The Evolution Of Vampire Weekend

Ezra Koenig takes us inside the band's new double album Father Of The Bride

“Let’s do the whale.”

It’s impossible to step into the American Museum Of Natural History and not feel a sense of childhood wonder. For anyone who grew up in New York City or the surrounding area, it was the site of class field trips and sugar-rushed weekends where it seemed like the entire world was at your fingertips, or at least behind a secure glass wall.

So when Ezra Koenig walks in and says, “Let’s do the whale,” I know exactly what he means. At the museum’s heart is a massive, magnificent blue whale. You know the one. It seems like something that might be at the center of a Vampire Weekend song: mythical but tangible, nostalgic and laden with history, a big blue of a different stripe.

The entire visual aesthetic for Vampire Weekend’s fourth album, Father Of The Bride, looks like kids edutainment: colorful handprints and flattened frogs and vibrant ouroboros. Its simplicity brings the vastness of the world down to a graspable scale. The album’s cover, a cartoonish globe, encapsulates the absurd immensity of it all in a single image. “There’s something about the Earth surrounded by raw digital whiteness that appealed to me,” Koenig says.

The contrast between complexity and simplicity is at the center of Father Of The Bride. Like all Vampire Weekend albums before it, it’s about the richness of history. It excavates ideas that feel primordial and pressing. It’s about evolution and constant change, an album built around dualities and contradictions. It’s Vampire Weekend’s densest album yet, but it’s also their lightest, and maybe their most challenging.

As we make our way through the museum, Koenig nods toward a giant sequoia tree trunk, chopped down and engraved with markers of time that document 1,400 years gone by. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you of how truly tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, yet somehow what we do still matters.

That’s the sort of disconnect that Vampire Weekend are concerned with on Father Of The Bride: how to make the most of the little time that we’re given.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete / Stereogum

In the modern attention economy, six years is a long time away, but Father Of The Bride seems to have come about easily enough. “I always wondered if people pictured us banging our heads against the wall for six years,” Koenig says, settling into a conference room in the upper reaches of the museum. “In a way, given that it’s a lot of songs, it came about more quickly than usual.”

That’s not to say that there haven’t been changes. In a sense, the entire makeup of the band has changed, or at least solidified into something that, as a listener, feels entirely new. Since Modern Vampires Of The City came out in 2013, founding member Rostam Batmanglij stepped away from the group. Koenig wrote a Beyoncé chorus. Bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson both released albums on their own.

“I had people asking me if I was going to release a solo album,” Koenig says. “And it crossed my mind, but then what would that be? It would just be the next Vampire Weekend album, only under my name.” Koenig is now firmly at the center of the project, but in a way he always has been: “I never felt comfortable calling myself the leader because I felt like that was something that I had to earn.”

“But I did start the band, so I had some degree of leadership,” he continues. “In the beginning, I made it clear that I was going to choose the songs. It wasn’t important for me to write all of the songs, because I love writing songs with other people, but it was important for me to have that curatorial role. You can’t tell a story if you have to vote on the songs.”

The web of Vampire Weekend collaborators has expanded. It now feels less like a band and more like a project, a distinction that comes across on Father Of The Bride. It’s bursting with new ideas, new people, new sounds. It feels less insular and more like an expansive playground. Koenig co-produced it with Ariel Rechtshaid, who first came into the Vampire Weekend fold with Modern Vampires. It features contributions from Steve Lacy, Mark Ronson, Dave and Jake Longstreth, BloodPop®, iLoveMakonnen, DJ Dahi, and a constant vocal presence from Danielle Haim.

“The only people involved on the record were involved because it felt organic,” Rechtshaid tells me over the phone. He likens its group of collaborators to “a musical family” that’s constantly in and out of the studio, a process that feels like it’s always progressing until, suddenly, it’s finally finished. “It’s an informal revolving door of the homies and the homegirls.”

