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Vampire Weekend on ‘Only God Was Above Us’, Eclipse Show, & Sonic Evolution

— Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio, Ezra Koenig & Chris Tomson photographed by Mara Corsino.

On a cloudy, muggy spring Monday in Austin, Texas, 5,000 people filed into the Moody Amphitheater, an outdoor concert venue in Waterloo Park; a few dozen more gathered on the roof of a nearby parking structure. As the sky began to darken, gradually taking on an eerie, just-before-a-storm shade of gray, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” started blaring from the stage. A construction crew at the top of a half-finished skyscraper stopped what they were doing and peered over the edge.

The crowds had shown up for two reasons: to see Vampire Weekend play music from their just-released album, Only God Was Above Us, and to witness a total solar eclipse. “That’s the main event,” said the band’s frontman, Ezra Koenig, during a pause in the set, his distinctive voice wavering somewhere between arch and earnest. “Nature, reality, the universe.”

In 2024, you get two types of responses when you bring up Vampire Weekend in conversation. One can be summed up as “Wow, throwback!” There are plenty of people who associate the band with other (not infrequently maligned) cultural touchstones of the era in which they first emerged: Lena Dunham’s Girls, Facebook, skinny jeans. Others—those who have lovingly followed the group as they evolved from Ivy League undergrads who wore pressed oxford shirts onstage to the crunchier, more self-assured middle-aged dudes they are today—react with a knowing nod. The story of Vampire Weekend tracks the evolution of the millennial condition. For 30-something fans like myself, their music has been a soundtrack for high school house parties, the ennui of early adulthood, and that pre-pandemic moment that now feels a little bit like a dream.

The band was formed in 2006, when Koenig, guitarist Chris Baio, drummer Chris Tomson, and polymath producer Rostam Batmanglij (who has since left the group) were studying at Columbia University. Their self-titled first album was released in 2008 and featured a slew of things not typically associated with indie rock: a harpsichord, Afropop melodies, erudite and occasionally impenetrable lyrics that mentioned mansard roofs, Egyptian cotton, and kefir. At the time, Pitchfork described it as “one of the most talked-about and divisive records of the year.” The Guardian called it “deft, weird, unfathomable, fantastic.” There were also plenty of detractors: “If you’re one of those ‘Die Yuppie Scum’ people, a song like ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’—with its sly Louis Vuitton and Benetton references—is gonna go up your ass like a hot poker,” wrote Vanity Fair.

“When our first album came out, it had such a strong identity. It had a look: There was a sartorial element; there was a sonic element,” Koenig told me over the phone a few days before the eclipse show. “But I remember thinking even back then that I’d shown people a small square on the map, and I knew that there was so much more to us. I’m glad that on the first album we didn’t try to be all things to all people. I love feeling like we’re sketching out more of our world with each album.”

In the close to two decades since, the band has released four more records and won two Grammys for Best Alternative Music Album, for 2013’s introspective Modern Vampires of the City and for Father of the Bride, which came six years later, in 2019. FOTB, as they often refer to it, is a sprawling double album that was described by several outlets as both a coming-of-age and an inflection point. It had a sunny, jam band–y sound, features from the likes of Danielle Haim and Steve Lacy, and lyrics that grappled with topics both mundane and divine.

Only God Was Above Us takes things in yet another direction, eschewing Grateful Dead references for the grittier emblems of late-20th-century New York City. “New York, obviously, it’s a real place, but also it’s a set of signifiers. It’s kind of an endlessly fascinating metaphor,” said Koenig of his choice of muse. The album cover features a Steven Siegel photograph of two men in an overturned, graffiti-covered subway car; the title is borrowed from the Daily News headline that appears in the image. There’s a song named for Mary Boone, the once influential, now disgraced gallerist, and another called “Prep-School Gangsters,” after a New York magazine cover story.

Sound-wise, it’s their biggest departure yet, with a more traditionally scuzzy alt rock feeling defined by whammy pedal effects and long, intense solos. “When the band started, I wrote a manifesto that contained all sorts of goofy things, like no T-shirts onstage. One thing that was slightly more serious was just having clean guitars. I didn’t want it to sound distorted. I didn’t want it to sound ’90s,” said Koenig. “But even then, in the back of my head, I kind of was thinking, But maybe the day will come when distortion and feedback could play a larger role in what we do. As soon as you make the thesis, you start thinking a little bit about the antithesis. Five albums deep, it suddenly felt like this really fresh, exciting place to go.”

