Picture the cliché college movie scenario: a professor asking you to look to the left and then the right before intoning “One of you will not make it through this course, and one of you will go on to great things.” If that same formula applies to scrappy little college bands, Vampire Weekend is in the latter bracket. The band plays the House of Blues on April 9, but four short years ago they were playing campus parties at Columbia and in that time they have become a quintessential success story. Some feel they were a story before they were a success—they were shot for the cover of Spin before their debut album came out—while others think they have a good Afro-beat you can dance to, enough so that their second album Contra debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Are they sons of privilege engaged in the age-old practice of pillaging impoverished cultures, or are they four dudes that made it on the merits of catchy tunes? We caught up with drummer Chris Tomson to straighten it out.
How does it feel to be the drummer in the “it” band right now?
(Laughs) It feels the same as being the drummer in the non-”it” band two years ago and our band a year ago. I mean, it’s cool. Right now it’s our first tour in North America; we just played our first show in the States for a while in Missoula, Montana. That’s kind of the point—the opportunity you have to see how people react and how people like the songs.
The subject matter of a lot of the songs on Contra seem very anecdotal, specifically about living in New York City. Is that what your songs are about?
Well, Ezra (Koenig) is the main lyricist and I often help as well, but I do think when we talk about it, a lot of it. But not everything is about New York and that is going to inform our world view and how we experience things because it’s where we live and when we’re not on tour, its where we spend most of our time.
The band formed in 2006, correct? What kind of music did you play at campus parties when you were students at Columbia?
Honestly, we played the same music we do now, just a bit more sloppily.
You were playing your own songs then?
The first show we actually played “Walcott” and “Oxford Comma,” which we play in our shows to this day. Ezra had some songs he’d written before that we learned and arranged, but from the beginning it was very important to us to play our own music. We have played the occasional cover, but by and large, we felt more excited about playing original music.
Was the African infuence in your songs there from the start?
Yeah, that is something we all talked about, that we all had in common from the very first practice and the very first time we played. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is one of the first songs we arranged all together each sitting at our instruments.
How did you get interested in that kind of music?
We all came about it in different ways. For me, personally, I saw a band called Antibalas who are from Brooklyn and are a very dedicated and specifically Afro-beat band. I think some of them actually play as a Broadway show right now about Fela. I saw them in high school in New York and I’d never heard of them and never heard that music. From there I went to Fela and King Sunny Ade.
In New York more than in, say, Missoula or a lot of other places, you are exposed to a lot more different cultures. Did that feed in to the polyrhythmic feel Vampire Weekend has?
I think that’s both yes and no. I think it’s true that you can walk around New York, especially in Brooklyn and parts of Manhattan—you can go to a neighborhood that’s entirely Indian or entirely Caribbean. Those are certain things that I’ve experienced and try to experience more when I’m there. But at the same time, a lot of it is being able to search out and hear this music and take it on your own terms, be that through the Internet or by buying records and CDs. I guess it’s probably a little of both. People can, even if it’s not firsthand, experience culture via the Internet anywhere they are, be it Missoula or wherever.
How do you address the perceptions that you guys are privileged kids engaging in cultural appropriation, which has become a common backlash against the band?
I think we all choose to say nothing because we are all very aware it’s not true and we are very much doing our own thing. We take inspiration in a lot of things, certainly, and when we’ve talked to various African musicians, no one has ever seemed pissed off. They’ve all seemed kind of excited that we’ve taken inspiration from it. Music is global. I think in New Orleans you have one of the ultimate examples of how music is such a global passageway; it’s never a one-way street. American music influences African music, African music influences Western music the same, and I think in New Orleans you get that in jazz, which is a very obvious point of reference. We are people and musicians that have a lot of things at our fingertips and we hear a lot of things and are influenced by a lot of things, but at the same time, we don’t steal anything, don’t rip anything off. We are doing our own thing. I think at that level, we feel good about what we’re doing and that’s all we can control.
When I first heard Vampire Weekend, the thing that came to mind were the bands from the ’80s that did those kinds of things like the Specials and the English Beat, the Sandinista! years of the Clash and then in the ’90s, No Doubt and Björk’s poppier side. Do you think you fit in that lineage of people who are looking for things outside of their immediate culture to build into a musical framework?
I think so, but then I think like any of those bands, we don’t have any one specific goal other than to make songs that we like and try to be inclusive. At the same time, especially when we were making Contra, bands like No Doubt and Sublime were very inspirational to us. They were huge when we were coming of age in high school and whatnot. If something is interesting or exciting to you, you can make it your own as long as you’re faithful and do it honestly and don’t try to rip someone off and pass it off as your own. You can internalize it and make it your own that way.
When you recorded the frst record, you’d just graduated and were working day jobs.
Yeah, well three of us except for our bassist Chris Baio graduated in 2006. We recorded the drums for “Oxford Comma” at school, actually, at Columbia. Most of it we did in the year after we graduated while working our different day jobs.
What did you graduate in?
I double-majored in music and economics.
Where were you working? Did you have a corporate post-collegiate job?
None of us were headed for careers as bankers or lawyers or anything. It’s not where our hearts laid after Columbia, Vampire Weekend or not. I was working in the archives of WBNG, a pretty classic entry level position where I would help organize and corral stuff from the archives for various projects as they were needed.
I grew up in the ’80s and the word “contra” has very specific connotations with Ollie North and the Iran-Contra affair. What does “contra” mean in the context of this record and specifically the song ‘I Think Ur a Contra?”
We were obviously very well aware of the different connotations. Some people think of the Iran-Contra affair. Some people think of the video game, but for us, we took it at its very basic level which is the general concept of “against.” I think the way a lot of people react to our music, there is a lot of us vs. them, me vs. you, black-and-white. I think our music reflects that it’s never that cut-and-dry. That dichotomy is never so concrete; there’s a lot of gray area.
What is Vampire Weekend against?
From the beginning, part of the idea of Vampire Weekend was to not be against anything. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible. We were inspired by African music, inspired by reggaeton, inspired by classical music, so I think that, ideally, even if we disagree with things, we don’t like things, we don’t want to be against anything.
Where do you see Vampire Weekend headed? You’ve had a pretty remarkable trajectory over the last couple of years.
It’s hard to say. Right now we’re very focused and excited to be touring and playing shows. We worked hard on Contra and we’re excited to play these songs and ones from the first record, especially very psyched to come to New Orleans. After that, you don’t want to be too specific. When it comes time to work on the next album, I’m sure we’ll have a bunch of stuff saved up from soundchecks and touring.
The arrangements on Contra and your first album are really tight and intricate. As you’ve gained some experience as a live band can you replicate all that sequencing and turns and layers in concert?
It definitely took some practice. Contra is a different beast. Vampire Weekend was written and arranged as the four of us at our instruments. Those songs were made to serve a live show because that’s what we were doing, how we were learning about our instruments. On Contra, songs like “Taxi Cab” or “Diplomat’s Son” came together more as a construct of the studio. It took a bit to learn, and while we don’t play all of our songs, we play most of them. I think it’s going well. We all feel good about it so I hope the answer is yes, we can.