Grammy Preview 2020: Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on ‘Father of the Bride,’ Why Band Needed a ‘Reboot’
First-round Grammy voting is currently underway, and running through October 10th. For our 2020 Grammy preview, we asked a series of likely contenders to reflect on their past experiences at the ceremony, look ahead to the future, and break down the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come February.
After Vampire Weekend finished touring in support of their acclaimed 2013 album, Modern Vampires of the City, Ezra Koenig hit a wall. “When you’re starting out, it can be hard to imagine that one day you would play so many shows that you literally don’t want to get onstage,” the 35-year-old singer-songwriter admits. “I found touring totally joyless.”
It was the kind of exhaustion that a quiet year off the road wouldn’t fix: It took Vampire Weekend six years to release their follow-up, Father of the Bride. The album offers a contemporary spin on the tasteful styles of Seventies rock, at times crunchy, at times pristine, but always filled with a sheer delight in sound. It bursts with the kind of joy Koenig was missing, and he found it in Nineties environmental imagery, a friend’s Grateful Dead cover band and a community of collaborators, who helped him craft the band’s critically acclaimed fourth record.
You’ve been touring behind Father of the Bride for a few months now. Have you learned anything new about these songs from playing them onstage alongside older tracks?
The first thing that I’ve learned, which is the same thing you learn every time you take [new songs] out on the road — or at least you hope you learn — is that they work. You make a new album, you get some nice feedback, some nice reviews that can make you feel good for a second, but the truth is, you don’t know if it really works until you go on tour. It’s very rewarding to start playing the opening riff of “Harmony Hall” and hear people get really excited, or to do an extended version of “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” and feel like it’s a really important moment in the show.
You’re touring with a seven-piece lineup now. What made you want to expand the live band?
We’d always felt very confined by the four-person approach. We had to leave a lot of parts unplayed, and we had to, on certain songs, rely on tracks and things like that. It became very clear to me halfway through making this album that there was no way that four people could perform it. It’s one thing to play a song like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and be like, “All right, we’re not gonna have hand drums on it” — that’s a small sacrifice to make. But it’s another thing to look at a song like “Harmony Hall” and be like, “We would have to just play along to a track, or we’d have to leave out half the song.”
There are a lot of striking, nature-themed visuals connected with the album, from the globe on the cover to the photos of frogs. What do these images signify for you?
I think for those of us who grew up in the Nineties, we were raised to see movies like Fern Gully and a lot of people wearing “Save the Rainforest” T-shirts, and a lot of imagery that involves frogs and nature. There was a feeling in the Nineties that, “OK, things really got out of hand with pollution and mass industrialization, but this is the generation and this is the moment that’s gonna correct course.” So there were some dire predictions, but the aesthetics surrounding environmentalism were not doom and gloom — it was a very kind vibe. There’s still reason to be optimistic, I guess, but I think the aesthetic of modern environmentalism is more like a horror movie than the Grateful Dead.
I was always stuck on this simple Earth on the cover — I didn’t really want to do anything witty or vibe-y. But it also felt like there was an opportunity to expand the world of symbols for this album. That’s been really valuable for building this bigger world of the tour and the record, and I also really like the amount of homemade tie-dye jobs and bootleg merch I’ve been seeing at shows. I think there’s something about this album that, maybe because of all these symbols, encourages people to do their own thing with it. It obviously feels good to sell a bunch of merch, but it also feels good to look out see that people took the symbols and made their own hats and shirts.
In between albums you kept busy hosting your Beats 1 radio show, Time Crisis. Do you think doing the show helped you conceptualize Father of the Bride in any way?
I’d definitely say that Jake [Longstreth], my co-host, is an influence on me. We definitely have different tastes and different approaches to music, but there’s a big middle of the Venn diagram. And, you know, for our first few albums, [writers] were like, “This shit sounds like Paul Simon.” And, yeah, a couple songs, but I don’t think “A-Punk” sounds like Paul Simon. And now, with this album, people are like, “The Grateful Dead, it’s crunchy and jammy.” And you don’t want to push away Grateful Dead comparisons necessarily — that’s one of the greatest bands of all time. But when I was honestly trying to talk about it, I’d always try to say, “I think there’s maybe some elements of it, but the Grateful Dead is an incredibly hard band to reference.” It’s too unique. What really influenced me was less the Grateful Dead than Jake’s Grateful Dead cover band, Richard Pictures.
