Saturday, 12 July 2008

Vampire Weekend: Hot, then not... now what?

feature for the skinnyI'm not sure why Vampire Weekend's keyboard player is looking at me with a ruffled brow as we're introduced. Could it be because we crossed paths in Edinburgh's Bongo Club 6 months before, and he's struggling to place me 5000 miles away? Maybe he is 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. Obviously. But I think what's actually causing the frown is the matter of the wide open spaces of Coachella 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. Music festivals just aren't ingrained in the American culture like they are here; this sun-drenched Garden of Eden only really fills for the appearance of Prince the following day, but otherwise it's quieter than T in the Carpark.

Rostam needn't have worried: 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 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".

The comparisons to Graceland were a little clumsy, but a world famous and 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 'Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes' in your head now, 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 sound like it, what more do you want?" 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, and fly 5000 miles eastward, and Vampire Weekend will be seeing men in kilts at another festival. If you want to catch a glimpse of the most talked about band of last season before the new one starts, get to T in the Park's King Tuts tent in plenty of time. Let's hope they're still frowning: it won't be worry about the size of the crowd, so it'll have to be the flare of the sun.


I'm away at T in the Park at the moment: updates, reviews and interviews to come.

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