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Interview with the Vampires: A Bite Of Fame

At some stage in their career, all bands will be bracketed, pigeon-holed and lumped into a genre they don't care for.

Brooklyn band Vampire Weekend are well aware of this and have been occasionally left scratching their heads. The four-piece, who released one of the most talked-about albums of 2008, attracted comparisons to none other than Paul Simon. Not his 70s-with-Garfunkel incarnation, but the singer's mid-80s album, Graceland. In the middle of a chat with the band's drummer, Chris Tomson, he tells me about the time the band actually met the diminutive singer and asked him his thoughts. "We played Saturday Night Live and Paul Simon was there. He was really nice, and talked to us for a while. We had been hearing a lot about comparisons, so Rostam [Batmanglij, the band's keyboard player] asked, 'Hey, do you think we sound like Graceland?' and he just replied 'Absolutely not'." So is this an inverse, where Paul Simon gets to appeal to a younger generation by being associated with a hip, new band? Tom laughs. "Ha, I don't think he even cares. Once we heard from him that he thought what we were doing was very different to his music, that was cool."

The band -- Ezra Koenig on vocals, Chris Baio on bass guitar, Rostam on keys and Chris on drums -- met while they were all studying at Colombia University. All have been playing music since they were young and all did the teenage rite-of-passage stuff of buying guitars and playing in bands. Chris points out that the band all now play instruments that are "not our first instruments". He played trombone in the school band, but was exposed to very different music growing up, thanks to his dad and his grandmother. "My dad's record collection ranged from The Beatles right up to Talking Heads, so I used to dip into that. My grandfather was a jazz trombonist so I used to listen to my grandmother's records. But it's when you hit your early teens that you really start seeking out new music on your own. I'd get my mom to drop me off at a record store for two hours and come out with a whole bunch of shit. For kids these days, it starts even earlier, because of the internet."

Ah, the internet -- the technological behemoth that has changed the way we consume music. Every band knows of the pitfalls of music being downloaded, but online column inches and accompanying MP3s are PR gold in terms of raising profile. Vampire Weekend released their debut self-titled album two years ago but had been long championed on blogs before its release. These days, there can be no better stamp of pre-release approval than a nod from music sites such as Pitchfock, and it was the respected music blog Stereogum that originally fĂȘted the band. Stellar publicity surely, but it can propel bands towards stratospheric levels of hype. "When blogs started talking about us, the feedback was mostly good, but there was indifferent stuff too, which is the nature of the internet. As more people heard of us, it was the same -- some people liked us, some didn't; the numbers were just bigger. We all use the internet, so we realised that what was being said about us was ultimately disconnected from what we were doing. When we went and played shows, everyone there was happy to be there, so we focused on that."

The new album, Contra, sounds more musically tight than their debut, something helped by 18 months of touring, which Chris says made them better musicians. They have succeeded in building on their initial sound, making it into something new without leaving anything completely behind. "What I've been saying to people is that we sound more like Vampire Weekend than we did on the first record," says Chris.

That first album contributed to a rise which was, by any yardstick, meteoric and with it came criticism. Some of it focused on what some saw as their position of privilege playing music they called 'Upper West Side Soweto'. Others, such as Stephen Malkmus, said they "had it easy" based on what he saw was a fast-track to fame. Similar criticism came from Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, but Chris says the band is unfazed by negative swipes -- and that Cox apologised to them at a festival for his remarks. "If someone like Paul Simon said 'Those guys fucking suck,' I think we'd really care. There are so many bands just doing their own thing that it seems pointless to hate what someone else is doing. The first few times we read about criticism of us, we were like 'why are they doing this?' but ultimately it turned into 'whatever'. Everyone has the right to talk shit -- we just choose not to."

Disparagement aside, the band's star continues to rise. They recently featured alongside a slew of respected bands in a Vogue photoshoot and hope to play a festival here this summer. "Irish crowds are great, they always have a good time," says Chris, who once spent at semester at UCD and lived in Donnybrook. "Being in a band that has been lucky enough to tour all over the world, you meet people who love music. It's definitely harder to get people to care about your music, but if you make a good album, people will care about it." HQ

Contra is released tomorrow


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