Vampire Weekend bites back

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      After scoring an appearance on Saturday Night Live and a cover story in Spin in the same month, Vampire Weekend is doing better than just all right. In fact, the New York–based quartet is in a position to laugh all the way through its latest, mostly sold-out tour when the Straight catches up with drummer Christopher Tomson to ask where a barely two-year-old group goes after climbing to such great heights.

      “Actually, you go to Birmingham, then New Orleans, then Austin,” says Tomson, reeling off his band’s tour itinerary on a cellphone from somewhere in Alabama. “That’s where you go.”

      Nonplussed though he may be, Tomson probably wouldn’t deny that his band’s upward mobility is already the stuff of Internet-stoked legend. Not since the Arctic Monkeys has a band gone from obscure to buzzworthy so rapidly. Funnily, Vampire Weekend’s speedy ascent is almost at odds with the relaxed vibe of its self-titled debut full-length—an island-hopping mix of equatorial guitar tones, calypso and ska rhythms, and spry melodies.

      Though it might sound casual, Vampire Weekend is the result of some definite brainstorming. “A lot of the current music we heard or were hearing all sounded a bit similar, with a rock mentality and in a certain specific tradition,” says Tomson. “We weren’t interested in doing that, and looked for ways to use these kind of rock instruments in a way we weren’t hearing. That was the main thing—not to be like a modern rock band.”

      Tomson and his bandmates, singer Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio, and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, met while attending Columbia University on New York’s Upper West Side. Shortly after playing their first gig as Vampire Weekend in February 2006, they posted a song on their Web site. News of Vampire Weekend began spreading, in fine viral style, via an EP, a New York Times story, and tours. Hype has grown with the release of the full-length by XL Recordings, and more and more media outlets and music-oriented gatekeepers have begun trumpeting the act’s fresh, infectious sound and African influences. Vampire Weekend is also notable for some pretty nifty neoclassical string arrangements on a couple of the songs, including the first-day-of-spring sparkler “M79” and the sweeping and victorious “Walcott”.

      “The African thing is just one side or level of the influences we were trying to bring in,” says Tomson. “And certainly another was classical. We tried to integrate them [the strings] more than in a normal rock-and-strings way—to have them be part of the arrangement and have their own voice.”

      Vampire Weekend’s uniqueness extends to its lyrics, which Koenig oversees. The English-lit major doesn’t shy away from his pedigree—or his degree—when he asks “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” in the jaunty ska workout “Oxford Comma”. One of the album’s standouts, the song proves there’s more to the band than its J. Crew fashion sense and world-music influences: a sly self-mockery bubbles beneath the infectious hooks. After all, Koenig is smart enough to know that rebelling against a style of punctuation isn’t exactly the essence of rock ’n’ roll. Meanwhile, references to designer labels and blue-blood resort towns on “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Walcott” send up the band’s own prep-school look and socioeconomic status.

      For skeptics already suspicious of the precocious outfit’s seemingly overnight success, the Great Gatsby–ish settings in the band’s songs could provide more ammunition. But naysayers will be missing out on one of the breeziest debuts in recent memory: Vampire Weekend is not only a guaranteed party starter, it contains enough subtle, barbed wit to withstand knee-jerk criticism.

      Still, a lot of struggling musicians, upon seeing the group’s smiling, just-off-the-yacht mugs on the cover of Spin, might wonder, “What makes them so special?”

      Tomson offers no apologies. “Honestly, I feel like we haven’t done anything other than record 11 good songs, and we recorded nine of them before we even talked to XL, or any labels,” says the drummer. “It’s very weird. Granted, to me, it doesn’t feel like we’re super successful—we’re going to be playing for 250 people in Birmingham tonight; it’s not like we’re playing arenas or something—but the bottom line is, I think we’ve made a good album.”

      Vampire Weekend plays Richard’s on Richards next Thursday (March 27).