Interview: Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig on new album 'Father Of The Bride'.
"It's kind of a deep cut," ponders Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, as he contemplates drawing a sharpie face onto a tangerine at the suggestion of a minder from the band's management. "It's a deep reference," he concludes, alluding to a lyric in 'How Long?' ("What's the point of human beings? A sharpie face on tangerines") from their new double-album 'Father Of The Bride', before deciding that the element of fun is worth it. This is peak Koenig. Considered and careful, but with an electric eccentricity completely his own - attracting unplanned photoshoot props and unwitting happenstance (Koenig has unknowingly scheduled today's interview on the day of the second full Moon of spring, i.e. a Flower Moon and the title of track thirteen on the new record), all the while bestowing a contagious conviction in conversation.
An hour prior, Koenig explains the necklace he wears: "It's a Hamsa. Some of my Moroccan friends put me onto it because it protects you from the evil eye. I've taken it off maybe a cumulative total of two days over the past six years." Did anything bad happen to you on those two days, I ask? "It's funny, it made me nervous to take it off, but it makes a lot of sense to me," he says earnestly, and all of a sudden I feel a need for my own.
Preceded by a trio of double A-side singles that were released monthly, Vampire Weekend return today with their first new album in six years, and although much has been made of original member Rostam Batmanglij's departure from the band, there's something for everyone on the 58 minute opus - from three duets with Danielle Haim and harmonies weaved entirely all throughout, to a pair of winsome Steve Lacy-featuring "sibling" songs, and the more classic cut 'Bambina' for those hesitating to dive headfirst into previously uncharted waters (but when eighteen songs this great await, you'd be crazy not to).
And with the new album, comes a promise for New Zealanders who have been hoping/wishing/praying since Vampire Weekend's one and only show at Auckland's Bruce Mason Centre back in 2010 - Koenig declares, "We got to return!"
Coup De Main caught up with Ezra Koenig in Los Angeles last month ahead of the release of new album 'Father Of The Bride' to talk about everything "Vampire Weekend Season", and what follows below is our discussion condensed for clarity...
...maybe it's a life-long journey to realise how you can be pessimistic and happy at the same time. Because once you're the type of person who's waiting for the other shoe to drop, you're never going to stop. You'll always have a pessimistic world view, but I've realised that pessimism and optimism are not necessarily the difference between happy/calm vs. anxious/sad. There are actually more interesting combinations you can come up with.
COUP DE MAIN: You've previously said that 'Modern Vampires Of The City' was the final part of a trilogy. Is your new album 'Father Of The Bride' a reset for you? Or another narrative existing in the same world?
VAMPIRE WEEKEND - EZRA KOENIG: I mostly think of it as being chapter four of the same novel. But no matter what, Modern Vampires was going to feel like some type of conclusion, if only because it was the last record that I made when I was in my twenties and it was number three, and naturally you think of things in terms of three. I think for any artist, your fourth album, it's a tricky thing. On the one hand, ideally there's continuity, it feels like a piece of the first three, but at the same time you're getting older and if you don't want to just make worse and worse versions of what you did in the past you do have to find new ideas and slightly new things to talk about. So it's kind of both - it's chapter four, but it's also, especially with the long break, a bit of a new beginning.
CDM: Are there any shared narrators on 'Father Of The Bride' from songs on your previous albums, like with 'Run' from 'Contra' and 'Hannah Hunt' from 'Modern Vampires Of The City'?
EZRA: I generally think of it as being the same group of people. In the years between the third and the fourth album, at first I wasn't really sweating music because I didn't think about it too much, but I could sense a bit of anxiety in a lot of people about the place of guitar music or indie-rock, and maybe that just happens in any wave of music, suddenly everybody gets older and it can be a little bit confusing about what's relevant about it. I kind of realised once I started working on the record that it's not that hard to continue just telling stories about the same group of people because lives change and they get older. Sometimes I need a little bit of perspective to even know myself, like, who are the same people? I can definitely say that songs like 'Hold You Now', 'Spring Snow' and 'Married In A Gold Rush' are new ground for Vampire Weekend and are talking more directly about interpersonal relationships and moments that happen when people are coming together and coming apart. I definitely see it a little bit as being like the 30-something version of some of the people even going back to the first album.
CDM: At what point did you decide upon the title of the album and to change it from the working-title 'Mitsubishi Macchiato'?
EZRA: 'Mitsubishi Macchiato' was always temporary. I actually had 'Father Of The Bride' pretty early, but I also feel like even when you have a good feeling about an album title you can't fully feel confident in it until the record is done. So I probably first thought of 'Father Of The Bride' three or four years ago, and then as time went on I felt more and more confident in it that it really was the appropriate title for this group of songs and for this moment. 'Mitsubishi Macchiato' I probably had that in mind going all the way back to Modern Vampires. And so when I really started working on the record, 'Father Of The Bride' was starting to loom, and I think that was helpful in a way to get ideas from.
CDM: The album cover artwork seems like a nod towards the relationship between Mother Nature and the responsibility of humankind to look after her - we've had such a history of failure and we're now in this really scary time of transition with global warming and the earth's sixth mass extinction. Am I completely off the mark?
