Vampire Weekend: 'I'm a neurotic over-thinker' – Ezra Koenig on selecting NYC band's comeback singles

Ezra Koenig

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Monika Mog

When Vampire Weekend last dropped an album, Barack Obama had just begun his second term as US President, Manchester United FC manager Sir Alex Ferguson was bowing out with his final Premier League title and Prince Harry was still technically a single lad.

OK, you get the idea – it’s been a while; almost six years in fact.

More importantly perhaps, since the release of 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, there’s been a great deal of change in the world of the New York indie rockers.

Multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij officially left the band, frontman Ezra Koenig created an animated TV show and became a dad, plus they performed their signature track, A-Punk – yup, the one from The Inbetweeners – three times in a row to open their 2018 Lollapalooza festival set in Chicago.

Now, after teasing their much-anticipated fourth album, FOTB, by uploading a guitar riff on a two hour loop, they’ve just unleashed two brand new tracks; Harmony Hall and 2021.

A powered-up Ezra, 34, recharged after a long break from speaking to media merchants like me, phoned the BBC for a quick chat:

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So Ezra, your first record in almost six years is done and at ‘a dignified pace’ as you described it online. Would you have liked it out sooner?

EK: [Sighs] No! The truth is I felt a bit of pressure and anxiety when we started to hit the three or four year mark, that was the real middle ground where I started to feel like “oh my God, we’ve been gone too long, the fans are going forget about us.”

But then once you get to the five year mark I felt a sense of serenity. I just started to think whoever forgot about us it was meant to be, whoever still cares about us must really care about us.

Then I had the feeling the past few months – because we dragged out the end for sure, the mixing and mastering – I finally started to say “it’s time”.

A lot has happened in that time. Rostam is no longer in the band – though he does appear on the new record. It’ll also be your first album as a dad. Have these things changed your approach to the music?

Rostam worked on the album yeah but [re: being a dad] you’ve got to keep in mind how slowly we work.

I would say all the creative decisions on this album were made a solid year ago [before Ezra and actress girlfriend Rashida Jones had their son Isaiah].

The way the timeline works, you’ve got to check in with me in five or 10 years when I’m talking to you for the next album!

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Ezra Koenig and Rashida Jones

FOTB has a confirmed 18 tracks on it but on Instagram you gave fans permission to shave six songs off if they like. Is that you acknowledging how listening habits have changed since the last VW album?

I always knew I wanted this one to be a double album. As soon as I started working on it so many songs came, I swear, I really thought we were going to have almost 40 something songs and we do in the very most vague sense.

I guess Vampire Weekend always gives the haters some low hanging fruit and I just imagined that as soon as we announced the album was 18 songs, people would be like “that’s six songs too long!”

So I was kind of thinking, you know what, this is six songs longer than our longest album, which is 12 songs. So I said it to the fans. I was kind of joking but if people think it’s six songs too long… I truly don’t, I was very hard on the material and I whittled it down to where every song adds something to the story,

But of course you’re right in the playlist world, people can turn the album into whatever they want.

Would you ever make an album Black Mirror Bandersnatch-style and really let the fans decide?

Ooh that’s a good idea! I’m very pro-Bandersnatch.

I know that was controversial to some people but the night we watched it with our little crew, I don’t know if I was just in the right mindset.

The first two tracks out are Harmony and 2021. With these two were you looking to write in a more direct manner?

Certainly. I think some of our most direct songs ever people aren’t going to hear until the album comes out. There’s some really special songs that I wanted people to hear in the context of the album.

For me as a neurotic over-thinker, picking singles is very difficult and thankfully we have a lot of other people to help with that.

But there are certain songs that I think are a new songwriting vibe for Vampire Weekend.

During your Lollapalooza set in August you opened with A-Punk three times. Whose idea was it and how could you top that? Four times? Surely not five?

You know it’s a short song?! [2 mins 20] Even five A-Punks is shorter than some songs.

What you’ve got to understand is that festivals book so far in advance. We’d been working on an album for a while and people were saying “do you think it’s going to be done by the summer?” and I’m saying to those people “I think it is”.

“Well in that case we should do a few festivals,”

So we ended up doing four festivals including End of the Road in the UK, which was great. We didn’t quite feel ready to play new material, although there’s a few Easter eggs if you go back, and some fans already figured that out.

So I was kind of like “you know what? We’ve got a new band. What’s something we could do that’s just fun?”

I had this funny point of pride thing too, because some people in our world were nervous that we were going on directly against The Weeknd; one of the biggest stars in the world. I want to play our most famous song three times at the beginning – usually you save that [stuff] for the end – but I was like “listen, burn this off at the beginning”, then anyone who wants to go and see The Weeknd can and for anyone who stays it’s just a whole Vampire Weekend gig.

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You guys were the focus of the final chapter of a recent book about the rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll in New York City, called Meet Me in the Bathroom. Have you read it?

No, I’ve heard it’s great, the fact that I did an interview for it years ago stressed me out but I love the journalist who wrote it [Lizzy Goodman].

You were essentially billed as the city’s first major modern millennial band. Is that how you viewed it at the time?

Nobody was saying ‘millennial’ quite yet back then but from what I know about that book it starts with The Strokes and Interpol and that era and of course I love all those bands,

I think was in senior in high school when The Strokes came out and I remember like almost anybody being like “you guys are incredible”, it was just so undeniable.

By the time I wanted to start a band I just had so much reverence for The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and all those bands that I was excited to start a band in NYC, but it really made me think a lot about what can I/this band do that’s not fighting them.

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Native New Yorkers: Julian Casablancas of The Strokes and Cardi B

As much as I love The Strokes, I really dislike a lot of the post-Strokes bands that I found to be unoriginal. Although you know, everyone was doing their best I guess.

I guess wouldn’t have dreamed of being part of the wake of The Strokes but enough years passed that it was exciting to be like “what can we do that feels fresh and exciting? But doesn’t fully rip off that generation of bands that meant so much to us.”

And what’s the NYC music scene like now?

This is certainly not in the band world but it’s exciting that one of the biggest rappers in the world, Cardi B, comes from the Bronx.

As somebody whose family heritage goes back there, I always root for anyone coming out of that borough.

Harmony Hall and 2021 are out now and FOTB will follow later this year

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