For the last five years Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig has been on a quest to better understand the origin of identity. Not just the one derived from his own ancestral history, but also that of the African-infused music he creates and the city that he calls home. “Vampire Weekend has always been about identity,” he sheepishly states on a recent spring day in Toronto, making sure to note that he’s not generally a fan of generalizations, but in this case he’s willing to make an exception. As the skyline of the Canadian cultural capital sprawls through his hotel window, the warm afternoon sun tints his soft Semitic facial features—providing just enough shadow to expose the slight crevasse at the ball of his nose.
The product of eastern European ancestry and Ivy League schooling, Koenig speaks with an affected cadence and affluent intelligence which, over years of interviews and dense literary lyricism and worldly pop, has garnered the 29-year-old a reputation as a privileged wiseacre. With that nimble albatross hanging around his neck, in person Koenig speaks with purpose but insists on quantifying any statement with an addendum. In other words, he thinks too much about thinking too much.
“If our three albums [2008’s Vampire Weekend, 2010’s Contra and new album, Modern Vampires of the City] are a trilogy the narrative would be here and there and back again,” Koenig inserts in the middle of a question about his lyrical evolution. “Every album is kind of its own world, so every element has to have a character which is unique to that time period—the time period in which we made it. Obviously we’re not trying to make this album a summary of everything that happened in 2012, but in a basic artistic sense we want our work to be reflective the time we live in.”
To that end it would behoove to point to Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut. Released into a sea of hype, the group’s debut not only sported its first hit, the pogo-inducing “A-Punk,” but also stirred up a firestorm with its not-so-subtle African musical touchstones—a subject Koenig still finds touchy (much more on that later)—and its white-bred, white collar subject matter which included songs about the viability of the Oxford comma and days and nights spent in Cape Cod.
“The first album, who knows what we were repping? New England? It was definitely provincial,” Koenig states before quickly changing the subject to the common journalistic usage of the word “mature,” which many, including this journalist, have used to describe the band’s latest album.
“I hate the word mature, it just sounds like some weird softcore porn or something like that,” he preambles. “We started out these naive, joyful school kids and we made an album around that time. Suddenly things change—not just for us, but for people that we know—things change for us because we started a band and started traveling the world but things change for everybody in their early to mid-twenties, whether you went to college or not.”
Koenig similarly lacks appreciation for the descriptor “dark,” preferring “deep” as a way to attribute Modern Vampires of the City’s spacious musical complexity, a catchy intermingling of musical influences ranging from the dancehalls of Jamaica to 17th century baroque piano, and soul-searching subject matter, a study on the place of spirituality, relationships and proximity on modern life.
“When I got off the road after Contra I definitely had some moments of thinking a bit more deeply about my own life; things that just hadn’t crossed my mind before.”
Things, he says, like the concept of time in relation to life and death, and, most importantly, identity. Taking some time off at home, he conceived Modern Vampires’ place in Vampire Weekend’s musical triptych.
“The album feels like a return to New York,” he asserts. “For us, New York is always going to loom large—it’s where we live, it’s where the band started—and for me even when I start thinking of some deeper shit like becoming an adult, which I don’t think has happened yet but is on the horizon: What do I believe in? How do I identify myself? Then I start thinking about my family, my family history. I mean really my family comes from New York, more than any other place.”
Some 10 minutes after beginning his answer, Koenig finally tips his hand to his larger point.
“A lot of people’s identity is related to their family’s past,” he begins. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes: people who decide to identify more with a kind of historical sense of identity than with the actual place they grew up, and as you get older people sometimes make these choices that simplify their identity,”
“My grandma was born in Transylvania,” Koenig explains, admitting that fact is the closest the group comes to the modern Vampire motif (“It was a bizarre quirk of the universe that we came out right around the time Twilight got huge and True Blood began airing so there’s a lot of vampires in the atmosphere—Vampire Weekend being the least ‘vampiric’ of the lot, but we all kind of felt like it was part of the wave.”) “She moved to America in the teens and lived in the East Village.”
