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Vampire Weekend Did Not Make a ‘Doom and Gloom Record’

Vampire Weekend Did Not Make a ‘Doom and Gloom Record’

From the first seconds of Vampire Weekend’s new album, “Only God Was Above Us,” it’s clear that something has changed. “Ice Cream Piano” starts with hiss, buzz, feedback and a hovering, distorted guitar note — the opposite of the clean pop tones that have been the band’s hallmark. It’s the beginning of an album full of startling changes and wild sonic upheavals, all packed into 10 songs.

The new album, like all of Vampire Weekend’s work, is meticulous, self-conscious and awash in musical and verbal allusions — sometimes direct, sometimes cryptic. But it’s also a broad pendulum swing from its 2019 release, “Father of the Bride,” a leisurely, jam-band-influenced sprawl that ran nearly 58 minutes. “Only God Was Above Us,” the group’s fifth album, due April 5, is eight songs and 10 minutes shorter.

“With every album we have to push in two directions at once,” Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend’s singer and primary songwriter, said in a recent interview. “Sometimes that means we have to be poppier and weirder. Maybe with this record, it’s about both pushing into true maturity, in terms of worldview and attitude, but also pushing back further into playfulness. There’s a youthful amateurishness along with some of our most ambitious swings ever.”

Koenig, 40, described the new album’s sequence of songs as “a journey from questioning to acceptance, maybe to surrender. From a kind of negative worldview to something a little deeper.” Ultimately, he said, the LP is optimistic. “It’s not a doom and gloom record. And even if there’s songs where the narrator is trying to figure something out or feels confused, that’s not all. That’s part of the story — it’s not the thesis of the album that the world is dark and horrible.”

The album also exults in musical zingers, non sequiturs and startling off-grid eruptions. The songs often morph through multiple changes of tempo and texture, riffling unpredictably through indie-rock austerity, orchestral lushness, pop perkiness and hallucinatory electronic studio concoctions, like the cascade of wavery, overlapping piano lines in “Connect.” Where “Father of the Bride” had a folky openness, “Only God Was Above Us” is crammed with ideas that gleefully collide.

Ever analytical, Koenig mused that Vampire Weekend’s albums each reflected patron saints. He named Paul Simon for the band’s self-titled 2007 debut, Joe Strummer and Sublime for “Contra” from 2010, Leonard Cohen for “Modern Vampires of the City,” and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, along with Phish, for “Father of the Bride.” The new album, he said, may reflect a short-lived tour he didn’t get to see: the 1997 pairing of Rage Against the Machine and Wu-Tang Clan, which reached the cover of Rolling Stone.

“Distortion, heaviness, hardness,” Koenig said. “We were drawn toward those qualities on this record in a more direct way than ever before.”

Koenig spoke via video from his home in Los Angeles. Behind him — from the collection of his wife, the actress Rashida Jones — was a wall of photographs by the artist Taryn Simon from the project “Contraband”: bootleg DVD boxed sets that were confiscated by United States Customs, arrayed in Minimalistic formations. Like Vampire Weekend’s songs, they neatly frame disruptive material.

Vampire Weekend has always had two distinct aspects — its fastidious album work and its frisky live shows — and may soon have three. (More on that later.) The central one is the music the band constructs in the studio, which is minutely tweaked and painstakingly considered. Vampire Weekend’s songs uphold a long-established tradition of concise pop songwriting. But even as it delineates clear verses and choruses, the band pushes every other parameter.

“With some types of art, you probably have to put a lot of thought into how to create layers of meaning,” Koenig said. “Songs are, by their nature, relatively short. They have repetitive hooks. Then if you want to go maximalist and fill it with production details and arrangements, you can. And if you want the lyrics to push out into some weird place, you can.”

Yet the basics of pop songwriting keep the band’s experimentation grounded. “You can zig and zag from verse one to verse two to verse three, but you keep coming back to the same chorus,” he added. “But now it’s recontextualized by the second verse. I think all that stuff is built into the format. It’s this great populist art form where you can get really out there but the structure holds it together.”

Beginning with the 2013 album “Modern Vampires of the City,” Vampire Weekend’s studio output has increasingly been a collaboration between Koenig and the producer and multi-instrumentalist Ariel Rechtshaid, who has worked on hits with Madonna, Usher, Haim and others.

“I’ve been part of making things that sound expensive and beautiful,” Rechtshaid said in a video interview from his Los Angeles studio. “But on this record, when the songs were at a certain stage, we were just, like, ‘This sounds exciting to us.’ It wasn’t a gimmick. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s the decision to make something that feels noisy or dirty or distorted.’ It’s that the songs were emoting properly.”

The band and Rechtshaid have been working on — and reworking — most of the new album’s songs since 2020. Two tracks, “Gen-X Cops” and “The Surfer,” originated much earlier. The untamed slide-guitar line of “Gen-X Cops” came from Brooklyn sessions in 2012, while “The Surfer” includes much-altered elements of a song Koenig had begun writing with Rostam Batmanglij, who left Vampire Weekend in 2016.

