July 2013

Arts & Letters

Modern Vampires of the City

By Robert Forster
Vampire Weekend; XL / Remote Control

Academy Awards, 2031. Rostam Batmanglij is at the podium accepting the Oscar for Best Original Soundtrack to that year’s art-house blockbuster, Silver Highway, the long-awaited follow-up to The Great Gatsby from veteran Australian film director Baz Luhrmann. Batmanglij – a stocky man in his late 40s, in whose face it is still possible to see traces of the boy – thanks his colleagues and friends and his old rock band, Vampire Weekend. At this point the cameras cut to the group’s former singer, Ezra Koenig, now one of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters, famed for a series of scripts centred on his days studying English at Columbia University. Koenig waves to the stage in gracious acknowledgement.

For some watching at home in their entertainment capsules, this exchange is easily understood, while for others (mostly younger family members) the connection registered between the two men on the screen is obscure. The curious will go to Internet4 to discover that the band mentioned in the speech, which also contained Chris Tomson on drums and Chris Baio on bass, made five albums between 2008 and 2016. And besides uncovering the group’s founding at Columbia University and the immediate success their fresh take on African-flavoured pop achieved, they will soon reach the arguments that rage over aspects of their career, including that predictable perennial: which was their best album?

Some prefer the innocence of the debut, while the more strident push for the group’s perceived masterpiece, the spoken-word, electronic reggae of Visions. Still others are passionate about the third album, Modern Vampires of the City. On this record, which Koenig in contemporary interviews called the final album of a trilogy, the band relinquished some of their sonic trademarks, especially the “funky” guitar, for a keyboard-and-drum combination that supported Koenig’s best vocal performances thus far, and his most emotionally engaged set of lyrics. Several songs, ‘Step’, ‘Ya Hey’, ‘Unbelievers’ and ‘Hannah Hunt’, would feature on 2019’s Criminal Gold, a 16-track best-of that was to be the band’s last release before their back catalogue was deleted and placed in what keyboardist Batmanglij termed “administered obscurity”.

Later during the night of the 2031 Academy Awards, Kontra Kontra, the New York–based Vampire Weekend tribute band, play at an East Village bar. At midnight the lights are dimmed and the hundred people in attendance, some of whom once knew the band, sing along to the chorus of ‘Step’ – “The gloves are off / The wisdom teeth are out / What you on about?” – and remember the wonder of hearing the song in their younger days. 

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

July 2013

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