When you ask Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig for a short list of favorite haunts in his native New York City, he’s at a loss for a few moments. He may be the leader of arguably the most celebrated New York band of the decade, but the creator of the recent “Father of the Bride” album has spent more of his time in L.A. lately, since he shares a home there with Rashida Jones, with whom he has a 1-year-old son. The 35-year-old singer-songwriter visits Manhattan on a regular basis, but he’s sometimes disappointed to learn that a favorite former hang, like his beloved Temple Bar on Lafayette, has closed down while he was away.
Koenig doesn’t have favorite haunts anymore, he comes to realize out loud, so much as favorite walks. “I was back in New York a lot this month because we played the Garden, and would come back between East Coast dates,” he says, referring to a tour that’s booked into arenas through October 2020. “We had a night off before we were doing ‘Colbert,’ and I was a little burned out and not ready to go to a party or see anybody. So there was something about walking by myself through the Upper West Side — which, for me, is the homeland — to a very empty Lincoln Center, with a few people sitting around the fountain, looking inside the big halls with the beautiful chandeliers, then going into the movie theater and seeing a Serbian movie, ‘The Load,’ with two other people, where I was just like” — he lets out a long, pleasurable sigh — “ahhhhhhh. Because I did that all the time when I was in college” at Columbia. There was only one regard in which he realized you can’t go home again: “Back then, I got the student rate.” It’s the little things that make a rock star wistful.
It was hardly the only time he’s spent in that part of town lately. “If New York kind of feels like the country that my family originates from,” Koenig says, “there’s something about the Upper West Side in particular that’s like the capital of that country — a place of origin where I feel like I understand the history and the archetypes pretty well.” That’s one reason he recently chose to set the video for the Vampire Weekend song “Sunflower” there, with help from director Jonah Hill and cameo player Jerry Seinfeld. “To me this album [‘Father of the Bride’] is very East Coast, but I also knew that people were gonna naturally look at it as being a West Coast album: ‘OK, what’s this dude been up to recently? Oh, it looks like he lives in L.A.’ And there is totally a beach-and-palm-trees version of that video we could have done too. But a cold, gray day on the Upper West Side outside of Zabar’s spoke to me more spiritually.”
If you didn’t have any references to go on, maybe you’d just guess from its sound that Vampire Weekend was a SoCal band to begin with. Although Koenig’s themes can go very much toward the dark side — the last album cover featured “a very intense, epic black-and-white photo of New York being subsumed by smog” and had a song called “Diane Young” (a double entendre for “dying young”) as its leadoff single — the band’s music tends to stay on the sunny side of the street. Perhaps you’d even guess it was some sort of world music group, given the Afropop influences that continue to creep into Koenig’s unique guitar style. As a student of rock, he’s very aware of how the band has and hasn’t fit into the lineage of New York music, from the moment the international press started to compare it to groups like the National and Animal Collective in the 2000s. “Being associated with Brooklyn has always been kind of funny when we started on 114th Street in Manhattan,” he says.
“In the half-generation of five to eight years just before us, there was a huge explosion of New York music,” he says, “and it was an interesting moment because a lot of those bands, most of whom I loved, were musically and aesthetically harking back to the New York heritage from the scary late ’70s. I love Television and the Velvet Underground and the Ramones, but this new moment in the city was fundamentally different. So I was interested in that dissonance between the dirty, scuzzy New York [people associate with the city’s rock scene] and post-Bloomberg New York. Coming along after that, we had to reconcile all that s–t to come up with our own vision of what it meant to be a New York band.” For Koenig, that included key influences like Paul Simon — as important a part of New York music as any punk-era band.
“A cold, gray day on the Upper West Side outside of Zabar’s spoke to me more spiritually.”
The boldest post-Strokes stroke: “We’ve always liked some pretty major-key, good, happy chord progressions. There are some artists who would never even touch that in a million years, because to them it has this negative association or something. But when I’m honest about the music I really love, a lot of it lives in that space too.” It also helped that he thought of Vampire Weekend as fitting into a tradition that’s larger than just music. “If I make a mood board of New York art that reminds me of the world of Vampire Weekend, I might link it to Whit Stillman’s ‘Metropolitan.’ … Even when I watch a new show like ‘Succession,’ it reminds me so much of people I met and certain architects I saw when I first was a college student back in the city.”