EZRA: 100% one of the motifs of this album is ecology or the environment. And even some of the musical references on this album, I was thinking back to music I remembered from the 90s that reminded me of that 90s wave of ecology and environmentalism that a lot of us grew up with. It was almost a weird feeling to have nostalgia for environmentalism, because obviously it's something that is hugely important now and of course people have never stopped fighting that fight, but it was weird to remember how when I was a kid (and depending how old anybody else is they probably have similar memories) everything was about Earth Day and 'Save The Rainforest'. And then it became less of a theme in children's programming. So it was interesting to think back to that moment; what was it about that moment that people had more optimism? And even then, there was almost a feel-good nature to it, 'Listen, things are really bad, but you're going to be the generation that changes things.' Whereas now, it feels truly apocalyptic. So definitely, 100%, putting the earth on the cover connects to a theme of environmentalism and I think I've always been interested in those types of relationships. An individual person is something bigger than them, and I think that's a theme on the record too, but I also knew I wanted a very simple album cover this time after a series of cool vibey photographs. And I've always believed that double albums need simple album covers. You think about classics like The White Album, 'Tusk' and 'The River', it's always very simple because there's so much going on in the music that you don't want a detailed complicated album cover. Or at least that's how I felt. So I always just had this vision of the earth, and again, almost going back as far as 'Father Of The Bride', I liked the idea of it being called 'Father Of The Bride' and I liked the idea of the album cover being the earth on a raw digital white background. That was always important to me. I didn't want it to be a cool photograph of the earth in space, I wanted it to have a little bit of that tension of being Mother Nature, the planet that we live on, but also something border-line uncomfortable with that raw digital whiteness just surrounding it.
CDM: I like that it looks a little child-like.
EZRA: Yeah, it was specific, that earth in particular. Trust me, there were times I wondered if we should do something more like a classically indie-textured photo? But there's just something about that kind of drawing style of the earth that I found appealing. The gatefold of the album is a very vibey photograph with a lot of noise and mystique about it, but there's something I liked about keeping that on the inside and having a really simple digital cover.
CDM: A few years back, Hayao Miyazaki (one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli) announced that he's creating a nature sanctuary in Japan on a remote island for children to experience and explore the natural world. What you said about children's programming and education just reminded me of that.
EZRA: Wow! That's cool, I didn't know that.
CDM: It's funny that the relationship that humans have with the earth is perhaps the most important relationship of all - but it's also the one we take the most for granted and never really think about and appreciate properly?
EZRA: Right, and if you listen to some people - because there's also the paradox that some people have really fatalistic views of environmentalism - they would say that the mere fact that there are so many people on the planet means that we're in trouble. So there's also that interesting feeling that of course you can change certain habits and you can advocate for legislative change and stuff, but to have that weird feeling in the back of your head that even the fact that you're alive is a bad thing for the planet is a strange relationship to have with the planet that gave you life and gave all humans life.
CDM: You told NPR that you're "kinda more excited about some fairly straightforward ideas" in your songwriting now. What prompted that change of feeling for you?
EZRA: Any artist or any creative person is always excited to try something different. So on this album for instance, even to write the duets with Danielle Haim. There's a type of duet where you just break up the lines, but the duets that I was interested in were two people actually talking to each other and having slightly different perspectives on a shared experience. So on a most basic level, it was just something new to try as a songwriter - I don't know if it's getting older or just wanting to challenge myself. I'm still proud of the early songs, but I realised that as a music fan there's a type of songwriting that I admire so much, which is pretty direct storytelling related to basic human experiences. I think that when I was younger I was maybe more interested in the aesthetics of things. It's not that I'm not now, but I would start with a series of words, like with 'Oxford Comma' I started with a phrase. Whereas now for the first time, I wanted to try what most songwriters do, which is trying to get at a feeling or situation. And maybe it's also maturity, I might have been embarrassed when I was younger to say something too direct about love or pain or suffering, but now I'm older and like, 'That's what life is.' It feels right to talk directly about those feelings. And then every time I get nervous that I'm being too direct, I always play music for my friends who are like, 'What are you talking about? Your songs are weird as hell.' <laughs> So that always gives me some confidence that it still feels like Vampire Weekend, even if it's some different types of words.
CDM: You're quite forthright on the album's closing song, 'Jerusalem, New York, Berlin'. What was running through your mind while writing it?
