Q&A With Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig
Right now, the most talked-about band on the rise among the nation's critical taste-makers is Vampire Weekend. But in Westword’s March 20 profile of the New York-based group, and in the following Q&A, lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig talks for himself.
Koenig begins by sketching in details about his background, including his mom’s efforts as a family therapist and his father’s career in the technical end of filmmaking, complete with a Spike Lee reference and a lousy review for one of the biggest budget productions on which he’s had the opportunity to work. That’s followed by memories of his first original composition and the seventh-grade graduation Koenig played alongside Wes Miles, a childhood pal now fronting Ra Ra Riot; details about L’Homme Run, a sorta hip-hop project that preceded Vampire Weekend; the set of guidelines Koenig and company tried to follow when establishing the VW style; the ease, or lack thereof, with which the band became a press darling; repetitious comparisons of the Weekenders’ self-titled debut album to previous recordings by Talking Heads and Paul Simon, referred to below as They Who Shall Not Be Named; and the plusses and minuses of being named MTV’s artist of the week.
Which lasts longer than the typical fifteen minutes of fame.
Westword (Michael Roberts): For all of the articles that have been written about you guys, very few of them have very much biographical information. It’s as if you were born at Columbia when you were twenty. So I thought I’d try getting some actual facts. Where are you from originally?
Ezra Koenig: Well, originally, I was born in New York. My parents lived on the Upper West Side. But I have no memory of living here, because I almost totally grew up in Northern New Jersey, in the suburbs of New York.
WW: Tell me about your parents. What jobs did they have when you were growing up?
EK: They have the same jobs now as they did then. My mom is a therapist – like a family therapist. And my dad’s job is what they call the lead man, which takes an explanation. It means he works on movies and TV shows, working for the art director. He’s in charge of the people who build the sets and props and stuff like that. It can mean a lot of different things – but he’s on movie sets a lot.
WW: Those are two interesting professions. What are some of the film and TV projects your dad’s worked on that people might have heard of?
EK: Well, he worked on a bunch of Spike Lee movies. I remember going to the set of Malcolm X when I was, like, nine or something like that. But his job is not a creative part of the movie. It’s more technical. He works on good movies like that, and also some junky, big-budget movies, and I don’t know how much of a difference it makes to him. Sometimes it can be more organized and less stressful with a big-budget film. But he’s not actually making the decision of what things look like. So sometimes when I tell people about a really bad movie my dad worked on, they’re like, “Oh, that movie was… o-kaaaay.” And I’m like, “Trust me, my dad wouldn’t feel bad if you thought the movie was horrible. He probably thinks it’s horrible, too.”
WW: Share one of the horrible ones – the ones that get that kind of response from people.
EK: Oh, he worked on this remake of The Time Machine. That was when I was in high school, and he was up in Poughkeepsie, New York for a couple of months. I remember he and I went to see it at a theater, and we both thought it was so bad (laughs). Nice sets, though.
WW: And your mom being a therapist: What’s it like knowing that whatever happens, you’re dealing with an expert – someone who knows the ropes?
EK: I think like a lot of kids, you don’t exactly want to talk to your parents about your problems, no matter what. I’m sure that’s true of most people. But the older I get, the more I can appreciate that my mom has always had her shit together and would always give me very reasonable advice about how to deal with people and stuff like that. At the same time, I was probably extra-sensitive – knowing that she was a therapist and that she’d ask me therapist-type questions. But on the whole, it was nice to have someone who spends most of their life thinking about the best way to talk to people and the way people interact. That’s good for a home environment, I think.
WW: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
EK: Yeah, I have a younger sister.
WW: Is she into music?
EK: She is into music. She’s more into musical theater, which is pretty different, but there’s some crossover, I guess. She’s in acting school now, and we have that thing in common. We’re both really into these kinds of really difficult, artsy things.
WW: When did you get interested in playing music? How old were you?
