VAMPIRE WEEKEND: Embracing Afro-Pop, Bringing Preppy Back

-

Even casual indie-rock fans know the song and dance routine by now. Every year, music bloggers discover hundreds of bands, heaping relentless praise on a handful of them. Critical praise, of course, has a way of begetting more critical praise, so it’s only a matter of time until more prestigious new media begin echoing the blogosophere’s ovations about a particular band. From there, national magazines and newspapers join the chorus, decreeing that said Internet discovery will become the next big thing.

Even casual indie-rock fans know the song and dance routine by now. Every year, music bloggers discover hundreds of bands, heaping relentless praise on a handful of them. Critical praise, of course, has a way of begetting more critical praise, so it’s only a matter of time until more prestigious new media begin echoing the blogosophere’s ovations about a particular band. From there, national magazines and newspapers join the chorus, decreeing that said Internet discovery will become the next big thing.

Of course, if the blogosphere-fueled hype machine were completely accurate, Black Kids would be the biggest band in the world by now, We Are Scientists would be outselling Justin Timberlake, and people would still care about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Inevitably, however, these online discoveries fail to live up to the hype. Some may be promising, but are forced into the spotlight far too soon, where they fizzle under heat they weren’t prepared for. Others simply were never as good as a few trigger-happy bloggers pledged. And some simply fall through the cracks after their initial overexposure, like poor Voxtrot, upstarts who were tossed into the recycling bin with all the other old newspapers before they even released their full-length.

And so it was into this musical landscape, littered by the corpses of discarded blog bands, that Vampire Weekend was born. And like clockwork, the young New York band was quickly run through the hype machine last year. Within months of playing their first real shows, the trendsetting blog, Stereogum, began trumpeting them on the strength of their self-released demos, and just two months later, the New York Times was writing them up approvingly.

Given Vampire Weekend’s textbook rise, a textbook fall might seem inevitable, but on the eve of their debut album’s official release, frontman Ezra Koenig is cautiously optimistic.

“We don’t need to worry about how much it sells, or how well it does, because it’s not that important to us,” Koenig says. “In terms of critical reception, we’ve already heard from so many people who’ve heard the whole album, going back even before we even signed a record deal, that even if everybody who hears it from now on hates it, we still have gotten so much positivity from people that there’s not too much for us to worry about.”

Koenig isn’t too concerned about a potential Vampire Weekend backlash, he explains, since “at this point, so many bands have gotten attention quickly, then gotten that backlash that it’s almost becoming a cliché.”

His optimism may be founded, since there really are signs that Vampire Weekend could be one of the rare bands to buck the cycle. In both sound and image, the band’s aesthetic is novel enough to capture the public’s attention, but familiar enough to keep it.

Early press relentlessly compared the group to Paul Simon’s Graceland, for the simple reason that most Americans’ knowledge of African music begins and ends at that album. It’s a faulty analogy, since Vampire Weekend tosses an African jangle into their sound casually, unlike Simon’s record, which fetishized its world-music influences, but the comparisons are meant as a compliment nonetheless. Many 20-somethings grew up with Graceland, and are obviously happy to hear its core sounds manifested in a hip new indie-rock band.

Although the band’s interest in African music runs much deeper than a lone Paul Simon record, Koenig admits the group consciously chose to incorporate Afro-pop into their sound to distinguish themselves from the hoards of other New York guitar-rock bands.

“The music that we were working on before we started Vampire Weekend was not traditional rock by any sense of the imagination, not in terms of instrumentation or anything else,” Koenig explains, “so when we started a band with an electric guitar and actual drums, we wanted to look to other music that had that the same instrumentation but did something different, and I think African music is the best example of that. Modern African music is really a great fusion of Western instrumentation, but it’s grounded in a very different musical tradition.”

And, to go along with their consciously different sound, the band made a bold fashion choice as well: Instead of ultra-skinny jeans and dramatically disheveled hair, they treat every day like it’s casual Friday. They dress, in a word that Koenig has embraced, “preppy.”

“There were a lot of things we wanted to avoid when we started the band, things that we were tired of,” Koenig explains, “and maybe that also crossed over to the way we felt about the kind of clothes that we wanted to wear. I went to thrift stores a lot in high school, but I always wanted to find old Brooks Brothers shirts, not ironic t-shirts. It’s two sides of the same coin, really. But it’s funny: You can get a collared shirt for so cheap, or you could pay a hundred dollars for a distressed, weird t-shirt. Ultimately, I feel like one I can relate to more. It feels more refreshing to me, in a way almost like an anti-fashion sort of thing.”

In an era where rich young rockers downplay their pedigree by dressing like street rats, this is a welcome bit of truth-in-advertising. Vampire Weekend looks exactly like they sound: happy, clean-cut and educated. Their gimmick is that they’re not being gimmicky.

The prep-school aesthetic also ties in thematically with the band’s self-titled debut, which is very much the product of four recent Columbia University graduates. “When I look at these songs, they really do remind me of the time they were written, which was when we were just graduating from college,” Koenig says. “In some ways, that’s the time of your life when you really look at your whole life and think about the things you’ve done, and the things you want to do.” A nostalgia for the college life runs through many of the album’s songs, even the whimsical ones, like “Oxford Comma,” which opens with the fighting words “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” even though this Ivy League-educated band knows all too well that plenty of people do.

With his benevolent, everyman voice, Koenig ruminates on academia, campus culture and college crushes, never using smugness as a crutch, and that’s the band’s appeal. Despite their perfectly calculated sound, look and marketing plan, their songs are written with a gentle humanity that can’t be feigned. Conventional wisdom might score a rare victory this year: Vampire Weekend really could be 2008’s breakout band.



Popular Posts