EZRA: It's interesting talking about it now that people are hearing it - I don't know if everybody's going to think it's forthright, so it will be interesting to see what people take away from it. That one did start with the title a little bit. There's something about listing those three cities together, even before I knew what I wanted to say, just listing those three cities gave me a kind of weird intense feeling. It makes you think of history, no matter your background. Obviously, for a Jewish person, those are three particularly significant cities, but I think for anybody, those are world-historical cities that have affected many people's lives and make you think about money, power, violence, civilisation - the big questions. So that one really started with those three cities. I did an interview where somebody asked me if the reference to 1917 is about The Balfour Declaration. Usually what I say when a journalist asks me something, because I do believe that songs are there to be interpreted, is I would stop somebody if I thought they had a crazy interpretation. But if I think it's a valid interpretation, I'll say, 'Yeah that's valid, but it doesn't mean it's the only one.' So when I first wrote it, I was thinking about the struggle of identity. What does it mean when you identify with something bigger than yourself? As big as an ethnic group? Or religion? Or even as small as a family? There's always going to be some kind of tension because you can feel very connected to something bigger than yourself and that can be a very positive thing, but every person is going to have a different perspective on stuff and it's dangerous to get lost in something too much bigger than yourself. So I thought of it as being kind of about that struggle, and even now when I look back on the song, and this happens a lot when we're rehearsing, I'm just singing the same song over and over again and I think about the lyrics differently and start to think, 'There's the Jewish identity interpretation of those three cities and what they mean.' And then I just thought about it in a bigger picture kind of way, thinking beyond that aspect of identity. And then I started to think in a really broad way, what do those cities represent? And to me, Jerusalem represents many religions. Berlin will always represent culture - the historical significance of Berlin as a cultural centre, or even now, as a place where a lot of people go to be artists. And New York represents money as a gigantic financial centre. Those three ideas - money, art and religion - are all big concepts that we look for meaning in. So I started to think about it in that way rather than the hyper-specific identity-based interpretation.
CDM: Are there any specific lyrics on this new album that you're most proud of?
EZRA: Like I was saying before, the lyrics that brought me the most joy on this album as opposed to previous ones, were not necessarily the most clever ones. When I was younger, if I could rhyme two kinds of different things, I felt more proud, or if I said a real unusual string of words that felt like it could only be me, I felt proud of that. Now that I'm older, I'm more proud of the simpler lyrics in a way. One that I was thinking about recently is that in the song 'Married In A Gold Rush', I like a lot of the back and forth between the two characters/singers. I like the opening lines of that, how one person says, "We got married in a gold rush / And the rush has never felt the same." That's one person's interpretation of the good old days and they're just disappointed that it doesn't feel as good. And then the next person says, "We got married in a gold rush / And the sight of gold will always bring me pain," and they're focused on the damage. One person just misses the fun, and the other person is focused on the pain they'll carry with them for the rest of their lives. And then one line I like in particular is where I sing, "I thought you might learn the language," and then Danielle sings, "I thought you might learn to sing." And that, to me, is what I love about those old country duets, that they're always ribbing each other. There's a lot of those songs about a couple and they love each other, but they also keep it real about the fact that they get on each other's nerves and they make fun of each other a little bit. One of the ones that I always remember that my dad used to play that made a big impression on me because tonally it was so different from what you used to hear in other genres is a song called 'You're The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly' [by Lorretta Lynn and Conway Twitty] and it's funny because they're not even split up, they're just an ageing couple who are blaming each other for everything that's gone wrong in their lives. By the point you start saying to the other person that, "You're the reason our kids are ugly," obviously, you're having a laugh about it. I like that tone.
CDM: I personally really like, "Baby, I know pain is as natural as the rain / I just thought it didn't rain in California," from 'This Life'.
EZRA: Thanks! And I would say that's similar because there's no expensive words in those lines. I think back in the day I was excited about expensive words. <laughs> And I'll always like expensive words to some extent, but that's almost like a country or a folk lyric; it's simple. Every Vampire Weekend lyric I can explain if somebody forced me to. I don't like to too often because I like to let the fans have their own meanings, but I can explain even the most impressionistic collage-like lyrics from the first album - I can explain what it means to me. But a line like that, I can really explain. A line like that is saying you know that pain is a part of life. Nobody's so stupid to think that their life will ever be truly free from pain, but yet you sometimes wonder, you still can be shocked when it comes because you know it's happening out there at all times but you like to think that maybe you are in a position where you're just going to get lucky and avoid it in the same way that California can represent easy living and yet people are blindsided all the time by all sorts of traumatic events. And even to have a song called 'This Life', I don't think I could have had a song called that on the first three albums. There's just something about that line that really kicked that song off and made me feel like, 'Yeah! This is actually a straight-up song about life,' which would have felt weird in the early days.
CDM: Do you think that pain is one of the most relatable human emotions?
EZRA: Yeah, I do. And the fact that everybody's so funny about it, wherever it's not admitting our own pain, or even maybe, more importantly, not admitting that everybody is dealing with pain has a huge impact on how we treat each other. I was doing an interview recently where the word suffering came up because of the chorus of 'This Life' ["But I've been cheating through / This life / And all it's suffering"], and I was thinking, it's funny, there was a moment when the word suffering was prominently featured in three songs. 'Harmony Hall' used to go, "I thought that I was free from all that suffering," and I forget what the third one was, but the word suffering popped up a lot. And I was talking with my collaborators, 'I should probably dial that back.' And they were like, 'Yeah if only for the sake of elegant variation, you should use some other words.' So I was talking with someone the other day about how suffering is an extreme word, and I was thinking about how in one sense it is an extreme word, but at the same time, my mom's a psychotherapist so she'll sometimes use the word suffering more casually to describe somebody and say, 'That person was really suffering at that moment in their life.' And not because somebody was trying to murder them or something awful had happened to their family, but they were suffering, they were experiencing pain, whether mental or physical. Also, I think about how in Buddhism the word suffering is presented as a fact of life for everybody. And I do think there is something good about recognising the words pain and suffering as not being something that happens a few times in your life when something truly awful happens, but pain and suffering as actually being part of the fabric of every day. And recognising that can be useful, and as hard as it is, recognising that even people whom you think are treating you poorly are also human beings grappling with those same realities. As I get older, these things are on my mind a lot more - I don't know if I've nailed down my thesis, but you think about it more.
