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Friday, Oct. 22, 2010
Here be Vampires
New York buzz band Vampire Weekend return to Japan in time for Halloween
By SHAUN CURRAN
Special to The Japan Times
V ampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio exudes a happy demeanor, albeit a slightly weary one. Weary thanks to an unyielding touring schedule that finds him traveling to San Diego midway through an extensive tour of the United States; happy because there can be no reservation that his band have dominated 2010 from its very first month, when second album "Contra," an eccentric, multicultural pop adventure, hit the top of the U.S. Billboard chart.
Not only that, but on their imminent fourth trip to Japan, Baio will get to celebrate his birthday in one of his favorite cities.
"I can't wait to get to Japan; we're going to Nagoya for the first time, which is exciting," he says. "And it's my birthday in Tokyo! I turn 26 the night we play. What a place to celebrate. Have I got anything special planned? Not yet. It won't be anything too crazy, I don't think. Just some good Japanese food for dinner. After a good show, hopefully."
By the time Vampire Weekend get to Japan, their "crazy year" will be 10 months in the making. That it has been wildly successful is undeniable, even making allowances for controversies old, such as the band's social standing (their perceived well-to-do backgrounds have led to much criticism) and, in the case of the ongoing lawsuit over the front cover of "Contra" (former model Ann Kirsten Kennis is suing the band for $2 million for using her image without permission), new and bizarre.
Since their formation in 2006, the band have been dogged by talk of their apparently privileged upbringing, an alleged pillaging of world music, and a flagrant denunciation of rock cliche, particularly in lyric — but the scale of their achievements cannot be underestimated.
Selling 1 million copies, their eponymous debut in 2008 was an untarnished, blithe fusion of Afro-beat pop and Californian ska punk via the territory of Paul Simon, triumphantly bestowed by the band themselves as "Upper West Side Soweto."
Buoyed by hits "Oxford Comma" and, particularly, "A-Punk," which boasted one of the most recognizable riffs of the latter half of the last decade, the foundations were laid for "Contra" to become only the 12th independent-label album ever to hit the top of the U.S. Billboard chart, courtesy of British label XL Recordings.
"It was surreal when we found out," Baio states, in a manner that suggests the feeling still lingers. "We were flying all over the place and it was so weird. Yet at the same time we just had to move on to the next thing, so maybe we didn't enjoy it as much as we could."
Progressed by the increasing influence of keyboardist/producer Rostam Batmanglij ("Rostam is incredible; it's exciting what he can do"), "Contra" negotiated the infamous pitfalls associated with the second album — the risk of repeating yourself with less accomplishment — masterfully.
" 'Progression' is a good word," Baio asserts. "It has similar elements to the first record, but we didn't just attempt to make the first record again. It sounds much better; it is an expanded sound. Many bands just try to replicate their first record, but what's the point? That record already exists; you aren't going to make a better version of it. And some bands do something completely different, but that feels like a rejection of the elements that were successful."
It is put to Baio that the marriage of complexity and subtlety on "Contra," while retaining the prior pop joyfulness, marked a band becoming (at risk of making them appear tedious) more mature.
"I'd agree with that statement, yes. 'Contra' is nostalgic, sonically and lyrically. It was written at a more conflicting time (for us). The first record was written in college, which is a carefree time. It's about the trajectory that most people are on from kindergarten through school to college. 'Contra' is about after that, when you have options but no answers, which can be a confusing time."
"Confusing" is an apt word for Vampire Weekend, as few current bands appear to blur the lines between class values while provoking such a reaction. The college to which Baio refers and where all four members — Baio, Batmanglij, singer- guitarist Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson — met is Columbia College, New York, an Ivy League institution synonymous with the affluent and prosperous — an image that has inflamed the band's detractors.
An Ivy League education and the apparent privilege of their background could pander no less to the mythology of rock 'n' roll, and it is to their credit that Vampire Weekend have never attempted to conceal their upper-echelon tendencies. They dress as snappily as their songs (preppy cardigans, Ralph Lauren polo tops) and beneath the jaunty tunes and singalong choruses are lyrics referencing punctuation marks, girls in Louis Vuitton and Ivy League campus shenanigans.
But with questions raised about their intentions — are they critiquing middle-class values or sneering at the under-classes? — and over the wisdom of four advantaged youngsters taking a distinct portion of their musical cues (Congolese soukous, Brazilian Baile funk) from the disadvantaged, Vampire Weekend have stood accused of a snobbish abuse of status.
"I have to say that anyone that lobbies that criticism at us is not only wrong, but will like some artists that went to a good college," he retorts, defiance in his voice. "No one's music taste is exclusive to noncollege-educated musicians. The idea that rock music is owned by people with an inherently working-class background is false. I don't care how much money The Clash had, or how they were brought up. I love their records. Nothing in background matters at all, unless it's something heinous." He surprisingly breaks into laughter. "And there certainly isn't anything like that with us.
"Growing up when we grew up, with the Internet, it's easy to get music from all over the world. It is not a big deal for us to listen to a rap song and then a song by the Grateful Dead. For me personally, that is a more exciting way to work. You could make a blues rock record, for example, but there have been so many great ones, you'd be making a watered-down version of it."
The criticism the band faces is often fiercely personal, though Baio does not find it too unnerving.
"At the beginning, we were surprised," he admits. "I was never one for reading message boards and blogs, but when people start writing about you, that soon changes. And there's bound to be negatives on there. That's the experience of modern music. No one is universally praised, so you just grit your teeth. You get used to it pretty quick. If someone writing a negative thing makes you not want to make music, you probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
Wisely unrepentant to misunderstanding cynics, Baio bats away criticism with clear conscience. Vampire Weekend are a multiethnic group (with Jewish Hungarian, Iranian and Polish heritage) documenting the life experiences of four men in their 20s through perceptive eyes, far from the imperialist malice of which they are accused.
Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine many bands having the wit to pen a song like "I Think UR a Contra," which uses the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary movement both to pay tribute to The Clash and as a metaphor for a disintegrating relationship — more laudable than endless cliche and retread, surely?
"Absolutely," Baio enthuses. "There are enough songs about going out to parties, love, getting drunk. I like how our lyrics come with questions and nuances. What can be added to the subject of love for a pop song? It's been done so many times."
Unwittingly, Baio reaches the heart of the matter with the word "pop"; the millions worldwide who have fallen for Vampire Weekend care not if they allude to 17th-century French architect Francois Mansart. They care that the band's songs are pop delights equally comfortable in a festival field, emanating from student halls or, as happened in the U.K. recently, a political party conference.
"We see ourselves as first and foremost a pop band," affirms Baio in plain terms.
"It makes me really happy we pull a diverse group of people. I'd hate to think Vampire Weekend fans are just one type of person. Life's not like that, is it?"
Vampire Weekend play Oct. 29 at Studio Coast in Shinkiba, Tokyo (6 p.m.; ¥6,300;  3462-6969); Oct. 31 at Big Cat, Osaka (5 p.m.; ¥6,300;  7732-8888); and Nov. 1 at Club Quattro, Nagoya ([6 p.m.; ¥6,300;  264-8211).