The Return Of Vampire Weekend, The Band Of The Internet Era

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Forming in 2006, Vampire Weekend are exactly the same age as Twitter. Other internet phenomena, such as the widespread use of Facebook, Snapchat, Hipster Runoff, memes, gifs, and Instagram filters have all fit snuggly within the band’s reign, placing their music squarely as the soundtrack to this particular era of internet as a culture, when we all learned how to express ourselves in 140 characters and six second video clips. With wi-fi accessible devices in our pockets, on our planes, and generally impacting every aspect of our daily lives, maybe no other band has felt both a product of the era and in tune with it, without directly writing songs about wi-fi passwords and hotspots. Vampire Weekend, over the course of three untouchable albums, have crafted timeless music made specifically for these times.

Over the weekend, the Ivy-league bred group performed their first proper concerts in four years at Libbey Park in the secluded artist community town of Ojai, California, and it didn’t long for the presence of the web to be felt. Just outside the venue, in proper bootleg merch fashion, was a single t-shirt salesperson offering up @Seinfeld2000 tie-dyed short-sleeves, reading “8 Minute Cape Cod.” Just below the handmade sign announcing the shirt’s price points was the clarification that the person selling the shirts was, in fact, not @Seinfeld2000, the writer of a brilliant parody account that encapsulates a “weird Twitter” aesthetic that has not gone out of style. @Seinfeld2000 even had a gig writing a column for Noisey for a few years, with their first article being an interview with VW leader Ezra Koenig. Likewise, @Seinfeld2000 has made multiple appearances on Ezra’s Beats 1 show Time Crisis.

It didn’t take long for news of the t-shirts to spread on social media, with people who couldn’t be in attendance begging those that were to buy them a shirt. For a show that was billed as a weekend — a second performance at the Libbey Bowl was scheduled for Sunday morning to celebrate Father’s Day, and tickets were sold for the performances individually and as weekend passes — this was only the first indication that the show was going to be a capital-E Event. There was the celebrity attendees factor — including the likes of Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, and Mark Ronson — and the booking of Richard Pictures as the opener, a band that Koenig described as the best Grateful Dead cover band in Southern California. There was the charitable aspect, with money from merch and matched donations being made to the local community that had just dealt with devastating fires. And there was the fact that the shows sold out in literally one minute, with eager diehards enthusiastic at the possibility of hearing new Vampy Weeks tunes for the first time.

The last of these didn’t really happen on Saturday, with the band instead opting for the complete opposite. Without any formal announcement, Vampire Weekend opened their set with a performance of their breakthrough self-titled debut from start to finish. The ten-year-old album is another relic of an internet era that appears to be wrapping up, when a band’s music would leak onto the internet long before its release and earn it enough buzz to make stars out of people without a catalog. The band famously appeared on the cover of Spin Magazine based almost solely on internet hype, the first band to ever land a cover on that magazine before releasing an album. They personified a time when blogs had real, tangible power. With marginal radio support at best and long before streaming was a thing, they moved 27,000 copies of their debut album in its first week. Along with artists like Arcade Fire, The National, Grimes, and Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend took the ball the internet gave them and ran with it far enough that they could survive indie rock’s eventual recession from blog influence.

Despite the highs that the band has had with their subsequent releases, which includes the universally adored 2010 follow up Contra and the Grammy-winning, 2013 stone-cold classic Modern Vampires Of The City, there is a unifying aspect to that first album that could be felt at the concert. It’s the same way we can look back at 2008 with an air of innocence when hope could be plastered above the face of a president and make perfect sense. Their three albums find complexity seeping in slowly, complicated emotions eventually taking hold over the breeziness of it all. But on Saturday night, hitting the stage at sunset for a small outdoor summer concert, positivity and optimism could still be felt. If you squinted just right, you might even forget that the band was performing without one of its crucial members, Rostam Batmanglij.

This was, in fact, the band’s first full set without Rostam in the band, the man responsible for much of the group’s aesthetic and one of its two core songwriters. Rostam left the band on good terms in 2016, opting to focus on his burgeoning solo career and in-demand presence as a songwriter and producer for pop and indie artists. It was a move that also felt very much of the moment, with more and more indie fixtures side-stepping out of the confines of genre and finding work within the cogs of the greater music industry. And his presence would obviously be difficult to replace, with a whopping four members added to the group’s touring lineup to augment Rostam’s absence.

But the lack of Rostam’s presence — though he is rumored to still be featured in some respect on the band’s upcoming fourth album — also feels like a blow to the band’s optics. Rostam was the only person of color in a band that has been criticized for a lily-white aesthetic and was the only queer member in a time when diversity and a range of perspectives are more celebrated and essential than ever. It’s a loss that the band of the internet will need to account for if they are to maintain relevance, that will require Koenig to bring the best version of his razor-sharp wit and hyper-literate lyricism to overcome. Rostam was never simply a figure put in place for demographics, but his presence did expand the band’s reach and point of view. Most importantly, though, is that Rostam is a brilliant musician with impeccable taste. His loss cannot be understated.

It all adds up a level of uncertainty as the band readies the release of their highly-anticipated fourth album. Koenig’s use of social media to share progress reports has been savvy — on this night, he offered up that the album is 97.3% done — and his ascendence on Apple Music’s platform has kept the band in the conversation throughout their hiatus. But the world, both online and in the physical realm, is different from anything that they’ve ever existed in. The band has long flirted with radio success but never really broken through in that respect. They’ve subheadlined the biggest festivals in the world, but never quite ascended to first-billed status. Now, they’re trading in their indie status by leaving their long-time label XL for the big-budget confines of Columbia. The universe they operate in is rapidly changing, and so the band must follow suit.

On Saturday, their performance felt both like a welcome return and a ship embarking into unknown territory, always with an eye for #content that would get them picked up on every website running a weekend news beat. It was fitting that they opened with the songs that their fans first discovered and super weird that they welcomed iLoveMakonnen and Despot as special guests. For the rest of the set, they highlighted rarities, covers, and a handful of originals that found them progressing into some of the most elegant and refined rock artists of their time. There was “Step” with all its clever references and poetic romance, “Ya Hey” with its religious subtext that rewards those of us who went to Catholic school, “White Sky” where Koenig effortless flaunts his confidently malleable, and criminally underrated, vocal range.

And there was “Hannah Hunt,” the band’s best composition for this writer’s money. The audience cheered at the reference to nearby Santa Barbara, which caused Koenig to later reflect that it might be the nearest to the city that the band has ever performed the song. At a show that was often a shade too quiet and plagued with an audience a tad too rowdy to accommodate it, everyone either sang quietly or shut the hell up for this song, hanging on every hammocked syllable that Koenig uttered. On this night, Vampire Weekend’s past still rang true in the contemporary climate, both as escapism and as nostalgia for better times. But as they are forced to exist in the real world where “internet famous” no longer cuts it, whether or not Vampire Weekend will still operate with the same ingenuity remains to be seen. After all, they’ve got their own sense of time.