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Interview: Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij on their new album, 'Modern Vampires Of The City'.

Interview: Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij on their new album, 'Modern Vampires Of The City'.

Memento mori... remember that you will die. This Latin phrase can be traced back to second-century Christian author Tertullian's magnum opus, 'Apologeticus' - "Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!" / "Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!" - and has roots in the processional rites of Roman triumph ceremonies.

It's also one of the running themes of Vampire Weekend's new album, 'Modern Vampires Of The City' - a key faction in the lyrics of songs such as the soul-fazing 'Don't Lie' ("There's a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know"), 'Finger Back' ("I don't wanna live like this but I don't wanna die"), as well as the aptly titled 'Diane Young' (a pun on 'dying young'), and 'Step' ("Wisdom's a gift but you'd trade it for youth / Age is an honour - it's still not the truth") which samples Oakland hip hop group Souls Of Mischief and is thus three degrees removed from 'Aubrey' by Bread.

So it's no coincidence, that timepieces are constantly referred to throughout the album, whether it be the passing of time in the album's opening-track 'Obvious Bicycle' ("Morning's come, you've watched the red sun rise"), the running out of time in 'Don't Lie' ("I want to know - does it bother you? The low click of a ticking clock"), or re-defining the abstraction in 'Hannah Hunt' ("Though we live on the US dollar / You and me, we've got our own sense of time").

But despite all the round-the-clock reminders of one's own mortality - which builds up to a spooky crescendo on the second-to-last track, 'Hudson' (whose namesake was left to die in Hudson Bay after his crew mutinied him in 1611) - all is assuaged come the album's closing number, 'Young Lion'.

The band's multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij, wrote 'Young Lion' about a real-life encounter that lyricist Ezra Koenig had "with an older rasta at Dunkin Donuts", a random stranger who stopped him while he was walking to the studio during the final weeks of recording 'Contra' and said to him: "You take your time, young lion." Batmanglij says that he likes "the idea that a song can be something that you can lean on, both for the songwriter and for the person who hears the song." Amen, brother.

This transfiguration of double-edged swords, is also reflected in the album cover for 'Modern Vampires Of The City' - a photograph taken by Neal Boenzi for The New York Times on November 24th, 1966, one of the smoggiest days ever in New York history. It's a timeless image. It serves as a warning from the past - although it also wouldn't look out of place as a dystopian premonition - but it's also a testament to survival beyond that day and into the future.

Vampire Weekend are a band whose dedication to the characterisation of their music extends far beyond the ambience of a song like 'Hannah Hunt' (named after a girl that Koenig sat next to in a Buddhism class at Columbia University) in which you can hear rustling trees if you listen carefully. Secreted away in plain sight is a skeleton glove that's a reoccurring fixture of the band's new press photos, as well as the recent guest-editorial that Koenig wrote about watches for 'Esquire' magazine, and [in relation to this new album] stretching as far back in time as their 2012 Halloween performance of 'Unbelievers' in skeleton make-up on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live'.

A Vampire Weekend fan recently asked me if I considered 'Modern Vampires Of The City' to be their best album thus far... and I'm inclined to say yes. Its vibes are infinite. But that doesn't mean that their back-catalogue is in any way inferior, it's just right on time as a manifestation of all my most earnest feelings, even the ones I didn't know that I had.

Coup De Main caught up with Batmanglij recently to discuss the new Vampire Weekend record...

"Sometimes I’m in the mood to look at a Picasso that’s really big and sometimes I want to look at a Picasso that’s really small and just a quick sketch."

COUP DE MAIN: Your new album 'Modern Vampires Of The City' is out in New Zealand on May 10th, are there any songs in particular you're most excited for fans to hear out of the unheard ones so far?
VAMPIRE WEEKEND - ROSTAM BATMANGLIJ: Yeah a lot of them actually. You definitely get to spend some quality time with us on the record, there’s a lot of intimate moments where you can really hear the personality of the performer come through. Like, you get to hear me playing the piano at the end of ‘Obvious Bicycle’ - it’s basically just me playing the piano with a little bit of bass, but I think you get a kind of intimate moment that you didn’t get before.

