During the past decade, we’ve come to know Ezra Koenig as the frontman of the genre-jumbling, Grammy-winning indie-rock act Vampire Weekend and, more recently, the wry host of Time Crisis, his wonderfully all-over-the-place Beats1 show. Now, he’s added an unexpected line to his resume by creating Neo Yokio, an animated Netflix comedy-adventure series about a depressive, demon-slaying playboy voiced by Jaden Smith. Koenig spoke to Rolling Stone about working on the show in L.A. (while enjoying the city’s finest edibles), supporting Bernie Sanders and trying to finish the next Vampire Weekend album.
The sentence “The guy from Vampire Weekend made an anime with Will Smith’s son” sounds almost randomly generated. How did this show come together?
First of all, out of respect for true anime, I’ve always called Neo Yokio “anime-inspired” – it’s a hybrid. But I’ve always been a fan of anime, and I always wanted to do something that was kind of an homage to it. Maybe a loving parody. Initially the people I was working with thought I should be the voice of the main character, but I was, like, “I just spent seven years being the frontman of something, using my voice all the time. What I need right now is to slip into the background of something.”
Jaden Smith is known for saying trippy stuff online about the nature of reality and dressing like Batman. What’s he like to work with?
I really struggled with casting that role, and finally I was, like, the only young actor I’m truly excited about is Jaden Smith. He’s a great actor, but he’s more than that. I like the way he thinks. I’ve always been a fan of his Twitter, how he uses social media. And when he read the script he really got it. He had a sense of humor about it, but he was also like, “There are some Hamlet vibes to this.”
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There’s been a small backlash to Neo Yokio among self-appointed anime purists – you quoted people on your Twitter complaining about the ethnic diversity of the cast and even the fact that you’re Jewish. Did that surprise you?
There’s this very small but vocal percentage of the anime fan base that is also alt-right. I was just reading about how younger people in the German far-right have adopted these anime characters to represent xenophobic ideals. So anime style, like any style, can be co-opted in a million different ways. But it’s 2017. There’s all sorts of wild responses to anything.
Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law and Susan Sarandon are on Neo Yokio, too. Was it hard to wrangle “serious” actors for such a strange cartoon?
I think they thought it sounded weird and fun. For Jude, he recorded most of his parts in Italy while he was shooting The Young Pope – I’d wake up at 4 a.m. in L.A. to jump on Skype and listen to him from a studio in Rome.
One of the characters seems to be a thinly veiled Taylor Swift.
We wrote this a few years ago, and we wanted to reference stuff going on in New York in a kind of Law and Order way, so this was back when Taylor Swift was moving to New York and going to Knicks games and becoming the face of local tourism. It wasn’t, “Oh, let’s roast Taylor Swift.“ It was more just a cool idea: a pop star comes to Neo Yokio. We intentionally made her a mashup of various pop stars. She has blue hair as a nod to Katy Perry and a Southern accent for kind of a Miley vibe.
And she turns out to be a demon in disguise, intent on class warfare.
Everyone in the episode is talking about her, they all have a perspective immediately about who she is and what she represents, and in the end, nobody really has any idea what’s going with her – which is that all she wants to do is destroy the bourgeoisie.
Class is a big theme on the show, which is true of Vampire Weekend lyrics, too.
It was a fun way to reflect on some of what Vampire Weekend had done before moving into the next album. Working on the last album was one of the most emo periods of my life. Our first record had been fun and youthful and collegiate, and the third was world-weary and death-obsessed. It felt like this weird ending to something that started out light and happy. After touring, I couldn’t even think about writing songs, so I was lucky to work on Neo Yokio. I got to do that for a year, living in Los Angeles. I miss New York, but it’s been cool to learn more about L.A. All the varieties of edibles, all sorts of stuff. [Laughs]
You’ve said that the next album is about 80 percent done. What does it sound like?
Well, after this period of smoking weed and making cartoons, I came back fresh. Back to chapter four, feeling renewed. I don’t want to say too much about the sound, but this is the first album I’ll be making in my thirties, and when a band gets to their fourth album, it’s a lot like hitting your thirties and figuring out how to dress: You might love seeing the newest sweatshirt collabs from some brands you like, but at some point you pull it over your head and look in the mirror, like, “Hm. This doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Vampire Weekend has seen some personnel changes: Rostam Batmanglij left as a full-time member, and you’ve brought on new collaborators.
I had this experience where I was in the studio with Kanye in Mexico, and it was so different than anything I’d done: One day Dave Longstreth is there; the next day Big Sean shows up. Sometimes it wasn’t people working, just talking about music. I was, like, “I like this atmosphere. I need to loosen up.” So I’ve been working with this 68-year-old guitarist, Greg Leisz, and this 18-year-old guitarist, Steve Lacy. A bunch of other people have been coming in and out. Now we’re moving into the final stage where it’s about, “How do you take all that energy and reduce it to the sound of the album?” It’s tricky.
You were a big Bernie Sanders supporter. Do you hope he’ll run again?
What I hope is that a younger figure from the left proves themselves over the next few years to be ethical, moral, compassionate, and excites both Bernie voters and Hillary voters – and, let’s be real, a few Trump voters, too. I still support Bernie and what he stands for, but as he’s said himself, this cult of personality around politicians is so toxic. I don’t need to see him be president, because then I’m not talking about the issues anymore: I’m talking about my weird sentimental attachment to someone. I think it’s important for anyone to say, “I supported that person then, but they don’t have my unconditional support, and I will happily stomp on their grave if they betray working people, Muslim people, gay people, people in other countries who suffer the consequences of U.S. imperialism.” You know? So I really don’t care if Bernie’s president, and I hope he doesn’t really care, either.