Indie Music

‘When I was younger I was arrogant’: Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on fatherhood and growing up

On its surface, Only God Was Above Us, the fifth album from Vampire Weekend, has a darkly fatalist point of view. Over some of the band’s loudest, grittiest production to date, frontman and songwriter Ezra Koenig sings of curses, missed connections and imagined wars, airing plangent anxieties about how this tumultuous era of history will be remembered. It plays a little like a knottier sequel to the band’s anxious 2013 record Modern Vampires of the City – but Koenig himself hopes the album leaves listeners with some level of hope.

“I think fatalism taken to its extreme is optimism – some of the happiest people in the world have some element of surrender and acceptance,” he says. “There’s fatalism – the world is a chaotic place and isn’t that terrible? And then there’s optimism – the world is a chaotic place, and you gotta surf that wave.”

The line of thinking is typical Koenig: carefully equivocal and wryly flippant at the same time, delivered earnestly and thoughtfully. It’s a tightrope walk that’s spilled into Only God Was Above Us, which dips back into the genteel trappings of early Vampire Weekend records – richly orchestrated with lush, ambling upright bass, dizzying sax solos and cascading piano lines – but manages to sound vastly different to anything the band have done before.

There’s a tense, almost violent streak to this album. Koenig agrees that it is “aesthetically darker – tonally, it’s the most aggressive record we’ve made”, but he doesn’t necessarily see it as a heavier record than its predecessor, 2019’s shaggy, maximalist Father of the Bride. “I think if you swapped the album covers, people would hear them differently,” he says. “But maybe you have to allow people to categorise the albums by some kind of binary.”

Koenig and I are meeting in February, a few days before the long-awaited new album is announced. Sitting in a central London photo studio, he looks barely any different from when he was promoting Father of the Bride. His style, though, has changed with his records’ shifts in tone, ditching brightly coloured fleeces with socks and sandals in favour of a khaki sweater and sand-toned slacks – perhaps a byproduct of his imminent 40th birthday.

Ageing certainly influenced the restless, if hopeful, spirit of Only God Was Above Us. “When I was younger, I was maybe a little arrogant, waiting for life to show me what was so good about it – and then I was like: ‘Oh right, every person has an ability to love life,’” he says. “It’s exactly the type of idea that would make my eyes roll out of my head when I was a sullen teenager or in my late 20s, wrestling with the point of all this.”

It’s a marked change from his band’s early years, when they were praised for distilling big ideas about existence and mortality into catchy, richly produced pop songs. Emerging in the mid-00s as part of a wave of indie bands that included MGMT and Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend quickly ascended to festival headliner status, thanks in no small part to their prodigious songwriting ability and Koenig’s own sense of ambition.

“When the band was starting, I was obsessed with getting [second album] Contra out in 2010 – I thought it was important that we released albums back to back – it was so rushed. There was a real feeling of: ‘This is a rare opportunity,’” he recalls. “To continue at that pace and with that level of agitation would send anybody to burnout. And then you get into these existential things: if all you’re doing is making music, what’s the music about?”

In the five years since Father of the Bride, Koenig let life take centre stage. In 2018, he and his wife, the actor Rashida Jones, had a baby; after touring the album, he spent time living in Tokyo and London, in addition to their home base of Los Angeles, while she worked on film projects, grateful to let his life contract a little after the circus of promoting a record. He wrote and recorded parts of Only God Was Above Us in those cities, but it was hardly a case of choosing flashy recording destinations.

“Living in these different places superficially gives the record a glamorous touch, but when you’re moving abroad with your family, and your wife is working 14 hours a day, and your kid is in school, there’s also a lot of solitude,” he says. The relative mundanity of this time, he says, “allowed ideas to just creep in” with little external pressure. “I like doing normal stuff – I like taking long walks and being alone and reading. I like taking my son to school in the morning and talking about what we see during the drive. I like that being my primary mode.”

