Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig tells Ed Power how he’s learned to deal with people hating his band’s preppy image and internet-based success
Of course, the question you really want to ask Ezra Koenig is: why are you so hated? Is it the fancy-pants Ivy League degree? The preppy good looks? The boat shoes? He's a smart guy – a Columbia graduate, as you are no doubt aware – and understands where this is all coming from without taking it personally.
He knows people, thousands of strangers, don't like him, believe his band Vampire Weekend to be a bunch of jumped-up trustafarians who have coasted to the top of the charts on privilege, rich-kid charm and a well-thumbed collection of Paul Simon LPs. He okay with that. Lately, he can even chuckle at it.
"The preppy image – we knew what we were doing," he says. "I didn't grow up in a preppy household. I never dressed that way.
"However, I was always attracted to those kind of clothes, because I thought they looked cool, but also because I thought there was something interesting about their place in the culture. The fact people reacted strongly to the way we presented ourselves – both strongly and negatively – reinforced the opinion that there was something worth talking about there."
He wasn't always so sanguine, he admits. When Vampire Weekend broke through in 2007, commandeering the hyposphere on the strength of one EP and some strong reviews from New York's CMJ Music Marathon, the snark had hurt. He'd check out what people were saying about Vampire Weekend on blogs and message boards and, oh man, the criticism got under this skin.
"When you first come on the scene and are getting praise, it is very exciting. Most of us haven't gotten praise from strangers or journalists – normally it's from family and friends.
"So to suddenly have that – it can be intoxicating. On the flip side, you start getting hatred from journalists and strangers and it's hard. We've all had people say cruel things to us.
"We've never truly had that feeling that somewhere out there people you don't know are making judgments about you. So when that happens and you are still starting out – no matter how confident you are, it can really make you question yourself and make you wonder if this is going to be short lived.
"Do our detractors outweigh our admirers? In the early days, everything seemed more dramatic and serious. Whereas now we've been a band for six years and have been releasing music all that time.
"We've finished our third album and I know it's the best we've made.
"Some people are going to say it's horrible. Some are going to like it. I can already visualise all of that. And I realise it just doesn't matter enough for me to care. Starting out, I had to take it seriously. I couldn't just be chill."
He's right, new album Modern Vampires Of The City is the best thing Vampire Weekend have done. It takes their sound, a chino-wearing mash-up of Wes Anderson, African music and Paul Simon channelling African music, and adds something. Quite what that something might be is difficult to articulate – an anxiousness maybe, a sense of urgency, even panic.
Even Koenig's not entirely certain. He started off thinking Modern Vampires might be a rumination on New York by night.
When he listens back now the album's meaning is not wholly clear.
"I had a vision that the record was going to be about one big night in the city," he says. "I no longer picture it that way, partly because the first song takes place in the morning.
"Maybe it is like one of those movies where the opening scene is at the end and then we find out how we got there. It definitely has the energy of a city. That is a quality I wanted to capture. A lot of my favourite albums do kind of have that feeling somehow. They are based in a city and you have all these different, inter-related stories. That's how I feel about this record."
In his press, Koenig can come off a little cock-sure, douche-y even.
I've interviewed several other members of Vampire Weekend down the years and the encounters have not always gone well.
Backstage at a music festival in 2010, the guitarist stopped up, fixed me a stare and said: "Hey man, what's with all the goddamn questions?" That was before the conversation was cut short because the record company lady couldn't keep all the swooning teenage girls away.
As the leader of the group – and the preppiest to boot – with Koenig I was expecting more of the same. Actually, he's down to earth and thoughtful. He appreciates why people would have a picture of him in their head as a privileged jerk, though. Going to Columbia, he encountered plenty just like that.
"I can give you a million reasons why I don't fit the stereotype of the rich college kid," he says.
"But, you know, I did go to those schools. It doesn't surprise me that, in a deeply unequal society, things that are seen as a status symbol are going to anger people.
"No matter how diverse a school like Columbia is, it is of course going to be a symbol of the elite in this country. There are people I met at that school who I was considerably disturbed by – they were heartless self-interested brats. I can see both sides of it."
