New York’s Vampire Weekend plays the Norwegian Øyafestivalen today, so it’s time to post my unabridged interview with Ezra Koenig from December. I did the interview for a story on indie music and fashion in D2.
ØH: How has your year been?
EK: Well, we’ve been on tour so much it kinda feels like we haven’t been able to stop and reflect. But when I think back of what we were doing a year ago it becomes so clear that so much has changed, so many more people has heard our music all over the world. So this has been a very dramatic year for us.
ØH: What were the most important tools in getting your music out to people?
EK: We didn’t really plan it that much. We knew we were going to sign to a label like XL. Even before that, people always asked us how blogs and the internet has affected our band, or they ask us how we view the internet. We don’t use the internet, the fans use the internet. All we did was make a MySpace page, and put our album up, and after that it has been out of our hands. It’s been normal kids passing on mp3 files that really helped us. We didn’t help them do it, they just had to do it themselves because they felt like it.
ØH: You’re on an English record label, and the term «indie» is originally English? What do you think of when I say «indie music»?
EK: When I think of indie music, the first band I think of is actually Pavement, the typical 90’s American indie rock band. So when people say we are indie rock, it didn’t make much sense for me, because we don’t sound like that. But I think you’re right, to a lot of people indie means some sort of vague, weird subculture with different kinds of music that doesn’t sound nothing alike, definitely in the original meaning of the word. We made the entire album ourselves, we’re more independent than a lot of bands that get called indie. We made an album for no money, without a record label.
ØH:What is indie today? Is a youth culture, a musical style, a kind of style, or all of the above?
EK: Well, I think, it’s hard to say. I think indie in America is kinda similar to what we called alternative rock in the 90’s, an alternative to the mainstream. And it doesn’t mean that you’re buying into this small subculture, it’s still something you share with a lot of people. It’s still somewhat of an alternative. There was a time when indie music was very hard to find, and you had to go to specialty record stores, and you were maybe the only kid in your class at high school who liked music like Pavement. Nowadays there are a lot of kids at any high school that are aware of indie music, because it’s so much easier to get your hands on. But it is very hard to define, on a certain level it’s becoming more and more meaningless.
ØH: So what is mainstream today?
EK: I grew up at a time when it wasn’t particularly cool to hate the mainstream, in the late 90’s and the early 00’s. In the late 70’s, when you thought everything you heard played on the radio was garbage and then punk music came, that revolutionized everything. The music they played on the radio and on MTV when I grew up, it wasn’t bad, it was interesting music. Hating the mainstream to me seems kinda outdated, our music is extremely influenced by mainstream music, like The Beatles. Even The Clash became a mainstream band, so the bands that I really love, they are not my special kind of band that only I know of. You can ask any person on the streets about my favourite bands, and they will probably know «Rock the Casbah» or something. You still find these people who stop liking a band once it becomes popular, and there are some people who use music as a way to differentiate themselves. «I’m not like everybody else, because I’m defined by my taste in music, and my taste is exclusive.» For me, one of the most interesting and exciting things about our band is that we went from having a small group of fans who probably heard about us from a website to having a mainstream audience, and that is exciting.
ØH: What is happening with your next album?
EK: We have started to plan it. We’re almost done touring, and will start working on it in January. I think people are always excited about the next new thing, and even before we released our album said about us: «this is the new New York band that will disappear in a few months.» There have been times when I’ve started to worry that they might’ve been right, that the fans were just jumping on a bandwagon. But now that we’ve been at it for almost a year, and people are still buying our music and hearing it for the first time, and the shows are only getting bigger, I’m not so worried anymore about that happening.
I see a lot of people putting our album on the best of the year lists, and that makes me feel good. And even though it came out almost a year ago, people are still interested in it. But that doesn’t mean that people will like whatever we put on our second LP, so we have to work hard to make something interesting and new. One thing I can say is that at this time our fans have transcended any sort of hipster/blogger/indie rock thing. It’s more than that, it’s the kids on the soccer team, the 15 year old skateboarders, kids who aren’t as concerned about finding the next big thing, they just know what they like. We have a fairly dedicated fan base that want to hear our second album, but whether they like it or not, that I have no idea. I do know that they want to hear it.
We’ve been lucky, sold a good amount of records. People say that we would’ve sold three times as many albums if it had come out ten years ago, the truth is that we entered the music biz this year. We haven’t been releasing album for 20 years, and all of a sudden our income is disappearing. Before Vampire Weekend I was a school teacher. I’m very thankful, we tour a lot, to establish a connection with your fans and .
