Mike Kinsella Listens to Vampire Weekend: "Was this on 'The O.C.'?"
More than 10 years ago, four fresh-faced Columbia University undergrads put together one of the most memorable self-titled debuts with Vampire Weekend. Released in 2008 on XL, the LP combined buoyant guitars influenced by African and Caribbean rhythms, frontman Ezra Koenig’s erudite lyrical observations, and winkingly preppy Ivy League aesthetics. It was a winning combination in the last years of the blog buzz era and a decade later, their songs are still endlessly listenable. Where Vampire Weekend’s next two albums, 2010’s Contra and the cinematic 2013 Modern Vampires of the City would both go on to top the Billboard Albums Chart, their debut serves as the blueprint for one of indie rock’s most prominent acts.
As a founding member of Cap'n Jazz, American Football, and Owls, Mike Kinsella knows a thing or two about breakthrough debut albums. Though his musical outlets' first efforts like Cap'n Jazz' Shmap'n Shmazz in 1995, the genre-defining American Football in 1999, and 2001's Owls weren't overnight sensations, they all turned out to be wildly influential. These records, along with his excellent solo catalog as Owen, have cemented Kinsella's place among emo and indie rock's most essential songwriters.
Ahead of the March 22nd release of American Football LP3, we asked Kinsella to finally check out Vampire Weekend, who also have an album out soon in Father of the Bride. Kinsella explains, “I know that they have sort of jangly, maybe Afro Pop guitars. They also dress preppy. That's all I know.” He also admits that doesn’t take much time to check out new music, saying, “I don’t even remember what I was listening to in 2008. It was probably what I listen to now, which is just what I listened to in 1998, which is sports talk radio.” Read on for his song-by-reaction.
1. “Mansard Roof”
Mike Kinsella: Were any of these guys in bands previously?
Noisey: None that any of us would’ve heard unless we went to college with them. Ezra Koenig, the lead singer, and the drummer Chris Tomson had a rap group called L’Homme Run when they attended Columbia University. From what I can tell, a lot of the songs were joke raps.
[Laughs] Are they all from New York?
Not exactly but they did all meet at Columbia.
OK, everything is what I thought so far.
The Ivy League thing is a big part of the band’s origins. Before that, Ezra Koenig grew up in New Jersey and loved stuff like Run DMC and The Strokes.
I wonder where this comes from then. It almost sounds like children’s music.
It’s so pleasant and it’s so joyful. It’s not aggressive in any way.
When they started, they had a manifesto of sorts: No guitar distortion, no post-punk, no t-shirts onstage.
Cool. I like that. Also, which song is this? I want to look up the lyrics.
It’s called “Mansard Roof.” You’ll notice in the lyrics sheet there are references to the Falklands War.
The lyrics are really interesting. I’m already liking this a lot more than I thought I would. Also, musically it’s not too far off from the Strokes. What year did the Strokes break?
The Strokes’ first album came out in 2001.
So these guys were probably kids when that record came out. I remember when that happened I was fresh out of college and there was that whole backlash against the Strokes that they just sounded like classic rock.
The members of Vampire Weekend definitely grew up loving the Strokes but they actually made point to not sound like the Strokes. I remember reading Koenig saying “that too many shitty bands tried to copy them.”
Right, but it’s the same sort of no-distortion, single note kind of playing whereas those ‘90s bands were all fuzz, distortion, and power chords.
2. “Oxford Comma”
This one’s called “Oxford Comma” and apparently came about when Koenig noticed a Columbia University Facebook group called “Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma.” So the song begins, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”
Holy cow! [Points at the lyrics sheet] Look how many words you can write about the Oxford comma. It’s cute. It’s really cute. It’s good.
It’s definitely self-consciously cute and clever.
A little. I view bands like Belle and Sebastian or The Field Mice more twee than this.
But I feel like these guys’ self-consciousness makes them even more twee. Oh, look at that. They just changed tempos. It’s cool. It’s more intellectual lyrically and catchier than I thought. It’s catchy Strokes.
Maybe on this song a little but I don’t really hear the Strokes comparisons.
It’s exactly the Strokes! The bass and the guitars? That’s how I’m hearing it.
Did you hear the Lil Jon reference just now?
I wouldn’t know a Lil Jon reference if I heard it.
Really? “To the window to the wall?”
Oh yeah, I know that one. He even mentions Lil Jon by name in this song.
Lil Jon actually sent the band a case of Crunk Juice as a “thank you” for the reference and would later appear in a Vampire Weekend music video.
What does “to the window to the wall” even mean?
This one sounds familiar but I haven’t recognized anything else so far.