CDM: Does pain come more naturally to humans than other emotions? Like, when you're waiting for the other shoe to drop?
EZRA: I totally relate to that feeling. I actually think about that a lot at this phase of releasing a record. We've put so much work in, not just the band, but everybody we work with, so it's nice when there's a pay-off, like it's nice that a show sold out or somebody wrote something nice. But you do get a lot of people saying, 'You must feel pretty good about this,' and I'm a little more that pessimistic type. <shrugs> "We'll see." Because I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. But at the very least, the difference between that feeling in my 30s versus when I was much younger is that I know that that cycle of being up and being down is truly the fabric of life. When I was younger, maybe out of arrogance or something, you sometimes have a few bad experiences and then you're like, 'I'm not going to ever let that happen again, I'm never going to feel as bad, I'm never going to let myself go down that dark rabbit hole again.' And then as you get older, you realise that desire to control the world and control the outcome of your own life, even that is silly because you can't be in charge of that. That's more or less what most religions and philosophies say, so there seems to be something there. And maybe it's a life-long journey to realise how you can be pessimistic and happy at the same time. Because once you're the type of person who's waiting for the other shoe to drop, you're never going to stop. You'll always have a pessimistic world view, but I've realised that pessimism and optimism are not necessarily the difference between happy/calm vs. anxious/sad. There are actually more interesting combinations you can come up with.
CDM: Is 'Father Of The Bride' more of a glass-half-full album or glass-half-empty?
EZRA: It's a tough one. Obviously, I was very proud of Modern Vampires; I knew that after the first two albums it was important to show a different side of the band and as I was getting older I wanted to write about heavier topics and it was gratifying that that album was very well-received. But then occasionally, there's the backhanded compliment of somebody who said, 'I really didn't like early Vampire Weekend, but this album is serious.' I never thought of the first two albums as being unserious, those albums just focused on different things. So the idea that the only way that people will treat you as serious when you're talking about god and death and using black and white imagery, there's something about that that bothered my sensibility. Every album is a mixture of light and heavy and joy and pain. So on this record more than ever, and it's partially why I wanted to do a double album, I realised that I hate this idea that an artist starts out being naive and then their work just gets darker and darker, as if that's getting closer to the truth of what life is - I've never bought that. So the idea that this album needs to be even darker and more intense, that didn't make sense to me. And neither did the idea that the last album was heavy, so this one has to be light. I like the idea of having room with a double album, that you can have both of those vibes next to each other. I've always said that with Vampire Weekend I like that every album can push in two directions at once. So to me, this album has some of the heaviest moments we've ever had, both musically and thematically, but it also does have moments of joy and simplicity. At the end of the day, I no longer think of moments or phases of my life as being optimistic or pessimistic, I really do see the yin and yang of how they are present in each other. And to me, that is what life looks like. And also, you get older and you think, 'Who are the artists I really, really like?' I like so much music. I kind of have respect for anybody who goes through the crazy process of making an album, but who are the artists whose careers are truly interesting to me? And it tends to be people who dealt with serious ideas but still had a sense of humour. People who present as deeply serious all the time were never quite my cup of tea, and neither were people who make totally fun music. I always like stuff that had a little bit of both.
CDM: The concept of time has always seemed really important to Vampire Weekend - from 'Obvious Bicycle' where you sing, "Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you," and in 'Hannah Hunt' where you explore the idea of shared time, "You and me, we got our own sense of time."
EZRA: I've sometimes wondered why does time come up so often as an idea or image in our lyrics, and an interesting thing that you hear sometimes is one definition of music; that it is a way of organising time. It's funny that music is one of the biggest art-forms when it's really bizarre and trippy. It's the type of thing you think about when you're really stoned - you can take a picture of a painting because it's static, but when you listen to a song and you pause it, it's not like you're left with a little slice. It's not a tangible thing. We almost feel like we can see music or see what a melody looks like, but of course, at any given moment you're only hearing one note at a time. And in a funny way, it's almost like some weird existential metaphysical art-form that maybe is the closest one to actual life - in that we see these narratives of our own lives and we see these narratives of relationships and our relationships to other people, but at any given moment, we're only right here. So there's something really trippy about music when you think about that. If you think too hard about it, and this gets real stoner, but you just start to think, 'It just doesn't exist!' You know? Like, 'Where is it?!' We stare all day at Pro Tools and it makes a song look like an organised piece of art, but it's time-based, so there's something very trippy about that - that a song in a funny way almost doesn't exist. So maybe it makes sense that music is a good art-form to think about that bizarre relationship that we have with time.