The transformation to a more collagist, collaborative group makeup didn’t arrive out of nowhere. “Over the course of making the first three albums, all of those big transition moments that could sometimes be weird for bands already kind of happened,” Koenig says. They had already brought in Rechtshaid for their third, they made entire songs using instruments that none of them could play live. “By the time we got to this album, I felt a degree of faith and clarity from everybody. An excitement that felt like, Oh, we could really do anything.

“Any time something felt comfortable, we’d try to make it less comfortable until we found that sweet spot,” Rechtshaid adds. “That’s definitely how it was on Modern Vampires, too: We were constantly challenging each other to go as far as we could in any which way — pushing the lyrics and the production further.”

“I think it’s an inspiring, creative journey to find a way to translate Ezra’s narrative,” he continues. “He’s an interesting guy — anyone who knows anything about him, whether you like Neo Yokio or his radio show or his music, knows that he’s got a really interesting perspective on life. Getting the music to translate and reflect that is not easy. There’s no direct path to it, but trying to serve his vision is what makes it unique and what makes it Vampire Weekend. No matter how much the process changes, it still has Ezra’s stamp on it.”

As more people have entered the mix, Koenig’s songwriting has become more economical. The style of big words, studied references, and heady metaphors are mostly behind him. Koenig is still writing about death and God and the human condition, but he’s doing so in a cleaner and more concise way, more transparent and less opaque.

“I’ve always been mildly offended when people would say Vampire Weekend lyrics are nonsense, because they mean something. But at the same time, if I’m being self-critical: OK, point taken. It’s not obvious what it means,” Koenig says. “I was nervous about some of these songs that don’t have expensive words in them. That was a little bit of a crutch. But we’ve already got ‘Oxford Comma’ and ‘Mansard Roof.’ Am I going to be throwing open the dictionary for every song? That doesn’t feel exciting.”

“I had a feeling that when I wrote ‘Step,’ it was what I had been trying to do the whole time. It’s not gonna get better than that,” he continues. “That, to me, is the peak of that type of songwriting. I felt a sense of accomplishment, and after any sense of accomplishment, you feel a sense of emptiness and itchiness.”

So Koenig went back to the drawing board, thought about what songs he cherished the most and what made them tick. “A lot of my favorite songs accomplish things I’ve never accomplished. What am I scared to say? What haven’t I done? Part of it is emotional and personal, and part of it is the novelty of new artistic challenges.”

One of Father Of The Bride‘s biggest deviations is the inclusion of duets, all them performed with Danielle Haim. On “Hold You Now,” the album’s opening track, there’s a respectful pause before Haim comes in. It’s a gentle reconfiguring of the expectations of exactly what a Vampire Weekend song can be.

“A true duet is people in a shared situation with slightly different perspectives,” Koenig explains. “That felt like the type of thing I hadn’t done before. It was hard. Lyrically, I think this is the most rigorous I’ve ever been.”

Haim, over email, says that her favorite duets of all time are Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” and Serge Gainsbourg’s songs with Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, all collaborations that feel organic and whose singers each inhabit their own personality. “I’ve known Ezra for a couple years now and have always been a fan,” she explains. “The first song he showed me was ‘Hold You Now’ and I loved it immediately. He asked if I would sing it with him and the rest kinda just happened naturally.”

Adding another point of view into his songs makes sense for a songwriter that has always been at his best when capturing ideas from every possible angle. The duets on Father Of The Bride offer more nuance, another wrinkle in the band’s multifaceted approach.

On that opening track, Koenig and Haim’s verses build to the same line — “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now” — and it’s absolutely crushing. They’re inhabiting characters that are not coming from the exact same place but agree to meet on middle ground to support and help each other in whatever way they can. It’s the sort of perspective shift that’s hard to pull off with just one singer, a change where each individual part makes the whole stronger.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete / Stereogum

While Koenig’s songwriting might be less wordy and obtuse this time around, the arrangements on Father Of The Bride are more intricate and ambitious than anything Vampire Weekend have pulled off before. It’s both more accessible and weirder; the album is sprawling, but its songs are more grounded.

