Vampire Weekend: Too Smart?

Based solely on the massive amount of ink and HTML being spilled about Vampire Weekend, you would think that most music writers feel like most people start playing music because they aren’t educated enough to do anything else. Almost every article about the Brooklyn-based quartet puts a particular emphasis on the fact that the majority of the band members met when they were students at Columbia University.

“It’s a pretty easy storyline,” says drummer Chris Tomson, “a pretty easy hook to use for the band. I feel like it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal if we went to Middlebury or somewhere else.”

Listening to the band’s debut, self-titled album, it makes a bit of sense why the music writers of the world would harp on their Ivy League affiliations, as their songs are peppered with references to artists, oxford commas (serial commas for those of you Elements of Style fans out there) and Romance-studying professors–material more suited for term papers than pop songs.

The biggest hook, however, is Vampire Weekend’s sound, a jangly Afropop and calypso-influenced approach that puts them alongside fellow New York world music aficionados Talking Heads and Paul Simon (both of whom the band cites as major influences). The clattering drums and chicken wire guitar sound as well as Ezra Koenig’s coy vocals manage to sound both unforced and enthusiastic, a rare feat for a young band.

To hear Tomson tell it, the band has come by this sound honestly, through “trading mp3s and borrowing records from each other” in the days before they started playing music together. “It was just one of the things that was there. I don’t think any of us would claim to be experts on African music or go about dissecting it. It was more like, ‘Let’s just try to do it.’”

The band’s biggest aim is to be as “inclusive as possible,” according to Thomson, as well as trying to avoid the clichéd attack of the current crop of New York bands. It is a goal they quickly achieved, moving from winning over the crowds at frat parties to having their name splattered on blogs all over the U.S. within a matter of two years. Within the band, though, their rising star and expanding opportunities didn’t really come into focus for them until they were on tour in Europe, opening for the Shins.

“The first show we played in Paris,” says Tomson, “something happened. We came off stage and we just felt different. It was a bigger place than we had ever played at that point, it was packed when we came on, and people seemed really into it. And someone asked for my sticks after the show.”

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When I spoke with Tomson, the band members were taking a much-deserved rest through the holidays but were steeling themselves for the long haul through the U.S. and Europe that will take up most of 2008. From there, Vampire Weekend is “really looking forward to thinking about [their second album],” says Tomson. “We have some new stuff written, but the energy is harder to come by than when we were just playing around the college.”

That last statement speaks to the rather conflicted feelings that it seems Tomson has about the band’s quick rise through the ranks of the indie world. When asked if there was anything he’d like to see the band achieve in the immediate future, the drummer said that he would like to “go to Europe and play a similar show to when we would play the Literary Society at Columbia.”

And suddenly it becomes clearer as to why the music journalists of the world would wrap Vampire Weekend’s identity up so tightly with their educational background; the band does the exact same thing.

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