On the fourth night of Hanukkah, Ezra Koenig gave to me a deeply lucid rumination on Jewish identity, statehood and statelessness, and cycles of power.
On Wednesday, the Song Exploder podcast released a new episode, featuring commentary by Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig and producer Ariel Rechtshaid on the band’s song “Harmony Hall” from this year’s Father of the Bride (Vulture’s pick for third-best album of 2019, by the way).
For those of you who haven’t listened to Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder podcast because you prefer your podcasts un-enriching and fast-food-themed, Exploder focuses on a different song each episode, inviting the songwriter to walk listeners through every step of its creation, from inception to production. For “Harmony Hall,” Koenig shares voice memos dating back to 2011 where he hummed the title riff to himself, inspired by buildings built during “19th-century utopian movements” that had been used to house the world’s most powerful and evil people, and how these histories are alternately obscured or remembered.
“Every time I would come across this [building] name ‘Harmony Hall,’ there was always something dissonant about the history or the place,” Koenig explains, referencing the “bizarre” trend of people holding weddings at former slave plantations. Although he had been working on this song since before Trump was elected president, he does affirm the popular interpretation of the lyrics about evil and corruption in the White House. And, confirming my feverish Reddit searching from back when the song was first released in January, the “shameful, crooked hands of a moneylender” of course is some Jewish diasporic wordplay.
Koenig is a thoughtful and generous interviewee, sharing demo tracks of those original baroque piano riffs from the breakdown, Rostam’s choral backups, and Danielle Haim’s harmonies, comparing the structure of the song to a building, in keeping with the theme. He also gives the best-ever description of what a rock producer actually does, in this recounting of how Rechtshaid brought all of the sonic elements together:
It’s almost like an old movie in the pre-digital era, where you see somebody go to an accountant, and they’re just like, “Buddy, I’m in trouble.” And they hand them a banker’s box full of messed up napkins and stuff, and the accountant’s like, “Whew, let me see what you got here. I can’t make heads or tails of this right now, but let me arrange this and figure it out.” That’s sometimes how it feels when I roll up to Ariel.
If you haven’t been able to get that “Harmony Hall” guitar riff out of your head for all of 2019, listen to the episode here.