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The Semi-Charmed Life of Vampire Weekend

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Koenig lives in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood, in a duplex he shares with two roommates. The place is palatial for post-collegiate New York, but by rock-star standards it's kind of a fixer-upper. A creaky staircase leads down to Koenig's messy room, and the upstairs shelves are crammed with books: Beckett, Nabokov and his favorite, Evelyn Waugh. (For Halloween one year he dressed up as Sebastian, the drunken aristocrat from Brideshead Revisited. Everyone thought he was a cricket player.)

Koenig kicks off his duck boots and plops down on the couch. He's tall and patrician-looking, with the expressive features of a 1920s film star. A fifth-generation New Yorker, he was born on Manhattan's Upper West Side when it was still the boho-liberal enclave of Nora Ephron books and Annie Hall. His parents lived there in what he calls "post-hippie domesticity" – Fela Kuti on the stereo, Moosewood Cookbook in the kitchen. His family-therapist mom studied Buddhism and taught yoga, and his dad was a photographer's assistant and movie-set dresser (he worked on Malcolm X and Requiem for a Dream) who dabbled in guitar. Once, when Ezra's mom was pregnant, someone asked his father what he wanted for his son. His answer: "I hope he has a nice girlfriend and a band."

When Ezra was two, his family moved to the Jersey suburbs, to a town called Glen Ridge. He was one of the only Jewish kids at his school, a fact that caused him no shortage of angst. (Koenig still remembers throwing a fit in first grade when his teacher made the class color pictures of the Easter Bunny.) When it came time for his bar mitzvah, 13-year-old Ezra was too embarrassed to invite any of his friends. "Fine, we can have a party," he told his parents. "You can invite, like, Grandma."

In high school, Koenig turned these feelings of alienation into an aesthetic. "I used to think Polo was really lame," he says. But when he discovered that Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz, the son of a Russian-immigrant house painter in the North Bronx, those tee-time-at-the-country-club get-ups suddenly felt kind of subversive. He bought his first Polo shirt at a Congregational Church rummage sale, and soon he was rocking so much Lacoste that a teacher told him he looked "like the bad guy from a John Hughes movie."

Koenig's Hamptons-chic vibe went on to become a key part of the VW brand; rarely does a write-up fail to mention their cardigans or boat shoes. But to Koenig, it's about more than just a look. "I'm hesitant to talk about it, because then it seems like Vampire Weekend is this big conceptual project," he says. "But around the time the band started, I became very interested in the connection between preppy American fashion and Victorian imperialism. For instance: Where does the word 'khaki' come from? It's Urdu. Where does 'seersucker' come from? Hindi-slash-Persian. Madras prints? They're from India. Blazers? They were a British naval uniform." (Koenig, who taught English at a Brooklyn middle school, has a tendency to switch into lecture mode.)

"Now obviously that was a very fucked-up time period," he continues. "But there's something exciting about realizing that these clothes that have come to represent WASPy Americans, the pinnacle of whiteness, actually have their roots in India or the non-Western world. They have this fascinating history flowing through them. Preppiness is this wide-open thing."

This kind of geocultural dot-connecting could be Vampire Weekend's mission statement. Their first album cherry-picked styles from all over the globe: Congolese soukous, Ghanaian highlife, Jamaican ska, Dominican bachata. It was like a souvenir mixtape from the coolest study-abroad semester ever – a lively, off-kilter sound they dubbed "Upper West Side Soweto." ("Which I regret," Koenig says.)
To some, the band members were indie-rock colonialists, plundering Third World styles for their own gain. But for Koenig, who studied the semiotics of post-colonial literature, concepts like purism and authenticity are as outdated as a land line. Everything is intertwined, he says, and "polar opposites don't exist." Start seeing the connections, and "the idea of fusion – of mixing things – seems less and less like a novelty, and more just the way the world works."

If Koenig is Vampire Weekend's analytical left brain, Batmanglij is its abstract, artistic right. On a November morning, he answers the door to his apartment in jeans and a light-blue oxford with paisley patches on the elbows. In his living room, a knock-off Verner Panton chair sits in front of a small upright piano, and Japanese subway maps adorn the walls. Batmanglij just got home from the gym, and he's feeling a little lightheaded. "Do you want something to drink?" he asks as he fills a wineglass with water. Meeting him is like visiting your very sweet, very attentive grandmother: Can I get you anything to eat? I'm going to have some water, would you like some water? Do you want a banana?

Batmanglij grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of Persian immigrants who fled Iran shortly before the 1979 revolution. Now his parents own a small publishing house whose motto is "Bridging East and West." His mom's Persian cookbooks are their biggest sellers.

A creative kid with an inquisitive streak, Batmanglij learned to play the flute at age seven, and later mastered the piano, violin, guitar, banjo and Persian tar. "Anything you put in front of me, I can make some kind of sound out of," he says. His tastes are omnivorous: One minute he'll be gushing about Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," the next he'll declare Sublime's 40 Oz. to Freedom "fucking awesome." A tireless polymath, he has a hand in nearly every aspect of the band, from producing to designing the artwork.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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