Vampire Weekend: Hot, then what?

Can New York's favourite preppy kids find a way to belie their Zack Morris appearance and step out of Paul Simon's shadow? Ally Brown corners Vampire Weekend in the desert to pose the question personally

Feature by Ally Brown | 09 Jul 2008

I'm not sure why Vampire Weekend's keys man is looking at me with a ruffled brow as we're introduced. Could it be because we crossed paths in Edinburgh's Bongo Club six months before, and he's struggling to place me 5000 miles away? Maybe he's just squinting at the sun? Or perhaps it's because I'm wearing a kilt in 100 degree weather? "I'm not used to this kind of heat!" I tell him enthusiastically, and he looks at my woolly skirt and nods.

But what’s most likely to be causing the frown is the matter of the wide open spaces at the Californian festival we both find ourselves at on this Friday afternoon, and his band's imminent performance on the second stage. "I heard that it gets more crowded at night, and we’re going to be playing a little bit before sundown," Rostam Batmanglij reassures himself. It seems music festivals just aren't quite ingrained in American culture as they are on these shores.

Video: Vampire Weekend - Oxford Comma

Rostam needn't have worried, though: we see the biggest crowd of the day when Vampire Weekend take the stage. Much of this audience is here out of intrigue, to form their own opinions on the most talked about band of the last six months. Late last year an early demo, creatively dubbed The Blue CD-R, began circulating internet blogs and gathering praise. But for every effusive word of acclaim, there was a disappointed putdown waiting to dampen the hype. By the time that debut LP dropped in January, Vampire Weekend had become hot, then not, then hot again... and now what? What enthused some people - and seriously riled others - was Vampire Weekend's daring to use Afro-pop rhythms, like Paul Simon did so well with Graceland. But Vampire Weekend were accused of being 'cultural tourists', appropriating those foreign styles without properly understanding them, and therefore being inauthentic. The underlying tone of the criticism was "How could they understand African music when they were so well-off, and so white?"

Vampire Weekend apparently never analysed it so. "As an artist it's hard to be aware of that," Rostam says. "First and foremost we wanted to make something catchy and exciting, and something that could inspire people to move in some way. But we also wanted to try and bring different kinds of musical worlds together". But there came a point where they had to resist the primal urge to self-Google. "I think when people started to write things about us, of course we paid attention, but we’ve had to grow out of that stage. I think every artist wants to gauge how people are reacting to you, on some level, but then you want to be able to focus on the art that you do for your own sake. At some point you have to tell people that you don’t want to hear about it, whether it’s good or bad."

Those comparisons to Graceland were perhaps a little too hasty, but a world famous Grammy-winning African-based pop record is an easier place to start the mental map than a more obscure and precise equivalent. If you can hear the guitar line and rhythm of Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes in your head now, then at least you're in the ballpark. But I ask Rostam if he likes Graceland, and what he makes of the frequent references. "Oh yeah, I love it. I like the one after it even more [The Rhythm of the Saints]. We met Paul Simon at Saturday Night Live. When we were having dinner we talked to him for a while, and one of the things I asked him was whether he thought our album sounded like Graceland. And he said no. I don’t have any problem with people saying it sounds like Graceland, but in light of the fact that Paul Simon himself said it didn’t, what more do you want?"

Video: Vampire Weekend - A-Punk

One of the most obvious differences is the absence of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose unique backing vocals aren't duplicated by Vampire Weekend. That would just be silly. "We’ve got two new songs that we’re playing today, they probably sound more African than anything on our first album. I’ve been thinking a lot about the production of the next album, what kinds of sounds and what kinds of vibes would take it to the next level." Let's hope he's not thinking of giving Ladysmith a call.

Fast-forward ten weeks, fly 5000 miles eastward, and Vampire Weekend will no doubt be faced by a multitude of men in kilts in another wide open space. If you want to catch a glimpse of one of the most talked about bands of the current festival season, get to King Tut's Wah Wah Tent in plenty of time. And should you find these preppy looking New Yorkers frowning by this point you’ll know that it can't possibly be about the size of the crowd, so it'll have to be the sun.

Vampire Weekend play T in the Park's King Tut's Tent on Sunday, 13 July.