ØH: How important is fashion for musicians?
EK: I think it always have been important, and I always been interested in it. You know, sometimes you meet people that say it should only be about the music. I think that’s bullshit. Take all my favourite bands, the bands that everybody loves, like The Clash. Obviously The Clash made good music, but part of the reason why I love The Clash is because of how they dressed, their music videos, their album covers. It all works together, it’s like a giant art project – a multimedia project. That’s what separates a band from a professional songwriter, who lives in Nashville and writes songs for others. When you’re in a band, you’re doing something different. You’re doing this big, weird performance art. Then it’s silly to say you don’t care about what kind of clothes you wear. Everyone thinks about the clothes they wear. People are so worried about alienating people that they don’t want to be seen as obsessed with fashion, but every single person in the world thinks about the clothes they put on.
ØH: How much thought goes into your look?
EK: We kinda dressed the way we’ve already been dressing. Even before we had a band, I wouldn’t consider myself a fashion expert, but I was interested in clothes and I thought about the way I dressed. And I did feel like I was attracted to a certain way of dressing, which in America people may call preppy, partially because I didn’t relate to this kind of vintage fashion, weird ironic t-shirt kind of look. In a certain way I think the way we dress and our music do kind of work together because they both come into stuff about who we are.
ØH: Have you gotten any offers from the fashion world?
EK: We met people from the fashion world that we’ve had conversations with, but there’s nothing being planned at the moment. There are clothing brands that send us clothes because they feel that they go well with our aesthetic. Personally I feel that there’s a lot in common with being a fashion designer and someone who makes music. I think you’re both concerned with aesthetics, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. That’s why I am a big fan of Kanye West’s blog, he puts out all kinds of music, clothing and design. He sees that it’s all related, and that’s why he’s one of the most interesting pop stars we have today.
ØH: The hip-hop artists are more into cooperation with the fashion world than indie artists?
EK: Run-DMC wrote a song about Adidas, even though they weren’t asked to, because part of their whole identity was brand identity. Some people would probably say that’s a sign of a disgusting consumer society. The truth is, that identifying with a pair of sneakers that you find beautiful, is really not that different from identifying with a Rembrandt painting or a Beatles song that you find beautiful. The people in the fashion world are as much artists as the people in the music business.
For instance, I’m amazed about how many people Converse got to be in their commercials. I think we said no to that, but now I don’t really care. We’ve never formally done anything with a clothing line, we’ve actually turned to many offers to do commercials. To me there is a difference between wearing clothes and appreciating them, and becoming financially involved with a corporation. That’s when it starts to get tricky. There are some great clothing lines that are made by hand in New York City, and then there is American Apparel that pays its employees well. But then there are other companies where you really don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, and that’s probably why someone like Kurt Cobain, who clearly was thinking about how he looked, maybe didn’t wanted to be too vocal about it. The grunge thing about having your jeans ripped up, that’s not happening naturally, you have to make that happen.
Our fans are fairly diverse. Every once in a while I’ll see a kid in front of the scene who is dressed the same as me, which I think it’s great, it’s showing that we’re on the same page in terms of the clothes that we like. But there are definitely people at our shows who don’t dress the way we dress, really young teenagers, people in their 50’s and 60’s. It’s not like everyone at a Vampire Weekend show are wearing boat shoes and plaque shirts. I’m happy that we can communicate to different kinds of people.
ØH: Did you plan your image? Do you get a lot of flak for not being “authentic”? What does the term «keeping it real» mean for you?
EK: People don’t say that, they get angry, especially old school indie rock fans, who associate indie with being non-mainstream, having an anti-mainstream aesthetic. People don’t like hypocrisy, bands in the past who put up a certain front, a certain attitude, and then when people found out where they grew up and went to school, they felt kinda cheated. The image didn’t match up to their background. As to us, we’ve always been very open about where we came from. Most people in the indie rock world probably went to college, probably didn’t grow up facing third world oppression or horrible financial difficulties. But still, it’s always like a dirty thing talking about the fact that you went to college. For us, it’s so obviously started at college, we are not going to lie about us. At the very least, people that don’t like us, can’t accuse us of hypocrisy.
ØH: Is your clothes a statement?
EK: Hmmm, no. I think it’s so hard to find the cause and effect. I don’t know if kids are dressing a certain way because of the bands they listen to, or if they listen to band because they’re already programmed to like these bands. Indie music is so diverse that it’s very hard to point and say that these clothes come from this band, and this band started this trend. It’s all so mixed up these days, which is kinda how I like it.