As part of our newly updated survey of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, we’re publishing a series of pieces on the making and impact of key records from the list. Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City came in at number 328.
Vampire Weekend hadn’t even finished work on their second album, Contra, when, in June of 2009, multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij began writing music for Modern Vampires of the City, the group’s career-defining third LP. The genesis was an early version of what would end up becoming album opener “Obvious Bicycle.” “It started with a very hectic drum beat,” said Batmanglij, who eventually added basic piano chords inspired by John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band to the raw demo.
The band would spend the next three years working on Modern Vampires in fits and starts at Batmanglij’s Brooklyn apartment and, eventually, on a songwriting retreat in Martha’s Vineyard. This time around, more than ever before, they wrote with the studio in mind. “Songs that we ended up pursuing,” says Batmanglij, “were a product of treating the making of the album as a recording project and putting the recording first and foremost.”
As Batmanglij moved away from the African stylings of their earlier work and became more invested in sampling and drum production, guitarist-singer Ezra Koenig’s narrative focus was shifting as well. He began focusing less on the self-consciously playful class signifiers of the band’s first two records, having grown weary of the discourse surrounding his band. (“People tried to pretend that we were rich idiots ripping off African music,” he told The Guardian.)
Koenig, who had recently gone through a breakup and was drifting without a firm home base, began to draw from those experiences. “Generally, I was feeling weird and aimless,” he said of the time period. Koenig became fascinated with “vibe-y old skeleton art” and the Latin phrase memento mori, diving into tales of malaise and mortality on songs like “Don’t Lie” and “Diane Young” (original title: “Dying Young”). “When you’re in your late twenties and maybe having a quarter-life crisis,” he said, “you can really be plagued by questions of meaning and your purpose on earth.”
When it came time to record, Batmanglij recruited Ariel Rechtshaid to help produce the record. Working with an outside producer for the first time helped the band break out of its dependency on its old sounds. “They would reference their own songs,” said Rechtshaid, “and I’d give them a blank stare.” The album’s new influences included Nineties dancehall icon Junior Reid (who provided the album’s namesake) and Oakland hip-hop trio Souls of Mischief, whose Nineties gem “Step to My Girl” served as the foundation for Modern Vampires centerpiece “Step.”
The album itself was recorded in New York and L.A., with Rechtshaid setting up the band at his impromptu L.A. home studio. “Hannah Hunt,” a stark breakup ballad, was recorded under an avocado tree in the producer’s backyard. “You can hear the rustling trees if you listen carefully,” said Batmanglij.
By the time the band released the record after an extensive mixing and mastering period in the spring of 2013, it had been nearly four years since Batmanglij had begun working on its music. The wait was well worth it: the sound of a once-trendy college band that had figured out how to take itself more seriously. “In the past, I think a lot of our songs have had detours, surreal moments, vignettes,” Koenig said. “I feel like every song on [Modern Vampires] has a specific purpose.”