The T-shirt rule is another youthful tenet the group has since abandoned. Onstage in Austin, Koenig and Tomson both wore them, while Baio and the rest of the touring band stuck to black button-downs, which quickly became soaked with sweat. They leaned in to a celestial vibe for the performance: illustrations of a sun and moon covered the front of each bass drum, and they even performed a deep cut, “Jonathan Low,” which they wrote for the film The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. In the last few minutes before the eclipse reached totality, they played an extended version of “Flower Moon,” then stepped offstage just in time to observe it themselves.

Daylight disappeared, and the park was plunged into dusk. The blocked-out sun and its corona, briefly visible through the clouds, were met with cheers and wolf howling from the crowd. As the sun and moon returned to their rightful positions, the band came back to the stage, kicking off act two with another new track, “Hope.”

The idea to do an eclipse concert emerged about seven years ago, when Koenig was talking with his friend Jake Longstreth, with whom he hosts the online radio show Time Crisis, about an eclipse Longstreth had seen in Wyoming. He looked up the next one that would be visible in the U.S., and it turned out to be on his 40th birthday—an easy date to remember. It just so happened to line up with the OGWAU release. “We spent a lot of time talking through and working out a set list, and the part of the experience that I will certainly remember for the rest of my life will be playing ‘Flower Moon,’ ” Baio told me. “Our new version of the song is markedly darker than the studio recording, and to play it while the sky darkened felt like we were communing with nature.”

I asked Koenig if he was at all interested in the mystical aspects of the eclipse. “I guess on the most basic level, any sort of unusual occurrence is a great reminder that we can reset things internally as well,” he said. “If every once in a while the moon can block out the sun, who knows? Maybe certain emotional thought patterns that we take for granted, like, ‘I always feel that way. Nothing I can do about it.…’ Well, who knows? Maybe you can.”

As the pit at the foot of the stage did some mild-mannered moshing to “A-Punk,” I was struck by how timeless the set sounded as a whole. (At one point in the show’s second half, the band brought out fellow Columbia alum David Macklovitch, of Chromeo, who performed the turn-of-the-millennium banger “Needy Girl,” which sounded like a relic in comparison.) I asked Tomson about how they’d managed to make music that didn’t rely too heavily on the prevailing winds of the day. “We’ve always been very conscious of trying to find whatever feels truest to ourselves. Sometimes that matches up with other stuff that’s going on, but usually it doesn’t,” he said. “The way we would write songs and attack stuff in 2006 is very, very similar to the way we do it now. The tools have changed, some of the people have changed, some of the resources have changed, but the creative act feels so similar. It was somehow fully formed early on.”

In a musical landscape that feels unabashedly driven by pop sounds and social media–ready packaging, Vampire Weekend has managed to stick to their own rhythm, leaving wide spaces between albums and maintaining a sense of playfulness as they evolve. “I’m sure the various algorithms today would tell you that most decisions we make are not optimized,” said Tomson. “But especially as we’ve gotten older and all of us have families—some of those families include children—there’s a certain amount of life that you need to lead in order to have perspectives on things to create.”

Reflecting on what he envisioned for the band’s future, Baio mentioned seeing Depeche Mode (whose current members are in their early 60s) play “Enjoy the Silence” in Los Angeles last year. “After the song ended, my wife turned to me and said, ‘Is this what it’s going to be like when you guys play “Walcott” in 20 years?’ At the time, she was absolutely joking. But after thinking about it for the past year, I have to say, I would love it if we were playing the Forum 20 years from now and bringing the house down with ‘Walcott.’ I think that’d be pretty cool.”

Still curious about the group’s manifesto from the early days, and whether there was anything on the list that had stuck with them through the decades, I asked Koenig if he remembers what else was on it. “I maybe even put in there that one day we need to aspire to write something as good as ‘Come On Eileen.’ ” Have they achieved it? “Not yet,” he replied. “But I’m going to get together with the guys and really look back on the last five albums and say, ‘All right, let’s keep it real. We didn’t do anything quite as good as “Come On Eileen.” How close did we get? Let’s take a look, and let’s do better.’ ”

Grooming by Dana Boyer for Bumble and Bumble at The Wall Group. Photo Assistant: Gerrod Phillip; Digital Technician: Pablo Calderón Santiago; Retouching: Danny Sadiel Peña; Fashion assistant: Celeste Roh; Grooming assistant: Elena Nheme; Tailor: Lindsay Wright; Special Thanks: Untitled NYC.


Source: W Magazine

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