Rudy Can't Fail
How Vampire Weekend Channeled Africa Through New York
What is a young artist to make of a post-Giuliani, post-9/11 New York City? Some credit the former mayor’s strategic employment of the “broken window” philosophy in fighting urban crime and blight—along with a police force that, putting it kindly, ignored many of the subtleties of community relations—with helping the city to clean up its act. Many old haunts that once housed angst-ridden musicians are being developed into condominiums and shopping centers (it was, for example, recently announced that the former site of CBGB is being converted into a store for upscale men’s fashion designer John Varvatos).At the same time, the horrific events of 9/11 have created both a newfound sense of community among many New Yorkers and an intense preoccupation with all things safety-related. The grime, danger and sin historically associated with New York have seemingly been wiped off the cultural landscape of the city, creating a new atmosphere marked by a cleanliness that threatens to erase many aspects of the region’s checkered history. This is the New York that the members of band-of-the-moment Vampire Weekend inherited when they arrived in the city in 2002 while attending Columbia University.
Drummer Christopher Tomson seems almost amused when speaking of the furor created by such 1990s figures as Giuliani. “People are always talking shit about Giuliani and things like the smoking ban,” Tomson says. Above anything else, Tomson says, the city is marked by its international flavor, a result of the rapid pace of globalization within the city during the past 15 years. Coming to New York, Tomson was floored by the “amount of culture available to us. From food to drama to movies, we were able to get our hands on stuff that was not widely available throughout much of the country.”
It was in New York that Tomson discovered the beauty of West African pop music, a genre that has clearly influenced both his style as a percussionist and the band’s overall sound. By the early 21st century, such a marriage of sounds made perfect sense within the city.
And the former mayor’s attempt to literally remake the city has produced something of a blank slate within the world of the arts, one that has created the space for a new generation of New Yorkers to decide what the city’s culture should look like. Such an atmosphere can be quite liberating, and it is proving to be a fertile playground for bands like Vampire Weekend.
While Vampire Weekend has clearly been shaped by the events of the past 10 years, it is often their indebtedness to the musical sounds of the 1980s that garners the most attention. It is next to impossible to get through any press on the band without seeing at least one reference to Paul Simon’s Graceland (or The Police, or Peter Gabriel, whom the band actually name-checks in their song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”). Yet what is perhaps even more fascinating is the band’s reliance upon the aesthetics of that decade, as the group often takes to the stage decked out in Oxford shirts, khaki pants and Docksiders.
“We were always aware of the visual aspect of presenting yourself as a band,” Tomson says. “There is more to that presentation than just the music. That’s a part of it that you can’t overlook.” To Tomson, the uniform of the ’80s-era preppie gives the band a “unified vibe” that also allows room for audience interpretation. Such loaded cultural symbols, Tomson says, can serve as “signifiers for different things for different people,” and the band seems to revel in the ambiguity of this process. Is the band offering some sort of commentary on the excesses of wealth? A statement on the commodification of indie rock? Or do they really just like the look of affluence? At this point, the band isn’t telling.
Not surprisingly, this position has made the band ripe for criticism from those who see the group as nothing more than a symbol of Ivy League privilege. Yet a close listen to many of the songs that make up Vampire Weekend’s debut LP reveals a band clearly ill at ease with the trappings of wealth. By the time the band gets to “Walcott,” the penultimate song on the album, singer Ezra Koenig, after declaring that “The Bottleneck is a shitshow/Hyannisport is a ghetto,” is literally screaming, asking the song’s antagonist, “Don’t you want to get out of Cape Cod/ Out of Cape Cod tonight?” It’s a rare moment of anger on a record marked by humor and warmth, and hopefully it’s a direction that the band will run with.
Vampire Weekend headlines an 8 p.m. show at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, April 5.