CDM: Why do you feel so strongly about Junior Reid's 'One Blood' lyrics that you decided to name an entire album after the opening-line?
ROSTAM: Well, it felt like the message of that song was somewhat connected to the message of this album. And we thought there was also something that was humorous but at the same time powerful and deep about naming the album, 'Modern Vampires Of The City'.

CDM: How did you decide between which new songs you would debut live first, and then 'Diane Young' and 'Step' being released as a double A-side single?
ROSTAM: 'Unbelievers' was a song that we felt like we could tackle, so that’s one of the reasons we wanted to start playing it live, we really believed in that song and we still believe in that song a lot. It took a long time to get the arrangement quite right for 'Unbelievers', so that one’s one where the recording seemed to be kind of wildly difficult. But we felt like 'Diane Young' and 'Step' were... they’re not the most furious songs on the album... or 'Diane Young' isn’t the most furious song and 'Step' isn’t the most tender, but it’s kind of like there’s a middle ground in each of those songs. But it’s also that we thought they were special - like you’ve got the fury and you’ve got the tenderness with those two songs.

CDM: Is 'Obvious Bicycle' a cousin of your un-released solo song, 'Bike Dreams'?
ROSTAM: No, it’s unrelated. Although I did name the song 'Obvious Bicycle' before I sent the music to Ezra, so before any of the lyrics were written it was called 'Obvious Bicycle' and then yeah, eventually he and I actually together felt like that title should stick, even though it wasn’t directly connected to any lyrics of the song.

CDM: If Hannah Hunt and Diane Young were real people, do you think they'd be friends?
ROSTAM: Well, there is a real person named Hannah Hunt [pronounced Hana Hunt] that we all went to college with.

CDM: Do you think she’d be friends with a real-life Diane Young?
ROSTAM: I don’t know... maybe. Maybe they might see each other on the street and walk right past each other, or maybe they would become best friends.

CDM: The album closes with your song 'Young Lion', is that a proud moment for you having written both the music and lyrics for it?
ROSTAM: Yeah! I feel connected to every song on this record, but yeah I think there’s something special about ‘Young Lion’. It’s pretty different from any song that we’ve had before because the vocals are kind of between two different very simple instrumental piano melodies and it’s almost like something that we call a vignette, it’s sort of like a miniature. Like Picasso - he did some giant paintings and he also did some really small sketches. Sometimes I’m in the mood to look at a Picasso that’s really big and sometimes I want to look at a Picasso that’s really small and just a quick sketch.

CDM: And you sing lead vocals on the song too, which is quite exciting! And a first for Vampire Weekend?
ROSTAM: Yeah it is! There are parts of 'Diplomat’s Son' that I sing on my own, but yeah. We’ve always said that our band is pretty much an open system and there’s no rules governing anything... so who knows what the future will hold?

CDM: The line you wrote "you take your time, young lion" - what does that mean to you personally?
ROSTAM: I like the idea that a song can be something that you can lean on, both for the songwriter and for the person who hears the song.

CDM: With [Vampire Weekend drummer] Chris Tomson having co-written on track eleven 'Hudson', was that maybe the most collaborative song on the album?
ROSTAM: Yeah, what’s interesting about that song is that there’s one part that Ezra wrote the chords and then the vocals for it, and then there’s another part that’s kind of an instrumental section that I wrote the music of, and then there’s another part where CT and Ezra collaborated - and it was actually another song at one point, and then we adapted that other song into ‘Hudson' and it became the chorus of 'Hudson'. So that song definitely has different songwriting perspectives that come together to make sort of a super song.

CDM: Was it fun having your friend Angel Deradoorian [previously of Dirty Projectors] sing on three of the album tracks?
ROSTAM: Yes! It was very fun, I love working with her, she’s a joy to work with. She’s fab at singing and she has a real... she has an understanding that’s both intellectual and emotional about singing, that I think that very few people have.

CDM: Do you think any of the songs on the new album could possibly replace 'Walcott' one day and become the new farewell jam during shows?
ROSTAM: We’ll have to see... I don’t know. It’s possible, I don’t rule anything out.

CDM: You were the one who found the new album cover photo right? How did you first come across it?
ROSTAM: Well I did come across it on the Internet... I don’t want to say exactly how, but I will say that as soon as I saw that picture I felt that it could be and it should be an album cover.

