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Vampire Weekend moves from the Ivy League to Flavor Flav

Published Sept. 2, 2008

They call themselves "Upper West Side Soweto." Islands' Nick Thorburn calls them "trust fund frat-rock." While they've been given many definitions, their name is on the lips of everyone from the tastemaker blogs to "Saturday Night Live" booking agents, who had the band on the show in March. In a little less than 12 months, Vampire Weekend went from a group of Ivy League grads who handed out their music on self-made CD-Rs to one of the most lauded bands of the year. MOVE spoke with bassist Chris Baio, fresh off appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals about playing on an island in Norway, their Godard-inspired music video and what that guy from StuffWhitePeopleLike.com thinks of them.

MOVE: You played a ton of festival gigs in August, including the Reading and Leeds Festivals this past weekend. Any highlights or crazy stories from your international travels?

Chris Baio: We played this festival in Norway called Hove, which is really in the middle of nowhere. You fly to Kristiansand, which I had never heard of before and then you drive another hour and a half to get to Arendal, which is where the only two hotels are in the vicinity of the festival, and then you drive another 45 minutes to actually get to the festival, which is on this big island. So it's basically this big island in the middle of nowhere in Norway, and it's really high up so the sun sets super late. It really goes down at around midnight. The first night we were there, we got to see Jay-Z there and just sort of seeing him play at 10:30 at night under a totally white sky for 18,000 Norwegians was absolutely surreal.

MOVE: You make references to Lil Jon, Hyannis Port and Peter Gabriel. Where do your ideas - both lyrically and in terms of the music itself - come from?

CB: Ezra writes the majority of the lyrics and I think he goes for a lot of different things. He never really spells it out too clearly in interviews. But musically, it comes from the four us working together on different sounds and sort of taking different inspirations. African pop guitar and, in general, clean guitar, is something that Ezra likes a lot. I grew up listening to a lot of punk music and I feel like that shows in some of my bass playing. Rostam likes a lot of classical. That shows up in a lot of his string arrangements. Chris, our drummer, listens to a ton of Motown, which is one thing that comes through in his drumming. So those are examples of the four of us working together, drawing on the music we've listened to our whole lives and coming up with something that's our own.

MOVE: Some of your first gigs were playing for the literary society parties at Columbia University. Do you think being in that environment impacted your lyrics at all? If so, how?

CB: It's sort of funny because I guess they're called literary societies but when we were playing, they were just kind of rowdy parties with drunk people and really, I would be surprised if there were many conversations about literature there. But I think in a way, playing those early shows there definitely influenced us as a live band.

MOVE: How so?

CB: I think in general, we've kept it pretty pared down and simple and energetic when we play live. We've never really worried about replicating a studio sound. We don't travel with a string quartet, even though there are strings on our album. So just keeping it simple and energetic, which is what we would do naturally when it was just the four of us playing at house parties, I would say in that way we've been influenced by those early shows.

MOVE: This past spring, you played "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" with the Crenshaw High School drum line on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" How did that collaboration come about and what was the experience like?

CB: I think in general we like to talk, if we're gonna be on TV, about different ways to play a song because we don't want to be playing the same song the same way when we do these TV shows. Rostam had the idea to do "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" with a drum line. We floated the idea by our manager and he knew someone who knew someone who worked with the Crenshaw band and we showed up that afternoon, worked with them on it and played it that night. I think they all had a really good time.

MOVE: In an interview with Salon.com, StuffWhitePeopleLike.com founder Christian Lander referred to Vampire Weekend as "the whitest band." What do you think of this distinction?

CB: I thought it was pretty funny. A lot of the things on that list there kind of fit me to a tee. Like, I really like coffee and "The Wire," so I guess more than anything it just made me laugh.

MOVE: In about a year, you went from handing out your LP as the "Blue CD-R" to playing "Saturday Night Live." How has the huge amount of buzz surrounding Vampire Weekend, particularly from the tastemaker blogs, impacted the band?

CB: I think it's hard to say. In a way, it's always encouraging when people write positively about your music and early on, we definitely read a lot of the things people on blogs wrote. But for us, touring has had a lot to do with our growth, just going out there and playing for people. We've been working on so many different aspects of the band during that year that it's really hard to isolate the specific impact of blogs.

MOVE: The video for "Oxford Comma" was released this summer and it's divided into these almost Wes Anderson-ish chapters, but it's all one continuous shot. In your own words, MOVE was wondering, what's the story within the video, chapter by chapter?

CB: Oh man. The chapter idea came from the director, Richard Ayoade. I think a lot of the influence there is from the Godard movies as well. As to what the official story is, I think it's open to interpretation.

MOVE: Speaking of videos, the trailer to Ezra's film "Vampire Weekend" is on YouTube. What happened to the film in its entirety? Are there still copies out there circulating?

CB: You've actually seen the film in its entirety, lucky for you. He only made about a minute and a half of it.

MOVE: According to a Spin feature about the band, guitarist Rostam Batmanglij interned at the Oxford English Dictionary and got to define the word "crunk." If you could define one word for the OED, what would it be?

CB: Oh, man. One word and what the definition would be?

MOVE: Uh-huh.

CB: Well, what would your word be?

MOVE: What would my word be? Oh, man. I haven't really thought of this.

CB: See what I mean?

MOVE: I do. Completely.

CB: I don't know if I have an answer for that. I think I'd have to think too long and hard to come up with a good one.

MOVE: Musically and tour-wise, what's next for Vampire Weekend?

CB: Recently, we recorded a song for the soundtrack to a movie. I think it comes out next month. We have a couple tours left and that will take us to the middle of December. And after that, I think we're looking forward to buckling down and working on another album.

MOVE: What movie is the song for?

CB: "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist." We wrote a song that will appear in the end credits and on the soundtrack.

MOVE: And how did that come about?

CB: The director just asked us. They were interested in having us do a song for it. We saw some of the movie, liked it and we all really like "Arrested Development" and Michael Cera so we went for it.

MOVE: Do you think you'll try and see if you can get a song on the soundtrack for the "Arrested Development" movie when it happens?

CB: Oh, I would love to do that.

MOVE: Whatever happened to L'Homme Run (the precursor to Vampire Weekend, a rap group featuring Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson)?

CB: It was Ezra rapping with our friend from college, Andrew. Chris, our drummer, would play different instruments and be the hype man.

MOVE: So he was the Flavor Flav of the group?

CB: He shared an elevator with Flavor Flav a couple months ago so maybe he got some tips. We were playing a festival with Public Enemy in Barcelona where they were doing It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and I thought they were totally awesome. That's a record that I love. I love a lot of Public Enemy stuff and I thought they sounded great and they were really energetic. And it so happens that CT got in an elevator with Flavor Flav. But I really wish I could have seen them at Pitchfork (Music Festival, in Chicago) again, but we didn't get there until the morning we played.

MOVE: And how was Pitchfork?

CB: It was fun. We were just kind of in and out in a way and we were playing Toronto the next day and had just gotten back from a European tour. So I was pretty tired. But I got to see Animal Collective and I thought they were great.

MOVE: Are you wearing a sweater right now? Is your sweater on?

CB: That's a good question. No, it's a little bit balmy in New York. I've got a T-shirt and jeans on.

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