[1 February 2010]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
Almost two years after the release of their full-length debut Vampire Weekend, the boys from Columbia have returned with their sophomore effort (and recent chart-topper), Contra. With its occasionally political lyrics, numerous Clash references, and heavy use of Nintendo-y electronic sounds, the album has a title that aptly describes the new elements it brings to the distinctive Vampire Weekend sound: a breezy, melodic and ambitious brand of guitar-pop that finds its influences in sources ranging from the New York indie-scene to the sounds of coastal African music.
But for many music fans it doesn’t really seem like the band has gone anywhere in the interim. After riding a wave of blog-driven and MTV-supported hype to international prominence, the group quickly ran into some serious backlash, mostly aimed at what critics perceived to be the Ivy Leaguer’s privileged backgrounds and their music’s inclusion of sounds usually associated with the Third World. The debate over Vampire Weekend and the “authenticity” of their sound has raged on in coffee shops and on countless music blogs ever since, though the musicians themselves have for the most part stayed clear of the fray. Instead, they’ve been taking their tunes to the fans during an intensive touring schedule that’s seen them become a staple of the festival circuit, winning over crowds many times larger than the groups of kegger-attendees they first performed their now-famous songs for back in college.
In advance of Contra’s release back in early January, Vampire Weekend’s gregarious percussionist Chris Tomson spoke to PopMatters.com about his general disinterest in accusations of “cultural appropriation,” the band’s growth as performers and songwriters, and the surprise he still feels at finding success as an accidental drummer.
So I just got a chance to listen to the new album and I’m really enjoying it so far. I certainly hear a few new sounds that you guys seem to have thrown into the mix, but I’d like to hear if there were any specific ideas you and the band had going into the recording of Contra that you wanted to add.
Well, I think that it’s definitely an extension of our first record, maybe because we’re still the same people, still the same music fans who have been digesting and hearing many things as we’ve been around and on tour. We’re excited and I definitely think it’s a different album but I think it shares the same DNA. It’s Thursday and the album comes out on Tuesday and I’m very excited right now. I kind of want it to be next Tuesday [Laughs].
Some of your bandmates have mentioned that they feel Contra is sort of a California album, or a Pacific Coast album. Could you elaborate on that a little?
I think that was more of a conceptual theme. Some of it has to do with the fact that we recorded this album in New York in a pretty standard New York spring, where it was rainy and gray and the idea of California was very exciting at that point. [Laughs]. I mean, a lot of unique bands come from California that we get inspiration from like Operation Ivy or Sublime or whatever. I would say it makes a lot of sense to us but it might be hard to point to anything more specifically. I’ll just say that “California loomed large.” [Laughs]
What was the recording process like for this album compared to the first? I’ve read that you all had more time to get together and fully-flesh out the songwriting, but I also notice that some of the tracks are tunes that you’ve been playing live for quite some time. How much of the album was written when you got to the studio?
Well I think the idea that we kind of went to the big studio and we recorded everything, that’s an idea that’s not relevant at this point [Laughs]. There were definitely a lot of different pieces, there was one song called “White Sky” that was arranged and ready to go.
I think the idea that we had more time to concentrate on our songwriting has more to do with the idea that this is our job now. When we recorded our last album, for the most part, I would get off work, go to my friends place who had drums setup in his apartment, and record my drum part and go back to my apartment. Not that that was terrifically tough but this time we’re a band and we could setup a whole day of drum recording at a studio. The problems were pretty similar. We had more time but it was definitely pretty similar.
The band seems to have done an incredible amount of shows since the first album came out. Has the knowledge that you’re playing songs on bigger stages in front of bigger audiences affected the songwriting at all?
Not really. I think that obviously is part of our collective experience that would influence us in more general ways. But because the first album was received so well and that was something that we did on our own and for ourselves, I think we thought that if we approached this album the same way, if we felt confidence that we liked the songs we had confidence that others would as well. I mean we’re conscious of where to put it in the set-list, but I think people want to hear music that is honest and comes from amongst ourselves. So hopefully we’re not wrong [Laughs], but we wrote music again for something we thought was good not what we thought other people would like.
I notice you have a lot of tour dates planned for the first half of 2010. Will you be hitting a lot of festivals again in the summer? You seem to have become kind of a staple of the festival circuit.
Yeah! I think so. I think that every touring band ends up playing a lot of festivals in the summer. In the spring we are doing some tour dates and more of our own shows. But in the summer, if you’re a touring band, and especially in Europe, if you’re touring you’re going to be at the festivals because those are the shows that are there. So we’re definitely going to be playing a lot of festivals.
Your debut album didn’t come out that long ago, but it seems like your band has been talking point for forever by now. Do you think you’ve progressed beyond all the hype-backlash and cultural appropriation criticism at this point? I remember when Beirut, who also took a lot of flack for their interest in sounds from other parts of the world, released their second album, a lot of critics kind of seemed to say “You know what, with or without the dressing up of these foreign elements, there’s just some great songwriting here.” Contra seems like it could make a similar case for Vampire Weekend. What do you think?