He has favorites from the years his family spent outside the city as well. “Most of my childhood, I was in New Jersey, so there’s something about just a real diner,” which is why he’s a Canter’s guy when he’s in L.A. “Most people think of it as the final scene in ‘The Sopranos,’ but Holsten’s — that was our spot growing up. It’s very close to the synagogue where I had my bar mitzvah, and you would go there on a Saturday with your mom and have a grilled cheese sandwich, or after some sort of performance or game, go with the other kids and have a milkshake. And for people who grew up in New Jersey, ‘The Sopranos’ is like the Bible: It’s a powerful text to everybody, but more so when you know the places, so it was this strange confluence.”
That might explain why “Sopranos” references come so easily to Koenig, even though he’s the least mob-scion-seeming guy in music. “Albums aren’t meant to be ranked,” he says. “There are people who say, ‘I didn’t understand you guys before, but I like the new one,’ and I’m just like, OK, I don’t get that. They’re all like chapters in a novel to me. It’s always funny to me when people talk about a narrative TV show, and they’re like, ‘But Episode 3 was terrible.’ I remember people would hate those Fellini dream episodes on ‘The Sopranos,’ like, ‘What is this s–t?’ — when that’s part of why it was one of the greatest shows ever and is back in the zeitgeist again.”
He pauses. “As I’m saying that, I don’t think Vampire Weekend’s ever made an album like that yet. I don’t want to compare us to that, because that would be undeserved valor. I hope one day I have the balls to make our ‘Sopranos’ dream episode album.” But for now, without crossing back over the surreal Jersey border, the very metropolitan New York intersection of Stillman and Simon is still serving Vampire Weekend very nicely.
Koenig resists the tendency to make obvious, or even un-obvious, New York-vs.-L.A. comparisons. “It’s truly the narcissism of small differences when people try to talk about how different the cultures are. L.A. is, certainly in terms of like media culture, filled with people who came from New York. When you go to Nate and Al’s, you see these old Jewish dudes who were born in Brooklyn and they’re trying to hold on to some type of east coast deli/diner culture, too. These two places are intrinsically linked. I’m now back on the road touring the country, and I’m like, man, New York and L.A. have more in common with each other than any two places in this whole country. When I’m in other parts of the country, I’m like, this feels different. New York and L.A., it’s one mega-city, in a sense.
“But, that said, I’m still a human being. I can’t help but be back on the east coast and see the way the light shines through the trees on a dark summer day when it’s about to rain. There are these things that are just built into you when you grow up in a place, and any kind of intellectualization kind of goes out the window because if you saw certain things in your childhood or something, it just makes you happy. There’s that type of connection that sometimes you can only have in one place. When people try to talk to me about the people in LA versus New York, I roll my eyes — it’s the same people, so chill out! But when people want to talk about things like light, vegetation, these little things that make an impact on you, that’s a whole different story.”
Vampire Weekend just played Madison Square Garden in September, and plays the Hollywood Bowl for the third time in October. Ask him to name a favorite between the two, and he might surprise you with a different choice altogether. “There are very few venues that have that same meaning to people from New York as the Garden. Mom talks about how she saw the circus there in 1958, and my dad saw the Stones there, and I’m thinking about how I saw my first basketball game there. With the Hollywood Bowl, there are very few open-air 18,000-capacity places that live in the heart of town in any major American city, so there’s something that’s very special about that spot. Having said that, there are times when I’m waiting to go on stage in either one of those places and I think about family and friends, and I’m nervous about ‘Did I put everybody on the guest list correctly, and did they all get good seats?’ At those moments, I’m always like, ‘Man, I wish we were playing Dallas right now!’ Because there’s something about when we play other parts of the country where I can be fully be present in a way. I’ve gone on record saying our tours in the Midwest are really hard to beat. But of course we’ve had great shows, and at the Garden, despite my all my nerves before the show, once we were on stage, it had that feeling that you wanted.”