CDM: Time has come around again on this new album - for instance in ‘Married In A Gold Rush’ you sing that, "We’re running out of time," and in 'Bambina' you say, "Time cannot be trusted." Has your understanding of time changed and grown as you’ve gotten older?
EZRA: It certainly feels different. The most obvious thing that everybody says as they get older is that time moves faster, right? Also just the more years you're on the planet, the more you have these almost spooky moments where you think about the people that you're really close to, outside of say family whom you've known since birth, but other people that you would almost define as your life - loved ones, your closest friends and closest collaborators - and to think that there was a time on earth when you didn't know any of these people. There is something trippy about that, and you have more and more of those moments as you get older. And you start to have a few more of those 'time is a flat circle' kinda moments too, where looking at things chronologically ceases to be the only way to look at things.
CDM: Why do you think you’re so drawn to exploring the concept of time within your songwriting?
EZRA: I don't know. Maybe it's just one of the classic themes of songwriting. I don't know if I have the answer, but you're definitely pointing to something true. Obviously, the most classic songwriting subject of all time is love and relationships. It's 99% of songs. And I can't fully answer the question, but I agree, there's something about relationships and time. And because relationships are such a classic songwriting subject, time is always looming in the distance. So there's some connection there, but I don't know if I can put it all together.
CDM: This will be your homework. Tell me on the next album cycle.
EZRA: I'll have an answer by then.
CDM: For ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’ we talked to Rostam about the skeleton gloves that you and Chris Tomson wore being a nod to the idea of Memento Mori - a reminder of our own mortality. Do you think that theme has lent itself to this new album in a different way?
EZRA: When we were making Modern Vampires I was very interested in that type of imagery and the whole concept of Memento Mori and all the vibey old skeleton art and the things that people would wear to remind themselves of their own mortality. It was very interesting to me. When you're in your late 20s and maybe having a quarter-life crisis, or however people define it, you can be really plagued by questions of meaning and your purpose on earth. 'Who are you? What are you going to do with the rest of your time on earth?' And sometimes it reaches a fever pitch for a lot of people in their late 20s. I don't know why, maybe it has to do with the way our lives are structured between school and work, or maybe it's just because your 20s represent the end of youth to a lot of people - although the definition of youth is changing all the time, maybe it's 40 now by some people's standards - so naturally you have these big questions about life and death at a relatively young age. Even the phrase 'quarter-life crisis' is kind of funny, because, why do you have to worry about that shit? And yet, so many people that we know do. It can be one of the most anxious times in life, and for a lot of people, their depression and anxiety can reach a fever pitch at that moment. And it's interesting when the years go by and you're still alive. Some people chill out a little bit more in their 30s because they realise that they're not gonna be able to answer those questions. So when I think about that kind of Memento Mori feeling and then I think about that album and that time in my life, it was a real obsession with my purpose in life. You're concerned with your own mortality and it seems like such a big idea. Now, I also realise that there are other things to dwell on. It almost seems a little narcissistic to be so concerned with your own meaning in life and your own mortality. Again, you get older and things change in your life and you realise you are part of something bigger - and a lot of questions arise just even out of that, but you realise that you can can almost have a laugh about it, and maybe that's the difference. Some people when they think about the fact that they're gonna die, it sends them into a spiral. Maybe at another moment in life they'll realise that there's actually something empowering about that, or at the very least, funny. We take things so seriously and it's all just a blip. And maybe that goes back to the same idea, that you can be pessimistic without being morose. I think about people that I really admire and maybe wanna emulate - they're pessimistic but with a sense of humour. That might be the best case scenario.
CDM: Do you feel differently about the lyric, "I don't wanna live like this / But I don't wanna die" from 'Finger Back', now six years later when you sing it in 'Harmony Hall'?
EZRA: I'm always cooking up songs over the years at different times. I like that song 'Harmony Hall' a lot, but I think of it as being a collage; a lot of different imagery trying to get at a mood or a feeling. On 'Finger Back' I already had this lyric that I was working on and I wanted that phrase to be on the album - 'Oh, I can just stick it in the end' - and I wouldn't say that lyric defines the song. Whereas on 'Harmony Hall', the whole song is about that lyric. So it is contextualised very differently. 'Harmony Hall' is a song that is specifically about the feeling of confusion when you realise that these cycles never end and about that feeling of being trapped in a cycle and not wanting to live like this, but also not wanting to end the cycle because that might mean death. They're two very different types of songs, so naturally, the lyric comes across differently.
CDM: How do you feel about the line, "We mostly work to live, until we live to work," from 'Run' on 'Contra' now nine years later?
EZRA: That lyric just reminds me of time. Maybe it was in an interview or something, but recently I was talking about 'The Kids Don't Stand A Chance' from the first album, and that song is 100% written from that moment of being in school and recognising that something bigger was coming. The various hopes and dreams of me and my classmates, one way or another, would run into this bigger system. Maybe the first album was almost preparing for that real world, and 'Contra' was when people that I knew were experiencing the real world, so it makes sense that I was thinking about that feeling of everyone panicked about being able to support themselves and getting a job. And then you have a job, and then that doesn't always offer meaning either. So I still relate to that lyric, I guess.