Only God Was Above Us is the first record Koenig has written since having a child. Has fatherhood changed his outlook on songwriting, or his career? “The short answer is no,” he says, smiling sheepishly. The album’s sense of optimism, however, does derive in part from some sense of responsibility he feels towards a younger generation. “The future is totally out of their control,” he says. “Sometimes you hear people talk about whatever aspect of the world is their current fixation – like: ‘I can’t believe this exists when my child is gonna be growing up’ – and then you realise, well, what can you give a child other than a way of embracing life?”

Such an idea is a necessity in the US right now, when partisan politics are at their most fractious. Koenig was a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter during both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, and played at a handful of the senator’s rallies. By the time 2020 rolled around, “it felt a little bit like, ‘Well, I don’t know how likely it is that this is gonna happen, but it feels like the right thing to do at this moment,’” he recalls. Does he think any of Sanders’s trademark policies, such as universal healthcare, might be revived during this year’s election cycle? “There’s always hope, because I think a lot of that stuff would be great. Rationally, are any of those things around the corner? I just don’t know.”

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The calmness with which he speaks about politics is reflected on Hope, the album’s final track, on which he runs through a laundry list of political conspiracies and defeats, before landing on a note of bittersweet acceptance: “Our enemy’s invincible / I hope you let it go.” He sees this, too, as a moment of optimism. “Politics is obsessed with outcome, and we’re all surrounded by the anger and frustration of people who deeply believe that things need to go one way or another,” he says. Hope, the song, is an appeal to see hope as “a personal feeling, rather than a demand on the outside world”, an idea he’s come to as he’s grown older. “There’s going to be millions of people disappointed at any given moment, maybe billions globally. If you hope for something specific, you will often be disappointed, but hope as a feeling, or a concept, [is] somehow bigger than outcome.”

In the same way that Only God Was Above Us returns to the baroque, distorted sound they explored on Modern Vampires, it also sees Koenig reuniting with his bandmates Chris Baio and Chris Tomson, who toured with the band circa Father of the Bride but didn’t play on the record, and were not pictured in press photos. Multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, who left the band after Modern Vampires, also worked on the new album’s production, as he did on Father of the Bride, although he is still not “in” the band. Koenig says there wasn’t a conscious decision to bring Tomson and Baio back into the fold; Vampire Weekend has long been a recording project, and Father of the Bride was made with “them having some confidence in me to take us somewhere interesting, and me having confidence that they’d be down to kind of wait and still be a part of it.”

A few years down the line, Koenig says he doesn’t know if presenting Father of the Bride as a solo project was a good idea or not, although ultimately “the record was a success, we were very happy with the reception, it was our best and biggest tour”. He still feels his motivations for the decision were sound. “I just had a feeling that going into the fourth album, seeing a picture of three guys in their mid-30s was kind of like: ‘This is gonna look like damaged goods.’”

Part of it may have been that he was still “traumatised by the haters of our early days”, he admits, referring to the coterie of music critics who ripped into the band for their perceived white, upper-class perspective – despite the fact that Koenig and Batmanglij, the band’s songwriters, were working-class Jewish and Iranian, respectively. Presenting Father of the Bride as a solo project came out of a protective instinct. “I had a feeling that it was going to be the most difficult transition, because some type of indie era was over, we lost a member, and our last album was our most serious, critically acclaimed album ever. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Koenig is right in thinking that the scene Vampire Weekend came out of no longer exists in the same way; major mechanisms for breaking a band, such as indie blogs, no longer exist, and few rock artists are making it to the top of the Billboard charts. On a personal level, he no longer feels tapped into modern indie music, and says that anyway the press no longer seems intent on asking older bands to provide a seal of approval for rising prospects – as when Vanity Fair asked Paul Simon for his opinion on them back in 2011. “I don’t know who the [young] Vampire Weekend is now, and I don’t know if anybody knows,” Koenig says. “When Contra came out, I knew the context it was made in; when this album comes out, I only know it in terms of Vampire Weekend’s career.”

That seems to be as liberating for Koenig as it is unnerving; in Only God Was Above Us it results in a sound that’s richer and more expansive than anything the band have made before, even as it returns to a style they mined deeply on Modern Vampires. “That context is another thing to contend with,” he says. “But ultimately, I surrender to Father Time.”

Only God Was Above Us is released 5 April.

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