EK: Well, my parents were really into playing music, too. They grew up in the ‘60s, and they have a ton of records, and they’re into the idea of playing music and singing songs together and stuff like that. So always music was like a big thing in our house. When I started writing my own songs, when I was like ten or eleven, a little bit after I started taking piano lessons and was learning how to mess around on the piano, I remember I had a little tape recorder and I’d record songs.
WW: So there may be an archive of those early compositions floating around somewhere?
EK: Oh yeah. There’s a cassette tape somewhere at my house with my first song ever, which was called “Bad Birthday Party.”
WW: “Bad Birthday Party”?
EK: Yeah (laughs).
WW: How bad was it?
EK: I can’t remember what the lyrics were, but I remember it was a really bad birthday party (laughs). I think when you’re a kid, that sounds like one of the worst things ever – a bad birthday party.
WW: Did you play in bands in high school?
EK: Yeah – but actually, my first real band was in middle school. It was with my friend, Wes [Miles], who’s actually got his own band now, called Ra Ra Riot. I’m going to go see them tonight in New York. But we first had a band together that performed at our seventh-grade graduation, and then all through high school we had other bands together with different styles and different people.
WW: At your seventh-grade graduation, did you have to play some big, sappy ballad about how you were moving on in your life?
EK: (Laughs). No, they let us have free rein. They let us play a U2 song and I think maybe “Sunshine of Your Love,” and then one original.
WW: You must have gone to cool middle school. Was your high school like that, too?
EK: Well, my high school… it’s a really small town, and as a result of that, your experiences can be really hit or miss. It’s got this reputation as, like, jock-centric, footbally, small town, with these pseudo-preppy kids. But when I was there, I managed okay. My class was, like, 86 people. I think it’s the smallest public high school in New Jersey. But amazingly, I was able to find this whole crew of friends, and we were all into the same kind of music and we were all interested in recording music and making music. Maybe if I had been a couple of years older or younger, I would have felt totally isolated and had no one to relate to. But because of the way it was, I kind of enjoyed it. I felt like, I’ve got my crew, and everyone’s okay. It’s nice.
WW: That’s rare. What’s the name of the school?
EK: Glen Ridge High School. It’s a tiny town, tiny high school. But yeah, I was lucky enough to have my own friends, and I was pretty friendly with everybody else, so it wasn’t like a kind of place. Even though it wasn’t like a hipster-cool high school, it wasn’t like Freaks and Geeks, either.
WW: There were no lethal dodgeball games that you were always being humiliated in?
EK: No (laughs). I even enjoyed gym class, and I’m not a very athletic person.
WW: When you enrolled at Columbia, did you know what you were going to major in? Or did you go into it thinking you’d figure out what you wanted to do along the way.
EK: No, it’s weird. It’s really hard for me to remember what I was thinking. I remember when I applied to Columbia, I remember thinking, I’m going to major in evolutionary biology. Because I loved biology in high school. I thought, that’s what I want to do, because I loved genetics. And I don’t know: Either I totally forgot about it or something, because by the time I actually got there, I had no idea what I wanted to major in – and I never thought I’d be an English major. At this point, I feel like an English major, because I dedicated a few years to studying it. But going in, I didn’t think that was going to be it.
WW: If the dates on your MySpace pages are accurate, Vampire Weekend was predated by L’Homme Run. Is that right?
EK: Yeah, L’Homme Run was first.
WW: How did that group get together?
EK: Well, I met my friend Andrew [Kalaidjian], and he was from Atlanta, and he was really into rap – and I’ve always been into rap and into making a lot of beats. So we just decided to start something, and we liked the idea of having this very easy-to-move set-up. It was just a laptop, and we would rap over it. We’d had these experiences of trying to get a whole band together, and it had been a real pain in the ass, so having minimal equipment and minimal musicians was kind of nice. So that’s kind of how it came together, and we were doing it for a while – and who knows? Maybe in the future we’ll still record stuff, because I’m still friends with Andrew and I still like that kind of music. But I think I also got to the point where I came to think, playing with a laptop is kind of a pain in the ass, too (laughs). I felt like, it’s nice to have a live band that can just rock out on any system. It doesn’t matter if the p.a. is crappy and you’re at some shitty party. And that was kind of the impetus for getting Vampire Weekend together, too.
