Music  |  Features

The Artful Dodgers: Santigold & Vampire Weekend

January 5, 2010  |  2:00pm
The Artful Dodgers: Santigold & Vampire Weekend
Other tracks take different musical risks. Six songs, for instance, feature the cello. “I Think Ur A Contra” employs a few licks of acoustic guitar, a Vampire Weekend first. Lead single “Horchata” has no guitar at all. “Taxi Cab” has almost no drums or guitar—it’s driven by Batmanglij’s piano scales, and by Nat Baldwin, of avant-pop band Dirty Projectors, playing a double bass drenched in harmonics. I tell Koenig that Baldwin’s bass sounds a lot like DJ scratching. “I kept saying to Rostam, ‘We’re gonna have at least one song with DJ scratching on this album,’ and it didn’t happen,” Koenig says. “I forgot about it actually … on the next album, I swear, there’s gonna be some.”

The biggest risk of all, though, is one thing the band didn’t change—and, really, couldn’t change: its obsession with prep culture, which spills into its album art, song titles and stage clothes. The band members dress in such absurdly blue-blooded threads—argyles, cardigans, blazers, topsiders—that you wonder whether they’re subverting a stereotype or just submitting to it. “I know sometimes the way we dress is gonna send some people into hysterics,” Koenig says. “It almost seems like, ‘Well, that makes it more worth doing.’ But basically I think one thing people fundamentally don’t understand about our band is that the four of us, we represent a lot of backgrounds and perspectives, and it’s certainly not as simple as people make it out to be. I’ve been shocked when people have described us as being these WASPy dudes, and people even describe my name as WASPy, which is endlessly hilarious to my parents, who are New York City Jews. My family is Eastern European, working-class New York City Jewish. Rostam’s parents are from Iran; he’s Persian. And we’re like the two main songwriters in the band. The other guys, still, their backgrounds are not WASPy either. It’s always kind of cracked me up that people would find it so easy to try and culturally, economically, educationally pigeonhole us, especially when our names are, like, Ezra and Rostam.”

On Contra, Koenig sings about “good schools and friends with pools” in the wry tones of an Ivy Leaguer, just as he sang knowingly about Hyannis Port on his band’s first outing. Everything about Vampire Weekend still has the immaculate pitch of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, a film about debutantes and aristocrats swanning around Manhattan, simultaneously knowing everything and nothing. “I don’t like the idea of straight-up satire,” Koenig says. “But I think that to talk about class and privilege and money is probably one of the most important things you could talk about in a song. And we’re just trying to do it in a way that’s interesting and that has layers of meaning. I think maybe as our body of work grows, that aspect of our body of work will become clearer. It’s not that we’re trying to fuck with people by putting a girl with a Polo shirt on the cover. It’s almost like we can’t help it. That’s what we’re interested in.”

Heading into the 2008 Olympics, advertising executive Gabe McDonough had a problem: He needed one musician to soundtrack two very different television spots. His client, Anheuser-Busch, was set to launch a massive ad campaign for a new beverage called Bud Light Lime. Commercials would air constantly during the Games, and they would come in two forms—a head-turning 15-second teaser to introduce the beer, and a mellow 30-second ad with a beach-party vibe. “I needed an artist that could do basically two different things really well,” McDonough tells me via phone from his office in Chicago. “They could do something that was really banging and clanging and really catching people’s attention, and they could also do something that was really smooth and chilled out and summery and poppy.”

He chose Santigold—at the time, a relatively unknown artist who had cut her teeth as a young A&R executive, and whose debut album was startlingly eclectic. The disc included the buzzing rock track “You’ll Find A Way,” the coquettish “I’m A Lady” and the tough-talking “Shove It,” and its cover displayed a black-and-lavender picture of White vomiting a cloud of gold glitter. McDonough, who had previously worked for adventurous record label Thrill Jockey, settled on two songs that fit his purposes: sun-kissed pop tune “Lights Out,” and rugged hip-hop track “Creator,” with its self-empowering chorus: “Me, I’m a creator / Thrill is to make it up / The rules I break got me a place up on the radar.”

No stranger to ad campaigns, Anheuser-Busch now considers Bud Light Lime one of the most successful product launches in company history. The campaign also brought two sides of Santigold into millions of American households, a boon for a new artist with so many creative dimensions. “That’s really one of Santi’s strengths,” McDonough says. “That record is all over the place. I’m sure she could write a speed-metal song if she had to, and do it really well.”

She’d probably love the opportunity. Before forming Santigold, a collaboration with songwriter/producer John Hill, she fronted the rock band Stiffed. A day before our covershoot, she flew in from Los Angeles where she was producing New Wave pioneers Devo.

