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We Avoid Talking About Musical Colonialism and/or Sweaters With Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig

Vampire Weekend is the ultimate college band, brandishing the quintessential mixture of international sounds, polysyllabic lyrics, and quirk destined to appeal to anyone trying to get a hot freshman girl back to his dorm room. Following up on their eponymous first release, a hit in the U.S. and the U.K. last year, the band is officially releasing their second album, Contra, today (though they've been streaming it online for over a week). Before heading out on their U.S. and European tour (which stops in New York on January 17 for three sold-out shows at the United Palace Theater, Webster Hall, and the Bowery Ballroom), Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig talked to us about how badly he wants to be free of the preppy label, his never-ending love of Jay-Z, and why Blink-182's Tom DeLonge got a bum rap in VW's recent New Yorker profile.

This interview will not focus on issues of musical colonialism or the fact that you guys wear sweaters. Okay by you?
[Laughs] Thank you! Because I’ve just been talking about that for about an hour to all the other people.

In the recent profile of the band in The New Yorker, there was a part in which Tom DeLonge, the lead singer of Blink-182, tried to pressure you into joining a web venture. What was that like for you guys?
In retrospect, we should have kicked the journalist out at that point. They went out of their way to portray that as a really awkward, intense scene — that really wasn’t how it was at all. The truth is that we really just wanted to interview him and he asked, in exchange, if he could pitch us on this website, and I said sure. I don’t think it’s that weird that he wanted to show it to us. I was kind of annoyed because here’s a guy who went out of his way to do something nice for us, and he got a little bit screwed over in the end because the article made it look like he was some weird, pushy entrepreneur and it wasn’t like that. It sounded very reasonable and I thought he was a really nice guy.

Much has been made about Vampire Weekend's Columbia University pedigree. Do you think the Ivy League label has, in the aggregate, helped you or hurt you?
That’s a really good question. It’s hard to say, because when people first started making such a big deal about it and making assumptions about our backgrounds, I felt angry. And yet everything’s turned out all right since then. I hope that people will start to look a little more deeply at us as people, and stop making all these assumptions about who we are based on the school we went to. Hopefully, the Ivy League preppy stereotype thing will make less and less sense. ... If people knew my parents or even my grandparents, they’d rethink the preppy thing. The people I went to high school with think it’s a joke. Not because I used to wear Jncos or anything, but just because of who I am. Sometimes you want to dress a certain way ... that doesn’t always reflect your pedigree.

What are you wearing now?
[Sounding sheepish] Well, that’s awkward for me to answer because I’m just wearing jeans and no shirt. I was just getting dressed when you called. [Pause] Are you going to print that?

We'll see. You get hit with the Wes Anderson stick a lot. Do you guys even like Wes Anderson movies?
Yeah! Personally, I’ve seen them all, even when Bottle Rocket first came out and I was 13. It was a huge movie for me: I saw it twice in a row and thought it was amazing. I also have a memory of meeting someone in high school who also said they liked Wes Anderson. I was so excited to meet someone else who appreciated him, and then he pulled out this little card from his wallet and it said, "President of the Rushmore Beekeepers Society." And it was like, oh, really? So there are lots of different ways to appreciate Wes Anderson and I couldn’t really relate to the way this guy was appreciating it. Some people are really into the cutesy aesthetic, but I think there’s so much more to it. Musically, certainly parts on our records are influenced by Mark Mothersbaugh’s music. It’s amazing music.

How have you guys grown as a live band for this new tour?
Hopefully we’re tighter and better! When we first started out we’d barely played together, and some of us had to learn how to play our instruments. The most extreme example was C.T. [drummer Chris Thompson], who never even played drums before Vampire Weekend. He has a totally different perspective in terms of his technical abilities, and it’s totally amazing how he’s learned and changed over the past few years. Hopefully, people who saw us at Mercury Lounge in 2007 and now see us again would find us somewhat more competent. Also, we have all these different songs now: It’s very different for us to have two albums worth of songs to choose from.

You came onstage at Terminal 5 last year to the melodic strains of Jay-Z doing “Roc Boys.” Do you see rap and hip-hop as being particularly relevant to your music?
Yeah, I do! We just loved that song, and it was such an appropriate song to come out to in any situation. I wish I could play it just when I’m walking into a dining room. I grew up listening to Jay-Z, and I think the first time I really became obsessed with learning and thinking about lyrics was when I started listening to rap; I was 11, 12, and started becoming aware of music beyond the familiar. So rap’s always very important to me, and I’m listening to as much hip-hop as indie rock if not more.

One last thing: Congrats on making Guitar Hero 5!
Thank you! That was as exciting as anything the band has ever done, playing for the first time and realizing our song had become part of a video game. I think it’s really cool that Rock Band and Guitar Hero are the go-to games. I was seeing a friend over Christmas and I was playing Rock Band with his 8-year-old kid. We were playing Dinosaur Jr. and afterward he said, "you know, it seems like really sad music." That kid is thinking!

Photo: Getty Images