WW: So how would you describe your flow?
EK: My flow as a rapper?
WW: Yeah. Is it dope or is it wack?
EK: (Laughs.) I mean, it’s definitely not wack. I think it’s similar to my flow in Vampire Weekend. I think there’s definitely some rap influence in our lyrics. But Andrew, being from Atlanta, was kind of – I guess I don’t want to generalize, because there are a lot of different rappers who’ve come out of Atlanta. But he had a kind of smooth, laid-back Southern flow, whereas I had a more fast-paced thing. I liked to rap fast.
WW: How did you meet the guys in Vampire Weekend? Or did you already know them at that point?
EK: Oh yeah, we’d known each other since basically the beginning of college. Columbia is, at the end of the day, a pretty small school. It’s a huge university with lots of people doing different things there, but you kind of get to know everybody who’s your age. So we’d known each other, played together in various configurations, talked about music, hung out. So Vampire Weekend was coming off a few years of knowing each other and knowing about each other’s musical tastes and interests.
WW: I came across an article that made a reference to a manifesto that you guys supposedly wrote about the band – something about “no distortion” and “no trip-hop” and “no post-punk.” Did you actually write such a document?
EK: I tried to. I had this image that a lot of great bands started with a manifesto – like the Who and, I don’t know, some of those weird British noise bands. I guess it was only half-serious. Like someone asked me the other day, “Is it true that you don’t let the members of your band to wear T-shirts?” And it’s like, we’ve all worn T-shirts onstage, so that’s totally untrue. But there was a degree of seriousness about wanting to set rules for ourselves, because we felt like… We were listening to so many types of music. We were listening to rap and electronic music. And we felt like if we were to start a rock band, it had better not just be a rock-and-roll band. It’s for other people to judge how successful we’ve been at that, but the truth is, if you sit down with a guitar, a bass, a keyboard and a drum set, it’s really easy to start jammin’ and groovin’ and doing, like, a blues solo in A. So you kind of do need to say, “Let’s talk about what we’re going to do…”
WW: …As a sort of warning to yourself not to drift into easy habits and wind up sounding just like everybody else?
EK: Yeah, pretty much. At the very least, sound like the things you want to sound like. Because if you write a guitar and start strumming and the drummer starts going boom-boom-chick, boom-boom-chick, it’s going to sound like everything else. So little things like that. Not using distortion, it’s not exactly a rule, but I have no interest in using distortion, and we’ve made a point of it. Our music isn’t going to sound good with distortion, so let’s emulate the music that we like that doesn’t use distortion – because sometimes distortion can just cover things up. Of course, other times, it can create a vibe in its own right. It creates a sort of scuzzy sound that a lot of people have done brilliantly. But that’ just not really our thing.
WW: Your rise has been characterized as unbelievably easy – like, burn a hundred CDs and then sit back and wait for the bidding war to start. How accurate or inaccurate is that perception?
EK: Well, I know a lot of people in bands and I’ve been going to shows almost my whole life. So of course I know that it’s rare what’s happened to us. Like, we’re playing Saturday Night Live tomorrow and doing all these things that I never would have guessed that we’re doing. So doing it off of our first album, considering that we started this about two years ago – of course I recognize the fact that’s unusual. And it’s exciting, and we’re grateful for it. But the idea of it being completely easy? If you’ve been reading the articles, you know that people tend to make a lot of hugely inaccurate judgments about our background just because of where we went to school and things like that. People do kind of walk away with this image of us as these people who’ve never worked at anything, which is untrue, and who were just handed this music career on a platter. The truth is… there’s a few things. People don’t realize that we recorded this album ourselves. Our keyboardist [Rostam Batmanglij] produced it. We were working on it right after graduating college. We had fulltime jobs. I was working at my first fulltime job, and then having the energy to go record this album in Rostam’s little apartment in Brooklyn… It’s not a sob story, but it’s not, like, easy, either. It’s certainly no easier than any other band has it, I’d say. So the fact that things have gone so well after that point – you can say that’s luck or something we should be thankful for, and we are. But in terms of it being easy? Sometimes we take issue with that, because we played so many shows nobody came to. Once it started rolling, it rolled very quickly, but up until that point, it didn’t. And we put in a lot of work making this album ourselves. We didn’t have a label come find us and say, “How much money do you need to record this? Here’s a producer. Here’s a full studio.” We did it very piecemeal.
