How Vampire Weekend Has Endured As A Legacy Act… And Returned As A New Band

Monika Mogi

Ever since it was announced in January, Vampire Weekend’s fourth album Father Of The Bride has been the most anticipated indie rock release of 2019. This is due to the band’s pedigree, which includes three classic records released in the late ’00s and early ’10s that are considered millennial touchstones. And then there’s the exceptionally long six-year gap since the most recent Vampire Weekend release, 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City. In a way, Vampire Weekend at this point is both a legacy act… and a completely new band.

The early singles from Father Of The Bride certainly sound like classic Vampire Weekend — all clean guitar lines and gently syncopated rhythms and a polymorphous production aesthetic that freely draws on contemporary R&B, hip-hop, and even jam-band rock in a way that feels unforced and generous. Lyrically, Ezra Koenig is many miles down the road from Modern Vampires, his late-20s “mortality” record, though he hasn’t abandoned the over-educated and emotionally confused upper-middle-class characters of previous Vampire Weekend records.

“The people in “Oxford Comma” and “White Sky” and “Step”—I had this feeling this is where those people are now,” Koenig recently told GQ. In the philosophical “Harmony Hall,” this connection is made explicit by Koenig evoking a pivotal lyric — “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die” — from the Modern Vampires track “Finger Back.” You can also detect this strain of existential anxiety in the deceptively bouncy “This Life,” in which the quarter-life crisis of a self-involved and unattached 20something mutates into the gnawing fear of the young family man who suddenly has a lot more to lose. (“Baby, I know hate is always waiting at the gate / I just thought we locked the gate when we left in the morning.”)

But while there are discernible sonic and thematic connections between Vampire Weekend’s old work and the new songs, seemingly everything else has changed. Rostam Batmanglij — the band’s keyboardist and producer, and Koenig’s primary songwriting partner — announced his departure in 2016, though he’s remained in Vampire Weekend’s orbit as a contributor to Father Of The Bride. While Koenig has always been the band’s focal point, Batmanglij’s role in creating the layered, pan-cultural sound of Vampire Weekend’s previous records can’t be overstated. The arc of Vampire Weekend’s first three albums — from the engagingly bright Graceland-isms of the self-titled record, to the piecemeal laptop-pop of Contra, up through the introspective pocket symphonies of Modern Vampires — is as much about Batmanglij’s evolution as a producer as Koenig’s maturation as a writer.

Along with the changes within Vampire Weekend are the myriad cultural shifts that have occurred outside the band. The context for Vampire Weekend is entirely different in 2019 than it was in 2008. For a younger listener who didn’t experience those first three records in real time — Koenig has described them as a trilogy, and in retrospect, they truly do feel like a self-contained piece about life from post-college to the onset of 30 — might be shocked to learn how controversial Vampire Weekend once was. Nothing seems controversial about those effervescent, charming, and exceedingly well-crafted albums now, but back then, Vampire Weekend was among the most divisive indie bands of the era.

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I say that as someone who, yes, at one point was bothered by Vampire Weekend. At the time, they were frequently slagged as privileged tourists ransacking African music styles for the sake of songs about rich people navigating rarefied social strata. Familiar charges of cultural appropriation were made against Vampire Weekend, though what seemed to really rankle the band’s detractors was their preppy, fashion-conscious, and decidedly un-rock and roll approach to being an indie-rock band.