When Ezra Koenig was a student at Columbia University, he wrote a short story set at a posh New England prep school. At the time, says Koenig, "I was really obsessed with boarding school as a concept." Middle-class and Jewish, he'd attended public high school in suburban New Jersey and was paying his way through college with a work-study job and "a buttload of student loans." To him, boarding school was a mysterious tradition from another time and tax bracket: "It seemed so . . . fantastical."
One day, in one of his creative-writing seminars, the class went around the room naming topics that interested them. Koenig said boarding school. "Someone was like, 'Oh, did you go to boarding school?'" he recalls. "And I realized, 'Oh, right! People actually do go to boarding school! It's not like Narnia!'"
Koenig, now 25, is the lead singer and guitarist of Vampire Weekend, and the latest in a line of cultural observers who took an up-close look at wealth and class – and had mixed feelings about what they saw. (See Fitzgerald, F. Scott.) His band-mates, all fellow Columbia grads – bassist Chris Baio, drummer Christopher Tomson and keyboardist-guitarist Rostam Batmanglij – come from relative comfort, the sons of attorneys and white-collar execs who grew up in the cul-de-sacs of Georgetown and Westchester. But for various reasons, they all sit uncomfortably with their social status – like accidental trespassers in the halls of privilege. "My family never had a lot of money," says Koenig. "It's weird to think that I grew up so much better off than my grandparents, or even my parents, but still occasionally feel like a country bumpkin."
On their 2008 debut, Vampire Weekend, Koenig sings about Cape Cod summers and blue-blooded babes, while dressing like Alex P. Keaton at a Young Republicans mixer. But their party-at-the-yacht-club vibe obscures the fact that songs like "Oxford Comma" and "One (Blake's Got a New Face)" are slyly mocking the affluent twentysomethings that Vampire Weekend are assumed to represent.
They might have been too subtle. Sometimes, the references to Hyannisport and Louis Vuitton fueled the perception that the bandmates themselves are bratty trust-funders. One critic sniffed that their globe-trotting indie pop "emit[ted] the putrescent stench of old money, of old politics, of old-guard high society."
"Sometimes I felt a little bummed," says Koenig. "To me it's very obvious that we're using satire and irony. But some people, when they hear a song called 'Oxford Comma' and that the guys who made it went to Columbia, all they can do is roll their eyes."
Vampire Weekend met eight years ago, as undergraduates at Columbia. Koenig and Batmanglij bonded over Radiohead at a party during freshman year and vowed to start a band one day. They recruited their friend Tomson, a Phish fanatic who played with Koenig in a jokey hip-hop group called L'Homme Run. Baio rounded out the group – the youngest, he was Koenig's suitemate sophomore year, and they shared a love of Destiny's Child.
Vampire Weekend played their first show in 2006, at a battle of the bands in a campus basement. They placed third out of four. Later that year, some of their demos appeared online, earning raves from sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork. Before they knew it, they were selling out shows and appearing on the cover of Spin without even having released an album. Their debut arrived in January 2008, and by the end of the year they'd performed on SNL, played for 40,000 fans at England's Glastonbury festival and sold nearly half a million albums.
The group made its name with tight, buoyant songs that crisscrossed the globe for inspiration, from Puerto Rican reggaeton (Tomson jokes that it's his "signature drumbeat") to accordion music from Madagascar. "Part of it came from working at WKCR," says Tomson, who volunteered at the Columbia student radio station. "There was a great African show, and a really incredible library of stuff you could take and listen to in your room." Their new album, Contra, continues the ethno-pop borrowing – "I think there are points where there's even more explicit African inspiration," Tomson says – and features songs about diplomats' children and skiing in the Alps. Of course, this will only cement the impression that Vampire Weekend are too preppy for rock & roll. "People are going to say our new album sucks too," Baio says. "I'm ready for it."
For all the divisiveness Vampire Weekend have inspired, they remain surprisingly grounded, and almost pathologically polite. Baio shares a modest Brooklyn apartment with the girlfriend he's been with since freshman year; Tomson rents the same room he lived in before getting signed, a laundry-strewn, seven-by-seven-foot shoe box with a framed copy of the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead on the wall.
One night we're drinking beer at a homey Brooklyn bar, I'm short $20, but there's no ATM. "I can lend you some cash if you want," Koenig says.
Batmanglij chimes in: "We can all lend you some."
Baio: "I've got $10."
Batmanglij: "I have $13."
Koenig reaches into his pocket and hands over a wrinkled 20. "Here," he says cheerfully. "You can just owe me."
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Koenig is riding home in a taxi. Cruising through Brooklyn, he spies the building that Jay-Z ID'd as his former stash spot in "Empire State of Mind." Koenig points excitedly: "560 State Street!"
Spend some time with Koenig, and this will happen a lot. Over the next few hours he'll hold forth on a dizzying variety of arcane subjects: reality star Spencer Pratt ("He's a fascinating person, an important cultural figure, and I'm not saying this ironically"); the lyrics of Elvis Costello's "The Loved Ones" ("'Spare us the theatrics and the verbal gymnastics/We break wiseguys just like matchsticks' – those are total rap lyrics!"); the Yiddish word chazerai ("It means 'pig fat,' but you use it to describe 'bullshit'"). Sticking out of his pocket is a paperback copy of Jim Carroll's druggy memoir The Basketball Diaries. Koenig read it in high school, but when Carroll died in September, he decided to revisit it. "I didn't remember how young he was," he says. "He was, like, 13 – fucking girls, doing heroin. It's pretty exciting!"
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