Five years ago or so, when I saw them, I was struck by the fact that that was the first time in a few years that I’d seen a band onstage playing music with guitars that seemed compelling, joyous, exciting. It almost felt like, “Ah, this is the answer.” The six years Vampire Weekend was away seemed to be this really fraught time in terms of how people felt about rock music, and there’s so much conversation where people are like, “Pop music is the only thing that’s relevant now and rock needs to be more like pop,” or whatever. And there’s always a feeling about this conversation that seemed weirdly opportunistic and careerist. Because if you really love music, you just do what you want to do. Seeing a cover band is like the antidote. That’s just people having fun.
There’s something very back-to-basics and joyful about a cover band too.
Right, and to me, that’s always going to be cool. The idea that every individual person should have a vested stake in what’s the most streamed song on Spotify — it just doesn’t matter. There’s a simple joy in learning a song on guitar.
Had you felt you were missing that joy in your own music?
Yeah, toward the end of Modern Vampires, Vampire Weekend definitely needed a reboot. I think with a lot of artists, your career is a really be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. You want to do music full-time. Unless you have a trust fund, the idea of doing music full-time seems like this distant thing. I graduated from college and I was a teacher, and I liked things about it, but I would get really panicked when I would think that I’d never be able to do music full-time. And then, a mere five, six years later, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do music full-time either, because I’d been burned out on the road. Finding that balance is tricky, and maybe some people find it to be a corny word, but joy is an important thing.
Humor often seems like an undervalued quality in music, but Vampire Weekend doesn’t shy away from it.
The music I like, humor is built into it. I like some music that has a self-serious tone, but by and large, even the idea that music with a sense of humor is the exception, that’s weird to me. I think there’s a certain tone that informs a lot of the vanguard of critically acclaimed rock music that, my entire life, I always felt sucked [laughs]. I don’t need to name names or anything, but there’s this accepted, standardized tone of seriousness that tends to be rewarded, or has become synonymous with artistic seriousness. And my feeling was always that artistic seriousness is not the same thing as seriousness of tone. Becoming a professional musician only reinforced that feeling because being a professional musician is so inherently stupid. My experiences as a professional musician have not made me take this profession more seriously.
When you see what goes on behind the curtain, you realize that all your favorite artists — even the ones who present themselves as serious people, whose music ponders questions of life and death and morality — they’re talking to their managers about if they should do some Wendy’s sponsored content. And even the people who don’t do that stuff, one way or another, they still end up being written about on websites that have banner ads for goofy products, or playing on a stage that’s named for a credit card company or a beer. And I’m not taking an anti-sponsorship stance, because that’s the world I was born into. I’m not one of those dudes from the Sixties who just can’t understand how there’s music in commercials — I’d rather have good music in commercials than shitty music. But what I’m saying is, those things are funny [laughs]. Being a professional musician is funny, and anybody whose demeanor is unendingly serious, they’re pretending. I think individual songs are very serious, but the whole the presentation of a concert, or a tour, or an album campaign, that’s not serious. That’s a big, crazy, goofy thing, and I just try to have some degree of fun with it because otherwise it’s so dishonest.
You worked closely with Dave Macklovitch of Chromeo as a lyrics editor for Father of the Bride. What made you want to collaborate with someone in that capacity and how did his input help you shape the record?
Dave has always been a friend and a mentor figure for me because the music he makes is so different from Vampire Weekend, so he’s always had an interesting perspective. He cares about funk, hip-hop, pop music; for him, what was historically called “indie,” that was the most uncool music ever [laughs]. I’ll throw out references to classic indie bands and he’ll just be like, “Dude, that shit sucks, nobody cares about it. You’re crazy if you’re looking at your music through that context.” I can’t help it, but it’s nice to hear somebody who has a totally different way of looking at things.
Also, I met him when I was a college student and he was a grad student at Columbia, where he was teaching and studying French literature. So he just has a way with words; he’s a linguist. You spend a lot of time in the studio tweaking sounds and getting into the weeds on arrangements, but it was nice to just talk about the words and have somebody challenge me and say, “Yeah that line’s vibe-y, but it doesn’t really serve the story of the song.” After having made three albums that had a lot of really impressionistic lyrics, I just wanted to make sure that there were some songs on the album that were straightforward, and sometimes I needed somebody to challenge me on it.
Were you trying to craft an album with specific characters or a larger narrative arc?
There’s nothing straightforward, like “these two songs are literally the same people.” I wouldn’t say the three songs with Danielle [Haim] tell a hyper-specific story — part one, part two and part three, like on some Avengers shit. A good album feels like a personal snapshot of the world that the people who made it were living in. It’s a very broad way to describe the album, but basically every album I ever loved felt that way. It’s a mix of the writer’s own experience, some imagination, some commentary on the bigger world, some commentary from their collaborators. It’s a snapshot of the years in which it was made. I wouldn’t necessarily call it characters, but definitely the voices and perspectives represent something that I either experienced or saw when I was working on the record.
