Vampire Weekend Is Looking For The Cool Within The Uncool

Vampire Weekend's last album, Modern Vampires of the City, helped vault it to festival headliner status, and topped year-end best-of lists when it was released. But that was six years ago — and a lot has happened in the time since. One of the main creative forces in the band, Rostam Batmanglij, left the group in early 2016. While the remaining members focused on side projects, voices in the music industry were beginning to float the idea that guitar rock might have slipped out of relevance. And then, of course, came the 2016 presidential election.

This week, the band returns at long last with its fourth LP, Father of the Bride. Lead singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig joined NPR's Audie Cornish to discuss how age, experience and time away have changed his approach to songwriting; addressing politics both on record and onstage with Senator Bernie Sanders; and why, for a group like Vampire Weekend, the decline of guitar rock might not be the worst news. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Audie Cornish: I think of your music, in terms of some of the later albums, as being bittersweet in a way: cheerfully narrating a fair amount of pain. On this album, the song that made me think of that was "This Life." Not just because the word "suffering" is in it — I think this is a good example that cheeriness that isn't really matched lyrically.

Ezra Koenig: Growing up, I always liked artists like The Smiths and The Cure: They have some very upbeat, cheerful songs, but it's such a contrast with the lyrics. That always just made a lot of sense to me — especially if you're trying to kind of create a snapshot of life as you know it, that every song would have a mixture of joy and pain.

It's interesting that you bring up the word "suffering," because at some point, I realized that three of the songs had the word "suffering" in the chorus. The first song we put out, "Harmony Hall," had this part that went,"I thought that I was free from all that suffering." Almost like a Buddhist way of thinking: You think you've finally figured out a way to be free from suffering, but of course, life is a cycle. But then, I actually changed it to "questioning," which I think is better for the song.

I like that song because it also gets to this idea a lot of people wrestle with — of people and places that have maybe let you down. I don't know if I'm reading too much into that line, "Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified."

No, I think that's a fair interpretation. And yeah, also trying to come to terms with the idea that not only can it be painful or disorienting when an institution or a group or something lets you down, but that that's almost built into the fabric of reality, and you can't be shocked by it every time that it happens.

But we all have been, right? I mean, I haven't had a soundtrack for that emotion. But the feeling that there is corruption in this place, or ugliness in this place, and how do I reconcile with that?

Yeah, that's the funny thing. I always think about high school and college and reading books — from 100, 200, a thousand years ago, 2,000 years ago — where people are more or less saying the same thing about the cyclical nature of government, politics, even just individual pain and suffering. You read all that stuff when you're a kid and yet you're still a little bit surprised when you feel it in a personal way or a generational way or a national way. As much as we've been prepared for it by the wisdom of the ancients, it still is always shocking.

[With] "This Life," that was the inspiration for the opening lines: "Baby, I know pain is as natural as the rain / I just thought it didn't rain in California." You know all these things are lurking out there, and you still weep. Maybe we all have this gambler's nature, that we're going to be the one who bets big and wins big despite the obvious risks.

This also gets to a question I have about trying to write songs that nod to the political, that engage in the ideas of the moment, and that still feel timeless. Because not everyone's doing it — just being honest, I'm not turning on the radio and feeling that. I may also be asking because you guys appeared with Bernie Sanders during the 2016 campaign. Taking that extra step to stand shoulder to shoulder with a politician is a significant moment.

Yeah, it's funny: When I talk about it now, people say, "You really put yourself out there." I really try to think back to how I felt in 2016 — and for me, growing up on the East Coast, New York, New Jersey, when I look at somebody like Bernie Sanders, this older, crunchy, independent senator from Vermont, he truly seemed to me like the least controversial candidate on Planet Earth. The first time we played with him was in Iowa, so early, early days of the primaries. The idea of really sticking our neck out, it didn't even occur to us — like, "Who could have an issue with this guy? Maybe he won't win; maybe he's a little too left of center. But he just seems like the kind of guy everybody likes."

