10 Years Ago: Vampire Weekend Carries Heavy Torch With Their Debut
When the Strokes became New York indie heroes and hipster blog darlings in 2001, it all made sense. The Strokes stole from the coolest of the cool: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the Ramones. They sounded like the Bowery should (according to the assumptions of a million kids in the suburbs and on the college campuses in Athens, Ann Arbor and Austin).
Vampire Weekend took a different path. Coming up 2007 on the heels of the Strokes and other hip NYC bands that fueled the city’s rock renaissance, Vampire Weekend sounded like Paul Simon’s Graceland. Amazing? Yes. Cool? No.
Straight out of the dorms of Columbia University, the four piece -- vocalist and guitarist Ezra Koenig, keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio -- met just after the Strokes stopped being the biggest band in the world (which they were for about five minutes). All of them were active in the college music scene: Koenig had his own rap-rock act, L'Homme Run. But the magic didn’t happen until Vampire Weekend played its live debut in February 2006 during a dorm’s “Battle of the Bands.”
That might be overstating it: the band took third out of four contestants.
“We took it semi-seriously,” Koenig told the New York Sun in 2007. “But we did not take the judging of the contest seriously.”
And yet the group’s sound was intriguing enough that the mighty New York Times felt it had to write about Vampire Weekend even before it released its first EP.
Columbia is surrounded by neighborhoods filled with African immigrants. There are Senegalese blocks, Zimbabwean streets and a dozen different varieties of cross-pollinated music. But like so many before him, he first heard the guitar and rhythmic styles that became Vampire Weekend’s signature the same way most Americans did: Graceland, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and other artists who tapped into world beat in the ’80s.
“No, I never got into any jam sessions in the neighborhood,” the then 23-year-old Koenig told me in 2007. “But yes, Graceland played a part [in developing Vampire Weekend’s sound]. But it was really my parents’ record collection. My parents had a really good collection with some African music, two-toned ska, new wave and lots of good stuff.”
From the outset, no one in Vampire Weekend was overly fond of the Simon comparisons -- even if they seemed inevitable because of Koenig’s voice. Simon, to his credit, paid Vampire Weekend a compliment while meeting them when they played on Saturday Night Live.
“I wanted to go and tell them that I didn’t think they were taking anything. So that’s what I told them,” he recounted to Vanity Fair in 2011. “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."
But Koening was eager to explain the band’s sound was evolving way back in 2007.
“I don’t think the stuff we’re working on now sounds anything like Afropop,” Koenig said. “I’ve been into classical music and other sounds that are taking me away from what we sounded like a few months ago.”
The songwriter was referring to tunes such as “M79,” which popped up on the debut, and could have been a mashup of “Eleanor Rigby”-like chamber music and indie rock.
Even before the band signed their record deal with XL and released Vampire Weekend, which hit stores on Jan. 29, 2008, the group seemed huge. David Byrne blogged about the band after seeing a show -- “I wondered if they sounded a little like early Talking Heads, a little bit, maybe, which of course wouldn’t bother me. They got the crowd moving, which is pretty impressive for an opening act. Catchy tunes too.” Animal Collective and the Shins tapped them as tour mates. The press soon swarmed.
“It’s been nice getting all the press but it doesn’t mean much,” Koenig told me at the time. “The more press you get, well, it doesn’t correlate to fans or sales or anything.”
Although the press seemed to have a sizable impact. Shows began to sell-out early and often. Desperate fans illegally downloaded Vampire Weekend in droves when it was leaked to the Internet more than a month it was released. And of course, the press once the album actually landed was almost unprecedented.
Pitchfork, maybe the most important tastemaker in the indie world back in 2008, gave the album a shockingly high 8.8 (out of 10) rating. The praise was effusive: “Already one of the most talked-about and divisive records of the year, Vampire Weekend's Afro-pop- and preppy-inflected debut is simple, jaunty, homespun, and -- like the early albums from fellow fast-risers Belle & Sebastian and the Strokes were on their release -- one of the most refreshing and replayable indie records in recent years.”
Spin went even further. They declared the quartet the year’s best new band only three months into 2008 and put them on the cover -- which was set before Vampire Weekend released their debut.
“I mean, we hear that it’s fast and, taking a look at other bands, maybe it is. But to us it kind of feels smooth,” Tomson told Spin about their quick rise.
While Vampire Weekend didn’t rack up huge sales -- the album stalled at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 -- the guys seemed to redefine what it meant to be a successful band in the new millennium.
“Success might mean a synch on Friday Night Lights,” TV supervisor Alexandra Patsavas said at the time. Patsavas was the music supervisor for Grey’s Anatomy, Chuck, and Gossip Girl. “It might mean a Letterman performance or inclusion on a magazine’s free CD.”
Part of that success came with the band being included in the rock canon almost immediately. In only a few years, Vampire Weekend had become peers with the Clash and Nirvana. Rolling Stone put Vampire Weekend at No. 430 on its 2012 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The magazine also ranked it 24th on its list of 100 Greatest Debut Albums.
Many think Vampire Weekend never topped its impressive debut. They might be right. But how do you top a record endorsed by Paul Simon and David Byrne and considered to be better than R.E.M.’s Document, the Police’s Synchronicity, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Rolling Stone?