Ten years ago, the members of Vampire Weekend were being interviewed about their sudden success and the blogosphere’s misgivings about their pedigree – specifically the fact that the band comprised four Ivy League grads with a penchant for polo shirts and boat shoes. “For me, it was a cool idea to strive for the perfect, imagined version of a college band,” keyboardist and producer Rostam Batmanglij told The Guardian. Singer Ezra Koenig added, “I hope people see it as a quirk rather than us waving our privilege in their faces.”
The peanut gallery wasn’t always quite so sympathetic. “If they’d shown up at CBGB circa 1978, these outré Ivy League preppies probably would’ve been beaten with bicycle chains,” sneered a Vulture critic, while a Village Voice blogger wrote, “Trust-funded or not, VW’s music, lyrically and sonically, emits the putrescent stench of old money, of old politics, of old-guard high society.”
But the band’s obvious gifts were undeniable. On their self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend served up knockout hooks and clean, crisp pop production, while offering the kind of thrillingly clever lyrics that could keep you googling for days. Baroque flourishes somehow fused perfectly with chiming African-style guitars (inspiring endless, misguided comparisons to Paul Simon’s Graceland) and reggaeton beats; jauntier numbers were balanced with reflective, understated songs. Vampire Weekend was as smart as it was vibrant.
Unsurprisingly, the group became very successful, very fast. Vampire Weekend played their first college gig in 2006. Within a year, early track “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” appeared on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Best Songs of the Year. And after its release in January 2008, Vampire Weekend went on to crack the Top 20 in both the U.S. and the U.K. Vampire Weekend proceeded to tour the world, with notable stops including a gig for 40,000 people at the Glastonbury Festival.
Unperturbed by a brief, borderline-hysterical backlash, Vampire Weekend went on to deliver two more albums, both of which hit Number One, with a fourth disc due this year. To mark the 10th anniversary of the album that started it all, here are 10 things you might not know about Vampire Weekend.
1. Vampire Weekend was the result of a carefully drafted sonic manifesto.
Koenig told Spin in 2008 that the aesthetic treatise that guided the LP still existed on his laptop, typed in a font that matched the Tintin comic books. Supposedly, the manifesto included such rules as “no distortion,” “no post-punk” and “no trip-hop.” It also decreed that the band would remove any stylings that played as “too rock.” Suffice to say, the rumor mill went into overdrive, and Koenig was required to set the record straight. “I had this image that a lot of great bands started with a manifesto – like the Who and some of those weird British noise bands,” he told Westword. “I guess it was only half-serious. … But there was a degree of seriousness about wanting to set rules for ourselves. We were listening to rap and electronic music. And we felt like if we were to start a rock band, it had better not just be a rock-and-roll band.”
2. The album gets its title from the group – which gets its name from a DIY horror flick that was never made. It confused a certain ghoulish rock star.
The origins of Vampire Weekend can be traced to a home movie that Koenig started to make while on vacation – a spoof horror flick set in Cape Cod and inspired by The Lost Boys, in which he stars as a would-be vampire slayer (you can get the gist of the plot in the song “Walcott”). Having filmed for a day, Koenig canned the project, but around the time the band started in earnest a couple of years later, he found the footage and edited it into a trailer on his new laptop (you can still watch the impressively wobbly promo on YouTube). As it happened, the group was about to play a show, and still needed a name – and lo, Vampire Weekend was born.
Catchy as it was, the moniker proved challenging for some – namely, grizzled rock veteran Alice Cooper. He apparently assumed the band might be actual vampires, or at least, menacing in some respect. “Are all American bands metro-sexual now?” Cooper asked Noisecreep. “I heard the title Vampire Weekend and I thought, ‘Oh, man, that’s gonna be great. I gotta see it.’ And there are these guys with little Gap T-shirts on and I’m going, ‘What happened to the balls in rock ‘n’ roll? Why are American bands so wimpy?'”
