Vampire Weekend to go ‘Modern’ at Fuji Rock

by Jason Richards

Special To The Japan Times

Over the course of three albums, Vampire Weekend has cultivated a unique sound from a wide spectrum of influences, including experimental rock musician Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius). Vampire Weekend lead singer and songwriter Ezra Koenig has a fond memory of the musician, often described as Japan’s counterpart to Beck.

“I remember seeing one of his first shows in New York when I was in high school,” Koenig says, speaking to The Japan Times over the phone from a hotel in Portland, Oregon.

“I went with some friends and just the way he combined the visual elements with the musical elements really blew me away.”

Of course, Vampire Weekend is normally associated with African, not Japanese, music — and it’s rare for them to go an article without Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland” being mentioned at least once (as we have just done).

But the band’s latest record, “Modern Vampires of the City,” has been widely noted as a departure from the African aesthetic that dominated its first two releases. Much of the album ventures back to Western pop sounds, but with enough experimentation that it comes off as fresh rather than derivative.

But if the African influence seems toned down this time around, it wasn’t deliberate, he says.

“We don’t think about it that way,” he says with a tone that could be interpreted as slightly defensive, given the accusation of “cultural appropriation” that has haunted the band from early on.

“African music will always have an influence on what we do when you consider how interconnected certain aspects of African music are with American music and stuff like that. It’s kind of natural; it’ll always be there,” he says.

On “Modern Vampires,” the thread of rock from the 1960s and ’70s that has also been with Vampire Weekend from the start has been shifted to the foreground, thanks to a conscious effort on the band’s part to create an album with its own distinct identity.

“We’re an American band and American songwriting has always loomed large in what we do, but on this record it’s more specific kind of elements of American folk music and country,” Koenig says.

To that end, he and the rest of the band (guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, drummer/percussionist Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio) aimed to capture the warm analog spirit of past decades during the production process.

“One thing (we knew) right off the bat is that we wanted to explore a more organic sound,” he says.

Much of the album was recorded with old microphones and amps using antiquated tape decks, before being polished up using digital means. Batmanglij, who co-produced the album and wrote most of the music with Koenig, played with unusual microphone positions and altered the pitch of certain vocals.

But this raw style was not the original plan for the record. The band considered further developing the ’80s quality of its music heard in the synth-inflected songs on previous album, “Contra” (2010), but didn’t see potential for growth.

“A lot of people have continued to dig deeper and deeper into the depths of ’80s vibes, but we felt like it kind of leaves you in a boring place,” Koenig says.

It looks like they had the right idea. “Modern Vampires” was the New York-based band’s second consecutive album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, a fine way to launch a globe-trotting 2013 tour, which brings them to Fuji Rock Festival on July 28. Vampire Weekend will co-headline the Green Stage with The Cure.

The widespread appeal of the latest album may owe to how its throwback ambiance fits with pop culture’s nostalgic mood. Daft Punk took its new hit album, “Random Access Memories,” back to the disco era with a musical staff and production techniques that were true to that time; vinyl has seen a rebound in sales over the past few years; Kanye West’s “Yeezus” had a lo-fi vibe that harked back to punk rock and early Def Jam; Instagram encourages users to give photos the aged warmth of old Polaroids. In its own gentle way, Vampire Weekend has aligned itself with this moment.

On why culture seems to be emulating the past more than ever these days, Koenig says, “I think that people have come to realize, maybe in the past 20 years or so, that works of art that we really grew up loving, whether it’s works of art or older film, there was something more than simply the craft or the storytelling or songwriting. The way it sounded is not something that people necessarily did on purpose.”

One of the benefits of the band’s experience is that attention to detail.

“As you kind of get some distance and see the different ways you can make music, you suddenly start to realize that these things that maybe seem like minor details are actually just as important as the songwriting and the performance, and it all works together.”

Koenig’s lyrics are as attentive to detail as the album’s production and as always, the words on this record are thoughtful and hyper-literate. They’re also full of obscure references, most of all in the song “Step,” which name-checks an array of cities, as well as political, academic and historical touchstones — and an unexpected shout-out to Modest Mouse. Even the title of the band’s recent single, “Ya Hey,” is being interpreted as an inversion of the Outkast hit “Hey Ya!” a decade after its release.

Unlike, say, more straightforward rock acts such as Mumford & Sons or Kings Of Leon, the 29-year-old frontman’s approach to songwriting seems reminiscent of contemporary R&B artists whose storytelling comes into focus by mentioning brands, people, objects and locations that are widely recognized. Koenig says that to him it would actually feel contrived not to construct his lyrics this way.

“Sometimes I’ve tried to write lyrics that were a little more traditional, like ‘Unbelievers,’ ” he says, referring to the second song from the new album, which has the feel of a religious parable. “To me it actually seems stranger not to include references to specific things that you know about, whether it’s places or ideas.”

This feels especially appropriate in today’s age of social media and 24-hour news. The musician attributes his style to all the hip-hop he listened to growing up.

“I probably spent more time memorizing rap lyrics and poring over rap lyrics than I did the lyrics of indie rock or something, which is not to slight the genre,” he says. “But those are the lyrics that I actually got excited about. And I even see connections between a lot of lyricists that I like across genres and what they often have in common is a degree of specificity.”

This makes a lot of sense, as Vampire Weekend actually started as a joke-rap group, according to a 2010 interview with the band.

Another difference between arena-filling bands and Vampire Weekend is the latter’s playful and self-effacing spirit. This was apparent in the group’s promotional rollout, which began with a small, cryptic ad in the New York Times’ classified section and continued with a series of quirky YouTube videos with actor Steve Buscemi (member Baio’s distant cousin).

Beyond impressive album sales and an active tour, “Modern Vampires of the City” has also earned the band its best reviews to date. The record has been lauded for the strength of its arrangements and songcraft, and minimalist production sensibility.

Asked how much pressure the band puts on itself to outdo the work that came before it, Koenig admits: “A lot, is the truth.”

The band’s self-titled 2008 debut received a great deal of hype and critical acclaim at a time when the Internet was spawning a high volume of indie-rock buzz bands that would go on to succeed for one album, or song.

“The likelihood that we would have topped, improved upon that album with our second album — the odds seemed very low at the time to the outside world,” he says of the band’s continued success. “But for us we just kind of buckled down and kept our quality-control high.”

But he qualifies the idea of creative progress.

“To me it’s not important that each album is better than the last. What’s important to me is that every album that we make can be somebody’s favorite.

“As long as you’re creating something distinct enough that it can stand on its own, then you’re always moving forward,” he says. “Whether you’re topping yourself, who cares, you’re moving forward and that’s the way a band needs to move.”

“Modern Vampires of the City” is in stores now. Vampire Weekend plays the Green Stage at Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, on July 28. Tickets cost ¥43,000 for a three-day pass, ¥19,000 for a one-day pass. For more information, visit www.fujirockfestival.com or www.vampireweekend.com.