I mean. It’s hard to say. I think ... at the most basic level, I wasn’t part of that conversation the first time [Laughs], so I’m not sure if it’s still going on. I hope that that’s the case. I think it’s very obvious, at least to me, and i know I have a fairly unique perspective on it, but we genuinely like to make music we like and can be proud of, so I think with it being the second album it should be clear that we’re not flash in the pan, we didn’t just kind of have a couple of good songs and now we’re shit. And I feel like that’s a critic-only conversation for the most part.
We’ve played all over the world and we’ve played to a lot of different people. And when we’re in St. Louis or somewhere, there’s never anyone who’s like “Fuck you man, how could you use a clean guitar sound that kind of sounds like African music!” It seemed to me like none of the kids cared. If they liked it they liked it. But when we play shows again I think people will just enjoy the music.
The second album, perhaps unfairly, is often seen as the big indicator of whether a band will last or not. Are there any other bands whose career paths you or the other guys in the band would like to follow?
There are definitely bands we admire and like but there’s no band we want to exactly follow. I think conceptually there are things we’ve thought about like ... well most specifically the Beastie Boys. They had a debut album that was very successful, but then their second album ... it was still the Beastie Boys and it still sounded like the Beastie Boys but at the same time they kind of showed that they were very talented and that they could make an album that was differently constructed but still good. So conceptually there’s that. But i think that if you try to copy anyone, any bands, you’re just not going to do it. [Laughs]. But I think the idea of making something, crafting something different and using different parts of your brain and different inspirations is something we more aspire to more than anything.
Will Vampire Weekend be working with any other bands in the future? I interviewed P from Chromeo a little while ago and he was saying how much they love you guys and how much they enjoyed remixing “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”.
I think that, at the very least, on our albums, we definitely want it to be us and we want it to be Vampire Weekend. But yeah that was very fun. We ended up being able to perform the song together [with Chromeo] on the Woody’s, and that was very fun. Getting out of your comfort zone and doing something different. But for most of us that stuff just happened naturally. Like we met those guys and we liked their music. But I think it could happen sometime with other bands in the future. And it’ll be fun.
How did you get into the drums and how would you describe your drumming style? The way you setup the rhythms definitely seems to be one of the biggest trademarks of the “Vampire Weekend sound.”
Well, I’d never played drums in a band before this [Laughs]. That was because, the first couple of practices we had I was supposed to play guitar. But we kinda couldn’t find a drummer and I could kinda play, so I thought I’d try and do something.
I hope I play parts that are fairly unique. But at the same time ... I don’t really know what I’m doing, in some respects. But yeah, I don’t have any tried and true rhythms that I learned in drum lessons or anything. So when each song comes up I’ll try and come up with something that serves the song or serves my drum needs or whatever. But I’m still a very naive drummer. But I think that what I do serves Vampire Weekend. It really is just kind of natural for me. And I think it’s probably not quite as hard as you might think [Laughs]. It’s more just kind of reacting and trying to be unique and be specific to the part I’m reacting to.
Are there certain songs you enjoy playing live? “Cousins” [the lead single from the new album] seems like it would be a fun one to perform on stage.
When I get it right it’s very fun, but when I fuck up it’s awful [Laughs]. And that is a very fun song, a technical song. It is true that all four of us, that we tried things on this album we didn’t try last time because we probably weren’t capable of it. After touring for 18 months on the first record I became a much better drummer, just because that’s what I did and I spent so much time on it. So I think “Cousins” is a song I would never have tried to play when we’re writing the first album. But the funnest part is now I can play it, and as a band and as instrumentalists we’ve come far enough that these are the kind of songs we can play and we hopefully pull it off. But I still feel kind of weird when we’re entering a country and we fill out the form and you put “musician” under profession. It’s surreal.
Rostam [Batmanglij, Vampire Weekend’s keyboardist and producer] had a big year with his side-project, Discovery, getting a lot of critical attention. Do you have any side projects of your own going on? Your lead singer said something in an interview about your fascination with Westerns and cowboy culture. He kind of hinted that if you weren’t so busy with Vampire Weekend you’d be off taking photos of dusty towns out west.
[Laughs] Well I actually got to do that because of Vampire Weekend! I got to go to those dusty towns [Laughs] ... Discovery was actually something that Rostam was doing before Vampire Weekend became a band. It’s funny and it’s cool hearing them actually on a CD or record, because I’ve heard those things for five years on demos and stuff building up.
But we’re all people who put all of our effort and all of our output into Vampire Weekend. Like we understand that we’re greater than the sum of our parts. Even from the first practices we had you could feel that it just worked somehow. We all have interests, and yes Westerns is one of them for me, photography is one of them for me. We all have music ideas. But one thing about Vampire Weekend is, it’s a thing that’s not limiting. And hopefully if any of us has an idea or something we want to try out, we can ... I think hopefully with Vampire Weekend if we every think something’s cool or we want to try it out, we won’t just say “oh this isn’t us it won’t work.” I think we welcome things that are different. But I think Vampire Weekend is an open-enough entity that we can try anything we want.