Some of this talk about coast versus coast pales against some of the bigger concerns Koenig deals with in his songs. That “Father of the Bride” has some pretty global issues on its mind may be clear right from the cover image, which is of — duh! — a globe.
One minute he’s dueting with Haim’s Danielle Haim about connecting with an ex on one’s wedding day, and the next he’s singing about Islamophobia. There’s no disconnect, in his mind.
“The political philosophers and theorists have said it much more eloquently, about the personal being political. But it’s obvious that even big things like companies or political systems or countries have something in common with the interactions between individual human beings, and we can look at both of them through the lenses of ego and fear and all the usual stuff. Obviously we’re living in a moment where more and more people see individual interactions through the lens of something bigger.
“Getting on some English-major shit, a song that on its face is about two lovers saying goodbye could resonate in a bigger way in a certain moment. And sometimes even when you hear a song that talks about big political ideas, you might be listening to it on the train one day thinking about some other shit, and it might hit you in a very personal, emotional way. This doesn’t come from me just as a songwriter, like, ‘This is how you need to understand my songs.’ This is me as a music listener, because that’s how I felt growing up. A really emotional love song might hit you in a certain way when you’re thinking about the news or something.
“And I’m not going to name names, but sometimes you admire an artist and you see them self-consciously write a political song because they feel like they have to — or they’re just fed up and they need to — and you listen and think, ‘This is one of the worst songs you’ve ever written, when so many of your ostensibly non-political songs were political to me. And I wish you didn’t feel like you have to do this one in particular.’ I guess what I’m saying is, those lines were always blurred for me as a music listener, and I thinkmost music listeners. That’s just kind of where Vampire Weekend’s always lived. And it’s not hard to think of songwriters that I’ve looked up to that have elements of both: you know, the Clash, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell. Nobody would call any of those artists’ songs’ apolitical. Well, somebody might, but I wouldn’t. And yet they also speak very candidly and incisively about heartbreak and things that we don’t really associate with big geopolitical ideas.”
Koenig comes back to the idea of Vampire Weekend’s albums as a continuum. The right analogy strikes him: “On different albums, the formula is a little different. It’s like with weed: People are like, ‘This one is 90% THC and 10% CBD. Well, this one is 30% THC and 70% CBD.’ With Vampire Weekend, you’re going to get a different dose on every album, but it’s always THC and CBD. We’re always using the same two kind of ingredients, and you might be the sort of person who needs a lot of THC, and somebody else is like, ‘I only need a little bit.’ In some ways I look at all four of these albums as using a lot of the same ingredients, to different effect.
“Music critics have to rank things by like ‘This is the best, this is the second best, this is the worst.’ That’s their job. But when this album first came out, we got a lot of notes and emails from people who were like, ‘When your first album came out, I was in high school,’ or just out of college, or whatever, ‘and when your third album came out, I was at this real crossroads in my life, and it spoke to me. And now this album comes out and I’m in my 30s, and I feel like I’ve been on a journey through life with you.’ And that’s the kind of shit where you’re just like, that’s it; there’s nothing better than that. That’s more interesting than the discourse around any one album in particular.
“I mean, in Vampire Weekend, we’ve been playing this ‘80s Dylan song, ‘Jokerman,’ live from time to time. I think it’s one of his best songs. But I’ve heard people talk so much trash about that (“Infidels”) album, like he just fell off a cliff. To me he’s just one of those dudes where I can understand if somebody like just doesn’t want to f— with him, period, sure. Okay, he’s not your style, I get it. But (for fans), at that moment maybe people were missing something. I think when you’re really on a journey with somebody, if you believe that they’re telling you the truth, even when it’s not for you, there’s some sort of respect.
“That’s when you start to feel like you have a real career. I think that this album is the first time I really felt that, you know — a taste of people really talking about being on a decade-plus journey with us. Hopefully it keeps going, but at least I can say we’ve been on a journey with people through life. That’s kind of as good as it gets as a songwriter, I think.”