of Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra. “When we saw that picture we were just kind of struck by it, and thought it made perfect sense to use as a cover,” he explains. “It’s especially ambiguous, which gets your mind working. I think the fact that she looks like that and she’s wearing a Polo shirt only adds to the layers of meaning. Some people might imagine that she’s a villain in a John Hughes movie. But if you have any empathy, you might see that image and wonder, ‘What’s going through this person’s mind?’”
Musically, Contra serves well as a continuation of where Vampire Weekend left off, but hints at a more varied array of influences and is even tougher to pin down. According to Batmanglij, an early release on the band’s website, the opener, “Horchata,” is a spirited track that showcases its fascination with Jamaican music.
“Whereas some of the stuff on the first album was kind of flirting with ska, on this album it’s clearly more than flirtation,” he says, wryly. Batmanglij, a Washington, D.C., native, plays a myriad of different instruments in Vampire Weekend and has also produced both of the band’s records. He describes his education in music production as a “slow obsession,” beginning in high school and escalating through college.
“I was always trying to recreate sounds I was hearing, to the point where I could recreate anything I heard,” Batmanglij explains. “I think Ezra started to trust me as the stuff I was recording started sounding better and better.” Batmanglij also has a gift for writing music for strings, which has become a staple of Vampire Weekend’s sound, and continues onto Contra, though in less of a Baroque context (the harpsichord that “M79” loved so well, though still present here, has also been reduced). His general idea for the production of the record was to push it in “different directions at the same time.”
This notion becomes clearer when listening to the album in its entirety. Weighing in at just 36 minutes, Contra’s 10 tracks each employ a rather unique palette of sounds. From the organic instrumentation and horns of “Run,” to the single drum machine pattern from which “Taxi Cab” was born, to the collision of Tomson’s big drums with hand percussion as featured on “Giving up the Gun,” this record quickly becomes quite a varied experience. An M.I.A. vocal is sampled on the dubby “Diplomat’s Son,” and the frenetic “California English” even finds Koenig’s vocal run through—you guessed it—Auto-Tune, if subtly. Despite the general disapproval of Jay-Z and Death Cab for Cutie, Batmanglij defends the decision to use hip-hop’s most infamous crutch effect in light of keeping each track’s individual components distinct from its counterparts.
“With any song, I try to make it from a perspective that sounds unique,” he says. “We were searching for a different color or flavor of vocal, and Auto-Tune was how we came to that. A lot of people have heard it and not immediately recognized the Auto-Tune. I think in some ways, it transcends Auto-Tune.”
Thematically, Koenig has said that Contra is “sadder than the first one; a bit more sentimental.” For those of us burdened with the tendency to take things at face value (and most of us who aren’t), Contra will most likely not evoke the despair of an Ian Curtis lyric. But Koenig maintains that melancholia and upbeat songs are not mutually exclusive—unless you’re raving.
“I think there’s a duality in everything,” Koenig says. “Whether it’s a memory of ours that we’re trying to turn into a song or a description of somebody else, we want it to be realistic. I think part of that is noting the complexity of actual emotion. There are songs that are super pumped-up ecstasy jams, and if you’re not on ecstasy, maybe you can’t relate to that feeling of ‘balls-out, giant grin’ happiness. Sure, I want our music to be happy, but I wouldn’t want people to think of it that way.”
Somewhat of a particular outlier on the album, the closing ballad, “I Think Ur a Contra,” is a subdued, deeply complex exploration of deception in the downward trajectory of a relationship between speaker and subject. Though Koenig cites no specific experience of his own as inspiration for the song, it comes across as personal and delicate a sentiment as the singer has ever delivered. Please read closely: “I think you’re a contra/I think that you lied/Don’t call me a contra/’til you’ve tried.” All the tension, upon its confrontation, boils into a cathartic resolution and, once again, there is more than meets the ear to Vampire Weekend. The track also happens to bear the album’s title, which Koenig suggests is just as multifaceted as the songs it represents, or the picture gracing its surface.
“Part of the initial appeal with the title was that I felt like it meant a lot of different things, but it also meant something very simple: against,” Koenig explains. “And we felt even more comfortable using that album cover to have the word Contra emblazoned against it, because it makes it even more ambiguous about what’s going on. Is she for something? Is she against something? You don’t know. I think when people stop thinking of themselves as being totally separate from everybody else—even the worst people they come into conflict with—then Contra comes from a very different place in the end.”
When asked about how their lives have changed since Vampire Weekend began to accelerate so rapidly, Koenig and Batmanglij are hesitant to cite the music-making process as a clear example, insisting that their recording procedures from Vampire Weekend to Contra were practically identical, despite a former lack of a record label or any “professional” guidance; a D.I.Y. aesthetic that this band continues to embody—quite a feat when one considers the level of Batmanglij’s production. Instead, they point to their own self-awareness as having evolved since becoming full-time musicians.
“You start to think about, ‘Well, if this album sounds this way, or this album tackles these topics thematically, then what’s the next step?’” Batmanglij explains. “And you kind of start to think about the arc of the band; that’s something we’ve talked about a lot.”
Taking an alternate approach to the question, Koenig reflects quietly on the year following his graduation from Columbia, when he worked as an English teacher in a public middle school. “It was my first time being in a role where people thought of me as an adult,” he says. “I went from doing something because I thought it would help other people, to doing something that’s a little more ambiguous. I’m very lucky to be in my position, and I love it, and I do think that we’ve made people happy.” He pauses for a moment, and continues. “I have a fear of becoming a hypocrite. I’ve been thinking about my parents’ generation a lot, and staying true to ideals that you really believe in. It’s something that crosses my mind a lot.”
Don’t call him a contra, ’til you’ve tried. Turn to the next page.
This article is from FILTER Issue 38