3. “Oxford Comma” was inspired by a Facebook group …
Way, way back in the early history of Facebook, a collective of grammatically zealous Columbia students set up a group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. This tickled Koenig, and not long afterwards he was sitting at the piano at his parents’ house writing a song when the concept popped back into his head. In conversation with a Dutch film crew after the album’s release, an amused (and possibly baked) Koenig noted, “People think it’s nerdy sometimes because it’s about a comma, but it is, ‘Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?’ But maybe just even mentioning it makes people feel a certain way.”
4. … and the band became buddies with Lil Jon as a result of namechecking him on the song.
Two of the verses in the song conclude with Koenig singing, reassuringly, “Lil Jon, he always tells the truth.” In response to the song, the rapper sent over a case of Crunk Juice as a thank you. (Pleasingly, years before any kind of interaction, Batmanglij had an internship at the Oxford English Dictionary where he was allowed to define “crunk,” “party foul,” and “mash-up.”) Lil Jon later appeared in Vampire Weekend’s “Giving Up the Gun” video alongside RZA, Jake Gyllenhaal and Joe Jonas, playing a suave French tennis coach. “They’re cool cats,” Lil Jon told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I like their first album – the one they mentioned me on – and I got the next one, but I never did listen to it. We’re cool, though.”
5. The Polaroid photo of a chandelier on the cover of the album was taken at one of the band’s earliest campus gigs at St. Anthony Hall house – a venue of some notoriety at Columbia University.
Colloquially known as St. A’s, St. Anthony Hall is a secret(-ish), elite national organization founded in January 1847 (on the feast day of St. Anthony, no less) and presenting itself as a half-fraternity, half-literary society – scurrilous rumors give it a reputation for putting on formalwear parties steeped in cocaine. In fact, so Waspy is St. A’s that its notable alumni members include the very sociologist who coined the term “WASP.” You can get a feel for St. A’s from watching Gossip Girl – in the show, the secret society Hamilton House is modeled after St. Anthony Hall (a request to film inside the society’s house was turned down by its shadowy membership). Or, from reading a revealing piece in the Columbia Spectator, wherein one St. A’s member sighs, “At the end of the day, we’re students. We’ve never had a champagne fountain. We drink box wine.” Further, when talks are given at St. A’s, the tradition is to snap the fingers, rather than clap. One can only hope that at Vampire Weekend’s early shows – one of which was apparently a yacht-themed party – the applause was delivered in snaps.
6. It was nearly impossible to find a review of Vampire Weekend that didn’t compare it to Paul Simon’s Graceland – but that wasn’t the primary source of its Afro-pop sound.
“It’s somewhat of a put-down to say that your band sounds like someone else’s album,” Koenig told The London Times in 2008. “Like, you can’t even move beyond one phase of Paul Simon’s existence. But then to other people, Graceland just means really good pop songs with some non-European influences. It’s hard to know how to take it.” In fact, two cassettes of African music were the touchstones for the bright, twinkling sound of Vampire Weekend. The first, Madagasikara Two, was a mix of Madagascan pop gems from the 1980s in the Malagasy style, which integrates a whole range of different African motifs (benga, rhumba, soukous and sega). The second was a tape by Brenda Fassie, a South African Township singer known as Queen of African Pop, which Batmanglij brought back with him from a trip to Europe. “It was the pop songs from Africa that were the most exciting to us,” Batmanglij told The Guardian, “not the traditional music. We didn’t want to make anything that sounded tribal.” Koenig concurred: “We’re interested in the modernity of African music. They use electric guitars. It’s not some mythical land before time.”
In any case, Paul Simon was unfazed. The star took his teenage son to see Vampire Weekend play Saturday Night Live in 2008 – partly as his son was a fan, and partly because Simon himself was intrigued, having heard the endless comparisons. “Everybody was saying that they were taking stuff from Graceland or whatever,” he told Vanity Fair in 2011. “I felt bad. I wanted to go and tell them that I didn’t think they were taking anything. So that’s what I told them. They said, ‘Do you think we are?’ and I said, ‘No, I think you’re going to the same sources that I went to. You’re drawing from the same well. You’re trying to write interesting songs.’ In a way, we were on the same pursuit, but I don’t think you’re lifting from me, and anyway, you’re welcome to it, because everybody’s lifting all the time. That’s the way music grows and is shaped.”