CDM: In 'How Long?' you ask, "What's the point of human beings?" Is that the bleakest Vampire Weekend lyric you've ever written?
EZRA: <chuckles> A little bit. You know what's funny? There was a viral tweet recently, where somebody wrote, "No offence but what is like......the point. Are we just supposed to work and buy coffee and listen to podcasts until we die? I'm bored." It was a funny way to describe modern life. And it's true! That's a real feeling, that occasionally, not talking about living in a warzone or something, but even with nice things like coffee, you just kind of think, 'Is this really all there is? I'm a little bored.' So I think it's natural. It's bleak in a way, but also that's the big question, right? Like, what is the point? And again, I think that if Modern Vampires is asking what is the point in this dark night of the soul way, I think this album is more asking what's the point and then following up, 'Maybe there is no point and that's okay.' I don't think of it as being crazy bleak, but in some ways, I think that song is just a little bit about a feeling that I relate to of just wanting to be alone with somebody. It might not even be quite as intense as what's the point of human existence, although that is a question that comes up often, but what's the point of being surrounded by people? That song 'How Long' even in a negative way, "How long 'til we sink and it's only you and me?", I also just relate to that as a person. I like to hang out with people one-on-one. I need a lot of energy to really go hang with a lot of people, like at a 12-people dinner. Actually, even for my last birthday, for the first time ever, I invited five people. It's not easy to whittle it down to five people, but I realised that if I hang out with even ten people, 15 or 20 or whatever, that's exhausting. I've never liked hosting. Every time I get excited about throwing a party, at some point I turn a corner and I'm just like, 'What am I doing?!' I like to hang out with people one-on-one and that's a theme I see on this album, that there's a lot of just wanting to savour those nice moments when it's just two people somewhere. And of course they don't last, we have to deal with large groups of people, but it's part of life.
CDM: We were talking to Ariel Rechtshaid last night and he said that when you were working on songs, lots of them sounded like duets, so you both were thinking about whom to get to sing on them. He said that after Danielle Haim sang on one song you guys couldn’t imagine anyone else singing the others. Was there a feeling you had after having her on that first song that just felt right for the entire album?
EZRA: Yeah! Even going back to when we made 'Contra', we always knew that there would be an album where we would throw the doors open and have more collaborators. You've got to keep things interesting. After the first three, I always knew that for this album I wanted to open things up a bit, but that's easier said than done, because you could start bringing in all sorts of people to appear on an album. There's a lot of albums that have all sorts of guests and the people don't even know each other, and that's one way of doing things and I have nothing against it, e-mailing people vocals and whatever, but for me, that was the one indie-line that I couldn't cross. To some extent, Vampire Weekend we never particularly had much relationship to that word 'indie' or whatever, but people referred to us as part of this genre that we aren't even totally sure what it means? Like, what does it mean to be indie at this moment when indie doesn't have a lot of meaning for people, period? To me, if indie/alternative means anything, it's just that you know the people that you're working with, that there's a sense of community. And it might not be the old 90s sense of community, like the local scene, but even just your own sense of community that the people that you're working with didn't just pop in for a promotional opportunity to jump on a song together, but the people you're working with spent time together in the studio and maybe even have a relationship outside of the studio. And that's the best! So it was important to me that whoever was on the album wouldn't just pop in for one song, that they would be part of the fabric of the album. I couldn't have even dreamed to what extent Danielle would become part of the fabric of the album because there's the three duets and then so many songs she just sings backing vocals on. Even a song like 'This Life', she's not a featured artist but you can really hear her voice and she's really part of it. She's a character on the album, the same as Steve Lacy, he worked on at least three songs and his voice is just kind of in the mix. His voice actually pops up throughout the album, just him talking. So at first maybe because those songs were kind of indebted to country songwriting, I thought we should get a country singer, and that seemed really fun to me. I went down that road a little bit, I had one really interesting conversation with a pretty prominent country singer's manager and they were totally cool and they were open to it, but understandably they were like, 'But can we hear the songs first?' Which is totally reasonable and definitely how things would probably work in Nashville, because yeah, why would this person who doesn't know me agree to do something until they've heard the songs? So I needed to get a bounce of the demos to e-mail, but every time I'd be about to hit send on the e-mail I just couldn't do it. <sighs> That way of doing it just didn't make sense to me. And again, it's not a critique, that's probably what I would say if some stranger was hitting me up to do something, but that always gave me pause because it just didn't feel quite right. So when we heard Danielle doing it, obviously, the sound of her voice - she's an amazing singer and she just nails stuff on the first take and it just sounds right. And then the sound of our voices together made a lot of sense. But then even just the feeling I had that she is the lead singer of her band, whom I might have the most in common with out of anyone in the world. We have so many connections in life, obviously with Ariel and stuff, but I remember when I met her very early because I knew Haim's first manager, so I saw them play in New York to five or six people and I thought they were a cool band. And then I remember seeing her backstage at this Mumford & Sons show that we were both on the bill at and she was listening to bounces of their first album. I talked to her a little bit and we talked about a certain song. And the way she talked about that song, I think she said, "I really want to nail that song because it's the thesis statement of the album." And I was like, "Whoah! The way you think about albums is: a) I feel very connected to you, and also b) it's very inspiring." So I've always felt a kinship with her as another singer in a band. When she started singing on more and more songs it really started to feel like it was the perfect mix of throwing the doors open and letting the band be something bigger than just a handful of people, but also it was the perfect middle ground between opening things up but not letting it become random. So when I look at this album, I think about the people who are hugely important parts of this album - Ariel, Danielle, Steve Lacy, DJ Dahi - and it's really nice to think that all these people are friends and know each other. Family is maybe too loaded of a word, but it's a community, and that's the only way that Vampire Weekend could have made an 18-song album with that many people, is if it felt like a community.
