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Music writing

Vampire Weekend: modern by design.

interior-vwPublished in The Age on January 4, 2013.

On the far wall of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen, there’s a plaster relief of a worker’s arm, wreathed in gold: “By the hammer and hand, all arts do stand.” The library has been lending books to apprentices for almost two hundred years. Manhattan has risen and decayed and risen again around it.

Tonight, this repository of arcane technical knowledge, a block from Times Square, has been commandeered by Vampire Weekend, to record a television show called Artist’s Den. It is an extraordinary setting for live music, with a gilded wrought iron balcony and marble columns rising to a vaulted glass roof.

The audience is packed tight, pressed against the shelves, in three tiers on either side of the stage. A producer begs people not to film with their phones, but it’s like asking an unsupervised child not to eat ice cream. When a band that has graduated to the Hollywood Bowl is playing this close, the urge to capture and share them is irresistible. Modern Vampires of the City has just been voted Rolling Stone’s album of the year.

The band open with Diane Young, an improbably bouncy tune about mortality and the recklessness of youth. Modern Vampires is a fiendish puzzle of an album, and it must be extraordinarily difficult to perform, but they somehow pull it off. Rostam Batmanglij handles keyboards, guitar, harmony vocals and live production with determined anonymity. Drummer Chris Tomson hits hard when he has the chance and bass player Chris Baio is a genial presence at stage left, bopping away as if Blondie still ruled New York.

Ezra Koenig stands still at the centre, occasionally punctuating a line with an eye roll or a jab of the fingers, when his guitar part permits. Southern African-inflected figures peal from his golden Epiphone. His voice, so lithe on record, is a little more clipped. In his yellow check shirt, he resembles the super-serious hero of a Wes Anderson movie: the orphaned scout from Moonrise Kingdom, setting out on an adventure with only the words and the notes he absolutely needs.

The nearest shelf offers the New York City Plumbing Code, Architects on Architects, Compact Shelving and Design of Wood Structures: a fitting selection for this most painstakingly constructed of bands. Vampire Weekend are a work of aesthetic engineering in which nothing has been left to chance.

The other day, Koenig was browsing through his computer when he came across a document “laying out a vision for this type of preppy band,” written before he met the other members of Vampire Weekend at Columbia University. Although it called for a horn section, an idea that was soon abandoned, it contained the key elements of the band’s foundational manifesto: no distortion, no t-shirts, no trip-hop, no post-punk.

“It was half as a joke, but it was also a way of communicating my thoughts,” says Koenig. “Once you figure out that initial idea, everything else can be taking that idea to the next level or repudiating it. That’s why you’ve got to occasionally do goofy stuff like write a manifesto, even if it’s half-hearted.”

Because Vampire Weekend wrote songs about characters called Walcott, Bryn and Blake, name-dropped Cape Cod, Louis Vuitton and Jackson Pollock, and borrowed a guitar sound whole from Congolese Soukous and Zimbabwean Jit, they were immediately dismissed by some critics as cultural tourists. Koenig was following the most basic of instructions to a first-time author: write what you know. But he was also playing with the concept and fashion aesthetic of preppiness, which fascinated him, as a relative outsider from a middle-class New Jersey family.

“It was a little bit like an art project, but once I realised that it provoked people, often in ways that I disagreed with, then I amped it up a little bit, because that reinforced my feeling that there was something interesting about it,” he says. He started wearing bright yellow Ralph Lauren sweaters, pink shorts and pristine deck shoes. The look was provocative, the tunes infectious. Contra, the band’s second album, topped the Billboard chart.

Koenig lives in the heart of downtown Manhattan. When he writes about the punks “huddled on Astor,” on Modern Vampires, he’s describing a scene from his bedroom window. David Byrne recently warned that New York is in danger of becoming “a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been,” and this is the area he had in mind, spitting distance from where CBGBs once stood.

“You don’t have to have ten cool record shops in walking distance of one another to feel like it’s a thriving area where you experience culture,” counters Koenig. “Maybe people are really mourning their youth, something that’s disappeared.” The last downtown record shop standing, Other Music, is at the end of his block. There is a huge poster advertising Modern Vampires over the door.

Most of the album was recorded in Los Angeles, but “to me it’s the one that’s most steeped in New York and conceived of as a New York album,” Koenig says. “The things that I was interested in had to do with identity, and for me a lot of that comes back to New York.” In this universe, Jerusalem is a falafel shop “on West 103rd and Broadway” where an Orthodox Jewish girl fell in love with an Arab.

Koenig refers to the band’s three albums as a trilogy and a coming-of-age story. “Whatever comes next will be some kind of fresh start, because when we finished this album I felt a sense of completion, that somehow we had charted a path from the first album, that very youthful, springtime, collegiate feelings, to this album, which to me is a very autumn, winter, sad album,” he says.

It can take a while to unwrap the stories of loss and doubt on Modern Vampires. The lyrics are Koenig’s most personal yet, but they are hardly direct, and the music is dense, assembled in layer upon layer. Vocals are pitched down, speeded up and auto-tuned. A hip-hop verse segues into a baroque harpsichord riff. An organ-driven Elvis Costello stomper shifts gear into an accordion and penny whistle refrain that wouldn’t be out of place on Riverdance. They shouldn’t be able to get away with it, but they do.

“I wanted it to be an album that showed our first two albums were not a fluke, and that we’re a band that could be around for a long time,” Koenig says. “There’s the type of career where every album is a little bit different, every album is somebody’s favourite album, and you’re constantly proving yourself. It was an opportunity to show people, whether they liked us or not, that we’re gonna stay vibrant for a while.”

Back at the library, there’s only time for one more. “This is our traditional goodbye song: Walcott,” Koenig announces, and they tear into the joyous, profane tale of escape from a privileged summer vacation. It ends with a brief thrash that’s not on the record, but even this seeming outburst of rock’n’roll is measured and mannered to the last note, suitable exit music for a band that is built to last.