This one is the first big Vampire Weekend single. They played it on Letterman.
I know they haven’t put out a record in a while but how many albums have they released?
Three total. Their fourth, which is called Father of the Bride , is out this Spring.
Do you like all their records?
I do! They’re a fun band. I think their debut is my favorite and their third, Modern Vampires of the City, is my second favorite.
Interesting. What else should I know?
So probably the biggest factor in the band over their three records is multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij. His fingerprints are all over the albums and his arrangements are a key part of the band’s success. He left the band before this latest LP so we’ll see how Vampire Weekend go on without him.
I see. Oh wow. This guy did everything. What’s he up to now?
He’s got solo stuff and does production work for acts like Carly Rae Jepsen.
It’s funny before we did this interview I knew what the band looked like before I knew what they sounded like. Looking at their perfect sweaters, don’t you just kind of want to beat them up? They look like Republicans.
I have some nice sweaters in my closet so I’m not entirely there with you. They’re also not conservatives.
4. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”
What’s a Kwassa Kwassa?
It’s a term for a type of Congolese dance.
Did you know that already or did you look it up?
When I first heard this album in 2008, I did not already know that.
I was already 30 by that point. I’m just so jealous of kids nowadays. If I heard this band when I was in college or high school I would’ve loved it. It bums me out I had to listen to like Creed and all that bullshit macho stuff that was popular.
I have a distinct memory of a dude on my floor freshman year of college blaring this album first day of school.
If you walked down my dorm hallway freshman year it was all Rage Against The Machine or maybe Smashing Pumpkins.
There was no dude who was really into Talking Heads?
No, it was all Rage Against The Machine. I was listening to the Sundays and the Smiths.
Can totally see why you’d like them then. The guitars definitely remind me a bit of Johnny Marr.
Totally. It’s real jangly. Nice Peter Gabriel reference on this one, by the way. I think about how with everything, these kids growing up now are so much cooler. Even with dating: the girls are so much more lucky now because you have guys who are actually wearing nice clothes that fit. When I was in school, guys were wearing huge jock clothes.
I see what you mean. By the way, Rage Against the Machine is cool though.
Nothing against Rage Against The Machine. There was just too much testosterone back then. How was this album received?
It got really good reviews and sold well for a debut. But there was some backlash in certain critic circles where there were allegations of these four being privileged Ivy League white dudes in preppy clothes singing about Cape Cod. Ezra Koenig is Jewish and Rostam Batmanglij is gay and also Persian so it wasn’t really an accurate critique. Plus, most of their lyrics, like this one, are about navigating racial, class, and geographical lines.
It’s clear they’re looking at these things from the outside. Oh man, that whole dress code thing is probably why I didn’t listen. Now I’m bummed 12 -years later.
Did they get an orchestra for this?
No, they actually recorded their friend playing violin in a dorm room.
The album was pretty do-it-yourself. It was finished before they signed to XL. For their first tours, they didn’t have a tour manager and drove themselves. While that’s not really notable in and of itself, it’s different from the perception of the band at the time.
That’s really cool.
What’s been your favorite song so far?
The “Oxford Comma” one. I liked the way this one started but I realize I haven’t been paying attention. It’s background party music.
The title references the bus that connects the Upper West Side and Upper East Side.
Did they graduate Columbia?
They did. Ezra Koenig did Teach For America while Rostam Batmanglij was an intern for the Oxford American Dictionary.
See? It all fits. It’s not like, “oh yeah, they’re all janitors.”
I’m getting a lot these facts from that book Meet Me In The Bathroom.
Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that!
There’s this really funny quote where Chris Baio, the band’s bassist, remembers hearing in high school that the Strokes were “rich kids” and he was like, “I was growing up in Westchester and my parents are lawyers and I thought, ‘Okay, yeah, I won’t listen.’”
That’s so funny.
It’s also funny because this just sounds like it’d be a commercial for Dell or something. This might predate commercial music.
I don’t know if that’s right. I remember “A-Punk” getting some good syncs.
12-years later and nothing’s changed then. This is still what people want to sell me stuff with.
And going back to what we were talking about with the dress code and the Ivy League thing, I remember reading how No Age, who were on the same SXSW showcase as Vampire Weekend, introduced themselves with, “We’re Vampire Weekend and this our new song ‘College Dickface.’”
They’re asking for it though. It’s just like, “What are you better than all these bands who wear t-shirts onstage?” This just seems like such a college record.
I mean, the song is actually called “Campus.”
I guess it’s that I’m old enough where it wasn’t always like this. Was this on The O.C.?
This came after.