CDM: I find it interesting that in 'This Life' you sing, "I know love isn't what I thought it was," and Danielle who also sings on that song says in an old Haim song 'Honey & I' that, "I don't love you just because / Love wasn't what I thought it once was." It's funny that you were in sync even before meeting?
EZRA: I didn't even think of that! Right! I know that song. I didn't realise that there was a similar lyric, and in some ways, isn't that the story of life? She probably wrote that in her early 20s, I wrote this in my early 30s, but the idea that your definition of love is always changing and evolving, that's just such a huge part of what it means to grow up.
CDM: Can we please just talk briefly about your Netflix show 'Neo Yokio' because we all really love it. Are you working on a second season?
EZRA: Sick! We're not working on anything explicitly right now. We definitely have some fun ideas on how to keep it going, but truthfully, one thing I've realised over the last six years is that I'm only happy working on one thing at a time. <laughs> Coming off Modern Vampires, at first, I didn't realise how exhausted I was, coming off all the work we did for that three album mega cycle. At first, I really wanted to keep things going and wanted to do stuff in TV and music and all that stuff, and then I realised that I'm a low energy person - I like spending time with a core group of people, I can't do too much at once. So even when I was working on the first season of 'Neo Yokio', at first I was like, maybe I'll go to the studio two days a week and work on Vampire Weekend. But eventually, I was like, 'You know what? I need time off from that anyway,' and let that be a full year off just chilling out and thinking about animation and character design and enjoying that process. So I really want to continue doing stuff and I still talk to Jaden [Smith] regularly, but the way that we and Nick Weidenfeld (who we made the show with) feel is that 'Neo Yokio' is the type of thing that theoretically we could dip back into at any moment. Almost like a band. Like with Vampire Weekend, we could go six years without making an album and it's still a universe that exists.
CDM: You could just do a seasonal special for every kind of holiday.
EZRA: Yeah, that would be fun! But I'll tell you one thing: Animation is truly so much work. It's kind of good practice for making an album because there's so much happening - there's the animation, the design, the sound, the music, the script, the delivery. I like the idea that Neo Yokio is a city, it's a place, it will always exist, and we will certainly dip back into it, but for now, it's Vampire Weekend Season. And I did have a funny experience about a month ago in New York when a guy started talking to me in an elevator about 'Neo Yokio'. He was a fan and asked me, "So when is the next thing coming?" And I said, "I'm kind of focusing on my band for now, so it might not be too soon." And he was like, "Oh, okay." And then he sent me a DM a week later and was like, "Hey man, I hope I didn't seem too disappointed when you said you were going to be focusing on your band, I just really like 'Neo Yokio'. But I want to let you know I went and checked out your band and you guys are pretty good." I was like, 'Who is this dude?! That's cool!' He knew 'Neo Yokio' but I guess he'd never really listened to Vampire Weekend.
CDM: 'Neo Yokio’ has always reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse’s 'Jeeves' series of books.
EZRA: We straight up called a character Aunt Agatha and there's an Aunt Agatha in there. I always loved Jeeves and Wooster, and I love P.G. Wodehouse, and I loved the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry series, so yeah that was a huge influence. The way I initially pitched it to the studio that was making it was (and certainly not everybody agrees with this but), 'You ever watch a Batman movie and it's 90% Batman but then there's that 10% where Bruce Wayne wears a tuxedo and he goes to a society event? Don't you wish that was 90%?' And the answer for some people is, 'Of course not,' but for a certain type of person it's, 'Yeah! I feel that.' When you zoom in on that side of Bruce Wayne's life, you start to almost see a Jeeves and Wooster world, so it's kind of a combination of Batman and Jeeves and Wooster.
CDM: Did you enjoy being able to create this on-screen world that on the surface feels like an alternative universe, but actually reflects on things that exist in the real world like personal branding and consumer culture?