You made this album with the help of a lot of different people, what about that collaborative process is so appealing and effective for you?
I think I have a sound and a point of view as a guitarist, and I’ve written certain guitar parts — whether it’s “Harmony Hall” or “Sunflower” or “A-Punk” or “Cousins” — that have a type of naiveté and awkwardness that’s important for Vampire Weekend. They might not be the most sophisticated, but I feel like it sounds like me and it sounds like Vampire Weekend. But that’s not the only flavor that an album needs, especially not this album. On a song like “Harmony Hall,” I wrote this guitar part that forms the heart of the song and this house-y piano that forms the B section. That’s cool, that’s my perspective and sound, but I wanted other things surrounding it, and I can’t always do those things because I’m not good enough [laughs]. I wanted some extra guitar and piano that felt like some Rolling Stones moment, so to bring in people who understand that music and can add that next to my stuff — that’s when it all comes together and starts to feel like a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
I think that’s how Vampire Weekend has always been. We’ve always had, from the early days, these ornate, programmed moments, and if we couldn’t nail something ourselves, we’d fix it. But our music, from the first album all the way through the fourth, it’s always some interplay of awkwardness and elegance, naiveté and professionalism. Sometimes I can do that myself, sometimes the people in the room can provide that balance, and sometimes you literally need to bring somebody else in to be the elegance, to be the professionalism.
“All your favorite artists — even the ones who present themselves as serious people, whose music ponders questions of life and death and morality — they’re talking to their managers about if they should do some Wendy’s sponsored content.”
Was developing a kind of community around this album something that happened naturally, or something you knew you wanted to cultivate from the start?
It’s both. I think the actual crew of people developed organically, but I wanted this to be an album that felt like a larger community. Understandably, people look at albums as just a set of songs, and either you like the songs or you don’t — that’s how people interpret music. But when you’re in the middle of it, you’re not just trying to write a good set of songs, you’re also asking yourself questions, like, “What do I want the texture of my life to feel like?” “If the band is gonna take up 50 percent of my life, what do I want that 50 percent of my life to feel like and represent?” The average Vampire Weekend fan is gonna hear Father of the Bride as another Vampire Weekend album, but to me it also represents a new way of thinking about the band, a new way of thinking about music at a time when I needed an answer to those questions.
I’d already hit a wall making Modern Vampires, but we busted through the wall to finish the album. Then I hit another wall touring it and I was just sick of the whole operation. Something had very clearly run its course, and that’s why it wasn’t hard for me to spend years away from it. So the question was not just, is this an album that’s gonna sell and stream? That’s not an interesting enough question. The larger question was, does this album represent an excitement about music and collaboration? So in that sense, going into making this album, I had things I wanted to accomplish as a songwriter, but I also had this ambition to be a part of something that wasn’t just a band churning out albums.
You’ve been nominated for two Grammys and won one. What was your first time attending the ceremony like?
It was surreal. It’s kind of formal, so I wore a blazer ’cause it seemed like you’re gonna be on the red carpet and stuff. And then you go and you realize people dress all sorts of different ways — it’s not quite as formal as you think. So the second time we went, I felt way more relaxed. I just wore a sweater, took a few pictures, and was kind of just like, “OK, I understand it more,” and it didn’t feel quite as high-stakes. So I enjoyed it a lot more the second time.
Where do you keep your 2014 Grammy for Best Alternative Album?
It’s at my parents’ house. I might’ve been in between apartments and it got sent there — I think it’s by the piano I grew up playing. Maybe I’ll put it in my current living situation. But with the gold records and Grammys and stuff, the years where those things were accrued, I was on the road so much, I literally never put thought into where they belonged. So maybe in the next few years I’ll think about it.
Keeping it by the piano at your parents’ house seems like a fitting tribute, though.
Yeah, it’s the piano I wrote “Oxford Comma” on, so it’s where everything started.
If you had to come up with a for-your-consideration campaign with no restrictions, what would be the most enjoyable way to push Father of the Bride?
I’ll tell you one thing about Father of the Bride: This album has brought in a lot of first time Vampire Weekend listeners, which is tight. Maybe because all this time has passed that whatever impressions people had about us when we first came out faded a little bit. But it has been interesting, the random people who have been reaching out, or somebody telling me, “Oh, I was talking to whoever and they really like the album.” And usually, I don’t think these are people who listened to the first three albums, so it gave me a sense of, you know what: Father of the Bride, check it out, something for everybody. If you give it a chance, you might be surprised [laughs].