The Meaning Behind “A-Punk” by Vampire Weekend and Why It Was One of Their Early Defining Songs

Ezra Koenig met his future bandmates while studying at Columbia University in New York. After graduation, he taught English, but Vampire Weekend’s record deal ended his time teaching kids about the series comma.

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The singer and guitarist ran his own blog, then gave it up after college. Online sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum praised his band’s early demos, and soon, they signed with XL Recordings. Koenig’s final post was called “I Hate Blogging.”

Vampire Weekend’s blend of Afro-pop and indie rock gathered its share of haters. But they kept making one joyful album after the other. By their 2013 Grammy-winning album, Modern Vampires of the City, many doubters couldn’t avoid listening.

With the band’s recent tour announcement and a new album, Only God Was Above Us, due April 5 on Columbia Records, let’s revisit one of Vampire Weekend’s early defining songs, “A-Punk.”

Preppy Punks Going Somewhere

“A-Punk” follows a character called “His Honor” to New Mexico while another—Johanna—moves to Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, staying close to college. Both friends seek adventure, and Vampire Weekend’s Afro-punk song is hopeful. It’s also about destination.

Johanna drove slowly into the city
The Hudson River all filled with snow
She spied the ring on His Honor’s finger
Oh, oh, oh

The divergent paths of college friends create two ends from similar beginnings. Koenig’s characters don’t appear envious of each other’s choices; “A-Punk” is, at its heart, an observation. After all, looking on and reporting back the details is Koenig’s mode of writing on Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut.

His Honor drove southward, seeking exotica
Down to the pueblo huts of New Mexico
Cut his teeth on turquoise harmonicas
Oh, oh, oh

The characters are transient in “A-Punk,” but the song’s décor notes are specific only to themselves. They don’t reveal much, leaving the song open for elucidation. Johanna takes the ring from “His Honor” as a memento of their friendship. Half the ring winds up at the bottom of the sea. There isn’t an explanation for this, but perhaps Johanna ritualized with the ring in “His Honor.”

Half of the ring lies here with me
But the other half’s at the bottom of the sea

Buzz Band

Vampire Weekend’s internet buzz led to chart-topping success. Things moved fast for the band following school. Multiple releases topped the Billboard chart, unheard of for an indie band.

However, their success divided music fans. The preppy indie darlings and their Ivy League roots drew suspicion in some circles. But their albums are stubbornly brilliant and filled with overwhelming joy.

“A-Punk” is deceptively simple, combining Koenig’s witty lyrics and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij’s musical genius. (Batmanglij departed the group following their third album.)

The song is full of space, where Chris Tomson pounds his drum set like an orchestral percussionist, and Chris Baio’s slippery bass creates a counterpoint to Koenig’s angular guitar.

David Letterman and All Things New York

Vampire Weekend performed “A-Punk” on the Late Show with David Letterman, marking their TV debut. They rose quickly from the indie underground to the mainstream, paralleling the fast start to The Strokes’ early-2000s career launch.

New York bands like The Walkmen and The Strokes foreshadowed Vampire Weekend. Manhattan’s vibrant indie scene produced a new generation of post-punk and new wave-inspired bands, taking guitar music away from ordinary rock.

Koenig’s guitars echoed The Strokes—albeit a little less fuzzy—and the angular heritage of Tom Verlaine’s pristine Jazzmaster. And you cannot mention a New York band with West African influences without citing Talking Heads.

Stop Motion

English director and screenwriter Garth Jennings created a sped-up, stop-motion video for “A-Punk.” Jennings is famous for his films The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the animated musical comedies Sing and Sing 2.

In the video, Vampire Weekend performs through winter and eventually underwater, “never missing a beat,” according to Pitchfork.  

Report Card

“A-Punk’s” recording sounds like you’re in a basement with a group of lit-obsessed preppy punks in Polo shirts, listening to a friend’s band play. It’s inviting and warm.

Because school is crucial to Vampire Weekend’s history, here’s a quick lesson. “A-Punk” is titled with the determiner (“a”). It’s open to interpretation whether the “a” represents membership—like my friend is a punk—or if the letter rates like a grade. There’s also the curious dash.

Some bands use working titles before they land on something permanent. Koenig might have scribbled “A-Punk” because it’s a punk-ish song where he shouts Ay, ay, ay!

Either way, these boys are smart and talented, and though their most famous song might not be their best, it receives high marks for its durable bliss.

Final Grade: A

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Photo by Justin Shin/Getty Images

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