Vampire Weekend began 2014 by almost getting immolated. On stage at the Falls festival at Lorne in Victoria, as the New Year’s Eve midnight countdown began, they launched into the frantic A-Punk. An audience member threw a flare towards the stage – it missed but lodged in the sound desk.
“Our monitors got fucked up, but we kept playing,” says frontman Ezra Koenig from the safety of a Sydney hotel lobby a couple of weeks later. “We eyed it warily and then eventually somebody grabbed it and stuffed it in some water,” adds Chris Tomson, the band’s drummer.
It would have been a spectacular rock death. “True, not a bad way to die,” says Koenig. “A brief taste of 2014 before perishing.”
If Vampire Weekend had gone out, it would have been on a high. Last week, their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, won a Grammy for best alternative music album (Koenig’s entire speech: “Thanks a lot”), having ended the year in the upper echelons of all the critics’ polls. Their Australian dates saw them heading towards the final stages of a triumphant world tour.
Their Sydney performance proves that they have managed to pull off the trick of making brainy records that you can mosh to. Unbelievers, a tightly condensed lyric about being an atheist but still searching for meaning and grace, provokes a particularly joyous response from a noticeably young audience. “In some ways this record is more mature, maybe a little darker, so the fact that our music still speaks to teenagers is a good feeling,” says Koenig.
The success of Modern Vampires of the City has also not only buried Vampire Weekend’s unfair reputation as privileged Wasp dilettantes (an image early songs like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa were playing with, not buying into), but in a perilous time for guitar bands also affirms that they are here for the long haul.
Not that they see themselves as a guitar band. “A band should primarily be able to think about songwriting and production and arrangement ideas – that’s what makes a band creative,” says Koenig. “All the greatest bands of all time at some point made songs that weren’t all about the guitar – the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin …”
So how come so many of their late-noughties peers haven’t survived? “I’m sure like most things it’s fairly cyclical,” says Tomson. “When we came out it felt like a lot of British bands, whose names I remember but I don’t want to seem like I’m talking shit about, we played festivals with but we don’t see that much any more. I feel like Arctic Monkeys is a great example of a band that’s done it very well.”
They’ve stuck with guitars. “They’ve doubled down, in fact,” agrees Tomson.
“If you’re going to stick with the guitar you’ve got to change up your look – at least do your hair a little different for another album, and they were wise in doing that,” declares Koenig, whose sense of humour is as dry as a dustbowl. “For some of these other bands – same haircuts every album, same guitars. Nobody wants to hear that. It disgusts me.”
As if to prove their commitment to versatility, the morning we meet the band has just released a gentle reggae cover of Andrea Bocelli’s Con te Partirò for Sweetheart 2014, an album of cover versions of love songs by contemporary artists to be sold online and through Starbucks. It follows other unlikely – though splendid – Vampire Weekend covers for BBC Radio One, including Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and Cheryl Cole’s Fight for This Love.
“That song is in some ways very kitschy, but I do find it beautiful,” says Koenig. They even keep the dramatic, if somewhat corny, key change at the end – a fact that elicits a chuckle when I mention it. Koenig and Tomson – keyboard player and co-songwriter Rostam Batmanglij and bassis Chris Baio have been let off promo duties– really start laughing, however, when I ask about Koenig’s “review” of Drake’s last album for website The Talkhouse.
A short story which riffs off the refrain “motherfuckers never loved us” from Drake’s song Worst Behaviour (now the band’s intro music when they play live), it’s a hilariously angst-ridden tale which sees the protagonist thinking he has bonded with Hans, the singer of a Danish band he’d lent an amp to, only for Hans to flatly ignore him when the Danish band plays New York.
Is that what friendships with different bands are really like? “I wrote that in a brief fit of inspiration,” smiles Koenig. “I set the story in 2007 because at that time, inter-band dynamics seemed particularly fraught. You’d have some random dude in another band giving an interview to some blog about how shit you are, and it felt like a real war zone.”
They bring up Drake’s song title/motto “no new friends”, his unintentionally comical but nevertheless sincere statement about how you can’t trust anyone who wasn’t “down” when you weren’t famous. “There’s no replacement for old friends,” says Koenig. “So you have to value them, and you have to give some of these motherfuckers a once-over when they try to enter your sphere.”