Of course, I was deeply wrong about that. In retrospect, I kind of see that, obviously, the divisions in politics, particularly within the Democratic Party, are very intense. But I promise, when we first got up there with Bernie, it just felt like the most laid-back political thing you could possibly do.

I read a quote where you said, "With regards to songwriting, everyone's identity defines how they think about life." You were saying you don't get frustrated when people don't like the band because of your voice or something in the sound, but when they look at it through that accusation of whiteness or privilege or something like that — rather than who you are in particular.

There were elements that I think we all felt when the band started that we were a little bit blindsided by. I always had a sense of humor about preppiness and the Ivy League; I went to Columbia, but I also had student debt and scholarships to pay for it. But the particular identity of Jewish people, which is my background, is not particularly pleasant for people to talk about — it gets fraught very quickly. In the interview you're referencing, we were talking about a song that's called "Jerusalem, New York, Berlin," so it's not surprising people might want to look at it through the lens of identity. But my point was kind of just like, if you want to go there, you maybe do have to talk about Jewishness and the relationship of Jewishness and whiteness. But, you know, that creates a real can of worms in the current political climate, I think.

It does. I appreciate you saying that it's not an easy thing to talk about. I mean, in that song you reference, towards the end there's is a line about that "genocidal feeling that beats in every heart."It's serious language.

Yeah, it's serious language, and it's also a song. If I wanted to make a direct, simple statement about what it means to be Jewish — what it means to be white, the relationship of America to Israel, Zionism, anti-Zionism — I could go on Twitter. That's there. There's a part of me that feels protective of the world of songwriting — to let it lie for a second, you know? To let it be open.

I've always felt so connected to Irish folk songs. There's one called "The Minstrel Boy" that's about the boy who plays music along with the army, and there's this line that says, " 'Land of Song!' said the warrior bard / 'Tho' all the world betrays thee.' " That always struck me, that "the whole world betrays" the land of song. There's something so sad about that.

We demand a lot — "we" meaning the audience.

Yeah, and that maybe it's about letting the land of song live on its own terms. It sounds corny when I say it — but the land of song as being someplace that is a little bit separate from the daily battles that we face.

You had a very funny quote to The Times of London: "Guitar acts in 2019 have an irrelevance I've come to enjoy." Which is a joke, but not wrong, in a way.

[Laughs] Well, yeah. I mean, being gone for six years, you watch a lot come and go. I saw there were these big questions being asked: "Is guitar music dead? Is indie music irrelevant?" And I saw the way that it caused stress and anxiety in many of my peers about their place in the world. Maybe that happens every time a wave crests — people get nervous.

But can I ask a question? The idea of irrelevance is not always about, "Is this sound cool? Is this the sound of now?" Is it also that that music stopped speaking to people about their lives in a way that felt relevant? Like, rock fell down on the job?

Maybe. But even beyond that, things come in and out of fashion. At some point, guitar seems like a funny old instrument, and other times it seems more charming or more exciting. I almost felt happy that as I started working on the record the question had been answered: "It's not particularly relevant. Good. Stop worrying about it."

We know that there's people who write poetry, opera, abstract expressionist painting, whatever — art forms that, by one way of looking at it, had their moments of relevance a very long time ago. And yet, we're often surprised by somebody who's dedicated to an art form and pulls out an idea that speaks to us. I think as you get older you realize you just just can't sweat it. There's almost something pleasant about just being like, "Yes, it's irrelevant — now, can we talk about how to get the guitar sounding good?"

People are comparing some of the songs on this album to Phish, with the album art having kind of a hippie vibe.

Which I love.

And which is funny, because you guys were called too ivory tower, not punk enough. And now this album comes, and it's kind of like you're embracing your uncool impulses.

Every Vampire Weekend album, going back to the start, starts with something uncool. That's where the action's at, in my opinion. It's not like preppiness was cool. Even the attraction to boat shoes and Oxford commas was not particularly cool. But there's something attractive, sometimes, about looking for the cool within the uncool.

Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to the digital version of this story.

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