To outsiders, it might seem Vampire Weekend have lived a charmed existence. Comfortably middle-class childhoods, an Ivy League eduction, finger-click fame (they were on the cover of Spin magazine before they'd even put an album out.)
"In most respects, I have lived a charmed life," says Koenig. "I have been around people who were richer than me. However, I've never been poor, you know what I'm saying?
"A lot of the people I went to school with had more money and nicer houses and went on more vacations than my family. I went to a college where a lot of people that I knew were better off and had to worry about money less.
"Yet, how much did I truly have to worry about money? Very little. While I had a student loan, as soon as I graduated I got a job as a teacher. So I've had little to complain about. But, you know, that's how it is in any country that has class stratification. Everyone will feel someone is above them. I have truly met billionaires who are stressed at how there are people out there with more money than them."
What about Vampire Weekend's overnight trajectory? When they came along American music was, for the very first time hewing to the 'build em up knock em down' hype cycle that has for decades sustained the glorified Punch and Judy show that is the British record industry.
VW were all over the media, all over the internet, before the public had heard enough of their repertoire to make a judgment. Many were inclined to dislike them just because.
"We came onto the scene at a very specific juncture in music and internet history. So the first time people heard about us was ... what? 2007? Blogs had become a major part of the conversation – people were talking about 'how do blogs affect the way we listen to music?'.
"You would get all these think pieces. We had a lot of press and yet half the press was about the internet. With Spin, it was like 'wow we're on the cover and we haven't even put a record out – it's a really big deal'. Then the article appears and the gist is 'so, Vampire Weekend is this new band – and, man, the internet is crazy'. What was the headline again? 'The new speed of buzz'?"
They were flattered while at the same time kind of terrified. "You do not want to be the poster-boy for internet buzz. The whole conversation has a negative cast. The concern was that the good old days were over and now any idiot could make an mp3, get hyped and disappoint everybody with their album. There weren't going to be any more big bands – now there were going to be a million little bands.
"We had people saying 'don't sign to a record label. Record labels are over. Look at [quickly forgotten label-eschewing outfit] Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.'
"Six years later, more than half a decade on, things have settled down and, honestly, are not that different.
"The internet and the traditional music business have reached some sort of stasis. In my mind we will always be associated with this conversation about how indie music became mainstream through blogs.
"All we can do is prove to people that we can write truly good songs. I knew we had to come out swinging with our second album [2010's Contra]. We worked really hard.
"We showed people we had new ideas, took things to the next level. With this one it's the same. You have to prove to yourself why you should continue to make music. If you can do that, all of these conversations about buzz and the internet ultimately become meaningless."
As he says, that may all be in the past. Still, the band have not yet figured a way to completely avoid controversy.
This week they are in the headlines again. For the video to new single Diane Young, Vampire Weekend torched two 900 series Saab saloons, triggering a backlash among – seriously – connoisseurs of Clinton-era Swedish family cars.
Koenig doesn't know whether to be annoyed or amused and so settles on incredulous.
"It just goes to show there are so many different people in the world," he opines. "Some want to fight world hunger, others are obsessed with preserving early 1090s Saabs."
Academics, Academics... Rocking Academics
Vampire Weekend attracted attention because of their connections to Columbia University. They're not the only rock or pop act with a background in academia.
The Empire State of Mind singer (right) enrolled at Columbia aged 16 but dropped out to focus on her music career.
The Rage Against the Machine guitarist (right) is a life-long anti-establishment crusader. Having attended America's elite Harvard University, you suspect he knows what he's crusading against.
Another Columbia graduate, Animal Collective's Brian Weitz was working as an environmental consultant for John Kerry's 2004 US presidential campaign by day, playing keys in the psychedelic freak-pop ensemble by night.
The Caribou musician (right) has a PhD in mathematics from Imperial College, London. Big brains run in the family – his father is a professor of mathematics and his sister also holds a PhD in the subject.
Modern Vampires of the City is released today, see review page 17. Vampire Weekend headline Longitude Festival, on Saturday, July 20
Day & Night