The insecurity of your average rock star, of course, must be hugely amplified by Twitter, which brings both cascades of love and hatred. Koenig (@arzE) is fluent and very funny on Twitter, but does he think it’s a good thing for bands?
“I personally find that Twitter is a good, direct way for me to find out about the world,” says the singer. “But I also feel the same way about social media that I feel about music downloading, Spotify and streaming. We can have conversations about the pros and cons, but at some point you have to accept that things have fundamentally changed.”
Despite Koenig’s claim that he uses Twitter “the same way other people might use books or school”, the band are all voracious readers, infinitely more likely to have their nose in a book on tour than be cavorting with groupies. Since the death of Nelson Mandela, Koenig has been reading up on South Africa. First he read Mandela’s autobiography, then a book about the truth and reconciliation commission, and then, “to find out what was going through the heads of liberals and conservatives in the Afrikaaner community of the time,” My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan.
While being in an indie band used to mean that you were plugged into a left-leaning, oppositional ideology – “if you played Glastonbury, you’d feel a sense of duty to be against the fucking government” as Johnny Marr put it – these days most bands seem to run a mile from making any kind of political statement.
“Well, you’ve got to be careful about coming across as a dumbass,” says Koenig. “Whether it’s someone running for office or some Kony 2012-type shit, you’re constantly getting offers to sign a guitar for this or do a show for that.” He’s dismissive of those who play benefit gigs without really caring about the cause, but equally of those who turn their backs on politics entirely. “I consider myself politically engaged in that I’m constantly trying to understand the way the world works, see beyond the headlines, read deeply and meet people.”
He is yet to find a balance of political beliefs and a music career, but sees Vampire Weekend’s work as having a political dimension. "I think our music has been political, especially this last album. It doesn’t necessarily give somebody a clearcut direction, but maybe that’s OK. Maybe music sometimes has to exist in a vibier world.”
Pressed as to how the oblique, elliptical Modern Vampires of the City is political, particularly since he shies away so much from explaining or discussing the lyrics, Koenig argues that its primary theme is the individual’s relationship to organisations – religion, the government – and other people. "But it’s not a Rage Against the Machine album. I think there are different ways to be political in music, but in your personal life maybe there aren’t. Either you give a fuck and you work towards it in some obvious way or you don’t. So I still see them as somewhat separate things.”
So would Vampire Weekend ever write a song like Free Nelson Mandela by the Special AKA, or would that be just too painfully obvious?
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Koenig admits. “The message of that song was more or less, Nelson Mandela was locked up and he shouldn’t have been. That’s a simple, direct message and they were right. Beyond that, let’s say I had been a British white guy in the '80s who had some notions of what was going on in South Africa and I started writing a song about 'free everybody in the ANC, support the armed struggle' then you start to get into weirder territory."
Koenig says that he regrets sending Vampire Weekend’s MySpace friends a message in 2008 – accidentally, it was meant to be a blogpost – that the band supported Obama, and that perhaps they ought to as well. “We got a lot of people writing back ‘Hey, I don’t need this shit in my inbox. I’ll vote for whoever the fuck I want to vote for.’ And some part of me, being raised in an East Coast liberal milieux, wanted to be ‘What? Fuck you!’
"But the more I thought about it I realized they were right. You’re somebody with deeply held beliefs, you support the Republican party, do you need to get a MySpace message from Vampire Weekend giving this wishy-washy statement about why we’re supporting Obama?”
The band are, however, interested in how Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York, might tackle the job. “He was involved with some pretty leftwing stuff in the '80s, fighting against imperialism in Nicaragua as a young man,” says Koenig. “Maybe he’s mellowed since entering the notoriously dirty New York political scene, but I’m definitely more interested to see what a former radical is going to do in New York than a billionaire.”
Having been on the road for the best part of a year, soon Tomson, Batmanglij and Koenig will return to New York (Baio lives in London with his wife) to experience the change in person, and work on a fourth Vampire Weekend album. The band have spoken about their previous albums – the first came out almost exactly six years ago – as a trilogy, which begs the question of where they go next.
Either Koenig doesn’t know, or he isn’t saying. “Sometimes I feel like starting on it really quickly, sometimes it feels like we should take more time. It’s like people say when you’re solving a problem, you think about it really hard, and then you stop thinking about it with your conscious mind. You’re watching TV and walking the dog, and suddenly the answer comes to you. I think the music just kind of guides you.”