CDM: With yourself being an avid photographer, how would you feel if in say fifty years time someone asked to use one of your photos as an album cover, like how you've done with 'Modern Vampires Of The City'?
ROSTAM: I probably wouldn’t charge them as much as The New York Times charged us!
CDM: <laughs>
ROSTAM: Thank you for laughing, that was a joke.

CDM: Is there any special significance behind the skeleton glove that CT and Ezra each wear separately in some of the new Vampire Weekend press photos?
ROSTAM: Actually, yeah there is some significance. One of the things that we talked about was this idea of 'Memento Mori' - like the reminder of our own mortality - and so we were sort of trying to express that in our press photos. And it’s one of the themes of the album as well.

CDM: Does the George Washington crossing the Delaware River backdrop that you used at your 2013 Big Day Out shows, have any particular relevance to the album?
ROSTAM: No, not specifically. That kind of came out of this idea that... Ezra said to me: "What if we went for this classic American painting?" And then he said: "For example, like the George Washington crossing the Delaware?" And then I said: "Well, what if we just used that painting exactly?" So that’s where that came out of.

CDM: Seeing as you have former intern experience - if the Oxford English Dictionary asked you to write a definition for 'Vampire Weekend', what would you define it as?
ROSTAM: I think we’re a band that’s interested in making music that tackles subjects and sounds unlike music that’s made by any other band.

CDM: Is Steve Buscemi officially the fifth member of Vampire Weekend, or are you guys holding him hostage as a prisoner?
ROSTAM: Steve Buscemi is kind of our spirit animal right now.

CDM: As a producer, what would you like people to remember your music by?

ROSTAM: Drums, actually. Drums are one of the things I care the most about. And the other thing I care the most about is vocals, so I’d love to be remembered as the producer who is known for big drums and big vocals.

CDM: Do you still have plans to release a Rostam solo album?
ROSTAM: Yes certainly, but I realised that I needed to have time to breathe creatively and I wanted to take the time to make sure it was what I wanted and that I wasn’t rushing towards a conclusion. So, there’s parts of it that I feel really, really happy about, and there’s other things that I want to revise. At some point in July of last year, I realised that I had to give 100% of my time to finishing the Vampire Weekend album, so that’s sort of what I did. And now that that album’s done, I have time to revisit things that I was working on earlier, previous to it. I actually found it very helpful to be working on some music on my own and other music with Ezra and with the band - I found it very helpful to have both of those things happening at the same time, it kept my juices flowing creatively.

CDM: I interviewed Wes Miles recently and asked him about new Discovery music and he said that: "The future is unclear as of yet." Do you have any words to add to that?
ROSTAM: Well, actually me and Wes worked on music just today! So slowly we’re getting back into it.

CDM: I love the self-portrait you drew us at the Sydney Big Day Out, it's one of my all-time favourites. Could you ever see yourself putting on an art-exhibition?
ROSTAM: Yes! I could imagine doing that, but I’d love to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before. Maybe I would draw portraits of people who came to the show.

CDM: If you could write a song for any popstar, who would be top of your wish-list to work with?
ROSTAM: I don’t know... that’s a hard question to answer, I’m torn! Maybe... Robyn.

CDM: The last two times I saw you guys play, you walked out on-stage to A$AP Rocky's 'Fuckin' Problems' - which is rad because A$AP declared his love for Vampire Weekend in an interview earlier this year. But more recently, he's said that he doesn't think you guys know who he is / care - what would you like to go on record saying about this?
ROSTAM: We love you A$AP and we know who you are! <laughs>

CDM: And lastly, of course I have to ask... when are Vampire Weekend returning to New Zealand?!
ROSTAM: We don’t know yet! But probably next year.

Vampire Weekend's new album 'Modern Vampires Of The City' is out now - featuring the singles 'Diane Young' and 'Step'. Click here to purchase on vinyl from JB Hi-Fi [free shipping within New Zealand].

Click here to read/watch our January 2013 interview with Vampire Weekend.

Watch the official 'Diane Young', 'Step' and 'Ya Hey' lyric videos below...

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