“It was amazing,” White gushes. “They’re just, like, my band idols. Them and The Smiths. But Devo, I made them pull out the red hats and pose for a picture.” She giggles. She’s slender and girlish, a style maven who showed up this morning in a powder-blue jacket, a ski cap and shades. She’s had a long 24 hours. Today, the photo shoot. Yesterday, the transcontinental plane ride. And late last night, she dropped by Hell’s Kitchen nightclub Terminal 5 to perform a song with reggae duo Major Lazer. “I am starting my new record right now,” she says, “and I’m really excited about it because I’ve been on the road for three years—literally, three years—and it’s been a lot.”

Yes, it has. In addition to the Bud campaign and Coldplay tour, Santigold landed slots at Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, released a killer mixtape, filmed a voter-registration public-service announcement, remixed Norah Jones and collaborated with hip-hop kingpin Jay-Z.

“I haven’t sold a tremendous amount of records,” White says. “I haven’t really hugely broken through on radio. And I’m definitely not a household name. But this record did way more than anyone thought it would do. I didn’t even think anybody in the States would like this record. There was no music out like it, and it was during a time when you had to kind of fit in. Nobody was really checking for genre-less music. Certainly didn’t think all the different types of people would like it. Like, I was shocked that it was really so well-accepted in the whole hip-hop world. [And] I was really excited that people like Björk and David Byrne liked it.”

Byrne liked it so much, in fact, that he invited White to sing on his Here Lies Love project, a rumination on Imelda Marcos. Byrne gave her a track, “and she nailed it immediately,” he says. “It’s my daughter’s favorite of that project. At that time, when she was in the studio, Santi was still figuring out the live thing—but when I saw her set at Bonnaroo this year I thought, ‘Well, she got that figured out.’”

White seems to have a lot of things figured out. She glides across demographic borders with practiced ease, a skill she developed back home in Mount Airy, Pa. “It’s part of Philadelphia proper,” she says, “but it’s still suburban-feeling. It’s got grass and trees and quiet streets. And downtown was all the gold stores. And all the fly girls with the big gold earrings and the asymmetrical haircuts and the leather trench coats.” She pauses dramatically. “And I was like, ‘I wanna be like that!’” She bounced from a private all-girls school to a Philly public school, where she got to know nerds and skaters and even those supercool fly girls. “Anyway, so I got there and the whole fly-girl thing was just stupid, and I realized it—and I was like, ‘Let me go back to private school.’ So then I started dressing super preppy, kind of like Ezra.” She laughs again; White is a big laugher. “That’s when I started to just develop my own style. I was preppy for a minute, and then I was just like, ‘I like this from over here and this from over here.’ And that’s when I started being like, ‘OK, I’m gonna pick and choose now that I’m exposed to all this stuff.’ And even my friends I started to pick and choose. I kept some of the friends from the fly girls. I kept some of the new friends. And it ended up being really cool because I realized that I like being the only person that could jump around the scene.”

White kept jumping. She studied West African and Haitian drumming at Wesleyan University, rose through the record-label ranks, formed Stiffed and then blew up with Santigold. “I created a mold of figuring out what my sound is,” she says of her first record, which sold more than 175,000 copies in the United States., according to Nielsen SoundScan. “I think that was a really big step, ’cause I didn’t feel like any other sound fit me all the way. So now it’s just like the evolution of all of that. I don’t feel like I need to create a new mold. You know, like The Smiths, for example—or Devo! If you listen to all their records, you don’t get a different band every record. It’s not like Madonna. And I think that’s the kind of artist I am. I wouldn’t want to love a record from an artist, and then go buy the [next] record and have it be something completely different. I don’t want it to be stagnant and be the exact same thing. But just an organic evolution of who that artist is.”

In a way, she has an easier path to sophomore success than Koenig. When your whole brand is built around musical collage, after all, you can pull sounds from the entire sonic universe and still sound like yourself. And yet, like Vampire Weekend, White still gets hemmed in by musical stereotypes. “I meet people in airports, every time—you know, the security guys. ‘Hey. Where you going? Do you live there? What do you do?’ ‘I’m a singer.’ I don’t even know why I even tell the truth. ‘What do you sing, R&B?’” She laughs, on a roll now. “Or you meet any person, like any person. It’s, ‘Oh, what do you sing, gospel?’ And it’s just like, come on. So, it’s just nice to be able to give another model for other women of color, or other women in general, other people in general.”

All Santi White is doing, then, is making ambitious music outside the familiar confines of genre, without radio support, while trying to represent a whole new model of artistry. No wonder she needs a break. The new album is coming—just give her a second to catch her breath. “This will be a creative year for me,” she says. “Last year was a work year for me.”

At this point, White is excited to stay at home for a while. To celebrate her most recent birthday, she rented Twilight and got her nails done. She wants a puppy. The speed of life is already slowing. And yet, one gets the feeling she’ll never quit jumping around. Near the end of our conversation, White tells me she’s learning the martial art of wing chun, a strain of kung fu. “I think I’m pretty close to mastering it already,” she says. “I took it for six months about six years ago, and I’m still knocking people out on occasion.”

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