OK, this riff is exactly what I thought they sounded like. That one part is basically my entire perception of the band before this interview. I guess I’m just so from the world of aggressive rock that I would hear this stuff and shut it off.
Were you ever a fan of Paul Simon’s Graceland ?
Yeah, I was.
They got so many comparisons with that LP when this album came out. But they’re really just drawing from the same well of African music.
I agree. It’s more Strokes to me. It’s purposefully simplistic. What’s another band like this? I’m thinking of another New York guy. They’re one of those reverb bands. Had a big album come out around this time too.
It’s funny you mention that because Ezra Koenig and Dirty Projectors’ frontman Dave Longstreth were roommates.
Oh! Incredible. It’s not fair. I was roommates with fucking Steve [Holmes] from American Football. My life couldn’t be more different. Longstreth shreds man.
8. “One (Blake's Got a New Face)”
Did you know that from that Meet Me In The Bathroom too? Should I read it?
Yeah, I did and you should. It’s very good. What do you think of this song?
I’m trailing off a bit but that’s my fault because I don’t really listen to music. Before we listened you were like, “oh, it’s a quick record. It’s 30 minutes” and that’s way more music that I typically handle at a given time.
Do you just check out songs then?
I’ll listen to Leonard Cohen in the bathtub but I only take baths for like twenty minutes. I don’t know. I think it’s because I’m older. Everything just sounds like a reference to something that already came out so I can’t really enjoy it.
With this, you hear Graceland , you hear the Strokes. What else do you hear?
Those are the most obvious ones. Also by being old and maybe not keeping up with stuff for 15-20 years, I probably missed a lot of the references. I only knew Dirty Projectors because I randomly heard them and thought they were awesome.
9. “I Stand Corrected”
I’m trying to think of what this sounds like.
I get a little bit of Arcade Fire with this one.
Weren’t they getting their starts around the same time?
Arcade Fire were two albums in at this point. Their first one Funeral came out in 2004.
How old are you again?
And you just remember dates?
That first record was pretty formative for a lot of people my age.
It’s funny that you hear Arcade Fire but I hear all the stuff they were referencing like Bruce Springsteen.
This one tells the story of a college film Ezra Koenig wrote called Vampire Weekend , which is a spoof-horror flick about a vampire attack in Cape Cod.
I’m pretty sure these guys are actually from Cape Cod.
I read something about how Alice Cooper went to go see Vampire Weekend live based on the band’s name alone. He said, “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?’”
Oh my god! That’s why I’m saying they’re a good influence on kids. They’re not disgusting. They look nice! Alice Cooper just plays golf all the time now. Come on, man. It’s both more interesting than what I thought it’d be but it’s also exactly what I thought it’d be if that makes sense. The lyrics are interesting. I thought they’d all be about throwing a party or something. I might play this at my Super Bowl party this weekend.
That’s a good call.
I don’t know who these guys are rooting for though. I think they’re probably Patriots fans or at least their parents are.
I can’t see those New Yorkers supporting a Boston team.
I think they’re secret Patriots fans.
As far as sports go, I know Ezra Koenig is a big Knicks fan. I think I saw a photo of him and Rashida Jones at Madison Square Garden.
Oh, I think I knew they were together. Are they married because that would mean Quincy Jones is Ezra’s father-in-law.
11. “The Kids Don't Stand a Chance”
Is this a single? I know this one.
Yeah, it was. Fifth single.
This is fantastic. Also, fifth single? Whoa.
I have a pet-theory for why this album was as popular as it was in 2008. It’s the defining millennial album of the 08 recession. It came out a month after the stock market cratered and you had these ironic and cute dudes who dressed nice singing about aspirational Ivy League prep aesthetics. This song is called “The Kids Don't Stand a Chance” for god’s sakes.
Anyone who’s disillusioned in college or high school could be like, “oh man. They’re right!” The harpsichord is very nice. I don’t hear the Strokes in this.
If you dig this one, Modern Vampires of the City will probably end up your favorite Vampire Weekend LP.
I hope Quincy Jones produces their next LP.
He didn’t but it’s called Father of the Bride so if Koenig and Rashida Jones get married it might end up being about Quincy Jones.
It surprised me how little this album surprised. All of the adjectives in my head, jangly, afro-pop, clever, and a couple others all made a lot of sense. I would check them out more if I listened to music a lot. I’ll definitely check out the new one because I love the arrangements and want to see how they’ve evolved as a band. Maybe if they’re on one of my favorite sports talk radio podcasts, like The Tony Kornheiser Show, I’ll do a deeper dive. This will definitely be background music at my Super Bowl party.