“Sometimes you get lucky and the music, the production, the lyrics and the performance all come together and it fits on the record you’re working on,” Koenig said. “And sometimes, you know there’s something special about it, but you have to put it aside and just let time do its thing.”

Although Vampire Weekend’s members have settled in Los Angeles, its new album is suffused with thoughts of 20th-century New York City. Those were the decades before Vampire Weekend got started at Columbia University in 2006. “Weird, half-baked memories and pictures and thoughts and family history,” Koenig said. “That’s the version of New York that’s floating through this record.”

The opening tracks ponder conflict and disillusionment. “Classical” finds bitter power struggles hidden in history, noting “how the cruel becomes classical in time.” In “Connect,” the singer wonders, “Is it strange I can’t connect?,” mingling the personal and the online. The album eventually concludes with “Hope,” the longest song in Vampire Weekend’s catalog, a stately, eight-minute litany of disasters and injustices — “The sentencing was overturned/The killer freed, the court adjourned” — with a guardedly reassuring refrain: “I hope you let it go.”

The album title comes from a New York Daily News headline shown in the album’s cover photograph, which was shot by Steven Siegel in 1988 at a subway graveyard, inside a subway car turned sideways — an image that looks surreal but needed no special effects. One song, “Mary Boone,” borrows the name of the SoHo gallery owner who was hugely influential in the 1980s.

Another, “Prep-School Gangsters,” is named after a 1996 story in New York magazine about privileged students dabbling in the drug trade. “The prep-school gangster — these are the people who run the vast majority of institutions,” Koenig said. “It’s very possible, especially in America, especially in New York, that every now and then the prep-school gangster’s grandfather was once the disadvantaged youth, and that the disadvantaged youth’s grandson will be the prep-school gangster. And here they are in this brief moment of time, meeting together.”

“The Surfer” begins with a reference to “Water Tunnel 3,” a project to bring water to New York City from a reservoir in Yonkers. It has been under construction since 1970 and is far from complete.

“There’s that eerie but beautiful feeling that underneath this, the most populous city in America, there is an almost century-long project happening, where people are burrowing through the Earth,” Koenig said. “And then, classic New York stuff that everybody wants to talk about, the bagels and the pizza — it’s so good because of the water. Where does the water come from? It comes from upstate New York, far away. How does it get into somebody’s tap on the Lower East Side?

“It’s always been a slight obsession of mine,” he continued. “I like that idea about the underground. I don’t mean culturally. I mean just literally what’s underground.”

Vampire Weekend will soon be resurfacing to tour — a job far removed from the band’s finely detailed studio work. Real-time performing used to be a fraught prospect for such a perfectionist group. “I would hear other musicians talk about, ‘Oh man, you know, touring is tough, but then once you get onstage, all your worries go away and you’re just connecting with the audience,’” Koenig recalled. “And I’d think, ‘What are these people talking about? That’s when the worries start.’”

For its 2019 tour, Vampire Weekend expanded its stage lineup to seven musicians and vocalists, opening up more possibilities in the songs and relieving some of the virtuosic pressures. “Now, when we get together to rehearse, there’s a youthful, playful vibe,” Koenig said. “We’re always coming up with ideas that make us laugh.” The full band has been practicing since November for a summer tour it will preview on April 8 — performing a midday concert in Austin in the path of the full solar eclipse and sharing a free livestream.

Along with recording and touring, Vampire Weekend may soon unveil a third facet. Chris Baio, the band’s bassist, and Chris Tomson, its drummer, did separate video interviews from the studio space they share in Los Angeles — a converted medical office where Vampire Weekend started meeting in summer 2020 for weekly, Covid-distanced jam sessions, playing in separate rooms and recording hundreds of hours of music.

“The world had stopped working and a lot of what we normally do was just not being done,” Tomson recalled. “There was something about just playing with no expectation — to just play with my two very close friends without an agenda.”

Baio said, “It’s very rare for people in a band of our size to be alone together. No engineer, no tour manager, nothing like that. It felt like being at the outset of the band again. And we did that for three years and change, whenever we were all in town.”

Those sessions may lead to the emergence of a new trio that happens to have the same members as Vampire Weekend, performing unreleased material.

“We kind of have an imaginary back story for that band,” Koenig added. “It was a band that came out around 1989, 1990, and they were a little bit too punky for the jam scene and a little bit too jammy for the punk scene. And there’s a little bit of the Minutemen in there. The truth is, this is very premature because that band is still hashing out its sound. I don’t want to say too much.”

Could the unnamed trio open shows on Vampire Weekend’s tour? “That has been discussed,” Koenig said dryly.

“We’re just trying to create a sound that we’ve never quite heard before,” he had noted earlier. “That’s what keeps us going.”

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