WW: And when you recorded, it wasn’t as if you had a buyer waiting for an album, right? It was done on spec, basically…
EK: Well, we did it just for the sake of recording these songs we were working on, and the finished product has had very few changes since we made those initial recordings. We were basically doing it for ourselves, and you’re right: By the time the first label got in touch with us, we’d recorded ten songs – and our album only has eleven. So the reason the labels were getting excited about us is that we basically had a completed album. They weren’t so much speculating on it. It’s not like they heard one song and said, “Hey, do you have anything else?” Most of them had heard the full CD-R, which was almost the whole album.
WW: In those articles we were talking about earlier, you know far better than I that almost all of them name-check the same handful of artists. Let’s call them They Who Shall Not Be Named. [EK laughs.] Has that reached the irritating stage – that every time you look at an article, here are the same one or two or three artists who are always mentioned.
EK: Well, sometimes it seems a little lazy, because there are certain influences that people love to talk about, and there are certain ones that people don’t talk about that I think are just as obvious. I haven’t seen too many people looking at Rostam’s string arrangements and talk about what classical era or composer influenced them. For some reason, people only want to talk about these other influences. And the people they talk about, it can be frustrating. We keep getting asked about these people over and over again, as if we sat down and listened to their albums and took notes and made our own album. Then you almost start to feel defensive, and you get to the point where you almost want to say something bad about someone you really like. But it’s really a kind of subtle distinction. You want to say, “Of course these people have had an influence. I’ve heard them, just like everybody else in the world has heard them. But the way you’re making it out isn’t really correct, either,” and I hope listening to our album shows that, even if you don’t like it. I think it kind of exonerates us from ripping off one album or one period.
WW: What are some of the influences that never get mentioned and should be?
EK: Initially, when the band started, there was a very specific period of what you might call punk, or new wave, or British music that I always felt really connected to, partially because my dad had all these records. Like Elvis Costello and Squeeze – all those guys like that. Musically and lyrically, those guys are my idols, people I look up to. And hopefully we’re doing it in our own way, but certainly I think there’s a huge connection with our music to them – and maybe it’s not as interesting to talk about. And also, like I said, there’s the connection to classical music with the string arrangements. And even with the way we write songs, there’s an influence there, although hopefully we do it subtly, so it’s not something that knocks you over the head.
WW: You mentioned your appearance on Saturday Night Live tomorrow – and you’re also the artist of the week this week on MTV. How does MTV put together those segments? Do they just follow you around and videotape everything you say or do? And what do you think of the way they use them – putting on snippets of you guys after every airing of Gauntlet III?
EK: (Laughs.) Well, there are two schools of thought on it, and one school of thought is, MTV is putting some weird stuff on the air right now – do we really want to be a part of it? And the other school of thought is, there’s nothing wrong with us – and if they’re going to put anything on there, it might as well be Vampire Weekend. I think that’s the way a lot of artists feel. Because we saw some of the examples of other artists who’ve been artist of the week, and it was people like M.I.A. and Chromeo and music that I like. So I figured, if MTV wants to put us on the air, let’s take the opportunity. And we worked closely with them. They didn’t tell us what to do at all. We had this marathon day of filming and we got to do some cool stuff. We got to have them spring for having us perform with a string section, which was cool, and when they asked us questions, we were able to give any answer we wanted to. So actually, I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. Because when you’re working with a huge thing like MTV, you’re always wondering, are they going to take over and present you how they want to? But they were actually pretty cool about it. It’s a big company, and some of the shows they’re airing now… One of the clips, they even let me talk a little shit about The Hills. So my hat’s off to them for that. They’re all right in my book.