Vampire Weekend, the four-piece from New York, have been described as “the whitest band on the planet”.
This not entirely flattering label was pinned on them in 2008 after the release of their million-selling self-titled debut album of world music, which sounded like a bunch of young punks playing Paul Simon’s Graceland. Accusations of cultural imperialism were levelled at them for their appropriation of African music idioms.
Meanwhile, their songs about baroque architecture and obscure points of grammar, the fact that they were all graduates of the prestigious Columbia University, and the way that they dressed, all smart-casual preppy wear, made them seem like over-privileged Ivy League elitists holidaying in other people’s misery.
Now, with the release of their second album, Contra, Vampire Weekend are, ever so politely, being forced to defend their lifestyle choices and correct people’s assumptions about their background and ethnicity. “‘Whiteness’ — people use that word in a lot of different ways,” says singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, who also writes the lyrics.
“There are a lot of self-hating white people who talk about whiteness as privilege, and often they’re really just referring to some of the clothes we wear. I think it’s a bit silly to describe us that way.
“And besides, our band is diverse — you could call us all white, but there’s a Jewish guy, a Persian guy, an Italian guy… it’s a pretty broad definition of whiteness.”
Koenig is talking here about himself, keyboardist and co-songwriter Rostam Batmanglij and bassist Chris Baio. Drummer Chris Tomson is the closest VW have in their ranks to a “WASP”, another word that rankles with Koenig.
“Because we favour certain ways of dressing and don’t shy away from using obscure words and we went to Columbia, people have put all the elements together and prejudged us as privileged white kids, even WASPs, which immediately implies privilege and ‘old money’,” he says. “Those things juxtaposed with our interest in world music have made it very easy for people to raise the flag of colonialism or imperialism. But the two main writers in the band are Jewish and Persian, which is not very WASPy.”
Koenig, laughing, considers it his “God-given right” to wear a cricket sweater and a Polo shirt, but he’s not being flippant — his fondness for, particularly, Ralph Lauren’s designs, are in part because the latter was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Bronx who grew up not far from where Koenig’s own father and grandparents were raised.
“My dad grew up in a working-class Jewish neighbourhood,” he says, “and I got a scholarship to go to college. I went there to get an education, not as an extension of privilege.”
As for Tomson, he grew up on a farm in New Jersey, while Batmanglij’s parents were forced to flee Iran during the troubles of 1979.
“We could each of us in our own ways make the claim that we’re outsiders to a certain world,” says Koenig, who remembers as a child feeling somewhat excluded on a street notable for its mansions and country clubs. “But I still went to Columbia and made friends from all over the world, and, of course, my life is privileged in many ways.”
Growing up as part of a family from Eastern Europe, he did not feel much “like an outcast”, even though he was, he says, one of only a few Jewish kids at school. His memory of high school was “feeling honoured that there were a lot of different people out there”.
He did have a barmitzvah, prompted by his mother, a sociology professor who wanted her son to have a greater understanding of his family’s history.
“She said: ‘Our heritage is Jewish so you should have a barmitzvah.’ It was to keep up the tradition, almost as a statement, because she felt that diversity was important. If you pay no attention to history and you’re any kind of minority then it can all get wiped out and washed into a mono-culture.” His family were not, he admits, religious, but what stays with him is “a general interest in the culture”.
Koenig has been most often compared to fellow literate, urbane New York Jewish songwriter Paul Simon, and while recording the two Vampire Weekend albums he listened to everyone from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Lou Reed and the Beastie Boys — all Jews.
“I’m not sure if there’s a shared heritage,” he says cautiously of his relationship to his musical forebears, “but I do love those people.” He especially paid attention to the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique album, that 1989 sampling landmark that mixed and matched music from many cultures, and did so with smart New York Jewish humour.
“Sense of humour is something music always needs,” says Koenig, aware of the comedy of his own position in the rock scheme of things.
“If you lose that, that’s when it’s all over.”