“I have all these little phrases and ideals that I drop in the studio,” Koenig says. “One of the ones that I started saying on Contra is this: ‘Every album we make has to push in two directions at once.'”

That’s what made the idea of the double album so appealing. “I felt like I needed the room to put different kinds of songs next to each other,” he says. “I would never put 18 songs on an album all pointing in one direction.” He thought back to the double albums that he most admired — the Beatles’ “White Album,” Bruce Springsteen’s The River — and what made them work and what made them different from each other.

“[The former] is four songwriters writing about a million different things and coming together in this huge, ambitious work,” he says. “While Springsteen’s is a double album that you don’t feel at all. Even though those songs and tones jump around, it all kind of takes place in one place. It’s more personal. That version was more appealing to me.”

The absurdity of making a double album in 2019 was also not lost on Koenig: “There’s a serious grandiosity to the idea of the 20th century double album,” he says. “Knowing that, in the internet streaming era, that is truly meaningless. To a lot of people, it’s just an average album.”

But Koenig doesn’t sacrifice cohesion with its extended length. “I think it’s as, if not more, thematically linked than any other record. That was important to me — to not let the number of songs take away from that feeling.”

CREDIT: Daniel Topete / Stereogum

While writing Father Of The Bride, Koenig had the circle of life on his mind. The six years that he spent away from the project found him relocating from New York to Los Angeles, settling down into a relationship (with actress Rashida Jones), and becoming a father. Koenig’s son was born after the album had already been completed, but fatherhood feels like a natural culmination of what happens when you finally grow up.

“The album title was in the running three or four years ago,” he explains. “Why would a phrase like that be evocative to me? I think, naturally, you start looking at new themes as you get older. Father Of The Bride is meant to make you think of a wedding, a life cycle event, a moment of transition.”

“I didn’t know that I would be a father by the time this album came out,” he continues. “I probably would have been very shocked if you told me that four years ago — I’d be like, wait, when is the album coming out? But it’s not a crazy coincidence that a major life cycle event would happen to me in the years after I started thinking about what adulthood really was.”

The inevitability of change hangs over Father Of The Bride, the idea that what happens to us and when is entirely out of our control. “No time to discuss it/ Can’t speak when the waves/ Reach our house upon the dunes,” Koenig sings on one song. “A shift in weight/ A simple twist of fate/ Suddenly, it’s much too late/ The rising tide’s already lapping at the gate,” he sings on another.

That imagery of everything suddenly being washed away is omnipresent on the album, an impending sense of collapse that’s rooted in a feeling of communal despair. “How long ’til we sink to the bottom of the sea? How long ’til we sink and it’s only you and me?” he asks on yet another one — a personal armageddon made for two.

There’s an empathy to Koenig’s words on Father Of The Bride, one that came after some reflection. “I started thinking about the kind of songs we write when we’re young,” Koenig says. “The best way I can put it is the tone is an accusatory you. You’re almost raised when you’re young to write songs that either straight-forwardly praise someone or accuse them. I think, just as in life, you get older and you say, OK, wait: The accusatory you doesn’t always solve problems.”

He brings up the chorus of “This Life,” which is lifted from the iLoveMakonnen song “Tonight”: “You’ve been cheating on me/ I’ve been cheating on you.” Koenig adds another dimension to it, taking it to a maxro scale: “But I’ve been cheating through this life/ And all this suffering.”

“What struck me so much about that chorus is that there are so many songs that I associate with youth that would be either: You cheated on me so fuck you, or I cheated on you and now I have to deal with myself,” he explains. “There’s something I loved about the simplicity of: Damn, we both cheated on each other. And then I liked the idea of turning it back into what it says about my life in general.”

