Vampire Weekend aren’t the first gangly white guys to sing about moneyed socialites and marry bouncy funk influences to brainy experimentalism.
Just listen back to the prickly guitars and anxious jitters of Vampire Weekend’s early single ‘A-Punk’ (2008) and you’ll note an overt affection for ska. Frontman Ezra Koenig’s father exposed to him to 2 Tone bands while he was growing up, and Koenig has called The Specials in particular “a band that I shared with him”.
He included The Specials on a mixtape for Diplo’s radio show last year. The band’s 2010 single ‘Holiday’ has been compared to The Specials as well but is actually a tribute to late-’80s ska punks Operation Ivy. Vampire Weekend have also covered ‘Ruby Soho’, a song from the Rancid glory days of Op Ivy’s Tim Armstrong. VW member/producer Rotsam Batmanglij has admitted that he and all his bandmates “were ska kids”, although he doesn’t see ‘A-Punk’ as ska because it “kind of breaks” ska’s signature groove.
Vampire Weekend have always name-checked African music, all the way back to ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’. Of course, that whole first album was both trashed and treasured for its cross-continental borrowing. Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland came up a lot with early critics, but it’s easy to see Vampire Weekend as another generation’s rallying cry for genre-fusing freedom. But it was less Simon’s masterpiece that shaped VW than two collections of Madagascan music Koenig found at a garage sale, while Batmanglij had a similar turning point with a compilation tape of South Africa’s Brenda Fassie. And he still remembers his mum playing Simon’s 1990 Graceland follow-up, The Rhythm of the Saints. But he’s also said that “what we have done is fundamentally different from what Paul Simon did. We haven’t gone to Africa to work with African musicians. We don’t use existing traditional African chord progressions or structures. Our inspirations are more abstract.” Like the rest of the influences in this list, the jumbled guitar lines of Nigerian music (among other African earmarks) are just one ingredient in a thicker stew.
By now most fans know that the hook of standout Modern Vampires… track ‘Step’ – “Every time I see you in the world/You always step to my girl” – is a credited homage to ’90s Bay Area hip-hop quartet Souls of Mischief, whose track ‘Step to My Girl’ is a non-album gem that originally helped them score a deal with Jive Records. Even before that, though, a hip-hop influence was clear on the spacey collage snap of 2010 single ‘Giving Up the Gun’, itself adapted from Koenig’s “comedy rap duo” L’Homme Run. The video for ‘Giving Up the Gun’ even has cameos from Lil’ Jon and RZA, and fellow Contra track ‘Diplomat’s Son’ moved into more production-heavy territory and kicked off with a M.I.A. sample.
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Article by Doug Wallen for Stoli Australia
Photography by Alex John Beck & Lauren Dukoff