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No, they don't vant to drink your buzz

Vampire Weekend is an indie darling with a global sound, but don't say 'Graceland.'

March 20, 2008|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

Vampire Weekend is a band of the moment. The New York indie-pop quartet appeared on the cover of Spin this month, played on "Saturday Night Live" two weeks ago and will headline a sold-out show tonight at the El Rey. Yet the group is also a throwback to the '80s, in the players' preppy sartorial style and the world-music flavor of such tracks as the modern-rock hit "A-Punk," from their debut album, "Vampire Weekend."

Still, the hype surrounding the band is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, as these four Columbia University graduates have generated buzz in new media (mp3 blogs such as Stereogum and Music for Robots) and old (the New York Times, the New Yorker). It's been so talked about that on Jan. 29, the day the album was released, New York magazine put up a tongue-in-cheek blog article titled "What to Expect From the Upcoming Vampire Weekend Backlash."

Singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig chuckles at the mention of the item. So much has been written about VW that he and bandmates Rostam Batmanglij (keyboards, vocals), Chris Baio (bass) and Christopher Tomson (drums) can't keep up . . . not that they want to.

"You really start to realize that the Internet is a very bizarre place," he says. "You can't worry about every little thing, positive or negative, that's written about you. I'm definitely at the point where I'm not interested in Googling 'Vampire Weekend.' "

He also seems reluctant to accept the group's status as a "blog band" with a rep fueled primarily by online buzz.

"You'll hear about bands on blogs now," he observes, "because that's just a new form of media. Yeah, some bloggers really got behind us, which is awesome. But I think that before, like, 90% of any blogs wrote about us, we had a piece in the New York Times. So does that make us, like, 'a newspaper band'?"

Vampire Weekend is often listed alongside the many increasingly popular bands incorporating "ethnic" styles, such as L.A.-based Cambodian psych-rock group Dengue Fever, Denver's gypsy-folk punk band DeVotchKa and British rapper M.I.A., who draws from Indian, African and many other diverse styles.

The intentions vary as much as the sounds: M.I.A.'s work is highly political, for example, while "Vampire Weekend" is playfully experimental and revolves around the upper-class Ivy League world of its players. Still, both M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend -- whose frontman once had a rap duo called L'Homme Run -- engage in the mashing together of styles that's a hallmark of hip-hop.

Not that Vampire Weekend should be put in the same bag as, say, Lupe Fiasco. Mainly, critics compare its album to Paul Simon's 1986 icon of pop-African fusion, "Graceland" -- which isn't all that accurate either.

"I take it as a compliment," says Koenig, who admits that, thanks to the many comparisons, he's probably listened to that musical artifact more lately than ever before. "['Graceland'] is a good album. But people sometimes make it sound like we set out to make another version of 'Graceland.' Which, when you actually listen to our album, doesn't make that much sense."

Global ingredients

Indeed not. At the height of the South African apartheid era, Simon drew from black South African styles and collaborated with musicians from that country -- and was criticized in some quarters for breaking the cultural embargo of the time. Although Simon may not have had overtly political motivations, he did bring artists, including vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to broader attention.

But, despite the class-warfare jabs in a tune such as "Oxford Comma," the group's 11-song album isn't really political. Also, as reflected in the around-the-world-in-NYC swirl of "M79," the collection is a broader global stew of music the band members enjoy: soukous and calypso, ska and new wave, harpsichord and classical strings. (But there's also a dash of synth-fueled neo-rock a la Interpol, in numbers including "I Stand Corrected" and "Walcott.")

Koenig finds it odd, even "borderline offensive," that "Graceland" is still "the go-to comparison for music that references any kind of African sound. I mean, in some ways, [Simon] gave those African musicians a whole new platform to show their music." So, 20-plus years later, "that you would hear a kind of chimy, South African-style guitar line, and the first thing you think of is Paul Simon? It's a little bit pathetic."

As for his own band, it was formed in 2005 and named after a horror-movie spoof that Koenig made with friends a few years ago. Both he and Batmanglij (a music major who does film scores) separately became enamored of different African pop: Koenig was drawn to a compilation of Madagascar music, while Batmanglij got into South African singer Brenda Fassie. For Koenig, the attraction wasn't about culture, but about the sound of the guitars.

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