EZRA: That's what I love to do. It's pretty similar to Vampire Weekend. I guess I always forget to some extent that 'Neo Yokio' has definitely got a kind of stoner cartoon vibe. It's definitely weird, but it's a very specific tone, some people get it immediately and some people are totally thrown by it. When the first season came out, the funniest thing to me is that we had one very negative review from a dude who said, "If this show was a parody, I might like it. But I e-mailed Netflix and I asked, 'Is this a parody? Is this satire?', and they wouldn't give me a straight answer. So fuck it. It sucks." That just cracked me up that people need to be told that, 'Yes, this is supposed to be funny and it is a satire.' My vibe was that 'Neo Yokio' is of course a satire, but I truly think it's a fairly accurate presentation of what life feels like. I've also kind of wondered if more people would have understood it if we had been more straight-forward and been like, 'Yes, this show is totally bizarre.' Like, for instance, 'You don't deserve this big Toblerone,' I was really happy that became a meme, but there were so many questions, like, 'Was that line supposed to be funny?' And trust me, that to me, even Vampire Weekend lyrics included, I still think that, "You don't deserve this big Toblerone," is the best thing I'll ever write.
CDM: I'm just not sure that Americans understand sarcasm. I often get in trouble doing interviews with Americans because they think I'm being serious.
EZRA: It's funny because modern life is inherently so absurd that I feel like doing something like 'Neo Yokio' is great because it's animated, but the alternate universe comes across like, 'Wow what a crazy universe you created!' I didn't do too much press for it nor did I contextualise it too much, but the first season of 'Neo Yokio' is just fully like my representation of Twitter. I was on Twitter a lot in the years leading up to 'Neo Yokio' and it is not a crazy alternate universe, it's just a visual representation of what Twitter sounds like to me. The way people talk in 'Neo Yokio', that is the way people talk! And even the Christmas special, that's maybe more Instagram than Twitter, but it's funny. It's almost like you get to hide the realness in the absurdity of animation, but in some ways, this is a straightforward depiction of the modern world.
CDM: Back to the review you mentioned, it's frustrating that opinion is dictated by playlists of genre now. Is a pop song even a pop song if it's not on a Spotify pop songs playlist?
EZRA: Right, and I'm sure we definitely freaked out a few people who got 'Neo Yokio' in their Netflix queue. We probably confused the shit out of some people. In the years when I wasn't doing music, I wasn't excited about it partially because the very metrics-driven format of modern music seemed so boring to me. There's just no magic in it. And I'm being a little old-school here, but when we used to roll out an album and were doing all the basic things like making videos and doing press, there was still something a little bit mysterious about putting all these weird things out into the world and then three months later you got a piece of paper that told you how many albums you'd sold in Indianapolis. That's interesting and kind of magical in a way. I don't even get sent the SoundScans anymore, but we used to get them all the time, and our first album went platinum in America four months ago, almost eleven years after it came out. So every once in a while I'd see a SoundScan and sometimes it would literally be like: 140 people bought a physical copy of 'Contra' last week in the United States. And there's something about that, that it fills me with questions. 'Who is that person who bought a 'Contra' vinyl?' Is it new to them? Did they just finally want it?'
CDM: Maybe they just watched 'Neo Yokio'--
EZRA: And were like, 'Who is this dude?!' I don't know! But there's something... magical is too strong of a word, but there's something mysterious about it, that's kind of hard to say. Whereas now, everybody sees everybody else's numbers and you are put in the indie playlist and you have this many streams. It's just very straight-forward. But, once you start doing it, you find the magic in other places a little bit. There still is something fun about an album campaign being this multi-media extravaganza where you're showing something little by little. I always worried that coming back now in the streaming metrics era would feel boring, but actually, it's fun. And even right now that I'm talking to you, we're right in between the last song we put out and the album, and we chose to do it somewhat old-school. I got really nervous at times, because when you're doing it old-school and taking over three months to introduce people to music little by little and then you see other people in that timespan drop surprise albums or multiple things, you start to feel like a snail. Like, 'Oh my god this is taking forever, we're probably frustrating people.' But now that we're finally here, I feel like this was the right way. We'd been gone so long. And it's an 18-song album, I'm glad that people had a chance to familiarise themselves with some of the record and still have 12 songs left. It feels perfect.
CDM: And you picked the right songs to release first! I hate when you finally get an album and you've already heard all the best songs.
EZRA: And that's what's so hard. I always feel that way too.
CDM: And then you judge the album more harshly than if you had just listened to it all at once at the same time.
EZRA: Right! Because then you're just like, 'I'm waiting for something else to move me... Nope?' That's always a bad vibe too, when the first song that somebody puts out is the best one, the second song is the second best, the third song is the third best, and now here's the album which is four through ten. I kind of feel like with Vampire Weekend, if I know anything after the years of picking songs and curating the albums and putting so much thought into it, it's that all the songs matter and you never know which ones people are going to feel connected to. It felt right to launch with 'Harmony Hall', a lot of people are really into that song and it's going to be a favourite on the album. But I know that there will be other people who find other songs that they connect to much more. And we've always been like that. On the first album, 'A-Punk' is probably our best-known song, but there are so many people whose favourite song on that album is 'The Kids Don't Stand A Chance' or a deeper cut. And that's just the type of band we are. So I always feel like it's very tricky to say, 'What are the songs we can use to get people interested in the album but not really give it away either?' It's kind of painful actually, to pull them out, but I think we picked the right ones.
Vampire Weekend's new album 'Father Of The Bride' is out now. Stream it below:
Watch the music video for 'Sunflower' below...