Father Of The Bride is filled with those kinds of great equalizers. It exhibits a more hands-off attitude, less bogged down than albums past. “When I imagine Modern Vampires, I think of it as being in one’s own head — a quarterlife crisis, ‘What does it mean?’ sort of thing,” Koenig says. “My point of view now is more: ‘What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything.’ Not that you necessarily rebuke those big questions that you might have when you’re 27, 28, you just realize there’s no answer.”

The lack of definitive answers makes the album hard to pin down. Every time I go to make some sweeping generalization, Koenig gently pushes back: “I think that’s part of it,” or “certainly some songs.” The reality is that Father Of The Bride is a whole lot of everything all at once — darkness and light, love and longing, the end and the beginning.

One of Vampire Weekend’s greatest strengths has always been their ability to blend humor with sincerity. Father Of The Bride is a funny title, but it’s also not — when you listen to the album, there is an emotional payoff. The track name “Unbearably White” will undoubtedly make band skeptics roll their eyes, but it sidesteps what you think it’ll be about, opting instead for a more interior reckoning of Koenig’s own narrative weight: “Sooner or later, the story gets told,” he muses. “To tell it myself would be unbearably bold.”

Koenig has always been careful to maintain the balance between goofiness and gravity, whether it’s through Vampire Weekend’s arrangements or their lyrics. “It’s not about contrast for contrast’s sake. It’s not about sticking two random-ass things together and calling it art,” Koenig says. “Even in the early days of Vampire Weekend, what we discussed was not the idea that it was wacky to have influences from African guitar music and European harpsichord music. We would talk about the similarities and how they actually made a lot of sense together.”

“It’s the same thing lyrically,” he continues. “For me, that tone where something seems jokey on one level and serious on another level feels like a more accurate portrayal of the texture of life.”

That Father Of The Bride’s entire mood sounds and feels lighter is by design. “Looking back I don’t love the narrative of our first three albums,” Koenig says. “That the first one is kind of light and borderline silly and then they get progressively darker. There are light and heavy moments on all three. I don’t like that narrative of a trajectory. Although there have definitely been stretches of my life that have felt like they’re just getting darker and darker, as I’m sure everybody’s has, it’s way more of a zig-zag.”

“[Modern Vampires] was an important album for us, but I don’t want it to feel like finally we got our acts together on that one,” he continues. “Is that just how it works? Like, you have to perform how serious you are? That’s a prize I don’t wanna win.”

CREDIT: Daniele Topete / Stereogum

With Vampire Weekend’s fourth album in the books, Koenig is already looking ahead to what sort of legacy his band will leave behind. “The most validating thing you can get from listeners is that quiet nod,” he says. “Like, yeah, we’re on this journey together.”

“I’ve never felt like this is something I have to do my whole life,” he says. “I’ve always gone back and forth with every album — well, not the first album — but on two through four, there’s always been a moment where I’ve wanted to quit because it’s frustrating or because having to negotiate the art and the world gets complicated.”

“But what I think about a lot is the songbook,” he says. “That, to me, is the most gratifying thing: to see the songbook grow. When we put together a setlist or I look at Apple Music or Spotify and see ‘Harmony Hall’ next to ‘A-Punk’ next to ‘White Sky’ next to ‘Big Blue,’ that excites me. I look at that mixed-up thing that you can’t see on the album, but you see in a situation like that, and I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s gonna be sick when we have 100 songs.’ I don’t know how long that will take and it’s possible I’ll run out of gas before then, but lately that’s what has brought me a lot of joy.”

That inclination to consider what we will leave behind is a relatable one. What creation of ours, if any, will be fossilized in amber for future generations to gawp at and feel a sense of wonder?

While we’re walking through the museum, Koenig remembers a story from his own personal mythology, a tale his grandfather used to tell about having chipped off a chunk of the museum’s famous meteorite as a kid in the 1930s. It’s the sort of larger-than-life narrative that Vampire Weekend have always trafficked in: half-truth, half-embellishment, wholly human. An effort to take something away from this universe and leave some impression behind in its stead, before our time is up.

CREDIT: Daniele Topete / Stereogum

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