7. Despite appearances, the album was actually a DIY effort.
Both lauded and dissed for sounding as slick as its creators’ outfits, Vampire Weekend was actually assembled piecemeal on practically zero budget – tracks were recorded in dorm rooms, apartments and music studios on the Columbia campus, along with sessions in drummer Chris Tomson’s parents’ barn in Imlaystown, New Jersey, and at the tiny Tree Fort studios near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Batmanglij, then 24 years old, produced the record himself, largely using Pro Tools on his MacBook. “We’re more independent than a lot of bands that get called indie,” Koenig noted, “We made an album for no money, without a record label.” To this end, it seemed only logical that Koenig take the stage in October 2008 – plaid shirt tucked into crisp chinos – as a special guest at a 12-hour NYC show by hardcore band Fucked Up, to cover “Someone’s Gonna Die” by Blitz and “Parents” by the Descendents.
8. Early copies of the album were sent direct to “tastemakers” – not to prospective record labels – burned onto bright blue CD-Rs.
Asked why the band chose to avoid trying to woo record labels, Koenig told Spin, “That seemed ultimately fruitless. These people don’t want to listen to some random thing they don’t have any context for.” The group’s homemade campaign (which Koenig described as “aggressive”) proved highly successful, leading to Vampire Weekend being headhunted by hip U.K. label XL Recordings, then home to the White Stripes, M.I.A. and Radiohead.
Equal to the band’s meteoric rise to success, however, was the counterblast with which Vampire Weekend was met. As early as January 2008, Vulture ran an article entitled “What to Expect From the Upcoming Vampire Weekend Backlash.” By the time the band played South by Southwest in the spring, initial pressings of the album having barely slipped from their record sleeves, the derision the group faced from many festival-goers was so widespread as to be reported in the press. The Dallas Observer noted that No Age singer Dean Spunt took the stage at a Sub Pop label showcase and addressed the audience thusly: “We’re Vampire Weekend. This is our new song. Want to hear it? It’s called ‘College Dickface.'” Nonetheless, the band remained sanguine, Koenig cheerfully telling an MTV vlogger in Austin, “Everyone has haters. Barack Obama has haters.”
9. The videos for “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” were helmed by British director, actor and comedy hero Richard Ayoade.
The director and IT Crowd star had already made music videos for Arctic Monkeys and Super Furry Animals when he attended a buzzed-about early Vampire Weekend show at London college venue ULU in February 2008 (Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn was also in the crowd). As it happened, the fire alarm went off halfway through the gig, and the show had to be temporarily evacuated; a dramatic start to what developed into an easygoing and affable creative relationship. Ayoade’s first Vampire Weekend video, “Oxford Comma,” consists of one super-long take, inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave films. Filmed in upstate New York, it features cows, little kids playing Cowboys and Indians and no small amount of controlled chaos. “With long takes, there’s always a mounting tension towards the end,” Ayoade recalled. The second outing, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” sees the band transforming from preppy kids into goths, American Werewolf in London–style. While the concept seemed a logical follow-up to the scrappy horror film Koenig made in his student days, the singer had some early misgivings about how his makeover would play. These were relieved by the group’s members each figuring out which goth hero they’d most like to style themselves after; turns out Koenig makes a pretty great Robert Smith.
10. The band made a safe sex PSA for MTV.
The best way to deal with sudden fame? Surfing the wave of success for the benefit of others has to be pretty high on the list. When MTV crowned Vampire Weekend Artist of the Week in March 2008, the group gamely filmed a clutch of interstitial videos, of which their safe-sex PSA is the highlight. In it, the band members are lined up on a NYC bus (the M79, surely) when Koenig chats up the girl sitting next to him. The group’s members then run through a series of increasingly ridiculous names for a condom (“Hey man, d’you got a Dom DeLuise?” “Here’s that glockenspiel …”). The voiceover payoff? “It doesn’t matter what you call it, just make sure you got it.”