They came to notice more for their declared influences than their songs but David Pollock argues that Vampire Weekend are easily more than a sum of their parts
The Paul Simon revival, inexplicably, just might start here. Preppy New York quartet Vampire Weekend borrow elements of their sound from Afrobeat, post-punk and new wave, but the fact of four well-off white kids co-opting African rhythms can’t fail to draw comparisons with rock’s most famous musical tourist. In years to come they might also call it ‘doing a Damon Albarn’.
‘It isn’t to say that we want to make difficult music, because we like the catchiness, the immediate appeal of pop music,’ says the band’s guitarist and singer Ezra Koenig. ‘But it was important for us, if we were going to be playing rock instruments, not to use the same rhythms, the same styles of playing that so much rock has used. It becomes kind of boring.’
‘It’s when you hear the same drumbeat in five songs that are really popular,’ continues drummer Chris Tomson. ‘I wouldn’t say there was a particular band we would accuse of this, it’s just an idea of something that we want to be different to.’ No, he definitely wouldn’t say there was a particular band, but after being pressed the whole group take The Strokes’ name in vain.
Formed when they were all at Columbia University in early 2006 (the band are completed by drummer Chris Baio and keyboard player and producer Rostam Batmanglij), Vampire Weekend convened their musical style over a CD of traditional songs from Madagascar, which the band all liked. That’s not your typical starting point for a rock group, but perhaps the fact that VW sprang from such a specific scene accounts for their individuality.
‘I would say our scene was all just playing for our friends at parties, because Columbia’s quite far up north in Manhattan,’ says Tomson. ‘It’s not really close to the Downtown area or Brooklyn, where all the clubs are, so for the first six or seven months as a band we didn’t play anywhere off-campus. It was kind of like hanging out at school, where we were the only band and the scene we were in was just us.’
Starting off in such a scholastic environment and – by their estimate – taking several months to sharpen their set while slowly encroaching on the venues of New York at large has given Vampire Weekend personality. The gentle idiosyncrasies of singles ‘Mansard Roof’ and ‘A-Punk’, and of the eponymous debut album, have drawn accusations that they are too niche, too fluffily, dryly intellectual. In which case, it seems alright to go thinking of the band as a kind of young musical equivalent of Woody Allen.
‘It’s really hard to say what’s going to be successful,’ counters Koenig. ‘We just can’t think about what somebody else says, there are so many factors which go into it [success] that all we can do is write good songs. I think most people, if you explain to them that our music includes these elements of African guitar music, they wouldn’t even be familiar with it. Where music comes from is not what they react to. People react to music hopefully in a more visceral way, a less intellectual way, or at least you really hope they do.’
Vampire Weekend play the Liquid Room, Edinburgh, Sat 3 May; ABC, Glasgow, Sun 4 May.