Some other members of his family “have actually been in New York for a shocking amount of time.”
“My great, great grandfather was one of the first dudes to come to the Lower East Side from Hungary!” he says with a great deal of pride. “So when I consider my family, most of the places these people came from don’t really exist anymore, so if I have to choose a starting point—I’m aware of the history of immigration in my family tree—but if I have to think of a real starting point for where their culture comes from, it’s New York. New York is the Homeland. It’s my Motherland much more than a vanished part of Europe.
“So in one sense that’s the theme of [Modern Vampires]: Identity and place; how does place affect your identity?“
In another sense, the group’s latest album also delves deeper into the world of black music. Beyond the usual allusions to Graceland-era Paul Simon (itself a nod to African electronic guitar music), the album title is a reference to a song by Jamaican legend Junior Reid, and the production—helmed by Usher and Snoop Dogg alum Ariel Rechtshaid—thrusts Vampire Weekend away from the tight catchy indie of their debut and heavily into Top 40 hip hop.
Still scratching the blogger battle scars of appropriation, Koenig is quick to turn to his standard macro-to-micro approach when dealing with such a touchy subject. “All the great art that I love could probably be analyzed as a cross-cultural mixture—whether you’re talking about books or albums,” he asserts. “Most great 20th century works are in some ways the product of immigration, experiences with different cultures, all of these things loom so large in art.”
“We’ve never been shy that the music that we like is what we do,” he says, however, “I try to be aware of the painful history of race relations in America and the world.”
And then he goes off:
“Of course there’s a degree of respect that needs to be present when referencing somebody else’s music, and I’d like to think that that’s always been there. But the idea that things can be broken up very simply, that there are some things that are uniquely white culture and some things that are uniquely black culture, I think some people over state the case.
“For instance, given that there’s a history in our country of white musicians straight up ripping off black musicians—not even paying them for their songs—that’s a fucked-up painful history, and people need to come to terms with that. There’s also a history of people approaching Africa as this big, unified dark continent where nobody has a personality and a song like ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ nobody wrote that—unlike Europe where individuals write songs—it’s a folk song. That’s what people thought and then of course a guy wrote that and it took 50 years for people to figure that out.
“At the same time I think there’s a positive message that people need to remember. For instance, the South African ‘80s electric guitar-based pop music that Paul Simon got excited about, that is not traditional music that was pulled out of the ancient sands of time; the electric guitar is an American instrument. Does that mean that America has ownership over anything that’s done with an electric guitar? Of course not, but there’s a dialogue.
“And sometimes people who think that they’re protecting cultures and fighting racism inadvertently become the thing that they’re trying to avoid. It comes back to this idea that guys in America and England listen to music from all over the world whereas the guy in South Africa doesn’t know who the Beatles are. People don’t want to admit how much of a cross-cultural dialogue is going on.
“I think it’s important to talk and think about, and sometimes we’ve used our music to talk and think about it.”
Pausing for a moment, possibly to breathe, he takes aim at his detractors:
“I don’t know a single person who only listens to music that they consider from their culture. The only people who do that are white supremacists. I’ve read interviews with white supremacists who started a rock band and take great pains to explain how there’s no black influences—they skip all that black shit and go straight to Wagner. The only people I know who only base their cultural consumption based on their own ethnicity or heritage are supremacists of some sort—I don’t want to just pick on white supremacists, this applies to any supremacists.”
And then the frontman, scholar, deep thinker and notorious over-analyzer brings it back to his study.
“People always try to put you in boxes based on your race, where you’re from, the way you present yourself. We’re four dudes who decided to pick up some guitars and keyboards and have a drum set so, of course, from the beginning people thought of us as a rock band, even on our first album we did a lot of things to avoid what we considered the clichés of modern rock, but the fact that we’re four dudes from New York means we’re always be thought of as a rock band from New York to some extent.”